Thursday, October 26, 2006

Mir's Contest Reality Check and Prep Tips
For The Unpubbed Fiction Scribblers

Most contest entries are crap, they say. Sturgeons's Revelation, they claim.

Who are they?

I hear the indignation in your tone. Okay, get ready for the Mir rant and ramble. But I think some of this will be useful to you.

They. This is who they are: Assorted authors who've had to weed through sample chapters to 1. select writers for prestigious fiction workshops or to choose the finalists in a writing contest. Agents and editors who will, now and then, let it slip in an interview or on a forum that they had to wade through totally unacceptable, ungrammatical, uninteresting dreck to find something readable or with a glimmer of talent to which they could attach the blue ribbon.

A few submissions or contest entries rise above crapdom to acceptable and readable levels, they go on to say. The rest...feh.

Sometimes, nothing, NOTHING, is sparkly or exquisite. That's the truth.

Ah, but sometimes they get good or really good or blow-the mind great stuff that suits the imprint or line or category the judges edit. That's when they request a manuscript or accept the author into a select fiction workshop or refer the writer to an agent pal. That's when first place has real force behind it, real meaning.

Make a note: If you place in a contest, but the judge didn't ask to see the full manuscript, that's kinda equivalent to saying one of two things:

1. It's not good enough to request. Or, more bluntly, it's a REJECTION.
2. It's good enough for someone to request, but it doesn't suit that judge's fiction line, so they don't request it for that reason. Good enough, not right.

Being number one is not joyful. Being number two is disappointing, but promising. However, you never know which one you actually are unless the judge makes that particular note on a score sheet: "Very good. I'd read more. Too bad it's not right for HeartThrob Cozy Mysteries because of the grim tone."

In which case, you know it's good enough for one editor to get perky about it, so send it off to a line that's similar but darker. Good luck with that.

Oh, where was I? Yes, I remember...

Trust me. If your contest entry chapters are 1. wowing the editor or agent final judge and 2. the material is right for their publishing house's needs, they will request you send more.

(They are judging contests to find the next Secretariat for their stable, dontcha think? Trust me. It's not just about giving back to the writing community. It's not just about P.R. It's also about finding the next Nora Roberts or Dee Henderson or John Grisham or J.K. Rowling or Diana Gabaldon or C.S. Lewis or Janet Evanovitch or Helen Fielding or Jeffrey Deaver.)

Now, if the final judge is an agent, and if your sample chapters don't move them to seek you out for a full submission on which to decide whether you'll be their next fresh face-- they're not interested. Yes, that's right. That too is a rejection. You didn't wow that agent with that contest entry. If you had, they'd have made sure to get word to you that you should send them a full proposal. If they think you'll sell and make them beaucoup bucks, you will be pursued.

Here's the hard fact:

What I call the shiny ones--those contest entries that just gleam and dazzle-- are rare. Yet most contests are set up so winners must be chosen. Tell me: What happens if no shiny ones have entered a particular contest category, and a final judge still has to choose first and second and third place winners?

Well, the winner is the best of a not-very-shiny lot.

Here's the danger to the human ego: A winner assumes the writing is fabulous because, yep, it won.

This is not a wise assumption to make. Nor a logical one. All that says is the particular work that won was the subjectively judged "best" of the lot. But the lot could have been a collective pile of manure. Conversely, it might have been a pile of staggeringly proficient submissions, and by golly, the winner is a dazzler.

The latter case is not, however, typical. I've judged contests. I know.

Poetry Note: One exception is our latest poetry contest at DKA, where we're in the final stages of picking a winner. We actually got quite a few "shiny" poems and picking a winner is tough. What a deliciuos problem to have: an abundance of versey riches.)

Personal Note: I re-read my Genesis Contest SF winning chapters and, while not thinking "utter Sturgeonian crapola," I did see flaws. Several flaws. I did cringe in spots. Typos, too, made me go hissssss. No, not crap, but not a diamond, either. A raw diamond. I still saw good ideas. Some good characterization. Some good conflict and dialogue. Some good, even very good prose. It's got some luster, but it's not blindingly bright. It has to become shinier. I have to work harder at getting it to reflect light.

I want to produce diamonds of the first water, as my Regency reading pals might say.

