Pub Rants

I’d Like A Margarita With That

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Status: Mildly optimistic! I’ve accomplished more than I thought I would today, and I have the whole weekend to get caught up on my reading. I should be feeling jubilant come Monday.

What song is playing on the ipod right now? HANG ON TO YOUR LOVE by Sade

Last night I gave a talk at the Denver Press Club for the Mystery Writers Western Chapter.

This always makes me laugh because I don’t rep mysteries, but they like to invite me anyway. And it’s too bad. Great bunch of folks. It does make me wish I did but to be honest, if a thriller or mystery is done well, I can’t sleep for days after reading it. I’ve got enough stuff on my plate that keeps me awake at night.

They asked some great questions but one stuck out in my mind. One person asked me about entering and winning contests and how important a factor does that play in my being interested in a manuscript.

I think I can sum it up with one simple sentence: I take contest winnings with a large grain of salt.

They’re fine but in the words of Shania Twain, “that don’t impress me much.”


Because I judge contests. I enjoy it, and you just never know when you might be getting a first shot at something good.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen as often as I would like.

So far, I’ve only judged one contest where I have asked for the full manuscript for the entry that won first place. This contest was an extra anomaly because I almost asked for fulls for second and third place as well. They were all so good. It was tough to choose the winner.

And then I’ve judged contests where the final entries were not in publishable shape—at least in my humble opinion. It made me wonder what all the other entries looked like if these were the top three picks! Then I have to pick a “winner” and I end up picking the best of the worst—so to speak.

Thank goodness this doesn’t happen too often. Besides, as you guys know, I’m ever the optimist. Good treasure can be anywhere.

So a contest win may not necessarily mean that the manuscript is ready for publication. That’s why I take contest-win mentions with a grain of salt (and preferably a margarita if one is available).

Then there is the whole other trap writers can fall into. Some writers do what we call “the contest circuit.” They’ve done an amazing job polishing the synopsis and the first three chapters, which is what most contests require. They place in contests, but what they’ve neglected to do is finish the novel to that same level of polish etc.

I’ve requested fulls from writers that had terrific opening chapters. I’m humming along, really enjoying it, and then suddenly the novel goes south in a hurry. It’s like the writer was kidnapped by aliens, and I’m left sitting there going “what the hey! What just happened?”

Contests aren’t a bad way to get noticed but don’t be seduced by their lure either. Finish that novel. Make it polished, and don’t be afraid to go after the bigger prize—seeing that novel in print.

19 Responses

  1. Vivienne King said:

    that’s what I did, and that’s exactly what my agent told me. I’ve entered contests in the past, found that they were really hit and miss, what 3 judges would rate me high on, another would mark me so low there was no way I could ever final. Then on the flipside I’ve also won a few..but when my agent asked me if I’d won any for the ms she contracted I told her no. I’d decided to skip the entire contest route and just submit to her and she just chuckled and said, “well that’s fine too.” Honestly, they never did much for me. 🙂

  2. Anonymous said:

    I would assume that a ‘big name’ contest would get some notice vs the ‘unknown’ contest.


  3. Anonymous said:

    I’m sure your blog readership includes finalists in contests where you were the final round judge. It’s not difficult to find out which contests you’ve judged in the past couple of years and which ones you’re working on now, so you’ve effectively gotten the word out that these writers needn’t bother querying you. 🙂 Wow, just think how many more email queries you won’t have to bother reading.

    Note to agents who are looking to use their blogs to build, not reduce, their client lists: Making disparaging comments about writers whose work you’ve publicly reviewed doesn’t endear you to them or to their colleagues.

  4. a nelson fan said:

    Ah, anonymous, the amusement quotient of your constant embittered comments on this blog are wearing thin. Pretty sure you’re the same one who comments every single time.

    First of all, every editor or agent I know that has judged a contest has said the exact same thing. Furthermore, anyone obsessed enough to comb through the history of a given agent’s contest juding history (or stalks an agent through her blog in order to troll in every post) has some seriously skewed priorities.

    Go write a book, get over whatever personal insult you imagine that Ms. Nelson has bestowed upon you, and get a life.

  5. Shelli Stevens said:

    I love that Kristen’s so open. We should be thanking her for this insight. And she’s not the first agent or editor to say this. Anna Genoese just said the same thing a little bit ago. I’m not a big contest person, so maybe that’s why I agree with her.

    And, really, if you’re going to insult Kristen, you should have the balls to not be anonymous.

  6. December Quinn said:

    Well said, Nelson fan!

    I’m with you, Vivienne. Contest judging is so all over the place-last time I entered the GH my ms got all mid-to-high 8s and a 5, which kept it from finalling. ??? I still don’t get that, although my book was fairly violent and bloody so I have my suspicions.

    Anyway, you never know what a judge might like or not like. You don’t know with an editor, either, but at least you’re not paying anywhere from $20-$50 to find out. 🙂

  7. Lady M said:

    I think that each agent has a different style, much like authors.

    I think I have an idea who anon is and it’s all good.

    One agent may use subtle hints and ideas.

    Another agent may use throw it in your face style.

    As to why an agent blogs?

    That’s up to the individual agent and the reasons why they are blogging are as varied as each person is a unique entity.

    Some agents sneer, while others are kind hearted. Some agents leer (yeah… down your shirt front type of leering) and others could care less if you’re a male or female, as long as you can write.

    So, anon’s comments are probably prejudicial to his/her own style of the publishing industry, whether writer/blogger/agent/etc.

    I’m glad there are differences.

    I do like Ms. Nelson and find her to have some decent input.

  8. joanr16 said:

    I think anonymous #2 just wants attention. There are so many better places to seek it than blog comment forums. Sad.

