Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The value of contest judge's notes in queries

First, some background – When I went back to my writing, I produced something totally different – a YA novel. (Gosh I’m sorry you don’t rep YA, but I digress…) Querying, as always, has been quite miserable. At first, I got a couple of requests, lots of silence, and one bite: an agent I met at a conference asked for the manuscript. I ended up doing an R&R for her, but while she was very complementary of the book, she still rejected it. After that crushing blow, I queried to more silence and had to wonder if I would ever find an agent (the crushing blow became an existential blow).

Enter the BookLife Prize for Fiction – an arm of Publisher’s Weekly. For the contest, they will read your entire self-published book or unpublished manuscript, give you a review, and if you do well, you proceed in the contest. I figured this might be a way to get that neutral feedback I desperately needed after the existential R&R blow. So I coughed up the $99 for the entry fee (although it sounds steep, it’s comparable to the Writer’s Digest contest for self-pubbed authors). The review was really favorable. But being the insecure writer (i.e. the writer), I wasn’t sure what to make of it. So I got in touch with BookLife and asked, “Is this a good review, or do you say nice things about everyone?” Answer (to paraphrase): No, it’s not a good review, it’s a GREAT review (you idiot!). Congratulations! And since we don’t give everyone this kind of review, you might actually make it to next round of top ten for YA.

OK, so now, finally, here’s my question: Should I consider including any part of the review from BookLife in my query letter? Might an agent care that BookLife said the novel had “fully realized characters, crisp dialogue, excellent pacing, and a satisfying conclusion?” Or do I just look like an idiot for entering this contest?

Or maybe I only get to include an excerpt of the review if I get to the next round in the judging?

It will surprise none of you reading this to know that I don't care what anyone else says about your book, up to and including my sainted mum. The only opinion that matters is mine.  So, for a query to me, you don't need to include anything anyone else said, including a nice review from the judges for this prize.

The value of this contest for you is not the blurb it gives you, it's the confidence. You now know that you don't sucketh mightily. You have the review to prove it.  Paste that thing above your computer screen and read as often as needed to slay those writerly doubts.

There are some agents however who might want to hear about this kind of review.  You'd include it in your query letter with the paragraph that has your bio and pub credits. You'd say I entered this novel in the BookLife Prize for Fiction and reviewers said the novel had “fully realized characters, crisp dialogue, excellent pacing, and a satisfying conclusion.”

Generally however, you don't need to do this. Most agents who want what they call blurbs are looking for big-name authors that they can, in turn, use to pitch the project to editors. Contest reviews aren't useful for that at all. 


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

It seems to me that if you give the bride a check for a hundred bucks she just might feel the need to tell you your dress is beautiful too.

DLM said...

My dad was a professor at an old university. Amongst the various holdings in their archives has been, for probably eighty or a hundred years, a mummy. Dad used to smile when, every four years, the school paper ran a story about students "discovering" this artifact.

This question feels like that to me; every few months, someone discovers a new way to ask, "Janet, someone complimented my novel: can I use that in a query?"

I have this mental image of a shark, smiling a certain indulgent-cum-wicked half-smile I used to know.

Claire B. said...

Too bad other agents aren't like you, QOTKU! Your integrity while reading queries is unsurpassed! But good to know that for other agents (most likely the ones who like to answer queries with silence!) including a favorable and reputable third party review might help, if only just a bit. As always, thank you for your insights!

Colin Smith said...

Five years into my degree in Applied Skullduggery from QOTKU University, here's what I've learned:

* Generally speaking, publication credits are more valuable than contest wins or nice comments from judges. Contest wins demonstrate you can write. Publication credits also demonstrate you are publishable.

* If you're going to include contest credits, the contest should be one the agent would know. A poetry contest in the local paper is not going to impress, even if your Aunt Matilda has the clipping framed on her wall.

* If you're going to include contest credits, you need to have done well. Preferably, you won. Runner-up status doesn't mean much, unless it's a very prestigious contest, like a Pulitzer, or a Janet Reid Writing Contest. Just kidding. The Pulitzer isn't that important. ;)

* Seriously, if you are querying QOTKU, a win in one of her contests is always worth mentioning. She keeps lists, so she probably has your name flagged as someone to watch. But mention it anyway. This is why you should enter Janet's contests if you plan to query her! This also goes for other agents who may run contests. Mention wins if the agent was involved in the running or judging of that contest.

* As Janet said, most contests are good for your confidence, not necessarily for queries. A contest win won't convince an agent to take on a project she doesn't care about. If she doesn't love the premise, or doesn't connect with your writing, even a Publisher's Weekly contest win won't help.

