Putting Your Pen in the Contest Ring: Writers Saying, “Why Not?”

Startup Stock Photos

image via Startup Stock Photos

There’s a lot to be said for saying “no.” As hard as it can be to put up the stop sign, “no” can save you from taking on projects for which you are ill-suited, going to events that don’t enlarge your life, or drinking that fourth Brandy Alexander when you know that Alexander himself stops at two.

The writing life can be a harried one, particularly if you have a day job, and the only time you have to plot out your nine-book saga on intergalactic love between a sentient vaping pen and a 19-legged Venusian dog is your lunch hour (and for the 30 minutes after dinner before you do the dishes).

But there are some writing opportunities for which saying “Why not?” can deliver an unusual sense of gratification, and sometimes some exotic rewards. I’m talking about writing contests. I’ve written about contests before, but because I’ve had some recent success with a few, I want to write about them again. Getting recognition from a contest—no matter if you are the first-place winner or receive an honorable mention—can give give you some sweet cream of satisfaction. That juice is qualitatively different from that gained from crafting a zingy sentence for your last chapter, or having your beta readers say that your Venusian dog puts them in mind of Cary Grant in his prime.

Contests Give You Warm Gravy
Here’s the kind of thing that placing well in a writing contest can do for you:

  • Validation – Most contests are judged by credible writers. Them saying you are a hot tamale can do wonders for the tender egos of most writers.
  • Exposure – Many publications publish the winning works, and sometimes they have a big print circulation and/or online traffic, so your work can get attention. Publication at many contest venues will include links to your site or other work.
  • Swag – I’ve won all kinds of things from writing contests, including poker chips (nice ones), licorice, and luggage tags. Oh, and money. Sometimes a pretty good chunk. Or the equivalent of money. For instance, last month I was at the Catamaran Writer’s Conference in pretty Pebble Beach, which offered me four days of good writerly cheer and good advice on a work in progress of mine. I won a $750 fellowship to the conference by submitting a short story I’d written a while ago. I didn’t think I’d win anything, but I already had the story: why not?

Have Pen, Will Travel
MarketingProfs had this essay contest going last month, and I won a first-runner-up award, which lets me get into all the conference sessions free and gives me some other goodies, to the tune of $1,800. I don’t know if I can make it out there, because flights and lodging are expensive (and the evil first-place winner took those). But writing a 500-word essay—easy. What was my essay about? How pizza is actually marketing. Yes, being a goofball can pay.

And my latest serving of confectionery, a roundabout way of “winning” a contest: a couple of years ago I entered an unsold travel piece I had languishing on my computer to Dave’s Travel Corner, a popular travel site. I won second place in that contest, which awarded a hundred bucks, some travel books and some other oddities. But it won me some attention from Dave, who later invited me to be a writer for his site for some press trips, one though the Florida Keys and one at a luxury hotel in Vegas.

These trips are all-expenses paid, where the writers get treated to all kinds of amazing scenic/historic/crazy venues, gobble foods at places most couldn’t afford to gobble, and be out and about, goggled-eyed, in this wondrous country of ours. Or in other countries: the latest one I was invited on leaves late this coming Thursday for 9 days in Myanmar. Myanmar! That ain’t the Long Beach, CA suburb I was raised in.

Contesting the Contests
Yes, writing contests often have entry fees, but they often are reasonable: $10–$15 dollars that might win you $500-$1,000, plus some of the perks mentioned above. And you might find contests for which you already have the story or essay written, but never found a home for it. I won $1,000 for paying $15 to enter a National Steinbeck Center fiction contest a long ways back, for a story I’d written in college. I didn’t think I had a prayer to win that contest, but I said “why not?” and entered. That was a good feeling.

Subscribe to Hope Clark’s free (or paid, for more entry opps) newsletter that has lots of good contests. So does Moira’s Allen’s Writing World newsletter. And Poets and Writers magazine has a searchable list of writing contests that you can filter for fees and genres.

Say “why not” to contests. Why not? And if you happen to be in Mandalay in the coming two weeks, let me know.

Writing Conferences: Whoopee or Whoopee Cushion?

Roosevelt Hotel

Does everyone else always wonder if someone’s having more fun in their hotel?

Writing conferences can be a grab bag of goodies and ghastlies, and what sounds like such a soaring boon to your writing wits on the program page can become a glaze-eyed dust bowl when you’re plunked in your chair at a presentation. I was at last weekend’s Writer’s Digest West Conference in Hollywood, and it was the usual mix of fruit and nuts, though many of the offerings were tasty.

