I thought this was a particularly interesting question, especially with the crazy amount of contests going on at the moment. You’ll probably be able to figure out which anonymous answer was mine from the following, but I thought it was worth expanding further.
So, I love contests of all kinds. I’m going to break down some of the contests I’ve participated in and what I think the benefits are.
The contest where you’re vetted before you’re in. These are the contests like The Writers Voice, Pitch Madness, Baker’s Dozen, or Surprise Agent Invasion, where you submit your entry and the host–and sometimes others–choose their favorites to post for agent votes. What I like about these is that if you get in, you get validation that your concept and writing stand out from the pack. (Of course it’s still subjective, so not getting in doesn’t mean your story isn’t agent-ready. I’ve had CPs whose novels are amazing not get selected because their concept just didn’t interest the judges.)
There are a ton of contests like these out there. I like it best when they ask for your query/pitch and first 250 words because the judging agents get a taste for both where the story’s going and your voice. It’s also a better representation of what most agents receive in their inbox.
The query/first page contest where the first xx people make it in. These are the contests like An Agent’s Inbox or Miss Snark’s First Victim’s Secret Agent. You submit your entry, and a certain number get in. What I like about these is that it’s a better representation of what an agent will see in his/her slushpile. Some of them will be excellent. Some of them will need a lot more work. Although the sample is probably still a bit higher quality than what the agent sees, you do get a feel for what else is out there.
In the two contests I mentioned, you also get critiques, and this is invaluable to those of us querying. These people haven’t read your whole manuscript and aren’t predisposed to like your work. For Miss Snark’s First Victim, it’s only your first 250 words, so the opinion is entirely about your writing and voice, independent of the concept. Those critiques can be brutal, but they’re so helpful in telling whether your writing can stand on its own.
The contest with a one-line or Twitter pitch. One line? 140 characters? These requirements might seem impossible, but it’s so helpful to boil your story down to this short description. A number of blogs host these contests on a regular basis (Operation Awesome comes immediately to mind), and it’s become a thing for the bigger contests to hold a Twitter pitch afterward.
What I like about one-line/Twitter pitches is that it forces me to think about the central hook of my story. I’ve received requests based on both of these. On the downside, it’s such a short sample that it doesn’t allow you to show much voice, so often an agent will like the concept and then not connect with the character. If you want to try one out, though, there’s one happening today :).
Should you enter contests? Well, my answer to this is obviously yes, but it’s up to you. I enter when the agents participating seem like a potential fit or when I think I can learn something new about the effectiveness of my pitch/query/first 250. Based on contests, I’ve tweaked my query letter and first 250 in ways I know make them better. So even if I don’t get an agent request, I’ve gained something from the experience.
So now that I’ve given you the longer answer to the contest question, here are a few blogs that host contests regularly:
Operation Awesome (first of every month)
Deana Barnhart (pitch contest tomorrow)
I know there are many more. These are the ones that are top of mind for me as I’ve participated in them. If you have another contest to add, please include them in the comments. And I’d also love to hear your thoughts on contests!