8 Tips to Win a Fiction Writing Contest

winning-trophyIf you’re a writer, chances are you’ve wondered whether or not you should enter a writing contest. There are lots of good reasons you should: the confidence boost if you place, the practice of submitting your work, and the awards and/or publication information you can add to your writing résumé, which boosts your credibility with potential readers, agents, and publishers.


For the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of being an early reader for the Women’s National Book Association’s annual fiction writing contest. While many of the entries are good, there are some that stand out. What makes these entries different? I’ve compiled a list of things the best fiction entries have in common.

  1. The writers follow the submission guidelines. If the contest has a word limit, stick to it. If there’s a theme, include it in your story. And be sure your story fits the criteria—don’t send your science fiction piece to a historical fiction contest.
  2. The copy is clean. Most entries are going to have a typo or two. That’s understandable. But the more errors I see, the more likely I am to stop reading.
  3. What’s in a name? Winning entries have intriguing titles. Every word counts in a short story, including your title. Good titles make me want to read immediately. Reading a title like “Excerpt from ________,” on the other hand, sounds like a snoozefest. Even if the entry is an excerpt, give it a standalone title.
  4. The beginning is strong. I know you hear that your lead must grab the reader’s attention right away. And you’re probably sick of hearing this tidbit, but it’s true. A short story follows a traditional story arc, but everything’s compressed. You’ve got to pull the reader in immediately.
  5. There’s an ending, not a cliffhanger. This is a biggie for me. Endings are tough, I know. Ocliffften short stories leave readers with an open-ended interpretation. The writer wants the reader to ponder what happened. But open-ended conclusions are not the same thing as cliffhangers. A cliffhanger is a great way to end a chapter, not a short piece of fiction. Readers want closure.
  6. The main character is vivid. By vivid, I don’t mean that the writers spend many words describing what the character looks like. I mean this character is hit with conflict and responds. Everything about him is believable from his dialogue to his actions.
  7. There’s something unique about the plot. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that a third of the entries I read for this last contest centered on someone having an affair. Another third focused on death. If you’re going to write about such a common theme, you better tackle it in a new way. To prove that this is possible, my favorite entry (the one I hope wins the whole shebang) fell into the affair category. But by golly, the author put a spin on it like I’ve never seen.
  8. The story made me feel something. The best entries made me laugh out loud, filled me with disdain, or left me sniffling. If you can make a reader connect emotionally, you’ve got something worth pursuing.

It’s a brave move to enter a writing contest. Make sure you’re competitive. Good luck!



Basics of Beta Readers

If you’ve ever encountered a beta website, chances are you’ve run into a kink while using it. The term beta means something is in test mode. In the case of beta readers, it’s your manuscript being tested, not the readers themselves.

Betas: Readers, Not Fish
Betas: Readers, Not Fish

What Is a Beta Reader?

A beta reader is someone who enjoys reading and is willing to give honest feedback on an unpublished manuscript. Beta readers are not book reviewers. While it would be nice if your beta readers left a review for you after you publish, it’s not part of their job description. Beta readers are not professional editors, either.



Who Makes a Good Beta Reader (and Who Does Not)?

Family members are the worst beta readers. Too often they either offer meaningless feedback (I love it. You’re so talented.) because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, or they cut you to the quick with their jealousy (This was the worst drivel I’ve ever read. What makes you think you’re a writer?).

Critique partners can fall on either side of the fence. Because critique partners are also writers, they understand nuances of story construction or character development that are lost on a casual reader. They can give you meaningful advice that will improve your manuscript. Sometimes, though, writers have a hard time not imposing their writing style and ideas on others’ work. Proceed with caution if asking a critique partner to beta read your full manuscript.

The best betas are readers in your target audience. If you don’t know who your target audience is, figure that out ASAP.

How Do You Find the Best Beta Readers?

Shoot to work with three to five beta readers.

Use networking connections to find content experts if you’re writing nonfiction. If you’re writing a middle grade novel, ask a teacher or a librarian if they can introduce you to students who would read your book and tell you what they think (get parental permission, of course).

