One question I get all the time is, "Do you think writing competitions are beneficial to aspiring writers?" My answer usually involves some kind of enthusiastic nod, because I've only entered one writing competition—Mills & Boon's 2011 New Voices—and winning it was how I got my big break. But the better answer is that I think the right kind of writing competition is beneficial to the right kind of aspiring writers, but that competitions are by no means necessary to success, as proven by the many writers who have achieved their dreams in other ways.
Seek out the right competitions for you. I entered New Voices because the Mills & Boon editors were judges, and my hope was to catch someone's attention. If you're looking for motivation to polish that first chapter, then by all means seek out whatever competition is going to give you that push. If, on the other hand, you're looking to use the competition as a step to publication, seek out competitions where the judging panel includes editors and agents. If you're lucky enough to get feedback, their feedback is worth the price of entry.
Competitions aren't for everyone. New Voices was a very public competition that allowed readers to leave comments for the entrants. I received many lovely comments, but I received some criticism, too, and not all of it was constructive. Before you enter a competition, be honest with yourself. If you are confident in your abilities and ready to withstand that kind of heat, then by all means, enter a competition. If unfair words may shake your confidence or tempt you to give up writing altogether, then maybe you're not ready to be judged in this manner.
The other advice I can give about competitions has to do with strategy. When I prepared my New Voices first chapter, I kept the following in mind:
The hook matters. Hooking a reader always matters, but if you're trying to stand out from other talented writers, you've got to step up your game. I ended my first chapter with my hero and heroine discovering that the heroine is the target of a killer who hunts his victims by leaving six signs over six days and killing on the seventh. My hope was that readers would want to read on to know what the signs were, and they did.
The tricky part is carrying this hook throughout a novel and making every page compelling. I've heard that every chapter should end by answering one question for the reader and raising two more, and that seems like sound advice to me.
Voice matters. You have something special in your style that is uniquely yours, and no matter how ordinary it may seem to you, I assure you that readers will love it. Forget about imitating your favorite writer and be your own, shiny self.
How do you think writers in competitions can best stand out from the crowd?
He never meant to speak to her again. Back in Arbor Falls for a funeral, Special Agent Nick Foster has moved on. He has no plans to stay in his tiny hometown-or to reunite with the beautiful Libby Andrews. His onetime fiancée broke his heart, and what's past should stay buried.
Libby doesn't want his help. Her childhood sweetheart can never know the real reason she ended their engagement three years before. But when a serial killer targets her, she must team up with the rugged agent for her own safety. Something in her past has put her in danger, and the passion they've reignited puts their future in deadly jeopardy.