by Suzanne Kamata
A couple of weeks ago, I entered a writing contest. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me; I enter contests all the time. Some may think that it’s not worth the time or the cost of the entrance fees. After all, many contests get hundreds of submissions, and judging is often somewhat subjective – every reader has different likes and dislikes.
I have lost more contests than I have won, but sometimes I get lucky. Thanks to winning or placing in writing competitions, I have received plane tickets to Paris, Sydney, and Columbia, South Carolina (from my home in Japan). I’ve also been awarded cash, medals, trophies, and plaques and shiny prize stickers for my books, not to mention bragging rights and prestige. A contest win can also be an excuse for a burst of publicity – Twitter tweets, Facebook posts, mentions in newsletters, and interviews with your hometown press. Contests may lead to recognition, getting an agent or publisher, and book sales.
So how do you decide which contests to enter? How do you win? Here are a few things to consider:
*Previous winners – Who won the prize/contest in the past? Is it someone whose writing you respect? Would you be honored to have your work mentioned alongside theirs? The entry fee for the Nautilus Book Awards was a whopping $185 ($135 for books for children and young adults), however when my publisher suggested I enter my short story collection, THE BEAUTIFUL ONE HAS COME , I did because winning or placing would put my book in the same company as many writers that I admired, such as Barbara Kingsolver, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Gayle Brandeis. the book cover.
*The narrower the category, the better -- Some contests attract a broad range of submissions, and are therefore more competitive. Those with a narrower focus obviously attract fewer entrants. My YA novel GADGET GIRL: THE ART OF BEING INVISIBLE, features a biracial (Japanese/Caucasian) girl with cerebral palsy and is set partly in Paris. Instead of entering the book solely into heavily competitive contests for YA fiction, I entered it into contests for books concerning Asian-American characters, and those with a disability or Paris connection. Happily, it was awarded the Asian Pacific American YA Honor Award and the Paris Book Festival Grand Prize.
* New contests offer new opportunities -- Typically, your chances of winning a brand new, or newish contest are greater than an older, established one simply because fewer people know about it. When I entered the second annual Jeremy Mogford Prize for Food Writing, my entry was a finalist. Although I didn’t win the 10,000 pound prize, I was thrilled to have been a contender. At the time, there were “nearly 400” entrants, however over 1,000 stories were entered in last year’s competition, the fifth, making it more difficult to win. Similarly, when my novel THE MERMAIDS OF LAKE MICHIGAN was named a finalist for the Helen Sheehan YA Book Prize sponsored by Elephant Rock Books, my manuscript was competing against nearly 70 other submissions. This year’s contest drew over 100 entries. As winners of this contest have gone on to be named a finalist for the Printz Award and a Junior Library Guild Selection, the prize is rapidly gaining in prestige, and in the number of contestants.
*Follow the rules – This should go without saying, but make sure you take a good look at the guidelines. As a contest judge faced with a mountain of submissions, I have been quick to disqualify those who have obviously not paid any attention to the rules. If a contest asks for up to fifteen pages, don’t send a PDF of your entire book. If manuscripts are judged blindly, make sure your name doesn’t appear in the header.
*If you don’t succeed, try again -- I was awarded a work-in-progress grant from SCBWI the second or third time that I applied, and a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation on my second try. The winner of the 2017 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest was a semi-finalist two years before.
*Submit your best work – Give it your best shot. Often unusual, quirky, or unclassifiable works stand out above the crowd. Choose your most unique, most special work for contest entry, and hone it till it shines.
*Winning isn’t everything – Some contests, especially those sponsored by literary journals, send every entrant a copy of the issue containing the winning story. Others promise a critique to every entrant. At the very least, your entry fee may be helping to keep small press publishing alive. In some cases, books entered in competitions are donated to libraries and other places where readers gather. Judges often take note of strong entries, even when they are not chosen for first prize., for example, Leapfrog Press has published several of the finalists of its annual fiction contest in addition to the winners. Even if you don’t win, if your entry places, take that as encouragement. Keep writing, and keep revising.
• Editor’s note to blog readers: What contests have you entered with what results? Read More
READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog
by Suzanne Kamata
Writing a synopsis is a lot like eating a Reese's peanut butter cup. In fact, the only difference I can see is there's no wrong way to eat a Reese's.
