I love contests for writers. When I was in the query trenches, they were like an online party for those of us dying slowly while waiting for news. Once I stepped up into the mentor level of contests, I was shocked at how much was going on behind the scenes. So I decided to give everybody on the internet a peek behind the curtain of writing contests by asking some popular contest hosts two questions: what have they learned, and what would they tell writers. Here are their answers.
What is one unexpected thing you’ve learned from running contests?
I’d venture to say that roughly 30% of the entries that make it into our slush pile aren’t ready to be in the trenches. Many have glaring issues such as grammatical errors, excessive or insufficient word counts, or are incorrectly formatted (or all of the above). These are simple things that are often overlooked because they are under-researched. A novelist can’t succeed without knowing (and meeting) the industry standard, so do your research.
Another 40% of entries are convoluted. Because we receive entries from so many talented writers, something as simple as a disjointed plot point or wonky sentence can be enough to warrant passing. I highly recommend boiling your novel down to one sentence, and then expand it until you have a 250-word query. That keeps your query tight, and helps you stay focused on what’s important.
When I read the slush and make picks for the final entries, I try very hard not to look at names on the emails. I don’t really look at that until all my picks are made. It always surprises me how often the people are familiar. A larger percentage of the people with successful entries tend to be ones who have soaked up wisdom from Twitter and interacted more in the writer community. They most likely follow agents, read blogs, and have a little experience with query letters. They’ve learned what works in a query. But there are always one or two entries where the writer has just joined Twitter and aren’t really active with other writers much. But it seems to me you have a bigger shot if you are active in the community.
Everything that can go wrong, will probably go wrong. Running a writing contest was something I placed on my “Bucket List” at the end of 2015. I never expected it to take form so quickly, nor did I expect to launch only a few months after coming up with the idea. That’s exactly what happened though. Throughout the contest thus far, everything that could go wrong has. From having my co-host leave the contest due to her advancing career, to mentors dropping out due to conflicting schedules, mentors on teams not getting along, down to the normal people not following directions, technical issues, emails getting eaten by cyberspace, oh gosh, the list could go on forever. But, you know what the best part was? The way I and my mentors pushed through all that, and brought an amazingly unique and bad ass contest to writers. It was worth it. So very much worth it.
-Tiffany Hofmann, Host of FicFest (new in 2016!), owner of Deep Water Editorial Services