* Where contest wins and pub credits help is when the agent is on the fence. She really likes the premise, and sees from the pages you can write, but she's not sure if she should take it on, especially since she saw five other queries that day she liked. And I would venture to say, if it's between someone who won a Writer's Digest contest, and someone who has been published in AHMM, the agent would go for the published author.

Do I get to move on to year six? :D

Cheryl said...

DLM, I'm amused by the idea of Janet tossing out questions that have been asked and answered before. Wouldn't be much of a blog left, I suspect. I admire that kind of patience.

Amanda Capper said...

Congratulations, Opie. I'd be thrilled with this as well, and want to share it with anyone just walking by my cubicle.

Print it off, pin it up, and press on.

T.C. Galvin said...

It's funny how positive feedback inspires the most doubt. As a writer I like constructive feedback, but any compliments wake the little voice in my brain that wonders if they meant it or if they're just being nice...

Take it as a win - its nice to have written proof that someone likes your work. And having a fantastic review or a contest win is great encouragement to keep at it.

RachelErin said...

The other thing to realize, is that this might be really good, but still not be the book that gets you an agent. In following other authors (and meeting published ones at my critique group), a lot of them got a similar response to their first or second novel.

Then the fourth, fifth, or nth book got them an agent, and became their debut (sometimes there's another book or two in there).

Then two or three years later, they pulled out the original (quite good) novel, reworked it a bit, and it became their fourth or fifth published book.

I'm beta reading a book right now, and it's pretty good. I'm enjoying it, it has some unique fun stuff. The author is agented, but not published. The book the writer just started sharing in the group, however, is miles better. Shiny funny. I can't wait to hear Chapter 2 next month.

So, it sounds like you done good. You'll get better if you keep writing. This book may have a non-linear journey, or it may be one of the many very good books that is never published. Just keep on with the next one.

John Davis Frain said...

My sainted mum is not gonna be happy about this latest development. I keep trying to get her to change her review of my manuscript. And now, it turns out, it doesn't even matter!

You've just stolen Friday's lunch from my sainted mum, Queen. Maybe that'll teach her the difference between constructive criticism and vitriol.

MA Hudson said...

OP - congrats on the great review. I'm glad you get to use it in certain queries.

As for blurbs... the last time I read a book on the strength of a big-name author's blurb, I found myself wading through endless pages of non-stop tedium. Never again! I only trust word-of-mouth recommendations now.

Janet, are blurbs just guilt-gotten gains - sucessful authors feeling like they should help out the new writers coming through? How important are they for a debut novelist?

DLM said...

Ew. I hate the smell of spam in the morning.

Cheryl, I feel bad - I didn't mean to cast aspersions on either Janet or the questions that come up!! It's just interesting to me how we try to cut something differently so the answer will favor our hopes.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

A spammer has appeared. Can someone please squash the hacker.

John My sainted mom will feel thwarted as well. She thinks her job is to be my biggest critic- a job she takes very seriously. Her last review said I was going straight to Hell. I objected - said I was stopping by Starbucks first. And besides, I must travel through Hell. Research.

Robert Ceres said...

I participated in RWA's contest. As part of that contest writers can volunteer to judge the first round, so I did.
I poured over my three entries. One in particular wan't quite ready but had flashes of genius, so I highlighted those areas with praise, urged the author to double down on what was really good, and pointed out where I thought the ms was week. In short, I put a lot of thought and effort into my comments, thinking the comments I got back on mins would be the same. Let's just say not so much.
Turns out the real value in judging the contest was in critically evaluating other manuscripts, which improved my ability to critique my own.

Steve Stubbs said...

OP wrote:

“I desperately needed [neutral feedback] after the existential R&R blow.”

Why? If you write a book that sucks, write another one. If that book sucks, too, write another one. Steven King wrote five novels before CARRIE and CARRIE only sold a sucky 2,500 copies in hardback.

That’s called paying your dues,

The only thing to get intense about is if you refuse to learn and improve. Some people do refuse to learn and improve. They suck at the beginning and they suck after ten years. One fellow told me he “believed in stubbornness,” Unfortunately he found out the market believed in stubbornness as well. Bernie Sanders may discount the markets but the rest of us do that at our peril. He used to get drunk and send out nasty-grams by e-mail. (Some of the people on his list shared the ones they received with me. I got a few myself.) But that did not turn him into Lee Child.

You have to learn and improve.

Do that and there is no failure. Only feedback.

King says do it for five years and you can become a good writer.

nightsmusic said...

