Winning Writing Contests

I’ve both entered and judged several writing contests over the last four years. Not only that, but have been asked to review a myriad of early manuscripts for newer writers.

award-152042_1280Most recently, I entered the Blurb to Book contest sponsored by Love Inspired. I’m happy to report that I made it to Round Two (Go Team LIS!) What I thought was interesting about this particular contest is that the sponsoring editors sent out an e-mail to all the participants before they released the round two results that outlined several reasons why you may not have progressed in the contest.

I found this information highly valuable and also found it to be consistent with entries and early manuscripts I’ve judged/read that didn’t fair too well. So, I thought this list would be interesting to you because it speaks to universal problems among writers. The LI editors should receive credit for these items and I’ll be expanding on their list with thoughts of my own.

1. No strong hook. For this contest, we had to write a blurb (something akin to back cover copy) and were limited to only one hundred words. You realize very quickly how few words that really is. But this comment of the blurb or hook not being strong enough can be carried over into other things. Your cover letter didn’t have enough punch. Each word has to be powerful. A short blurb like this is easy enough for other people to read and critique.

2. Too much back story in the first page. This is so common I almost gave the editors a standing ovation when I read it. This is a very common mishap in writing. In round one of this contest, we submitted the blurb as noted above and just the first page of a first chapter. That’s it. Imagine how strikingly engaging this first page must be! My professional writing opinion is that it takes authors time to “warm up” to their stories and this is a lot of what’s happening in those first pages. It’s really character profiling. My suggestion is to look at page five of your first chapter. The first event that happens is really the start of your story. Back story can be dropped in as the story progresses.

3. Not following the guidelines. Every time you submit something as a writer, there’s likely a document that covers the submission process–whether it be for an agent, an editor or a contest. Read them. Double check them. Even if your writing is fabulous, if you haven’t “followed the rules” you can be kicked out of the contest just for formatting issues. Seriously, don’t let the wrong font drop you from a contest. You also cannot “break the rules” in the sense that if a publisher says a character cannot do such and such–they really mean it. If you don’t like the guidelines of that particular publisher–don’t write for them.

4. No conflict. Every story, regardless of genre, must have tension/conflict. It’s why we read story. Readers don’t want to read about happy people in happy places where nothing ever happens. Even the sweetest romance story has conflict. James Scott Bell has a whole book about it called Conflict and Suspense. Check it out.

5. Telling rather than showing. A common issue for writers. I’ve written a blog post on showing versus telling here that will better illustrate this point.

6. Confusing. Have another writer read your entry. If it’s not clear to a reader, clean it up regardless of how you feel about the passage.

7. Writing . . . not quite there. As the editors said in their e-mail– everyone has to start somewhere. Writing is a craft that must be learned and honed. Did you know just learning a craft takes 6-10 years? Think about musicians, dancers, or painters. Did they succeed at their first attempt? I think people don’t give learning the craft of writing enough credit in the sense that because we know English and can craft a sentence since grade school– we should be able to write a great novel the first time out of the gate.

Have you ever watched The Voice? We can all sing, right? Of course, some better than others. But if you listen to the mentors work with these young singers, you’ll hear them talk a lot about practice, about craft, about emotion in singing. “Come back next year when you practice these things.” You know what? The singers that take this to heart do practice, they do come back, and often times they do better the next time around.

So… keep writing! Keep entering those contests regardless of the result. Take the information from the judges as a learning opportunity to grow.

Have you ever entered a writing contest?

Cutting Out the Frivolous Stuff

song sparrow singingLast week, during a series of presentations on writing-related discoveries, which I always make first-year composition students do at the end of the year, one student said, “I learned that writing shorter is harder than writing longer.”

“Why’s that, do you think?” I asked.

He thought before answering.White-crowned-Sparrow

“Because to make something shorter, you have to make all these decisions. Like, what’s important and what to get rid of. And then, after you take stuff out, you have to change other stuff to make it sound right.”

“You mean, you have to revise—like, you know, re-see it,” another student chimed in.

“Yeah. It is like that,” he said. “Like seeing that it could be a different way and still be what I wanted to say. Maybe even better. I never thought of that. I always used to think revision was just fixing stuff.” The two students grinned with that mixture of embarrassment and pride students always have when using the language of the course.White-Throated_Sparrow

That night I led a professional development session for graduate faculty on the subject of assessing final projects.

“Everything students hand in is a draft,” I remarked in passing, “and drafts are hard to grade. If you want your students to revise, you have to trick them into it.”

Field_Sparrow“How?” one professor asked.

“Lots of ways,” I said, “but the most successful way for me is to give maximum word limits on assignments rather than minimum word limits.”

“How does that make them revise?” she persisted.

