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Confessions of a Contest Slut

My name is Louisa Cornell, and I am a Contest Slut. Actually I prefer the term Contest Courtesan, but then I do write Regency set romances. I am not exactly certain how many contests one has to enter in order to reach Slut status. Rather like trying to decide at what point one goes from call girl, to prostitute, to hooker. It’s all a matter of style, effort and pay off. :) Suffice it to say, with so many contests entered I have lost count and 47 finals with four manuscripts – Houston, we have achieved Slutdom!

There are as many opinions about the virtues and vices of contests as there are writers sitting at their desks dreaming of being on the New York Times Bestseller List (or dreaming about Gerard Butler showing up wearing a kilt and a smile – dealer’s choice.) These opinions range from hating contests like Miley Cyrus hates wearing clothes to loving them as much as Kim Kardashian loves taking selfies. Some see them as useful tools on a writer’s journey, others see them as money-making schemes for RWA chapters and some see them as useless generalizations designed to make writers go nuts (a redundancy if ever there was one) or to give peer approval to writers who constantly have to have their egos stroked to stay at it.

Guess what? Depending on where you are in this writer’s journey and your perspective on writing and your place in it – all of these opinions are right. At least some of the time. However, as life is on most days all about perspective I’m going to let you in on a few Contest Slut secrets free of charge. You don’t even have to go slinking out of a no-tell motel when it’s over.

Secret #1 – I started writing my first novel as an adult after the Avon FanLit Event. I had no clue what RWA was or what writing contests were. I entered my first writing contests simply to see if I was even heading in the right direction. I didn’t final in the first contest I entered. I didn’t final in the first half-dozen, but I got what I wanted. I got feedback. Lots of it. Some good. Some bad. And some “Is this judge on crack or what?” At first it was overwhelming. There was so much of it and it was all so different. Like getting my Great Aunt Icie’s recipe for meat loaf and my Nana’s recipe for meat loaf, and Martha Stewart’s recipe for meat loaf and realizing if I combined all three I was going to end up with something the alligators wouldn’t even eat. I had to come up with a way to use all of this information contests provided me.

Secret #2 – As much as I loved the peer approval (and I did, still do. Doesn’t make me a pitiful sniveling wretch begging for a crumb. It makes me human. And if you like it, it makes you human too.) I needed a way to make sense of the judges’ comments, to sort the chaff from the wheat and to decide what to do with it. I started a notebook for that first manuscript and I have created one for each subsequent manuscript. I print the judges’ comments from each contest and put them into the notebook by date – earliest to latest. I create a spread sheet for each contest. Most score sheets have similar scoring areas. Some of the sheets I even printed an extra, blanked out the scores and then entered all my scores side-by-side in each appropriate slot. I look for consistencies – areas where I score consistently high and areas where I score consistently low. I highlight areas where comments hit home for me in a specific color highlighter. I make notes. I have an evolutionary notebook of each of my manuscripts on the contest circuit. I don’t make changes until I reach a certain number of mentions of a specific thing or area. And even then I run the changes past my critique group first. Ultimately, however, my gut is the final judge. Using this method I have taken my manuscripts into some great directions I might never have thought of without this feedback.

Secret #3 – At first I entered every contest I heard of like a Weight Watchers escapee in a Krispy Kreme donut shop. Didn’t matter who the final judges were I was armed with 25 to 30 pages and a really bad synopsis. Recently I have come to realize I don’t necessarily want to be published by or represented by anyone who will take me. After finaling in many contests where the final judge was the same person who NEVER placed any of my four manuscripts first, I have figured something out. She is never going to ask to see more. She is never going to make me an offer. So there is no point in my entering a contest in which she is the final judge. I was a professional opera singer for a number of years. I auditioned for many roles. I was turned down by almost every major opera house (and some minor ones) in the United States. I was ready to pack it in, but my voice coach said something I have never forgotten. “If the customer is looking for oranges, you can be the best damned apple in the world and they still won’t buy you. They’re looking for oranges. You just have to wait for the one who is looking for apples.” Turns out opera directors in Austria, Germany and most of Eastern Europe were big apple buyers. That is something contests can show you – where to start looking for a publisher who is interested. Trust me, this beats stalking the same damned publisher for five years to the tune of $25. to $30. a shot. Keep track of the final judges who really liked your work and those who consistently didn’t. An agent or editor who doesn’t like anything you write is probably not connecting with your voice. Don’t waste the time or rejection potential.

