Monday, September 27, 2010

To Enter or Not to Enter: The Pros and Cons of Literary Contests

High levels of frustration
got you down?
When I first started writing I had no idea what I was doing, just as many of you out there probably felt the first time you sat down to put a great idea on the page. I wrote the first draft of my first novel and believed I had written my soul and there was nothing else I wanted to do with my creation.

It's not that I didn't believe I'd written something great/earth-shattering/the next amazing breakout novel, it's just that I needed to write my book in order for a part of me to heal. Once I was done, I had no great ambitions.

Flash forward a year later. (Oh, the difference a year makes!)

I pulled out my novel and really considered what to do with it. Publish it, of course! Until I read all the publishers' websites and realized that they didn't take anything unsolicited. Period. What next, I thought. One publisher's website suggested Writer's Market, so I headed out and picked up the three-inch thick tome of wisdom and thought I'd struck gold. Did any other writers know about this holy grail full of agents, publishers, and contest info? No, I must be the only one. Right? So, I read it. One article focused on contests and how the author of the article had found his way in the writing world by navigating this route. Thus, I started on my long journey of entering literary contests.

Now, if you read my bio, you'll see that I've won some awards for my writing. Out of those I've won or placed in, I don't think I can begin to tell you how much money sifted through my hands because of all the others I entered but earned squat. Contests can really help your writing (I'd say career, but just give me a minute on that one) but there is also a very dark side to those enticing cash prizes and supposed claims to fame. A side that no article, agent, publisher, or even contest chair warns the participants about. But I will!

The Pros of literary contests include the following:

1) Your work is finally our there for others to read. This, in a nutshell, is what we all want.
2) If you win or place, it is the most fantastic feeling in the world, as if yes, you've finally arrived.
3) If a contest includes a critique, this is incredibly helpful to any writer, mainly because these are people    who don't know you (meaning not your mother, sister, aunt, good friends, etc.) who have anonymously read your work and agree that it is either praiseworthy or crap that needs a lot of revising.
4) If the contest allows for the readers to read their work in front of God and everyone at the conference, jump at the chance. It allows for you to see the affect your writing has on others (When I did a reading of one of mine, I had people coming up to me really wanting to know what happened next, and I only read the Prologue!)
5) Of course, the money, if there is a great cash prize (otherwise it can be a bit disheartening to receive a check that's hardly worth the paper it's printed on, or just a nice pat on the back for placing).

The Cons of literary contests include the following:

1) The amount of money you'll find yourself shelling out (My cheapest contest was $5 and my most expensive was $100. Quite a range, if you ask me). We all want to be told that our work is great, but be careful!
2) Unprofessional/unqualified critiquers/judges. (I found myself overly irate with the last contest I entered. The critiquer was clearly unqualified to be critiquing my category -- It had nothing to do with my writing, but instead all of my research that they "picked apart". This person really had no idea what he/she was talking about -- so I sent a letter to the contest chair. In the end, it seems it's always the writer's fault. I was picked to critique in the same contest, and believe me, having been published was not a requirement. You just needed to know how to put a coherent sentence together.)
3) Conferences connected to contest banquets and results. (I'll probably post later on down the line about my aversion to conferences, but when they try to fleece the winners/finalists of all their winnings by attaching a conference to the contest results that really chaps my hide. We are writers. We have no money.)
4) Little to no honesty concerning entrants. (What I mean here, is that most contests don't have a cap on the number of entries they receive. Depending on the contest, that could either be good or bad. Major literary contests need a cap, otherwise you're competing amongst a few hundred other entrants per category. For small, local, or largely unknown contests it's not much of a problem. I would actually direct most writers along these routes because so few people enter. Do beware of contests that seem sketchy or the cash prize is so big that it makes you wonder. More often than not it's a scam.)
5) The fact that you sent off a crappy manuscript when it's too late to do anything about it. (Most contests specifically state that if you made corrections after mailing out your entry, then you'll have to pretty much send out a new entry with another check and everything. Here, it's the author's fault. Read through your work, make the corrections, and make sure it's the best thing you're capable of writing before slapping a stamp on that envelope. Otherwise, you are most definitely wasting your money.)

Enter a literary
contest and
see what happens!
My hope is that, in some small way at least, I gave you some direction on whether literary contests are a good option for you or not (I still tend to be a sucker for entering them ☺). For me, they have brought little fame and no agents/editors ringing my phone off the hook. In my experience with querying and pitching, I don't even really think agents care too much about contests and whether you've won them or not (at least that's the impression I get when I'm met with their glazed-over expressions). But shouldn't that say something about my work, that it's not only received all this great feedback and accolades from anonymous sources, but that it's also generated so much interest among my peers that they feel compelled to ask how the story continues? I guess not. In the literary world, unpublished is still unpublished.

Monday, September 20, 2010

It should have given me a clue:those irritating agent-bloggers

A word of warning. What I am about to share with you is not a gratuitous insult to the literary agent profession. It’s not even an attack on agents who blog. I do believe there are excellent and useful agents out there, but there is also a large and dangerous fauna that dispenses useless and misleading information that ends up doing more harm than good.

Once upon a time, I had a dream. I wanted to be, in the immortal words of Lennon-McCartney, a “paperback writer.” I didn´t want to hit the New York Time list of bestsellers or go to Oprah. I just wanted to see my book published. So I wrote a novel, I edited it and thought (naïve me) that I was ready to launch it into society. It was then, that I learned that the only way to do it was through an agent.

I had always thought agents were for rock stars and actors, but apparently novice writers provoked an allergic reaction in the American publishing houses. They saw us as the lowest of castes, and the only way we could get in touch with them were through those middle people known as agents.

Agents were easy to find. There were listings all over the Net telling us about the best in the market. Some agents had the kindness to keep WebPages and blogs so future clients could contact them. I turned into an agent blog addict, but the more I read the more downhearted I became.

Agent bloggers came in three shapes. Those too busy to take new clients; those who had the charity to dispense tiny suggestions; and those who made fun of us poor idiots who dared to think of ourselves as writers. And yet the three groups shared a couple of traits in common.

They told us, categorically, that new writers were unwanted creatures. The American Publishing Industry was undergoing a crisis, and there was little chance to get a first novel published these days. However, they all claimed to have helped hundreds of nameless, faceless writers to get their break and publish novels that remained (at least to us) as anonymous as their authors. That should have given me a big clue. If they were indeed as busy and successful as they stated, why waste their precious times discouraging people from writing or poking fun at them?

At the time, I believed every word they wrote, even when Agent X said the opposite of what Agent Z swore to be Gospel truth, but time and distance granted me with a critical eye. Finally, I realized that the same very conduct they exhibited toward their readers was a clue to their own incompetence. I am appalled at how easily novice writers fall for blogging agents’ rules and opinions. Who are these agents? Who appointed them as experts? Why do we let them humiliate and prod us?

Those of us who followed their rules know that they didn’t really aid us in our querying process. Moreover, just check bestseller´s lists and you shall see novels that break with all those taboos set up by agents. Try to discover who represented those novels and you shall not find a single agent-blogger, not even those who hide under aggressive nicks such as The Rejecter or Miss Snark (does she still exist?).
Before following erratic advice dispensed by an agent-blogger, always ask yourself three questions.

1. Do I really want this snarky being to represent me?
2. Do I really want to hire an individual that is going to spend more time blogging or making fun of others instead of getting his/her butt out there trying to sell my novel?
3. How many bestsellers did this agent sell this year?