Robert Ceres: There are a few authors out there who will tell you something similar. If you want to really learn, pick apart and critique your favorite author's book. It gives you a new perspective when you look at if from more than just an 'enjoyment' standard. Same thing when you judge a contest. You're looking for what stands out, both good and bad, but you're not emotionally involved with it. It's not YOUR baby. So it's easier to criticize and judge. Not so easy when it comes from your heart.

DLM said...

nightsmusic, it works with less-favorite authors too!

Critically reading others' manuscripts or published novels *does* give you a view of your own patterns. Reading an author addicted to opening sentences with "and" (it might happen 4-5 times in a single paragraph) got me to look less forgivingly at my own problem with overusing "actually" and "just". Reading GOOD work, too, just makes your brain sing. It's always good to have work to aspire to.

Right now, I have two novels going concurrently. Two, because one of them is annoying, and I am having to take breaks from it. I want to finish it. I want to find out what happens. But UGH it is loaded with anachronism. Lace showing up four centuries before it existed, references to petards even farther out of time - things it takes mere *seconds* to look up, and they wee all over my Wheaties. Worse still: the main character has less depth or appeal than most of the supporting cast. One character who is described as (*GASP*) fat ... um, for zero reason whatsoever. I guess just so we can be shocked that fat people are worth of membership in the human race. Or just "this famous beautiful person might really have been a chubbo! GOTCHa!" And yet, and yet ... the story IS interesting. There are moments of plangent perfection. One scene, with a character who shows up almost at the end, is PERFECT. Just perfect - and the character is a historical figure, so finding them done right is pretty great.

I cannot recall the last time I read a novel without editing it. All my books have writing in them; the joyous comments, the snide ones, the confused moments of a reader - recordings of the way I read something, the way it made me feel. Been doing this since college, since a decade and a half before I ever imagined "really" being a writer myself.

Colin Smith said...

A somewhat-on-topic thought occurred to me just now, as we're sort-of talking about query writing:

As some of you who drop in on my blog know, I write reviews of Doctor Who stories. As I do with my book reviews, I try to give a brief teaser about the story before launching into my review. The thought that occurred to me is this: Isn't that teaser kind of like what one would write for a query? Well, yes, it is. So, couldn't I use this as query practice? Well, yes, of course I could! :)

So, here's the query tip: take an episode of your favorite TV series, or a favorite movie, or a novel, and write a teaser for it. A good teaser will convey everything that needs to be in a query: protagonist, antagonist, problem, and obstacles. And like a good query, it will entice people to watch/read the show/movie/book.

Just thought I'd share that with you. :)

Robert Ceres said...

Nightsmusic, I love that handle!

BJ Muntain said...

One thing about this review for this very novel that's being queried: It shows that the novel might be worth requesting the full. Someone has read the full novel and thought it was worth reading.

If the novel winds up winning the contest, I would definitely mention this. The difference between this and publication credit is that it doesn't just show the author can write - it shows that this very novel is well-written enough to win this Prize. Publisher's Weekly is a prestigious enough publication that the Prize will carry some merit.

I'm thinking, though, that if the novel is this good but you're not getting a lot of response from queries, you may need to rewrite your query. Also telling is that the only bite you got was from an agent at a conference - presumably without the query you've been sending. Have you run your query letter past your critique group? Sent it in to Query Shark? Had anyone read it for critique at all?

And never let a rejection of any kind bring you down. You said the agent was very complimentary, but rejected you. You're doing the writerly thing, internalizing the rejection, but ignoring the compliments. DO NOT DO THIS. Take the compliments to heart, and accept the rejection as a normal part of life, like a stubbed toe or typo. Rejections are common. Compliments are not.

And regarding the critiquing as helping the critiquer: Hell yeah. If you're only 'critiquing' your own work, you're only seeing the problems you think you have. A critical eye will see the problems you really have. By critiquing others' works, you develop that critical eye - and you can see it in your work. By helping other authors figure out how to overcome their problems, you can work out how to help those problems in your own work. Critique groups are SO important, not just to develop your work and others, but also to develop your own skill.

Beth said...

Knowing you don't sucketh mightily is a good and valuable thing. All future decisions rest on that.

JulieWeathers said...

I would never include comments made by someone else about a book I was querying even if they were from Best-Selling Author number one, two, or three. The agent cares about what they see on the page. Period.

Having said that, when I query Janet about Cowgirls, I'm going to remind her I was the first woman to ride a bucking horse at the Miles City and Rapid City Bucking Horse Sales. I use the word ride loosely as it was more of a get my head planted in the dirt like a pile driver. But, that, I hope will jog her memory I know a little bit about women and bucking horses.

