Contests: Useful Feedback or Complete Waste of Time and Money?

13-02-27-spielbank-wiesbaden-by-RalfR-066Note: I can only speak of RWA contests. I know nothing of other writing contents, for good or ill.

Entering a writing contest can be a lot like playing the Lottery. Whether you get someone who loves your work or hates it depends a lot on chance.

Reasons to enter a contest:

  • You want feedback from someone who knows nothing about you, not even your online alias. Sometimes, I suspect family and friends of pulling their punches. An anonymous person online is much more likely to tell me an unpleasant truth.
  • You want a real (e.g. outside) deadline to force you to get the writing done. If you are unpublished, you are writing for yourself. Sometimes you need an external deadline.
  • You really, really want your work to be read by the particular final judge in the contest. Contests can be a way to avoid the Dreaded Query Letter. (Though not the dreaded synopsis, sorry. If it goes to the final judge, you’ll have to write one.)
  • You are looking for a diverse group of people to give feedback. Even in the field of Romance, tastes differ. Some people like traditional/inspirational/sweet. Other people think dinosaur porn is the greatest thing ever. You can get some pretty different opinions of your writing.

Reasons not to enter a contest:

  • You do not like dealing with people who Do Not Get your writing. The truth is, there are a lot of people who fall into this category. (And this is true even for famous writers.) They don’t get your jokes, they don’t like your characters, they yawn at your plot. It is very easy to make the jump to “they don’t like me” when dealing with these people.  Do not make that jump. Really.
  • You have written a book that doesn’t really pick up steam until the third chapter or so. Contests are judged by volunteers who have lives and usually manuscripts of their own.  They do not want to read your entire book. They are judging you only on the small sliver of your talent that they see in the first 10 pages or 20 pages. Not all books shine in a contest.
  • Your book is written for a narrow niche market. If you’ve written a book about a one-legged soccer player who plays the ukelele until he falls in love with the ghost of an Eskimo meth addict, then becomes a paranormal detective to track down the shapeshifting whale hunter who betrayed her, well… your book might not be everyone’s cup of tea.  If the judges cannot fathom your characters or your plot, they’ll have a hard time with the scoring.

Personally, I think that even if your manuscript does fall into one of the above categories, it would still help you to submit if to a contest if you need an external deadline to finish your work. But you might not benefit from the feedback.

Be prepared for the fact that the feedback you get can be extremely frustrating. I have gotten results back where I had both the highest and the lowest score in a contest. This baffles me. I understand how tastes may differ. What I do not get is why people have such different interpretations of the mechanical aspects of writing. (Grammar, etc.) My personal pet peeve is people who criticize my grammar when they know not of which they speak. That is a great way to annoy me. (In case you were looking for a way to do that.) Luckily, I have not encountered too many of these people.


The feedback you get from a contest can range from the sublimely helpful to the ridiculous. But if you keep getting the same feedback from all the judges, then you probably need to think about what they’re telling you.

Photo: Ralf Roletschek [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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The Calculus of Rewriting

I do not like math. I was an English major. I should be exempt from this math stuff. That goes double for Calculus.

I got a request for a manuscript, so I went back to look at it to see if anything needed to be tweaked. And then I tweaked a little more. It’s like pulling on a thread, then another one, and pretty soon you’ve got a tangled mess on your hands and the cat is looking at a new play toy.

I took all the tangled threads to my writing room, shut the door on the cat, and sat down to stitch it all back together again. The problem is, the more I revise, the closer I get to being “finished,” the more leeeeeetle tiny changes I see that I could make.  It’s like an asymptote thingy: the closer I get to The End, the more The End shifts back toward infinity.

"Asymptote (PSF)" by Pearson Scott Foresman - Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

When do you consider a revision done? When you’re so sick of looking at the manuscript that you can’t take it any longer?

Rachel Neumeier wrote about the psychology of rewriting.

If you want to *finish* a revision, letting it be done is kind of crucial. You can trust your beta readers to let you know if there is something that still needs work after you have done the revision. But generally, if you work on, say, fixing a protagonist’s characterization, you will find that even if you can’t tell whether you’ve succeeded, you have. Feelings of insecurity about this are just another iteration of the unjustified insecurity that is (often) part of the writing process. Tolerating those feelings and moving forward is one key skill for a writer.

