The Uses (and Abuses) of RWA® Chapter Contests
For those who don't know, many RWA® chapters hold annual contests where writers can enter the first few pages or even chapters of their stories (or other specific sections, such as a first kiss, or parts of a query). The entries are judged in the first round by 2-3 members of the chapter, and occasionally other RWA® members, based on a scoresheet that awards points for different elements of the story such as character, plot, etc. Based on those numeric scores, 3-5 finalists are named and their entries are sent to final round judges, usually editors or agents, who make the final rankings and frequently often request partials or fulls of the stories they've ranked highly.
Since coming in second in a recent chapter contest earned me a request for my fantasy romance from an editor I'd been hoping to get to look at it for quite a while, I've been thinking about lately about better and worse reasons for entering any particular chapter contest, or any of these contests at all. Based on my experience (which is shockingly extensive, I fear), there are at least two good reasons to enter a contest and at least one bad reason.
My fantasy romance is a great example of the first good reason to enter chapter contests. Since I'd never written anything like that before, I was afraid to invest much time or energy in the story, as much as I loved it, without having at least some clue that I could successfully write in that genre. So I tested it out in a series of contests, each involving more and more pages of the story. And it won enough of them to convince me to finish the book (and its sequel). So, chapter contests can be a good way to test out new ideas, new genres, a new voice for your work.
Earlier in my writing career, I entered chapter contests for the wrong reason. I'd lost my critique group and entered a series of contests that asked for different parts of the story -- first chapter, first kiss, conflict scene, ending, etc. -- primarily for the feedback. The idea itself wasn't so wrong, but didn't mesh with the reality of chapter contests. Some of the feedback I got was great and helped me improve my story, but a lot of it was either non-existent (comments by judges aren't required in most contests), unhelpful ("your voice is too bland and generic"), contradictory ("your voice is too strong" as a comment by another judge in the same contest), or simply random ("The Pacific Ocean isn't cold" -- yes, in California it is). If you need a critique group, find or create one -- in my experience, the judging in contests isn't consistent enough to be a good substitute. (And notes that the RWA's® Golden Heart® contest doesn't give any feedback at all, only numeric scores.)
Once I learned this lesson and found a critique group, the primary reason I entered chapter contests and, I think, the primary one for most writers, was to get my work in front of editors and agents I wanted to work with. This is what worked recently with my fantasy romance and what has gotten me several requests for full manuscripts from my "dream editors" over the years. As I've already said, I'm mostly off the contest carousel now that I have an agent, but it served me well over all. Other writers might want to seriously consider looking into RWA® contests to find those that will suit their needs best and use them to advance their writing careers the way they've advanced mine.
Another Turn in the Trail - and How Having an Agent is Different
Found out this week that after a major revise-and-resubmit, my target publisher passed on the story I sent them almost two years ago. Not what I'd hoped to hear (I was expecting another revise-and-resubmit), but still not as painful as it could have been. That might gave been because it had been so long since I originally sent it in, or because I'm in the final stages of making the major revisions my agent suggested on my Golden Heart® story, so I had something else shiny, if not exactly new, to focus on.
Or it might have been because I do have an agent, which made this rejection different from all (and I do mean all) the previous one. First, I found out about it not via a hard copy letter that arrived with the rejected ms., but via a sympathetic email from my agent, who was already thinking about where to send it next. Second, both his email and the hard copy letter that arrived a couple of days later referred to his conversation with the editor and the fact that she is now expecting to see my revised GH® story as soon as my agent says it's ready.
But the most likely reason was that when my agent let me know where he'd sent the rejected story next, it was at another top publisher, which means he still has faith in me and in my story. That boost got me past the rejection in record time. I think my agent just earned a big piece of his 15%.
One bit of feedback I've consistently gotten from contests, critique partners, and beta readers is that I'm pretty good at writing "love" (i.e., sex) scenes. Not exactly what I most want to be known for (since I don't write erotica), but you go with what you have. And apparently what I have are good, sometimes great sex scenes.
