Questions to ask yourself before entering a romance writing contest

The first year I started writing romance, I entered shed-loads of writing contests. The next year, I was more selective and had learned that not all writing contests are equal.

This weekend I spent some time looking through dozens of romance writing contests that have their deadlines over the next few months, and I found myself judging the contests themselves based on several criteria.

For those of you thinking about entering romance writing contests, my best advice would be this: First decide what you want out of the contest.

That will help you select the best contests for you.

Winner's Circle
The place to be

Here are some of the criteria I use to decide which contests to enter. I’ll also mention a couple of contests that I think are good examples of meeting these criteria, but please note that that doesn’t mean that I have personal experience of or endorse those particular contests. Also, some of these contest deadlines have passed for 2012, but you may want to know about them for the future.

You can find a really helpful list of upcoming romance writing contests on Stephie Smith’s website.

Continue reading “Questions to ask yourself before entering a romance writing contest”

Tools for culling repetitious words from your writing

Before I started working in charity communications, I spent four years teaching English as a foreign language in Prague and London.

One of my first classes was full of Czech bankers who gave up their Saturdays to learn English. They were an intermediate-level group, so they could make themselves understood but were far from fluent. They were also one of my favorite classes to teach because every single one of them was enthusiastic and fearless, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into every activity I planned. We spent our Saturdays laughing together.

Half-way through the year, their boss (who was paying for their classes) visited to find out what they thought of their teacher. She interrupted my class with no warning and spoke with them in Czech, so I only understood the gist of what was going on. The boss asked them a question; my students smiled at me.

“Awesome!” one of them shouted, giving me a big thumbs-up.

“Yes, she’s totally awesome!” another agreed, also with a thumbs-up.

Thumbs up
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It was the moment I realized I always praised them in the same way. “Awesome answer, Jiri!” “Your pronunciation was totally awesome, Pavel!” Big thumbs-up from Katrina.

Yes, I’d just moved to the Czech Republic from Los Angeles. And no, I didn’t claim to be teaching them proper English.

We all have words that slip into our speech more than others. When they infiltrate our writing, it becomes a problem. There are certain words my readers nail me for over and over. When Kaki Warner read an early draft of my second manuscript, she noted how many times I referred to my characters’ stomachs and bellies. That’s where they carried all of their emotions. (Her stomach clenched. His belly knotted.)

These repetitions are usually invisible to me – of course they are, otherwise I wouldn’t let them survive the first edit. But once someone points them out, I see how obvious they are.

I’ve found a couple of fun ways to visualize my writing and help me cull repetitious words.

Continue reading “Tools for culling repetitious words from your writing”

Becoming pitch perfect

A couple of weeks ago, I signed up to take part in Savvy Authors‘ Pitch Practice Week (seriously, if you’re not a savvy author already, go join now! So many fantastic resources and opportunities).

We were invited over to Pitch University, a site dedicated to helping authors learn how to pitch. The amazing Diane Holmes, founder of Pitch University, chose six of us to make examples out of – in the most pleasant way possible.

I learned loads from Diane, and hope this post showing the different steps we went through together will help you get over any fears you have. (And, if you make it to the end, I’ll show you my practice pitch video.)

I’ve never pitched anything before. The only pitches I’d ever seen were on The Apprentice and, let’s face it, pitches like this one are more likely to fill me with fear of crashing and burning. (Aside: isn’t it great how the guys in this video assume the wife should do the cleaning, and create a product so she’ll have time and energy left over to pleasure her husband? Lovely.)

These are the steps I went through with Diane.

1. Figure out the expectations you ‘re setting with your query or pitch.

For me, it was easier to start with my query because I had no idea what a successful pitch looked like (hint: Diane has loads of pitch videos on her site, so I’ll link to them later in this post).

Diane made a fantastic point that your query can be beautifully written, but if it doesn’t match the story then you’ve just hooked an agent or editor on something that doesn’t exist.

She read my query and made notes about what she expected the characters to be like and what she thought happened. You can read my query and her expectations here. Then you can read my responses where I realize that some of the expectations I set don’t fit my story.

I can’t tell you how useful this was, and I’ve never seen anyone else suggest it before. My advice to you: do this with someone who doesn’t know your story at all.

2. Correct the wrong expectations you’ve set and figure out where to focus your pitch/query.

Through working with Diane (you can read our back-and-forth conversation about my story) I was able to see which parts of the story I should emphasize more.

3. Write your pitch.

Diane gives some very helpful guidance on writing a pitch. You can also find her series on Pitching 101 on the right-hand side of that page. There’s too much advice for me to replicate it here, but go read it.

4. Watch yourself pitch.

This can be really awful. When I took a public speaking class in college, the professor videoed every one of our speeches and made us watch them. Excruciating. But also pretty useful for forcing you to see what kinds of strange mannerisms you have when you’re nervous, and hear the places where you need to put more oomph into your voice.

