Showing posts with label contests. Show all posts
Showing posts with label contests. Show all posts

22 July 2019

When to Enter

by Steve Liskow

Many moons ago, I discussed why I enter so few writing contests. If there is a hefty entry fee, I stay away. If I don't know the judges or feel comfortable with the criteria, ditto.

But sometimes, dumb luck gives you an advantage, and it's true of both contests and submissions to anthologies. If you're in the right place at the right time, there are ways to get an inside track.

Several years ago, I learned about the Black Orchid Novella Award. I had a short story that never sold, and I expanded it into a novella and won. Yes, writing a good story helps, but the Black Orchid Novella Award pays tribute to Rex Stout and his detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. My parents liked Stout, so I read many of his novels and novellas when I was young. We were both raised in the Midwest, so his voice and rhythm and characters influenced my own writing. In other words, writing a story that fit the contest's requirements was definitely in my skill set.

I've entered two stories in that contest, and won both times. Since it's an annual event, the submission dates are standard, which means I know when to have a story ready and have a whole year to come up with an idea (or not) and rewrite until it's worth sending. That means no rushing, important because I can't rush. I've written on demand, but it always takes me several revisions, which means lots of time.

My titles should tell you I like blues and rock and roll. Several years ago, I wrote a blog about plagiarism in rock music. Among other performers, I mentioned Led Zeppelin and their frequent "borrowing" from blues artists. That idea was fresh in my mind when the Mystery Writers of America posted a submission call for an anthology with the theme of "Vengeance," to be edited by Lee Child.

Well, Child's first novel is Killing Floor, a title taken from an old Howlin' Wolf blues classic. Led Zeppelin milked it dry for a song they called "The Lemon Song" on their second LP. Child has another novel called Bad Luck and Trouble, a line that appears in both "Born Under a Bad Sign" by William Bell and Albert King and "Double Trouble" by Otis Rush.

I figured Child was a fan of American Blues. What if I could write a story about a blues songwriter who stole a song and the results caught up with him? I called it "Hot Sugar Blues" and hoped the title would help the story get through the gatekeepers to Child himself. It appeared in the anthology and was later named a finalist for the Edgar Award.

Yes, I think it was a good story, but it still needed the right audience. You can help that happen.

Several years ago, I joined four other writers judging submissions for the Al Blanchard Story Award, sponsored by the New England Chapter of MWA. Let me share what that five-month stint taught me.

The submission time was three months, and we received 142 stories of 5000 words or less. Only a dozen came in during the first several weeks, and only 41 through the sixth week, so I read them all, Because I was used to reading lots of papers, I read EVERY story (even though I only had to read every fourth one) and took notes. (Some people have lives. I'm not one of them). I graded them all from 1 to 10 and made a spread sheet of my comments.

I didn't award any story a 9 or 10, but I gave NINETY-ONE stories a 1 or 2. That's right, nearly 2/3 of the entries earned that score, and for the same reason(s). They started with turgid--often unnecessary--backstory and most of them wallowed in description. They tended to tell rather than show, had little or poor dialogue, and a few had endings that came out of nowhere.

Don't do those things.

A whopping 41 stories came in the last day of the contest. Don't do that, either. By then, judges are in a hurry. They're looking for a reason to dump you and move on, so a typo, a badly-chosen name, or a cliche may be enough to knock you out on page one.

If a contest takes submissions for three months, I like to wait about six weeks. That gives readers time to go through enough entries to establish a personal standard of their own. They still have enough time to be flexible, though, so they'll give leeway to something a little different. When the time crush kicks in (the last two weeks), they may already have their personal favorites locked in and it's hard to dislodge them. Hit them when they're still comfortable.

Keep in mind that judging is ALWAYS subjective, no matter how specific the criteria, and no matter whether it's for a contest, an anthology, or a standard submission. Three of the five stories I rated the highest in the contest I judged didn't make anyone else's short list, but seventeen of the stories I rated a 1 or a 2 DID.

Not long ago, an editor turned down my submission because he liked the story but didn't like the golf that was essential to the plot. He never explained why. I sold the story elsewhere in two weeks. Maybe if I'd used tennis or Jai alai, it would have sold the first time out.