Which may turn out to be a good thing. The full manuscript I revised a while back for one of the "home and family" lines at a major publishing house has been passed to an editor who asked to see it for one of their "spicier" lines. Partly in response to that development, and partly because the story demanded it, I changed a "kiss" scene in the book I just fiished into a full-blown sex scene (which meant moving it off a public beach to some place more private). And now I'm starting my newest story with a sex scene in the first chapter. Two actually. And it's not erotica.
While I've clearly gotten over any hesitation about writing sex scenes, I still haven't gotten used to the idea that someone who knows me (besides my critique partners) might actually READ one I wrote. Colleagues--ish! Students--*shudder*. Family--ugh! It's almost enough to make me seriously consider a pen name. In a foreign language. Or maybe just a number. "Another sexy romp from 367."
But why? How are sex scenes any worse, any more personal than anything else I write? I'm a very private person, but I've chosen to write romantic fiction for publication. Putting emotions on the page is part of the job. Isn't sex, the kind of sex I write, part of my characters' emotional journey? And if it is, and I think that journey is worth sharing with others, then my sex scenes have to be out there, too.
Which isn't to say that everyone has to write sex scenes in their books, or even that I always have to. The point is that writers have to be true to their stories, whatever their story may be, and park their fears and foible at the door before they enter the always challenging world of writing romantic fiction.
Writing Through the Holidays
The holidays can be a paradoxical time for writers. Many, perhaps most, of us with day jobs will have time off, which offers the possibility of getting more writing done. Many of us, however, whether we have a day job or not will also have special social and family obligations -- guests, travel, etc. Those of us with children will have them home from school for two weeks or more. And almost all of us will have greeting cards to write and presents to buy, wrap, and send. Keeping focused through it can mean the difference between a month that is normally, if not extrodinarily productive and four week's worth of lost work time.
This is where I should have some magic answers about how to keep writing through all the joy and chaos of the season. I don't. What works for me, with two grown but unmarried children, won't work for someone with a house full of overexcited young kids or bored and resentful adolescents (been there, done that). Nor will it work for those overwhelmed with visitors from out of town, on the road, or worse in the air through all the mess of holiday travel. And it won't work for anyone whose job involves more hours and more stress at this time of year. We each have to find our own way through the season, and through our lives. Knowing we aren't alone as writers, however, even if we are all unique offers some hope of comfort.
The most important thing through it all, I've found, is balance. Keep writing, if only a few words day. That keeps your story fresh in your mind, and will make it easier to get started again when life goes back to normal. Devote some time to your loved ones everyday, whether by sitting down to a real meal at home or texting, emailing or phoning to some far-off place. Enjoy the season a little every day, too -- listen to holiday music, dig out the photos from past years, take a walk in the snow, eat a special food, read a favorite holiday story. Most important, take time for yourself every day, too. As my writer friends always say, you have to refill the well. Then, when January comes, you'll be ready to write more and better than before.
Another Aha! Moment
It's been a while since I've updated this website, but I have some pretty great excuses: a request from one editor to revise and resubmit the full manuscript of one of my contemporary stories and a request from another publisher for the full manuscript of my fantasy romance, which needed a final edit before I sent it out. So for the last three months or more, I've been less a writer than a re-writer. I think/hope I've learned something in the process.
The biggest "aha!" moment was mid-way in the revision process of the contemporary. As I sped up the pace, went more deeply into my character's motivations, and made my heroine a lot less weepy, I finally asked myself why I hadn't done all this before I sent the requested full ms. out in the first place. Aha! Sure, now I knew more exactly what things the editor thought needed changing, but most of them were things I'd known about, suspected, or been told about before by critique partners. If I'd fixed them sooner, maybe my revise-and-resubmit would have been a sale-plus-some-edits".