Here are some great pitch videos from other Savvy Authors.

You can record your own video directly onto YouTube – you don’t have to show it to anyone. Just get used to the sound of yourself pitching, and make note of where you should trim your sentences because they’re difficult to say out loud.

Okay, moment of truth. I’m sharing my pitch practice video with you. It’s way too long – I’ll never remember all those words when I’m pitching for real. So I still have work to do. But at least now I’m more confident I can deliver.

A few words of warning before you hit play: My mic sucks, and so does my voice. This is what I sound like with a stuffy nose and a sore throat (which is why you’ll see me grimace and swallow hard whenever I try to put more enthusiasm into my voice). The main thing going through my head was “Whatever you do, DON’T sneeze on the camera!” By the end, my throat was killing me.

So yeah, pity me.

BONUS! Helpful info from super-agent Sara Megibow!

Sara Megibow hosted an #askagent session on Twitter the other day, and I asked her what some of her favorite follow-up questions are if someone’s hooked her in a pitch – because you don’t want to nail your pitch and then fluff the rest of the meeting.

She said, “I like to ask, ‘have you queried this?’ ‘Do you have a website?’ ‘What’s your vision for your career?’ I also ask, ‘what other authors in your genre do you love?’ ‘Do you know any of them personally?’

Hope that’s helpful to all of you heading to RWA Nationals next week! I’ll see you there!

Have you ever pitched before? What kind of experience did you have? What follow-up questions did the agent or editor ask?

Dealing with negative feedback

In my day job, I write for and edit a large website. I’m fortunate enough to have a manager who’s taught me a lot about both disciplines. Since Charles is a former journalist and an experienced editor, I asked if he could write some tips on how to deal with negative feedback on your writing. (And if you think any feedback you’ve received is harsh, check out these rejection letters.)

Keep in mind that this is the man who regularly covers my stories in red ink, and who has to deal with my demands for gold-star stickers when he hands back a flawless story.

Here’s his advice:

If you want to publish your work, you need to accept you aren’t writing purely for yourself anymore. You’re writing for your readers, which means you’re automatically making other people’s opinions about your work important. If you don’t or can’t accept that early on, you’re going to find it all very upsetting.

But it’s not a free-for-all. Some feedback is unhelpful. It can be vague (“I just didn’t like it”), irrelevant (“This historical fiction would be better with lasers”) or from someone who isn’t your target audience anyway (“I ain’t much for book-larnin'”). I’d also tend to distrust feedback that feels like it’s rewriting your work for you (“it would be better here if, instead of proposing to Juliet, Romeo shacked up with Rosaline, and had a falling out with Benvolio”). You might not like getting feedback like this, but instead of worrying that it’s negative, you should probably just ignore it because it isn’t useful.

Useful feedback can be prosaic and mechanical (“I don’t understand this sentence”, “I don’t think you intend this paragraph to mean what it does”) or about how someone feels about what you’ve written (“I hated the character of Steve, but it felt like I was supposed to like him”, “I didn’t believe it when the ghost turned out to be the old caretaker wearing a mask”). With that second kind of feedback, you need to probe further and find out *why* a reader feels that way so you know what needs fixing.

Criticism helps you tell the story you want, in the way you want to tell it. You need other people to give you that feedback, because it’s really hard, and sometimes impossible, to know how other people will read and respond to something you’ve written.

It might be upsetting and demoralising to hear that someone doesn’t get from your writing what you want them to get from it, but it probably isn’t personal. Your writing is not you. It’s not even your story, your setting or your characters – it’s how well you’ve communicated them. And that can be fixed, by taking on board feedback and communicating them better.

What have been the most important lessons you’ve learned about how to deal with negative feedback on your writing?

Brenda Novak’s auction o’goodness for diabetes research

I stumbled upon a link on Joanna Bourne’s blog where she mentions that she’s auctioning off a critique. It’s part of Brenda Novak’s 6th annual auction to raise money for diabetes research.

And holy crap if there isn’t a boat-load of goodies on offer – from critiques by agents and editors, to a six-month mentorship with Brenda Novak. Here’s the list of stuff you can bid for. Most of the auctions run throughout May, but some end earlier or only run for one day.

Part of me would feel strange about getting a critique and knowing I only earned it by paying for it. But, as someone who works for a charity and has several diabetic family members (including an uncle who lost a leg because of it), I have no qualms about setting a limit I’m able to donate and hoping I get something out of it. After all, I donate to the charity I work for and others just because it’s the right thing to do, so why not take part in a fun fundraiser as well?

If you bid on something and win, I’d love to know about it. Here’s hoping Brenda raises a million!