You never know. But some guesses are better than others.

26 February 2018

To Pay or Not to Play...

by Steve Liskow

A contest I used to enter regularly (It was free, see below) now sports the following headline on its web page: "Submissions for the 2017 **** Contest are closed. The 2018 contest will open on January 1, 2018." Today is February 26 and that banner was still there when I uploaded this essay.

Yesterday, I found a website for a magazine with exactly the same message. Their submission period will open "sometime after January 1, 2018."

Not encouraging...

When I was trying to break into publishing (An accurate phrase for a crime writer, right?), people urged me to enter contests. If I won, I'd catch the attention of editors and agents, and they'd take me more seriously.


But not all contests and awards are created equal. Winning a Pulitzer, an Agatha or an Edgar means something. Second runner-up in the Oblivion County Limerick Derby won't raise many eyebrows.

There are a few problems every writer encounters in writing contests--or even submitting to a magazine or anthology--but I've learned to recognize warning signs.

One is a website that's hard to navigate, or that's out of date, like the two I mentioned above. If you can't find details like a theme, length, formatting, or if there's an entry fee (more about that in a few minutes), you should look elsewhere.

Another is weird judging or criteria.
Yes, no matter how much the judges have a rubric, at some point personal preference will come into play. Every time you send something out, subjectivity is a fact of life, but it should be less crucial in a contest than for regular publication...especially if you pay an entry fee. You won't know this until it's too late, but don't make the same mistake twice.

One judge doesn't like profanity, another doesn't appreciate your humor, and a third wants more violence or a sympathetic female character. I have withdrawn stories from two anthologies (Both later published somewhere else) because I discovered the judges didn't understand their own criteria.

I added one sentence to one story to make it fit a theme, and on a scale of 1 (low) to 4 (high) the three judges gave me 1, 3, and 4 on how well I adhered to that theme. Not possible. 

In another contest, the sponsors sent me my scores and I saw ratings of 56, 94, and 89. Two judges loved the story and the other gave me low scores on almost every standard. The judge who gave me a 94 total only gave me a 1 (out of 5) for relative quality of the story compared to the others he or she read. Really?

I've mentioned cost a because I'm cheap. If the submission involves a reading fee, look at the prize. I won't pay $25 for a $100 prize. I enter few contests that involve reading fees anymore. There has to be a good return, meaning at least two of the following: money, exposure, prestige.

I avoid one contest because it published the deal-breaker right up front. They offered a $250 prize (not bad) with a $20 reading fee (ummm...) BUT the judges reserved the right to award no prize if they felt on entry deserved it. Nothing was said about refunding the fees.

Oops.

Yeah, I still enter a few contests, but now I need a Plan B, other places I can send a story if it doesn't win. Last summer, I sent a story to an anthology. It wasn't chosen, so I entered it in a contest with a hefty cash prize. I learned last week that it didn't win and sent it to two regular markets. I have three other places to send it if neither of those pick it up.

Prestige is nice, and so is exposure, but in the words of Samuel Johnson, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

23 November 2013

From A to Z



by John M. Floyd


A Is for AlibiB Is for BurglarC Is for Corpse, and so on. Sound familiar? Sue Grafton was onto a good thing from the beginning, with those titles. I think she's worked her way down to W Is for Wasted, although I can't imagine where the series will go after the next three books. ($ is for $uspect@ Is for @ the End of Your Rope?)

Gimmicks in naming novels have worked for other authors, too: Evanovich's numbers, Patterson's nursery rhymes, Michener's place names, Sandford's "prey" series, Ludlum's three-word titles, MacDonald's colors, Grimes's English pub names. Sounds pretty smart to me. When your titles become a kind of signature, a flag that alerts readers right away that you have a new offering, that can't be a bad thing.

It was an alphabet gimmick that enticed me, several years ago, to do something that I almost never do: enter a contest.

As I have said before, I'm not fond of contests for writers. For one thing, the odds are terrible. You have a far better chance of publishing a story in a respectable market than of winning first place in a major contest. Second, they often charge entry fees, and I don't like paying fees of any kind to anyone, ever, to consider my work. Third, they usually take a long time to respond. I don't like to tie up otherwise marketable stories for an extended period. Fourth, they always require manuscripts that haven't been previously published. That's understandable, but I'd rather send my original stories to the bigger magazines and anthologies since they usually prefer first rights.