Lesson learned, and assured that a delay in sending the requested full was okay with the editor, once the R&R ms. was sent, I went through much the same process with the second ms. And learned something else in the process. While one problem my beta reader found with the contemporary story was a tendency to include too many mundanities of my characters' lives ("They had chicken for dinner"), those same everyday details were an important part of building the world of my fantasy romance. What my characters would have for dinner told my reader a lot about how they lived ("He took his bow and killed a rabbit for them to eat"). Aha! While almost everything that I'd learned from revising the first story applied to the second, here was at least one exception. Which means, once again, that there are no rules, only guidelines, whether you're a pirate or a writer.
Writing "Full Time"
As my bio says, I'm a teacher. That means I have my summers "off" (ignoring how much time I've spent since school was out finishing the paperwork from last year, how many meetings I've had since the end of the term, the days I'll spend before school starts getting ready for the new year, the time I've spent reading to keep up, and an endless flow of work-related email). This means that for a few months I can write "full time".
I've learned, however, that a writer's "full time" is not exactly forty hours a week of writing. First there's the revising, right now for several RWA® chapter contests. This means that I'm now intimately familiar with every comma and question mark in the first two chapters of both of the books I currently have on the contest circuit. Then there's the judging -- once you have some experience as a contestant, it's a good thing to give back by judging entries in other categories of the contests you're familiar with. Reading other people's entries can also teach you a lot about your own writing, but it takes time out of your "full time".
The thing that really cuts into my "full time", however, is the rhythm of my own writing process. First, after 1000-1500 words, it takes a real effort to write any more, no matter how excited I am about my story, or how easily the words have flowed to that point. Sometimes I can get past the 1500 word mark, and presumably after I sell I'll have to learn to be better at it, but for right now, most days it's an insurmountable roadblock.
Another complication is that in the summer most people prefer to do whatever work they have to do in the morning and have their afternoons free. This means lots of meetings and appointments during my prime working hours. I can write after lunch or even after dinner, and have several times so far this summer, but what I could write in an hour earlier in the day takes me two or three to write in the afternoon.
For all these reasons (plus a commitment to enjoy at least some of the summer with my family), my "full time" writing is closer to half-time, or less, but I am making progress. My current WIP is on schedule to be finished before I go back to work, and writing becomes my "part time" job once again.
I don't know how Club 100 started. I do know you can't find it on Google (or at least I couldn't). I also know that it's changed my writing life, so I thought I'd explain how it works, in hopes that you can either link up with an existing Club 100 loop or start one of your own.
The basic principle behind Club 100 is that if you write 100 words a day for 100 days, you'll have 10,000 words written toward your book. My Club 100 loop is more flexible than that. We let everyone set their own daily minimum of words written or time put in on revisions and other writing-related stuff. We also let people decide how many days a week they have to write, or if they can take random days off when they need a break or life intervenes (that's what I do). We have an email loop and report in on how we're doing, cheer everyone's progress, support each other through dry spells and other hard times, and celebrate each other's 100 days and other successes.
One important point -- the 100 words or whatever number you set is a MINIMUM. Writing more is strongly encouraged. But once you sit down and write that first 100 (or whatever), writing more can be amazingly easy.
If you belong to a chapter of RWA®, ask around to see if your chapter already has a Club 100. If not, see if people are interested in starting one. Even if you don't belong to an RWA® chapter, you can start a Club 100 with your writing friends. Two or three is enough at the beginning, and you can recruit more members later. Then choose a moderator, set up a email loop, and start writing.
Even if you have to start alone, the discipline of setting daily goals and tracking how well you do will be a big boost to your writing. At the risk of sounding like an infomercial, try Club 100. You'll be glad you did.
As Iíve chronicled here, my writing world has changed enormously in the last year. Partly that was because ďGames Without RulesĒ was a finalist in the series contemporary category of the 2010 Golden Heart®. Being a finalist not only brought me new opportunities, but also a whole boatload of new writing friends in the other GH finalists. Even after all the GH hoopla was over, another of my stories, ďThe Christmas PonyĒ, won two major contests, garnering me requests for the full manuscript from an agent and an editor.
