Monday, February 25, 2008

First Chapter Statistic

Once I jokingly said to a friend who has finalled in the Golden Heart, like, 10 times and won 3 or 4 times, that I aspired to be her when I grew up. She replied, very sadly, that no, I did NOT want to be her. Yeah, put that way, I could see her point.

Over the last few months we’ve talked about getting up the nerve just to ENTER a contest, entering simply for feedback, then getting to the stage of entering because we’ve been consistently finalling and we’re pretty sure our current wip can make the cut and land in front of an editor.

All of that is well and good, but what’s the ultimate POINT of entering unpublished contests? I mean, past the point of getting our work in front of an editor or an agent? The point is to become ineligible to enter contests. Right? Right!

And, dear heart, we don’t get to that point by working and reworking chapter one of a manuscript to enter in contests. I know of more than one aspiring author who fell by the wayside because she could never stop tweaking that first chapter and entering it in the next contest to see if it would final. After two or three years of this, she lost her zeal for the story and couldn’t even remember where she was headed with it in the first place. It was a hodgepodge of contest feedback and she completely gave up writing.

Hey, I’ve had my share of doing the same thing, so I know what I’m talking about! But I finally got past that and actually finished a manuscript, then another, and another. So, that’s the first step to kissing unpublished contests good-bye forever. (Hope I’m not driving AWAY our readership… .Well, when we’re all published, we can always talk about contests for published authors, can’t we?)

So, don’t be a first chapter statistic: Finish the manuscript.

And you know what? If you’ve never actually finished a manuscript, you’ll be surprised at all the things that will happen during the course of writing the story that will change the opening scene, or make the goals and motivations of your characters that much clearer as you write the closing scenes. It can be a real eye-opener, even if you had a detailed synopsis to go by.

At some point you’ll know you need to “retire” your current award winning manuscript from the contest circuit. Only you can decide when to do this, but I would say that if it’s been in front of most of the editors and agents who are judging, and if it’s won the Golden Heart, then it’s probably time to retire it. If you spot an editor or agent who’s judging that has never seen the manuscript, by all means enter it in that particular contest, but don’t just keep sending the first same chapter to the same final round judges over and over and over. (Someone else mentioned this a week or so ago). After an editor has seen it in contests 2 or 3 times, that’s probably enough.

I imagine at that point they’re ready to see something else from you, so write something else. Write the first chapter and a clear synopsis of the sequel to your first book or something totally new and enter that in a contest and get back to FINISHING your first award winning manuscript (which is a moot point if it won the Golden Heart, isn’t it?).

So, the goal is to start your manuscript, enter a few contests, FINISH the manuscript, and start something new. All this time keep entering contests, making connections, submitting to agents and editors, and somewhere down the road, something will click, and you’ll move one more step up the publishing ladder.

Keep working, keep moving forward to the goal, and publishing will happen.

Just don’t be a first chapter statistic.


  1. What sage advice! I entered the first chapter(s) of a novel I was certain was going to win the Noble Theme contest a few years ago . . . only to not even make it to the second round! I was so sure, so confident in the story, that not finaling was a massive blow to me--even though I hadn't finaled in the previous three contests with different stories--all of which I'd completed after receiving contest feedback, then set aside and never did anything else with.

    But then that non-finalist manuscript became my Master's thesis. I not only finished it, but went through four--yes FOUR--revisions on it, completely rewriting/revising the opening chapters a total of five times! Not only had I needed to finish the manuscript to know what the opening chapters needed to be, but I needed to spend a lot more time making sure they fit with the rest of the story.

    That story not only came in 2nd place in the 2006 Genesis contest, but will be published by Barbour in 2009! So while I did enter it twice, in two vastly different incarnations, entering it into the contest wasn't my main focus--it was the litmus test to see if it was ready to be submitted to editors and agents.

    Now I'm happily ineligible to enter contests for unpublished authors!

  2. Very important post, Pam, for we contest junkies out there!!

    I cannot tell you how many books I have read that start off with a bang, only to fall off a cliff further into the story. Which tells me that what a lot of contest junkies are doing are revising the first chapter enough to final/win, but then not giving the same attention to the rest of the book.

