Wednesday, May 15, 2013


FYI:There won't be a blog post for Friday, May 17th, as I will be out of town. See you on Monday!

My guest is award winning romance author, Caren Crane. I've known Caren since 2007 when we both entered our books in a contest contest sponsored by Gather and Simon & Schuster. I loved Kick Start, and especially the idea of a heroine who was older than twenty, lol! I thought for sure she'd get it published since she did so well in contests with the story.
Unfortunately, receiving contest accolades or even winning doesn't guarantee being published. I asked Caren  about her experiences with contests, what some of the benefits were of entering and placing well, as well as sharing her journey to publication. 

In romance writing, there has been a lot of emphasis placed on entering, finaling in and winning writing contests. I'll admit, from the time I completed my first manuscript I was hooked on contests. I experienced a good bit of contest love from the start, which boosted my confidence in my budding skills. I'm not one to put much stock in certificates, plaques and awards, but it was nice to have them around as reminders that I didn't actually suck as bad as I sometimes felt I did.

Then I finaled in RWA's Golden Heart contest in with my manuscript Kick Start in 2006. Kick Start got a lot of contest love. Many finals and a handful of wins. I didn't win the Golden Heart, but did have a request for the full from an editor for the then-new Next line at Harlequin. They didn't buy it. They liked it and wanted to, but thought certain story elements were too similar to a book they had just bought. To say I was disappointed is a vast understatement.

In 2007, I heard was having a First Chapters writing competition where the winner would have their novel published. I was in! What I didn't realize was that the competition was a bit like American Idol. It was partially about your talent and the quality of your writing, but mostly about who you knew and how many of those people you could motivate to vote for your entry. I did semi-final in the contest, but only because I was the "editor's pick" and not because I could rally the masses. (I am still unable to rally masses to do anything. J)

By 2009, I had completed seven manuscripts and spoken to countless editors and agents. I had submitted requested (and unrequested) material to every publishing professional even remotely interested in acquiring what I wrote. While I received lots of great feedback, it became clear that what I felt compelled to write—a mix of contemporary romance and women's fiction—is apparently impossible for New York publishing houses to market. Witness Harlequin's now-defunct Next line.

By that time, I was incredibly busy with my full-time day job and trying to do the endless work associated with successfully getting my back-to-back daughters into their colleges of choice. With scholarships. That took three full years. Last fall, when the baby was deposited in her freshman dorm, my writer friends began pestering me about when I was going to start writing again. When? When? WHEN?!?

I looked around and noticed most of my friends, both traditionally published and as-yet-unpublished, were dipping their toes into the waters of indie publishing. I was a bit intimidated by all it entails, but intrigued by the fact that the author has full control of the entire process—writing, editing, selecting a book cover and creating the timeline for the whole process. My life is still quite complicated and unpredictable, so having full control over the publication process (over anything, really) appealed to me. I decided to resurrect Kick Start first, since it had done so well in its contest heyday. I endured the long, sometimes agonizing, learning curve associated with getting it updated, whipped into shape and ready to upload to booksellers.

And I realized something as I was wrestling with formatting, gutting chapters and writing new scenes to satisfy my beta readers. I really love writing again. What had become little more than drudgery and torment by 2009 is once again the thing I am most excited about. I hope people love Kick Start and all the other books I choose to publish, because it's great fun sharing my characters and their stories with the world. But most of all, I love writing them.

Contests can be wonderful to encourage your efforts, boost your spirits or get your work in front of important eyeballs. They are not, however, the be-all and end-all as I found out. 

  • So what has been your experience with contests? I would love to hear the good, the bad and the ugly!


Sometimes when life stalls right in the middle of the journey, all it needs is a Kick Start...

Linda Dowling’s husband traded her in for a younger model, and she clung to the only life and home her kids knew. Easiest thing by far when her heart was broken and her small town was filled with folks who commonly mistook their neighbor’s concerns for their own. But even in Cross Springs, NC, time moves on and heals the most grievous of wounds. Linda shakes things up, goes back to school and—gasp!—starts to date a younger man.
Suddenly everyone in Cross Springs has something to say about her life—and Linda is faced with hard choices. She has tried for years to live up to the expectations of Cross Springs’ society, but now she is remembering the girl she used to be, back before motherhood and self-doubt robbed her of her self-esteem. Should she bow to comfortable roles and old expectations? Or should she give herself a Kick Start and pursue the kind of love she never thought she would find?

