The first year that I entered the contest circuit was in 2009 for the 2010 season. I’d joined RWA the previous year but had missed all the comps because I joined too late and to be honest, I was still feeling my way amongst the organization.
It was about the same time that Michelle (de Rooy) and I became critique partners. Up until then, nobody had ever seen my work. I’d written for myself since I was a child, but I had no idea if it was good or bad. Michelle and I worked on that piece (a historical romance) for a few months and then I decided I needed more eyes on it. I hit every contest on the RWAustralia list bar the High Five, just because I had no idea what I was doing. It was a fantastic experience. The Selling Synopsis forced me to actually write a synopsis for the first time, the STALI and Valerie Parv Award drilled into me the importance of making those first few chapters stand out (or try to) and the Emerald made me realize, really, the entire book needs to be of the same quality as those first manicured chapters.
Then the feedback started trickling in. I find it really hard to actually gauge the level of my own writing, so it was nice to see a lot of the judges enjoyed my writing and said it showed potential. I knew the book had a controversial hero and I was expecting a fair bit of harsh critique, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much people enjoyed it. Yes, there was also the criticism I’d expected. Some of it was incredibly constructive and some of it was simply ouch.
I think that MS finalled in most of its categories. It came second in the STALI, fourth in the Valerie Parv and maybe fourth in the Selling Synopsis. The placings ultimately, weren’t as important as all of the lessons I learned. For the purposes with which I had entered (feedback and to learn) I found the contest circuit more than valuable. It was like having a whole heap of mini critique partners.
The following year, using that synopsis and my newly found skills, I found an agent. That novel never sold, thankfully. I say this now, because my passion for historical romance had faded and I was more interested in pursuing my paranormal/fantasy roots. I parted ways with my agent (for other reasons) and took a good hard look at my career and where I wanted to go with it.
I started The Devil of Whitechapel (now renamed Kiss of Steel) in October last year. It wasn’t the first time I’d ever started a paranormal – there’s dozens of half-finished pieces floating around under the bed – but it was the first time I finished one. I knew that book was better than my first attempt instantly. It practically wrote itself, and using all of the lessons I’d learned in the first year of contest entering made it a much better book than the first. This time my reasons for entering the contest circuit were a bit different. I wanted to gauge how readers liked the story as it was Steampunk and slightly different in genre to what a lot of people were reading, and I also decided I wanted to get this work in front of an editor if possible.
I began with the Australian contests. This time I entered only the Emerald and the Valerie Parv Award, and also the New Zealand Clendon. I was a little bit naughty with the Emerald, as I was only about halfway through the MS when I entered. I tend to be a bit disorganised, so I’d completely forgotten the dates of the finalists announcements. When they came through I had 20,000 words to write in a week in order to make the second round.
Thankfully I wasn’t the only one, as a certain Ms. De Rooy will attest. We pounded out word after word together, fuelled by caffeine and lack of sleep and managed to make the deadline. I sent it off, and only realized two days later that one of the scenes I thought I’d finished ended mid-scene, mid-sentence, because it was a difficult one to write and I’d told myself I’d get back to it later.
I do not recommend this route. At least not without a caffeine drip.
I also started entering American contests for the first time. I spent a lot of time considering the final judges. If it finalled, I wanted it to be in front of editors at houses that might be interested in my work.
My favourite contests were the Valley Forge Sheila and the Georgia Romance Writers Maggie, and not only because I placed first. The contest organisers were very professional and they were also really nice and friendly. The Sheila also got me what I wanted. Leah Hultenschmidt from Sourcebooks was the final judge and requested a full of my work. Two days after I sent it, she rang to offer for it.
I’d decided after the RWA conference to pull out of the other few contests I was already in because I didn’t think it was fair now that I was going to be published, but the Maggies co-ordinator convinced me not to when I finalled. It was something I’d never thought about before. Some of these awards carry a great deal of weight with industry professionals and book buyers. And I think now I might have gotten a slap on the wrist from my agent and editor if I’d withdrawn.
