Gearing up for the Contest Season

2012 is here! Most of the Christmas decorations have been packed away for another year, and writers all over the world have made resolutions, determined to make this year THE YEAR their book gets noticed by a editor or agent. For a lot of folks, that includes the prospect of entering writing contests like the ACFW Genesis, the RWA Golden Heart or both for the very first time. So I’d like to share some valuable advice I’ve learned after years of competition.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but you wouldn’t believe the percentage of entrants that are disqualified every year for not following a specific contest’s guidelines. I know because I’m guilty of this. The first year I entered the Golden Heart, my computer skills were non-existent so I didn’t have my margins lined up correctly and my font was suspect. But hey! I had the next great American novel, didn’t I? Once the judges read my manuscript, they would realize greatness and hand over the award without ever looking at those other manuscripts whose authors followed the rules.

So imagine my surprise when I got my manuscript back with a nice little note saying that not only had I been disqualified, but to make sure I learned my lesson, they were going to keep my entrance fee. 

A lesson learned. And one I remembered years later when as a first reader for a well known publishing house, I received a manuscript to evaluate that was single line spaced for the whole 200 plus pages. Believe me when I tell you it looked like a jumble of letters by the time I got to the fourth page!

We had something happen recently that really bought home to me how two people can have totally different opinions about the very same situation. It stemmed from a conversation about the Duggars(Nineteen Kids and Counting) and how they named the baby they recently lost Jubilee.
I thought it was a lovely name, mainly because some of my best Sunday mornings of my childhood were spent singing along with the Happy Goodman family on the Gospel Jubilee. To me, that show prepared my heart for the worship service to come.
But my husband had a very different reaction to that name choice. He hated it. When I asked him why, he told me about sneaking out of bed on Sunday mornings to watch cartoons. When the Gospel Jubilee came on, the music would drive his abusive father out of bed and into the living room for a confrontation.
Two very different viewpoints of the same show. That’s kind of the way it is with writing. No matter how hard a judge tries to stay objective, they can’t deny the experiences that color their likes and dislikes. It’s human nature. But it’s best to get used to the fact that not everyone is going to love your writing, published or not. A few years ago, I received a comment on my contest entry, telling me I was wasting my time writing World War II stories. Didn’t I know publishers weren’t buying them?
I have to admit–if I’d gotten that comment when I first started writing, it might have spooked me. But by this time in my writing journey, I knew the publishing business is fluid, changing from moment to moment–remember the big call for chick lit just a
few years ago? Write what you’re called to write, and be prepared to wait.

Writing contests not only hone your craft, they also help you develop that thick skin you’re going to need to make it to the next level. So unless you’re Stephen King or wrote the Hunger Games, those first contest results could be painful. But that’s okay–you will survive. And if it makes you feel better, kick a few cabinets. Eat a double helping of chocolate. Even sulk for a couple of days.
Then pull up your big girl/boy pants and look at the contest results with a reasonable eye. Did the judges point out a flaw in your plot? Or were your characters not as well developed as you thought? As tough as it is, be honest with yourself. It will make you a much better writer in the long haul.
Patty Smith Hall is an award winning, multi-published author. Her stories of encouragement and hope can be found in Guideposts, Journey and Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul. Her next book, Hearts in Hiding, will be released by Love Inspired Historical in July, 2012. Patty resides in Georgia along with Dan, her husband of 28 years.

Growing Pains ~ Sibella Giorello

Sibella Giorello grew up in Alaska and majored in geology at Mount Holyoke College. After riding a motorcycle across the country, she worked as a features writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Her stories have won state and national awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. She now lives in Washington state with her husband and sons.

Growing Pains

by Sibella Giorello

I can still remember the ringing phone.

Coming through the front door from vacation — sand still in my hair — I lunged for the telephone, always certain somebody has just died.

But it was my editor at Revell.

“You won!” she exclaimed.

It will sound disingenuous but the truth often embarrasses: I didn’t know what she was talking about. Several significant moments of silence passed. Then an idea dislodged itself from my beach brain.

Oh. Christy Awards. This weekend.

My first novel, “The Stones Cry Out,” was nominated for best first novel.

“What’s wrong?” the editor asked, as the silence stretched on.


“You’re probably in shock. Isn’t it great news?!”


And no.

Despite the nomination, I never expected to win. Given the great novels competing in the same category, I didn’t think my book would win.

Actually, I didn’t think it should win.