All she needs is courage and a good old-fashioned Kick Start. EXCERPT


Caren Crane grew up in Nashville, TN, and as a result does not care for country music. However, she cares a great deal about family, friends and men in boots. She blames her love of reading on a childhood devoid of TV and heavy on amusing oneself. Reading books was a lot more fun than playing with Barbies and playing "library" was far superior to playing "school." When she discovered romance novels, the librarians at her local branch were horrified but Caren was delighted.

She now lives in North Carolina with her tall, handsome husband and a very chatty and irascible rescue cat. She is sometimes visited by her three grown children, who are busy having wonderful lives and only require: beds during college breaks, food, rides back to school (though a bus ticket will do) and sometimes cash. Which leaves her with lots of time to write funny, heartwarming stories set in her adopted home state, North Carolina, and to investigate the Smoky Mountains, from whence her mother's people all came. She plans to set a future series in the Smoky Mountains of her native state, Tennessee, and fill the books full of family, friends and happy-ever-after endings. Which all books should feature, in her opinion. You can find Caren on Facebook, Romance BanditsTwitter, and her website.


~Sia McKye~ said...

Caren, welcome to Over Coffee! Got some great coffee and tea, a nice comfy chair, wi-fi, good company--hey, what else could you ask for?

As far as contests...I've placed well and gotten some good feedback. The First Chapters Romance--man, it was brutal and yes, I had no idea that how much like American Idol it would be. I was NOT ready for that at all. At the time, I had NO internet presence, so that made it really rough. I sure had a crash course in it with that contest. Still, despite it all, I place in the top 25%, which felt good.

I really need to get off my duff and start doing something about all my finished manuscripts. I have friends doing the same to me as they have with you: WHEN? LOL!

Caren Crane said...

Sia, it's so great to be here! I've just started on the coffee, though, so I'm still a little slow this morning.

First Chapters was kind of an eye-opener for lots of us poor writers, I think. I had managed to convince myself life wasn't a popularity contest...and then there we were. :) Still, it was a great crash course, as you said, in networking and team building and figuring out who I was and what I wanted. I decided I didn't care much about being popular after that.

I am waiting (not very patiently) for you to start working on your completed manuscripts again. I loved your writing and want to see more! I'm sure you'll let us know when that time comes. Right?

Jo said...

Contests may be a bit of an ego boost, but when you get down to it, book sales are the final vindication of what you write surely? I wish you every success with your Indie publishing.

Now I'll go eat some more asparagus LOL


Caren Crane said...

Jo, you are so right! Sales are what counts in the end. I think contests were more important (or felt that way) when authors relied heavily on NYC publishers to get books into people's hands. Now it's all a bit old-fashioned!

I hope you enjoy your asparagus (yum!). I am having chocolate cake for breakfast. I probably shouldn't admit that...but it was my birthday cake. Surely that makes it okay? :)

Anna Sugden said...

Hi Sia! Hi Caren! Can I be a total fan-girl for a moment and squee excitedly about Kick Start - so glad to see this being published!

I admit it, I love contest bling! LOL I have been known to enter just because I liked the winner's prize *g*. I was lucky enough to do well in contests, but I also could fill a book with horror stories - some of which defy belief.

What contests did for me, for which I'm forever grateful, is that they opened up dialogue with editors and cut through the slush pile. In fact, the editor I finally sold to was one I was able to start a dialogue with because she judged my book in contest. It took 5 years from that contest final to getting The Call, but it would have been even harder and taken far longer if I hadn't put the story into contest.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Caren, yes, I'm working on mine. I'll admit to a certain reluctance because I know there will be some major gutting in several places and rewriting others. But my first series is set in a small town and like you, I wrote it several years ago. And yes, I'll let you know. :-)

Caren Crane said...

Anna, all fan girl squees are welcome! LOL I'll readily admit to loving the Golden Pen I received when I won that contest. I also have some very nice plaques and things. No Maggie necklace, but maybe someday!

You are so right about contests helping open dialogue with publishing professionals. Although I'm not currently pursuing publication with a print publisher, I know a LOT of editors and agents. Mostly because of contests and conferences. If/when I decide to pursue that, I will be forever grateful to know all those wonderful people!

And yes, I have contest horror stories too. That happens when you have heroines people love or hate! :D

Caren Crane said...