    Kaye, I love your comment because it was your non-finalist ms. that got your attention enough to focus on the book as a whole and not just zero in on the first three chapters for a contest win. After all, our ultimate goal is not to win contests -- it is to get published.

    And I had to laugh at Kaye's comment that she "went through four--yes FOUR--revisions on it, completely rewriting/revising the opening chapters a total of five times!" Uh, I must be a tad more anal because I edited "A Passion Most Pure" AT LEAST 50 times before it finally sold to Revell (it was actually more like 60 times, but for exaggeration's sake, I will tone it down to 50).

    Congrats, Kaye, on your sale to Barbour ... and great job, Pam, on highlighting a very important subject for contest junkies.


  3. Amen.

    I do not want my eulogy comment to be she was a great contest entrant. I want my legacy to be she wrote some great books.

  4. Here's another statistic.
    Keeping in mind that I'm making up the EXACT numbers because I can't remember them, but it is SOMETHING THIS LOP SIDED.

    Of all the people who write books, only about 20% of them ever finish one whole manuscript. So this isn't a little 'clue' from Pam. This is a whole huge TRUTH.

    Are you a writer? Well, show me the book. Show me a finished book. The first chapter isn't going to do it for me and it isn't going to do it for an editor because editors know this statistic too and finishing a book is a different skill than starting one. Can you do it? Can you really tell a whole story? Can you hold the plot together and sustain the conflict and be true to characters for a book length?

    Finish that book.

    And Pamster, did you REALLY know someone who did that? Wrote one chapter, revised endlessly and finally quit. Cause frankly that sounds like an urban myth. A good one, like the one where the woman gave herself a caeserean, remember that one? But still, a myth.

  5. Kaye, I've revised certain first chapters so much that they were hardly recognizable as the originals.

    But you know what's so funny? When I first started writing (eons ago), I truly believed that the way it came to me must be the way it was supposed to be written down. I figured that REAL authors knew from the beginning how the story was supposed to go, and they started, wrote, finished, and mailed that sucker off.

    It was an eye-opener to realize I was wrong, but after I really delved into writing, re-writing, entering contests, and more importantly, JUDGING, I embraced the fact that it's OK to revise, but not to do it to the detriment of never finishing a manuscript.

  6. Oh, and Kaye, I'm SO happy you're ineligible to enter unpublished contests!

    You've been kicked off the island, but you can still come play with us in Seekerville!

  7. I think Julie has us all beat on revisions on that one.

    Julie, thinking back, do you think you would have revised the opening chapters that many times had you completed the ms. before you tried to revise the beginning?

    For all I know, you wrote Passion in 6 weeks and had the whole thing done before you even started revising, but inquiring minds want to know!

  8. I've been asked pretty much the same thing, Tina. "Do you want to be a contest junkie or a published author?"

    While we can't just answer, "I want to be published", because we all know it's not THAT easy, there are things we can do to tip the scales a little toward the GOAL.

    Everybody yell: FINISH THE BOOK, and the next one, and the next one...

    (Man, I hope Kel and Melissa don't read this. Shhh!!!)

  9. Tipping the scales in our favor is my exact point with that 80% don't finish stat. If you actually finish, you've just passed 80% of the other writers in the universe. That's a nice headstart.

  10. I'm with Tina on this, which I think is in full agreement with one and all.

    The contest is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

    Kaye, I second the applause that sends kudos for those who get bumped off the Island of The Unpubbed...

    Kind of like Night of the Living Dead but we're waaaaay scarier.

    Because we're real, LOL!

    And Pam, I'm reading between the lines here and knowing that there's a certain project that I'm supposed to be kicking your buns on, am I wrong?????

    A certain job to finish yourself???

    Get to it, girlfriend. God sent you illness to keep you strapped to your writing chair.

    I think you missed the point.


    Tyrannical Anonymous Friend

  11. Okay, right before I read Pam's post, I read an e-mail from RWAcontests that mentioned two upcoming contest deadlines, so I figured I'd check them out.