So, take your contest wins and placements with a grain of salt. Then consume the nutrients they offer and get more writing muscle.

Contests are tools. I've seen some lovely fellow Christian writers (and some non-Christian ones) use them as tools. Some for feedback. Some to get in front of a desirable agent or targeted editor. Some enter to learn the discipline of deadlines and formats and what-not. Some have gotten contracts from the exposure in a contest.

Know why you enter. Be humble enough to accept the possibility that you may be submitting non-shiny crap and don't know it. Listen to feedback. Listen really hard to feedback that meshes with other feedback, ie. many judges saying you have no conflict, or poor dialogue, or stilted prose, or jarring transitions, or horrible grammar.

Then, take action as needed: Buy craft books. Take classes. Analyze talented writers. Read more. Write more. Join a critique group. Listen more. Learn to take criticism well. (You'll have to do that when you sell, anyway, and your editor sends you a two- or five- or ten-page revision request sheet.) Use every hammer and nail and wrench and roll of duct tape in the writer's toolbox.

I'm a better writer today than I was 15 years ago. I'm a better writer today than I was five years ago. That's not nothing. That's progress. I've learned and I'm learning still.

And contests are useful if you're realistic about them.

As long as you keep perspective. As long as you grow a tough skin. As long as you grasp tightly to a good measure of humility. As long as you don't think, "Stupid judges. What do they know?" As long as you don't think, "I'm horrible and I'll never learn to write." As long as you don't think, "I've won. My manuscript is perfect!"

As long as you stay focused on the why and what of contests, they'll serve you well.

Anyway, all that because soon it will be a new year, and you will be able to submit to lots of contests with the advent of 2007. And even sooner if you follow RWA romance-related contests. Come January, you'll be able to enter the Genesis contest of the ACFW, which has stringent and as-objective-as-possible judging guidelines and judging criteria. This is a helpful contest for someone who really wants to see where her strengths and weaknesses are as a writer. You may unknowingly submit crap, but at least you'll be told why and where it's stinky to help you in the cleaning up process, the diamondification of poop process.

And you may submit shiny, and you'll be able to see how to make it shinier. someone less ranty than I:

To add to the cache of agent/editor/publisher/author anecdotes of crap contest entries, I give you this from agent Jennifer Jackson's livejournal blog, and ask you note the final paragraph with special attention if you're gearing up to enter the contest circuit come 2007:

So, I was judging the romantic suspense category. One of the things that struck me was that in five entries only one of them did not feature a member of law enforcement as one of the protagonists. Perhaps it's an obvious thing to do in order to set up a suspense plot. If either the hero or heroine (or both) are assigned to the case then it gives them an easy motivation to be there. But it did make me want to give that one other person points for originality. Plus, easy motivations don't always make for complex and compelling characters. Also, I've read many other proposals for this subgenre and keep finding a lot of projects in which the research, or rather the lack thereof, is going to contribute to making it an easy rejection. I went through a big forensic interest phase a couple years ago which included reading a book on the history of fingerprinting as well as textbooks regularly assigned in forensic courses. I know less about actual department procedures and I haven't yet taken one of those citizen police academy tours. But one tends to notice when L&O or CSI have more realism and internal consistency.

Nearly every time I sit down to read for a contest, I remember this one time when I got a set of finalists and was just stunned that this was the best they could offer. I actually wanted to not give an award in that case because I didn't think any of the entries were even close to publishable. People sometimes use contest wins as credits in queries. This experience made me feel a bit dubious about that prospect.

Ms. Jackson works at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She is a real, authentic, good agent. She represents SF, which endears her to me right off the proverbial bat. If you're into female-focused SF, you'll recognize many names on her client list: Anne Bishop, Elizabeth Bear, Laura Anne Gilman, and C.E. Murphy. And if you're in ACFW or read Christian Women's Fiction, you'll recognize award-winner Shelley Bates. Romance readers will recognize Patricia Rosemoor, Donna Ball (who I used to read faithfully when she wrote as Rebecca Flanders), and Brenda Hiatt (yes, that Brenda, Show Me the Money girl.)


Mir's Contest Prep Tips for the Coming Year of Contest-ing:

~Don't be lazy. By that I mean: Don't enter rough drafts. You can't really learn much from entering what you dashed off with little sweat and sacrifice.