Sia, I was just commenting to a writer friend the other day that I realized the indie pubbed books I've been reading are mostly set in small towns. Most of those are locations I know little or nothing about. I love that! I can't wait to read about YOUR small town.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Anna, I agree. Not only did I learn a lot from entering contests and I got a boost to my writing confidence, but I've made a lot of contacts within the field of publishing.They are invaluable.

Caren and I mention First Chapters,and that one taught me the need for name recognition and a solid internet presence. It also taught me a lot about networking within publishing field and reaching out to readers. I don't know why it was such a surprise because I've always needed to networking in my professional life why should writing be any different?

Caren Crane said...

Sia, don't you think the way we operate as writers is sort of a counter-networking method? We sit, usually alone, working in relative solitude and often seeing few other people for days at a time. Many writers I know are introverts, as well, which makes it that much hard for them to put themselves out there.

I think all this social networking stuff is hard for me, as a writer, to make a part of my day. I enjoy it, but it doesn't feel natural. I have to make myself do it. To even remember it! I'm always glad when I remember to Tweet and post on FB and visit blogs I love (like this one!), but it is still an effort after years of doing it.

I think those of us (like you!) who network for a day job are at an advantage. I feel like I'm still learning to network!

Nancy Northcott said...

Caren and Sia, great post!

I had a good bit of contest success and now have an agent, but my first sale had never been in a contest. Ironic, huh?

None of my books that garnered so much contest love has ever sold. Two have been extensively rewritten--which they needed--and got great editorial feedback but didn't find a home. Two need more rewrites than I'm willing to put into them, as I set them in a decidedly off-market time period. One is written in first person snarky and set in England, thus ensuring it fits no discernible market niche.

For me, the kind of distance Caren took with Kick Start, which I had the honor of beta reading and think is terrific, was invaluable in figuring out whether the problem with these mss. was entirely the absence of a niche or also involved problems with the writing. I found some of both. Since contests evaluate only the very first part of a book, they aren't a reliable gauge as to its overall readiness. I needed time, both for perspective and for learning, to evaluate them properly.

jo robertson said...

Great perspective on contests and your writing journey, Caren. Congratulations on finally releasing this fabulous book. I'm sure it will resonate with many readers.

I think contests are absolutely essential for the beginning writer. It's a wonderful way to get much-needed feedback as long as the receiver understands it's one person's opinion. Take everything with a grain of salt.

I was very fortunate to have my first novel win the Golden Heart contest in 2006 and my second to win the overall Daphne du Maurier Award in 2007. However, winning contests doesn't mean the books will sell; there are many many factors involving a book's publication besides good writing.

So happy for you, Caren, and thanks, Sia, for having one of the Banditas!

Caren Crane said...

Nancy, you are so right about the value of contest feedback for a new writer! I had no idea how little I knew at first. It's embarrassing to think about some of the first entries I sent to contests now!

Also it's a great way to learn to accept criticism, whether it's warranted or not. Contests, for me, were a HUGE lesson in how very different people's tastes are. The nice thing is, like your "without a niche" books, there truly are readers for most any story line. Maybe not millions of readers, but there are readers! (Personally, I love Restoration novels and cannot wait until you publish yours.)

For me, I think the distance from Kick Start helped, but so did being older and more experienced as a writer. I had (and still have) so much to learn about writing fiction! It's a journey. :)

Caren Crane said...

Jo, I was frankly in awe of your contest awesomeness! I was also amazed that you won the Daphne, yet didn't have to beat off offers for that book. It made me really question what readers like vs. what publishers buy.

Having read that book (wasn't it "The Watcher"?) I know what a great book it is. Just makes the whole thing more baffling! I'm so glad you decided to publish your books on your own. They are all so good! No matter what publishers think, some of us enjoy a good romantic thriller. :)

Suzanne Ferrell said...

Hey Sia! Hey Caren!

I love the story of how you put the writing aside for a bit, but once you got back into it you realized how much it meant to you. I often say, "Members of my family are only alive because writing diverted me so!!" :)

I have KICK START on my Kindle waiting for me to indulge in it. And I plan to once my reading for future blog guests is done!!


Caren Crane said...

Thanks, Suzanne! Your comment about writing saving family members made me snort. It's so true! Plus, you can base characters on people you would love to exact revenge on but can't. Bwahaha! I tend to use small pieces of different people's characters to assemble my own characters, Frankenstein-style. Honestly, no one can point at one of my characters and think it is them, because they are all an amalgam!

