Thursday, September 28, 2017

So, top ten in a contest!

I entered a novel contest known as [REDACTED] and out of 152 submissions, I got....10th place.
As you can imagine, I’m over the moon about this, but I’m not sure if or how I should include it in a query letter. Is that high enough place to even bring up? Should I say ‘came in top ten at such-and-such contest’? Should I not even bother because even though I got my name on the scoreboard, I didn’t win top three?
Contests are terrific, and I recommend entering them if they don't cost an arm or a leg.  The one you entered is pretty close to an arm but that's not relevant here.

The question you want to ask is: will it help my query to include it?

Think of it this way: to be Miss America, a contestant has to win a state competition first. To win a state competition, contestants often practice by entering other pageants like Miss Kale, Miss Kudzu, Miss Kazoo, Miss Kalamazoo; contests to hone the skills needed to compete in Miss America.

It doesn't matter if you were Miss Kale when you're competing for Miss America.

Writing contests are the same way. They're terrific practice, and a good way to get some validation in this cold hard publishing world, but they aren't often relevant in your query letter.

The downside of mentioning contests is it takes up word count, and often a writer would do better to tell me more about the book than a contest.

It also very rarely matters what anyone else (contest judges in this case) think about your book. It only matters what I think.

And it never matters what other writers think (the contest you entered was judged largely by writers from what I could see.)  Yes, I need beautiful writing, but I need writing I can SELL and that's often a very different set of standards.  

Bottom line: focus on telling me about your book before you include anything else. If you can't resist mentioning the contest, it won't hurt your query at all, but it makes me think you're pretty new to the game.


Donnaeve said...


Remember back in the day when we used to celebrate being first commenter? Y'all are making this too easy now.

Anyhoo. As always, what does it come down to in the end? The writing.

It's always gonna be about the writing.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I apologize for the length of this comment but don’t-do-what-I-did, gets me going.
If you’ve been a Reider for a while than you have probably heard this story.

Through no effort of my own I was given a book deal based on some of my pretty amazing work. (Humility is not one of my traits) A publisher (small then huge now) saw my stuff and told me that my book, “...would change the face of publishing.” I was so full of myself that my head barely fit through the door. Um...hello...have you heard of me? No? Did the face of traditional publishing change? It sure as hell has but it had nothing to do with me.

I lived on that accolade for a long time. Still do from time to time, like right now, even though it happened 46 years ago.

OP, congrats on 10th place.
To be honest, agents and publishers don’t care. Your friends don’t give a hoot, your family is probably sick of hearing about it and to other writers, it’s either ho hum news or they’re jealous. Forget 10th and go for 1st in the eyes of an agent who falls in love with your work OR 46 years from now you’ll still be talking about it.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ah ha, beat by Donna because I did another read-through. Go Donna.

kathy joyce said...

Not that I've done this yet myself, but maybe a writer website would help here. Reference it in the query with a link. The website can be as simple as a writing CV. Update with new awards and publications daily (or so :), with links to online pubs, and pdf copies of print pubs.

Janet, are there any writing contests prestigious enough to definitely mention?

Colin Smith said...

I gave up on contests (for the most part--Janet's being the most notable exception) a while ago. They helped me write a ton of flash fiction (some of which I'm posting to my writerly Facebook page that you're all invited to visit, follow, adore... did I mention there are cat pictures? I digress...) and gave my battered confidence a boost when they elicited kind comments and even a ranking of some kind. But there have been plenty of writers who got an agent without ever having entered a contest, or even had a story published in a magazine. As far as I can tell, a prestigious contest win (e.g., Writer's Digest Annual Short Story Contest, that Amazon contest I don't remember the name of, Pulitzer Prize--something with national or international recognition) might push an agent who's on the fence to request pages if they're undecided. But other than that, what Donna said: there's no substitute for a great novel. And if you've written a great novel, that's what going to convince an agent.

There's my 2.5 cents. :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

No matter how much great advice I find I about queries, like this here, I think I am going to have an actual full on mental breakdown over the query for my new book, the one I am getting ready to query. I am not even kidding.

Writing and all 20 something revisions of the book was easier than this blasted query. I am close to wanting to employ one of those Harry Potter howlers that just screams -

Read the damn book, pretty please. It's a really weird-ass fantasy running about 110,000 words. Read it. Please.

So here I am curled up in a corner whimpering and garnering some very odd looks from my co- workers. I won a flash fiction contest once. Does that count for anything? Oh no, what if my query is so bad that all the agents snicker and point and laugh at me?

Sorry, I was up very late working on said query and it is still not quite right. Or even in the same neighborhood. Ah well, at least it is nearly Friday.

kathy joyce said...

OT: I'm trying to remember name and author of a book. MC is middle-aged woman who works for house-sitting company. A young couple ends up at her house and they create a little family. When the owners decide to return home, the "family" makes a plan to keep the house. Then the MC learns the owners are coming home because they're having a baby, and she makes her own plan (more details would spoil). Sound familiar to anyone?