The two years I spent on the contest circuit were very different in terms of what I was after, but both brought home some valuable lessons. I can understand why some people get disheartened by them, as I too have had some ‘interesting’ feedback. I made a conscious decision early on to view each manuscript as a product, so if the criticism could improve it I took it on board, if not then I deleted the feedback and didn’t think about it again. It’s hard because sometimes it stings, but then I have Michelle to grouch to if I need to.
I can see how much I’ve grown in my work since I began and I think a lot of that does stem from the feedback I’ve been given, as well as Michelle’s advice as my CP. It’s been an interesting journey, with a lot of ups and downs, but personally, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have a publishing contract without the contests I’ve entered. I encourage everyone to enter; for feedback, to develop a tough skin (because we’re all going to need that), to learn or to try and get your work before an editor.
Michelle de Rooy
My life in Competitions
I joined RWA a few years ago when my sister told me about a writing conference she was going to. Did I want to go, too?
Writing conference? They have those?
Yep. I was THAT green. I had tried to get the story haunting me since I was 16 years old written down for many years, but could never get past the first chapter or two. I didn’t know why. I read heaps, I knew what I wanted to say (kind of), but I didn’t know how. How to get it from whirling around on my head, onto that page with that damned blinking, mocking cursor.
I was gob-smacked, awed and just plain wanted to sit down and cry at being in the same place as so many people who thought like me. They had people in their heads bugging them to write their story, too. It was a revelation. Literally. If I had known an organization like this existed before, I would’ve joined years ago.
Then, I found my new addiction. I entered my first contest right after conference that year. I entered the first five pages of my unfinished manuscript, a romantic suspense. I am a huge fan of Anne Stuart, and while listening to her speak, as well as her workshop, I was fan-struck. I had a kernel of an idea, and one scene that jumped up in my head and grew the three days I was at conference.
I came second last.
But what an eye-opener. The judges in that contest were so encouraging, so darn wonderful with their ideas and suggestions, that I read and reread their comments, rewrote what chapters I had, and entered it into the RWNZ’s Strictly Single contest.
I came second. With a request from the judge for a full – an editor at Berkley.
Oh, hell. I had three chapters. The three I’d entered. I’d made up the synopsis, had no idea if it would actually end that way, but hey, it had to end somehow, right?
Right about now, I know there a several of you reading this and shaking your heads at me. And I know exactly who you all are! Yep, this is where it started.
Meanwhile, I’d entered a new manuscript – the one I had banging around in my head for all those years – in the Emerald Award, just after I’d entered the Strictly Single. Three chapters, no synopsis required. Great! Because I had no idea where it went! I knew the final scene, but nothing in between. I had just about finished manuscript the requested by the editor judge, when I found out I’d finaled in the Emerald. I’d only entered to get some feedback on characters and the world, to see if I was heading in the right direction with my vision for my story.
O. M. G. I had five working days to get the final draft in to the contest coordinator for the second round.
Five days. Five?
I sat down and thought for about a minute, called my boss, asked for the two days that I worked that week off, and made up my mind. I might not get it finished, but I was going to give it a damned good try.
I got it to the post office on the final day I could post-mark it. It was done. Not complete, but I’d written The End. It was the best I could do.
At the same time I was writing these two manuscripts, I had another story rapping on the inside of my head. In particular, one character. A very unassuming young Japanese guy who was telling me he was in love with an older woman. His best friend’s mother, in fact.
I wrote half the book while expanding the one in the Emerald. I entered it in a US contest. I didn’t final, but got some fabulous feedback that encouraged me I was onto something.
At that point, I’d only been a member of RWA for a short while. I was entering contests to see if I had any chance at all of achieving my dream, of being an author. One that people wanted to read. I needed feedback, confirmation that what I was writing was worthy.