What a very useful tool the amalgam is, too! Yes, you are right. Writing has saved many lives. I feel sure of it!

I hope you enjoy Kick Start, Suz. I really loved writing it (and rewriting it)!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

One of those times that a book just doesn't fall into what they believe is a marketable genre. Glad you took your book, which was obviously really good, and put it out there for others to enjoy. I'm sure it has found a good audience.

Caren Crane said...

Thanks, Alex! I think LOTS of books sort of fall between niches, don't you? It's like if the Marketing folks have to think too hard outside their boxes, the whole thing falls apart.

I understand that from a corporate perspective, but it really disenfranchised a lot of people. Not just writers, but readers who like something a bit different, as well. I hope readers manage to find Kick Start amid all the noise and enjoy it. Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Hi Caren. I remember your participation in one of the First Chapter contests. The process was hard, but I also received a lot of helpful feedback from the readers. Your road since sounds all too familiar, but I'm happy that you're getting Kick Start out there through the self-pub route. Best of luck.

Caren Crane said...

Thanks, James! I see our First Chapters friends all over the web these days. Lots have begun publishing in many different ways. It's so great that the contest helped us get to know one another a bit. Writers finding other writers is always a great thing! I hope you're writing is going well, too!

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

There's a lot to be said about winning a contest, any contest. For one thing, it makes us feel darned good. It provides validation, and tells us that maybe, just maybe, we haven't been wasting our time, after all. It lets us know we've been doing something right, and should keep at it.

I'm glad you've kept at it, Caren. The choice to self-pub puts the power in your hands, and I wish you much success with it. (Kinda scary, isn't it? My book comes out later this month.)

Caren Crane said...

Susan, it is a great feeling, isn't it? When I had my first final, then first win, I almost couldn't let myself enjoy it. No idea why that was so hard for me! It really is a lovely, happy feeling.

Since I decided to publish, though, I figured I can get that feeling if someone says they are reading and enjoying my book. Congratulations on your release!

Christina Brooke said...

Hi Caren! Hi Sia! Caren, I'm delighted Kick Start is out. Can't wait to read it!

I loved contests, and by and large my experiences were all positive. I met dear friend Anna Campbell when she judged one of my entries and I also won an Alphasmart in one contest which I use almost every day, years later. I do remember one contest where one judge said my heroine 'sparkled on the page' but my hero could use work and another said she adored my hero and couldn't stand seeing him with such a painful heroine! LOL Contest judging is definitely subjective!

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Hey Caren! I love, love, love that Kick Start is available!! WOOT!!

Sorry, Sia, had to get that out of my system. Grins.

Hi Sia! Hi Caren!

Caren, I have a love/hate relationship with contests. :> They have benefitted me greatly and given me a certain set of braggin' rights, but they have also given me a lot of low moments as well. I think you really, really, really have to take them with a grain - maybe a block - of salt, and just keep writing what you love, in spite of, or because of how contests work for you. :>

BTW, did I mention that I was THRILLED that I have Kick Start downloaded to my Kindle?


Sheila Deeth said...

Your post brings back memories of that gather contest. I met a lot of good friends there.

Anna Campbell said...

Hi Sia! Hi Caren! Sia, I'd like a nice English breakfast and a scone please. Caren brings out the classier side of me! Caren, huge congratulations to you on the release of Kick Start and good on you with bells on for having the gumption to put it out yourself. I'm dying to read it - I remember reading your entry in and thinking they'd be mad not to choose you as the winner. But as you said, the voting there was rather odd. Popularity doesn't necessarily mean you've written the best book - but what do I know? Love the cover, by the way.

I LOVE contests. In fact, mean people have been known to call me a contest sl*t! One thing I particularly love about contests is that they introduced me to my wonderful Golden Heart finalling sisterhood, the Romance Bandits. Wouldn't it have been a tragedy if we'd missed out on knowing each other? The thought of missing you all sends chills up my spine.

Caren Crane said...

Christina, I'm jealous you won an AlphaSmart! I still adore mine and use it when I'm writing. It's the best thing ever - no distractions!

