About five years ago, a fellow writer approached me, book in hand. "Read this," she said as she thrust it at me, her voice gruff, her demeanor no nonsense. "I hung onto it for you. You're gonna love it."
The book was Falling Home by Karen White, and the writer was right. I loved, loved, loved it. Karen's flair for lengthy story-telling was delightfully showcased in a book that had me falling in love with the characters, and then the author. I then discovered that Karen had entered the Barclay Sterling as a non-published author two years before, and the gals at LCRW were thrilled for her success, like a new mother watchin' the tottering footsteps of her first child.
Since then I've made sure that Karen's books garner space on my very particular bookshelves, and I'm blessed to have the honor to introduce her to you today. When you read her post, you'll have a clearer understanding of why we get along.
I hate waiting in line. I haven't always. In fact, I was raised in a big city and was sort of accustomed to having to wait in line for just about everything.
And then I grew up. Got married. Had kids. Started writing. Sold a few books. My life is a lot more complicated than it used to be, which means I have a lot less time (and patience) for waiting. My husband laughs because I'm the person who will drive three miles out of her way to avoid sitting in a line of traffic. Of course, he's not the one who's trying to get kids to opposite ends of town for various activities, make it home to put dinner in the oven, throw another load of laundry in the dryer AND meet a book deadline. He can laugh all he wants right after I shove this steering wheel down his throat.
But I digress. What does any of this have to do with the career of a published writer and contests? If you will bear with me, allow me to explain.
When I was younger (and stupider) I sat down one day at my computer and started to type my first novel. I didn't know anything about 'rules' or genres or even the names of any editors or publishing houses. I just wrote, thinking in my foolishly ignorant way that, 'if I write it, it will sell.' Oh, for cryin' out loud! Sure, that happens in the movies, but this is Real Life and it would take all the planets, the moon, the sun, and all the blades of grass in your lawn to be aligned correctly for that to happen.
Think about it. You write the book. Then you have to send it to an agent and/or an editor. That agent/editor probably gets about 500 of identically double-spaced-1-inch-margin-Times New Roman-fonted manuscripts per week. Since it's not an agented manuscript (well, duh, you're thinking--that sounds a bit Catch-22 and you're right--it is!) it gets shoved in the dreaded Slush Pile where they also throw all the submissions from the local prison and insane asylum. The odds of somebody actually rescuing your baby from that pile are somewhere between Michael Vick becoming a spokesperson for PETA and me winning the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Your manuscript is, essentially, in line, waiting to be noticed. Well, good luck with that.
“So”, you ask, your bright, shiny, nubile faces turned up to me like daisies in the sun, “What can we do to jump that line?”
“It's easy, Grasshopper,” I reply. “You go to conferences and meet with agents and/or editors so that you can put that stamp on your envelope that says REQUESTED MATERIAL that bumps your submission to the top of the pile on the editor's desk and is the equivalent of PASS GO AND COLLECT $200. But conferences can be expensive, plus you have to wear pantyhose and heels. Which is why I recommend a second way to head to the top of the agent/editor's desk: CONTESTS!
Next time you're thumbing through the RWR, check out the contests section with a highlighter in your hand and highlight all the contests that are being judged by an agent or editor of a house you want to be writing for. For about $20, you have the potential of having a portion of your manuscript read by a bona fide editor or agent. Sure, this is usually the final round, but you're good enough to beat the competition to that point, right? And if you can't answer that in the affirmative, then you need to be at your computer trying again after you’ve read this.
I know you're thinking that this sort of thing only happens in the movies. But it really did happen. To me. I submitted that first manuscript to a contest (the Marlene). The first round judges were authors (which is what I was really after since I figured they'd know better than most if I should keep my day job--assuming I had one) and was really surprised to find out that it had finaled, and that it and two other finalist manuscripts were being read by a top New York agent (who also happened to have once been Nora Roberts' editor).
Lo and behold, that manuscript won and was sold and ended up being a double RITA finalist. Yes, miracles can and do happen. Sometimes.
I'd like to say that everyone lived happily ever after, but then I'd be lying. My career since the publication of my first book in 2000 has been fraught with ups and downs and more scar tissue than the back of Joan Rivers' head.
But I'm in a good place now and I can honestly say that I don't know if I'd be here right now if it hadn't been for my naïve self saying, “Let's enter a contest.”
Sure, you can ignore my advice and do it the old fashioned way. You might actually enjoy waiting in line (I'm sure people like that must exist--how else to explain Disney World?). Then, when I see you in the nursing home and you get back that first rejection from a manuscript you mailed way back in 2008, I can laugh at you. And then you can laugh at me when my dentures fall out.