My first novel reminded me of a knock-kneed colt struggling to stand up on its own feet. That it would win an award like the Christy seemed absurd. I wondered if a mistake had been made.

Ever since, I’ve felt a certain ambivalence about winning that honor. I figured my problem was pride (I’m human; there is always pride). But four novels later, I can see some sense in my ambivalence. And I can share three important lessons.

One: Pray that your first book is not your best.

Despite the award in my hand, I remained busy grieving my novice abilities. Fortunately, God countered the sackcloth-and-ashes with a spirit of perseverance. I decided the only way to get better was to keep going.

“Most people won’t realize that writing is a craft,” said Katherine Anne Porter. “You have to take your apprenticeship in it like anything else.”

Of course, you will find your own ways of enduring the early apprenticeship, but one of my favorites was The Tour of First Novels.

One day, at my most frustrated, I stormed into the library and checked out first novels by my favorite authors. Within hours, relief was humming through my veins. Not that schadenfreude sort of relief, but something productive.

Most of those first books were bad. Some even stunk. And none matched their author’s later output.

Like most first novels, those first books read like seed pods yearning to bloom.

Or: knock-kneed colts struggling to stand.

Two: In the modern era of e-books, the first book might not be so final.

Some months ago, the copyright to “The Stones Cry Out” returned to me.

Here came my colt, running for home.

Unfortunately, temptation was riding with it.

The rationalization went like this: It won a Christy. Received good reviews. Launched a successful series. You should just put it on Kindle. As-is….

But we’re called to be workers who need not be ashamed, “rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15). Since I still didn’t love my first book, it was my responsibility to do something about it.

With prayers for humility and discernment, I proceeded from Page 1 and continued to the end, rounding out scenes, adding flesh to characters, trying to bring the story closer to what followed in the rest of the Raleigh Harmon series.

And when “The Stones Cry Out” was put on Kindle, I didn’t hesitate to add the Christy Award honor.

Because it looked different to me now.

Not only for the new work done, though it played a large part. The difference was lesson three.

I didn’t write that first book to win an award; I am grateful for it. But I am also grateful that the honor didn’t fill me with (more) pride. The simple fact is, I write because God made me a writer. That’s what I’m supposed to do. Any honors, awards, or leading positions on the best-seller list can only be viewed through the lens of grace.

Completely undeserved: And yet, there it is.

And the apprenticeship carries on accordingly.

This One’s for You, Romance Writers(Sorry, Barry Manilow)

Love! Romance! Commitment!

And that’s just Genesis, folks!

When I began writing Christian romance, it didn’t escape my notice that many people viewed my scratchings as ‘fluff.’ In fact, I had one very nice lady in my church tell me that I should either write something that would honor God or find another way to minister to people. I remember being heartbroken by those statements. Why couldn’t I write what the Lord had laid upon my heart?

But now, some ten years into my writing journey, after reading God’s Word and spending countless hours praying and studying the craft, I can make a daring statement.

Our God is a romantic!

Let’s look at the facts. In the first two chapters of Genesis, the Creator had worked a masterpiece. Light and darkness. Earth and sky. The seasons. Fully matured plants and fruits that sustained all the animals. And of course, man.

You’d think that would be enough, wouldn’t you?

But even in all that splendor, God knew that there was a serious problem. Man was alone. Some folks may asked why God didn’t just go ahead and make man and woman at the same time. After all, He knew His creation wouldn’t like being alone.

Maybe God wanted man to be exposed to solitude for a reason.

Think about that first meeting between man and woman. After having all the creatures of earth brought before him, Adam must have felt an emptiness. Where would he find the one creation that could ease his loneliness, someone he could share the paradise the Lord God had created?

In that moment, the Creator stared into the soul of man and knew his heart was ready. With just a thought, Adam fell into a deep sleep and when he awakes, he’s not alone.

“Adam, I have brought one more creature for you to name.”

Do you think Adam’s heart fluttered in his throat the first time he saw the slope of Eve’s face? Was he breathless when he compared her soft curves to the hard angles of his own body? Or did he simply stare into her eyes and recognize her for what she truly was?

The missing part of himself!

Ah, romance!

It’s hard to have a Christian marriage in today’s society. The world has taken God out of the relationship equation and made the sacred union between a man and woman something cheap and sordid. The media weave the world’s view of love throughout our days. Cheap sex. Empty relationships. Changing partners.

How sad!