Colin Smith said...

Elise: Yes, you won a flash fiction contest once. And my goodness what a win! Some of us have won 3 or 4 times, and I bet no-one remembers those stories. Your single win, however, was with one of the most memorable, chilling, and expertly written flash stories in the contest's history. Janet said it herself at the time: "This entry is perfection." Lines like "The captain appraised him as he brushed yesterday’s arrivals from his uniform jacket" still gives me quivers!

You can do this query thing, Elise. You got this. If you can write 100 words that stopped the breath of an entire blog audience, you can write a query.

*waves pom-poms* :)

Janet Reid said...

Elise's entry still haunts me.
And it still is perfection.
And quit doubting yourself E.M. you woodland creature wheel marathoner.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin You are the best. Your help has been invaluable. For the life of me, i can't seem to get the voice right in the query. Oh well, some sleep will help no doubt.

And thank you, Janet - I am rather attached to that rodent wheel. And have become very attached to this book so I don't want to blow it.

I am positive in that delusional sort of way that I have finally created something special. One of my beta readers called me last night sobbing over my ending because she was so upset with the MC. Like he was a real person. Priceless that kind of thing.

Of course, i am reading an ARC of our own Donna's newest offering, The Road to Bittersweet and that has me choked up all the way through it. Glorious writing there.

So much talent here at The Reef.

Sherry Howard said...

Today's post hit me right in the kale keeper. "Yes, I need beautiful writing, but I need writing I can SELL and that's often a very different set of standards." I'm jumping into the query trenches with a new manuscript that won in a contest. Even though I KNOW I shouldn't mention it, the validation makes me LONG to say, "Look, someone loved it." So, today's post has been tattooed on my, um, my . . .

Sherry Howard said...

And, yes, I'll query the queen even though it's not her thing, middle grade Mystery Thriller, so I'm glad I read this just in time!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

What Colin and Janet said.

Sherry Howard said...

I've never used three comments! EM, you've got this! Everybody I know struggles with the query. I think one of JR's comments today helps if you remember it: something in a query might be not quite right, but may not hurt the query. Give it a test spin, and you'll soon find out.

Colin Smith said...

Mmm... Might it be fun to have a fake query contest? We all write 250-word queries for made-up novels. Janet would then pick the top 5 and tell us why these queries stand out. And of course she would pick a winner, who would then have to write the novel... hahahaha!!! ;)

Should I pack for Carkoon now? Actually I never really unpacked from the last exile... can never be certain when the fickle fin of fate will send me on my way again... *sigh*...

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I've wondered about this, though not for novel queries, for cover letters on story submissions. Granted, the importance of cover letters varies by market, editor, etc. But, I entered one of my short stories in the (free!) Baen Fantasy Adventure Award this year and was a finalist. (I also have déjà vu so maybe I already mentioned/asked this here and if I did I'm sorry!) The story was ultimately not a winner, but I'm still listed on their site, in Locus, etc. as a finalist and have wondered if I should mention that. Or if it doesn't matter?

Also, (and again I'm so sorry if I've already said it, my memory sometimes...) my story "Daddy's Girl" that was published this summer in Syntax & Salt, is on the Nebula Reading List. The nominations aren't for awhile and the reading list doesn't ultimately "mean" anything....but it sure feels like it does!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin You would win that contest by a mile. But it sure would be funny to see what you could do with that 350k word Vegan Dino-porn book you been peddling in Carkoon. I hear Kale Leaf Literary already anticipates an auction for it and so are busy trying to have you back in Carkoon. There be Lima beans to be made.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Jennifer That sure seems like a big deal. Make sure it is prominently featured on your blog/website so when agent checks it out (because you put it in signature of your query letter), they will see it.

Colin Smith said...

Jennifer: If I were you, I would just say, "My name's Jennifer Donohue, and I wrote three short stories just now, while you were opening my query. And by the time you've finished reading it, I'll have written three more. If you publish my story, I'll mention you in my Hugo acceptance speech." :)

Colin Smith said...

Elise: Isn't it sad that the best queries I've written have been for novels that don't exist? But given the creativity in this place, I think Janet would be hard pressed to pick just five. I do think, however, that such a contest would be a good exercise for learning how to write a query. It forces you to think in terms of the protagonist, what s/he wants, what's stopping him/her, and what the stakes are.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

E.M. Goldsmith Oh, you're right, blog prominence is a great idea!

Colin now that's a teensy bit disingenuous.....I start lots of stories but it takes longer than a query letter to finish them! Maybe an episode of Murder: She Wrote? ;)

Donnaeve said...

I definitely remember Elise's winning Flash Fiction entry.

I also remember the query used on Query Shark as an example of how to break the rules and end up a BIG winner, for a story called Premeditated, by Josin McQuein. Yep. Remember them both. VERY WELL.

And thanks for that shout out about the ARC Elise!

Barbara Etlin said...

EM, don't use a howler. Have your owl deliver the query by Owl Post.

