Contest Wisdom Interviews: Amy Atwell

amyHi everyone,


Today I am thrilled to host writer Amy Atwell, Golden Heart finalist and founder of the WritingGIAM communities, Writing Goal In A Month. She writes single title contemporary, historical and romantic suspense.


Amy, can you tell me which of your manuscripts finaled in various contests?


PUBLIC RELATIONS:  Golden Heart 2008, The Maggies 2008, The Beacon 2007, Golden Gateway 2006, Fire & Ice 2004, Barclay Sterling 2004, Heart of the Rockies 2004


PAINTED BLIND: Winter Rose 2008, CONNections 2008, Great Expectations 2006, Four Seasons 2006, Barclay Sterling 2006


LYING EYES:  The Maggies 2008, The Daphne 2008, The Sheila 2008, Winter Rose 2008, Great Expectations 2008, The Beacon 2007


Wow, those are really impressing contests to final in, with the Golden Heart of course. And I you’re your titles. How long have you been writing and how long have you been doing writing contests?


I’ve been writing seriously off and on since 2000.  I entered my first contest in 2000, and I placed second!  I was sure I would be published by the end of the year–NOT.  Since then, I’ve entered many contests over the years, and had sporadic success until 2008 when everything started to come together.


What do you consider your most prestigious contests and why?


I’m most pleased with having made the final round in RWA’s Golden Heart® contest. Since that’s the largest national contest for unpublished romance manuscripts, and you have to make it past a panel of five first round judges, it’s a major celebration when you get the finalist phone call.  I worked very hard for years on entries for the Golden Heart.  It was the fourth time I’d entered Public Relations, the manuscript that finaled in 2008.


Four time, really? So it is really worthwhile to keep working at improving a manuscript. How do you choose to enter a specific contest?


I’ve become very selective over the years.  Before entering a contest, I research and weigh the following criteria:


Final judge for the category I’m entering–is it someone I’d like to set my work before? 


Length of entry–I prefer to enter contests with a 30-50 pg entry, though I will enter as few as 15 pgs.  I’m not against including a synopsis, though I prefer when the synopsis is unjudged.


First round judging methodology–I prefer contests with at least 3 first round judges.  Contests that offer discrepancy judging or drop the lowest score are also of interest.  If there’s a score sheet posted, I definitely take a look at that.



Thanks for these tips. Especially for beginners, it is hard to know where to start. What do you think are the advantages of entering contest?


There are so many things one can gain from entering contests, but I think it’s important to have a specific goal when entering.  You can enter to receive feedback from the first round judges, you can enter with an eye toward getting your work before an editor or agent, you can enter to gain the experience of preparing your work for submission, sending it off, forgetting about it, and dealing with the potential rejection. 


Between you and me, I used contests as a form of therapy starting in the fall of 2007.  I lost my mother in 2005, and by 2006, I’d stopped writing completely.  By summer of 2007, I wanted to get back into it, but I didn’t know where to begin.  I knew I’d been gravely disappointing by not being a Golden Heart® finalist in 2006, so in the spirit of getting back on the horse, I entered two manuscripts in the 2008 GH contest.  Ironically, the exact same two manuscripts I’d entered in 2006.  Verbatim.  I didn’t even completely proofread them, I just reprinted the files.  But then, once I sent those entries off, I panicked.  What if I didn’t final again?  Would I hit that same level of disappointment?  Would it derail me–or had I just been suffering from grief?  I decided I needed a safety net, so I entered some more contests, and more contests, and more contests.  Between Oct. 2007 and May 2008, I sent off 19 contest entries–and 14 of those finaled or won an additional award within the contest.  I’d never before entered so many contests with different manuscripts in such a short time span, and this feedback on my work helped get me back to writing full time again.  This year, I finished my first full manuscript since 2005, revised an early manuscript for submission, and signed with a literary agency.  Yes, entering contests can have advantages.


 Yes, and obviously this is a very inspiring story. How do you cope with negative feedback or really low score if any?