    Neither had an inspy category, yet I figured I could probably still enter my story in the historical category, yet include in the header that it's an inspy. But then I noticed the final round judges. No point in entering unless my goal is to stoke my ego with a final or crush it without a final.

    Okay, I had a point to this and it wasn't about final round judges or my ego.

    I'm a firm believer that contests are a useful tool toward publication, but they can be as addicting as chocolate and caffine. That's why I say if you haven't finished the manuscript you've entered in 3 or more contests, then you need to STOP entering it in contests until you've finished it.

    And while you're working on finishing that manuscipt, judge a couple of contests, even if it's not an insirational category.

  12. Kaye, I like the idea of using contests as the litmus test to see if your manuscript is ready to be submitted to editors. I entered my first contest with the idea that I need to learn as much from the experience as I can. My manuscript is finished, but not yet polished, and I can so relate to what Julie said about multiple editings. I don't think I have the stamina for 50 though! I think I'll put the goal of becomming ineligble for unpublished author contests on my list of reminders.

  13. Mary, I think the % who finish is even less than 20%. Anybody have the exact stats? Dollars to donuts Tina does! lol

  14. Mary, I do know someone who wrote a few chapters, revised per contest and critiques and just finally...stopped writing altogether.

    I wonder if it would be better if we didn't know about critique groups and contests until after we finish our first manuscript. I was happily scribbbling away on my monstrosity way back...okay, let's just say WAY back and leave it at that... until I put it up for crits. After 3 or 4 more experienced (some published) authors ripped it to shreds, I slowed down and never caught that momentum again.

    Now, they were RIGHT, except first drafts are SUPPOSED to be yucky, aren't they? Maybe they should have patted me on the head and told me to get it all out there on paper, and THEN they would give me pointers on fixing it.

    On the flip side, that might not work for some people: "You let me write 300 pages before you told me it was drivel?!?!? I quit!"

    You just never know when you're dealing with writers, do you?

  15. Pam, what an important point you make in your post! Finishing the book is paramount. I suspect that those who actually finish a manuscript are fewer than Mary's guess of 20%.

    I wrote my first manuscript without one speck of feedback. No RWA. No critique partner. The book was awful. Not that I knew that at the time. I joined RWA and entered contests that made that abundantly clear. But that first book proved I could finish so I think of it fondly. Maybe one day, I'll dig it out and see if it's salvageable.

    As to whether your cps should've let you finish before giving their two cents, I much prefer getting feedback as I go along. But whatever works is what we should do.

    Congrats, Kaye, on selling to Barbour!!

  16. I was so happy to read this post! I was beginning to think there was something wrong with me because I didn't spend so much time on the first couple of chapters. I've always finished my manuscripts, just got them down and then I go back. When I entered the Genesis Contest last year, I of course worked on those first few pages to polish them up a bit, but I sure didn't do any major changes. I thought I did pretty well for a first time contest and I learned SO MUCH!

    So, for me, I have to get that whole story out of my head and onto my screen, and yes, I'm always surprised along the way!

  17. PAM SAID:
    Julie, thinking back, do you think you would have revised the opening chapters that many times had you completed the ms. before you tried to revise the beginning?

    Uh, Pam, I didn't revise the opening that many times ... I revised the WHOLE bloomin' book that many times!! And, yes, I did have the book finished before I entered contests. And finished ... and finished ... and finished ...

  18. Great advice. While I've completed two novels, the third seems to be tending this way. The first I wrote blithely with little training beyond high school English, 2 or 3 books on writing, and a lifetime of reading. Now I have the weight of a thousand expert tips. My current WIP started out as contest submission - I hope it doesn't stay that way!

  19. Moooving right on past Ruthy's threatening post....

    Gina, same thing happened to me last week. The contest bug bit and I started thinking about entering a wip that I started on a lark in a genre that I'm not really interesting in targeting.

    Thankfully, I asked the Seekers for advice, and they (well, Camy) slapped me around and brought me back to earth, so I opted out of entering that particular category.

    And Ruthy? She wanted me to go for it, just to see me spend more bucks on yet another contest.