Maybe nibbling along the outside works for you, or perhaps you're more comfortable diving right into the middle. Some ways just feel right. But if your favorite method has begun to lose its flavor, why not spice it up by trying something new?
Before digging in, I'd like to squash a bit of misinformation. You may have heard that a synopsis is a tantalizing morsel designed to leave the reader salivating for the rest of your story. Not so! Your synopsis is where you tear off the wrapper and highlight your main ingredients, right down to the last tasty crumb.
When editors or agents read your synopsis, they want to get a sense for who your main character is and where you're going with the premise. Your synopsis, along with your query letter and sample chapters, will help them determine whether your story might be a good fit for them. You don't need to include a lot of detail, just what is necessary to understand the protagonist's motivation and the plot.
The first thing I do when writing a synopsis is sum up the whole story in one paragraph.
• Begin by telling the entire plot in one sentence.
• Next, explain the main character's motivation in one or two sentences.
• Then summarize the "middle" of the story and climax in one or two sentences.
• Finally, tell how the main character grows or what he learns as a result of his experiences.
Of course, if you can combine any of these points, by all means do!
Here's an example using CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY:
Charlie wants to visit Mr. Willy Wonka's top secret candy factory. After he and four other lucky children win a tour of the factory, misfortune befalls the selfish, misbehaving four, while amiable Charlie earns Mr. Wonka's trust and inherits the factory.
This short paragraph not only tells the premise and plot, but also shines a light on the theme. Like the unmistakable aroma of chocolate, this story's theme, "good guys finish first," wafts through the page and stimulates the senses, but doesn't overwhelm the reader. Try this with your own summary. If the theme isn't clear, revise or tweak until it is.
If there is a subplot, next is the place to spell it out. One or two sentences should do it. For example, "Throughout the story, there is a subplot in which _______."
Skip a line, and dive right in to the plot outline. Think of your story in three major sections:
• Beginning - Main character's motivation is established and basic plot is set up
• Middle - Main character faces obstacles, which build to a climax
• End - Climax is resolved.
The beginning, climax and ending will take up most of the synopsis, with less weight given to the middle:
Reveal your beginning in two or three paragraphs, leaving off with your plot clearly set.
For the middle, lead with an introductory sentence, then encapsulate your major plot points as bullets, leading up to the climax. Take two or three paragraphs to describe the climax and twists.
Finally, tell how the story is resolved in one or two paragraphs.
Here's an example of the rest of the synopsis of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At 450 words, this synopsis will take up only 2-3 pages. Yet the plot, theme and essence of the main character all come through like the unbeatable combination of peanut butter and chocolate wrapped up neatly in a bright orange wrapper.
Sweet Charlie Bucket loves chocolate. But his family is so poor that he gets it only once a year, on his birthday. Walking past Wonka's Chocolate Factory each day is torture.
Charlie's grandfather tells him that Mr. Willy Wonka is so concerned about guarding his secrets that he has closed off the factory. No one has been seen going in or out for years.
An announcement appears in the newspaper: Five lucky children who find golden tickets inside Wonka bars will win a personal tour of the factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. Charlie is very excited -- his birthday is next week.
After the first two tickets are discovered, Charlie opens his birthday chocolate with great anticipation, but his hopes fall when there is no golden ticket inside.
Soon the third and fourth tickets are found. Then Charlie's Grandpa Joe shows him a Wonka bar he has kept hidden. The two open it gleefully, but inside is chocolate, nothing more.
One day Charlie finds a dollar in the snow and buys two chocolate bars. He is shocked to find the last golden ticket!
The next day, Charlie, Grandpa Joe and the other winners arrive at the factory, where they are delighted and amazed to meet the wildly eccentric Willy Wonka.
While Charlie and his grandfather marvel at the wonders of Wonka's factory, one by one the other children meet with misfortune when they fail to heed their host's admonitions:
Gluttonous Augustus Gloop drinks from the chocolate river and falls in
Gum-chewing Violet Beauregard chews an experimental stick of gum and turns into a gigantic blueberry
Spoiled Veruca Salt grabs a squirrel and ends up in a chute for bad nuts
Television-obsessed Mike Teavee is shrunk when he tries to become the first human to travel over television waves
After each mishap, Mr. Wonka tells the dwindling group that the others will all come out in the wash.