The thing is, Iíve won contests before. (In fact, Iíve won both of the two I won this year before.) Iíve had editors request full manuscripts before. (In fact, Iíve had the same editor request a full manuscript before.) And, while this was my first year as a GH finalist, I didnít win ďthe big one.Ē While wonderful, the contest finals, the wins, the requests would probably not have changed how I see my writing and myself as a writer without one other vital element.
January 1, 2010, I sat at the dining table in a rented apartment in Paris and began my first day as a member of the Club 100 loop of my local RWA® chapter, Midwest Fiction Writers. In the past year, because of Club 100, I have written a minimum of 100 words or edited at least an hour everyday each of almost 300 days (with heavy travel days, heavy work days, and an occasional sick day off). In that time Iíve produced all of ďThe Christmas PonyĒ, a short novella, and most of a second novel; Iíve also made major revisions to ďGames Without RulesĒ and a requested partial of a fantasy novel. In short, Iíve become a (semi-) professional writer (and made another batch of wonderful new writer friends), all because of Club 100.
You can do the same. Set yourself daily goals, decide how many days a week or month you can commit to your writing, and get started.
The most important thing is that tomorrow morning you can sit down in your workspace and change your writing life, one 100-word day at a time.
My schedule at work has been changed this year, making it possible for me to write before I go to work without having to get up too early in the morning. So far, the change has been great for my writing. Sitting down at the computer after just a cup of coffee and a quick scan of the front page of the newspaper means that I'm still half asleep when I start writing. That allows me to tap into something like a dream state. Not only do scenes and dialogue come to me more easily, but the pictures I see in my mind are richer, more filled with colors, tastes, and smells to make my writing richer, too. Plus it just feels good to know I've done my writing before my day really starts.
Despite its obvious benefits, however, writing first thing in the morning has a downside, too. When the writing is going well, it is very hard to pull myself away and do what needs to be done before I leave the house. I haven't quite been late to work yet, but some days it's been close. Another problem is that when I do get to the office, I sometimes feel as if I've already done a day's work, and I am always exhausted by the end of the day, which makes writing in the evening anymore almost impossible. Luckily, I can use that time to catch up on my email, read blogs, and sometimes even spend some time with the family!
I've always envied the dedicated souls who could get up at 5 a.m. to write, and I still do, but for those of us who find that more of a challenge, I'd strongly recommend getting up even half an hour earlier (my schedule change was only an hour) to see if putting writing first in your day makes as much of a positive difference for you as it has for me.
Following the Beacons as I Write
According to the RWA lingo, there are two kinds of writers Ė plotters, who plan their story out completely ahead of time, and pantsers (as in flying by the seat of your pants), who just jump in and write. The classic description of a pure pantser is Eloisa James' article in Romance Writersí Report® ďFlying into the MistĒ.
My writing style is something of a hybrid. I generally have the first chapter or two (the inciting incident) pretty clearly in mind before I start a new story, an outline of 2-3 major turning points, and a reasonably clear idea of how the story will end. This makes the process more like flying from beacon to beacon, with a clear destination and a clear starting point, but much vagueness in the middle.
Why explain all this? Well, this is my process and I have to own it, but it does give me lots of chances to bog down in writing a story. One place I bog down is love scenes, but thatís a story for another time. The more obvious place to bog down is all those spaces between the beacons when I havenít a clue how my characters are going to get themselves from, say, point C to point D. In the story Iím writing now, I got so bogged down looking for how to get from one beacon to another that I had to rethink everything and ended up with one less turning point. Luckily, that change made my story much tighter, and Iíve been moving forward pretty well since then, until now.
The problem now is that Iím almost to the end of the story, and I know everything thatís going to happen and roughly how itís going to happen. Frankly, I miss the excitement of discovering what my characters are going to do next.