I knew that being made to write short did force students to revise, but it took me a second to come up with a reason why on the spot. “I guess it’s like when you fill out an online application and have to answer a question in a little box that limits you to only so many characters, including spaces,” I told them. “What you write is always way too long. So you have to keep paring it down, getting rid of unnecessary stuff, often the parts you’re Harris's Sparrowproudest of, so you can get down to what’s essential. And, in the end, it’s not only shorter but better. Or, anyway, I always think it is. In my experience, the same thing happens with students when I give them word limits. I get all these emails, begging me to let them go longer. But I never do. Not one word. So they have to revise. And what they turn in is lots better than what they turn in when they’re just trying to fill pages.”

Everyone wrote that down—the most useful grading takeaway, even though it wouldn’t be relevant until they started building assignments the next semester.

The next day, at an end-of-year luncheon of honors English students, my department chair asked those about to graduate to share the moment they realized they wanted to study English, and two women talked about learning to write short.

lark sparrow“Being forced to cut made my writing so much better,” one said. “I knew how to improve my writing after learning that.”

“I had this revelation that every sentence matters,” said another. “That was the moment for me.”

Finally, yesterday, my novel workshop students were talking about their revision strategies for the three chapters I’d be grading at the end of the semester.

“I’m cutting out a lot of frivolous stuff,” one said. “That’s the main thing I learned in this class: You don’t need half the stuff you write.”Chipping_Sparrow

As always, whenever I have one of these clumps of similar messages, I figured it wasn’t just coincidence—or the more obvious reality that people were saying back to me what I’d been preaching all semester—but the Holy Spirit weighing in on the ssavannah sparrowubject. It seemed strange, though, that the Holy Spirit was interested in revision.

Then it occurred to me that I’m the one who needed the cutting message I’d been preaching. My own novel is a frivolous (and practically unpublishable for a first novel) 130,000 words.

There’s no getting around it, I told myself. You need to cut another 30,000 words.

That doesn’t begin to answer the question—if you’re still wondering—of why cutting words from my pages might interest the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it’s that, as I like to tell my students, revision is a key part of the creative process, and God has always been into that. Separating light from dark, water from land. Fiddling with it, examining it, considering, until it’s good, or very good.

Or maybe God’s interested in revision for the same reason he pays attention to sparrows: namely, all of his creation—birds, us, our minds, words, our little improvement plans—fascinates and delights him.

(PS: To whatever fellow birdlovers are out there, I saw all the sparrows pictured this morning: song, white-crowned, white-throated, field, Harris’s, lark, chipping, and savannah. I feel so blessed!)

Facing a Change?

Photo/KarenJordan“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed … ” (1 Corinthians 15:51 TNIV).

I first noticed this scripture many years ago displayed on a wall mural in our church nursery. I laughed at the clever inference to the care of the babies. But the verse prompted me to research its biblical context.

I discovered differing opinions about the end times. But I also found Someone who never changes: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8 NIV).

Possibilities. Change is inevitable. And many times it arrives when least expected—like an illness, untimely death, or even an opportunity you never dreamed possible.

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future” (John F. Kennedy).

Politics. Politicians also promise us change. But their promises often prove to be just as empty and meaningless as their rhetoric no matter how well intended.

Such shallow commitments remind us of what the Bible says about keeping our word:

And since you know that (God) cares, let your language show it. Don’t add words like “I swear to God” to your own words. Don’t show your impatience by concocting oaths to hurry up God. Just say yes or no. Just say what is true. That way, your language can’t be used against you. (James 5:12 MSG)

Projects. I embrace change at times, especially with my writing projects. The writing process requires many revisions. Some people believe writing is just a three-step process—pre-writing, writing, and re-writing. But most writers agree that each of these steps involves much more.

For instance, the beginning of the composing process includes things like brainstorming, asking questions, researching, outlining, and other pre-writing strategies. Even the simplest blog post requires multiple revisions. The first draft of this post needed a lot of editing and changes.

Promises. The Bible also reminds us, “… in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye … we will be changed” (15:52).

But even though God’s Word promises change, it also encourages us to “… stand firm. Let nothing move you … ” in our faith (15:58).

So when you face change or resist it, remember, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (15:58b).

What changes are you facing right now?

10 Tips for Great Research Interviews

10 Tips for Great Research Interviews  

You may have heard the advice “Write what you know.” But what if you want to write about something you don’t know anything about? Find someone who knows. We’ve interviewed modern day shepherds, airline pilots, engineers, trauma physicians, people from other cultures. Each interview is different and can be valuable in providing the authenticity and detail for your writing. Here are a few tips we’ve learned.

