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.

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Why does an agent have to love your novel before they can sell it?

(Warning: long post ahoy! Get yourself some chamomile and find a comfy chair. I hope you’ll stick with me till the end, even if it’s because you think I’m full of dookie.)

Broken heartThere are all kinds of rejections in the writing world, but for writers the most frustrating may be: “I just didn’t love it enough.”

Especially when it’s followed by the phrase: “This is a subjective business, and I’m sure someone else will love it.”

There are a few reasons these are frustrating things to hear. First, publishing isn’t really a subjective business. Sure, groundbreaking books can be discovered by an agent or editor’s instinct, or a gut feeling. But a wealth of hard data available in the publishing industry helps professionals assess a book’s chances of being successful.

Second, and much more importantly, “I just didn’t love it” is frustrating because I don’t know how to fix that. Writers improve their stories by receiving feedback from readers—whether those readers are also editors, agents, writers, or someone who just loves to read. If someone can’t tell me why they didn’t love my story, then I don’t know what to change or how to improve it.

But writers have to be fair to agents. I’ve seen many comments online where writers complain that agents won’t give them feedback. Personally, as frustrating as I know those rejections are, I can’t for the life of me figure out why these writers would think an agent owes it to them—and to the thousand other people they reject in a month—to give personal feedback.

Every business has its frustrations, and in the writing business one of the biggies is unexplained rejection.

I’ve also seen several posts lately where agents talk about only taking on projects they love, and writers challenge them. The commenters’ position seems to be: “Agents are basically salespeople, and good salespeople should be able to sell anything, no matter how they feel about it.”

In any business where people from different disciplines have to work together to bring a product to market, it’s vital that everyone takes time to think about difficult issues from other perspectives. I’m not an agent; I don’t have an agent; and I’ve never talked to an agent about this subject. Excuse me if I’m being naïve, but I’d like to defend agents here.

So why does an agent have to love your novel before they can sell it?

1. Because they’re more likely to be successful if they’re selling something they love.

Like/ Dislike stampsBottom line: agents want projects they can sell. This is their career, and that’s what puts food on the table.

A good agent will work her or his ass off to sell their clients’ books. That includes putting in effort to make it more likely to sell; for example, by giving editorial advice to an author.

Any salesperson who says feeling passionate about a product makes no difference is full of it. Writers, have you ever tried to pitch a novel you felt *meh* about? Have you tried to fake enthusiasm for one of your projects? How did it go?

2. Because why shouldn’t they only choose projects they love, if they have the choice?

Let me shift the focus away from agents and onto myself for a second. For five years now, I’ve worked in digital marketing for non-profits. The nitty-gritty of my job can sometimes amount to a big ball of annoyance, as anyone who spends all day working with websites, social media and large organizations can understand.

But at the end of my day, I absolutely love what I do, not because I’m passionate about the internet (though I usually am), but because I’m passionate about the charities I work for.

At this point in my career, I’m lucky that I can choose who I ply my trade for. Could I conceivably do the same thing for a corporation? Sure. Why not? But if I have the choice of getting paid to do something I’m passionate about versus doing something just for the money, passion wins.

If an agent is successful enough that they can choose the projects they want to represent, why the hell shouldn’t they?

3. Because “salesperson” is only one of the hats they wear.

Editor, career advisor, therapist, negotiator…and if they own their own agency, then all of the skills that come with being a small business owner and manager, too.

A good agent will spend a lot of time dealing with each book, and if they’re not passionate about it in the beginning, then how likely will it be that they grow to loathe it by the time they finish dealing with it?

4. Because books are not refrigerators.

Agent Jenny Bent has a great post on her blog where she has a conversation with author Mike Wells about what it means to love a book you’re selling, and why it’s important. Here’s Mike Wells’ original post: What literary agents could learn from the Girl Scouts.

In her post, Jenny says:

I’m not selling a refrigerator, after all. If I’m selling refrigerators, I don’t have to love them: they’re pretty impersonal—I can judge them on objective criteria. And pretty much everyone needs to buy a refrigerator at some point. Everyone likes them. And with girl scout cookies, you don’t have to like them to know there’s a huge market. But the only way I can even guess if other people will like a novel is if I like it too. It’s completely subjective. Unless, of course, there has been market research in the shape of self-publishing.

There are lots of interesting things to pull out here, but for me the difference between a refrigerator and a novel isn’t one of objectivity vs. subjectivity. It’s one of necessity vs luxury.

It would be difficult for most of us to live without a refrigerator anymore. Refrigerator design might change a bit, but if your fridge dies then you’re going to bite the bullet and do your best to buy a new one.

Paper heart
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Let’s face it: unless you stick it under a broken table leg, a novel is not a practical item. Passionate readers consider them a necessity, but our food won’t spoil without them. What agents are selling to publishers is a luxury item.

