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”

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

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

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”

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

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.

Continue reading “Dealing with writing contest disappointment”

Interview with Amie Denman—and giveaway!

Amie DenmanLast month, I was lucky enough to get to read an advance copy of Amie Denman’s HER LUCKY CATCH. I loved it so much it became one of my top contemporary romance reads for February. Laugh-out-loud funny with a down-to-earth heroine, Her Lucky Catch caught me from its opening pages.

I’m so glad to have Amie here today. Her Lucky Catch is coming out on February 27th, and Amie’s giving away a copy to one lucky commenter, so make sure you say hello or ask her a question!

Welcome, Amie!

1. I love hearing new authors’ publication stories. How did it happen for you?

I’ve been writing a novel in my head, on paper, or with a keyboard for twenty years. My early manuscript attempts look like a technology timeline! Big square floppy disks, zip drives, discarded laptops, sleek thumb drives, and even stacks of paper give testimony to my undying desire to keep trying to find a home for the characters in my head.

Her Lucky CatchHer Lucky Catch was, I think, the sixth full-length novel I finished—maybe the seventh, there were a few forgettable ones along the way…

Although I’d submitted earlier manuscripts to different houses and gathered many rejections, Carina Press was the first and only place I sent Her Lucky Catch.

I had a wonderful gut feeling about Carina before it even opened its doors. I attended the Carina “launch party” at the Romantic Times Convention in 2010 and sat in the back of the room listening with fascination to Angela James and other Harlequin executives talk about the new line. I resolved then to write something fresh to submit. Her Lucky Catch was a bit of a risk for me because it was the first novel I had written in the first person with comic intentions.

Turns out, I loved using that voice. Carina must have liked it, too, because I did NOT get a rejection. Instead, I got a very polite “revise and resubmit” from Angela James. I considered this hugely encouraging and knocked myself out making the suggested changes.

I’ll admit, I was a little less enthusiastic when I got a second “revise and resubmit” but I didn’t give up. I figured if my wonderful Carina editor, Gina Bernal, saw enough potential in the manuscript to ask for another revision, it really was a good sign.

A few months later, I received a message on my answering machine from Carina with an offer of publication. I had to rush upstairs to my computer to read the follow-up email confirming the offer—just in case a prank caller decided to pose as Angela James. I still get a tidal wave of happy endorphins just remembering the moment I got the offer.

And I believe in signs! The day I sent off the second “R & R,” I hopped in my car to go shopping. I got stuck behind a slow boat on a trailer on the highway. The boat’s name? Sunshine. In Her Lucky Catch, my hottie fireman Kurt uses the nickname Sunshine for my heroine. I smiled all the way home.

2. Her Lucky Catch is set in the quirky town of Bluegill. Have you ever lived in a place like Bluegill? Is it based on somewhere you know, or is it purely from your imagination?

Although the name has been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty—I’m an equal opportunity author), I live in a town that is exactly like Bluegill. It’s a wonderful place on a lake in the Midwest that happens to have a quaint marina and a snazzy fireboat just like in Her Lucky Catch. It’s the kind of town where kids learn to ride bikes in the church parking lot, people leave their houses unlocked, and secrets have a very short shelf-life.

3. You have Her Lucky Catch coming out this month from Carina Press, and you also have a couple of books out with Turquoise Morning Press. What’s it like working with two publishers?

Blue Bottle BeachMy experience with both houses has been overwhelmingly positive and a great opportunity to connect with a circle of authors and learn from them. Turquoise Morning Press is a smaller press than Carina, but it is also only a few years old. It’s exciting to be fairly close to the ground floor at both places, and I think both of them really want to “grow” their authors. Gosh, I hope so!

My novels with Turquoise Morning Press, Blue Bottle Beach and Will Work for Love (October 2012), are more serious contemporary romances. I’m hoping—fingers crossed!—Her Lucky Catch might have a sibling with Carina in the next year.

4. Her Lucky Catch isn’t out yet but it’s already getting really good reviews. Do you have something special lined up to celebrate release day?

Being featured on terrific blogs like yours is a great way to celebrate. Thanks very much for your generous review and invitation to be here today.

What will I do on the actual release date? My friends have asked the same thing. Seriously, this is a dream come true! It’s tempting to dial 911 and ask for a truck full of the hottest firefighters in town to help me celebrate. Think they’d let me blow the siren?

Honestly, I’ll probably look at the Carina website or Amazon twelve million times then go out to dinner with my family. I believe Jazz would recommend a margarita or two and I know just the place.

5. Your writing style reminded me a lot of Kristan Higgins. You have funny characters but also a lot of poignant scenes. Who are some of the authors who’ve inspired you?

For great stories and a laugh, I go with Janet Evanovich, Kristan Higgins, Jill Shalvis, and Shannon Stacey. For a more serious romantic read, I love Julia Quinn, Mary Balogh, Lisa Kleypas, Susan Wiggs, and Nora Roberts.


Amie’s giving away a digital copy of Her Lucky Catch to one person who leaves a comment. I’ll randomly choose a winner on Tuesday February 28th!

Commenters will also automatically be entered into my $25 gift certificate giveaway.