Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Literary Agent Chip MacGregor on Contests

Today, seasoned publishing professional and literary agent Chip MacGregor joins us to offer his thoughts on contests.

CHIP MACGREGOR is once again hanging around and bothering people. He made his living as a writer for years, then became an editor (serving as Senior Editor for two different CBA houses), before moving on to becoming a longtime literary agent with Alive Communications. He then spent two years as a publisher at Time-Warner...making us all wonder why he can't hold a job. An Oregon native, these days he's keeping busy working as an agent, running MacGregor Literary, and going on endlessly about his Scottish ancestry. If you see him in a kilt, you may want to shield your eyes.

Chip's Blog.
MacGregor Literary Web site.

I've made my living in publishing for about thirty years now, which means that sometimes I get asked to be a contest judge for a writers' conference or contest. I don't generally enjoy it -- not because I don't like participating, but because far too many newer writers have a bit too much confidence in their own work. While I love teaching younger writers to help them improve, I hate having to explain why I ranked one author a "ten" and another author a "two." In my view, it should be obvious.

Things like voice and theme and clarity and focus stand out in some writers' works. Their use of words and clarity in point-of-view are crisp and interesting. The characterization is strong, the story holds my interest, and the overall style makes the piece something I want to read. But that's what a contest judge does -- make evaluations of writing, in order to determine which pieces are strong and which are not. I'd encourage you to view a contest as a learning opportunity, rather than simply a competition that is won or lost.

So, in case you're one of those people who may get discouraged over not winning every trophy in sight, let me offer some thoughts...

1. If you only want to hear good things said about you, buy a round of drinks.

2. If you only want to hear good things said about your writing, show it to your mom.

3. If hearing something critical about your work will crush you, consider a career change. (Okay...maybe that sounds too harsh. But to be a writer is to be a learner -- all of us are seeking to improve, and that means all of us have to hear another criticize our work. There's no getting around it -- criticism is an essential part of the writing process. Accept that now.)

4. Judging writing is a criticism business. Judgment is endemic to the work. Get rid of the nice voice in your head telling you that anyone being critical is not representing Jesus very well. A judge who says he or she doesn't like your work isn't saying they don't like YOU -- learn to separate yourself from your work, in order to hear and accept good advice.

5. No two judges are alike. Allow for style differences. One might be too sweet, another too acerbic. While I can't see myself ever writing demeaning comments on a manuscript, I'm also not going to be pouring out undue praise for what generally amounts to beginning writing. Every judge I've spoken with at ACFW, for example, took their task seriously and offered their honest opinion.

6. If by entering a writing contest you're hoping for a major critique of your work, you may be disappointed. Generally speaking, if you need a major editorial critique, you need to consider hiring an editor or critique service to provide it. As a judge, I'm given a stack of entries and asked to read and evaluate them against each other in order to find the best of the bunch. It's a competition. I pick the best and note my reasons for doing so. I try to offer things to help a writer, but my primary task is not to serve as your editor. My primary task is to find the best writing in the contest.

7. And a last thought: Sometimes I'll see something really awful. If your scene is bad, your dialogue amateurish, or your emotional moment is a clunker, you need to know that. Pointing out flaws will generally help you improve more than praising your fine points. Iron sharpening iron, and all that.

Contests are great learning experiences if you allow them to be. Don't focus on "winning" -- focus on "learning."

Chip MacGregor
Literary Agent


  1. All true. You shouldn't be so confident that you can't acknowledge the ways you need to improve, nor so thin-skinned that you decide never to write again because of harsh criticism.

    Appreciate the helpful comments and slough off the extremely low scores. (Yeah, I've gotten a couple.)

  2. Hi, Chip. Welcome to Seekerville.

    One of the most helpful contest critiques I ever had was from Tracie Peterson...for China Doll. I placed third in a contest and was fortunate to have her for my finalist judge. Because this was for the Noble Theme contest for ACFW I got to actually talk face to face with her about the manuscript.
    Her advice was so crystal clear. Not unkind but neither was she wasting her valuable time on empty praise. Her criticism of the entry was concise, in depth and so, so helpful.
    She'd make a comment and I'd catch myself wanting to EXPLAIN what I was trying to do with this paragraph or scene, but I stopped myself and just listened.
    The whole point was that she was neutral. An experienced judge of writing. If she had questions then I needed to fix the manuscript. I wasn't going to be able to sit down with each and every READER and explain what I meant by some sentence. It had to make sense without the author being on hand.

