Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Golden Heart Pointers For A Successful Entry

Judi Fennell has been hearing several of us whine and whimper about entering the RWA's Golden Heart this year. We've probably pulled her ear all out of shape, poor thing. Why do we ask Judi? Because she's been a category and contest coordinator, and a judge for the GH and RITAs. Not to mention a veteran in entering contests and now a successful author.

As I listened to her advice, I had this bright idea—well, I thought it was a bright idea :-). Why not have Judi write an article on her observations? So I asked. There was only a small groan, followed with mysterious mumblings in another language I didn’t recognize, from the other end of the phone. Judi is working on Mer galleys for her third book, Catch Of A Lifetime, due out February 2010, and finishing up the first book in her new trilogy on Genies. So, deadlines are definitely in play here. But being the trooper she is, she agreed to write the article.

I hardly had to beg.

Well, a little bit.

Judi, thank you for doing this for me.

You're welcome, Sia

Was that a groan I heard?

No, no, just something in my throat. Ahem. (*hands Judi a glass of wine)

With the Golden Heart deadline approaching, I thought I'd take the opportunity to talk about entering contests and ways to maximize your investments. Yes, I said investment$. Not only are you investing the money to enter, but also the money for postage, paper and ink to print it out, time to drive to the post office, time to collate/organize the entry, and Hope. Don't ever discount that last one. Hope can keep you going when this business gets tough.

If you've read my bio, you'll see that I've entered a few contests ;}. I've finalled, I've won, I've come in (almost) last, I've been a category coordinator and I've been a contest coordinator. I entered my first contest the day I went to my first chapter meeting; to say I was new is an understatement. I was so new, the plastic was still on the packaging. I had No. Clue. (Funny enough, that wasn't the contest I finished [almost] last.)

First and foremost if you're going to enter contests: READ THE INSTRUCTIONS. Especially where it says to end on a hook. I've read good contest entries (and, sadly, bad ones) where the entrant ends the submission in the middle of a sentence. At the end of a paragraph or with the H/h going to sleep. There was no impetus for me, the reader, to want to see what was going to happen next.

Ask yourself this: aside from the fund-raising aspects, why do chapters hold contests? Why do they go out in search of editors and agents for final judges? Having done this for my chapter, I can tell you it's because we want to offer our entrants the chance to get published. Granted, those stories are few and far between, but they do happen. (And we ALL have the Hope that it will happen for us. [See? Hope.]) More common is that finalists get requests that could lead to sales. And we're just as happy as the entrant to see that happen.

So, how do you maximize your chance of making those Top 3 finalists? First, end on a hook. You want the final judge to be so caught up in your story that when they turn that last page, they're looking for what comes next-and to find out that nothing's there and want it so badly that they request the manuscript. If you've hooked them, they will. But if you let the entry kind of slide off the page, you're not doing yourself any favors and your investment is, essentially, wasted. (Provided you're not entering solely for craft/story feedback from the first round judges, which is definitely a worthwhile reason to enter contests, but not the Golden Heart. You get no feedback other than a number between 1 and 9.)

Another EASY way to trip yourself up is punctuation and spelling. Yes, published authors' work goes through copy edits, but authors make every reasonable effort to make sure there aren't any. Do the same with your contest entry. Have someone else read over it before you send it in. It's so easy for us to skip over missing words since we've read our work for how many times, or skim over a misspelling because we thought it was spelled that way, etc. This is your shot to put your best foot forward with your manuscript.

Just as you need to end on a hook, you need to begin with one. Draw us into the story. And make sure it's the right story. Don't give us the entire history of the characters or what came before. That's backstory. If it's that important to what you're telling, then you need to start your story at that point in time. But to begin with an info dumps/backstory/unnecessary elements means that your story isn't:

  • A) starting in the right place or

  • B) isn't strong enough to stand on its own.

Jump in with the story and feed the necessary (not all) backstory to us. It's okay to have the reader wonder what's happening. But that, too, is a balancing act because you don't want someone wondering what's going on enough that it pulls them out of the story. You don't ever want to pull your reader out of the story, and you also don't want them to be bored. Pages of information can bore a reader. There's a reason that the Inciting Incident is a buzz word in writing. It's what makes your story happen. Why the story is worth writing about. It's what hooks your reader into the story.