Jenny mentions having to guess what other people want to read. In other words, readers are not just the end of the publishing process—they’re the beginning. Their desires are what agents and editors are trying to fulfill (since that’s how the industry makes money), and if an agent doesn’t love a story how can they convince an editor that enough readers will want to buy it?

5. Because it’s a myth that a good salesperson can sell anything.

Like I said earlier, this seems to be the basis for many writers’ frustrations. “I don’t care if you love my work, I just want you to sell it.”

Sure, lots of salespeople have to sell things they’re not passionate about and end up having to fake enthusiasm over and over.

But I think there’s a pervasive myth that a good salesperson could “sell ice to the Eskimos” and other crappy clichés.

Anyone who’s seen The Apprentice will know that people who say things like “Everything I touch turns to sold” end up looking like twits.

So what can writers do about it?

Keep your passion.

Simple, right?

I don’t know about you, but by the time I query an agent, I’ve probably read my novel a dozen times from start to finish. It can be tough to keep the love alive. So do whatever you have to do to reignite your love for your story—whether that’s by starting a different book, or taking a break, or sending it off to a trusted reader for feedback.

Above all else, remember that you are the first person who has to sell the book. And if you don’t love it, why should an agent?

What do you think? If you’re a writer, does this kind of rejection frustrate you? How do you deal with it? How do you keep your own passion for your work alive, and show your passion when you’re trying to sell your work to agents and editors?

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.

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Dealing with writing contest disappointment

Last week calls went out to a few dozen special romance writers – finalists in the RITA and Golden Heart contests, put on every year by the Romance Writers of America.

I didn’t get a call.

Broken heart
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Rejection is always difficult to accept. When a creative project you’ve spent months – or years – working on is rejected, it’s agonizing.

I love the day the RITA and Golden Heart calls go out. For a romance writer, it’s the most exciting day of the year, even more so than the night when the winners are announced. Everyone starts the day full of excitement, and there are massive amounts of congratulations across Twitter, Facebook and blogs.

But as the day goes on, people begin to lose heart. At least, that’s how I feel. I see my category filling up with finalists, and I check my phone for missed calls. I cheer for my friends and for complete strangers, but inside I die a little.

So how do you deal with contest disappointment? Here’s what I do.

1. Remind yourself that the contest isn’t your actual goal.

The Golden Heart is amazing. Thrilling. And it can be really tempting to think it’s the ultimate goal since it’s so much fun. But my goal is to be published. The Golden Heart would be one step on that path, but it’s not the only way to get there. And it’s not my end goal.

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Interview with Lisa Dale – and giveaway!

Lisa Dale
Photo by Eric Rank

A couple of years ago, I began hearing about an author who wrote very smart contemporary romantic novels. I picked up Lisa Dale’s It Happened One Night and fell in love with her style.

Lisa’s intelligence and curiosity about a wide array of subjects shine through her stories. She’s here today talking about her latest release, A Promise of Safekeeping, and giving away a copy of her previous novel, Slow Dancing on Price’s Pier.

Welcome, Lisa!

Thank you tons for having me!

1. Your novels always feature characters who have really interesting careers – or maybe it’s the way you include fascinating bits of your research into your novels that makes their careers seem so interesting. From astronomy to flowers to the history of coffee, you cover a wide range of topics. What’s been your most interesting subject to research, and what can we look forward to reading more about in A Promise of Safekeeping?

I love all of it! I’m as nerdy as it gets…so I’ve always got my nose in a book and am trying to learn new things. Part of that comes from being a writer: we have to know things like, what certain flowers are called, what certain trees are, what are the architectural parts of a building and what period are they from…etc. Knowing those kinds of things aids in writing good descriptions.

A Promise of SafekeepingMy characters’ careers are often just an excuse for me to dig into a subject. Lauren, in A Promise of Safekeeping, is a body language expert—which is SOOOOOO fascinating. Lauren’s great at her job, but not so good at reading body language in her personal life. She can tell if a criminal is lying…but her love life is a different story. What kind of person would you be if you could read the words beneath the words?

The hero, Will, is an antiques dealer, and I think that’s because I’m starting to realize that I’m infatuated by the concept of history, by the notion of so many lives and experiences happening in the same space, by history being all around us, right now, in the present.

Will collects antique keys, which reflects the themes of “keeping” and “locking away” that run through the book. Old keys embody what I love about antiques: the mystery of the past. The inherent opaqueness of it. What did this key secret away? Or, who did it imprison? Who was it meant to keep out? I think this idea of the layers of history has been a latent theme of my writing that is just starting to come out in A Promise of Safekeeping, and more in my W-I-P.

2. Your characters face enormous challenges that many readers will recognize from their own lives. To me, this makes their happily-ever-after all the more satisfying. Do you get many emails from readers who’ve experienced the challenges your characters have?

Continue reading “Interview with Lisa Dale – and giveaway!”