I got to where I really loved reading contest judges' comments, because they were so often contradictory. This was especially true with the last book I was entering in contests, which featured a Very Southern Cast Of Characters. They either loved it or hated it. Got it or completely didn't get a thing about it. That one was originally titled 'Never Romance a Redneck.' Even the title got the love/hate! They also didn't believe characters really had the sort of names I gave them. Clearly, those people never lived in the South! :)

The contest circuti was definitely a roller coaster ride. I may enter another someday. Who can know? For now, I have lots of fun memories to enjoy!

Caren Crane said...

Sheila, wasn't the Gather contest great? I met so many wonderful people through that contest! It really gave me a feel for how many writers were out there trying to feel their way all on their own. And that made me really appreciate RWA and my local chapter! I've been incredibly fortunate to have wonderful, experienced writers to advise, cajole and (sometimes) bully me along my path. I feel terrible for those who are isolated from other writers!

We all know, out writer friends are the ONLY ones who really understand. Even spouses and SO with the best of intentions can't really understand the wall we ram our heads against over and over. And over!

I hope your own writing career is going well, Sheila. And that you're surrounded by loving writer friends. I feel sure you are!

Caren Crane said...

Jeanne, thank you so much for all your encouragement. And you said you're not a cheerleader - ha!

Man, are you ever right about the block of salt. I should have bought a salt lick back in my contest heyday! I was fortunate enough to get some very kind and encouraging words early on from some very fine contest judges. That was greatly encouraging and made me feel like maybe I had a chance. So I kept slogging on.

It was later, after I had started finaling and winning some, that the trouble began. With one contest entry - I think it was Kick Start, actually - I had a judge write in the comments that it was obvious English wasn't my native language. She suggested I get a copy of Strunk & White and a writing book and start there. I was dumbfounded at first. Then I laughed my head off!

That one still tickles me. I hope you enjoy Kick Start. You know, even if it was written by a quasi-literate immigrant from middle Tennessee. :P

Caren Crane said...

Anna C., the thought of me bringing out your classy side makes me LOL. As if! When Anna and I get together, it's all limericks and puns and raucous laughter. She can sip her tea and nibble a scone. Meanwhile, I'm on my third slice of chocolate cake and about to brew another vat of coffee!

I think it's great that you still love contests, Anna. They obviously love you, too, since you are forever winning some award or other. Plus you have all those fans foaming at the mouth, waiting for your next book! I could probably do without the contests, but I could dig some foaming fans. :)

Until then, I'll content myself with the love and support of all my excellent writer friends and sisters! The Romance Bandits are amazing and I would know NOTHING without them. Especially Suzanne Ferrell. That woman knows everything! Love and smooches!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Anna, I didn't know you had been on Small world.

That particular contest brought me some fabulous writing friends and most of them I'm still contact with after 5 years.

I agree, Caren, writing in isolation isn't good. I wrote several of my first manuscripts without any association with other writers. I shake my head now, because while I told a good story, the market had changed so much and I wasn't up with the latest things. Nothing like writer friends to tell it like it is and give encouragement. They know what it's all about and the frustrations and triumphs.

I learned more in three months than I did in the previous three years. RWA helped a great deal, as well. Their contests improved my learning curve too.

Christina--Man, I've shaken my head more over judges comments. Lol! Unfortunately, some judges step out of their comfort zone when judging. Sometimes judges are reading and judging things they normally wouldn't be reading and judge accordingly. So a chunk of salt is necessary, at times.

Caren Crane said...

Sia, this has been great fun. Thanks so much for having me here today. And many thanks to all our fabulous commenters!

Lynda R Young said...

I've not been game to enter any contests. I'm impressed by how much you've written, Caren. Kick Start sounds great.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

That's the problem with contests and awards - it doesn't mean the book will sell, either as a manuscript or as a completed book. Winning doesn't mean you're set. Those entering contests need to be aware of that.

J. A. Bennett said...

I tend to be really envious of people who win contests, becasue I feel like they're that much closer to publication than I am, but maybe that's not the case. Very cute cover!!

Houston A.W. Knight said...

Hi Hon,

Great post today!

I'm back to posting at my blog as drop on by today when you get a chance.


Anna Campbell said...

Sia, I wasn't a contestant but when Caren was there, I swung by to check out her entry and give her a vote.

Empty Nest Insider said...

Kick Start is a great title, and I like the playful cover! Nice story about how you met, and I learned a lot about indie publishing. Thanks Sia and Caren!