Learn your craft. Know what Telling versus Showing is. Key words for Telling: felt, saw, realized, knew, watched. If the narration contains a lot of "She felt"s, "He wondered"s, "Mary realized"s, you might want to see if there's a better way to "show" what it is Mary is realizing. Also, watch what you project to the reader that you want the reader to know. For example: "Mary realized that, clearly, Mrs. Smith wanted her to leave." We have Mary telling us two things: that she realized something, and Mrs. Smith wanted her to leave. Show us Mrs. Smith wanting Mary to leave. Maybe Mrs. Smith opens the door for Mary and Mary stops mid-speech at the woman's audacity. We then see Mrs. Smith's action, and infer with Mary that she's being kicked out. It resonates more with a reader to have an emotional connection with the character than to read the narrative.

Understand the difference between Point of View and Deep Point of View and how to show thoughts in each. How to transition between points of view, and things not to do. One of my pet peeves is when a character narrates something they can't know: "John opened the door, unaware of the villain aiming a gun at his heart." Well, if we're in John's point of view, how is he going to tell us this since he's unaware of it?

A lot of people say "But So-and-So breaks the rules." Just like anything, once you know the rules, you can break them if you know why and how you're doing it. Having a huge audience doesn't hurt either. :-)

Once you've got your story ready to go, package it up according to the rules, and send it off.

And then invest Hope.

Oh, and Wait, too.

There's always Waiting.

Best of luck! I'll be doing my annual Golden Heart/Rita Nominees Party on my blog ( again in March (I think the calls go out on the 26th), so stop by to Wait and Hope with us-and to celebrate as people get The Call.

Here's hoping you're one of them!

Best of luck!


I have been writing for as long as I can remember, winning my first writing award in a second grade Caldecott Medal contest. Readers' Digest gave me my very first publishing credit in April, 1994, and I was hooked. I seemed to have followed writing contests around, being a finalist in such online contests as American Title III, sponsored by Romantic Times BOOKreview Magazine and Dorchester Publishing, and two First Chapters contests, sponsored by and Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books.

I grew up watching Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and The Addams Family--my mom looked like Elizabeth Montgomery and I had a special Barbie outfit that looked like Morticia Addams' dress. My favorite books are Bewitching by Jill Barnett and A Knight In Shining Armor, by Jude Devereaux, so it should come as no surprise that I like to write tongue-in-cheek lighthearted paranormals.

I love pop culture and manipulating language, so you'll find lots of puns, double entrendre, plays-on-words, alliteration, clich├ęs, and twisting of phrases, as well as several one-liners in my stories that give me a few chuckles. I studied Spanish at Penn State (Go Lions!), lived in Spain and traveled throughout that beautiful country.

I've always written and still have my journal from fourth grade where, even then, my stories were full of fantastical creatures, whimsy and magic. I wrote my first romance in 9th grade and still have that story in my memory chest. Even back then I dreamed of being a writer.

Now with kids, a husband, a house, a social life (Go Survivor Girls!), and two cocker spaniels named Vixen and Raven, I get to live my dream of being a writer!

Visit with Judi Fennell at her website.


~Sia McKye~ said...

Judi, welcome to Over Coffee. You're a sweetheart for doing this with your busy schedule.

There's plenty to fortify you on the breakfast bar.

I thought it interesting that you had to mention, "READ THE INSTRUCTIONS." You'd think reading the instructions would be a given.

Dana Fredsti said...

Ooh, I'm first after Sia! Is it too late/early for a glass of wine? Or must I have caffeine?...

Judi, some great advice! Now stop groaning...

Judi Fennell said...

Thanks, Sia, for twisting my arm, er, inviting me over. (LOL - totally tongue-in-cheek folks. Sia's a GEM to ask me!)

You'd think reading the instructions would be a given, since we're A) writers and B) want to win, but, sadly, people don't. It's a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot and a good thing to remember when submitting to editors and agents. Some editors don't want you to send any sample pages from your writing with the query, some want 10 and some want the whole manuscript. If you can't follow those simple instructions, they have to wonder if you're going to be able to follow through with other things, like deadlines. It's all about being professional.

Judi Fennell said...

Pull up that glass of wine, Dana. :)

And the only groaning you'll hear from me is right now as I peel my tired bones off this chair to head to bed. I'm on the east coast and it's after 11:30. Catch you in the morning.

aries18 said...


There's a lot of excellent advice in your article but the best I've ever seen is Read The Rules. That certainly applies to anything one does but especially in writing contests. It gives the judges the easy out if they see the writer can't be bothered to read and follow the rules.