Look for people that enjoy reading, know something about writing, and/or won’t be afraid to give you constructive feedback. If you are really struggling to find quality beta readers in your circles, you can hire beta readers.

Best Practices When Working with a Beta Reader?

  • Be clear about your genre, description, and manuscript length.
  • Set a reasonable deadline. Gently nudge the reader if they miss the deadline. (Side note: if they keep putting you off, chances are they couldn’t get into your book and don’t intend to read it. If you suspect this to be the case, asking directly may be your best bet.)
  • Give your beta reader(s) guiding questions to think about while reading. This will help ensure you get feedback that you can use. Explain that you want feedback on content, not on word level edits (spelling mistakes and the like).
  • thank-you-textBe gracious. If you haven’t paid for this service, be sure to send a thank you note. You may even want to include a small gift card or other treat if their feedback was especially helpful.


What Do You Do with the Feedback?

Wait until you’ve received feedback from all your beta readers before you make any decisions about revisions. Read through their feedback and then sit with it for a period of time to digest it. Take note of areas that your beta readers agree need revision. But maybe ignore the suggestion that doesn’t resonate. Then get busy incorporating changes.

Beta readers are a valuable part of the publishing process. Take the time to utilize them and improve your manuscript. It’s worth it.

Author Names = Author Brands

As a writer, your name is your brand. I know, I just said brand, and you’re thinking that brands belong to businesses, not to writers. But you’re wrong. If you want to make money as a writer (and who doesn’t?), then you need to have some business savvy. And that starts by creating a strong author brand.

Priscilla Goudreau-Santos wrote a great blog post about ways to build your author platform. You can read it here, so I won’t rehash those details. Instead, I want to talk about your name.

The name you choose to write under will be your author brand. A lot of writers get hung up on whether or not they should use a pen name. Sometimes they’re concerned that their writing could impact their current careers. Sometimes they don’t want to upset their grandmother. And sometimes they think it sounds cool to have a nom de plume. That’s a fancy way of saying pen name. So is pseudonym.

There are some great reasons to write under a pen name. A few of these include:

-Your name is the same as an already published author.

-You do need to maintain some privacy (i.e., you’re a high school English teacher writing erotica).

-You want to tackle a different genre and you want to give your readers a heads-up that this book will be something different (think Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb).

There are some terrible reasons to write under a pen name, too. A few of these include:

-In today’s information age, it will be hard for you to maintain your privacy (J.K. Rowling learned this the hard way).

-You already have a following on a popular blog or social media. Using a pen name means you start from scratch.

-You want a name that is cooler, more you, more something. A pen name isn’t going to make you cooler or make readers more likely to pick up your book. The opposite might be true, especially if you choose something outlandish.

Your Name = Your Brand

Regardless of the name you decide to publish under, know that your author name equals your author brand. Your author name is what you want to use to build your platform: your website, your social media accounts, your blog, etc. You want readers to connect with you the author, not with one particular title of your book. If you make the mistake of choosing your website’s domain name as your book title, what happens when you write another book? Always stick with your author name.

Creating your author brand around your author name has another added benefit. It builds your confidence as writer. When you have an entire website devoted to you and your words, you get a little boost. So the next time you walk into a crowded room, you can say, “Hi, I’m So-and-So, and I’m a writer.”

Writers, Know Your Readers

In this week’s All About the Authors video installment, I talk about three ways fiction writers can improve their story. In order to follow my suggestions, writers must trust their readers. But to trust readers, you must know who they are. Do you?

The Audiencepeople-apple-iphone-writing

I’m sure you’ve heard the advice that you can’t worry about what others will think when you write. Allen Ginsberg said, “To gain your voice, you have to forget about having it heard.” That is true to some degree. If you’re worried about what people will think of your writing, it can be very limiting. But there is a point when you need to think about readers.

