Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Contests as Stepping Stones

Entering contests was an important step in developing my writing skills. In the eighties I took a sabbatical from my teaching job and was published with Harlequin and Warner. When I lost both editors, the new editors weren’t interested in my writing and my career came to a sudden stop. My husband convinced me to return to teaching and finish out that career. When I retired from teaching, I started writing again only to find out that the styles had changed dramatically. Also since I’d had a life changing experience and renewed my relationship with God, I wanted to change genres. I began writing, but wasn’t getting anywhere with the publishing houses. I decided to enter contests to get feedback and find out if the problem was the writing. Comments from judges were invaluable. They helped me see the areas I needed to revise. Then I started winning contests. This gave me confidence in my writing ability and craft and I began submitting again. Now the trick is to find the editor who is crazy about my writing style—but that is another topic.

So the question is, do the comments from judges help a writer improve their style? In my case they did, but mind you, I was careful to glean the comments and analyze them. I entered the same manuscript in several different contests so that I would get different judges. If an area was mentioned by more than one judge, I knew it was a problem area. If it was only mentioned once I took that comment and looked it over, but used my own judgment on whether to make any changes. If in doubt, I’d present the comment to my critique group. They could help me see if it was a legitimate critique or not.

So yes, if you’re trying to break in as an author, contests can be very helpful. Let me know how it has worked for you.


  1. Sandra, what sound advice! The whole idea of blanketing contests with the same manuscript is a golden opportunity to find flaws within your work.

    Or win multiple contests, LOL!

    Great idea.

    It's also beneficial because some contests are bigger than others. I figure it's way better to do well in a big pond than a small one, and utilizing different contests can do that for you.

    And also give you a 'regional feel'.


  2. Thanks Ruthy, Loved your comment about regional feel. Until I critiqued online with someone waving at me over the Rockies and across the prairies did I discover how much we put our regional influences into our writing. Hmmm, it must have been that special Ruthinator that taught me so much. :)

  3. Great post, Sandra, and I'm right there with you about the incredible value of contest feedback. Yes, sometimes the feedback is conflicting (i.e. one judge gave me a perfect score with a note that said "please, please, please let me know when this is published," and the other judge in the SAME contest sliced and diced me with a 50% score. Her biggest complaint? Too many subordinate characters and POVs. And the "good" judge's number one praise? You guessed it--the subordinate characters ... said she loved the "family" feel.

    So, like Sandra, I learned to "analyze" those conflicting comments, chew on them, pray about them, until I sensed God's direction. In this case, I kept those multiple POVs and frisky subordinate characters in (despite negative comments from several judges AND a Veg-o-matic editor) and lo and behold--those endearing subordinates were one of the main reasons Revell bought my books. We can argue all we want with a judge, but let's face it ... nobody can argue with success.

  4. Julie, words of wisdom. Sometimes contest judges are limited to or limited by the rules constraining a particular contest.

    And sometimes we're governed by the imagined 'rules' of romance everyone touts as written in stone.

    Your work, (and I use this example often) broke the rules and found a home. Wonderfully done.

    I love it when contest judges who aren't constrained by the contest's rules, open their consciousness to something different, something out of the norm. As long as the writing is good, the score should follow.


  5. Sandra, I think it's so odd and interesting that writing has changed so much over the years. I know the traditional romances used to be all in the heroine's POV and now they're back and forth between the hero and heroine.
    But what else has changed? Just... do they need more action? Less internal dialogue?
    I stumbled across an old ... oh Harelquin I think ... and it was in England. Remember when they were all in England?? That seems so odd now.
    Part of the 'take me away' approach I suppose.
    It was almost all her thoughts, precious little action. Of course completely chaste.
    Is that what you mean or is there more than that?
    What are the changes?

  6. Sandra!

    Be careful. This could be a trick. Mary is deviously asking your opinion on how things have changed to zero in on your age...

    She's a sneaky one.

    Give her a red herring, throw her off track or you'll Never Hear The End Of It...

    Trust me...



  7. Seriously, Ruthy. You should write a book. You're writing fiction with every word you speak and write anyway.
    And I don't want to know how old Sanda is. As long as we all remember I'm younger than YOU RUTHY, nothing else matters.

  8. Hi: Fellow writer here. Funny thing about writing and careers. Often it seems that the more you pursue the faster a writing career runs from you. There aren't that many who make a decent living writing.

    So like you, I write. And I write and write some more. I don't know what will happen with it. Who knows?

  9. I had never thought of that way of getting into writing. I've used my blogging sites and ministry website to satisfy my longing to write that one book that everyone just has to have. LOL!!

    Thank you for this information.

  10. What has changed in romance?

    The hero used to be totally Alpha and now he has morphed into Beta.

    Additionally, hero used to save the heroine, now she kicks butt and saves him. The theme I think has been likened to not needing a man in your life but wanting a man in your life.

    Interesting that my daughter, who is a senior in college, and I were discussing the writing of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott. (Yes that could have taken days). But one thing we both noted was the theme of the day. You must marry to be socially acceptable. However these writers made their heroines fulfill their growth arc and then they got the man, so as not to infer that they believe that that man = character growth.

    Quite interesting.

  11. We really need to create an edit button for comments.

    I meant..

    so as not to interfere with the the belief that getting a man = character growth.