    Remember that when you get critiques. Maybe yes, the judge misunderstood what you wrote, but that isn't the judge's fault it's YOUR fault. Take that criticism for what it is, a golden opportunity for you.

    She had also just done a series in historical Montana where China Doll was set so she had great, special knowledge of the time and place that really helped me.

    If you're lucky enough to get someone like Chip or Tracie or a truly experienced judge of salable fiction, take their words very, very seriously.

  3. reading this blog as a reader and NOT a writer makes me realizes how much readers don't realize all the hard work writers put into writing.
    for the contest this week: hsmuda[at]gmail[dot]com thanks!

  4. Thanks for the great info. I got to list to Chip talk at a conference and he's so funny and so truthful. You know he's the kind of person who'll tell things like they are.
    With the few contests I have under my belt, I think his points are right on and important to remember.
    Thanks Chip! And thanks Seekers!

  5. Chip doesn't mind if we occasionally whine on his blog (just not too much). So, if after reading your contest feedback, you need an outlet...

    Sometimes we writers (especially the overly confident new ones) need reminding. Thanks.

  6. Mary, this guy sounds like he is related to you. Is he? But he is Scottish and you are not so I guess he lucked out.

    Aside from the standup comedy this was an awesome post.

    Things no one wants to hear and needs to.

    And actually someone said to me that instead of wasting my money on contests why don't I hire an editor. I did. Caroline Tolley former Senior Editor of Pocket. Well worth the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I ate the next six months. I didn't contest at all that year either.

    What she taught me not only improved my msc but every msc after that and she began a domino of requests for me including one that garnered my agent.

    I haven't sold yet but those baby steps became leaps and bounds.

    I admit I still like to contest. I don't have time for a critique group and contests provide the cold read I need.

    But cold reads are only valuable if you accept the critique not take your toys and go home.

    Thanks for the insight, Chip.

  7. Thanks for visiting Seekerville, Chip! Great advice here!

    Mary, I like what you said about when judges just don't get something about the story or characters and you feel compelled to explain. That's an important point. If ANY reader of your ms. raises questions and you find yourself trying to explain, that should be a red flag.

    True, some readers are, um, not quite as sharp as others, or they read too fast and just missed it. But it's worth a second look to see if you can edit to avoid those questions next time.

  8. The judges I've paid attention to in any of the contests I've entered is always the one who gave me the worst score. There is usually a good reason and I've heeded the advice. And I've grown.

    Now I'm even judging some contests and I apply the same tough-love principles my crit partners (and judges) have applied to me. I pray the recipients will grow from my comments. Like Chip said, we take the tast seriously.

    Thanks, Chip, for posting. And if you want to compare ancestors, I'll put my Scottish Great-grandmother up against your any day. ;) We could hane an "r" rolling contest. LOL

  9. My ONE HUNDRED PERCENT Scottish grandfather would be dismayed that my Scottishness doesn't show. (Althought I am a cheapskate)
    Grandpa's parents came, already married, from Scotland and my grandfather was one of ten children born to them in this country.


    That doesn't sound very Scottish does it?

    But I've got other ancestors that go back to 1638 in this country to, so I'm...diluted.

    Still, if you haven't seen Chip in his kilt, well, you're the poorer for it, trust me.

  10. Welcome aboard, Chipster. Good to have you here in Seekerville. Hope someone offered you coffee and a Danish.

    You made some great points. Contestants shouldn't expect final round judges to critique their work unless they either:

    1. Want to for their own personal reasons OR

    2. Are required to by the contest rules. (rare)

    I've had final editors offer advice. It's a gift, nothing to be trifled with, like insider trading on Wall Street, only legal.

    And Mary, what a great story about Tracie, more so because (quoting you)You Listened!!!!!

    Writers are such defensive talkers that we forget to shut up and listen, and that's a huge step forward for the opinionated among us.

    Chip, thanks for climbing aboard. We appreciate your expertise and experience.