Being set in Hollywood, there was a lot of glitter on the grounds, seeing as how we were ensconced at the Loews Hollywood, in the Dolby Center right off the Boulevard, set in the midst of a panoply of glitzy shops and eateries accessed by a spidering array of cross-courtyard escalators and walkways. The only star of any consequence I saw was on a 50-foot poster of Daniel Craig pushing the latest Bonding, though there were a couple of Nikki Minaj-lookalikes that had apparently been baked in one of the wood-fired makeup ovens at a local salon.

Several of the conference presentations and workshops were held in big, airy rooms with comfy chairs and plenty of tables so that you could take notes on the next chapter of your zombie-vampire-federal budget epic, while presenters flagellated the crowd on the wobbly knees of publishing today and how in this time of vital authorial authenticity, it’s now necessary to send your fans small pieces of your flesh as well as your imagination.

Pitch Slam or Mosh Pit?

Actually, I loved Chuck Wendig’s “25 Ways to Earn Your Audience” talk, though I do willingly gravitate toward speakers who consistently use variants of the word “poop” imaginatively. Got some good stuff out of the Hardcore Author Marketing panel too. But one of the main reasons I attended the event was to pitch my just-finished novel at the literary agent pitch slam, and for some reason, the organizers held that event in one of the smaller conference rooms, that packed in 20+ agents, plus what seemed to be every conference attendee and most of the homeless people on Hollywood Boulevard (hard to distinguish between the two groups), so that it was literally quite hard to hear in the ensuing din.

Because of the maze of lines and the teeming (and steaming) attendance, I was only able to pitch 3 of my intended 7 agents, and felt lucky that one requested a full manuscript. The other two were happy that I didn’t ask them for a handout, though if I would have seen them in the lobby bar later, I would have, since I paid $18 there for a Manhattan. Probably just as well, because if I had a few more of those, I would have been offering those authorial pieces of flesh to reluctant takers, and the ensuing handcuffs would have bruised my delicate wrists. Instead, I got to go back to my 12-floor room and stare at the lovely old facade of the Roosevelt Hotel and its charming neon sign, and then pass out (in a writerly way).

Back that Poop Up

A little coda to the event: as I said, I was given a request for the full manuscript of my new novel from an agent. When I came home, I scrambled through some last-minute edits, which seemed to scramble the hard drive of my not-that-old Macbook Pro. Thus, I had a few electric moments of panic when I thought my manuscript (and all of my business writing besides, since it’s my business computer) was lost. Gack!

But being the tidy sort, I did have a fairly recent backup, and was able to stumble through using an external drive to boot the machine, edit and get the damn thing printed and off in the mail. Indeed the hard drive had given up the ghost; probably a consequence of me putting naughty bits in my new novel, which you’ll see me peddling soon on Hollywood Boulevard.

Authorial bits of flesh extra.

Don’t Throw a Slow Curve at the Pitch Session for Your Novel

No literary agent could have resisted Koufax’s fastball


I had a fun experience last night. If by “fun” you mean something before which I ground my teeth for a few hours. My great local bookstore held a Pitchpalooza, where the publishing-expert “Book Doctors” listened to the pitches of would-be authors about their works.

Because I’m going to a bigger version of this event in a couple of weeks, where I’ll present my just-completed novel, I thought this would be good practice. So I practiced worrying about it, and predictably, came up with a flat book-report style of pitch, rather than something with some kick. After hearing the critiques of the book doctors after just a few of the initial presentations, I realized that my meat-and-potatoes pitch had no spice. Here’s the first paragraph of what I worked with:

My novel is the story of three San Franciscans who are thrown together by the earthquake of 1989, and that incident dramatically changes their lives. One is a proofreader at a leasing company, another is his prim, workaholic female boss, and another a homeless man who begs outside their office. The proofreader is a sarcastic but good guy who is secretly working on a novel. His boss is a former editor at a boutique publishing house in Boston who has a hidden alcohol problem, and the homeless man is a Vietnam vet whose wife and children left him because of his alcoholism. He has since straightened up.


This is what I wrote in three minutes this morning (after my evening of self-grousing); I’ll tinker with it yet, but it at least has movement the other lacked:

Wisecracking, horny Hayden is the disgruntled proofreading coordinator at a large San Francisco leasing company. His big secret is that he’s writing a novel that he hopes will change his fortunes. His prim, workaholic boss, a former editor at a publishing house, has a secret too: she’s a hidden alcoholic. The homeless guy who begs outside their office, once a hopeless drunk himself, wouldn’t know and wouldn’t care about these office intrigues. That is, until the 1989 earthquake throws all their fates together—in life-altering ways.