Give me a good story with a hero and heroine who put Christ at the center of their lives. Let me cheer them on as they fall in love. Let the tears fall when they have troubles that help them grow stronger. And let me smile as they learn to lean on God in their relationship.

I write Christian romance because I’m a romantic. Just like my Father.

Writing Romance When Your Marriage fails ~ Kit Wilkinson

Kit Wilkinson is a former Ph.D. student who once wrote discussions on the medieval feminine voice. She now prefers weaving stories of romance and redemption. Her first inspirational manuscript won the prestigious RWA Golden Heart and sold to Harlequin’s Love Inspired. She is currently working on her fourth novel.

Besides writing, she loves hanging out with friends and family, cooking for lots of people, and spending time in the sun. She, her two children and one extremely energetic Border Collie live in central Virginia.

Writing Romance When the Real Romance Fails

How do you write a happily-ever-after when your own story has turned into a tragedy?

When I landed my last novel contract, frankly, it was the first bit of good news I’d had in a long while. I’d prayed to be able to write this book for a few months, thinking it would be just what I needed to take my mind off of what was going on in my real life—a divorce.

I was so thankful when it came through. I read through my editor’s notes immediately and sat down at the computer. I couldn’t wait to bury myself in this new story. But instead of pouring my energy into the new book, I found, for the first time ever, that I couldn’t write at all. Not only could I not write, I loathed sitting in front of the computer. I found myself doing anything else—bathing the dog, painting rooms, cleaning the garage, all sorts of things I REALLY hated to do. And, if I did happen to get in front of the computer, I was emailing my lawyer, trying to negotiate the sale of my home or figuring out whose weekend it was with the kids. Even emails I feared would be full of bad news. And I especially avoided staring at the blinking cursor on the white page of my very incomplete manuscript. The document sat minimized on the dock of my desktop.

My deadline came and went and I’d barely squeaked out half of the story. I started wondering if I could finish. I started wondering, if I could even write romance anymore. I mean let’s face it I was a failure. I’d failed as a wife. And now I was failing as a writer… What next? I was afraid to think about tomorrow.

Desperate for inspiration, I pulled out writing books and plotting outlines. I went to my favorite writing spots. I tried using Scrivener, thinking something new to look at would inspire me. I set little daily word count goals and failed at those. I even tried to use some of my confused feelings to “get into” my story, but while sorrow and depression might inspire some artists to abandon themselves into their work, I was stuck with the worst case of writer’s block ever. My ability to focus on anything had vanished and I didn’t know how to fix it. Depression hung like a cloud in my mind and my fingers were paralyzed at the keyboard. Even with great family and friends and a whole lot of prayer, there were days when I wanted to crawl in a hole and come out in a year or two when all the difficult stuff was over.

It was in the midst of all this that I found myself at a writer’s conference sitting on a panel of “pro” writers (something I’d agreed to do a long time before all the other life turmoil began). I looked out into the audience at other authors and even at my editor who should have been pointing at her watch and glaring at me for the late manuscript I owed her, except that she’s way too nice for that. I was feeling like a total fraud when someone in the audience asks, “What are inspirational romance readers looking for?” Great question. I repeated it for recording purposes then promptly passed the microphone to the author next to me because…well, I had no idea… I couldn’t write anymore.

It was author Margaret Daley who sat next to me. She leaned up to the microphone and without a second of hesitation said, “HOPE. Our readers are looking for hope.”

Hope. Now there was a nice little four-letter word that I’d forgotten about. A romance story needed hope. Or wait…maybe I needed hope. Because how can I give my readers hope when I have none of my own? If I wanted to finish my story—and I did—I had to find a way to remember my hope. I was determined.

But it didn’t happen overnight. It was slow—one minute, one hour, one day at a time, I stole back that hope that sorrow taken. I’d find hope in my children’s eyes. I’d find it in a friend’s voice. I’d find it in God’s promises. I’d find it in doing something for someone else. And the hope began to trickle over into my work…

I quit trying to write the story as fast as I could. I’d find a few quiet minutes here and there and I’d write a page. Many times that was it—one page. But then two or three and slowly, so slowly those characters worked their way to a happy ending. In some ways, I felt like I was healing along with them.

Of course, real life doesn’t stop at page 385 like a storybook romance, so I won’t end here by saying I got my own happy-ending. But I do have all I need to expect many more happy chapters. I have God’s promises and perfect love. I have friends and family and two beautiful children full of life.

And soon I’ll have more stories to tell of romance and love and hope.