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?

Advertisements

Creative Marketing – Try Something New

Marketing. The dreaded M word that makes introverted authors like me shudder. It’s a good thing I am contracted with a major publisher. They’ll take care of all that marketing stuff, right?

Pop! Say goodbye to that delusional bubble.

Even though I’ve been blessed with a fabulous marketing and sales team, I’m not immune to the pressure of marketing my books. Publishing is a partnership, and I’m expected to market as much or more than my publisher. After all, they have an entire catalog of new releases to sell. I have only my own.

So when I first waded into the marketing waters, I looked around to see what other authors were doing and followed their example. I had my website professionally designed, I got involved in Facebook and Goodreads, I set up guest blog appearances and interviews to correlate with my release dates, I had a launch party, I offered giveaways and hosted contests, I handed out bookmarks, did book signings, and spoke to groups any time I was asked.

Did any of it make a difference? I think so. It’s nearly impossible to measure the impact of marketing, but occasionally I’ll get reader feedback from someone who mentions that they found my books because of an interview I did on a particular blog, or that they bought my previous books after winning my latest one in a drawing and enjoyed it so much they wanted to read more from me. These little glimmers give me hope.

But now that I’ve gained a year of experience, it’s time to branch out from the crowd. It’s time to aim my creativity brain cells not just at my WIP but at my marketing as well. So when it came time to launch my third novel this spring, I decided to try something new. Something that would engage readers on a more personal level and hopefully entice new ones to give my book a try. I sponsored a fan fiction contest.

I write historical romance, and knowing that romance readers live for happy endings, I thought to give them a chance to create their own. I can’t tell you how many times as a reader or movie watcher I have mentally re-written an ending or continued the story in my mind, imagining how the characters’ lives would play out. I thought it would be fun to give my readers the same opportunity.

Now in To Win Her Heart, my main characters had a very satisfying happy ending, but the secondary love story was left with a little more ambiguity. Therefore, the fan fiction contest challenged readers to create an epilogue specifically for secondary characters Chloe and Duncan. I enticed readers with generous prizes like a $40 gift card from Amazon, an autographed book of their choice from my list, and the privilege of having their winning entry displayed on my website for all to see and enjoy.

I advertised in my newsletter, on Facebook, and in blog posts on sites that catered to writers. I was hoping to snag some readers from the writing crowd who might not usually read historical romance or who hadn’t tried my books before, but who were interested in competing for my prizes.

To Win Her Heart released May 1st so I ran the contest through the end of June. I didn’t have a flood of entries, but I ended up with a wonderful collection of about a dozen epilogues to choose from. More valuable than the number of entries, though, was the amount of personal interaction with readers this contest produced. I even had one lady say that she didn’t realize how powerful a marketing tool the contest was for her until she found herself in a bookstore buying my book just because she wanted to enter my contest. I’m hoping others experienced the same sensation even if they ended up not entering.

In the end, there’s no telling how many actual sales this contest generated, but I’m hoping the effects will continue to ripple. The lady who won has her epilogue on my site, and she’s no doubt sharing that story with all her friends. The quality of her writing was wonderful, and she captured my characters so well, that I was proud to display her work and to point other readers to it as bonus material.

Whether or not this attempt at marketing generated many sales, I’m glad I did it. It was fun to try something different and to interact with readers in a new way. It gave my stale marketing practices a much needed shot in the arm, and I would gladly do it again.

Question for You: What is the most inventive marketing strategy you’ve ever employed or seen employed? What marketing ideas have you toyed with that you’d like to try? What have you seen other authors do that caused you to find yourself in the bookstore buying their book?

To see the winning entry, visit the fan fiction page of my website at: http://www.karenwitemeyer.com

Tips for Landing an Agent

Why hello, there. Welcome to the official launch of our blog, The WordServe Water Cooler. A place where WordServe clients gather to build community and help writers move forward in their careers.

Let’s get this party started, shall we?

For our first post, we wanted to offer some tangible tips for anyone searching for an agent. Here’s what helped us. We hope it helps you!

Seek professional feedback on your work before submitting.

Rosslyn Elliott – After I finished my first novel, I had a funny feeling there might be a technical flaw in the novel’s opening. Instead of wondering, I hired a pro editor to look over my first three chapters. Sure enough, the queasy feeling was justified. I fixed the problem, and Rachelle signed me that summer.

Jordyn Redwood – I met Greg during an agent appointment at ACFW in 2009. I had a polished one sheet and the first three chapters of my novel. Next step, he wanted a book proposal. I asked for examples from other authors and paid to have it freelance edited. Keeping my word and presenting professional work tipped the scales in my favor. Greg might say it was my use of dialogue but everything you do counts.

A pass on one project doesn’t mean you can’t try again with others.

Olivia Newport – Years ago I was invited to join a brand new book group. When the dust settled, a group of freelance writers and editors were the core. A couple years later, one of them invited Rachelle to join. We got to know each other long before she became an agent. Three other agents took a pass on what I was pitching. So did Rachelle! But we had a good basis for deciding we wanted to work together and just needed the right project.