~Before entering, get some feedback from knowledgeable folks who'll speak honestly to you about your weaknesses, which is always more important than folks yapping on endlessly about your strengths. (I did say grow a tough skin, no?)

~Make your story different from what is expected, but in a good way, not a whack-job way. Although, some contests need whack-job ways of storytelling, yes. If you're entering in a genre with some well-worn plots, try to be the special one.

~ Don't make your hero or heroine seem like every other hero or heroine in your genre, especially if it's a genre known for having stock characters. Learn to write full, well-motivated, strongly conflicted, deep characters who can surprise us.

~Do your research.

~Do the work it takes to infuse your story with your own, special, original voice and attitude. Don't offer the judges flat prose. Zap it with your own brand of electricity. That may mean talking your story cold into a tape or digital recorder in as natural a voice as you can. (This is a good method for folks who are told they write with too much formality or in a stilted manner.) This may mean reading aloud as you type to see if you're coming across flat and droney.

~Unless your sister or spouse or best pal are editors, agents, or writers, don't assume that when they say, "It's terrific," it actually is terrific. People we love may not have a discerning bone in their bodies. And they usually want to support us and not hurt our feelings. Find the person who will lovingly hurt your feelings for the good of your craft.

~Get a Chicago Manual of Style. (Costly, awkward to use at times, but worth it) Read up on dashes and commas and compound sentences and lay/lie and who/whom and dangling participles. If you don't have some grammar and style manuals by your computer or your writing pad or on your desk, then you aren't yet really serious about fine-tuning your prose, are you?

(Confession: I get lazy with blog posts and go hog wild with dashes and parentheses and sentence fragments. I breathe a freer air here in the Queendom of Mirathon. When I submit something to a contest, though, I keep my style manuals nearby.)

~If you're broke and can't afford the Chicago Manual of Style, then get a cheap used copy of Strunk and White's for a buck or less. They're everywhere. It's also free online. Use it. Google up usage issues. I've always (almost) speedily found an answer to some vexing question by just using a search engine. USE THE SEARCH ENGINE BEFORE YOU ASK ON A WRITING LOOP. Don't fill up the inboxes of your fellow writers when you can get the answer yourself. That's kinda rude.

Or you can simply marry an English major, since we always have grammar texts handy and a tottering pile of style manuals at the ready. Or make best friends with a proofreader/copy editor. Talk the fine points of grammar over a latte and biscotti every Thursday evening. Make it fun.

~If you have a few minutes, read Mir's Non-Comprehensive Tour of Trouble Spot Tip-Offs. Even the very schmart Jon Mark Bertrand thought this was worth recommending. It's the single Mirathon post that's gotten the most feedback and thank yous and Lawdy-I-needed-thats. Just another tool for your shed.

~Choose your contests with care. Know before you enter how it will serve you. Is the editor or agent one on your short-list of desirables? Does the contest offer solid, detailed feedback? Does winning allow you to get a full critique from a bona fide editor or agent? Is it pretigious? Don't just enter blithely and blindly. Strategize.

~~After the contest is done, send THANK YOU NOTES.

I'm a bit of a doofus about remembering to go out and buy the things, but I finally bought ones for the final round of the GENESIS (I got my scores back a week or so ago.) See, I'm a reclusive sort, and I'll go a week or more without leaving the house. I pile up errands for one massive to-do day about once every 10 days. (Yes, I'm a freak, I know.)

I will be mailing them out tomorrow. I mailed out the first round ones ages ago. It's not necessary, no, but it's a courtesy.

If you haven't judged a contest with a detailed score sheet and rules, then you have no idea how hard it is. How tough to be as fair as possible and as honest as you can. I actually wept with pain that I had to score some contest entries very low. I even asked the regional coordinator of that particular contest if the kind of score I felt was warranted was out of whack and I was being too hard. She, to her and the contest's credit, said no. She'd judged lower herself. She said: Be honest. Judge genuinely. I have to admire any contest that encourages tough fairness of that sort. Even if it has to be heart-and ego-lacerating for the person getting the low scores. Trust me, that's why I pray over and read entries over and over. Some as many as six times. To do justice according to the rules. To be honest for their benefit.