A is for Against my better judgment . . .

The point is, I saw a call for entries to a contest while on my Internet surfboard a few years ago, a writing contest for--get this--26-word stories. Why only twenty-six words? Well, the idea was that each word in the story had to begin with a different letter of the alphabet, in order. The first word had to start with A, the second word with B, and so on. There was only one exception: X could be used to indicate "ex" if you wanted it to, as in Xception.

I was hooked. Whether I liked contests didn't matter much, anymore; this sounded like fun. This was of course not a contest for "real" stories--you can't write a real story in 26 words--but I thought it was good practice for writing real stories. A great exercise in how to do the kind of thing that authors, especially short-story authors, must do. They have to choose and use exactly the right words, for the simple reason that there's not enough room to use the wrong ones.

Alphabet Souperman

After some searching, I dug up the notes that I took while working on that project, and if you have some headache pills and antacid nearby, I invite you to sample the possible contest entries I came up with. Please be aware that I myself am aware that my following six "stories" are not only bad--they're even worse than the one I finally decided to send in, which wasn't all that great either. But here are the results of my alphabetized brainstorming:


A baboon cage, discovered empty. Facility gurus hired investigator JoNell Kendrix. "Lost monkeys," Nell observed. "Probable quick reasons: smuggling, theft, utter villainy. Who, Xactly? You, zookeeper!"

Alakazam Books Corporation. Dear Editor: Findings gathered here include Jack Kerouac's lost manuscript. Numerous other publishers queried. Respectfully submitting this unique volume, waiting Xpectantly. Yvonne Zimmerman.

All Balkan country doctors exhibit frequent generosity, high intelligence, jovial kindness, likable manner. Numerous other physicians quite regularly seem to undertake video work--Xample: Yuri Zhivago.

Alphabetically blessed children don't ever feel glum. However, insecure jaded kids like me (named Oliver Prattlebloom) quite rarely say things. Unless: "Very well, Xavier," "Yes, Zachary."

Argentine bomber commander DeKarlo Evito felt gratitude. Huddled in jail, Karlo (listed Murderer Number One)--pardoned--quickly renounced sabotage, terrorism, undue violence: "When Xecuted, you're Zero."

A British conservationist detected evidence featuring green horses, indigo jackasses, khaki-like mules, nags often painted quirky red shades--therefore, unbiased veterinarians will Xamine yellow zebras.


And the Oscar goes to . . .

Again, those were the stories that I decided not to send in. (Feeling a little nauseated? Don't say I didn't warn you.) The masterpiece that I finally submitted was appropriately mystery/suspense-themed--I called it "Mission Ambushable":

Assassin Bob Carter deftly eased forward, gun hidden in jacket, keeping low, making not one peep. Quietly Robert said, to unaware victim: "Welcome. Xpected You." ZAP.

That one actually won second place in the contest. I was awarded a thirty-dollar gift certificate to Amazon, which I happily used within ten seconds of receiving it, in case they decided to change their minds. (By the way, the story that won first place was just as goofy as mine. Seriously.)


What did we learn today, Johnny?

All this taught me three things. (1) Never say never, on the subject of contests or anything else, (2) tasks that challenge the old noggin's ability to play with words are never a complete waste of time, and (3) nothing in the writing world--no matter how improbable--is impossible. Who says you can't write a 26-word story?

Have any of you ever entered a contest like this one, or tried an exercise like this? If so, did you find it interesting? Enjoyable? Profitable? What are your views on writing contests in general?

I haven't changed my views, by the way--I still think it's better to send your fiction manuscripts to paying publications. I justified my participation in the alphabet contest because a 26-word story, no matter how quirky, is not a marketable story.

As easy as ABC

With regard to yesterday's anniversary of an American tragedy, I couldn't resist rewriting one of my above contest entries:

American Broadcasting Company, Department Executives: Footage gathered here includes John Kennedy's last moments. No other producers quickly responded, so this unedited video will Xcite you. Zapruder.

My final thought:

Alas, Boring Columns Do Eventually Finish.





