Every fiction writer should do three things:
1) Go to writing conferences – to learn all they can, make friends and put a serious dent in the hotel bar’s supply of Guinness (mission accomplished!)
2) Hire an editor before unleashing their 650-page epic fantasy novel about elves with lightsabers riding dragons
3) Enter what they write into literary contests
So I’ll talk about those things a little, but first: a little dance. Because I am not so jaded that winning some award makes me shrug, or throw it on the ground. No. I am a happy, happy camper.
The PNWA lit contest isn’t something run out of some dude’s garage. It’s a big shebang, and I’m happy to have been a finalist in 2011 and taken 2nd in 2013 in Best Mystery/Thriller for FREEDOM, ALASKA.
Also, they write you a check, and checks are always good.
Why are literary awards different?
Here’s the deal: journalism awards and such are great, and yes, it was fun to win those as a reporter and editor.
HOWEVER: even if you win the Pulitzer Prize, which is like having the Gods of Journalism descend from heaven and place a solid gold crown upon your head, it doesn’t really change things that much. You don’t suddenly get showered with cushy jobs, minions and fill your swimming pool with Benjamins when you’re not on the lecture tour, giving speeches for money and wearing disguises to avoid all your journalism groupies, which don’t exist, but should.
Unless they moonlight as a TV pundit on the Sunday shows, even the best journalists don’t become (a) rich, (b) famous or (c) rich and famous. There are all kinds of world-class reporters and editors who work at the best newspapers and magazines in the world, and you wouldn’t recognize them if you ran them over with your car. Which is too bad. These folks are rock stars.
So: journalism awards look good on your resume.
Literary awards are different. They can truly change the arc of your writerly career.
Anyone who’s written a novel knows that literary agents and the publishing world in Manhattan swims in sea of slush — of pitches, queries and actual 400-page books, with 99 percent of it being unpublishable, but somebody’s got to search through all that stuff to discover the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King.
Mostly, though, they chew through the slush pile like it’s Snuffy the Seal.
So being able to say hey, this novel already got judged in a literary contest and was found very worthy — that’s a foot in the door. If you win and show up at the writing conference, agents may talk to you. That’s a good thing.
My sister got her start in Hollywood by winning the biggest screenplay competition, put on by those Oscar folks at the Academy, and that sucker comes with a $30,000 fellowship and a lot of prestige. Does it open doors? You bet.
Why go to writing conferences?
Fiction is tough. Writing a novel, to me, is the Mt. Everest of writing, the toughest thing we pen monkeys can tackle. Millions talk about it, and maybe even try, but few make it. And that’s fine. Nothing worth doing is easy.
If you’re going to do it, don’t use your own pet theories or simply read books about it. Get real advice and mentoring from people who’ve been up to the summit and back. Get some climbing partners. That’s why you go to writing conferences.
The great thing is writers like helping other writers. In some professions, there’s all kinds of rivalries and secrecy. Writers aren’t built that way. They’re happy to help fellow writers. You’ll see best-selling romance authors hanging out with newbie thriller authors. Nobody cares. There are no real cliques.
I’ve met all kinds of authors at writing conferences — folks like Chris Humphreys, Bob Dugoni, Barry Eisler, Lee Child and Joe Finder — and you learn a lot from listening to them speak, getting a book signed or talking to them in the hotel bar. There isn’t an author I’ve seen who didn’t take time, even if they were the keynote speaker and a bazillionaire bigshot, to talk with everybody.
Also, writing is a funny business. Some of my best writing buddies are romance novelists. That’s who I tend to work with when throwing ideas and drafts around. They rock: they’re organized, smart and know how to collaborate.
In fact, I’m gonna join the RWA and hit their ginormous conference next year to drain THAT hotel bar of its supply of Guinness.
Why enter contests?
First, because it makes you focus. There’s a real deadline, and people writing novels know how endless the slog can be. A contest kicks you in the behind and makes you start sending things out the door.
Second, because you need to test yourself, and push yourself, and get real feedback. Contests will do that. Even if you don’t place, or win, the judges will send you feedback.
Third, because it can open doors. At some point, you’ll want to get the thing published. Being a finalist or contest winner can make you stand out a little, to show you’re more serious than the average bear, or at least more serious than these bears.
So: circle a lit contest deadline on your calendar, hit a writing conference and hire an editor. You’ll learn a lot, and thank me later. It’s a much better plan than banging on your keyboard, all by your lonesome, for the next two years.
Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award.