Defining your audience gives you a focus when writing. If you imagine that your story is a written exchange between you and your reader, you must know who’s sitting across the table from you. It’s quite common when you begin writing to write for yourself. Self is a perfectly acceptable audience. Other concrete writing audiences include family, friends, your blog followers, your agent.

But maybe you don’t have an agent or blog followers, and you’d be embarrassed to let your mother read what you’ve written. Who do you write for then?

hand-vintage-old-bookWrite for your future readers. Maybe you envision these creatures as nebulous and benign, someone who will one day read your work and like it. Eventually though, you want to create a more concrete idea of your audience. It may help to post stock photos of readers around your writing space to remind yourself that real people will read your book one day. And if you have a fan base, envision them moving through your story.


The Hard Sell

Why do you need to know who these readers are? Because once your book is published, you need to entice these readers to buy it. In order to create a viable marketing strategy, you need to know your readers’ likes and dislikes. You need to know their reading habits. This information will inform your cover design, back cover copy, and the story itself. Romance writers know their readers expect a happily-ever-after ending. Self-help writers know that readers expect a step-by-step guide to improve an aspect of their lives. You can only break the rules if you break them on purpose and not out of ignorance. (Trust me when I tell you that the difference is obvious.)

Build a Relationship

Once you’ve figured out who your (future/current) readership is, get to know them. Read books popular in the genre you’re writing to see what these readers like. Read the reviews they leave. Participate in bountitled (8)ok discussions with other readers. Be active on the social media platform they use most frequently. For example, YA readers gravitate to Instagram.

Finally, get to know them for the sake of spending time with people you care about. Successful writers often talk about how much their readers mean to them. They recount experiences they’ve had at events that motivate them when the going gets tough.

Let your readers take the journey with you. Your writing will be better for the companionship.

Blind Dates and Editing Samples

There are many reasons that I’m grateful for my husband, but I’m especially appreciative that I will never have to go on a blind date again. I know some folks hit the jackpot when their friend sets them up with their roommate’s cousin’s brother. My best friend is living proof that a blind date can turn into a lifetime romance. That said, horror stories abound, like the time you faked a seaweed allergy just to get rid of a bad date, never mind the fact that you chose the sushi restaurant.blind date
Yahoo, no more blind dates for me! Except I’m an editor. And every time I open my inbox and see an email from a potential client, I’m reminded how much editing samples are like blind dates.
1. It’s a Cold Call.
Most often a request for a sample edit comes from a stranger. He found me online and liked my website. She got my name from a friend.
2. Make Small Talk.
We exchange witty emails. I try to dazzle them by sounding fun and professional. Who wants to date a boring editor? Little does the prospect know I spend ten minutes agonizing over the greeting.
3. Online Stalking Commences.
In the interim of email exchanges, we check each other out on social media. We reach out to any connections to get the skinny. Believe me, I don’t want to work with a prima donna lunatic who will leave me in the lurch when it’s time to send payment. And the prospect wants to make sure that my red pen isn’t deadly.
4. A Date Is Set.
If we’ve both passed the initial hurdles, we set a date for a sample edit. The prospect scrounges for the best material to send me. They worry that I’ll think the sample is fat or ugly or boring. I sweat over the sample, spending longer than I should. I worry they’ll think my editing style is out of shape or arrogant or cheap. We agonize over the moment of the truth.
5. If All Goes Well, We’ll Get Naked.
No, not really! But kind of. Metaphorically speaking. If the material is a good fit for me and the prospect likes my style, we dance. We agree to fees and schedules. And then we get busy. Editing, of course.
While I may never have to endure another painful meal with a stranger that I’m hoping will be my man, I do have to put myself out there with each prospective client. The next time you’re looking for an editor, remember they’re probably just as nervous as you are to make a good impression.
Be sure to subscribe to see what I have to say about the best ways to find an editor in the Wild West market of today’s publishing industry. And tell me in the comments what questions you have about finding an editor. Or entertain me with a blind date horror story. 

What’s Happening in the Author Resource Center?

Do you want to know what’s happening in the Members Only Author Resource Center? We’re providing expert content about writing, editing, marketing, and publishing books.

