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
This is so hard to answer. There are so many unexpected things that I’ve learned. I guess the main thing I learned about contests is that our writing community is full of kind and generous people. I’m always amazed at how those helping with my contests and the writers entering them truly want to help each other. They’re there when someone needs picking up and there to celebrate in each others’ successes. It’s a wonderful thing to witness and I’m grateful to have been a part of it. So if you enter a contest, jump into the community. I’ve met many friends and my critique partners by participating in online writer events.
The kindness of the writing community. Writers really do want other writers to succeed. When Michelle (Hauck) and I hold Twitter parties, people always jump in to congratulate the writers, encourage them, and just be generally kind. The writing community is an amazing place and being a part of Sun versus Snow has really enforced that fact.
What is one thing you wish all aspiring authors knew?
I wish more authors knew what they were getting themselves into. This industry is slow and stressful at times. Too many new authors think that all you do is write some words, say hi to an agent, and BAM, you’re Stephen King or Stephanie Meyers. That’s not the way it works. This business takes YEARS to break into for 99% of writers, and even if you write the most amazing books EVER, the likelihood of becoming as famous as Stephen King are slim. You’re probably not going to get a million dollar advance from Random House, and you are going to cry, yell, and lose hope often as you get rejections from agents, publishers, and editors. This is part of the process. You can’t go into this thinking it’s all sunshine and rainbows, and that tomorrow you’re going to be the next E.L. James. Even the likes of J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and many, many others went through the rejection process. No one was an overnight sensation. You’ve got to have a thick skin, determination like no one else, and be willing to LEARN from those in the industry. Coming into this industry with an ego the size of Kim Kardashian’s ass is NOT going to get you to the top. Being strong, intelligent, and believing in yourself is what gets you to the top. Then, if you make it to the top, be ready to work your ass off to stay there, because this is one of the most subjective industries EVER.
-Tiffany Hofmann- Host of FicFest, owner of Deep Water Editorial Services
When you think you’re done, give it one more round of edits…in a few months.
Your eyes get tired. Your mind gets sluggish. Your fingers slow down. It happens to everyone after a few rounds of edits. The trick to keeping a fresh pair of eyes is to put your work away for a month or so. Lock it in a drawer. Leave it at work. Give it to a CP. Do anything other than read your novel. After that month or two, print out a physical copy and edit the old fashion way. Pencil and paper. Changing the medium in which you edit changes your perspective. If you can change your perspective, you stand a better chance at seeing things you weren’t able to see before.
I try to vary the answer when asked this. Sometimes I mention reading widely in new releases in your genre or that finding an agent is really just the beginning of the journey. (See how I slipped in more than one piece of advice. 😉 But today I think I want to emphasis that you need to be ready to move on. Keep a small place in the back of your head that warns this manuscript may not be the one to find an agent. Don’t be afraid to put your baby in a trunk and move on with something new. Most people don’t get an agent on their first manuscript, but some people do get stuck on that first one and can’t go forward. It took me four. You can always pull that baby back from the trunk after you get an agent. You’ll probably now see places where you can improve it.
Also remember that contests are for fun. To break up the struggle of querying that mostly happens alone. Don’t worry so much about getting picked and instead enjoy the comradeship. Pick up wisdom from the Twitter feed and maybe find a CP or two. I know how disappointing contests can be, but reading the entries can teach you how to craft a successful query letter. Most people get their agent from querying.
They need to hang in there and not give up even if they get a ton of rejections. Publishing is a tough business. People who get an agent and a book deal right away are few and far between. Most people who have success have been writing and perfecting their craft for years. If you are committed to being a writer, then you must also commit to the fact that you’ll most likely have to work long and hard for success.
That this journey can be really tough, but no matter the hurtles, enjoy the run. Don’t let all the bumps along the way break your spirit. Keep working and putting out stories. What really matters are the connections you make and the home life you’ve made. Enjoy it all.
Do you want to thank these guys for all the hundreds of hours they’ve put into supporting others’ writing? Then support THEIRS:
Brenda Drake: YA- A flirtatious french hottie, a fling with a wizard, and some of the world’s most beautiful libraries. Give me more! Thief of Lies: Library Jumpers YA- She can change anyone’s fate…except the boy she loves. Touching Fate Also find Brenda on Twitter @BrendaDrake
Amy Trueblood: I’m dying to read Amy’s historical, but it’s not out yet! In the meantime, her blog, Chasing the Crazies, is the bullseye for simple, crucial advice on querying and what agents look for in the first five pages of a manuscript. Reading her blog before you start querying will save you so much heartache, and so many rejection letters. Also find her on Twitter @atrueblood5