Contest Redux

The Novel Beginnings contest is officially over and now you’ve had a chance to see the winning entries. This is what writers have done right. That’s not to say that every great submission I received placed in the top five — there were lots of submissions that I enjoyed and that had compelling beginnings — but these offered up a skillful and interesting, I hope, selection of what was sent my way.

I want to use this opportunity to debrief a little bit and talk more about novel beginnings, lessons learned from the contest, and what I could possibly do with the rest of the month on this blog, if you all are game.

In my line of work, where submissions are always streaming into my inbox like water from a faucet that doesn’t turn off, I see a lot of beginnings. In most cases, the beginning is ALL I see. Sad, but true. After reading thousands and thousands of queries, you really do start to notice the quality of the writing immediately. At a glance, I can usually tell how far along a writer is in their learning journey, how many books they read in the same genre and for the same audience that they’re targeting, how much attention they’ve given to revisions and how “ready for prime time” they are. It’s an unfair system that so much of my judgment of their work is based on the first 10 pages — or sometimes opening paragraph, if I start to notice writing problems right away — but such is life. I do not have time to stick with a book whose flawed beginning may someday yield “the really good stuff that comes near the middle.” I’d like to have unending faith in everything that comes across my desk — that the writing will get better, that the voice will become more natural, that it will find a plot — but I just can’t.

A lot of agenting is deciding which projects and which clients are worth taking a risk on and worth the time investment. Some gambles pay off, others don’t. Each project I work on is a chance that I’m taking and a labor of love, because I may spend weeks and weeks on revisions for something and it might never sell. But if I see promise and if I fall in love with it, it’s worth trying. Taking a gamble on a submission with a weak beginning, however, almost never pays off, so I don’t do it. If something fails to grab me from the first paragraph, I will, most likely, stop reading and move on. How’s THAT for depressing? How’s THAT for the opposite of what you want to hear about a book that you’ve spent moths or years of your life writing?

So nailing a perfect beginning, while somewhat artificial, is a very specific skill. And I want to help people do this well. Of course, once you nail the beginning, you also have to nail the rest of the book. If you don’t, you’ll have what I call Conference Polish Syndrome. Since conferences pay close attention to the first 10-15 pages, writers who have been workshopped a lot usually have a really strong sample… but fall apart on pages 11-20. I’ve written about beginnings before. You can check out my other post about novel beginnings from Revision-o-Rama this past December.

However, there’s nothing like seeing beginnings in action. With the contest, I hope I provided some good beginnings — ones that would catch me — and talked about what makes them work well. Now, Wednesday’s comments gave me another idea, and I wanted to run it by everyone. What about posting some beginnings that… need a little help?

I don’t want to pick from the contest submissions because that would involve me judging someone’s work publicly when they didn’t explicitly sign up to be judged. But I do agree that comments on solid, good work can only go so far. You can learn a lot from reading stuff that doesn’t work — and, more importantly, why it doesn’t work — as well.

First, I need to know if, a) there’s any interest in this and b) if anyone will step up and volunteer their beginning to be workshopped. The point here, again, is to identify what doesn’t work and why, not to judge or ridicule. That’s why, if you want to participate with a piece of your own writing, send me up to 250 words of your novel beginning and ALSO send me a short few sentences about the major problem you’re having or the major thing you’re wondering about (is: Is this too slow? Does this dialogue work? Is this too vague? Is the characterization coming across? Is this too much description? etc.) to mary at kidlit dot com. Put “Workshop” in the subject line. If you’ve already sent me something, inspired by Wednesday’s comments, please resend with these guidelines.

Let’s see if I get any submissions. If I do, the writers must understand that I will post the piece of writing and then provide my comments. Some of these comments will be constructive criticism. I will never judge outright, but I will try and pick out some “teaching moments” in the piece so that both the writer and other blog readers can learn from them.

Does this sound good? Interesting? I’ll take submissions for this until Sunday, March 14th at 11:59 p.m., Pacific. This is not a contest. I’m not awarding prizes. I just want to get some new material in from authors who are agreeing to be workshopped on the blog and who have no problem with some constructive feedback.

Doing the kind of work we’re talking about here is, as you can imagine, very time-consuming for me. I don’t want to venture down this path without first knowing that it’ll be useful to you. Also, to touch on another issue that occurred in Wednesday’s comments, if any male writers want to send me stuff, please do. I agree — it’s time to feature some male writers or male POVs here!

Finally, people have asked whether or not they can query me with the same project that they submitted for the contest. At this point, I will have to respectfully decline to see the same project. Since this entry involved a writing sample, I feel like a query with that same writing sample would be a bit redundant. If you end up revising the project you’re working on (and six months pass) or if you have a new project, feel free to query, but if you don’t hear from me about your entry within the next few weeks, do refrain from querying with it.

Edited to add: Yes, you can send in the same entry that you did for the contest.

