How I Used Writing Contests to Skip over the Slush Pile

21 Dec

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Like many writers, whenever I saw a falling star, all my wishes were for getting that first publishing contract. It is such a long road from those first words on a page to published novel. You hear the stories of how other writers submit to dozens of publishers before they get that first break. With average response times of six months to a year, and everyone saying no simultaneous submissions, you could be as old as as one of those falling stars before you realize your dream.

When I first started to write The Tiger’s Tale, I knew I was writing myself into an unpublished corner. I was breaking some rules, and I was writing therianthrope shapeshifters — which weren’t characters I’d seen in fiction anywhere. I needed to know if what I found exciting to write would appeal to readers, and I didn’t want to crank out some 80,000 words that would never be accepted. So I turned to writing contests for some feedback. That decision helped solve some problems I’d struggled with as a writer:

Motivation: It’s hard to stay motivated to write when there is no time limit. If an interesting opportunity came up, like a chance to go kayaking or hiking in the mountains, I didn’t say, “Oh I can’t, I have to stay home and write this morning.” Most days something interesting came up. You have to have something to show an editor before you worry about getting a foot in the door. In 2008, when I made my New Year’s resolution to get serious and finish my novel, I backed it up with a goal to enter Passionate Ink’s Stroke of Midnight Contest. The contest provided the deadline I needed to get a polished submission and synopsis ready.

Drive to Finish: The hardest part of writing is finishing. The start is wonderful. You have all the excitement and energy of a new idea to inspire you. Then you hit the middle. I was stuck in the middle of The Tiger’s Tale when I got word that it was moving on to the final round. That gave me about three months to have the finished novel ready in case the judge requested it. With the possibility of my impossible dream becoming a reality, I had the drive to finish. I also had feedback from the writers who judged the first round. You don’t get that in every contest, or from every judge, but I cherished the detailed critiques these judges sent.

Freedom from the slush pile: Finaling was the foot in the door I’d been waiting for. It allowed my manuscript to bypass the slush pile and go straight to an editor’s desk. Lucky for me the judge (in this case an agent) loved The Tiger’s Tale, chose me as the winner, and requested the full manuscript. The other big advantage of winning is that it can be a feather in your cap in future pitches to editors, an advantage I was going to need.

Losing doesn’t mean no. Winning doesn’t mean yes. In my case, winning that first contest plopped The Tiger’s Tale in an agent’s TBR pile instead of a slush pile. A year later I was still waiting to hear from the agent, but in the meantime I’d used contests to motivate my progress on two other novels with great results. I thought it was time to try the traditional route of submit manuscripts and wait for responses. I entered the Tiger’s Tale in a first page and query pitch contest for Ellora’s Cave to get feedback on my query. That submission landed The Tiger’s Tale on Raelene Gorlinsky’s desk. As publisher at Ellora’s Cave, Raelene is an incredibly busy lady, but she read my manuscript within about six weeks and showed it to Grace Bradley who is now my editor. I signed my first publishing contract and sent it off just before the big Christmas Blizzard last year. The Tiger’s Tale was released in March and in October of this year I held the first printed copy of The Tiger’s Tale in my hands.

Winning doesn’t guarantee you get a contract, but skipping over those slush piles and going straight to the desk of someone with the power to help move your career forward might help you realize that publishing dream in this lifetime. Why not make a resolution to give the contest route a try this year? The Passionate Reads blog is hosting a free writing contest to kick off the new year. Ellora’s Cave editor, Grace Bradley, will be the judge. She’ll be here blogging next Thursday, the 30th, on the rules of the contest. Start polishing those pitches.

2 Responses to “How I Used Writing Contests to Skip over the Slush Pile”

  1. Marilyn Campbell December 22, 2010 at 7:28 am #

    Wonderful advice for both aspiring and vets! Everything in the publishing world has been in a transitional state for a while and contests are certainly a way of “jumping the shark”!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How I Used Writing Contests to Skip over the Slush Pile (via ) « Nara Malone - December 21, 2010

    [...] Like many writers, whenever I saw a falling star, all my wishes were for getting that first publishing contract. It is such a long road from those first words on a page to published novel. You hear the stories of how other writers submit to dozens of publishers before they get that first break. With average response times of six months to a year, and everyone saying no simultaneous submissions, you could be as old as as one of those falling stars … Read More [...]

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