Writing contests abound these days, either as offerings from publishers or the (nowadays) very popular National Novel Writing Month in November. Currently I've been keeping my eye on Angry Robot Books, a publishing company that seems to have fairly modern ideas. They're offering to read unsolicited manuscripts in March, so I'm definitely gearing up for that. To get back to my thesis, these contests are really great, in my opinion, but not necessarily for the reason that you might think.
I used to look at NaNoWriMo as a one-shot, all-or-nothing deal. I knew that if I could write a story in a month and somehow get it noticed, everything would suddenly change for me and I would become an overnight success. Real life isn't really so simple, but the trouble was that I built up the month to be such a huge deal that it became daunting, insurmountable.
Writing is a slow process, folks. It's like becoming a professional athlete. It takes the brain some time to develop new skills, and even longer to perfect them. The body takes a long time to achieve the apogee of potential. Writing isn't about pouring everything you've got into one story or idea.
Writing contests aren't about creating something amazing in a short period of time. Anything worthwhile takes a lot of time, after all. The point that I've learned from two years of writing contests is that they require discipline. Regulated attention to writing, over time, yields results. It's like practicing making ice sculptures in preparation for a big masterpiece, but you get to keep all of your attempts and mistakes and maybe use some of them. Maybe that's a really awkward analogy, but I guess that's one of the things I'm still working on as a writer.
I'm doing Key Publications' writing contest again this year and even though I'm really behind, it's reminding me that writing is, in essence, a discipline. People gripe about how popular Stephenie Meyer's books are, but the fact is that she writes. The point of having to write 2000 words a day is so that you can discipline yourself to do so regularly, even when you don't feel like it. I can't even cite the number of published authors who will tell you that if you want to be successful, you can't just write when inspirations strikes. You have to do it regularly.
The point I'm trying to make is that writing contests aren't the end-all and be-all. They're just another tool for developing the craft. Whether you get noticed or not, the success achieved is through the effort put in and the skills accrued.