If any?  Are you kidding?  Trust me, if you enter contests, at some point you will get some negative feedback and/or a really low score.  Now, repeat after me:  READING IS SUBJECTIVE.  This may be the most valuable lesson you can learn from contests.  These anonymous judges are giving you honest feedback on how they view your work.  Yes, the negative feedback and low scores can be painful, but if you intend to make writing your profession, then you have to accept that not all readers will love, admire, appreciate or even comprehend your writing.  Don’t let a random low score make you tear your work apart looking for flaws.  Don’t let one judge’s comments that she hated your heroine make you toss the manuscript in a drawer.  Review the negatives. Set them aside for a few days.  Review them again. Often, there will be some glimmers of truth–as little as you want to acknowledge them.  None of our writing is perfect.


If you get consistently low scores, it’s time to seek out a critique group or even build your own.  Often we need another set of eyes to help us find the flaws in our own work. Oddly enough, when I started judging contests, I started recognizing flaws in other manuscripts.  Why did I recognize them? Because the same flaws were in my work.  Judging taught me a ton about writing.


Now that is interesting. I know critiquing has helped my writing a lot, but I haven’t judged yet. As a judge, what are you looking for in an entry?


I’ve judged a lot of chapter contests over the years, and my first duty is to the score sheet.  I always review it closely before I begin reading any of the entries. I answer each question on those score sheets to the best of my ability.


But let’s be honest–reading, even while judging, is an emotional experience.  Anything that interferes with the reading or my emotional response is going to make me wonder how the writing may be flawed.  Writing is a form of communication, and romance writing is all about evoking emotions.  So, I look for a story and characters that draw me in, for prose that’s natural to its sub-genre, for clarity of thoughts, ideas, goals and motivations.  I look for a story that makes me ask questions yet leaves me content to find the answers further along.


Interesting. I guess the writing of a story should be smooth enough so we focus on the emotions, not the writing itself. What sort of steps do you take to polish the format and presentation of your entry?


I’m a slave to the entry guidelines.  For every entry, I create a new computer Word file.  This allows me to mess around with fonts, margins, headers, and squeezing in an extra line or whatever without affecting my master document for that manuscript.  I generally know if my entry will fit the page count easily.  In fact, I now type my wips at 25 lines per page because it makes it easier to calculate page count for contests. But some contests will allow Times New Roman, and some don’t specify number of lines (in the GH, I’ve been known to squeeze in up to 27 lines per page–all while meeting their entry criteria!). 


I’ve been known to delete a paragraph here and there, in order to squeeze in a better hook on the final page.  All of this is, of course, time consuming.  Even after all these years, I know that once I choose a contest, it will take me 2 hours or more to format and print or email the entry.


Wow, two hours to format. That is such a great training for submission to agents and editors though, isn’t it? What are the downsides of entering contests in your opinion?


You have to weigh the costs, both monetary and emotional.  First off, at $25-$50 per entry plus postage, you have to decide whether the feedback is worth that price.  Then you must ask yourself whether you’re ready to accept feedback–good and bad–by a complete stranger who may be a published author or may never have finished a manuscript. Judges will vary greatly in both experience and their ability to give feedback in a constructive, diplomatic way.  I will say, despite the rough patches, the good of contests far outweighs the bad–but you have to be ready to face it like a professional.


Yes, I think the more feedback you receive the easier it gets and face it, it doesn’t end when you are published, I am sure. Do you have a specific contest format you prefer?


I generally enter “first chapter” contests.  Obviously, there’s a lot of those. I personally find it difficult to enjoy a story and characters if I pick up a random scene in the middle of the book, so I’ve avoided the “love scenes” or “final chapter” or other contests.  As for length, since I write single title length, I like entries that give me at least 25 pages, and I prefer 35-50 pages.


That is very good advice and one you actually gave me a while back when I first joined your Goal in a Month Group. I had never realized before that certain stories are better with a longer length. What contests do you consider the most prestigious for the unpublished romance writers?