Regardless, it still comes down to writing. Is the writing there? Is the story there?

To the OP, congratulations. There is absolutely nothing better than getting a great critique and then finding out, yes, they really meant it. Whoo hoo!

I had to laugh about you thinking they were just being nice. I said the same thing after my blue pencil with C.C. Humphreys last year. The B&W crew disagreed. One of them said, "Hardly. My blue pencil was miserable. I'm depressed just thinking about it."

The best part was when he said, "I look forward to reading this book."

There was no hesitation. It was just a confident statement. I thought, I wish I had that much confidence in it.

Remember those high points when you're feeling down. You ought to be very pleased because that's a tough crowd. I hope you do or did well in the contest. It sounds like you have a good shot. Good job!


"King says do it for five years and you can become a good writer."

Learn and improve is the key thing. I know some writers who haven't changed one whit in the twenty years I've known them and they've poured out a lot of words. I could put down a story they've written today next to one they wrote twenty years ago and I would make exactly the same comments I made then.

That's why at rodeo schools they video tape every thing. They slow the tape down and say, "You were great here, and here, and here and right here is where you untucked your chin and looked out."

You have to home in on your mistakes or weak points and work on them, then move on to the next sticky spot.

Lots of practice doesn't do a thing except reinforce bad habits if you're practicing wrong.

When Wonder Son #3 was little he was watching a Dairy Queen commercial where they had a monkey riding a border collie who was herding chickens. He pointed to the screen and asked me, "what's that?"

I naturally assumed he meant the monkey, so I responded, "That's a monkey, honey."

It took us forever to convince him chickens weren't monkeys. Once we planted something in his brain, it took deep root.

So it goes with writers. Once we have something planted in the fertile soil of our minds, sometimes you can't blast that weed out with dynamite.

Diana Gabaldon was on a panel once where they were discussing plotting a novel. The woman next to her said the only way you can write a good novel that makes sense is to outline. Barbara Rogan is an outliner, though it wasn't her. She approaches each chapter with a definite idea of what she needs to accomplish and where each character needs to be plot wise at the end. Diana couldn't outline if you held a gun to her head.

She told the women she never outlines. She thinks some writers need the freedom to write what comes to them without structure.

"You can't build a house without first laying a firm foundation."

"I'm building the house in my imagination. I can do whatever I want. If I see the roof first, I'll build the roof first and come back and build the walls later."

There was probably something of a meltdown.

Susan said...

I think Opie is on the right track, depending on their writing goals. I know I say this all the time, but knowing your goals is so important for how you pursue your career. Winning contests and prizes certainly can't hurt anything, and even if it's not something to bring up in a query when publishing traditionally, it's something you can mention on your website for if/when the agent is intrigued enough to request the full or make the offer. Similarly, if you're not getting hits from agents and choose to self-publish, contest wins can help set your work apart and give your book legs to stand on among readers.

And never underestimate the value of validation. Sometimes we need that extra belief in our writing--and ourselves--to take our work to the next step...whichever path is pursued.

Susan said...

Well, that's new...Saw that my comment is pending approval. Does this mean blogger ate it or should I take this personally? ;)

JulieWeathers said...


"I put a lot of thought and effort into my comments, thinking the comments I got back on mins would be the same."

I did that at the Rocky Mountain conference. I was in a limited master class where the participants each were supposed to do in depth critiques of ten pages of the each other's work. We had plenty of lead time to do this and I enjoy critiquing usually, so I spent a LOT of time on each one.

Some were very good. Courtney Schafer was in there and got an agent at the conference I believe and went on to publication. One guy who fancied himself to be quite the lady's man, lounged back in his chair the whole time like a king holding court. He bragged about himself and his writing and how he was going to be published. There wasn't that much to brag about. I had an almost uncontrollable urge to walk past him and accidentally stumble into his leaned chair, toppling him from his throne.

It was just completely disrespectful to crank back like that, arms across his chest through the whole thing until his story came up then he leaned forward, all ears.

Anyway, his critique to everyone was a scrawled "Good job!" at the top of the page. It was obvious he couldn't even be bothered to read them.

I think he was crestfallen that the Del Rey editor, who was the mod, didn't jump all over the golden opportunity to snatch him up.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

You mean I spent all that time getting a blurb from your sainted mum FOR NOTHING?!?!?!?!?

Colin Smith said...

Susan: We had an unwelcome visitor this morning, so Janet might have applied some additional security. I wouldn't take it personally. Well, okay, you shouldn't take it personally... ;)

Colin Smith said...

Really, Comment Security, I have no idea how that kale got into my pocket... Mine? You must be kidding! :D

Robert Ceres said...