When at last only Charlie is left, Mr. Wonka tells him that he's giving him the whole factory. Wonka explains that he's been looking for his successor -- a good, sensible, loving child to entrust with his precious candy-making secrets. Thrilled, Charlie and Grandpa Joe burst through the roof of the factory with Mr. Wonka in the great, glass elevator. They fly to the Buckets' cottage and collect the rest of the family before returning to live at the Wonka Factory.
Sounds easy? It is! Now roll up your sleeves, grab a napkin and dig in!
A SYNOPSIS OR OUTLINE?
A synopsis is a content-driven summary of a story's plot. Most often a synopsis, along with a query letter and sample chapters, is part of a fiction book proposal.
Usually part of a non-fiction book proposal, an outline is structure-driven. As most non-fiction books are not actually written until after the proposal has been accepted, the outline describes the type of material to be covered chapter by chapter. Therefore, the outline is generally not a summary of already-written chapters, but a plan for what the author intends to include.
Sometimes, a publisher's guidelines for fiction request a chapter by chapter outline. This type of outline is really a blend of a synopsis and an outline. A writer might think of an outline of fiction as an expanded synopsis, including each and every chapter in summary.
TOP TIPS FOR A SENSATIONAL SYNOPSIS:
• Tell, don't show!
• Use Omniscient POV
• Write in present tense
• Keep it short and sweet
LOOKS COUNT! FORMAT PROPERLY
• Shape your synopsis into a fitting format
• Single space your name and contact information in the upper left hand corner of the first page
• Center your title, all in capital letters
• Skip a line, then center the word "synopsis," in bold, capital letters
• Skip two lines, then double space your synopsis.
• Insert a header on subsequent pages, listing "your last name/Manuscript Title, Synopsis" on the top left and listing the page number on the top right.
• The fewer pages, the better.
Victoria J. Coe is the author of the 2017 Global Read Aloud & One School One Book selection FENWAY AND HATTIE, the first title in a middle grade series from Penguin Young Readers. She teaches creative writing in Cambridge, MA.
© by Victoria J. Coe Read More
Think back to carefree childhood activities before your parents sent you to school. You lost yourself in imaginative play, exploration, and creativity. No one set a clock and said, “You have 15 minutes to make a mud pie.” Or, “Shimmy up that tree, pretend you are Rocky the flying squirrel, then vamoose down again in 20 minutes.” (If adults did put time restraints on your imaginative play, shame on them.)
Observe a newborn and toddler amazed at the newness and wonderment of things we take for granted. Notice how they move at their own pace, without concern for adult schedules. This is true with human and four-legged young ones.
These unfettered childhood behaviors are done during a period known to the Greeks as Kairos, an appointed time, an opportune moment, or a due season.
Once children begin school, schedules are enforced. The alarm clock wakes you up, the bus arrives at a specific time, tardy bells clang. Your body is even supposed to regulate when it goes to the bathroom and what time it has to fall asleep at night. Adulthood and the work place demands more of the same.
This regimented system is Chronos, a measurable time, such as seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, calendar years.
WRITERS BEGIN IN KAIROS
Consider how this applies to writers. Unless you didn’t begin writing until college in a course such as technical writing, then chances are you started writing as a child because you enjoyed doing so, not for homework assignments only. I was aware by age 9, around fourth grade, that I was writing compulsively. I began writing my first novel while babysitting at about age 13. Yet, I don’t recall a teacher assigning me to write a story until my junior year in high school, at age 16. (I still have it. It’s titled “Kidnapped” and I got double As.)
So, if you were like me, and you wrote as a child out of compulsion, or for pleasure or praise, chances are that no one assigned the topics. No one gave you a deadline. No one expected you to do anything, least of all produce an entire poem, or short story, or article. Certainly not an entire novel. You wrote for the sheer joy of writing, to relay interesting information or tell a story. You wrote to express yourself. You wrote to vent, or out of loneliness, or because your imagination was overflowing with inventive ideas. (Notice I didn’t say “over-active imagination.” That term might have been made up by a curmudgeon who didn’t want to hear your fantasy stories.) For whatever reason, you wrote without being told to, without having time limits to produce a finished product. You took the opportunity to write in the perfect Kairos moment. You took a season to write your piece, if necessary, and wrote for a season until you reached an age where a teacher or boss imposed Chronos time on you.