  12. Hi Sandra,
    Loved what you had to say about picking and choosing which suggestions to accept and which to ignore. If more than one judge made a similar comment, you knew you needed to relook that area. That's a great rule of thumb. I always thought if I heard something twice, then I needed to pay attention. The same holds true with critique groups. Often folks will try to explain what they meant to their critique partners . . . but we don't get a chance to explain what we meant to our readers. Our writing has to stand alone. Thus, when a cp tells me they don't get a certain phrase, paragraph, scene, I fix it. Better to change it now than to have a reader stumble over it once the book's in print.

    BTW, Happy Halloween to all!
    Real Live Preacher and Jaz, nice to have you on the blog!

  13. Real life preacher is so right--we have no way to know what will happen with our writing. But entering contests gives us a goal to meet, judges' feedback, and if we final, a quick read by an editor or agent. That's us taking charge and making something happen. And that's huge.

  14. Sorry I got away from the blog. Family emergency. But what great questions. Mary- the biggest and most difficult change for me was the change from passive purple prose to a very sharp active fast paced tense. Readers today don't have time to dilly dally around with long prose about the scenery, their internal thoughts. They want action and they want it now. It was a challenge to make that leap The thing that helped me the most was to take up screenwriting. No superflous writing there. smile

  15. I know what you mean about action, Sandra.
    My goal is to make a book just explode right off the mark.
    I actually love writing action scenes but it's exhausting too, because I know I'm going to have to write it, then rewrite it, then rewrite it again, trying to keep that pace up, use action words, short sentences. It takes a lot of tweaking to make a scene move.
    I started a new book today and I'm trying to wrestle that first scene into motion and make the stakes sky high.
    That action is missing in older books I think.
    Purple prose sound lovely to me. I'd like to meander through a lovely garden in my book sometimes letting my heroine soak in the beauty of nature while musing on her beloved.
    Ah, the good old days.

  16. Real Live Preacher, Writing is so therapeutic and who knows how it will be used. Often, I've discovered that I've been used in many ways related to writing but not with my actual words. Or I've written something for fun and it had more impact than something I wrote for that purpose. That's the beauty of writing. Have fun and best wishes.

  17. Jaz, congrats on using a blog site. This is my first time and I tried the patience of my friends trying to learn how-smile. Its un though. Keep on plugging away little bits at a time and soon you'll have that novel.

  18. Tina, You're so right on about the changes of the male and female characters. They used to be standard alpha male and submissive female or at least one who loved being overpowered by that alpha male. Hmmm. I'm still liking that. Must be old-fashioned and no Mary I'm not going to tell you my age. yikes it scares me to death.

  19. Debby, Great advice about getting that scene right before it is in print Once its in book form there's not changing it unless there's reprints Yeah. That's always fun.

  20. Many of the HQ's I remember reading in the 80's (I was just a kid, btw) had the young English girl on holiday in France or Australia or somewhere. She was usually visiting a girlfriend and tended to fall in love with a slightly older uncle of the family.

    At least that's the version I remember most.

  21. Mary, You're a stitch. Yes it would be lovely to meander in that garden. I'm sure you'll manage that first page. Your heroine in Petticoat Ranch was action personified. Happy writing.

  22. Okay Pam, So you were a kid and I know I'm old aaaargh. Hey, but with that comes incredible wisdom don't you know. chuckle. oops my crit partner says I use chuckle too much.

  23. Hey, No one asked about the pup. That's Cody, our ten month old bundle of energy and MOUTH. He has chewed up more than I care to admit. He was learning to swim in this photo. I know, not writing related but he keeps me laughing.

  24. Great points, Sandra. We have to be ready to learn from judges and editors, to change with the times, too. This business changes all the time, and we have to go with the flow.

    Thanks for stopping by, Real life Preacher and Jaz!


  25. Luv the picture of Cody, Sandra. I have a pic of my chocolate lab, Ruby. I tweaked the picture a bit and added a Santa hat to her last Christmas. I’ll have to remember to use it for my post next time.

    I have to be very careful how I take comments from judges and critique partners. I used to try to change everything to suit everybody because I figured they knew better. Their suggestions weren’t necessarily right or wrong, but when one person says you have too much exposition and another tells you they love your description, it drives me crazy!

    (I specifically remember one contest where a judge marked through a whole section of exposition, saying to delete it or at least cut it down, and another bracketed the section and said, “Loved this. Great description! I could just picture the scene!” lol)

    No, I still don’t know when to change something and when to leave it alone, but I have learned to not let it completely paralyze me. If I can’t make a decision about how to handle it, I study their comments and moooove on. Just last week, another writer and I were IM’ing, and she mentioned that a judge she totally respected had not “gotten” a key element of her Prologue, something other critique partners and judges hadn’t seemed to have a problem with. While I didn’t know anything about her story, I asked her to give me a thumbnail picture of what the problem was. Like she said, it was a minor change that would shine light on the rest of the book….or she could leave it out and let an astute reader figure it out on his own in the first chapter….which was what SHE really wanted to do.

    My advice to her: Tuck the information away and keep writing. Either she’ll hear from others that this part of her story is confusing, she’ll come to that conclusion herself, OR she’ll decide she likes it just as it is.

    Don’t let contest comments bring your writing to a halt. This is the voice of experience speaking!