I’m Totally Judging You

judge1A couple months ago, I had the opportunity to help judge a writing competition. I’d never judged at this level before, although I had competed in several judged competitions, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from the process.

I won’t claim that I learned anything earth shattering, but I wanted to a post a few tips I would give writers submitting to competitions in general. Most of this stuff you’ve probably heard a dozen times, but they came up often enough that once more probably won’t hurt, right? Right.

So without further ado, here are my six tips for entering writing competitions.

Use a spell checker. Seriously. Few things are as distracting to me as a reader than an abundance of typos, and they are so easy to guard against these days. Most writing programs will tell you as you’re writing if your words are misspelled, and often even if they’re being misused. (Some even offer style suggestions! Crazy!) So just take a few moments before submitting a story and make sure yuor words is’nt wrong.

Follow submission guidelines/ competition rules. Are you tired yet of being told to follow the rules? I always am! And yet I was shocked at how many of the submissions I reviewed weren’t following guidelines. One wasn’t even the right genre for the competition! When submitting, please make sure you are submitting the right story to the right place and in the right way. Please don’t be That Guy that makes people like me have to keep telling decent internet folk to just follow the rules.

Make sure your story is a story. Does your story have an arc? Does it have conflict? Does it have characters? (I’m not even kidding.) If it’s missing any of these things, squint at it a little harder before sending it in. Even a very skillfully written series of events won’t go far if it’s just that- a series of events. Make sure your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, preferably with some kind of growth in between. Make sure it’s a story.

The first few paragraphs are key. Make sure that you draw your readers in immediately. When judging, I read through and rated submissions in batches. While I took care not to work while I was totally glazed over, it’s hard to get into a story that starts off in the wrong place, or even too slowly. Short stories have a limited word count so be certain you’re making the most of your space.

Sensory details really sell a setting. Again, limited word count. But that’s why you must make sure that you set the scene quickly and completely. Small, specific sensory details can ground a reader in a time or place with few words and make a huge difference in the reader’s immersion level. Of all the stories I judged, each one described what conversations were heard and what people/things/events were seen and what emotions were felt. Fewer talked about the colors of flowers or the city sounds of cars and construction. A couple talked about how the environment actually felt. Only one mentioned smells and tastes.

Take heart- There are a lot of good writers out there. Whether or not you win, you’re probably one of them! Even if you don’t place the first time, or the first ten times, don’t sweat it. Any writing competition is going to draw in writers of all levels and, while judges try to be objective in their criteria, there is some personal taste going into the matter, too. If your story doesn’t get picked, don’t quit. Polish the story a little more and find another place to submit it to. Never surrender!

Happy writing!

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With a Little Help from My Friends

HelpingSo, this last year I had the personal goal to earn the Writer of the Year award through the Alaska Writers Guild. To do this, I had to accumulate the most points of anyone who entered the Guild’s anonymous bimonthly writing contest for members, wherein entrants write within rotating categories, and see how close to the deadline they can turn in a piece without getting disqualified. (Oh, wait, was that last part just me?)

Now I’m not all that super at nonfiction, and I truly suck at poetry, but, hands down, the hardest one of the contests for me to write was the category of Alaska Mystery. I think I’m getting phantom chest pains just thinking about it.

Two months seems like it should be plenty of time to write a story with a maximum of 2500 words, but that can seem like a mighty tight deadline when you spend the first six weeks of it feverishly drafting and then summarily executing- I kid you not- twelve different story ideas. It was very easy to feel very discouraged very quickly. And so I did, verily. With hardly more than a week left before the deadline, I was ready to throw in the towel.

But the trouble was that I keep this pesky husband. And we sometimes talk to each other about our goals and stuff. He knew what I was working toward, and he knew how important it was for me to enter every contest, even the difficult ones.

That man gave me no rest.

Every time I sat down, he’d start pestering me. “What are you working on? Are you doing the one with the mountains? With the serial killer? With the fox? What are you doing? Why? Why not? (Have a cookie.) What are you working on?” The man was relentless. And he would hear not a word of giving up, not on my goal and not on this Alaska mystery contest.

And that was before he started telling everyone we know about it, too. *shudders*

I don’t know about you, but I have confidence problems sometimes. Sometimes too much, most times not enough. My husband, and a few close friends like him, give me the kick in the pants when I want to lie down and surrender, and the tackle of forbearance when I’m full steam ahead on a really bad idea.

The secret weapon of all successful writers is tenacity. And for some of us, a little of that tenacity can be sponged off others. I tend to break down my cheerleading squad into two broad categories: writers, and nonwriters.