  20. Lorna - that's the idea of contests. Learn from them and keep your eye on the real prize!

    Janet - I imagine you whipped right through that first book without thinking a thing about rules and pov or any such thing. And I also imagine your storytelling ability was evident even though you didn't know all the "rules" that we get so bogged down in.

    Ah Morning knows a good thing! Morning, I hope you're planning to enter the Genesis again this year. It's a great contest.

    Katie, wouldn't it be great to have it both ways: the joy and freedom of writing without knowing the "tips", but then somehow just knowing them anyway? Okay, maybe it does come when we're so confident in our mastery of the craft that we don't even think about what we've learned over the years, we just write and the knowledge is just there in the background.

    Kinda like making biscuits. If you make them every morning for years, then you can tell by the feel of the dough when they're ready to roll out into the pan. If you make them once every few months, well, go buy the pre-packaged ones instead.

  21. "One more step up the ladder"- now that's a plan I can live with!

  22. you know i never realized how hard it is to write a whole book. with the statitics. I know alot aspire to write but didn't realize so many dont finsh a book (that would be me cos im the queen of starting and not finishing stuff just look at my craft drawers)
    Thanks again for the insight and once again please dont enter me this week.

  23. I finished both of my first two novels before entering them in contests. I wrote the second one in about four months, so why in the world is it taking me so long to write this third one? ARRRRRGGGGH! Maybe it's because I entered it in a contest before I had more than 50 pages ...?????? Hmmmmmmm

  24. Great post, Pam. And one we need to read when we're getting the urge to enter another contest just because it's available, or because it's one we enter every year, or because it's got a great piece of jewelry for the prize, or...


    You know, it's been tough not to enter any contests this past year. My book is an 2008 copyright, so I can't enter it til 2009. It's going to be a long, dry season.

    Missy :)

  25. Missy, I'll be your sponsor. Call me when you go into withdrawal and I'll talk you down. :)

  26. I read this at just the right time. Only minutes before opening this blog I was tweaking chapter 1 yet again. Thanks, you made me smile!

  27. Morning, I can relate to the way you write. I use my Alpha Smart for my first draft, then I start rewriting. That's when I join Julie and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. But I need those words on the page first. Probably doesn't matter what I type, just that I type something. Of course, before anything else, I have the story outlined so I know where I'm headed.

  28. Kaye, congrats on publication and thank goodness we have one less contestant. smile

    Yes, Mary, I have a couple of friends who have been writing those first chapters for years and have never finished the book. That would drive me crazy. I'm one who will finish even when I know there is so much to work on, but then I'm finished and I get tired of it and don't want to work on it anymore. Don't say anything Ruthy.

    Debby has a super idea that works for me. Write that first draft on Alpha Smart. Editing on that is next to impossible so you really get the right brain first draft finished. Then you can turn the left brain on and clean that manuscript up.

    Happy writing all of you

  29. Amen, Pam! How tempting it is for us to sit back on our laurels and enter the same mss in dozens of contests. Yes, girlfriend! Finish that manuscript and move on!! Show those editors whose desks you sweep with your amazing talent, that you are multi-talented and not just a one-hit-wonder.

    Thanks Pam for the reminder!!

  30. I hate that I missed this discussion (sick kids) but as an aspiring writer, I learned two valuable lessons last year: (1) I could finish a first draft and (2) finishing a first draft is different than finishing a manuscript.

    My encouragers in the writing world cheered me on and did the wave when I finished the first draft. Woo-hooo! I was on top of the world because I'd done something I'd only dreamed of before that.

    But then I was quickly overwhelmed. Because I realized what I had was a hodgepodge of stuff. Chapters with sections missing because I'd hit a wall and decided to go around it for the purpose of "finishing the book". Scenes with italicized or bolded reminders to do research, make a decision about character or plot, or some other such literary thumbtack. Prose that was flowery in places and abrupt in others. Decisions made in the middle or end that, if read from the beginning, would appear to have come from nowhere.

    Where was I to begin? I struggled for weeks, then shelved it because I couldn't wrap my mind around how to fix it, where to start.

    I learned I needed a lot more prework on the front end and to write a wee bit slower, learning and incorporating revision techniques.