Secret #4 – I do enter contests for the approval of my peers. I like their advice, their insight and their honesty too, but sometimes in this business it is a thrill to hear a fellow writer say something flattering about your work. I have another notebook titled “The Thrill of Victory.” In it I have printed out comments and compliments from contest judges (preliminary and final) that made me feel really good about my writing. No, I do not sit at my desk and stroke the notebook and call it “My Preciousssssssssss!” I do take it out when I have received a hard rejection, when I don’t final in the Golden Heart (sniff,) or when I start to feel like worst writer who ever lived. A judge in a recent contest hammered me into the ground, but she did say my voice reminded her of Eloisa James, one of her favorite writers. I’ll take it. And all of this positive reinforcement reminds me to do the one thing every Contest Slut has to keep foremost in her mind.

Don’t spend so much time polishing those first three chapters you forget to finish the damned book !!

Secret #5 – The aforementioned “hammering?” It stings. If you take it all to heart it can kill your love of writing. Don’t let it. There are judges in some RWA chapters who live to gut a fellow writer’s manuscript. It doesn’t happen often. And more often than not someone brings it to the chapter’s attention and that person isn’t allowed to judge again. After a recent hammering a fellow writer whom I admire greatly and is a member of the chapter concerned told me there are a few “nut jobs” in every chapter who take great pleasure in ripping a manuscript to shreds in the name of “helping.” I call those the East German Judges. We hate them. We want to feed them to the alligators. Oh wait, maybe that’s just me. But you can learn something, even from your harshest critics. Learn to read those comments, test them with your gut, be honest enough to use even the tiniest sliver of criticism that rings true to you, and throw the rest of it away. Period. Hammers are used to refine gold so let ‘em hammer. It will help you grow a thicker skin and in this business, honey, going out without a thick skin is like getting a mammogram every day. Learn to defend your work against the nut jobs in this business. It’s your book. Nobody can trap it between two metal plates and squish all of the perky out of it without your permission.

Secret #6 – Some of the very best adjustments I’ve made to my manuscripts have come from contest comments. There are some amazingly insightful and brilliantly astute writers judging these contests. They do it to give back to their chapters and to give back to their fellow writers. They take time away from their writing, day jobs, and lives to read a fellow writer’s work and give hints, tips, and sometimes priceless lessons in writing all for the cost of an entry fee. I have had so many “light bulb” moments reading score sheets and going over comments inserted into my manuscripts. There are writing master classes in those comment sheets if take the time to read them, set them aside for a few weeks and then read them again. I am forever grateful to those writers, often anonymous, who have helped me on my writing journey. I judge contests in their honor – to try and give back what they have given me.

So there you have it, just a few confessions from a Contest Slut who will probably keep entering contests until some smart agent and / or editor picks me up. Even with all of the bad aspects, contests have helped me become a better writer. And isn’t that every writer’s ultimate goal? Oh wait, there is that little thing about selling enough books to quit the day job at Walmart before they issue me my own shopping cart as a walker, but that’s just icing on the cake. I know a lot about cake. :)

What is your take on writing contests? Have you had good experiences, bad experiences? What advice would you give a new writer about entering contests?

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  • April 22, 2014
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    Ruby Tueday: Shea Berkley
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  • April 25, 2014
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  • April 29, 2014
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    Ruby Tuesday: Anne Marie Becker
  • May 13, 2014
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    Ruby Tuesday: Rita Henuber
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Find the Rubies

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Since the GH Call in 2009...