  11. This is an awesome article that all beginning contest entrants should read in preparation for the returned entries.

    Last year was my first time entering a writer's contest and although I went in it for the "learning" aspect, until you actually receive those comments at least once, it's hard to really prepare yourself for them. This article helps you to put it all in perspective ahead of time.

    Yes, do look at contests as a LEARNING experience, they're a real eye opener for us beginners.

  12. Anonymous, you hit it on the head.

    After the first contest entry returns, when you realize that you're not quite yet God's gift to the publishing world, you start to develop a backbone that puts you right back in your chair, pounding away. A little smarter, a little savvier.

    And step-by-step better.

    Thanks for stopping by today.


  13. Chip, I've got a question for you before I head off to work.

    At Alive you had to have a consensus to take on new clients, right?

    Now, on your own, you make the choice independently I assume.

    What are the pros and cons of each method?

    Which do you find pays off best?


  14. Hi Chip, and welcome to Seekerville! Glad Ruthy, the consummate hostess with all the coffee and danish, has greeted you already : )

    Good, good points about judging entries. I've run the gambit of helpful/hurtful assessments of my work, and I'm not above saying I've shed a few tears. But, it's from the critiques that have been hard and prickly that I've learned the most -- after I've removed the barbs.

    I gotta say, Chip, having been the recipient of your opinion on my work a time or two, you offer a few tidbits of wisdom -- okay, more than a few, and more than just tidbits. What I appreciate the most in your observations, and those of most seasoned agents and editors, is the generality of the comments. Thank you for saying you'd like to see more depth of character or simplicity of plot. Thank you for offering INSIGHT rather than your SOLUTION.

    It's such a fine line, judging an entry for it's merits or your own. The judges who have been around the block a time or two know how to offer opportunities to learn, rather than win.

    Thanks, Chip!

  15. Ah, and isn't Chip so correct about contests.

    They look good on a one sheet or listed as platform in a query...but they don't guarantee publication. The publishing fairy must sprinkle her dust upon you (after being instructed by God that now's the time, of course).

    Until that moment...His moment, contests do offer fresh eyes on your work and, as Chip says, a good learning opportunity. A final or a win is icing on the cake, but the crux of contests is that it's all subjective.

    Thanks, Chip for sharing today and thanks Seekers for letting him. He does tell IT straight and that's what we all need to hear.

  16. Hi Chip! Great having you on the Seekerville blog. I've enjoyed your workshops at ACFW.

    You wrote, "Criticism is an essential part of the writing process." That line needs to be framed and hung above my computer! Sage words from a pro! Thanks!

    All the best!

  17. I remember my first real critique and it was from Dr. Dennis E. Hensley on a break in the hall from his class at Taylor U. Ft. Wayne. He said, "I hate you." Really. I had even sold articles before that and worked for newspapers.

    When I laughed and asked, "Why do you hate me, Dr. Hensley?"(I was a little nervous, as he is a Vietnam War vet) he replied, "For what you did to me in that story."

    And I laughed again and asked him how I could fix it and get him to be happy with me.It was the best lesson I ever had.

    So, yeah, readers might actually hate you for what you write, but you may live to fight another round.

  18. Im with Hannah since coming here i have realized how hard it is to make it as a writer and how much you have to do to get published.
    It makes me appreciate you all that much more.

  19. You just got to love Chip. OH, and his advice too.

  20. Thanks for joining us in Seekerville, Chip! I really appreciate your advice on contests--though I wish I'd heard it years ago! LOL It might have saved me some heartache. (Yes, I'm with Audra in admitting I've shed some tears over the feedback.)But I've usually found that if I put it away for a little while, then go back and look at the feedback again, I can be more rational and learn from it.


  21. i entered genesis two years back. my reviews were good, but one judge said that there was no way my character could have made a cross pendant and necklace out of dorito bags. when i went to the acfw conference in dallas i searched and searched for that judge. I had the cross in my pocket. :)

  22. Chip, Thanks for your no holds barred post. I especially applaud "-- criticism is an essential part of the writing process."

    Without critism--my own, my cp's, my editor's (yes, criticism doesn't end with The Call)--I couldn't take my writing to the next level. When I think about it, most things worth doing in life could use a critical eye, at least upon occasion.