Right now we’re building our video library content with topics that include writing for magazines, how to get your book facebook_imagenoticed, and when to look for an agent. We also have plans to host live chats to answer your questions, plan webinars, and record podcasts.

Now’s your chance to tell us what you’d like to see. What book industry topics do you want to know more about? What questions keep you awake at night? What type of content do you like best? Let us know in the comments. And if you have a question, send us an email.

Join this exclusive group now to take advantage of our introductory rates!

The One Thing You Must Not Do During NaNoWriMo

NaNoIf you’re like me, NaNoWriMo keeps popping up in your newsfeeds. It’s the time of year when we overdose on pumpkin, scrounge around for the best Halloween costume, and consider whether or not we’re ready to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge.

I’m going to assume that you’re all writing warriors and you’ve said yes. Yes, I will win NaNoWriMo 2015. There’s a video in the Author Resource Center full of tips to help you prepare for November 1, as well as calendar templates to make planning a little easier. Go watch it as soon as you finish reading this post. And if you haven’t subscribed to the Author Resource Center yet, here’s a little extra enticement to join: I put the great debate to rest in this week’s video. What debate, you ask? The pronunciation debate—is it NaNoRYEMo or NaNoREEMo?

All right, moving on. Let’s focus on the one thing that you absolutely must not do if you want to win NaNoWriMo this year. Do not even think about editing your manuscript while you’re drafting. Nothing will kill a writing groove faster than deciding that you must get a scene exactly right before moving on. no-symbol-39767_1280

Repeat after me: November is for writing. January is for editing. (You hide the manuscript in a drawer in December.)

Many writers get hung up on making every sentence, every dialogue exchange, every plot turn just right. They write something lame and begin to compare themselves to ___________________ (insert name of your writing hero). They know that said writing hero would never write such drivel, and all writing must cease until this hot mess is cleaned up. What they don’t know is that the writing hero writes drivel, too. Everybody does. That’s the reason it’s called a draft.

And please, please, please don’t worry about your spelling or where the commas go! Turn off those squiggly lines that Word uses to shame us all. Go to the Start menu, choose Word Options, then select Proofing. Uncheck the box marked check spelling as you type. Poof, those pesky lines are gone, and you can concentrate on your story.

Just write. If it’s bad, who cares? You can fix it later. Make a note of what is bugging you, and then move forward. Keep writing. Hit your daily word count. Be the writing warrior I know you are and conquer this NaNoWriMo beast. Remember that your goal is (or should be) to cultivate a writing practice. And as Jessica Brody says, “Don’t be afraid to write crap because crap makes great fertilizer.”

Leave a comment and share how you silence the editor living in your head.


What Type of Editing Do You Need?

You’ve written your last sentence and hit save (twice—just to be sure it worked). Time to celebrate! You’re finished, right? Well, no, you’re not. Now it’s time to dig in and get dirty. You still have niggling doubts that your main character isn’t likeable or that your explanation is clear as mud. Maybe you’ve gotten less than positive feedback from critique group members or early readers. And it could be that you still have no idea what a comma splice is, but you know you’re guilty of committing this grammar crime.

The problem is that you don’t know exactly what your problems are or how you can fix them. That’s when you know it’s time to hire an editor. Sometimes you don’t even realize that you need an editor, but you have a wise friend who’s told you that you do. You trust this friend. And that’s good because your friend is right. Having your book professionally edited is one of the best things you can do for your writing career. Without a solid manuscript, you’re dead in the water. A great query might prompt an agent to request your manuscript, but without solid writing, you won’t snag a contract. Same goes for self-publishing. You can’t compete in a saturated market without a well-written book. A professional editor can give you advice that propels you to the next level.

So you fire up Google, search for editing services, and just stare. Who knew there were so many different types of editing? What services do you need?

Let’s clear up some of this confusion. While there are many types of editing available, the basic services you may need are developmental editing, line editing and/or copyediting, and proofreading.

