Friday, March 25, 2011

Writing Contests 101: An interview with Writing Career Coach, Tiffany Colter

It's contest season in the land of writers! Entries may be closed for the ACFW Genesis contest, but there are other plenty of other popular contests with upcoming deadlines. The Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition, The Writer Magazine's Short Story contest, various RWA and ACFW Chapter contests, to name a few.

I am excited to present this interview with Tiffany Colter. You may know Tiff from ACFW. She is a successful freelance writer, has won awards for her unpublished fiction, and maintains a blog, Writing Career Coach, where writers can learn about businesses, and businesses can learn about writers. She has twice been nominated as the ACFW Mentor of the Year.

Tiffany is a huge supporter of writing contests and heads up the My Book Therapy Frasier contest. In this interview, I chat with Tiffany about what contests can do to boost a writer's career. She also provides information about the Frasier, open for submissions through March 31st. Thanks to Tiff for taking the time to answer my questions.

LYNDA: What would you say is the single best reason for unpublished writers to enter a writing contest?

TIFF: Definitely I think the best reason for unpublished writers to enter a contest is to get a variety of feedback from different areas. If you have consistent problems that you’re seeing in a variety of writing contests you know that’s a major issue with your writing. If it’s something where people only have an issue with something small like a location or a manner of speech, then that might not be an issue you need to address.

LYNDA: What are some other benefits?

TIFF: Getting your foot in the door in front of editors and agents and people who are able to offer you the opportunity of a contract, really. I’ve said this before, the big benefit is this. If you’re in a slush pile you’ve got a line or two to impress the editor or agent and then you’re gone. If they are judging a writing contest they have promised to read these entries entirely and judge the entire entry. That means if your start-up really doesn’t kick in until page three or four of the entry, you actually have a chance to get the eye of that editor or agent and they go wait a minute. This is actually good writing, they just didn’t start until page four. I’ve had that happen before where I’ve read an entry in a contest and I’ve said you started this at the wrong place so fix this.

Now, you will have to fix that to catch the reader. But when you’re trying to get in the door use every advantage. Writing contests really offer you that advantage.

LYNDA: A couple of the arguments against writing contests include contests being too subjective, and promoting arrogance or pride. What are your thoughts on this?

TIFF: First of all the arrogance or pride argument I think is ridiculous. We should all be excited and proud, in a good way, of what we’re doing. We need to be recognized for a job well done. Otherwise parents of children who go, "I’m proud of you, good job honey," are being bad parents. I think that’s absolutely ridiculous.

Being too subjective, we work really hard not to be subjective in the Frasier. I can tell you I’m currently serving as judge in five writing contests. Every single one of them give me a very detailed list of what the criteria is for that particular contest. I work very hard to judge within the parameters of that. Judges are volunteering their time. They’re not doing it to be mean or hateful. They’re doing it because they really want to help writers. The reality is, your readers are going to be subjective. Learning how to develop a thick skin is crucial if you’re ever going to go anywhere as a writer, because it only gets harder and the criticism more public as you develop.

Another thing is I once won a writing contest, the Daphne du Maurier, in 2007. That same entry has never even made it in the finals in other writing contests that I’ve entered. Yes, it was subjective. My scores have varied wildly. But the reality is the cream will always rise to the top. If you consistently write good and you’re consistently entering it in a variety of writing contests, you will get discovered.

I think writing contests are a great opportunity, even outside of the Frasier. I’d been working as a judge in contests for four to five years before I took over the Frasier for Susie. That was one of the reasons she had me do it, because I’ve judged in so many published and unpublished writing contests.

LYNDA: With so many contests out there, how can a writer tell the difference between a legitimate contest and a scam?

TIFF: I’s hard. I would say knowing the group that’s sponsoring it. Look at websites like Predators and Editors. Really do your due diligence. That’s why I don’t advocate going all over the place. Let’s say I have a friend named Sue and Sue is a part of a writing group doing a writing contest, and she lets me know about it. Okay, I’ll look into it and possibly enter. If I get an email saying “Enter this writing contest!” and I’ve never heard of the group, I’ve never heard of the people involved, I’ve never followed the blog, I might be more hesitant. I can understand somebody reading this interview, going well I don’t know anything about you. That’s true, so check me out. Go to my website, You’ll see a picture of me, learn about me and my family, see my blog, my interaction. Go to Susie’s website, Look at her blog, find out about her, look at the 30+ books that she’s written. Look at who she is. Then determine whether it’s a legitimate contest. Look at who won last year, Melissa Tagg. See what she’s doing, is she a real person.

Email people. Ask them about their experiences. The tough ones are the ones that come back to you and say hey, you won or hey you didn’t win. Do you want to buy copies of this book? That’s the biggest way to spot a scam. The ones that offer you the opportunity to buy a book at the end of the contest. You’re not going to get that with My Book Therapy.

LYNDA: Do most contests charge fees? Why?

TIFF: I don’t know if most do. Pretty much all the ones that I’ve seen either charge a fee or require you to be a member of that group, which requires a fee. The reason they charge these fees—and I’m getting this question a lot and I’m glad that people are asking it—is there are a lot of expenses associated with running a contest. You either have to pay the coordinator, or if they’re a volunteer the coordinator’s way is paid to the national conference or the awards banquet or something like that.

Some writing contests give their judges gifts, some don’t. There are fees associated with that. There is lots of marketing and advertising and that costs a lot of money. I can tell you the Frasier last year took out an ad in ACFW’s national conference syllabus that cost between $100-200, to promote the finalists and help give them exposure.