The road to representation and publication isn’t usually a fast one.

Anne Lang Bundy – 25 years of composing documents, lessons, and essays developed my writing gift. A passion for all things Bible turned my pen to biblical fiction. After several months of connecting with Rachelle via “Rants and Ramblings” comments, I crafted individual queries for just two agents and obtained representation from WordServe. Three years’ study of fiction craft, five conferences, Rachelle’s encouragement, and the Lord’s grace now bring me to publication’s threshold.

Persevere through rejections.

Deborah Vogts – After a year of representation, my first agent dropped me as a client. Months later, I found the courage to submit my proposal to three more agents. Two doors closed, and Rachelle was Door #3. She liked my work and signed me as a client. Two months after that, we had an offer from Zondervan on my Seasons of the Tallgrass series. I like to think perseverance paid off, but it was also God’s timing.

If you mess up, all is not lost. But even so, learning how to query is good.

Lucille Zimmerman – I wanted to send my book idea to an agent but I didn’t know where to start. I Googled a writer’s conference and found a list of agents to contact. Greg Johnson wrote back and said he passed my email on to Rachelle. I did everything the wrong way, but she still wrote back and told me how to do a real query. Months later we met in person and she agreed to represent me.

Erin MacPherson – If there were an award for the worst query letter ever, I’d win it. When I decided to query, I had no clue what I was doing and no knowledge of the publishing world and it showed. Even worse, when Rachelle wrote me back and asked for a proposal, my response was “What’s a proposal?” Yikes. The good news? God is bigger than my stupidity. After some (okay, a lot of) coaching, Rachelle was nice enough to overlook my terrible first impression and sign me as a client anyway.

When it comes to representation, the right fit is of utmost importance.

Sandie Bricker – All the lunch tables in all the world, and she had to sit down at mine! I’ve had some awesome agents in the past, but I never seemed to find that right fit. Sitting down with Rachelle over lunch at the ACFW conference in Denver cemented the idea that it’s so important to have that “right fit” with your agent. Before they poured the coffee, I knew she and I were on the same page.

Erica Vetsch – At a workshop I attended, Rachelle presented her take on agent-author relationships and described exactly what I was looking for. At that time, I wrote only category romance, something Rachelle didn’t represent, but only a few weeks after that workshop she opened her client list to category romance authors looking to grow their careers. I contacted her, we agreed to work together, and since then we’ve sold several projects.

Marla Taviano – I already had four books traditionally published, then hit a wall. I reached out to Rachelle, and bless her wonderful heart, she threw me a lifeline. I can’t wait to be worth her while! Soon!

Attend a conference when you’re ready and when you’re stuck.

Maureen Lang – Conferences are helpful to writers at all levels, but if finances are an issue it’s wise to attend after you have a fully developed project. I met Greg at an ACFW conference, where we talked about my writing aspirations, our faith, and which publishers would be a good fit for me. It was quickly obvious he knew so much about the industry and that I could trust him.

Katie Ganshert – After devouring every craft book known to man, I reached a point where I couldn’t go any further on my own. I needed an agent. The query system wasn’t working for me, so I saved the money and went to the ACFW conference in 2009 where I pitched to Rachelle, garnered her interest, promptly submitted my manuscript, and received The Call two months later.

Amy K. Sorrells – Oozing with self-confidence after receiving 30+ rejection letters, I hopped on a plane and traveled the farthest I’d ever gone from home on my own, to the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference in 2009. After learning volumes from my “Leave it to Chance” roomate and WordServe client, Sherri Sand, as well as spending a week under the tutelage of Mary DeMuth, it’s no accident I came home, revised my manuscript (again), submitted three more proposals, and received “The Call” from Rachelle in January, 2010.

Enter contests. Finals are a great way to get an agent’s attention.

Keli Gwyn – Rachelle served as a final-round judge in a Romance Writers of America® chapter-level contest and requested my full. After completing my self-edit two weeks later, I sent the manuscript. The following day she emailed saying she wanted to “discuss the possibility of representation.” Four days later I was her client.

Jody Hedlund – While we don’t want to be obnoxious, we should be savvy in staying connected to agents who have our manuscripts. Rachelle had my full in her slush pile. After I finaled in a contest, I contacted her to update her. That email spurred her to pull my manuscript out and read it. She offered me representation a couple days later.

Richard Mabry – A door isn’t closed until God closes it. I’d given up writing when, on a whim, I entered a contest on Rachelle’s blog. I won a critique of the first chapter of my book, and when I sent my chapter, she emailed back, “Send me something that needs editing.” That led to a query, representation, and eventually a publishing contract. I thought I was through. God didn’t.

Take advantage of requests from editors.

Karen Witemeyer – At the 2007 ACFW conference, I met with a Bethany House editor who invited me to submit. That manuscript was rejected, but I was encouraged to submit another project. At ACFW in 2008, I visited with editors from Bethany House again, and they showed interest. I also met with Rachelle. Being able to say I had a nibble from a publisher was huge. Rachelle offered representation following that conference and negotiated my deal with Bethany House three months later.

