First Impressions

Contest season has begun!

There’s a love/hate relationship between contests and writers. Writers, even those who would never show their work to another living soul under normal circumstances, want the feedback from a reader. Does our story connect with them? Do they laugh at our jokes? Feel chills when the bad guy shows up? Cry when the hero and the heroine finally get their happily ever after?

We also want to make the finals because in today’s cut throat publishing world, getting in front of an editor or agent is crucial. It’s a jump to the top of the slush pile. A shot at partial request, a full request…publication or representation.

I’ve had the pleasure of judging lots of contests over the years. It’s a scary feeling though, knowing that some author has put their baby in your hands and asked for your opinion about their work and, in truth, their talent. It’s what I was silently asking when I would send off my chapter. Am I good enough? Should I keep this up?

Yes!!! The answer is always yes. You’re good enough, no matter where you are in your journey to publication. You know why? Because you’re out there, doing it. Putting words on paper. Putting ideas on napkins and sticky notes or in a secret file on your computer.

Here are my take aways for getting the most bang for your contest-entry buck.

  1. Pick a contest that has an editor or agent that you would want to work with. It’s the house or line that you are targeting with your manuscript, or an agent that represents your genre or authors similar to your voice. This can take research. Your best source of information is your local RWA chapter or the national website. Watch sites like Savvy Authors or local conferences for workshops and events with editor and agents and sign up. This is tough business. Be prepared.
  2. Edit. Edit. Edit. I’m not going to tell you that a single typo or misplaced comma is going to ruin your chances at winning a contest. That’s ridiculous. However if you’re storey is litered with,, with mistakes it will leeve an impresion. (See?) If you’re not confident in your proofreading skills, ask a fellow writer or a critique partner to give your story a once-over.
  3. Read the contest rules carefully. If they ask for 15 double-spaced pages, don’t send 20 single-spaced. Use a standard 12 point font – either Times New Roman or Courier New are considered the norm.Contest coordinators are busy but they aren’t generally ogres. They recognize that computers and word processing programs can format things differently, so they’ll help you out if something is missing or arrives as an unreadable file. But help them out and comply with the rules. Sending your entry in early never hurts either.
  4. Start in the middle of the action whenever possible. I know you’ve spent lots of time researching and creating your world. You know about the cobblestone walkway or the location of every pothole on Main Street. And you especially know what your character looks like, every hair, dimple and quirk. But remember: there’s plenty of time to put all of that in LATER. You have a very brief window of opportunity to impress. Start at the moment the life of your character changes for the better or worse. This will capture your reader and it lays out the main premise of your book for the judge…and the editor/agent reading when you make the finals!

And if you’re lucky enough to be asked to judge a contest, authors, remember that you have someone’s hopes and dreams in your hands. Be constructive. Be honest. Be kind.


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