Writers Your fellow writers are the monarchs of commiseration. They understand what it’s like to be blocked. They know the brain-addled madness of waiting- for beta readers, for query answers, for book reviews, for sales reports. They understand the pain of rejections. They also know when a story of yours isn’t working, and are usually able to articulate what’s wrong. They’re widely read and industry savvy. Your writer friends are ideal when you have a piece that you’re working on and could use a little guidance in making it presentable.

Nonwriters These are the people who, although maybe they enjoy reading, don’t do any writing themselves. And as well as being legion in numbers, they’re also chattier than a giggling high school clique back from spring break. Once you let one of them know (cough, cough, husband, cough), they’ll all know, and they’ll all want to know why you’re not done yet. They don’t know how long drafting takes, let alone editing and submissions. And they don’t care. Your nonwriter friends are ideal when you have a concrete goal combined with motivation issues.

So there you have it: my fail-proof formula for squeezing out a piece even when it hurts. One part cheerleader, one part drill sergeant, writers and nonwriters alike are always at the ready to help their buds with what is important to them. Of course, you still have to want to reach your writing goals yourself, and be willing to put in the work, but the endless harassment loving encouragement of your friends, family, mail carrier, and grocery clerk can be the final nudge to help you get that story out the door and into the wide world.

(And it works, too- I did win Writer of the Year at the 2017 guild conference! Yay!)

So if you find yourself struggling, whether with improving a piece, or just summing up the motivation to work at it, clue in your pals! They’ll hold your feet to the fire in a way you never could for yourself, and they’ll cheer you at every victory along the way.

Happy writing!

A Year in Review

Back in February 2013, and at the gentle urging of my much beloved NaNoWriMo, I purchased my very own copy of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published at just over ten dollars. With it came the right to a twenty minute session with the authors to discuss my pitch. I mark that moment as the first upping of my game.

Another such moment came when I signed up for Twitter, which I had been resisting for years, mostly for pride’s sake, and began connecting with a larger writing community. Almost immediately, I tumbled headlong into the loving arms of what would become my core cadre. These folks, most of whose names have appeared on this blog multiple times, began wheedling, cajoling, teasing, and threatening me into taking the next step. And I owe them endless thanks.

I finished a final draft (for reals this time) of my book, finally embracing the idea that eventually, a baby must grow up and go out in the world to seek its fortune. I set aside the red pen that had been semi-permanently affixed to my right hand and started writing the second book. Meanwhile, I secured and regaled a group of fantastic beta readers to tell me everything that was wrong with my book. Then I wrote a novella. And finished another novel. And another one.

But my focus didn’t stay fixed on just writing novels. I started a writing blog. (And here you are. Hello!) I filled it with all my wishes, tips, and crazy adventures in the literary world. Hopefully, readers were able to find something of value on here (and I’m always open to questions and suggestions). I wrote bunches of short stories and, full of terrified misgivings, even sold a few. I began entering writing competitions. I even went to a writing convention.

Then I queried agents. (Gasp.)

It’s been a pretty productive year, I think, as far as productivity goes for the struggling wanna-be author without a dollar to her name. I didn’t make much money or sell any books, but I covered a lot of ground in networking, writing, and learning about the publishing game. Maybe some day I’ll make enough money at this to buy a cheeseburger. And I’ll definitely consider that a win.

As far as the upcoming year goes, my writing plans are few and simple. I want to complete at least two more books. And I plan to keep querying agents until my book finds its one true love. That is all. But really, that involves a lot, probably everything I did this year and more. And I’m very excited to continue this amazing literary odyssey I’ve set out on. Who knows where I could end up?

So how about you? What are your plans for this new year in writing? Lemme know in the comments below! Happy New Year and welcome back!

PS- Back in December, I declared January Beta Appreciation Month. Go hug a beta reader. It’s good for you.

Apocafest Winners!

Ah! Sorry I’m a bad person! In all the craziness of yesterday, I completely forgot that I was breaking promises. (And remember that if you want to read the original apocalypse scenarios, they can still be found in the comments here.) But fear not, gentle readers! The random bystanders have spoken!

Judge One: The Noisy One (Yes, this one is me.)

Creativity: Michael (Frogs- nobody suspects the frogs)
Plausibility: Liam (Asteroid- gosh, it read like a timeline in a history book)
Scary: Nanopals (Cords- creeeeeepy)

Judge Two: The Girl With Great Hair

Creativity: Nanopals (Cords- electronic Death: don’t trust toasters)
Plausibility: Liam (Asteroid)
Scary: Liam (Asteroid- it’s scary ’cause it’s true!)

Judge Three: The Guy Who Doesn’t Do Commentary

Creativity: Michael (Frogs)
Plausibility: Liam (Asteroid)
Scary: Liam (Asteroid)

Judge Four: The Guy Who Took Voice Lessons

Creativity: Mary (Sasquatches)
Plausibility: Liam (Asteroid)
Scary: Nanopals (Cords- Human eating appliances- can you imagine if someone made a movie like that? Cars driving around with laptops tracking us… It’s like transformers but they’re not on our side!)