While I'm not entering anything right now I'm taking your advice to heart.

Sia, you brought us one of the best, truly one of my inspirations! Thank you. And thank you Judi for taking your precious time to give us your best advice.

VA said...

One of these days I'll be ready to make this leap, just not this year. Great advice. Thanks for being gracious enough to share your experiences with us Judi.

Kat Sheridan said...

What a timely article! Judi is one of the best there is when it comes to giving of her (often limited) time, and for helping newbies along with great advice. I'm very good with reading instructions. Other than that, I think I broke every other rule she mentioned (ok, so I'm not bad with spelling, but I messed up every OTHER thing!) Judi, trust me, my heroine no longer falls asleep. Ever. I've got her pretty much on amphetamines now! LOL!

Sia, great guest, and wonderful article!

Other Lisa said...

Judi, as usual, you offer such practical, excellent advice - you are a pro, my dear!

Judi Fennell said...

Morning everyone. Amphetamines, Pat? That I have to see! :)

Elle J Rossi said...

Good morning Sia. I'll take my coffee extra hot this morning, please.

Good morning. Great post. I have a question for you. Is it okay to enter a contest before the book is finished? Is this common? If a judge requests the entire book, are they upset if you tell them you're still working on it?

Enjoy your day and thanks for your time,

Elle J Rossi said...


I guess that was multiple questions there, huh?


Judi Fennell said...

Good morning, Elle. You can definitely enter contests before the ms is finished, however, be prepared to work like crazy to finish it if they want to see it. I have entered contests with the beginning of mss to see if the story was working. And, yeah, I even won the contest AND got a request - only to never finish the story. Reason? I had other promising things that I was working on. So, it can be a double-edged sword. You can't, however, enter the Golden Heart without a completed ms. You have to send a copy of that ms, and if the final judge requests the full ms, they get the one you send in. Since this is your one chance to make a good impression, it's in your best interest to polish that puppy until it shines.

But, as for other contests, go ahead and enter if you're looking for feedback. If you're lucky enough to get a request, be up front with the editor/agent that it's not finished and give them a reasonable time frame to expect to have it - then STICK TO THAT! Nothing says unprofessionalism like a missed deadline. The caveat here is that by the time you finish it, they might not be in the market for that vampire/zombie/whatever idea they were when they first saw it. So much in this industry is timing: Right ms, right editor, right market.

Theoretically, the request is always on the table, but who knows if that ed/agt is going to still be there when you finish the book. Plus, too, I find that my stories change the more of them I write and I have to go back and add stuff at the beginning to make the ending work. Obviously, that initial effort I put in the contest, isn't going to be the final product - and you do want to put your best foot forward. It depends, really, on what you're hoping to get out of the contest. Are you there for feedback? To see if the idea works? Or do you want to get in front of that specific judge, in which case the entry better be your best work?

Not a definitive answer, I know. Sorry 'bout that. :)

Elle J Rossi said...

Actually, Judi, that was incredibly helpful. Thank you for taking the time.
I'm off to tighten up my first 3 chaps and then search for the right contest. Right now I'm just looking for feedback.


Judi Fennell said...

Contests are great ways to get honest, unbiased feedback. Just remember that judging and feedback are subjective. Take what works for you and disregard the rest.

Helen Ginger said...

Really important tips. I've headed up manuscript contests and second everything you said. Thanks for the advice.

Straight From Hel

Judi Fennell said...

Oh, Helen - I LOVE your tagline!!!

readwriteandedit said...

Good stuff, Judi. I just read some stats on the Golden Heart, numbers of finalists/winners published and that sort of thing. It certainly seems to be a great contest to enter.

It's too bad that they can no longer offer feedback. But there's always someone around to ruin an experience for others. Yet, even without feedback, the contest works to get romance writers writing and finishing and polishing and submitting. I'd say that's a big plus.

Sia, so glad you tapped Judi's expertise.

Sheila Deeth said...

It's the cost that puts me off contests, though I try to enter as many free ones as I can. Thank you for all the advice Judi. Really helpful.

And am I too late for wine?

Judi Fennell said...

Heh, Sheila. It's never too late for wine.

And, interestingly, I've had the most exposure/success with the contests that didn't cost me anything in terms of money: the online contests.

However, they did come with a huge time commitment cost, as well as ending up with some back issues from being on the computer so much. It all depends on the costs you can afford. Thanks for stopping by!