First and foremost, RWA’s Golden Heart® contest is the one contest that will stand out on your cover letter to industry professionals. The American Title contest is another big name contest that will garner attention from agents.  While there are a number of chapter contests that have built a name for themselves, there’s not one I can name that I would use in the leading paragraph of a cover letter with a submission.  But when you final in something as big as American Title or the Golden Heart®, you’d be foolish not to lead with that information.


 In your experience, which contests were the most organized and well run?


I’ve had excellent experiences with Romance Through The Ages, The Molly, Fire & Ice, The Barclay Sterling, The Maggies, Great Expectations, CONNections, and the Winter Rose. 


When do you think it is a good idea to “retire” an entry?


Wow, now there’s a question…  I think it just becomes obvious that it’s time.  I entered Public Relations in contests for nearly 8 years before it became a Golden Heart® finalist, but then I tweaked that story endlessly–at last count, I have 8 drafts of it on my computer.  And it’s still not right, so I may be entering it again in 2009.  My most recent wip, I wrote the opening nearly 2 years ago, then wrote the rest of it in 5 months this year.  I entered it in many contests, and it was named a finalist nearly every time (it missed twice).  But now it’s been submitted to publishers, and I think the story is truly done, so I don’t see a need to enter it in any more contests.


So I supposed it all depends on the story and how you feel about it. What format do you prefer, electronic or mail, and why?


Electronic, hands down.  Faster, less expensive, easier for me to deal with the feedback and score sheets.  I know it can be hard on the judges (all that extra reading on the computer), so thanks to all of you out there!


What are the main writing points that you check to ensure your entry is the best?

I always polish my entry before sending it in.  Competition out there is fierce, so I only want my best work judged.  Long ago, I found a fabulous resource:  Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.  I often recommend this text when I judge contests.  It gives great lessons on cleaning up dialogue tags, cutting extraneous adverbs, tightening prose, showing vs telling, separating beats and POV.  It’s the best writing course I never took <g>.  My copy is dog-eared and beaten up, but I still refer to it from time to time.

Good advice, I do own that book. I think you must have judged one of my entry, because someone suggested I buy it!

Can you give us your overall opinion on writing contests?

Overall, I think writers can gain much from writing contests.  Are they perfect?  No.  You’ll have ups and downs as leadership changes–different coordinators, different judges, different communication styles, but for the most part, the people who are involved with running the contest have their hearts in the right place.  They’re writers who want to give back to the writing community by offering their services to review manuscripts by entrants. 

Yes, judging seems like hard work and it is not paid, so all the best for those who choose to do it. What is the best think that happened to you from entering contests?

Signing with my dream agent.  It was rather circuitous, but contests definitely played a part.  One of my critique partners is represented by a topnotch agent–the kind of agent I’ve always hesitated to query because I wasn’t convinced my work was “ready.”  When I was named a Golden Heart® finalist in March 2008, my critique partner told her agent about me, and the agent suggested I send in some samples of my work.  I freaked–I mean, here was the chance of a lifetime, and I still didn’t feel ready.  Except I had a lot of contest finals racking up and a critique partner totally behind me, so I sent some samples.  The agent was intrigued, and we shipped work back and forth for a couple months.  She prompted me to return to work on my first manuscript and do some major revisions I’d avoided for years.  Then she read my unfinished wip, and she loved that.  And when the wip won top honors and garnered an editor request in a contest in June, the agent asked if I were ready to commit to signing an agency agreement.  YES!

This is like a dream story!! What are the most important things that a writer new to contests should know before they enter?

Most contests compare your entry to a score sheet, and judges are given criteria for setting their scores. Not all manuscripts fare well in contests.  Many wonderful manuscripts get published without ever becoming a contest finalist.  Other manuscripts that final repeatedly in contests never sell to the industry.  Contests can be a path to publication, but they should never be your only path.  

Where on the web can people find you if they want to know more about your writing?



Facebook:  Amy Atwell (I’m the one in Jacksonville FL)

MySpace:  Amy Atwell


And let’s not forget your wonderful group, to which I belong, Goal in a Month. To all interested, the information can be found at Amy’s website.

Do you have any parting writing wisdom to share with new writers?