I'm gonna just start critiquing Julie's blog comments. There's something about the way she strings her disparate thoughts together and weaves in apparently irrelevant stories that just keeps me reading.

Peggy Rothschild said...

As a west coaster, I always come to the blog a bit later in the day. I have nothing to add to the discussion -- just a 'thank you' for all the smile the above comments generated! :D

Lennon Faris said...

Congrats, OP. The querying process can be so unsatisfying, and it seems you have a really good story despite all the silence.

I have seen several agents out there who specifically say they will consider people with writing credits/ publications over people who do not have such things. Nevertheless although I also write YA and will never have her as my agent, these posts always make me breathe easier. It's just nice to know there are cut-the-B.S.-and-give-me-a-good-story agents like Janet.

CynthiaMc said...

Congrats, OP!

Outlining vs not: I'm a hybrid. Left to my own devices I'd be a Diana. I see scenes in my head and write them down. But my writing time is limited and I hope to be published again before I'm a hundred and ten (ideally I'd love to write my way to freedom), so I've learned to outline as well. I write what I see and then I fill in the outline to see what I'm missing.

Anonymous said...

So how do we know which agents want to hear about a review like this in a query? Or was that a joke?

Joseph Snoe said...

I’m feeling good about my WIP today. I think I’ll write a great review of it and post it on my refrigerator and my toilet, the two places I seem to visit the most.

Kae Ridwyn said...

As someone with nothing to write in the 'bio' paragraph, this information was good to read this morning.

And Carolynn's comment about the $100 to the bride comment had me laughing! I then started wondering - how long would the critiquer have spent on the pages, to earn that $99?

Other than that thought, I'm with Peggy - nothing much to add but 'thank you'!

Panda in Chief said...

Yeah, I'm over here on the left coast with Peggy! Nothing to add, except I enjoyed Julie's story about Diana Gabaldon, as I am a recent convert to her books. (Okay, and the TV series too. Who doesn't enjoy a hunky Scotsman?) Also just finished Barbara Rogan's book, A Dangerous Fiction, and am hungry for more.
Happy Tuesday y'all!
Did I spell that right?

JulieWeathers said...


"I'm gonna just start critiquing Julie's blog comments. There's something about the way she strings her disparate thoughts together and weaves in apparently irrelevant stories that just keeps me reading."

That way lies madness. Don't ever read something of mine here and expect it to make sense. I feel like I've cut a fat hog if I escape with just a few spelling and grammar mistakes.

I'm thinking about getting the rune for Odin as it also represents communication, knowledge, and literacy just to remind myself I'm suppose to communicate intelligently.

Craig F said...

I think there is one thing everyone missed. This is a YA novel. The market for YA novels has been bad for a while. Maybe it is worse than we knew.

I don't think that agent wished to reject your book. I think she could not find market for it and therefore had to.

Since YA is such a tough market I would suggest you use all of you allotted query space to make your work stand out. In other words, just keep plugging away at it. Your query already got a strong bite. Maybe the next one will be at a more advantageous time for you.

Joseph Snoe said...


I don't write young adult (unless I'm dramatically wrong about "Escape From Brazil"). I'm just naturally curious.

Why is there no market for YA? I still see young adults hanging out at Coffee shops and sandwich shops. Is it because the young adults have tired of the type of stories that sold the past five years? Or is there some other reason?

JulieWeathers said...


I'd be hard-pressed to think the YA market is depressed. It might be, I don't know. In the twitter contests and various other agent mentor contests, the main request is for YA. It gets depressing after while.

Robert, once again, I have been convoluted. What I meant in my ramblings, is that writers take so many things to heart.

If someone they respect says they like the work, the commenter must be saying it to be nice. (Such as with the OP.)

If someone they respect disses their work, they are stricken. (Raises hand.)

You have to outline!

Write what you know!

At some point in time, no matter who told you they did, you have to realize monkeys don't have feathers. (I'm sorry, Will. I know that was traumatic.)

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

YA: market saturation, perhaps?

BJ Muntain said...

It may be that the YA market is glutted. There are so many people writing YA that it's hard to be in the top percentage that gets published.

raynareveur: Some agents will give more specific suggestions like this in their guidelines or in interviews or elsewhere online.

Donnaeve said...

No one will likely read this since QOTKU's new post is about to be posted, but maybe the thing with the YA market is it needs something fresh and new. Maybe agents are no longer as intrigued by vampires/werewolves/life threatening illnesses, or dystopian unless the story carries something so dramatically different, it's never been written before.

Maybe that's it - YA needs a fresh new idea.