Wednesday, August 3, 2022

What Do Contest Wins Really Mean?

I have talked about this in the past, but sometimes a quick refresher is always good.

We hear about writing contests all of the time. The hype is always the same thing. This is your chance to get your writing in front of an editor or an agent. This is your chance to be "one step closer to being published." This is your chance to add to that cover letter the amount of wins this story has gotten. All of this sounds really good, and yes, in some cases, this does indeed lead to that successful writing career you have been shooting for. 

And yet, there is more to this than many writers think.

Let's talk about the way contests are set up. 

1) You enter the contest and your story is put in a category with, theoretically other authors writing in the same genre/word count.

2) Your story is sent out to several volunteers who read your story and score it. This can range from anywhere from 3-10 random volunteers.

3) Your scores are tallied up and the highest scores (please note it does not mean amazingly high scores but simply the highest) get sent to a final judge or judging panel.

4) The final judges score it based on a similar rubric.

5) Highest scores win. 

All of this sounds really good, but let's look at potential downfalls in this plan.

VAGUE OR NO RUBRIC This is a big one. Remember in the publishing industry, this is all subjective. There are people on the NY Times Best Seller List that you might not necessarily like, while your friend does. The same thing happens here. IF the contest you have is not using a rubric, you are leaving it up to the reader to say they just like it or don't like it. Even if they have a rubric, if it is not clear you are leaving it up to subjectivity.

RUBRIC RANGES ARE SMALL If the contest is using a rubric and stories are scored between a 1 and 5, this is dangerous! If your story is not perfect, it goes straight to a 4 out of 5. If someone thinks your score is just average, they give it a 3. Translation? You have to be perfect. Even with scores of 1-10, when someone thinks your story is average, they give it a 7/10. While that might not sound bad, it is still a score of 70% or a C-

ONE BAD SCORE RUINS IT Even if you have a great batch of scores, if you have one person who tanks your score, it is over. Remember, you are dealing with averages here. 

PRELIM JUDGES ARE IDIOTS OK, this might seem harsh but think of it this way. Often, the people judging are people just eager to help out. In many cases, those prelim judges are still trying to figure out how to get their own first sale. What does this mean? You have someone who doesn't fully get it judging your score.

JUDGES PLAYING POLITICS I get that we are living in a world where we want to see things such as more diversity and inclusion in publishing. Nothing wrong with that. However, if you have a judge giving a higher score to someone who has "attempted something no other person has done with diversity" and not focusing on the quality of the writing, you have a score that might not be accurate. 

JUDGING PUBLISHED BOOKS AND BIAS This is something I have argued about with the RWA National competitions for published books. You're judging a category, get those books in the mail or in your email and suddenly say "Hey! I got [insert author name here]. That person is already scoring that person higher because they like that author. The reverse also happens. "Ewww, I got nothing but [insert style of writing you hate]. It doesn't matter now, that person just got a lower score. I have seen this a lot when you get single title bestselling authors going against category or self-published authors. 

I bring all of this up because I don't know how many times I have judged a final round and truly asked myself "Is this really the best writing?" No, it is just the stories that made it through the gauntlet of prelim judges. I would also add that, in many ways, this is just like people telling us the ranking they have on Amazon or the number of "likes" they have. Who were these people who "liked" your book? Were these friends and family?

I am not, in any way, saying contests are not worthy. But remember, selling to a publisher or getting an agent to sign your book is based on more objective things:

  • Is the market even buying that type of book?
  • Is this a book that can even be sold?
  • Is this something the agent or editor is acquiring?

Friday, July 8, 2022

What Is The First Impression of You


Why are you getting so many rejections? You think you have the best manuscript ever. You have spent your hard-earned money on courses, critiques, and edits. And still, the rejections keep flowing in. It may have absolutely nothing to do with your story, but the first impression you are making with those editors and agents in your query letters and submissions.

One of my favorite quotes out there is "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." In the digital world today, this is even more important. We apply for jobs online and we are certainly sending in those submissions online. If you think about it, hiring managers only look at a resume for 7-8 seconds. We also know that for in-person interviews, the hiring team has already made a decision about passing on you within 2-3 seconds of you walking in the room. 

The same is true for submissions. 

Although all editors and agents may ask for different things and "read" submissions differently, the initial first impression is probably all the same. 

I have my email set up with a "Preview Pane". It looks something like this. 

You will notice that we really don't see much of that entire letter you painstakingly typed. We see just the first part of that letter. That means that within seconds, we are already making first impressions of you. Seeing things such as "Dear Agent", misspelled names, or my favorite, "Dear Mr. Greyhaus..." Even though these might be typos on your end, these are errors on our end. 

So, let's say I read your whole query letter. Again, what you put in that letter, or leave out of that letter will say a lot. We still have not made it to your fantastic story but are already making decisions. Consider the following things I see on a regular basis that immediately triggers that rejection letter.