Given that Liam and Nanopals were at this point locked in a tie for the scariness category, a panel of three preschoolers was polled to decide between them. (This was all extremely official. They wore little hats and everything.) Below are the final winners of Apocafest:

Final Winners:

Creativity: Michael
Plausibility: Liam
Scary: Liam

NaNo Prep

This is the last Monday I have before November, which kicks off National Novel Writing Month. (If you aren’t doing this, you should. If you don’t know what this is, I don’t know you.) Paradoxically, NaNoWriMo is not the busiest month of the year for me. Really, my pace of writing isn’t much higher than it usually is, and it’s probably actually easier because there’s so much support and encouragement. The busiest month of the year is the month before NaNo. In particular, the week before NaNo is killer.

Different people approach NaNoWriMo preparation differently. Some like to compile playlists. Some like to outline. Some like to character sketch. Some like to stock the kitchen with ramen and Snickers bars. I dabble in most of those things. But my biggest time sink during NaNo prep often has little to nothing to do with my NaNo project.

This month I am preparing and sending out six short story submissions to various magazines across the internet. I like to do this so that all that nail-biting while I wait for responses gets sucked into the attention black hole of writing a new novel. Likewise, I’ve prepared a batch of five agents who I’ll be querying with City of the Dead. Also, I am planning, prepping, and writing (where appropriate) all the blog posts for next month so that I can concentrate on NaNo. The problem is that the month is nearly over and I still have much to do. And I’ll be spending two of the next four days in a local high school mentoring for the Young Writers Program (the youth oriented version of NaNoWriMo) during the precious, rare time that I usually spend on my writing career. (I regret nothing! I love spreading the writing love around, and this is exactly the sort of project I would have swooned for in high school.)

So you will of course understand if I more or less blow off a meaningful blog post this week. Sorry. I remind you all of the looming deadline for Apocafest (tomorrow! see this post for details) and encourage you to put up your best apocalypse scenario of 200 words or less. See you all next month!

Apocafest

In the spirit of Halloween, let’s wreak death and mayhem on billions of people! But it’s okay, ’cause it’s only in our minds. In the comments of this post, put up your best apocalypse scenario of 200 words or less no later than 11:59PM October 29th.

Before you all start chanting ‘nukes’, a huge aspect of scoring will be creativity, so you probably want to avoid cliche apocalypses unless you’ve got a really fresh twist on an old classic. I and a hand selected panel of judges (aka- random people I bother on the street) will select winners, which will be announced on Halloween.

As with Pitch Party, winners will be awarded fantastic postcards in each of these three categories: creativity; plausibility; and scared-my-pants-off-ivity. Let’s get this party started!

"Human Skulls" by Jono Pare

These guys? These guys did NOT make it…

Pitch Party Alert!

‘What’s this?’ you say. ‘A non-Monday update? THE MADNESS.’ But this is so important that I felt it necessary to spit in the face of tradition and put something up. (There will still be a regularly scheduled update on Monday.)

Okay, so I’m sure you all know what a pitch is. It’s your little blah blah about your book that you use to try and hook a person’s interest in your story. You need to have one if you plan on querying an agent or publisher so that they have some idea of what they’re even looking at, and it’s pretty much the blurb on a book’s back cover that you look at when you’re deciding whether or not to shell out your hard earned cash for this book. It’s what you use to convince readers that they want to read your story. So pitches are pretty important.

Unfortunately, they’re also difficult to write. (You want me to compress my 500,000 word opus into a paragraph?) So, we’re having a pitch party over on Twitter for all we of the writerly ilk to practice. It starts Friday Aug 16th at 10 pm EST and participants should have two pitches prepped and polished.

For the first round, participants use their short pitches of 140 characters or less (small enough to fit in a tweet). I know, I know, it sounds painful. SO PAINFUL.

Then everyone votes for their favorites and we settle in on the five best (unless there are five of us. Then we settle on two). The finalists then pitch their longer versions of 100 words or less. Winner gets COOL POINTS! Possible high fives as well. Maybe even a postcard. You won’t know unless you come! Use the #PitchParty hashtag so we can all keep track of each other and let the party begin! 😀

UPDATE: Okay, this party is spreading. Looks like we’re doing the short pitches over on Twitter, but don’t despair if you’re not on Twitter, because the longer format pitches will be posted in the comments of this post. Round One- twitter. Round Two- here. Everyone is welcome to pitch and to vote for a winner. Tips and suggestions are part of the party, so if you have any, please speak up!

Also, there will be postcard prizes! One for the best short pitch, one for the best long pitch, and one for the most helpful commenter. This is going to be great!