Inspired by Judging and Pilgrims…
From late summer through fall of last year I slogged along the road to The Holy Land (aka a traditional publishing deal), with a troop of fellow pilgrims, several of whom are Thursday’s Children. *waves*. We were a merryish band of hopefuls, joking to hide our insecurities, sharing bits of our writerly life stories, trying to offer helpful suggestions to each other, clutching our offerings in our sweaty hands as we approached each shrine. And by shrine, I mean contest, you know how I love metaphors…
At any given stop along the way, some might receive the blessing of a contest victory, or an agent offer or, or the cautious benediction of an agent request. Others might garner the praise of contest organizers and judges. Many might get only “constructive” feedback. I know for me it was hard not to view this kind of result as “your writing sucks, but here’s a few ideas that MIGHT help.”
This past week I was one of the decision-makers, part of a panel deciding victory, or defeat. Agent Query Kombat matched thirty-two pairs of contestants head to head. The experience was humbling for me. It also gave me a new appreciation for our brilliant writing community and also of the work that agents do on a daily basis as they mine the slushpile looking for gold. Thank you to Michelle Hauck for inviting me to judge. If you’re not following her, you should, she’s got a great blog and is a wonderful person.
Here are some things I’d heard before, but until last week didn’t feel in my bones to be the absolute truth.
1. Writing a query and writing a story require different skill-sets. Sometimes writers have one, sometimes both. It really IS genuinely disappointing to read a killer query followed by an underwhelming writing sample.
2. Typos have a nasty aftertaste.
3. Vagueness in a query is not alluring, it’s frustrating. “Mysterious” requires explanation, as does “losing everything”.
4. Overly contrived character names, including regular names with weird alternative spellings, irritate me. (But this is just a personal peeve). Also, if you’ve named a character Ash or Asher, you’re part of a naming trend.
5. Pretend. Every. Word. Costs. You. Money. And. You’re. Poor. This is especially true in your actual writing. When you’re pinning everything on a sample, don’t repeat ideas or words (other than pronouns, conjunctions etc.)
6. Make your opening engaging, but not overwhelming. Pull me in through action or emotion, but don’t make the action so fast-paced I can’t follow, or the emotion so over the top that I can’t relate to an MC I’ve just met.
7. Humor is a great way to engage your reader. It’s disarming when someone makes you laugh or smile. Humor can take the form of a hilarious situation, or an MC’s voice that is either Wanda Sykes/Dawn French/Will Ferrell funny or a quieter voice laced with dry observational wit. Fear also sucks the reader in, but scaring the reader is harder to pull off when the MC isn’t someone the reader cares about yet.
8. There IS lots of subjectivity involved, whether it’s genre, or voice, or plot. Let’s say you’ve written a historical fiction about a sheriff’s wife who left cultured Boston for a lawless Western frontier town, and you’re being judged by someone whose passion is hard sci-fi… Your entry REALLY has to knock his or her socks off. But being judged by someone who’s passionate about your chosen genre also means you must come up with something “new” or a new spin on something “old”, otherwise the judge won’t be impressed.
9. All these things ARE risky beginnings – backstory, info-dumps, too many characters all at once (especially if there’s similarity among names or difficult names), passive voice.
10. Feedback can ultimately be more valuable than a contest win and it doesn’t actually mean your writing sucks. I’d venture to say that statistically few people get an agent through contests. Weaknesses in your query and your writing sample (which often hint at overall issues in your ms) CAN be fixed so that you DO get an agent or a small publisher offer.
Don’t be afraid to enter writing contests, they’re great opportunities to learn a few things, and meet other writers and people in the pub industry.
Don’t let “winning” go to your head
and don’t let “losing” get to your heart.
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