  • Vivi Andrews: Vivi has written over a dozen paranormal romances for Samhain. Her new release is the paranormal romantic comedy Naughty Karma which was named a TOP PICK and nominated for  Reviewer’s Choice Award by RT Bookreviews!
  • Vanessa Barneveld: Vanessa’s debut paranormal YA novel, THIS IS YOUR AFTERLIFE, will be published by Bloomsbury Spark in Fall, 2014. HarperCollins Australia published an anthology in 2012 featuring Vanessa’s short story, THE TWEETEST THING, which was inspired by a Duran Duran concert. vanessabarneveld.com
  • Anne Barton: Anne’s Golden Heart-winning debut novel, WHEN SHE WAS WICKED, released earlier this year, and she has two more sexy Regency romances coming out in the fall: TO ALL THE RAKES I’VE LOVED BEFORE and ONCE SHE WAS TEMPTED. Visit her at www.annebarton.com.
  • Anne Marie Becker: Anne Marie writes romantic suspense, including the Mindhunters series. ONLY FEAR, AVENGING ANGEL, and DEADLY BONDS are available now. DARK DEEDS releases 3/17, and ACCEPTABLE RISK 5/5. Find out more at www.AnneMarieBecker.com.
  • Tina Joyce Beckett: After her 2009 Golden Heart final, Tina went on to double final in the same contest in 2010. Since then she has sold ten books to Harlequin Medical romance and one romantic suspense to Carina Press. Her latest book for Harlequin, Her Hard to Resist Husband is out in January 2014.
  • Liz Bemis: Since the 2009 GH, Liz finaled in the 2010 GH, filed and WON in the 2012 GH, completed manuscript #17 and has developed more than 75 websites as the creative director of Bemis Promotions. She also got married, had a baby and is currently desperately looking for five minutes in which to write!
  • Shea Berkley: Shea Berkley has sold her 2010 Golden Heart finaling manuscript, Shattered, to Entangled Publishing in a three book deal.  The Marked Son (aka Shattered) is available in stores now and the second in the series is due to hit stores June 2013. She sold her Epic Fantasy story, Torrein: Age of Fear, to Variance Publishing, which is available at your favorite bookstore. Go to www.sheaberkley.com for more details.
  • Jennifer Bray-Weber: Jennifer has published her 2009 Golden Heart manuscript now titled Blood and Treasure on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. The second novel  of her Romancing the Pirate series, A Kiss in the Wind, was released by Carina Press in March 2012. Her third novel, The Siren’s Song, is scheduled to be released through Carina Press in May 2012.
  • Shoshana Brown: Shoshana has sold two short romance stories to Woman’s World magazine.  She’s also a finalist in the YA category of the 2011 Golden Heart with UNDERHANDED.
  • Shelley Coriell: After six consecutive Golden Heart finals, Shelley sold her debut young adult novel, Welcome, Caller, This Is Chloe (May 2012, Amulet Books) and Goodbye, Rebel Blue (Fall 2013, Amulet Books). She also inked a three-book deal with Grand Central Forever for The Apostles, a dark romantic suspense series about an elite but maverick FBI team coming in Spring, 2014.
  • Sharon Fisher: Since she was named a finalist in 2009, Sharon has sold her finalist manuscript GHOST PLANET and two others (THE OPHELIA PROPHECY and ECHO 8) to Tor/Macmillan. She has been named a Golden Heart finalist three times, and in 2013 GHOST PLANET was nominated for an RWA RITA Award.
  • Addison Fox: In addition to writing about her Zodiac warriors (her Taurus, Quinn, is going to get his comeuppance come May of 2011!), Addison is hard at work on a new contemporary trilogy for NAL set in Alaska. The first book - BABY IT’S COLD OUTSIDE - will be out in November 2011.
  • Rita Henuber: Her 2009 Golden Heart nominated book, Guardian Angel, was published by Carina Press with a new title, UNDER FIRE, and released August 22, 2011 in ebook and audio format. The second book, Under Fire:The Admiral, about another extraordinary woman and the man she loves  is currently available.
  • Tamara Hogan: Author of the award-winning Underbelly Chronicles paranormal romance series, Tamara published TOUCH ME, an Underbelly Chronicles novella, and TEMPT ME, Bailey and Rafe’s full-length story, in  2013. Book #4, ENTHRALL ME, is scheduled for a late 2014 release.
  • Darynda Jones: In addition to the Charley Davidson series, Darynda also has a YA series out with St. Martin’s Press called the Darklight Trilogy. She has won numerous awards for her books including a prestigious RITA, a Golden Heart, and a Daphne du Maurier.
  • Autumn Jordon: Autumn Jordon kills people for the right reason, and only on paper. She writes both award-winning romantic suspense and contemporary romance.  Her new romantic series (C.U.F.F.) featuring yummy US Marshals debut in July 2012 with the release of Seized By Darkness.  It’s available on Amazon and B&N. Follow her on FB and on tweeter as ajordon.
  • Cynthia Justlin: Since 2009, Cynthia has published three romantic suspense books: Her Own Best Enemy, Intrusion, and Separation Anxiety (a novella). Her latest release, a dark romantic thriller, Edge of Light, is available from Carina Press.