And once I started, I couldn’t stop entering. I was learning so much, so fast, I felt like a sponge. Then I stalled. I couldn’t seem to apply it to my own work.
That was when I met Bec Skrabl through the CP scheme. I’d come to a standstill writing-wise and needed some one-on-one help, so I joined up and waited. Nothing. So I forgot about it until I had a request. Luckily for me, she turned out to be the best thing to happen to me at a point I really needed focus. She sees the things I can't. After working on my manuscript with her, I again entered the Strictly Single, The Emerald, The RWA Golden Heart, then the RWNZ The Clendon, and the Valerie Parv Award. I finaled in all bar the Golden Heart.
By this point I was starting to look at who was the final judge. I wanted to get in front of them, to see what they thought of my books. My focus had changed. I wasn’t just entering to get feedback anymore, I had reached a point where my work was consistently of a higher standard, and I wanted to win. Something, anything!
I wanted that call – the one where an agent or editor judge says they want to see more, please. I entered more and more the next year (which was this contest season), not just focusing on Australian and New Zealand comps anymore, and was totally stoked when I started consistently finaling, even overseas. It validated the time I’d spent away from my husband, my kids. The lack of sleep. The worry that people would think it was utter crap and would she PLEASE stop writing! Yes, we all think that at some point!
During this period, I received some horrible feedback from an editor judge up until then I had admired, if from afar. She’d placed me second in a big contest, but basically told me that it was pointless to continue with this manuscript, that “the author should scrap the project and begin something new and fresh. It is too flawed to be fixed.” Yes, these were her words, not mine. I have it in black and white on a little piece of paper in my office. And that was not all she said. The only thing she’d liked was my voice. I had a “spark to my writing; that something,” and that was why she’d placed me second.
I was gutted. Totally eviscerated. I stopped writing for four months. To be honest, if I had only just started writing and entering contests, it could easily have made me give up right there and then, the feedback was so negative.
It took time, and some wonderful friends who believe in me (thanks Bec, Kylie and Nicky!) who kicked me up the rear and made me realize what the best answer to that heartbreaking paragraph really is – get published. The day I sign a contract is the day I'm going to light myself a little pyre. That contest feedback is going center stage.
That manuscript? This year it came third in The Clendon, second in The Emerald, won me the Reader’s Choice Award in the Clendon, fourth in the US The Emily, third in the US Fire and Ice, and second in the Strictly Single and finaled into the second round of the US The Molly. And I just missed out on finaling in the US Golden Heart by the teeniest percentage.
It also almost got me my dream agent. As Maxwell Smart would say, “Missed it by that much!”
It’s been ‘round!
Basically what I'm trying to say there is that no matter what point you are at, there will be times when you question why the hell you are doing this. And you will come across someone(s) who will make you feel so very terrible and question whether everything you write is utter crap only suitable for burning. Don’t. Stick with it and look what can happen.
Contests are fabulous, but be certain of what you want out of them. And remember that they are subjective. I have almost finaled in so many contests this year with both this and another of my manuscripts; ones that average and don’t drop the lowest score. I tend to polarize judges. They either love it, or hate it. Usually I get two who love it, and one who fudges my chances at finaling. *shrug* That’s how it works, unfortunately.
Look at why you are entering, and enter the contests which give you the best chance of getting in front of that dream editor/agent or mentor; the ones that are going to do the most to further your career and skill. Take what you can from feedback, but if it doesn’t sit well, or suit your vision for your story, don’t change it. Use what you can, discard the rest. It takes a while to sort through all of it, and even longer to stop smarting from the nasty comments you can receive, and believe me, I’ve had them all. It’s not all moonlight and roses, Romeo!
But don’t forget the most important part while doing all this - have fun doing it!
Oh, and my little Japanese friend who fell for his best friend’s mother? He made another lady fall in love with him, as well. He won me the Valerie Parv Award. *grin*
Cheers, and best of luck with your own journeys!
Thanks so much ladies for your sharing your stories. You are an inspiration to us all.