I’ve entered the American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis contest for the past three years, finaling in Speculative Fiction each year. The past two years I’ve also been a category judge. This year’s contest just opened a couple of days ago, with a deadline of March 31st, 2010, 8 a.m. Pacific Time. If you’re thinking of entering, you might be interested in some things I’ve observed from both sides of the fence:
Have a Finished Manuscript
I’ve been amazed to hear how many folks rattle off several openings, send them to this (and possibly other) contests, and then wait for the first-round results to see if it is ‘worth’ completing the stories. I don’t understand this attitude. Do you love the story or don’t you? What if you get through to the next round and the agent or editor judging your category asks to see the whole thing? Uhhhh, sorry, I still have to write it. I’ll get back to you in a year or five when it’s ready to submit. If I feel like it. What a waste!
The whole novel doesn’t have to be polished, but do put in an effort to complete the first draft. If not before you enter the contest, then while you await results. Then use the time after first round results to polish the story. If you’re going to conference, you’ll have a complete novel ready to pitch, whether or not your entry was a finalist. An editor asked to see my full romance manuscript even though it did not final. (I haven’t heard back yet.)
Ask for Critiques
I’m not talking about your parent, your spouse, or your best friend here. I’m talking about a fellow writer that understands the craft and can explain to you what does or does not work. Sure, it’s only their opinion, but that’s why three crits is a good average. More can muddy the waters, but if three people all comment on the same issue, take heed. Don’t be defensive, just figure out how to solve the problem and move on. If only one points out something, weigh their opinion against the overall direction of the plot. You may still want to follow their advice.
If you’re an ACFW member (and you have to be, to enter Genesis), look into the Scribes Crit loop if you aren’t already a member of a group. You’ve only got one chance to join every month, though, so be watching for notification of the next intake toward the end of January.
It’s a Fine Line
What is? The line between a polished set of pages and a sterile set. Sometimes we’re tempted to polish our voice right out of those fifteen pages in a desperate attempt to be acceptable to the judges.
Be true to your voice while making sure you’re not breaking too many rules and being written off as an amateur from the first paragraph. Don’t let the critiques you receive turn into a story written by your group. What sparked this story into existence in your own mind must still exist.
Double-Check Spelling and Grammar
Turn on the spell-and-grammar-check function of MS Word (or whichever program you’re using.) Make sure spellcheck is set to American English. Then carefully go over each green squiggly and red underline. Remember that your judges will be reading this in their Word program and each of those underlines will show on their monitor, so you’d better be confident about any that you allow to remain.
Yes, 15 pages is Enough
We hear all the time about agents and editors making a snap decision on rejecting a project after only a page or two. And writers complain that it isn’t enough words to know for sure.
Having judged over 60 entries for Genesis, I beg to differ. One page is ample 90% of the time. Command of the English language and story-telling abilities shine through very quickly, as does the lack thereof. I’ve very very VERY rarely changed my mind about the quality of the manuscript (as a judge) after the second page.
If you’re tempted to say something like, “But you have to trust me that it really gets good around page 5 (or page 10, or page 50),” then what the heck are you doing starting the story where you did? Start it where things get interesting!
Send a Synopsis?
Genesis allows you the option of adding a one-page single-spaced synopsis to your entry. The following is my opinion only, as a judge, and may or may not be the opinion of the coordinators.
*DON’T send one to the first round judges. There’s really no need. These judges evaluate entirely on the merits of the first 15 pages and don’t care if you have a good synopsis, a bad synopsis, or no synopsis at all.
*DO write a synopsis and have it polished and ready in the event that your manuscript finals. You’ll have a couple of days to go over your entry before submitting to the final round. That’s the perfect time to add your synopsis, because this round will be seen by agents and editors who have the power to acquire a story they love.
*DO put your synopsis at the end of the entry, not the beginning. Let the pages speak for themselves.
There are examples of the correct format on the ACFW website. It’s not that hard to do it right. Take a few minutes to learn how to set up a manuscript–it’s a skill you’ll need many times if you’re going to be a successful writer.
What has been your experience with entering or judging contests? Have I missed an important category on the list?