  1. Start with relationship. Spend some time connecting with your interviewee. Get to know him or her as a person.1965017_816271478388718_612352803_n
  2. Keep questions open ended. Yes and no questions don’t get you the details you need. Ponder ahead of time what will be the best questions to encourage the interviewee to talk.
  3. Be respectful of boundaries. Let your interviewee determine how much they are comfortable sharing about their personal lives. Don’t push, but be ready to go there with them.
  4. Be prepared. Do your homework; learn as much as you can in advance. Search the Internet or read books about the person. We find that the interviews are more productive if we have already written a first draft of the story or chapter. Then we know what blanks to fill in with our expert.IMG_0374
  5. Don’t be too structured. Some of the most interesting things we’ve learned were not from questions on the list. Sometimes, you don’t know what to ask.
  6.  Don’t send advance questions. For an informal interview it’s best to explore the subject together. Sending advance questions makes the interviewee focus on your questions rather than the subject.
  7. Listen. Sounds obvious but too often we focus on ourselves and what we are going to say or ask next. Stay focused on what your interviewee is revealing.
  8. Record the session. (We use our cell phones.) Take the focus off of note taking and trying to remember every detail. You’ll be thankful later when you listen to the tape. We’ve been amazed to find information on the tape that neither of us remembers the interviewee saying.1965075_10203555232787948_961820612_n
  9. Respect time. Set an amount of time in advance for the interview and let the person know.
  10. Express thanks. Follow up with a note or email of thanks. You can also bring along a book as a thank you, email a few photos you took, or send a copy of the article or book later when it comes out.

 

Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers   www.WritingSisters.com

Shepherd Song

My Indie Story (And Why I still *Heart* My Agent)

myindiestoryThere are a gazillion reasons why authors choose to go the “indie” route. (Wanting to use the word gazillion to the chagrin of every publisher out there might be one of them…. :-))

They want more control over covers and editing, more share of the profit, quicker publication. They may be tired of waiting and/or writing in a niche market that isn’t served by traditional publishers… the reasons are as wide and varied as the genres they write in.

I thought I’d share my story and my motivations, and why I still want, value, and love my agent.

IMG_5199My story is a complicated one. When I signed with my first agent and got that coveted first publishing contract, I was in the throes of a personal trial that was, to say the very least, difficult. My fourth daughter was born in 2010 with half of a heart and spent her first 308 days in the hospital.

About three weeks after she came home from the hospital, on oxygen and twenty different medications, and after four open heart surgeries including a heart transplant, an editor offered me a contract. I was also offered representation by an agent, all in the same week.

On one hand, I was ecstatic. This was my dream come true. And considering I’d given up my pay-the-bills day job to take care of my daughter, it felt like amazing timing.

What I didn’t factor in was a fun case of stress induced depression, ongoing medical issues with my daughter (including one very scary helicopter ride which included CPR… Boo!) and the immense stress of editing on a deadline and trying to market a book–all the while dealing with those deeply difficult, personal trials.

SandwichOnce my book came out, I kinda collapsed. I was exhausted and needed a timeout. I took the next year to recharge and focus on my family. Writing was almost laughable during that time.

When I finally emerged during the fall of 2013 and felt God nudging me to write again, I was met with a few stark and depressing realities regarding my writing career.

1.) Releasing a novel without a follow-up anytime soon does not make for grand sales history.

2.) Trying to market a book well during such a difficult time also doesn’t breed super quality sales either. While my book didn’t totally bomb, it fell much below my expectations, which probably didn’t help my depression either!

3.) Even if I polished up my finished manuscript and had my agent immediately submit it, due to publishing schedules, it’d probably be at least two years or more before it would actually be published, thus making a span of close to three years between book releases. The business side of me knows that isn’t ideal for marketing purposes.

So what to do?Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00095]

I needed a book release sooner than later, and a way to build back up the platform I lost during my mental-health break. I looked at all those indie authors and wrinkled my nose. No. I’m a writer, not a publisher. That is not what I want at all.

But the more I rejected the idea, the more God pushed me toward it. Then ideas started flowing… what if I did some followups to the first book? Maybe some novellas, then finish out the series with a full-length?

The thought blossomed over a few months. God gave me some fun ideas for books and titles and put some amazing indie-authors in my path to teach me the ropes. I am forever thankful to them!

And you know what?

I don’t regret it for a moment. My sales haven’t been astronomical. My “grand plan” is to release three novellas then a final “full length” to wrap up the series, while my fabulous agent works her magic with a new series.

I’m using the three novellas as trial books, trying different marketing strategies on each to see what works, what doesn’t, and what I can do better. The first book, A Side of Faith, came out in August, 2014, and the second, A Side of Hope, came out March of this year.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00095]A Side of Love will release later this year, and the full length, The Greatest is Love, will release in 2016.