At the end of the day, it’s your story. Tell it with your words, in your way.  Feedback is great, but don’t bend yourself inside out trying to please every reader–you’ll never succeed.  You’re the one who faces this story day in and day out.  Please yourself.

I’ll remember that.

Thanks you so much for your visit Amy. It was great to have you. I wish you luck in your writing endeavor.

Thanks everyone to drop by. Once again, I encourage you to make one aspiring writer dream come true by voting in the American Title V contest. This is the last round with only two finalists left. The winner will get published by Dorchester. So your vote will really change the life of a writer.

Have a great week everyone and good luck with all your contest entries!


20 Responses to Contest Wisdom Interviews: Amy Atwell

  1. Great advice about contests, Amy! I entered more contests than I care to admit to between 2004 and 2007, and I finaled close to two dozen times, though I never did final in the GH. I’m in awe of anyone who has. 🙂

    And I wish I’d had you to talk to back then! Something that took me back was ‘when to retire an ms from contests’. One judge returned my entry back with a note on the front page: “Didn’t you enter this last year? Maybe it’s time to try a new manuscript.” I was so bummed when I read that…and a little angry. *G* It was only the second time I’d entered it in that contest, and I’d revised and cut the first page as per previous judges’ suggestions. On one hand she remembered it, on the other…not in such a good way, I guess…LOL


  2. Kelsey says:

    Amy –

    I didn’t realize you had entered your 2008 GH finalist in a prior year. What prompted you to enter it again? Were your initial GH scores high enough to persuage you to give it another shot?

    Happy Monday!


  3. Keli Gwyn says:

    Great interview. Loved your questions, Marie-Claude, and you’re info is spot on, Amy. Like you, I’ve learned a great deal through contests, both as an entrant and as a judge.


  4. Keli Gwyn says:

    Great interview. Loved your questions, Marie-Claude, and your info is spot on, Amy. Like you, I’ve learned a great deal through contests, both as an entrant and as a judge.


  5. Amy Atwell says:

    Thanks for the awe, Donna. I’m still rather in shock over that GH final! As for your judge commenting on seeing the same manuscript–chalk it up under that category of “what are the chances?” There are hundreds–probably a few thousand–RWA members who volunteer to judge various contests. What are the chances your work is going to wind up in front of the same person who judged it previously? That said, as a judge, I’ve encountered the same manuscript more than once. From my judging perspective, I’m always hoping to see new, different (and exciting!) work, so when I see an entry I judged within the past year, I sigh, and review this contest’s score sheet, and read the entry again with an open mind. Bottom line, don’t give up on your story because someone *else* tells you to give up.


  6. You stuff a lot of helpful info in that interview ladies. Well done!

    Amy is just an inspiration to those of us on the goals loop. She made such progress with her writing over the last 12-18 months.

    Enjoyed it the interview.


  7. Amy Atwell says:

    Kelsey–here’s the sad fact: I entered Public Relations in the GH not once, not twice, but FOUR times between 2004-2008. I scored in the lower half (well below the cut off for lower half) of scores in 2004. I revised, and made the top quarter scores in 2005 (actually, scored higher in 2005 than when I finaled in 2008!) In 2006, I scored on the cusp of lower half/second quarter scores. The flaw here was that I tried moving my entry to Mainstream from Single Title Romance. Not a good move on my part, and I have a much better understanding of the genres now. So, in 2008, based on my “reading is subjective!” mantra, I dusted off that .doc file and printed it again. And hit pay dirt.

    I’m a huge believer in setting goals, and here’s the irony: becoming a finalist in the Golden Heart was a long-term goal–a goal I acknowledged I couldn’t control, but one I wanted so badly, I threw myself into it each year. I’d gotten such a good score in 2005, I was *convinced* I’d final in 2006. When I didn’t, I was crushed. CRUSHED. I barely wrote for 18 months after that. So when it came time to enter in the fall of 2007, I knew I had to face the demons, put the GH into perspective of being just another contest–an important one, but not something that was going to launch or end my writing career.


  8. Amy Atwell says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Keli. You’re so right–judging contests can often teach a strong lesson in how to review and edit our own manuscripts.