    I’m just glad my friends couldn’t convince me to turn my novel into a murder mystery! I stuck to my original plan, and when Kristin found it on her doorstep she gave it a good home.

  9. Cheryl Mills said:

    I’ve never entered a novel into a contest, but I have entered short stories. I think one thing that new writers should be wary of are the contests with fees. Bad idea. A quick search on non-fee writing contests turns up several, and the contests often pay more than the majority of short-fiction markets. Not a great way to make a career, but a placing is good for the ego and the bank account.

    I attended a conference last year where I entered seven of the contests with short stories. I won first place in two of them, and placed in two others. I also had the good fortune of sitting at the same table with the agent-in-residence who noted my wins and asked to see the manuscripts. He read them, liked them, and invited me to submit a novel to him when I was ready. We had a really great conversation about how I was new to writing, he was very encouraging, and I’m working really hard on revising both of the novels I’ve written since then. So yeah, a contest win isn’t going to catch the eye of an agent all by itself, but coupled with dinner, drinks, and good conversation it can change your life! Or not. It all depends on the quality of the book.

    I also want to add a quick quote I came across today, attributed to Mickey Spillane:

    The first page sells this book, and the last page sells the next.

    My new words to live by.

  10. Jan Conwell said:

    Kristen, I’m SO GLAD to read your grain-of-salt take on contest wins! I entered four, during the initial spaz phase of finishing my first novel.

    I felt like I was at a casino, shoving money in a $25.00 slot machine. So one person doesn’t like my first three chapters…CHING. There goes twenty-five bucks. CHING. CHING. CHING. After the fourth set of feedback sheets came in, each with wildly divergent opinions, I said “there’s gotta be a better way!” Like, maybe, querying agents and publishers? What a concept.

    So to hear that most agents don’t count contest wins too heavily in the overall scheme of things? OH yeah. CHING! (insert coin-cascade sound of slot machine finally paying out…)

  11. Cindy Procter-King said:

    I agree with Nelson Fans. The “best of the worst” concept behind judging the finals of writing contests has been floating around for a while. I recently read something similar on TOR editor Anna Louise Genoese’s blog, which I quoted and then blogged about on my own site.

    Contest judging is subjective. Within RWA, the editors and agents aren’t judging the preliminary rounds and determining who gets into the finals. No, other writers usually decide that. No matter how hard a judge tries to be “objective,” reading tastes differ and a perfectly wonderful contest entry might not even make the finals of one contest and then “win” the next.


  12. Eileen said:

    Ok so you’re not impressed with writing contests- how about if you discovered the writer in question won a margarita drinking contest? Would a snappy collection of those mini umbrellas catch your eye? : )

  13. Jen R said:

    Agreed on all points w/r/t contest entries & judges’ tastes/skills all over the map. A final/win guarantees nothing. A slots game, as jan_c says.

    RE: wisdom of publicly airing dirty knickers of would-be clients… Imagine Mrs. Nelson’s ’boutique’ agency is, instead, a ladies’ couture boutique. To discuss customers’ cellulite & poor fashion sense in a public forum is unwise/unprofessional, no?

    RE: anon posts… Ill-advised to allow anon comments, IMNSHO. Snark gets away with it, ‘course, but is herself anonymous & avoids behaviour mentioned in para 2.

  14. The Beautiful Schoolmarm said:

    I’m sure your blog readership includes finalists in contests where you were the final round judge. It’s not difficult to find out which contests you’ve judged in the past couple of years and which ones you’re working on now, so you’ve effectively gotten the word out that these writers needn’t bother querying you. 🙂 Wow, just think how many more email queries you won’t have to bother reading.

    Less competition for the rest of us. 🙂 She did mention contest entries where she requested manuscripts from them–so it isn’t like she’s completely ragging on contests, entrants or the work involved. If someone is put off by the blog, they shouldn’t query her anyway–they probably wouldn’t be able to work with her, and she might not want to work with someone who is so touchy.

  15. Dana Y. T. Lin said:

    Thank goodness! I’ve never felt great about paying the hefty entrance fees just to get rejected – I can get that kind of treatment for 39cents.

  16. Diana Peterfreund said:

    Jen R, I believe you read into comments that I’ve only ever seen as being general and polite.

    You see it as airing dirty knickers of particular would be clients, I see it as no different than what one would find an ANY interview of an agent which asks: what are you sick of seeing? What are you looking for? What do you think aspirign writers should do? All one can speak about is their own experience.

    I’ve never seen Ms. Nelson say, So Sarah Smith sent me this query that said ABC. Isn’t that funny? Ha ha ha!!!

  17. pennyoz said:

    It never occurred to me Anonymous number two, to think like you do until I read your comment and screamed out


    You seem to have major assumption problems. You seem to be the sort of person who thinks a statement is directed you personally.

    A competition works only with what is in context and in competition with the gathered work side by side.
    You can get a competition which is full of great work in one year, and the next it can be full of woeful substandard stuff which the judges all shake their heads and wish they could go home. And some lousy work has to win and be compared in the same league as the previous year’s winner.

    So take the advice on the spirit in which it was given, which my understanding was as follows:-

    contest option is okay
    but if you don’t like it so much, its not going to affect you so much – specially if you write well and can tell a darn good yarn!

  18. Dan Strohschein said:

    I really enjoy reading this blog – it’s very refreshing to see an agent that has such strong words of encouragement for us lowly unpublished. It really does motivate one to think that there are positives out there. As I am sure you know, writing the novel is the easy part. Shopping it around to get published is the hard part. Your words and your advice make it a lot easier to want to start it! Thanks!