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 Since that’s the largest national contest for unpublished romance manuscripts, and you have to make it past a panel of five first round judges, it’s a major celebration when you get the finalist phone call.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. http://www.amyatwell.com/index.php?pr=WritingGIAM_Loops
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!