We buy trophies. We have pins for the bronze medalists, the people who get at least 80% of the total possible score. Trophies cost anywhere from $30 to upwards of $200. They’re quite expensive, especially when you’re getting a name etched on them. All of those things are the reason why you charge. I can tell you that most writing contests start out in the red for the first few years. It’s not a break-even or even a profit until you get into the hundreds of entries.

LYNDA: As a regular contest judge, what mistakes do you often see in entries?

TIFF: I see a lot of people telling rather than showing. Starting in the wrong place. Trying to do too much info dumping. They think because I’m only going to get five pages of the book they need to tell me the life story of the protagonist and I don’t need to know that. All you need to do is introduce the question to me in the beginning pages, and then make me care about the story world. That’s all you’re doing. I don’t need to know every single thing.

Make them sympathetic, introduce a question, develop story world, make it believable, suspend my disbelief, and then you’ve got me. People who don’t do that, that’s the biggest mistake because they’re telling me what’s happening. They’re starting the story three hundred years before the actual story. They’re trying to do too much in the beginning pages.

LYNDA: What advice would you give to a writer who's never entered a writing contest before? Or maybe the entrant who can't seem to reach "finalist" status?

TIFF: If you’ve never entered before, enter. You need to develop a thick skin. Writing is a hard industry. You need feedback from professionals and fellow writers. Definitely enter to work on a deadline, to get something turned in, to get your name out there, to get past that fear.

The entrant who can’t seem to reach finalist status. Let me tell you, I understand this completely. I won the Daphne du Maurier in 2007 in my unpublished division. I'd never finaled before that and I haven't since. I’ve entered four or five different manuscripts, maybe six. I’ve written seven or eight, some of which have not been entered in contests. I’ve had a manuscript that had two requested fulls from two different publishing houses and from two different agents, that never finaled in a writing contest.

Don’t enter a writing contest solely for the end result of winning. You want to win, obviously, but don’t feel like you’ve failed if you haven’t. It’s the process and it’s the feedback that’s really what you get out of writing contests. The danger is if you enter and win you think you’ve arrived and stop working. Or if you enter and lose and think you’ve wasted your time so you quit working. A writing contest is like a grade on a paper. It tells you where you’re going. It should not be an ending point.

You want to head towards publication, but once you determine what genre and what you really want your story to be, you need to have that feedback that will direct you not to the entire big state of publication, but to your specific area. That’s what writing contests help you do. Don’t focus just on winning. Focus on the process. That’s really where the benefit is.

LYNDA: How do contests help to build a writing career? Do contest winner and finalists usually go on to have their work published?

TIFF: Do they usually get their work published? There are many that do, yes. But none of my entries that have ever won have gone on to be published with royalty houses. That doesn’t mean that I’ve lost out. I met my agent because I won a contest, even though he read the entry and said this isn’t quite there. He could recognize that I had talent but still needed to be refined. There still is benefit, even if that particular manuscript never gets published. And I want to reiterate that. The manuscript that gets in the writing contest, even if you win, may never get published. That’s okay. It’s recognition of the talent that’s there and learning how to write something and then go onto the next thing.

LYNDA: Talk a little about the My Book Therapy Frasier Contest. Why should writers enter and what does the winner take home?

TIFF: There’s a lot of great stuff about the contest. First of all, you get feedback and that’s a very important component of any writing contest. There are legitimate contests that don’t give feedback, but I think the best benefit is getting feedback. Unless you’re on the verge of publication, I recommend choosing one that gives you feedback. That’s something that the Frasier does.

Next, we have three rounds of judging. The initial round is with published authors and My Book Therapy trained authors familiar with My Book Therapy’s techniques for publication. Those techniques were written by Susan May Warren, who has written well over thirty published novels and is a bestselling author. Basically Susie has vetted every single judge to make sure that they’re going to judge fairly, and judge based on the criteria, and that they’ll give good feedback.

The second round has published authors judging the semi-finalists. If you make it to this level you’ve had three or four judges read through your work. Then in the final round you have Susan May Warren herself, an editor, and an agent.

Then having Susie, having the benefit of a multi-published author who looks at it from a different angle than an editor or agent. You get all that feedback from agents, editors, Susie, authors, readers, the whole thing. If you make it through to the final round you’ve had at least six people read through your manuscript who know and understand the craft of writing and will give you feedback at each level.

The winner receives a trophy. Susie will basically write you a letter of recommendation for editors and agents that you can send with your manuscript, stating you won the contest, here’s the criteria we used. You get a scholarship to come to one of Susie’s weekend retreats for intense training with Susie and a small group of fifteen to twenty writers. That’s a $500 package. Then there’s the press release announcing your win and a few other goodies. It’s really an opportunity to develop your craft.

LYNDA: Besides The Frasier, are there other contests would you recommend?

TIFF: I like the Daphne. I like it not because I won it five years ago, but because I think they give really good feedback. The scoring sheet was very well put together. I was able to get some good ideas on what I needed to do to improve my craft. I like the ACFW Genesis contest for unpublished writers. Again because they give good feedback. The Frasier obviously.

Some of the other local writing group contests I think are really good. Those tend to have smaller entry fees. Make sure that you know about the group. I keep an ear to the ground in writing networks and when I hear of small local contests that are $10 to enter, you get some good feedback. Sometimes it’s published authors, sometimes readers. But always something that helps me to refine my writing. Again, get feedback from different areas to see where you’re consistently missing it so you can improve.

LYNDA: Thanks so much, Tiff, for this awesome information!

Enter the FRASIER


Caroline said...

Great info, Tiffany. Thanks, Lynda for having her on here.


Catherine West said...

Great thoughts on contests! Tiff is always a good souce! Thanks Lynda. And thank you also for your sweet comment about me on Patti's blog! :0) HUGS!