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  • Writer's pictureTina Radcliffe

How to Be Successful in Romance Writing Contests

Updated: Jun 9, 2018

And Stop Throwing Away Money!

Always make sure the contest you enter is legitimate. Romance contests offered through RWA and its affiliate chapters, or ACFW and their affiliated chapters can be considered legitimate. Do your homework on any other contest for romance writers. Read the fine print. Ask other writers if you are in doubt.

1. Strategic Planning

Entering your manuscript in a contest is all about strategic planning. After you have done this for a while you recognize the importance of timing. A few tips to remember:

1. Some editors judge very few contests, which means you should be ready when you see their name. Always be ready for opportunities.

2. Harlequin often has contests. Check out So You Think You Can Write. Be ready for the next one.

3. A call out for entries due to low # of entries in a category means your chances of finaling just got better!

4. Harlequin editors acquire for all lines. Keep that in mind when you see a Harlequin editor judging a contest. (Keep this in mind if your entry can fit into more than one category.)

Reasons to Enter a Contest

  • To get a cold read

  • To get your manuscript in front of a particular editor

  • To get your manuscript in front of a particular agent.

  • To keep your name out there.

  • For the prize loot (contest entries paid for, bling, and cash).

  • You're supporting a contest or category.

There are a few contests that are considered the cream of the crop. The RWA Golden Heart, and the ACFW Genesis. These two contests are held the same time each year. The Golden Heart rules can be found here. The ACFW Genesis rules here.

Typically, if you are methodical in your approach to contests, you will want to start with contests that require only a few pages and work your way up to a contest with a synopsis and full three chapters. The Golden Heart requires a complete manuscript.

Consider entering local RWA chapter contests and/or the ACFW First Impressions contest first. Let your manuscript do the rounds a bit before shooting for the top contests where you will absolutely be up against top writers and in some contests up against publisher authors.

2. The Rules

Follow the Guidelines

These are some of the basic rules you may see:

  • electronic entry only

  • Payment via Paypal

  • at least 1-inch margins on all four sides.

  • 12 point Courier New, 12 or 14 point Times New Roman.

  • 25 lines per page.

  • Header with the title and contest category in the upper left corner of your entry.

  • Single spaced synopsis.

  • Unjustified text, aligned left.

  • 1-inch margins (doesn't mention top or bottom).

  • Manuscripts should have unjustified right margins.

  • Synopsis not judged.

  • Some contests still request you submit in RTF format.

  • Contest entry must be received by XX p.m. Month, time

  • Enter the first xx pages, to include any prologue.

What the rules SAY are as important as what the rules DO NOT say. That means if you need to adjust the spacing between the letters, the words, or the lines, in order to meet said guidelines... DO IT!

I suggest you print out the rules and check them twice before hitting send. If you have any questions about rules email the contest coordinator.

3. The Scoresheet

Make it a habit to read the scoresheet ahead of time. If you don't, how will you know if your manuscript is a good fit for the contest? All contest score sheets are NOT created equal. Don't throw money down the drain.

If the scoresheet is not on the website, email the coordinator for a copy. There are very few contests who do not offer the contestants the score sheet up front. The Golden Heart is strictly numerical and does not provide comments and has no scoresheet.

Once you have the contest scoresheet go ahead and judge your manuscript according to the guidelines. It's an eye-opener. You may be losing valuable points needlessly. You have two choices. Tweak your entry or choose not to enter.

You may choose not to enter if tweaking your entry means changing your voice. Or if the particular contest scoresheet tells you that you are not going to fare well in this contest.

Otherwise, go ahead and adjust, tweak, revise your entry to take advantage of as many points as possible. Sure, go ahead and pull parts of chapter two into your entry. Whatever it takes. Then rejudge your entry using the scoresheet for the contest you are entering.

4. The Other Rules : Contest Newbie Questions

Q: Can I enter multiple contests with the same manuscript?

A: Of course. But always defer to #1. What's your plan? Why are you entering?

Q: If I tweak my entry for a contest and then get a request should I keep it tweaked or submit the work the way it was?

A: Your call. A contest can take months to cycle. You may have revised that manuscript by the time you get a request. Editors and agents get that. Submit your best work. Often tweaking for a contest produces a better manuscript.

Q: Should I enter a contest if my manuscript isn't complete?

A: My standard response to this is: How fast can you write? I'm serious. Contests run in a cycle. Can you finish the manuscript before the requests for fulls go out? Can you produce your best work this way?

This is why you should be writing every day and creating self-imposed deadlines. You need to know how fast you can write. And you need to write to THE END.