When I was querying I said that I should have my irresistible dog visit Manhattan agencies with a red wagon containing my manuscript. No one could say no to that face. :-)

Timothy Lowe said...

EM - If your novel can make somebody cry, you can write a kick-ass query. What a great affirmation that must have been!

Donna - going to order Bittersweet tonight, even though it won't arrive until December. I am going to need something good when I get through A HANDMAID'S TALE. Can't believe I've never read it - it is spine-chilling. It's humbling to think that anyone can write that beautifully!

Cheers, Reiders! It is inspiring the amount of support that resides here!

Julie Weathers said...

Popping in because I am procrastinating. I should be taking the car to get a flat fixed and don't want to get out.

Years ago when I was writing races stories, I used to cover the northwest tracks on my beat. One of the mares who raced up there frequently as well as California was almost unstoppable. If she lost, it was by a nose and she wasn't believing those lying cameras. She'd throw a fit and insist on going to the winner's circle to get her picture taken. People just got used to her and laughed it off. They let her go have her picture made and Princess was happy. I talked to the trainer, never the owner Princess Kawananakoa, after one race and said, "Well, it was a shame to break her winning streak, but the last race was only by a nose."

"Yep, but second place is first loser. You still lost."

I dropped out of a rodeo queen contest once because the rodeo committee decided they would award it to whichever girl sold the most tickets. So, would first place have meant anything in that contest? Not to me.

Perspective, I guess.

Sherry "And, yes, I'll query the queen even though it's not her thing, middle grade Mystery Thriller"

I've thought about this a lot. I'm not sure if I will query QOTKU with Rain Crow. I don't think it will be her thing. I know Far Rider isn't and I will revisit it one day. I know Cowgirls is.

This is me whining when I think about writing a query.

Colin Smith said...

I don't know... I think I would query Janet, even if I had written a dino porn sci-fi picture book. After all, she might say yes just so she can include my exile to Carkoon in a contract and make it legally binding. :)

Julie Weathers said...

And I realize I have once again stuck my foot in my mouth. To the OP. Winning any kind of a contest is wonderful. Coming in tenth in a prestigious or recognized contest is out of this world and congratulations. I envy both your courage and your accomplishment.

Look how exciting it is to get named on the shortlists in the flash fiction contests here! As wicked as the competition is, I might be tempted to mention it in a query.

However, unless it's a really well-known contest, as QOTKU says, I think I'd focus on saving that very valuable real estate for selling te story.

Joseph Snoe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brig said...

Elise I just read your winning entry. Holy moly. Sometimes I'm awed by the power that the ordering of a bunch of words has on us humans. This was most certainly one of those times.

AJ Blythe said...

Elise, I think you are on to something...but rather than Howlers, we'd need Whisperers. The query letter is whispered at nothing more than ant volume before exploding in a shower of sparks, thus leaving the agent with only your pages to go on.

I often wonder how many amazing books aren't ever picked up because of dodgy query letters?

A side note, the silver lining from having to write a query letter is that my "to do" list for house chores is finally under control =)

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Congratulations, E.M., on being the tenth comment.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Have been thinking of entering prestigious contests next year (when i have something that qualifies). A RUBY would look very nice next to my husband's Commonwealth Fencing trophies.

Also, when you get something published, isn't that like winning a contest?

AJ Blythe said...

The RUBY trophy is very pretty, Her Grace. I'm sure it will be much nicer than your husband's fencing trophies =)

Megan V said...

Pfft. Who cares about being the first comment? It's the last comment that matter. They who laugh last, laugh best. Especially since they get to read all of the glorious comments that come before them.

Colin Smith said...

You got that right, Megan: :D

Megan V said...

I like to believe that I am always right Colin but then, somehow, some way, reality kicks in.

Colin Smith said...

Yeah... I know what you mean, Megan.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I was lucky enough to experience success in querying my nonfiction, way back when. Fiction, however, has exposed me to an entirely new world - I recall cringe-worthy tidbits I'd included in my noobie exuberance of believing everyone would want my first fiction novel (I kid! I kid! I never actually used the term fiction novel). But, OY! When we know better, we do better.

Elise I feel a true and genuine rush of joy for your upcoming journey. We're all here for you! And YAY you.

Now I just wanna know when 2Ns and Colin are going on the road with their comedy routine.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

What would I do without you guys? This place... I am totally buying all of you drinks and cake one of these days. Even those of you in Australia.

I will simply base my book tour or my jwandering around the globe just cause what the Hell else am I going to do tour on where each and everyone of you live. It'll be a blast. I can collect signed copies of all the best sellers you guys will write while I am still working out this blasted query letter.

I did finally write a decent query letter .. great voice, fantastic protagonist, clear stakes and problem. Unfortunately, this query was not about the book I actually wrote :/. Do you think Brandon Sanderson would mind much if I queried his Wax and Wayne Mistborn trilogy? I am positive it will be a bestseller because it already is.

I am going to read Donna's book, cry a bit, and then sleep. And drool. Thanks again for all the encouragement. I do appreciate it.