Whether you plan to self-publish or find a literary agent to represent you, a developmental edit is a good idea. Developmental editing, also called structural or substantive editing (those sneaky editors—calling the same service different names), addresses the big picture elements of your manuscript. In fiction, these are character analysis, point of view, setting, timeline, story arc, pacing, and tone. In nonfiction, editors look at organization, style, point of view, pacing, and comparative analysis. The editor will mark up your manuscript, pointing out the good and the bad, with lots of viable suggestions to improve your manuscript.

Line editing and copyediting are often confused and thought to be synonymous. These services do have a few differences though. A line edit is a more intense service, and the editor will provide a hands-on approach to make your sentences crisp, eliminate jargon, or make dialogue sound belietrack changesvable. Sometimes an editor will provide line editing during the developmental editing phase, and you’ll need a separate copyedit after revisions. But if you hire an editor for a line edit only, this service should include a copyedit. So what does a copyedit include? Copyediting addresses manuscript issues at the word level: grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, treatment of numbers, consistency, and repetition. A copyeditor will point out a confusing sentence. A line editor will rewrite the sentence. You definitely need a copyedit (and possibly a line edit) if you plan to self-publish a quality book. However, if you hope to publish traditionally, you can hold off on this service.

If you’re still a little confused about whether you need a line edit or a copyedit and what that should include, you’re in good company. Editors don’t always agree on this either. That’s why it’s important to nail down exactly what your editor is going to do, regardless of what she calls it.

Proofreading is a final look at your manuscript before it is published. A proofreader will catch typos, inconsistencies, and issues with formatting, such as bad line breaks. You should not need a proofread until your book has been formatted and is ready to make its way into the world.

Now that you know what the basic editing services entail, you should be able to decide what service(s) you need. Figuring out the service you need is helpful when you begin the search for an editor because many editors specialize. If finding the perfect editor sounds daunting, there will soon be a video on this very topic, so stay tuned.

All About the Authors – A Force of Five

group photoIt all began several years ago with the founding of the Charlotte Chapter of the Women’s National Book Association and a lot of serendipity. That’s where Carin Siegfried (the first president) and Betsy Thorpe (the first vice-president), met. A few years later, Betsy reached out to Carin to encourage her to start freelance editing after Carin left the Charlotte-based book wholesaler Baker & Taylor. Both had worked in New York City at Random House (Betsy) and St. Martin’s Press (Carin) before moving to Charlotte. Next, also through WNBA, Carin and Betsy connected with Nicole Ayers, another freelance editor, and they would discuss their work and best practices. Nicole had over a decade of experience teaching writers and working with a National Writing Project affiliate before she turned to freelance editing. Carin also discovered that a college friend, Karen Alley, had begun freelance editing after a career that included work as an assistant editor in book production for Digital Text Construction, and time as editor of two separate magazines, the IGA Grocergram and Carolina Gardener. Carin encouraged Karen to join WNBA. And, in 2013, Priscilla Goudreau-Santos, a freelance publicist, writer and editor with over 20 years of public relations, journalism, and marketing experience including book publicity, also joined WNBA and a dynamic alliance was born.

These five book professionals met often at WNBA events, and also at social get togethers. This year, they decided to launch All About the Authors, a platform for writers to learn more about the publishing process and meet editors and publicists who are experts in the business. These savvy book pros knew from their clients and from workshop attendees how much confusion there is about the process of getting a book from one’s head into printed form. And between them, they have a great deal of knowledge that can help. Combined, we’ve worked with authors whose successful books have included a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, a Kirkus Books Best Indie Book, an iBook Pick of the Year, and a Red City Review Book Award Finalist. So they decided to make their knowledge available, for authors to learn about publishing from the comfort of their own homes.

All About the Authors will take authors through every step of the process, both big and small. We encourage you to send us questions if you have them. We know writing a book and getting it published is a confusing and daunting task, and we strive to make it more understandable. We want to break it down so you will know that it is possible. With our guidance, you can determine which path is right for you to achieve the results you want, and we want to help you get there. That’s our vision and our mission.