Q: I got a request from an editor for my manuscript from a contest. It's been twelve months. The manuscript is finally ready to submit. Has too much time passed?

A: Obviously this is not the best scenario. Things change in publishing and what interested an editor twelve months ago may be what now saturates the market. Send the manuscript, but be sure to send a cover sheet to refresh the editor's memory. Include the name of the contest and that she requested the manuscript.

Q: I received a request from an editor/agent for my manuscript in a contest. Another editor also asked for the manuscript. What should I do?

A: Get down on your knees and thank God. If the editor/agent is at the same publishing house/literary service, first tell the editor/agent who has it and when it was submitted.

If your manuscript is at a different publisher/literary agency, send it in with a cover page notifying them that the manuscript is also being considered by another publisher/agent. You do not have to reveal who. Yes, some publishers/agents do not want simultaneous submissions. Send it anyhow. This is the one time I recommend breaking rules. Remember that this is my opinion.

They can let you know if they want this handled differently. Or they can take your manuscript to auction and you can become a rich author.

5. Your Manuscript. Who, What, When, Where and How.

The entry and the scoresheet are what determines if you final or not. Keep these elements in mind as you prepare your contest submission.

--Hook-Not only is your opening hook the single most important part of your manuscript, but it is the single most important part of your entry. Don't waste words leisurely strolling into your beginning.

--Ground your reader-The job of the opening of your story is to ground your reader. Immediately set the stage. Give us when, and where of your story. The reader needs to know the year (contemporary or historical), time of day, season and the location of your story. You should also ground us in the choreography.

--Introduce your characters. The who of your story.

Hero and heroine- The first or second mention of the hero and heroine's name should include their last name. Immediately ground us in whose point of view we are in. Do not confuse the reader and make them wonder who the hero and heroine are. Your judge must be able to identify who they are rooting for and they must CARE.

Remember Michael Hauge's rules of creating a sympathetic hero/heroine:

Apply 2 or more these:

1. Make the characters the victim of some undeserved misfortune.

2. Put the characters in jeopardy.

3. Make the character likable (liked by others in the story).

4. Make the character funny.

5. Make the character powerful.

Secondary characters- Do not annoy your judge by introducing an excessive number of characters in the opening pages. This pulls the reader out of the story.

--Faith Element-This is a tricky element as there are many types of inspirational romances and each writer is uniquely different. The scoresheet is going to be your guide here. This Bethany House Publishing blog post gives you something to consider as well.

--Conflict: The what and why of your story. Even if your entry is only five pages long, there will be scoresheet questions on conflict. The more conflict hints you can provide the more successful your entry will be.

Give them external conflict- Let the judge know what's at stake. Create urgency.

Give them internal conflict-Make the judge CARE. Provide enough of a glimpse of internal conflict to at very least provide empathy.

--Scene-The goals of scenes are to elicit emotion and move your story forward. Just like your book has GMC (Goal, Motivation & Conflict), your scenes have GCD (Goal, Conflict & Disaster). Don't make the judge comment, "Nothing is happening!"

--The Final Hook- Never, ever, ever end your entry mid-sentence. Tweak your entry to end in an enticing place. Force your judge to mark your entry with the comment, "I want to read more."

--Synopsis-You may be able to avoid writing a synopsis for a while, but eventually, you will need to learn how to master this tool, even if the contest rules say the synopsis will be unjudged.

Rules for the synopsis:

Write the synopsis in the third person, present tense.

Identify the hero and heroine and villain.

Generally, the secondary character names are not included.

It should follow your plot progression including all plot points.

The voice of your synopsis should mirror your manuscript voice.

Do not leave out the ending of your story.

6. And Then What?

Worth repeating: More and more contests are open to unpublished manuscripts. Your manuscript may be competing with published authors. Only send your very, very best.

Grammarly is a terrific resource to check your spelling and grammar.

Format your pages like a book to get your eyes to read the pages fresh. For Word docs: Go to Page Layout. Columns. Two. Now read your pages aloud. Mac users please tell us in the comments how to do this.

The last thing you should do is read your pages aloud. Anything that confuses you, pulls you out, or has an irregular rhythm should be addressed.

7. After You Enter

Finish the Book:You do not want to be that writer who finals and wins contests and never completes an entire manuscript.

8. Got Your Scores Back? Now it's Time To:

Send thank you notes. The romance community is a small pond. Anything you can do to generate good will is a positive thing. Besides, someone took time from their writing career to help you. Say thank you.

Decipher Contest Judge Comments. Once you are feeling less defensive, go ahead and try to figure out what gold you can mine from contest judge comments.

Go Ahead and Do It Again. Enter another contest.

Got questions? Drop me a line at


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