It’s been a lot more fun than I thought it would be. I’d originally dreaded every single step in the process, but the idea of being a hybrid author is intriguing.

At this point, I don’t see myself going “full” indie. I LOVE my agent (waving to Sarah) and LOVE working on a team with a publisher. I know this idea isn’t embraced by all indies, and that’s super okay. What is good for one is not for another.

But this is my Indie story, and I’m very thankful I followed God’s leading and stepped out of my comfort zone. In the end, my hope and prayer is that my indie books and my traditional books can work hand-in-hand to help each other.

What about you? Have you ever thought of indie publishing? Why or why not? While I don’t claim to be an expert, I’m happy to answer what questions I can!

Honesty is the Best Policy

SavedbyGracieReaders often thank me for sharing my personal story of battling an anxiety disorder in my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God.

“You’re so brave to have written this,” they say. “I’d be embarrassed to share something so personal.”

Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was being brave in recounting my experience with anxiety. I lost all my privacy boundaries when I gave birth to my third child in a room crowded with medical personnel. Once you’ve had an audience of strangers watch you push a child down the birth canal, there’s not much left that can embarrass you.

Another reason it surprises me to be described as “brave” is that all I’ve done is tell a true story about the ways my head, body, and spirit responded to taking a shelter dog into our home. It’s also true that I didn’t want the dog, but when I realized how the dog was helping me change my life for the better, I immediately wanted to tell that good news to other women who might be suffering with anxiety as I had.

First and foremost, I wanted to share my story to help others. I’d learned something new and valuable, and even though the therapeutic value of animals has been a popular research topic in recent years, I wanted to frame that information in a fresh way that would encourage readers to make that information work for them, too. Basically, I used myself as the proof in the research pudding.

And here’s where a true story encounters craft: it is the writer’s challenge to make the story simultaneously personal AND universal .

We all have experiences that are common to the human condition, yet people relate most deeply to the universal when it becomes intensely personal. Over the years of my writing career, I’ve learned that it’s the writer’s intimate voice and transparency (I’m talking about total honesty here!) that are key to combining the universal and personal. For example, if you tell me you’ve had a traumatic experience, I can nod and say “so have I,” but unless you give me the details of how it personally impacted you, I won’t be looking for similarities in our stories. That means you, as a writer, have to seek out and name the personal aspects of the universal that will engage your readers. You have to dig up the reality – expose the heart and soul – of the experience you want to share.

Make no mistake – digging in your life can be painful for you and those around you. With luck, though, it will be ultimately illuminating and healing, too.

And when you do that with your own story, you give your readers the permission, and hopefully, the courage, they might need to be honest with themselves in their lives. Honesty really is the best policy for a writer, because it’s the key to connecting compellingly with your audience as you make the universal very personal.

How do you approach the universal in your writing?

Firmly Established

When I mention the book of Ecclesiastes, what goes through your mind?

 The folk-pop song hit from The Byrds in 1965?

 “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”?

 Hopeless despair of anything one does “under the sun”?

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 Look closer…there’s more to this book than the Preacher’s laments.

 At the very end of Ecclesiastes, the writer switches his voice from the Preacher to the narrator, and writes these words:

“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.” Ecclesastes 12:11 ESV

 The goads mentioned in this verse are sticks used for poking and prodding sheep. Sheep are notorious for being slow-witted and stubborn. Even faced with danger, they will not obey the shepherd or sheep dogs if they think doing so would be more dangerous. At these times, the shepherd can resort to using his staff as a goad, poking the sheep to the point of pain, if necessary, to get it going to a safe place.

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 I don’t know about you, but I’m often like the slow-witted sheep, going blindly down the path toward danger. My Shepherd knows there are times when I would fall off a cliff rather than listen to His word, so He will resort to the goad. I know some of the most painful episodes in my life were used by my Shepherd to move me back to the center of His will.

 The other term used in this verse is “nails.” This same word is also used in Ezra 9:8 and Isaiah 22:23. It gives the picture of a peg or nail fixed firmly and securely into place, as in Ezra, when the Lord established the remnant of the nation of Israel in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. “But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery.” Ezra 9:8 ESV

 What does this mean for us as writers?

 God’s Word is the goad that keeps us in line with His direction and will. He is the Shepherd who establishes us firmly in our place.

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 The next verse, Ecclesiastes 12:12, is also appropriate for us: “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

 Did you see the instruction? “…beware of anything beyond these…” Beyond what? The “words of the wise,” given by “one Shepherd.”

 As Christian writers, our place is putting words on paper – words that point our readers to the One Good Shepherd who seeks the lost and redeems sinners.