22 April 2013

Reading To Learn


Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

Like most writers I love reading. I guess I could be perfectly happy reading all day every day. I loved reading so much that my late husband, Elmer and I opened a bookstore in Austin in 1990. We titled it Mysteries and More. The "more" part was because we also had science-fiction, western, and general fiction. But all of those genre were used books. The new books were all mysteries and we had a huge number of used mysteries. I used to say we had 75% used and 25% new books. That was probably accurate. M & M was only the second mystery bookstore in Texas. Murder by the Book was the first and I think it's the only one currently still in business.

It wasn't too long that I realized that we had more books than I could ever read even if I live to be a hundred. That was a sad realization. When we liquidated the store in 1999 we had had nine years of great fun and great adventures, met a large number of mystery authors and had read a great number of books. However, we had decided to realize our dream of traveling the USA and my husband was ready to retire. We took a lot of books with us to read in the late evenings when we couldn't go sight seeing. Both of us loved to read.

I learned a lot about writing by reading. I read books about how-to-write and books about how to market and how to find an agent. I had reference books galore when I still had my house. But after three summers of RV traveling we decided to live full-time in our fifth-wheel, RV. That meant I had to give up about three thousand books I had kept from the store. It was sad to leave "good" friends and I do mean friends because books have always been my friend.

Books took me to far-away places that I'd never be able to travel to and I learned how to do so many neat things from my friends. Besides how to write, I learned how to collect depression glass, old mason fruit jars, stamps and coins. I learned how to make quilts, make cookies & candies, how to make jelly and jam and how to make a Better Than Sex Cake. I learned how to identify wildflowers, how to look for constellations in the stars and the capitols of every state in the union. As Elmer used to always say, "You can learn how to do almost anything, if you can read."

The intriguing thing to me is how you can learn many things about writing from reading other writer's books. I often stop and marvel at a well-turned sentence that somehow seems to say so much. It might be a character description or the way a place looks that immediately puts you there. I don't copy them down but I know they park themselves in the file cabinet in my mind. Not to plagiarize but to remember that there are way to construct a sentence or to construct the character who always lies or the construction of the faded dress worn by the mother of your suspect.

To remember "good" writing especially when you think yours is lacking. I remember a writer friend who wrote children's mysteries telling me once that you must engage the senses on every page. Sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste because that will capture a child's imagination. It will also capture the imagination of anyone, no matter their age.

When I first saw the Mississippi River, I was in my thirties and my mind went back to reading Huckleberry Finn. That mighty old river had been so strong in my mind, the sound, the sight, the smell that Mark Twain brought to the pages of his book made me catch my breath. That old river was familiar because I had read so much about it.

Another way to learn from reading is to volunteer to read for awards or contests. The Edgars and the Shamus nominees and winners are books read by writers who themselves have been published. By a jury of peers as it were. There are contests given by the Private Eye Writers, by the Agatha writers, by the Thriller writers and probably even by the Romance writers. Those contests often offer a prize of publication. If you belong to one of these organizations, volunteer to read for the awards or contest. You might be surprised at how much you learn.

Another opportunity might offer a chance for a writer to help an aspiring writer. Our local Sisters-in-Crime chapter has a mentoring program for aspiring writers. This program is to honor Barbara Burnett Smith, who was tragically killed in 2005. She often mentored aspiring writers and each year aspiring writers can turn in a couple of chapters and a synopsis. These partial manuscripts are read by published authors from our chapter and critiqued. Then after our May Mystery Month meeting the author and aspiring writer have a chance to talk and sometimes the mentor will continue to help the aspiring writer complete their work. No prizes are given but just having your work critiqued by a published author is priceless.

Through the years I've read for awards, contest and for our mentoring program. You read the opening of a book and realize how a writer has "hooked you." Right from the first paragraph. Suddenly you realize what's wrong with your own work in progress. You haven't hooked anyone in the first paragraph or even the first page. Wow. I've always known this, but somehow forgot it when I started this manuscript, you tell yourself.

More likely you'll read a character description that blows you away. Maybe it's short but, so pointed, so precise that you can actually see that character walking down the street. And you see what you need to do to a character who moves the plot along. Maybe a fight scene comes to life and helps you understand your own scene.