  9. Amy Atwell says:

    Cyndi–you’re so generous! I had to work hard this past year to catch up on all the time I’d lost with my writing. Of course, what am I working on now? Draft 9 of last year’s GH finalist manuscript! The biggest problem with a manuscript that’s been out there for 8 years is that it begins to look really dated. Ugh.


  10. Laurie T. says:

    Hi Amy and Marie-Claude!

    I’m so sorry to hear about the difficult time you went through back in 05 and 06. Thank you for sharing. It’s inspiring to hear your journey and the success you’ve had because of your tenacity and unwillingness to give up on yourself and your dreams in spite of all the dark days. ((hugs to you))

    Wow, four times? I never thought about entering the same piece another time. I entered the GH this year for the first time and am working hard on two other MSS to possibly enter in the next GH. Never had I thought I could use my same one…wow, that’s opening up a whole new world of possibilities. So thanks a lot, Amy…I’ll be $50 poorer come next November

    One other reason I like contests is because it’s a way for a new writer with zero credentials to build something of a writer’s resume. When an agent asked me for a bio, I was able to put in some of my contest finals/wins instead of saying ‘well, I’m a decent speller, I like to read, and I show horses.’

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who fiddles with her entries in a separate Word document depending on the requirements of a contest. I’ve been known to delete a chapter break and make it a scene break instead because I didn’t want to waste that precious white space. Hmmm, I hadn’t thought about deleting whole paragraphs…wait, I think I did do that once…you’re opening up tons of possibilities in my little brain, Amy!

    Thanks for all the great insight, Amy. And thank you, Marie-Claude, for a wonderful interview.


  11. Anne Barton says:

    Great interview, M-C and Amy! I love all the tips and inspiration you embedded in this. Thanks for sharing your story. 🙂


  12. Amy Atwell says:

    Laurie–thanks for the hugs. I know there are many writers who’ve experienced darker days than I did, and they are the true inspirations.

    I know many people who re-enter their GH manuscripts more than once. I even remember at least one writer who finaled in the GH one year but didn’t win. The next year, she finaled again with the same manuscript–which she went on to sell.

    I’ve got two entries in the GH (finalists will be announced on March 25th!) right now–first time entries for both of them. One of my new goals is to challenge myself to write at least one new manuscript every year so I always have something new to enter in that contest. Or until I sell…


  13. Amy Atwell says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Anne!


  14. Sandy says:


    I’m one of the ones who didn’t do well with contests. The reason why is because I tried to implement every single thing a judge told me even if they were contradictory. Smile. I did learn a lot from some of the best judges–the ones who took the time to explain their comments and give examples to correct my errors.


  15. Hey, Amy, great interview and information! Being on a budget, I was always very selective of contests. Also, low scores could be very bad for my writing morale, so I didn’t enter much out of self-preservation. Not to say I did bad, I actually did fairly well in the few that I chose, but that one bad score or comment could throw me off for days. Recognizing that, I didn’t put myself in that position very often. 🙂 Best of luck in the GH this year, but really, I’d rather congratulate you on a sale before then. 🙂


  16. jbrayweber says:

    Hi Amy –
    Chiming in late to say what a fabulous interveiw you gave us. Lot’s of great wisdom and advice.

    I’ve heard many times that Self Editing for Fiction Writers is a must-have. I’m going to get me a copy.

    Also – you’ve given me inspiration to NOT put aside my first manscript, which I totally believe in, and continue to make a push for it.

    NIce job, M-C!



  17. What a wonderful story, Amy!

    Yup, your interview read exactly like a delicious tale of one woman’s achievement. *grin*


    You’ve really got me rethinking contests now!

    Chiron O’Keefe


  18. Thanks M-C for having Amy—well, really for having this contest wisdom interview series. It’s a wonderful resource.

    Thank you Amy. Sorry I missed out on your day here. I appreciate the hard earned experience you shared on your post and in your answers to commenters.



  19. gagoamery says:

    Outstanding page! I will definitely visit soon..


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