Five Contest Notes

I got my start on twitter with contests (Pitch…something in 2014) about 13 months ago. I can firmly say that contests are what got me to write constantly. The network of friends, the encouragement, the success…its a rush, it’s a high that people love and we all want to be apart of. And sometimes we rush. Some of us catch our rushing. Some of us don’t.

Hey, listen!
Below are 10 things I’ve noticed in contests. I like to think that maybe someone will bookmark this and before they enter their next contest, make sure they aren’t doing these things.

GENRE

This is the first mistake no one should make. A genre describes where your book fits in. GENRE is something like Adventure. Romance. ETC. Young Adult is not a genre. That’s a category, the age range it will appeal to. This is one of the first things besides title people see. Don’t mess it up. If you need help, ask someone or look it up.

As an aside to that, try to limit your genres to 2 at most. Some genres go together better than others.

  • Fantasy Thriller
  • Contemporary Romance
  • Sci-fi Comedy

Just because things go together well, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try new things.


WORD COUNT

Yes, your work is amazing. Yes, every word counts  you can edit it because that’s what we do. Word count is just as important as Genre. And yes, it sucks because, yes. Sometimes its super fickle and random. But try and stay within the norm. A quick google search gives you this post on word count. Use it as a guide, but leave it alone at your own risk. I’m not your mom.


 QUERY (formatting, stakes, etc)

Your query should be polished. It should be perfect with no errors. This might seem like a daunting task but it can be done. I personally recommend if you are entering a contest, to start polishing your query and such 2 weeks before the submission deadline. Work on it every other day, to give yourself an off day for your mind to unwind and give yourself fresh eyes to look at it again. Formatting isn’t hard. Instructions are always given in contests. Not following them is a sure way to get DQed. Even the best stories will be thrown away for not following directions.

Grouped into this category is the second note. Stakes. Over and over again we see people saying ‘Stakes aren’t high enough’ or ‘Stakes aren’t mentioned’. I know, I have this problem. Sometimes we want to be so artistic and don’t want to give everything away. That’s why Query letters can be hard.

For me, stakes of stories fall into two categories:

  • Slow Burn: Slow burn stories are stories where the stakes are not life changing, or if they are, they are subtle. Characters who meet and their lives shift because of their interaction, and the story revolves around them holding on to themselves, or changing; dealing with a shift in your life and learning how to cope, etc. These stakes are still important and sometimes the slowest of burns, are the most personal.  These might be more subtle, and more artistic and abstract, but you still need to make them known. These can be hard, fair warning. NOTE: Slow burn stories are not ALWAYS the best for contests. Sometimes the slow burn is diluted and not seen. This isn’t a bad thing. This means a) you should rethink your query or b) not every novel is “Snappy” enough for a contest.
  • Incendiary: These type of novels are commercial, super high stakes, and things that are high octane. You need to save your daughter before she is sold to slavery (Taken), the world is ending and only one kid can save it (Harry Potter), The sun is going out and a team has to turn it back on, etc. These make your pulse race, make you want to jump in a car, jump out a building, and save the world. These stakes are very obvious, which makes them easier to write but at the same time, they have their own crux; two of them actually. They can get repetitive (hint: a reason why SF and F are sometimes glossed over) and their stakes can be too generic; Character A must stop the world from ending or lose his loved ones.

The best stakes are a combination of both forms; ones that tug at your heart strings and hint towards shifts in character thoughts and feelings, but also make your heart race, any way possible. Querying takes practice and like your novel, it’s not going to be perfect the first time around. Use friends, family, and also contests to learn the ins and outs. No matter what; happy, sad, angry, excited, your query should make me feel the gif below, or hint towards I might feel the gif below when I read your work.
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DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Contests are fun. They are enjoyable and they help you build a network and get your work out there. I’ve personally had agents reject a work in a contest but taken note of my name and when I’ve submitted another work during a cold query, they mentioned “Remembering me”. I’ve had the reverse of cold querying, gotten a rejection, but “Feel free to send other work”, and had agents say they picked me because they remembered me. But there are times when NOT to enter a contest. Besides the normal ones, such things would be:

  • The manuscript has been in several contests (I would say 3+) and never gotten selected. Discard this rule if you’ve mad major revisions.
  • The majority of agents in the contest you aren’t interested in or have already submitted to.
  • You cannot commit to the time during the contest (RL commitments, work, vacations, etc).
  • You’re not feeling confident enough.

There is no harm in sitting out a contest. Take your time, polish your work and polish your ego/courage. People will say The only way to fail is to not enter. That’s half of it. The only way to fail is, yes, not entering, but also, not putting your best foot forward.


TRUST YOUR WORDS

As writers who have polished and polished and polished their work, we reach something that I call, Diminishing returns. We’ve polished it so many times, and then we enter a contest, ask for…10 eyes, and the last 2-3 start saying things and making suggestions that do not really improve, or reduce the quality. They are subjective choices. Sometimes, you’ve done all you can do (without having a deep, line by line edit). When you reach this point you have to trust your own story, trust you vision of it, and evaluate the advice given. 9 times out of 10 people, when you reach this level are giving good advice for how they see your story, not the story you want to write. There is nothing wrong with this, they are just looking through different glasses.

Trust your glasses.


 BONUS: STRUTTING YOUR STUFF

Does your novel have something special about it? Diversity? LGBT? Deal with disabled characters? Talk about issues that aren’t usually discussed? Make sure to note it! BUT, make sure you do it with class and not awkwardly. Don’t say ““My novel has homosexual characters in it”. Fit it into your query or your 250 words as best as you can. These things are bonuses when done right and huge negatives when thrown in there just to get “points”. We can all see what you’re doing, make sure when you do it, we see it done with grace.


And that’s it. There are more things you can do, but these are the common mistakes I see from my time doing contests. I still make them, and trust me, the fear doesn’t leave even when you’re sure your work is the best it can be. Try and remember:

  • Contests are subjective.
  • The most common way of getting an agent is still the slush.
  • You’re going to make friends, and your work will be better for the next contest.
  • It’s a fun time, don’t stress too much (if you can).
  • Learn from the experience, revel in the experience, and enjoy yourself.
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