I agree with that. You can drive yourself crazy. Revise, trust, send out.

Asymptote (PSF)” by Pearson Scott Foresman – Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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I wake to write and take my writing slow (Or, Why I don’t like the term “Pantser”)

Enfant écrivant-Henriette BrowneDoes it matter whether you are a plotter or a pantser?

Short answer: So long as the book gets written and the reader cares enough to turn the page, who cares?

Longer answer: It can matter because the latter term seems to be used in a pejorative sense, even though both terms are simply ways to describe the two main workflows that people use to write a book.

Much longer answer:

For the record (or the CD, or the DVD), I do not care for the term ‘pantser.’ It conjures up an image of two writers. There’s the plotter over in that corner, busily outlining and setting up scenes. In this corner, we have the pantser, slumped over her desk idly waiting for an idea to surface.

Not an accurate picture, methinks.

I can’t answer the traditional question of where an idea comes from. Everywhere, nowhere, Schenectady. If you keep your eyes open, an idea will wander by. But once I’ve got an idea, a question, a problem, an opening scene, I grab a pencil and scribble it down, as much of it as I can see. Often, the act of writing it down causes a couple of additional scenes to wander up and introduce themselves. So I write them down. Then I sit and stare at the pages.

It is at this stage that many writers would start working on an outline. Writing without a plan seems to go against the puritanical work ethic, as if you’re not taking your writing seriously. Who starts a journey without looking at a map?

Well, I do. I cannot impose a structure on an idea.  Stories are created, not constructed.

Creation requires the subconscious. My conscious mind is where the ordinary ideas swim. I’m concerned with getting to work on time, making sure the cat is fed, taking out the garbage at least three minutes before the garbage truck comes by my house. The ideas that lurk down in the dark waters below the sunlight hold meaning. The trick is to lure them up into the light. I can bait little lines with tempting hooks, but I can’t describe the behemoth until it surfaces.

Reading the initial idea over again, getting my mind into that world, sparks questions. Trying to find answers to these questions brings up associated images and ideas. I see a pretty scene and write it down. (Or a pretty intense scene. So long as it sounds interesting, I write it down.) Reading that scene over again leads to the need to write X, Y, and Z scenes as well.

After I’ve done this, I arrange the scenes until I see a pattern. This is the inverse to what a Plotter would do, as I understand the process. I don’t start with an outline and fit scenes into it. As I write more scenes, the pattern I’m seeing leads me to an overall picture.

The nice part about this approach is that writing the glittery scenes first is like always eating dessert first. (Except it’s better for the waistline.) If I’m interested in what I”m writing, there’s a better chance the reader will be as well.

No book is all dessert, of course. There are interstitial scenes that are required to stitch the pretty scenes into a whole quilt.  Once I’ve gotten enough of the book written, I can see where I’ll need to stitch scenes together. These scenes can be tough to write; they’re usually dry as dust in the first draft. (And sometimes in the second draft.) Whether a scene was fun to write or not, I always need to go back and tweak to make everything flow together, but I think most Plotters need to do that as well. Most writers have to do some revising.

I probably should’ve started this post with the usual disclaimer about everyone’s path being different, many roads to Oz, your mileage may vary. If your writing process is different, and you’re happy with the result, then I am happy for you. This is a description of what works for me, right now, and it does involve work. It is not just sitting around waiting for inspiration.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.


We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
-Theodore Roethke, The Waking


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Rules for Writing

IMG_0979 - Version 2

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a wonderful essay, Talking About Writing, which is her response to the question “How do I become a writer?”

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Why book covers matter

It’s amazing how much difference a cover can make. It really can change your impression of the story.

I always knew Darcy was a secret rogue

I always knew Darcy was a secret rogue

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This will make everything ok.

Tmurakam - IMG 1878 (by)

Worked for me, anyway.
Click below:
Make Everything Okay.

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Of course, I did jinx myself. But not in a bad way.

Make the jinx work for you!

Haven’t written anything for James’ story for two days now. I received a request for the full manuscript for Sebastian and Sophie’s story, so I’ve been looking at that manuscript, considering if I need to tweak anything.

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