CHRONOS TIME IMPOSED
Chronos time is imposed on writers by teachers and bosses, if you are required to write at work. I have often said that I don’t believe in writer’s block because, as a reporter, you either make your deadline or get fired. As a news reporter, I wrote three to five articles per day on deadline. And that was after spending all day outside the office gathering information and interviewing. The actual writing took place in about two hours of my workday. Educational writers also have brutal deadlines. Some novelists are expected to produce two to four full-length novels per year.
Chronos time can also be self-imposed. Those who commit to writing X-amount of words a day, or for X-amount of time per day, write on Chronos time. Those who do NaNoWriMo are writing on Chronos time. I don’t do NaNoWriMo. However, I confess that when I hack out a first draft of a novel, I usually do so in six to eight weeks, sometimes writing up to 10 hours a day. I do this self-imposed Chronos time for continuity, to get the first crappy draft down on paper (finish what I start), and because I can.
RETURNING TO KAIROS
So, I am not condemning writing on Chronos time. It has its place. However, let’s not abandon seasons of Kairos. Too often I hear of writers flagellate themselves for being stuck, or taking a day, or (gasp!) a week off from writing. Instead, perhaps they should embrace the Kairos to step away the work and spend non-timed moments to meditate, contemplate on a deeper level. Or do whimsical play. Or inventive pursuits. Make mud pies out under a Bing cherry tree, if you must. Return to the unfettered activities of your youth before authoritarian figures imposed Chronos time on you.
WHAT DOES “ENJOY THE JOURNEY” REALLY MEAN?
Published authors often admonish other writers to “enjoy the journey” instead of obsessing about getting published. But what does that really mean? How does a writer really enjoy the journey when the hype is to keep their eyes on the publishing prize? Perhaps the key is in relishing the Kairos moments when we lose ourselves in our writing. When we forget about the discipline and writing rules and deadlines, and instead return inwardly to writing for the sheer joy of telling stories.
SEASONS OF LIFE
When my dad retired from Ford Motor Company, he took his watch off. He told me he no longer wanted to be dictated by a timepiece. Most writers never retire. But the body slows down. People enter a different season of life. Instead of bemoaning the limitations, embrace the Kairos moments. Write deeper, more meaningful, more playful, more fantastical. Focus on the quality instead of the quantity. Get lost in story. Create something worthy of your fullest potential.
One footnote to contemplate, if you decide to read further about the difference between Chronos and Kairos. The Greeks personified concepts. Chronos is depicted as Father Time, carrying a scythe and an hour glass. He resembles the Grim Reaper. Chronos is crazy--he eats his own son. In Christian theology, Chronos leads to death in hell. However, Kairos is the icon of everlasting life. Kairos is the concept of seasons Solomon wrote about in Ecclesiastes. It can be one small ripe, full, and perfect moment. Or it can last a season.
NEW YEAR WISHES!
My New Year wish for you all is that you give yourself the gift of freedom to seize Kairos moments to take joy in the journey. May you create timeless art.
If you don’t already subscribe to my blog READ LIKE A WRITER, and would like to receive the article in your email (about once a month), then click on the BLOGLETTER tab and subscribe on the left column. I do NOT sell my list or use it for advertising purposes. Read More
by Christine Kohler
This article is a follow-up to my blog post “Changes in Book Publishing in 30 Years” (June 14, 2013) and “My Achy-Breaky Heart over Agents” (October 15, 2017) ). The reason I’ve been able to continue to be published is because I’ve made a point of staying current with changes, especially technology. In the “Changes…” article I talked about how in the past I got my agents through conferences. And how social media has increased demands on authors to self-promote. Today I’m going to talk about how Twitter has changed getting an agent.