  • I know you say you only accept romance and women's fiction, but I know you will change your mind after this.
  • Oprah is currently considering my story for her reading list.
  • After being rejected time and time again, I tried self-publishing. After 3 years of little sales, I have decided it is time to return to a traditional approach.
  • I am submitting my women's fiction, memoir, sci-fi novel that would appeal to everyone from middle school age to retired people.
The point of this is simple. Would you hire yourself based on what you just typed in that query letter? My bet is no.

But what if we get to that story? That editor/agent requested a full so they are obviously going to read the whole thing, right? You want the truth? Nope!

I have said this over and over again here on this blog. When you start reading a book and don't like the start of it, do you continue? We generally give it three chapters and if it has not hooked us, we put it down and move on to the next project. Those first three chapters have to be golden. The writing needs to be incredible. The story needs to totally hook us. If it doesn't, we stop. 

Your first three chapters set a first impression for your entire novel.

So, think about your first impression. Slow down and review what you have in that submission package before you hit "SEND".

Thursday, July 7, 2022

You Can't Force Your Story Into Something It Is Not

Over the last several days of reading submissions, I have seen a huge trend from authors. In simple terms, they were submitting projects to me, claiming the project is one thing, when in reality it is something else. At Greyhaus Literary Agency, I only accept romance and women's fiction. Yes, there are the subgenres within each, but in the end, if it is not a romance or a women's fiction, I do not acquire it. But here is the problem.

Authors are submitting stories, for example, a historical fiction novel, and claiming it as a romance. They are submitting contemporary stories that are again, nothing to do with romance or women's fiction, and yet claiming it as a contemporary romance. I should note, many of these are coming from the form I provide authors if they wish to skip on writing a quality query letter. On this form, there are buttons you have to click to claim what genre you are submitting. So, if someone has a suspense novel with no romance, they are just clicking romantic suspense.

Now, I do understand when someone doesn't truly understand their genres. A good example are authors (often men) who submit stories that are set in a romantic setting and claiming it as a romance. Or authors submitting a memoir about their fantastic relationship that was truly romantic. Obviously, not romances but a memoir or straight up fiction. 

The problem lies with authors attempting to get anyone to read their stories and mislabeling the story just to get it in front of an editor or agent. 

The information is very clear out there on the submission guidelines of editors and agents. If your story is not what they acquire, quit submitting it. That is time you will not get back again, and, in the end, you will still get that rejection letter. I would also add that if you are submitting to someone like me who keeps records of all submissions, when you submit and I type your name in the database, your name pops up as a previous submission. When I go back and see why I passed on your previous submission and see that you tried to do this in the past, the odds are I will be passing again. 

Monday, July 4, 2022

Do Professional Degrees Lead To Better Novels?

Let me first say that I do believe, the more a writer can learn about the craft of writing, or the publishing process, it does help a lot. But the question becomes, does paying for these services really make you a better writer, or increase your chances of even being published.

I was thinking about this over the 4th of July weekend for several reasons. The first is that I have two different clients that are in the process of working with their latest WIP. One was thinking about getting a professional critique service that would target her writing and look for the things she has been missing. The other had paid for someone to "edit" a previous project. The second is that, outside of my work here at Greyhaus, I do teach courses for the UCLA Extension program in Developmental Editing and also Marketing and PR. But we still have to come back to the questions of: Is it worth it? and will this make my book sell any faster.

Let's take the second question first. Will this make my book be better or sell faster? The answer to this is probably no. Like any other skill out there, it takes time to learn how to do the craft well. I have been teaching for 30 years and even though I came out of two fantastic teacher training programs, I did not walk into the classroom being an expert. The same goes for writing. Ask any author out there who has been doing this for a while, and they will say the same thing. It has taken a lot of growth to get them to where they are now. 

But will those editors and agents sign my book faster knowing I paid for all of these elite programs? Again, the answer is no. We are looking at the book being quality and the marketability of that book. We are looking at your professionalism and whether or not it is worth it to invest in you and your product.

Now, what about that first question, Is it worth it? Honestly, it depends on what you know coming into the business of writing and your inherent ability. 

I want to talk here about those MFA programs out there. Don't get me wrong. These are programs that have great curriculum and instructors. However, with that said, too often, these programs are guiding authors in "textbook" style learning and may not be providing them with "real-world" experience. I remember teaching a creative writing class and the textbook I was given talked to such a theoretical level that the products the students created were not good at all. Yes, they contained those elements of literary devices found in Chapter 4 of the book, but the execution of the writing was not there. 

As a part of the UCLA program, I did work as a guest speaker with one of these groups, and the students in the course were shocked at the things I talked about in the real world of publishing. Was it really true that publishers didn't give new authors 7 figure deals? Do you mean a publisher is not interested in my 400,000 word novella? But there are not books with Alien Vampire Bunnies out there so there is a definite need for my screenplay! 

So, what am I getting to on this? Look, if you don't know anything about grammar, you better learn it. If you don't know about the writing process, you better learn it. But if you want to become a great professional author and sell your books faster, learn the business and think.