  23. I am going to paper my wall with this post and the wonderful comments. I am a new writer, so everything you say about them probably applies to me, but my first reaction was to say to myself, "I'm glad I am beyond that!" Which just proves that I need to listen more. I needed to hear these ugly truths. Better yet, I am now prepared to hear and learn from any feedback I am fortunate enough to receive from my contest submissions. Thank you, Chip.

  24. His biography made me laugh!

    Once again, I will have to keep those tips in mind.

  25. Chip, I love the bluntness! And you are so right in saying that the feedback from contests varies greatly in its value. Sometimes, I get a comment and I'm like "Wow, thanks. That is so helpful." And othertimes, not. I think we just have to weed through it and learn what we can...Thanks for the tips!

  26. I really enjoyed what you said on 'contests'! I entered two manuscripts in last years Genesis contest and I was absolutely thrilled with the feedback I received! No, all of it was not positive, but I needed to hear that too and I generally agreed with the judges. For me, entering that contest was nothing but good and a fantastic learning experience on my road to being published.

    I also wanted to say that I SO appreciated those judges giving their time to read those pages of my manuscripts!

    Thank you, Chip, for the great advice!

  27. I so appreciate reading those words of wisdom. Cultivating a spirit of teachability is not usually on the list of qualities a writer needs to develop but it is so important. Thanks for the reminder and the one to listen, too. Both are invaluable.

  28. Wow, that was amazingly honest...brutally honest. Good stuff to know if I ever get to that spot. I have a hard time separating myself from anything and tend to take everything personal! :o) Can someone lend me their stiff upper lip if I ever go to a judging contest?


  29. Hi All - Thanks for taking that so well! I applaud your maturity, since I said something similar on another site and had people complaining because they felt I "didn't understand the way contests should be judged." Um... Well, they had you a stack, you pick the winner. Seems fairly straightforward to me. Ah, well.

    Something Mary said is important: If a judge gives you a low score in a contest, it does NOT mean the judge doesn't like you. It means he or she thinks you need to work on your writing. (I try to judge everything blind, so I don't know who wrote it anyway.)

    More in a moment... -chip

  30. And Ruth asked, "At Alive you had to have a consensus to take on new clients, right?" YES. (My answers will be in ALL CAPS.)

    "Now, on your own, you make the choice independently I assume." CORRECT.



    ps: If you haven't ever visited, stop by my writing website at www.chipmacgregor.com!

  31. I agree with Mary about the judge giving the lowest score usually being the one worth listening to - at least, mostly I agree! The lower scores I've recieved recently (for my 4th work of art!) were accompanied by insightful comments that really helped and even answered questions I had myself about the ms. The last contest I entered, I got a glowing score from one judge - in numbers only. Her comments were either negative (like I needed to rewrite most of the story) or showed that she (or he) hadn't really read the entry. Now, not reading the entry could be my fault...maybe it was just so bad she couldn't finish it. But if so, why the high score?

    So, if you are a judge be sure you are not only honest in any comments and advice you give, but be certain the number score you give reflects those comments. And if you are a contest entrant - don't wait till your 4th book to get a clue & listen to those judges!

  32. And just so everyone "gets" it....the feedback on your writing doesn't quit after you get "THE CALL"....you have to make it through editoral rounds with editors and THEN when it's on the market, authors hold their breath as reviewers write reviews, readers email you with their thoughts, and gasp, if you're brave enough, you enter in a published contest and get some really interesting comments. It never ends...it's a cycle! :)

  33. Robin, Thanks for sharing that. As I go through my crit groups comments time and again I've often wondered if once published, an author would get to the point of receiving clean critiques/edits. I suspucted not, but sometimes published authors' comments come across as though they're experts and you start to wonder if they really know it all and do get those clean ones--void of any suggestions or fixes required. For me, the cycle never ends, edit, re-edit, edit, re-edit,... Is it only because of deadlines that professional editors stop asking for fixes? Just curious. Or are their perfect ms's out there?

  34. Perfect ms...

    FWIW...I've never heard of an author who didn't have to do some type of correction or edit or revision on a book, either prior to selling or afterward....I think until that baby is safely tucked on a store shelf...it's open to slaughter. LOL!

    Cheryl Wyatt