So, appreciate your judges. Even the brutal-scoring ones. They may have wept for you.

And send those thank yous off.

I've received two thank yous. Two. In toto. Ever. And to my shame, I didn't know in my first contests that I was supposed to send thank yous. I figured it was anonymous, so who the heck would I send thank yous to?

Ask your contest coordinator what to do about the notes. But send them. It shows you're not an ingrate for the time and trouble of many, many volunteers.

Personal Anecdote To Keep You From Screwing Up As I Did: I placed third in one particular contest with a coveted editor. Third. But the editor requested the full. On a third placer. No other category had that happen. Made me feel, "Okay, I am not a total loser." Of course, I then went on to prove I was a total loser by not finishing the novel and sending it off. I might have been published 4 years ago. (I am vast and full of flaws. Sometimes, I'm just a damned, lazy idiot.)

Go ye and conquer. And may the writing force be with you.

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Anonymous said...

Some very good advice there, and cogent observations. One thing I read recently over at the 7th Quark (i.e. light) is that you should try to read work by the judges, or at least previous "winners." Because at the end of the day, it's art, and art is pretty subjective. Not every contest is for every writer.

Mirtika said...

This is spot on advice. For one, it will tell you if you're wasting your time submitting to a particular judge because they'll not be able to do a thing with what you write. :)

Secondly, it helps you hone the entry to get attention.

I know when I thought I wanted to write for Publisher X, I read books in that line with great care. I looked at openings and endings. I looked at tone. I looked at level of violence or sensuality. I then researched the editor who was the final judge (and who requested the ms she placed third) to see if in interviews she mentions plots she hates or loves.

Yes, you can google this stuff up.

I mean, if an editor says outright, "I don't like novels where the hero is a perfect preacher or missionary" then why submit a novel you wrote with a perfec missionary/preacher protagonist? Or if the judge is an activist lesbian, it won't do to submit a novel where your character is undergoing sexual re-orientation to conform to a traditional religious doctrine. It'll just piss em off. :)

So, definitely. It pays off to research and have a plan of attack. I wouldn't dream of submitting to an agent without researching them, or to a publisher without knowing what they're likely to want and what genres they seek, why enter contests without doing legwork? I mean, they're not always free!


Musing said...

Excellent information. Thanks!

Also, I don't know if you'd be interested but we're holding a writing contest now at competizione. Submit a 500 or less word essay about a contest experience. :-)

The entries will be judged by Write Stuff members.

Matt Mikalatos said...

Methinks Mir has been hitting the coffee tonight.

Y'know, I am doing that lame, just-for-laughs little poetry shindig on my website, and what gets me is the people who don't follow directions. I mean, I say like five times to be sure to include a way for me to contact you and do you know what I keep getting? Submissions with no way to contact the submitters. Which means, "You Lose." I don't have time to go google "Jim Bob Ghost Pants" and see if I can find an e-mail address. For crying out loud people!

I suddenly understand why editors of magazines sound a little cranky in the submission guidelines sometimes. They are thinking, "Your eyes are moving over my words, but your brain, your brain is resisting their meaning. You are going to send me a hand-written, single-spaced romance novel, when I am the editor of a non-fiction technical journal." Yup. Oh well.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand: Mir. Man, you know how to rant when the time has come. Yahoo! Do it again.

Mirtika said...

So, the key to winning the contest is...just putting my email in there? :D


Matt Mikalatos said...

Well, right now that would put you in the top half of the submissions. Ha!

Camy Tang said...

Good post, Mirster. (BTW, you're judging the Genesis next year for me, right?)

Oh speaking of Genesis, it'll open in January instead of November because last year it was hell to do contest stuff over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

AND I've been given a verbal OK to have it be all electronic next year. Let's hope it's officially approved, b/c electronic would make everyone's lives easier.


Mirtika said...

Camy, THANKS for dropping by and for the correction. I sure think changing the sub date to next year is VERY SMART. In the net age, how wonderful if trhe entries could be electronic. (Well, wonderful for the contestants. Not so wonderful for the judges who are used to fiddling with hard copies.) But it saves moolah and trees.


And yeah, I'll judge. (If I don't enter SF/F, I'd love to judge that.)