    So I agree about that first chapter--that was a hurdle I had to get over--but just "finishing the book" can be a different kind of sinkhole.

  31. Lauren- Sometimes we feel like we’re clinging to the ladder in gale force winds, but you know what? When one of us gets tired and feels like letting go, the others hold on to us!

    Jenny – You think you’re the Queen of the Unfinished task? Ha!

    Melanie – Cheering you on!

    2008 copyright Missy: Double check that. I think some contests require you enter the year of the copyright!

    Christina – Glad to give you a smile! So…did you forge ahead instead of tweaking again. I remember an author getting feedback from a contest and worrying and worrying about how to incorporate that. I advised that she just keep writing the story, but keep the suggestions close by. As she dug deeper and deeper into the story, she would have a clearer picture of what she wanted to change…if anything!

    Patricia – I know where you’re coming from, and this can be a whole topic in and of itself. I did the same thing with a ms. And it was really hard to chop it up and fix it. Well, it’s still not fixed, but better. Plotting can go a long way to keeping this problem to a minimum but I learned a lesson. Writing scenes willy-nilly and out of order, can be a bugger to fix. And then there’s revision…lol

  32. It's encouraging to know that I'm in the 20% of writers who have finished a Ms.Thanks, Mary, for the stat on this. This time last year I was still struggling to finish the story I began 4 yrs. ago. I found myself revising the first 3 chapters over and over and occasionally submitting to contests. Today the first chapter bears little resemblance to the original one. Now, the story is finished including the book proposal. Although it hasn't been accepted by a house, my summary with sample query and chapters are posted at the Writer's Edge where publishers can view them. Thank you each and every one for all the sage advice.

  33. Wow this has been eye opening! Obviously I am the exceptionally naive one here because it never occurred to me that people would habitually enter contests without at least having at least most of the first draft completed!

    I think this was because I seem to be unfailingly optimistic and so the possibility of having an agent/editor actually like what they read, ask for more, and have to fess up that actually isn't anything more freaked me out!

    I do have to admit that I terrorised my sister by writing and rewriting and revising and rewriting my first five chapters until she begged me to either write Chapter Six or stop!

    Having (finally) finished the the first draft late last year (and now on revision 16 and counting!) I have just entered it into its first contest - Genesis. And I'm very glad that I have done it that way because the first five chapters of now are completely different to the first five chapters that I tormented my sister with two years ago :)

    I was freaking out about sending it out there and finding out that my baby was horribly ugly but now that I know that even if it gets scores in the basement I'm still in the 20% of writers who have actually completed the mission I'm feeling a bit better :)

  34. Pat - Welcome to the 20% club! You rock!

    Kara! Your first contest. Oh, I remember my first ones. I have the scoresheets somewhere, and that would have been in 1995 or 1996, thereabouts. (I'm a packrat!)

    I came nowhere close to finalling, I'm sure, but since I didn't have a clue what kind of scores it TOOK to final, it didn't matter. Off the top of my head, I remember one judge took the time to write, "Some well-turned phrases." and one or two other compliments.

    Ah, the bliss! She liked me! She liked me! lol

    Knowing (or at least hoping) how much I've improved my craft over the years, that judge was a saint! She took the time to write a couple of encouraging words on an entry that had to have had tons of problems, and I'll be forever grateful.

  35. I'm learning so much on this blog. Thanks to all who contribute here!

    I'm hanging on to small victories these days, and to know that I'm in that 20% is heartening. In fact, I'm almost finished with a first draft of a second MS, and I'm new to writing. I think that's bad, because it means that I'm plowing forward in ignorance, perhaps? But from all I've read, practice is good, right? So at the very least, I'm practicing for my first real novel.

    *sigh* As I said, small victories.

  36. You never know, Gwen. These first 2 manuscripts might be keepers even if you feel that you're new to writing. Keep up the good work!

  37. So glad I found this great blog. It’s so encouraging on the long road to publication! I had to start another project before I could begin to be objective about my first one.

  38. I loved your advice, Pam. Publication is the goal, and contests are the means to that end---to get noticed, to be affirmed and challenged and to encourage us beyond the awards banquet, win or lose.

    Annette M. Irby