TWITTER PITCH PARTIES
I remember about 15 years ago being at a conference in LA and writers were practicing “elevator pitches.” The concept came from the movie industry where screenwriters would pitch screenplays in the amount of time an elevator took them from one floor to the next with a producer. I also recall groaning inside because it’s easier for me to write a book than it is to write a synopsis, let alone a pithy pitch. Today, with Twitter, all writers need to perfect their telegraphic-length pitches. All writers and illustrators need to be on Twitter. I’ve been a Twitter-fan since 2013. Talk about Rave Parties, Twitter Pitch Parties are all the rave!
Twitter allowed 140 characters. Twitter recently doubled its character count to 280. I have no idea if this will change the length allowed by each pitch party. Read the rules. However, keep in mind that people today don’t read, they scan.
If you write your pitch shorter than the allowable character count, then you can add hashtags that tell the age group, genre, and something that pertains to your book that will grab agents’ attention. Examples: #STEM, #OwnVoices, #Diversity. With the additional character count you can also add a photo. This is especially a bonus for illustrator-authors. In my last Twitter-pitch for a contemporary YA, THE ELECTORAL GAME, I added a political cartoon to make my pitch, hopefully, stand out. (There are political cartoons within the book, too.) I recommend you make it relate, and not just a seizure-inducing GIF.)
Also, type up variations of the same pitch so Twitter lets you to post as frequently as the party rules allow.
PITCH FORMULA—OR NOT
Another writer gave this formula for Twitter pitches. But don’t tie yourself in knots if you can’t make it fit exactly. “When [MAIN CHARACTER] [INCITING INCIDENT], he [CONFLICT]. And if he doesn’t [GOAL] he will [CONSEQUENCES].”
My SCBWI critique group critiques each other’s pitches as fervently as they do the manuscript.
Here’s examples of book pitches that I’ve tweeted: [Note #PitMad was the name of the pitch party. That has to be part of your character count.]
Cuba 1958 Jules must choose sides as rebel conflicts escalate. Unlocking her past is key to freedom. Romantic triangle #RS #M #PitMad-#YA
In outcry against hazing, 2 female football players & 1 cheerleader band together as Warrior Women. GRIDIRON GIRLS edgy snarky #PitMad-#YA
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
In the “Achy-Breaky Heart…” article I wrote: “Increasingly, publishers are refusing to accept unsolicited submissions...” The even worst news is that some agents are not accepting submissions, or only during certain months, or only if referred by a client, or invited through a conference. However, the exception can be the online Twitter Pitch Parties.
Raimey Galllant has an article with tips for Twitter pitches.
One important rule is to not favor a tweet during a pitch party. Only agents favor tweets. However, you can retweet (RT) someone’s pitch. If you get one of yours favored by an agent, check out the agency before submitting. Make sure the agents don’t charge fees, or that the agency doesn’t self-publish its clients’ books. (I also covered this issue in “Achy-Breaky Heart…”)
WHERE TO FIND PITCH PARTIES
Manuscript wish list #MSWL
Brenda Drake’s #PitchWars and #PitMad
Picture Book Pitch Twitter Party
Do a search of whatever age group—PB, MG, YA, NA--your manuscript is aimed at, and what genre—#SFF, #HF, #Rom, etc.
FOLLOW, PLEASE! RT!
Please follow me on Twitter at @christinekohle1
If I’m pitching in a particular Twitter pitch party, then I scroll down and retweet (RT) tweets from people I know, or ones that interest me. The next one I’ll participate in is #PitMad on Dec. 7, 2017.
For those who don’t like parties *raising hand* think of how much money you can save by attending a Twitter Pitch Party from home. No shopping for the expensive dress and shoes. No flying to NYC or LA. Instead, prepare your pitch, and party hardy online! Read More
by Christine Kohler
In BIRD BY BIRD author Anne Lamott has a great chapter on jealousy. She writes, “Of all the voices you’ll hear…, the most difficult to subdue may be that of jealousy. Jealousy is a such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster. But, Read More
By Christine Kohler
Mixed genres within one novel or nonfiction book gives readers visual and reading relief from the narrative. It can also add authenticity to a story or factual account. In real life, we use different forms of communication besides dialogue. People e-mail, text, post online, call on a phone, video-chat. We read Read More