Contests: What to Do When You Don’t Make the Cut

So you didn’t get into a contest you entered. It’s a tough feeling, no matter how much the hosts tell you they had to pass up entries they loved. What do you do now?

Before I got my agent, I entered my share of contests. Some I got into, some I didn’t, but each one was a helpful and productive experience. Here are some things I’ve found useful after not getting in:

  • Read the contest hashtag looking for general tips and feedback. See what you can learn from them to help improve your query/pitch/first 250 for next time.
  • If you don’t have experienced writer CPs yet, use the contest hashtag to find some. Or just exchange first pages and queries for crits. Your fellow writers are an amazing resource.
  • Read the entries that did get in. Figure out what they’re doing right. Apply those lessons to your own entry.
  • While you’re reading those entries that got in, realize this: Whoa, there are a lot of awesome unpublished books out there. You don’t need to feel bad that you didn’t get in, because these are some fantastic books.
  • Also realize yours may be just as good or better. And if it’s not yet, you can MAKE it just as good or better.
  • If you got any feedback from the contest, learn from it. Don’t implement it blindly, but think it through. Look at your work with honest, open eyes, and hone it until it’s so sharp you’ll bleed if you touch it.
  • Continue to follow the contest. Watch which entries get requests or votes. If any feedback is posted publicly on the featured entries, read it. This is your big chance to see what works live, and get a glimpse inside the process. It’s a great way to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
  • Revise your query/first page/pitch to make them better… IF you have a clear path and vision to do so. Don’t blindly rearrange the deck chairs if you’re not sure it will help.
  • Get more feedback on your revised query to make sure it’s working. Then, if there’s another contest coming up with fresh judges, enter it! Or if you’re ready, send out a query or two. There really is a lot of luck involved in finding the right contest judge/agent/editor for your book. You have to keep rolling those dice if you’re going to win the game!

GOOD LUCK! I have been there, and my heart goes out to everyone who hasn’t made the cut. Keep working hard and improving your craft, and your time will come. I’m rooting for you!

Published by Melissa Caruso

Fantasy author of the Swords & Fire trilogy: THE TETHERED MAGE (Orbit, 2017), THE DEFIANT HEIR (Orbit, 2018), and THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (Orbit, 2019), as well as the Rooks and Ruin trilogy, beginning with THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (Orbit, 2020). Melissa's debut, THE TETHERED MAGE, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2017. Melissa loves tea, adventure, and the great outdoors, and has been known to swordfight in ballgowns. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two superlative daughters, and assorted pets. Represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds.

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