I've mentioned several times how I honed my writing skills by entering manuscript contests. When Where Love Once Lived was nearing completion, everyone thought it was a romance novel. I didn't know any better, so I went along with what I was hearing from my writing friends. That worked to my advantage since there are probably more contests in the romance genre than any other. Also, I had the advantage of a having a story in the subgenre of inspirational where there was less competition.
I joined the Romance Writers of America and entered manuscript contests in chapters all across the United States. There was a fee for each entry and back then, many of them required multiple copies of printed manuscripts prepared and mailed in specific ways. I also had to provide return postage if I wanted to get the results. Later, when the use of emailed submissions became more acceptable, the process was simplified and less expensive.
The results were often worth the time and cost. A synopsis was required by many of the contests along with some limited number of pages from the beginning of the book. Some were based on a number of pages, others by chapter. Frequently, an anonymous judge would add comments about the synopsis as well as the manuscript. Some comments led to changes. One of the most significant changes that resulted from comments from a judge was to change an abortion to a miscarriage. The judge suggested the word abortion was too explosive at this time and that I could build in the same amount of emotion in the character who thought her actions may have caused the miscarriage. I was already having second thoughts about the abortion because of feedback from friends, but the contest judge was the first reader to offer a solution.
Other contest judges suggested specific wording in places to make the story more interesting. But there were some judges who were offended by my description of the bookmobile librarian, Liz Siedo, as being a bit hefty. I toned it down after that, but she's still large and proud of it. Along that line, I learned from a judge that clothing for large women is called plus size, not XXXL like it is for men.
By their comments, contest judges also let me know what wasn't clear. For example, in an earlier version of Where Love Once Lived, I had a reference to Sunset Valley being completely surrounded by Austin. Which it is. However, I guess the judge had never heard of such a thing and assumed it was a mistake. I took it out so as not to be confusing.
Another judge thought my reference to a real community called Travis Country was a misspelling of Travis County since the story was set in Austin, Texas which is in Travis County. I took that out, too. It was important to the story.
Entering contests helped me write the book and helped me make it better. I won two first places, one third place and was a finalist in another contest. Winning usually meant a chance to talk to an editor and or agent, as well as a chance to read your entry to other writers.