Also, since I don’t necessarily want to be doing this for the rest of my natural life, I was originally thinking of posting one beginning a day through March 31st, the end of the month. That gives me 8 slots. If I get more than 8 entries, I will pick and choose the ones about which I have the most to say and which will be the most help to others. Either way, it is probably in your best interest to get your beginning to me ASAP, in case I receive an avalanche of entries.

Edited to add 2.0: I did mean March 14th, fixed now.

Submissions are pouring in. I don’t know why I didn’t expect that. I’m capping this exercise at eight entries selected for workshop, so that means, unfortunately, not everyone who enters will get workshopped. This was not meant to be an offer for a personal critique by me for every entry. I will only critique the 8 entires that will go up on the blog.

25 Replies to “Contest Redux”

  1. Mary,

    I think this is a wonderful idea. I learn so much more from seeing what needs work than what worked–if this makes sense. And nothing is better than real samples from writers working toward honing their craft.

    Also, I really appreciate the time you take to do this. It’s nice to see honest commentary from the other side of the desk and I know it’s time consuming. Thanks.

  2. Fantastic idea. I struggle so much with my first page. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve rewritten it. As I’ve ripped the first chaper apart, yet again, am actually toying with a whole new POV and packing for a trip next week, I’m not sure I’ll have a first page ready to send in, but I’ll try.

  3. Shari Maser says:

    That would definitely be helpful. Thanks, Mary, and thanks in advance to everyone who puts their writing out there for this purpose.

  4. Great. Idea.

    I’m hopping on as a volunteer. Can I submit more than one (meaning two, not fifteen)?

    And can they be only semi-finished novels or ready-to-go manuscripts?

    Thanks for doing this!

  5. I love this idea, and I just might have something ready to send in by the deadline. Either way, I’d be very interested in reading the entries. Thanks!

  6. I’m so excited about this opportunity. This may seem obvious, but is it okay to send in an entry from the same manuscript we used for the contest? Thanks again!

  7. Thank you for your continued effort to help writers. I would definitely appreciate more novel openings and your thoughts. Thanks!

  8. I think this is an awesome idea! I will be sending my beginning for you to tear apart.

  9. I think this is a great idea! I loved reading all the contest winners and seeing your thoughts as youread it! I will be sending mine right away! Have at it 🙂

  10. Getting my submission ready right now! I think this is wonderful. Thank you for doing this!

  11. Do you mean March 14th rather than May 14th? You’ll have no shortage of submissions with either deadline.

  12. Great idea! The contest was beneficial and this exercise will be, too. Will steel myself for some constructive criticism. Thanks for your efforts to help struggling writers.

  13. Thank you Mary, I just emailed you. How exciting that you’re critiquing our beginnings, your so thoughtful! I can’t wait to read what comes out of this.

  14. This sounds great. I thought your opinions on what worked was spot on, so I would love to hear what you have to say about what doesn’t work.


  15. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

    Thank you for being so available for beginning writers.

  16. Joseph Miller says:

    Oops… I just realized that you “put” Workshop in the subject line… For some odd reason I read it as “include”… so my subject line reads:

    Workshop Entry: Avery Mann’s Book of Misadventures

    Should I resend my entry with just “Workshop” in the subject line? Or is it okay as is? Thanks. 😉

    Anyway, let me add my voice to the choir… this is a great idea!

    Best Wishes,

  17. I think I’m excited for this prospect because I’d much rather have someone give me an honest opinion of what’s wrong with my book that what’s right — then I know I have something to work on.

  18. This is SO helpful Mary. I won’t be entering because I don’t have material that’s appropriate for you, but I know I will learn so much from this. Thank you, Mary, for your time.

    And thanks to all of YOU for putting your work out there for all of us! Even with the relative anonymity of the Internet, this is still a tough thing to do, so thank you!!

  19. Cool offer, Mary. You’re like the Mother Teresa of the kid lit world, giving of your time and expertise to help those most in need!

  20. Glad you are enjoying Big Sur, Mary.

    You are certainly a generous soul, offering this workshop. I may be in a minority of one, but I do have reservations from a writer’s standpoint. Anybody who wants to see why can stop in at my blog.

  21. …having suggested it, I missed it!

    I was too busy fiddling with the 250 words and realising that my stuff took too long to get going… and there needs to be a hook REALLY early… and a hint of conflict… and…

    Well I learned a lot. I shall now sit back and say “Ha! I wouldn’t have made that mistake!” as I read the entries.

    Looking forward to it.

  22. Once the workshopping is complete, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about POV. Four of the five contest winners were in first person, as are a majority of books on the market. I admit to being a fan of third person close, and fortunately, there are many great books in that POV, too–INCARCERON, GRACELING, Shannon Hale’s titles. But I wonder about the seeming bias. First person creates a certain immediacy, but it’s limiting, too, in how and what information can be related. Is POV something you work with much, recommending one over another for different kinds of books?

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