I've seen a number of articles and blogs about writing contests for the unpublished lately, whether they're worth entering, and just how much they are worth. On the whole, I'm in favor of them, if you know why you're entering and what you hope to get out of it.
I actually personally know of only one all-genre writing contest sponsored by a non-profit writing organization. I'm sure there are more, but the Frontiers in Writing contest, sponsored by Panhandle Professional Writers is a pretty good one. (I'd have linked directly to their 2010 contest info, because it ought to be starting pretty soon, but the website hasn't been updated just yet.) There are other contests, of course, but some of them look to me like they're sponsored by business ventures solely to make money off hungry authors.
Of course, the non-profit groups use the contests to make money to support their organization--but that's not their sole purpose. The Romance Writers of America sponsor the Golden Heart contest to give unpublished authors a chance to shine. The RWA chapters have contests for the same reason, and to give the entering authors some feedback on their manuscripts. The finalists and the winners in these contests also have a chance to get their pages in front of editors and agents in the business. That's the main reason some writers enter.
And contest finals and wins are good credentials to put in a query letter. Some contests are better than others, but if you start finaling in contests, especially if you make the finals in more than one, the "people who count" (aka those who are in a position to get you published) are going to start taking notice.
Yes, there are judges out there who will tell you that the whole premise of your book is faulty because they don't believe in terminal cancer, because prayer will heal you, or that your English heroine needs a reason to move to Ireland--when you thought marrying an Irishman was reason enough... But think about it a minute. This is actually a good thing. It gives you an opportunity to grow a thicker skin. A chance to learn to deal with rejections--even if the rejections may not be "fair." And with any luck you will also have those judges who will encourage you to look deeper at your story, dig deeper into your characters' psyches and then put it on the page.
Then there is the truth. Winning a contest will not get you published. Not even if it is the big Mama contest, RWA's Golden Heart. Yes, many of the winners thank the editors who just bought their book, but there are also many finalists and winners who still haven't sold a book.
There is also this truth. NOT Winning A Contest Will NOT PREVENT You From Getting Published. I Never won any contest for unpublished authors. I finaled a number of times in some good contests, but never, ever came in higher than 2nd place. And I Never, Ever Finaled in the Golden Heart. Ever.
But I have been a RITA finalist. For those who may not know, the RITA is RWA's big Mama contest to recognize the best in published romance fiction. In 2002, I was a finalist for Best First Book with my little Silhouette Desire romance.
And every single book I have had published since (so far, knock on wood) has either finaled, or won a contest. I won the Aspen Gold for best series romance with my second Desire, and my One Rose books--The Compass Rose came in second for the Prism Award, behind The Smoke Thief by Shana Abe, for Best Fantasy in 2006, The Barbed Rose won the Prism in 2007, and The Eternal Rose won it in 2008. (I did not enter any of the Rose books in the RITA.)
New Blood has been entered in several of contests. We'll see how it does. (Wish me luck--or a broken leg, whichever is appropriate.)
The thing is--contests can be helpful, both before and after publication. Just don't start believing that contests, in themselves, will can either get you published, or keep you from it. Only the writing can do that.
So keep writing!!