There is so much to learn from reading. In fact, I'm going to sign off and get back to the book I'm currently reading, one that I'm sure will help me with my own. I suggest y'all go and do likewise.

13 April 2012

And the Winner is

by R.T. Lawton

Actually, the winners of the Great Breakfast Recipe Contest last month are the two grandsons and I. Thank you one and all for the tasty recipes you submitted. However, you should know that some recipes were tweaked for personal tastes, plus please realize that the cook (me) preparing these recipes probably wasn't as adept at making your favorites as you would have been had you been here in person. In any case, each of the judges, ages 8 and 6, sat down to breakfast each morning with their personal scoring sheet, in order of preparation, right beside their plate. Scores ran from one to ten, with a Comments section after each entry.

The enthusiasm and diligence shown by both judges was astonishing. Focused conversation between the two about that morning's entry went on before, during and after consumption of the meal. If this had been a psychological experiment, it would have been enlightening about how each judge's mind operated, not to mention their increased interest in spelling (for instance, "Grandpa, how do you spell flavor?") and how to best express their ideas in the Comments section. NOTE: The Comments section will be used to further tweak recipe ingredients and preparation for future breakfasts, although Grandma Kiti is now back and will be doing most of the cooking until her next trip to take care of her mother. I'm relieved.

As a side note, we were all surprised at how well the Cheese Grits went over. Perception prior to eating could best be expressed as "What?" The boys had never tried grits and had no idea what they were, I had eaten plain grits once as a breakfast side dish at a Cracker Barrel, and my wife Kiti, training in Alabama decades ago, had once consumed them in an Army mess hall, but thought they were Cream of Wheat until a fellow trainee inquired as to why she was putting milk and sugar on "them thar grits."

Anyway, the judges have made up their minds and decided to to make two awards. Therefore, one book goes out to Dixon Hill for the Mexican Omelet, and another goes out to Fran Rizer for Biscuits & Cheese Grits, just as soon as I get my author copies from AHMM. Thanks again for all the recipes. __________________________________________________________________

Since this was a short column, and in wanting to keep within the mystery/suspense theme of Sleuth Sayers, here is an excerpt from "Grave Trouble" (2nd in the Holiday Burglar series, AHMM Dec 2008) in which Yarnell must come up with a mask to wear during the intended Halloween night burglary of a jewelry store that may have security cameras inside.

......
Buy his own mask? Cripes, he didn't have enough money to pay next month's rent and now he was looking at added business expenses just to do what Beaumont called a simple job. Okay, fine, he'd find something.

Later that evening after much soul searching and several glances into the kitchen to ensure that his wife would be occupied with fixing supper for some time, Yarnell snuck into the bedroom of their three room flat. Standing at the front of their six-drawer dresser, the one with the large mirror attached to the back, he hesitated for a moment before finally opening the top drawer on his wife's side.

As he saw it, making some quick cash was paramount to his future happiness. He didn't like stealing from his wife, but if he didn't damage anything, and he returned what he borrowed, before she missed it of course, then it wasn't really stealing, was it? He ran his fingers over the silk, nylon and other items inside her top drawer. Eventually, he chose a pair of dark beige pantyhose. These should do lovely.

With one ear carefully tuned to the sounds of his wife still banging pots and pans in the kitchen, Yarnell eased the selected pantyhose out of the drawer, inflated his courage and pulled one of the nylon legs down over his head. Quickly, he glanced in the the mirror. Everything was slightly blurry. He leaned closer to the silvered glass.

One eye stared back.

The nylon was obviously too tight. His right eyelid was stuck down in the closed mode, while his left eyelid was hung up in the wide open position. The resulting image resembled a leacher's prolonged wink. He tried to blink. Nothing moved.

With his wide open left eye drying out from lack of tear duct moisture, he quickly abandoned the idea of using a simple pantyhose mask. Besides, the second pantyhose leg hanging empty next to his right ear looked outright ridiculous. He might be missing a professional point here, but he just couldn't see how bank robbers successfully worked under these strained conditions. The beige pantyhose went back in the drawer where he'd found them.
.........

Ah, a criminal's live is never easy. See you in two weeks.