Lisa Jordan – When I met Rachelle at ACFW, I wanted her as an agent. I pitched, but didn’t follow through on her invite to submit. After finaling in the Genesis and receiving a full request from an editor, I pitched to Rachelle again. She asked to see the full first. Once I submitted, she offered representation a week later. Don’t give up on pitching to a specific agent, even if you pitched to him or her in the past.

Ramp it up and embrace the 3 C’s – Conferences, Contacts, and Contests

Camille Eide – Conferences, Contacts and Contests all contributed to landing my agent. At a writing conference, I was encouraged to seek representation. I asked a writing mentor (contact) for a referral. She sent an intro letter and my query to Rachelle, who requested the full. While I waited, I entered a novel contest. The book placed as a finalist, sending it to the top of Rachelle’s pile. She read the full and called to offer representation.

Dineen Miller – I knew of Rachelle by her amazing reputation as an editor, so when I heard she’d become an agent, I put her on my list as one of two top picks. I made an appointment with her at the 2008 ACFW Conference and showed her my work. We clicked. Later I found out that two colleagues had recommended me too. The week after the conference, I happily signed on and am so glad I did!

Network. Participate in the publishing community. Relationships matter.

Alexis Grant – I connected over Twitter with a writer who, unbeknownst to me, was friends with Rachelle. My Twitter friend knew I was working on a travel memoir about backpacking solo through Africa, and she happened to hear Rachelle say she wanted to rep a book about Africa. That Twitter friend — who had by then become an email-and-phone friend — called me and asked, “Have you thought about querying Rachelle Gardner?”

Katy McKenna – For several years, while writing my first novel, I got to know many wonderful authors (and soon-to-be authors) through blogging. We’d exchange comments on each other’s sites and I happily hosted many author interviews on my blog. When one dear friend learned my novel was complete, she forwarded my proposal (without me asking) to Rachelle with a note of recommendation. That was on a Friday. Four days later, I had an agent.

Megan DiMaria – It’s important to participate in the publishing community and attend gatherings of writers, agents, and publishers. In July of 2009 the ICRS was in Denver, where I live. My publisher got me a pass to attend, but there was a problem at the front desk. Rachelle saw my dilemma and kindly escorted me to the publisher’s office. We struck up a conversation and decided to meet to discuss representation. Obviously, it worked out!

Catherine West – I first ‘met’ Rachelle in 2008. She was a blogging mom who loved books and dogs. She became one of my ‘blogging buddies’ and I enjoyed her posts. I then learned she was a freelance editor. I had a new story idea brewing, asked for her opinion, and when the manuscript was finished, she asked to read it. Around that time she became a literary agent, and a few months afterward, I became her client.

Michelle DeRusha – I connected with writers online, not simply to attract more blog readers but to create mutually beneficial online friendships. One author read my book proposal and then graciously offered to refer me to her agent, Rachelle, who emailed me within a day to request my manuscript. I hope to be able to pass on the favor to another new writer someday.

Martha Carr – I was working on a true story about a possessed house in Pittsburgh and a mutual writer friend, who was represented by Greg, introduced me to Rachelle. I sent her a sample of my work and in less than a day I got a return email asking if I wanted to talk about representation.

Krista Phillips – I’m very new to the Wordserve Group. I signed with Rachelle about a month ago! And really, it came down to the fruits of networking. When an editor was potentially interested in my book (from my networking)  I contacted two friends I’d networked with (clients of Rachelle’s) and one of them e-mailed Rachelle a referral. Spoke with Rachelle, who noted she was familiar with me because of my networking on Twitter, and she offered representation!

Beth Vogt – My first book about late-in-life motherhood partly resulted from my established relationships at MOPS International. I was not represented by an agent at that time. I’d connected with Beth Jusino, first as the editor of MomSense, and then as friends when she was an agent at Alive Communications. She gave me invaluable advice as I wrote my book. When Beth suggested I contact Rachelle, I knew I could trust her judgment and endorsement.

Joanne Kraft – Sharing my contract news with a writer-friend, she said, “Now you need an agent. And I know just the perfect fit for you…Rachelle Gardner!”

“Oh yeah? There’s just one problem, I don’t know Rachelle Gardner.”

“No, but I do.” She laughed.

Within minutes, three chapters of my manuscript launched into cyberspace. My girlfriend, who I’d originally met through blogging, became mine and Rachelle’s matchmaker.

Never underestimate the power of girlfriends, blogging, or networking!

Above all else, write well.

In the wise words of Camille Eide, you can do all these things we offer plus stand on your head and gargle, but if you aren’t writing well, following these tips won’t get you agented. So make sure to give attention where attention is due. Good writing must come first.

Do you have an agent? If so, what advice do you have for those who are looking? If not, where are you in the process? Please join in the conversation! Introduce yourself. We’d love to get to know you.