Warming Up Before Pitching (Pitching Resources)

Before I went to the Pitchpalooza, I read a lot of good information online about pitching. Here is some of the best:

This one from ScriptMag is on screenwriting, but the essentials apply to all kinds of writing.

The Guide to Literary Agents blog has lots of good info on pitching. Here’s literary agent Miriam Kriss on the perfect pitch.

Here is the site’s editor, Chuck Sambuchino, breaking down a successful pitch for a middle-grade/YA book, and again for a women’s fiction work.

And former literary agent Nathan Bransford (whose site is a rich repository of publishing industry info) has a good piece on pitching, with many commenters replying with pitches of their own.

Finally, on Meet the Author, you can go through a broad list of successful authors giving 60- or 90-second overviews of what their work is about. Some of these folks wander—often amusingly—about in the garden patch of their pitch, but they can do that—they already landed the contract.

Note: just to show you what a muttonhead I can be, I’d read all this great advice and still came up with a pitch that lolled in a chair sleeping. My revision still needs work, but I know now that you pitch with a fastball, and not a hanging curve.

2012 Guide to Literary Agents Giveaway

Guide to Literary Agents

Ooh, free stuff. Better yet, good free stuff! That good stuff is the 2012 edition of the Guide to Literary Agents, which has comprehensive contact listings of agents and agencies, tells you what they are looking for in regards novels and nonfiction books, and supplies submission tips and writerly suggestions. And one of you glittery souls who merely puts in a comment here will be shipped a free copy of the guide. (Gotta be a U.S. address—sorry!)

Besides all the agency listings, the book has lots of articles on what makes agents happy with your submissions, and what makes them cranky. There’s also a section on writing conferences and screenwriting. This is the book for you even if you can’t decide if your novel is YA or DOA. The guide also includes an updated online subscription to agent listings.

Shameless Plug
What will undoubtedly thrill you down to your very tippy-toesies is knowing that there’s an article of mine in the book. It’s somewhat of a how-to on setting up (and getting something out of) a personal writer’s retreat. That’s a freebie too.

Even if you don’t have a manuscript or book proposal ready for an agent, you might want to swim in the comment stream just to get stimulated. I’ll take all your names and select one at random. I’ll cut off the contest a week from today, and I’ll let the winner know by email.

And to my pals who drop by and comment on a regular basis, no, I’m not going to cheat and choose one of you just because you’re pretty. Grow up. This is legit. (But you still have a chance in the random drawing. And you’re still pretty.)

Writing: Wrangling With, Warbling About, and Wobbling After

Writing Quills for Desert Conferences

I came back yesterday from Wrangling with Writing, a 3-day writing conference in Tucson, AZ put on by the Society of Southwestern Authors. I got a full ride for the conference (hotel and meals too) on the virtue of penning a variation of this Why I Write essay for their scholarship contest. Of course, the real reason why I write is because I’m so fond of the closing parenthesis mark (the open-parens glyph is too glib for me), but it was fun to be in the company of so many writers.

Because I write such a fruit salad of stuff, my workshops were all over the place, from short-story essences, to how to pitch agents to mastering point of view to “all about ebooks” and more. There were a couple of entertaining keynotes, including one where Stephanie Elizondo Griest essentially did a slam poetry reading, including dancing out her book excerpts with bossa nova moves and other vocal and visual atmospherics. (I checked her site and it says she studied “tribal gypsy belly dance” for six years, which is undoubtedly helpful for contract negotiations.)

Hey, Faulkner Used the Juice Too
I had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out a bit with Chuck Sambuchino, an author and the editor of the Guide to Literary Agents, and someone I’ve written for in the past. It was also jolly to meet another of his writers, Ricki Schultz, who demonstrated how to drink a cocktail on her birthday. (Sadly, there were no lampshades involved.) Writers do like to take a drink now and then (mostly now), which is probably why a couple of the guys seemed to want to show their dangling participles to a few of the fetching agents and attendees. I don’t think there are any lasting psychological scars, though.

Besides making some helpful contacts, I came away from the conference with new angles on and motivations toward editing—and then submitting—some material I’ve been sitting on for a while, as well as a nice feeling of writerly collegiality, but then again, it may have been the martinis. Here’s a good list of writing conferences from around the country. Check ’em out—it might only take you submitting an essay to nab an invitation. I think “How I Used Tribal Gypsy Belly Dance to Elude Freaks at the Bar” might be a good topic.