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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


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.

Good luck!

• Editor’s note to blog readers: What contests have you entered with what results?  Read More 

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My first children's books were published in the Christian Booksellers' Association (CBA) market, so people sometimes ask me why I don't write exclusively for the Christian market. What they may not know is that the major Christian publishers are owned by secular (ABA) publishers: HarperCollins owns Zondervon and Thomas Nelson; Random House owns Multnomah and Waterbrook Press; Simon & Schuster owns Howard Publishing.

What also surprises them is when I say that some of the best-written, intellectually thought-provoking religious novels are published and sold in the American Booksellers Association (ABA) market. Here is just a sampling of novels where the protagonist grapples with issues of his or her faith:

WHEN WE WERE SAINTS by Han Nolan, published by Harcourt books, 2003, editor Karen Grove -- Archibald Lee Caswell is a sinner whose grandfather, on his deathbed, points at him and says, "…you are a saint!" The rest of this deeply religious book explores what it means to be a saint.

I love all of Nolan's books. However, a particular favorite of mine that also explores faith is SEND DOWN A MIRACLE published by Harcourt, 1996. This is a powerful book about the difference between following a legalistic religion and knowing the God of mercy, love, and forgiveness.

THE CALLING by Cathryn Clinton, published by Candlewick press, 2001 -- This is a story about a 12-year-old Pentecostal preacher in South Carolina. Esther Leah Ridley is anointed with the gift of healing. But what her uncle, the crusade leader, has not counted on is that Esta also has the gift of discernment.

David Almond is another author who often writes about religious themes. One of my favorites is CLAY, published by Delacorte Press, 2005. Imagine, since God created man from clay and a part of man is evil, then how monstrous would a man be if created from clay by man, not God? This gripping Irish novel explores the dual nature of man--good and evil--and the theological concepts of a good God, evil, the devil, angels, saints and sinners.

My favorite Jewish author, Chaim Potok, wrote MY NAME IS ASHER LEV, published by Penguin, 1973, about a Hasidic Jew who struggles with practicing his religion and creating art that is contrary to his religious beliefs.

Similarly, John Ritter wrote the historical novel CHOOSING UP SIDES, 1998, about a lefty who struggles with his father's legalistic religion (Southern Baptist) and his love of baseball, which is forbidden by his father. (Interesting note, Ritter's Philomel publisher-editor told me the original title was LEFT OUT OF HEAVEN before it was changed before publication to CHOOSING UP SIDES.) In another of Ritter's baseball books, OVER THE WALL, published by Puffin, 2002, the protagonist is a Christian and attends church, although it's not overt in overcoming his struggles.

There are other novels where church attendance is just a normal part of the main character's life. And values taught in Christianity work out through the character's problems. Two examples are WHEN ZACHARY BEAVER CAME TO TOWN by Kimberly Willis Holt, editor Christy Ottaviano, published by Henry Holt, 1999. The protagonist and his friends find a way to baptize Zachary. BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE by Kate DiCamillo, published by Candlewick, 2000, is another middle grade novel that is about God's grace, forgiveness, and love.

Any of these novels are worthy of writing an academic literary criticisms on religious themes.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this article, my debut novel NO SURRENDER SOLDIER was published by a secular publisher Merit Press/Adams Media/F&W Media and then was acquired by Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster. NO SURRENDER SOLDIER, a historical suspense, is a very spiritual novel, even having been taught in Catholic high schools and favorably reviewed by the Catholic Library Association journal.

What are your favorite religious novels, and why? Are they published in the ABA market, or by a religious press?  Read More 
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