Friday, October 15, 2010

Interview: How Writing Contests Can Advance Your Career

Ever wondered what it's like to win a writing competition, and what effect it might have on your career?

My good pal Kristen Kittscher, a talented author of middle grade novels, won the YA category of the Pacific Northwest Writer's Association Literary Contest last year, so I thought she'd be the perfect person to interview.

Q: How did you hear about the contest? Were you a member of the Pacific Northwest Writer's Association, or did you join in order to participate?

A: I took an online class with Sean Murphy, whose first novel The Hope Valley Hubcap King won The Hemingway Award for a First Novel. He and his wife, writer Tania Casselle, both emphasized the value of entering contests to boost writing confidence, practice promoting our own work, and attract the attention of editors and agents... I figured, why not give it a shot? I wasn’t a member of the PNWA when I entered the contest. It is open to everyone.

Q: What were the guidelines to the contest? (Submit a full manuscript, a partial, a chapter?)

A: The guidelines were very detailed. When I was named a finalist, I joked that I was simply one of the few who was able to follow them! The guidelines have changed a bit since last year, but at that time writers submitted a partial and detailed synopsis. The entry fee is $50.

Q: Had you entered any other writing contests before?

A: I entered the Maryland Writer's Association contest as well. I earned second place in the YA category; however, the conference was too far away for me to attend.

Q: Were you always planning on attending the Seattle conference, or did you feel compelled to go because of the contest?

A: I'd been to Seattle quite a few times, as I have family there. I'd been considering going to the conference regardless, but becoming a finalist certainly helped my decision. Finalists receive discounted rates and free attendance to the awards banquet.

Q: What was the conference like? Did any of the events or speakers stand out as particularly helpful?

A: Held at a Hilton not far from the airport, the conference was much larger than I expected. Writers from all over the country converged to network and learn more about the publishing business. They came to the right place, as this conference was focused much more heavily on the business than craft.

Agents patiently stood and listened as long lines of writers pitched them projects. Writers could make appointments to speed pitch editors and agents. Workshops focused on query letters and panels discussed trends in the market. I especially enjoyed the panels focused on writing for children and young adults, of course. All of the workshops were helpful, but they were definitely more geared towards writers just getting started in their careers.

Q: What was going through your head when they called your name as the winner?

A: At the award banquet Saturday evening front tables were set aside for the finalists, and we were each seated according to our category. My husband was in town with me, so he joined as well — as did several of the finalists’ spouses. We joked that it was set up a bit like the Academy Awards.

Our photos were projected on a large screen as a host for the evening read off the "nominated" titles then announced the third, second, and — finally — first places in each category. I was hopeful I'd win, of course – and I could tell my fellow competitors were as well. Still, I was surprised when the host called my name for first place. As they ushered us up front for a quick photo with the conference organizers, I remember thinking how close I'd been to not entering the contest at all. I'm sure glad I did.

Q: Were there any immediate benefits to winning? Did you get approached by agents or editors?

A: That was the best part! Immediately after the awards banquet, winners were escorted to a hotel suite where a wine and dessert reception awaited. Agents and editors joined to mingle with us. After spending several days watching agents and editors swamped by authors pitching, it was a pleasant reversal to have agents hoping to talk to us! I ended up speaking with about twelve agents that evening — and getting several requests for either partials or fulls.

The only downside for me is that, naïve beginner I was, my manuscript was not nearly in good enough shape to send out immediately. Still, it was great to be able to make those connections and speak so frankly with agents. The party didn't end until the wee hours! Those agents know how to have a good time :)

Of course, there's one other lovely benefit to winning the contest. The Zola Award comes with a $700 check.

Q: What was it like to be a judge for this year's contest?

A: As a judge, I developed an even deeper appreciation for agents' and editors' work. The stack of partials I read was nothing compared to what they receive on a weekly basis, yet it still took a good deal of time to read and score them all. I was very impressed by the quality of submissions. I learned a great deal about my own weaknesses and strengths as a writer while trying to evaluate others' work, as well. I followed the contest closely and was glad to see that deserving manuscripts were recognized. I know what a boost in confidence the contest had been for me, so it certainly felt good to be part of the process.

Q: Tell us a bit about what you've done with your manuscript since winning, and what the next steps are for you. Will you mention the win in your queries?

A: You may be surprised to hear that I tossed [the manuscript] in the trash and started over! The conference and my subsequent talks with agents and editors helped me realize how much better shape my manuscript could be in – and should be in – before submitting. Thanks to careful readers and critiquers, I now have a new, tighter, more suspenseful draft of my manuscript.

I definitely will include my win in the queries... It's a way to show I take my writing seriously and have some skill. I’ve also been lucky to get editorial interest in the manuscript, so I will be sure to include the names of those editors who have read sections and are interested in reading the full.

Congrats, Kristen, and best of luck with your agent search!

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