  • Diane Kelly: Sold 4 more books in the Death & Taxes series to St. Martin’s Press!
  • Elizabeth Langston: Elizabeth’s debut YA novel, Whisper Falls, will be available from Spencer Hill Press in Nov 2013.  Books 2 and 3 in the Whisper Falls trilogy will release in 2014.
  • Kim Law: Signed with an agent, and accepted a two-book offer from Amazon Montlake. Debut novel was released Oct 2012, SUGAR SPRINGS (her 2009 GH book) was released Dec 2012, and has published 3 other books and one novella since. Currently has her Sugar Springs and Turtle Island series ongoing.
  • Diana Layne: Diana Layne made her first sale to The Wild Rose Press.  Pirate’s Proposal is the first book in the Tales of The Scrimshaw Doll, a series created by the collaborative effort of a group of OKRWA writers (although Diana is a Texan, she loves her fellow OK Outlaws.) Diana’s book The Good Daughter, a Mafia suspense story, received a TOP PICK from RT Book Reviews!
  • Gwynlyn MacKenzie: Since 2009, Gwyn has become a Mom-mom–twice–finaled in the 2011 and 2014 GH, and is currently hard at work on the third manuscript in her Merlin’s Prophecy Series.
  • Heather McCollum: My latest Historical Paranormal Romance, TANGLED HEARTS, released at the end of January 2014. TH is a cross between The Tudors and The Pirates of the Caribbean. And I’m very excited about my first YA Contemporary Paranormal Romance, SIREN’S SONG, coming out in March 2014!
  • Kate Parker: Kate finaled in the 2011 Golden Heart in historical romance again, and then switched to cozy historical mysteries with a dash of romance. Signed with Jill Marsal of the MarsalLyon Literary Agency. Her first Victorian Bookshop Mystery, The Vanishing Thief, will come out December 2013 from Berkley Prime Crime. The second in the series, The Counterfeit Lady, will hit the shelves August 2014.
  • Bev Pettersen: –Since 2009, five of Bev’s books have hit the shelves: JOCKEYS AND JEWELS, COLOR MY HORSE, FILLIES AND FEMALES,  THOROUGHBREDS AND TRAILER TRASH, and HORSES AND HEROIN. She is a three-time nominee in the National Readers Choice Award including Jockeys and Jewels for Best First Book.
  • Hope Ramsay: In February 2010 I made my first sale to Grand Central Publishing/Forever Romance in a four-book deal.  The first book, Welcome to Last Chance will be released on March 1, 2011.  The Second Book, Home at Last Chance will be a September 2011 release.  Last Chance Beauty Queen will be released in April 2012 and Christmas in Last Chance will be released in October 2012.
  • Sara Ramsey: Sara Ramsey’s latest book, THE MARQUESS WHO LOVED ME, came out in February 2013. She’s currently working on the fourth book in the Muses of Mayfair series (THE EARL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE). You can find Sara in San Francisco, alternating between writing and drink fabulous wine/eating even more fabulous food.
  • Cate Rowan: Her critically acclaimed fantasy romance Kismet’s Kiss (a two-time Golden Heart® finalist) received a Best Fantasy and Best Debut of 2010 nomination from The Romance Reviews. She expanded the Alaia Chronicles series with The Source of MagicSwords and Scimitars and Sword and Lute and then published the standalone short story Flirting with the Fireman and the time travel novella Kiss That Frog. Another Alaia Chronicles novel, The Soul of Magic, is on the way, and she is “BIC-HOK-TAM” at her Colorado mountaintop abode.
  • Joan Swan: FEVER, Kensington Brava, April, 2012 BLAZE, Kensington Brava, TBD, 2012
  • Liz Talley: Since finaling in the Golden Heart, Liz Talley has sold sixteen books to Harlequin Superromance, including her upcoming series The Boys of Bayou Bridge which is about a central Louisiana family where the delicious Dufrene brothers find a  sister they thought to be dead very much alive. Liz is excited to write about shrimp creole, Mardi Gras and LSU football…some of her favorite things. All three books plus another Christmas book will be out in 2012, starting with Waters Run Deep, May 2012
  • Dani Wade: In August 2012, Dani Wade received the much anticipated “Call” from Harlequin Desire! Her first Harlequin release is scheduled for August of 2013. Until then, she has stepped into the Indie publishing arena with her first sexy suspense novella, Snow Bound, debuting in November of 2012.
  • See where we were one year after the GH!

From Twitter

  • Time for check-in #2 of the Winter Writing Festival! Share your progress to be eligible for prizes! ow.ly/sUHVq 3 months ago
  • On using language to paint a vivid picture: ow.ly/sSFay 3 months ago
  • Time to check in for the Winter Writing Festival! How did you do? Let us know! We’ve got prizes! ow.ly/sGMNw 3 months ago
  • What is the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood? Check out this blog post to learn more about who we are and how we came to be! ow.ly/sEjVZ 3 months ago
  • Haven’t trued our writing sprints? Now’s the time to come out of lurkdom & jump in! A quick guide to get started: ow.ly/sCbbg 3 months ago