Novel writing competitions offer exciting opportunities for newbie writers, but putting together an entry may seem like a daunting task. Here I hope to offer some useful tips on how to prepare and assemble your entry.*
I can’t quite believe it’s been a year since I stumbled upon the Harlequin Love Inspired #AmishBlitz, on the So You Think You Can Write website and blog. I definitely can’t believe that I received a full manuscript request in response to my entry. I must have done something right… I also recently submitted to the HarperImpulse Great British Write Off competition (wish me luck!), building on my #Blitz experience.
Harlequin #Blitzes are part writing competition and part calls for submissions. They are a great opportunity to get your romance novel or WIP on the desk (or screen) of a Harlequin Editor. There is no winner, instead entrants skip the slush pile and receives valuable editorial feedback.
The three components that Harlequin request for a #Blitz submission are, from what I’ve seen, the same as those gernerally required in novel writing contests. You will need to produce a cover letter, a synopsis and a sample of the novel e.g. the first chapter or first three chapters. To do this well, you absolutely need to do your homework.
The Writing Sample and Synopsis: Preparation
Before writing your chapter, or chapters, and your synopsis, you need to lay solid foundations.
Read as many recent books released by the publisher/imprint that is running the contest as you can. If the competition is looking for titles for a particular line, make sure that’s where you go looking. When Harlequin Love Inspired was seeking Amish Romances, a Love Inspired Suspense set in the ‘Englisch’ world wouldn’t have been the most useful choice. LI editor Emily Rodmell offers useful and general #pubtips on Twitter and Facebook. She recommends reading “at least three recent books from the line” before submitting to Love Inspired or Love Inspired Suspense. As well as content, pay attention to style, tone, POV and structure.
One of the most common writing tips is ‘write what you know’. I’d say that applies even more if you’re entering a competition because you will be up against a deadline. Setting your novel in a place you are familiar with, or creating a character who works in the same profession as you, will get you off to a great start. But remember you need to write what is being asked for, so this may require time spent on research and building your characters’ world.
If you are writing a contemporary romance set in a real place, you won’t need to concern yourself too much with research and world-building. Just make sure you have an overview of things like language, system of government, currency and the key aspects of your characters’ work lives. If you are writing fantasy or science-fiction, you will need to do more preparatory work. I don’t write in these genres, so I had a look about for specific advice. Since we are focussing on competitions with closing dates, this article on quick world-building by Annalee Newitz the may be of some use. (Note: The language is a little bit impolite in places.)
Going into the #AmishBlitz I knew next to nothing about the Amish, bar the usual stereotypes. I hadn’t even seen Witness! As well as read-read-reading Love Inspired Amish Romance novels, I also found and ordered two memoirs about Amish life and an educational DVD, and used various informational websites. The Amish genuinely do live in a world of their own, so I had a fair bit of research-informed world-building to do. Before I started writing about an Amish community, I gathered information about the Amish religion, as well as Amish history, culture and values.
Your research, and world-building, aim should be to know in your head everything about everyday life in your world, as well as the terrain, geography etc., even if all the details don’t make it onto the page. These two YouTube tutorials from Vivien Reis offer a great introduction to world-building:
Edit 6 March 2018: In this Book Riot article about world-building an invented African country, author Alyssa Coyle a talks about “adding layers,” and of wanting to “make a fictional location that could be in our reality, but serves as an additional layer of fantasy.” She explains her method and inspirations.
First Chapter Guidance
Edit 6 March 2018: ‘A Quick Review on Writing a Great First Chapter,’ So You Think You Can Write
Putting Together a Synopsis
The synopsis element of the #AmishBlitz entry requirements filled me with dread. How could I write something I had never even seen before? I’d learned about literary critics from my creative writing teacher, so I decided to go down that route. I paid $60 for a synopsis critique. The package included copies of three synopses of published novels on which to base my own synopsis, and crits of up to three versions of it. As I completely changed my story after my first draft, I didn’t get the opportunity to produce a finely polished synopsis using a critic’s notes. I’m sure this would have been useful, however for me the examples were key.
I can’t share an author’s copyrighted work, but luckily since then I have found a writer who will happily provide you with a free copy of a synopsis. Contact NaNoWriMo mentor Darynda Jones here if you would like to see one of her synopses, plus a longer outline.
Your synopsis should tell your whole story. Don’t hold back the end! Include strong hooks and make the conflict clear. Who is/are your main character(s)? What are their motivations and goals and what is getting in the way? My list of free online writing resources can help you with plotting. Check out the links to pages on the Story Mastery, Live Write Thrive and Ankara Press websites, and Tim Stout’s blog post.
Further synopsis guidance can be found here:
‘An editor’s guide to writing your synopsis’ by Susan Litman, So You Think You Can Write
‘The Pitch, Query and Synopsis: A Primer’ by Susan Litman, So You Think You Can Write
‘From the Editor’s Desk: Writing a Synopsis,’ by Carina Press Editorial Staff, carina press blog
‘Tips for writing a novel synopsis,’ Scottish Book Trust
‘Five things: How to write a synopsis you will love,’ by Nicola Morgan, Scottish Book Trust
Edit 6 March 2018: ‘The Synopsis,’ Jennifer Cruise, Writing/Romance
Composing a Cover Letter
Cover letters are tough. My advice here is don’t get too stressed out. I decided to focus on the other elements, and left the cover letter till last. In a competition scenario you know the judges will read on anyway. I did the best I could, mainly using advice on writing agent query letters from the Writer’s Digest website. This was a big help, but do bear in mind that the reader is different, and hopefully a judge won’t be looking for as much of a hard sell.
A top tip I’ve seen repeatedly is keep your bio section short, especially if you don’t have much of a publication history. Don’t worry if that’s the case. With a competition this is not a huge issue. The judges will know you are an emerging author. It’s best not to bring in work experience unless it ties into your novel e.g. you and your character share a job. Consider how relevant you academic history is too. It’s not necessary to go into your inspiration. In fact, this should be avoided when querying an agent. If you want to include coverage of your inspiration (which might be of interst in terms of contest publicity) in a your cover letter, keep it brief. If the organisers want this info, they can always ask for it.
Below are some resources for writing query letters to agents. I’ve included links to example letters, which should get you started if you’re stuck. The video tutorials are by my favorite YouTuber Alexa Donne.
‘The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter,’ by Brian A. Klems, Writers’ Digest
‘Successful Queries,’ by various authors, Writer’s Digest
Edit 9 April 2018: What Should You Write in The Bio Paragraph of A Query Letter? by Chuck Sambuchino, Writers’ Digest
‘The Complete Guide to Query Letters’ by Jane Friedman, Jane Friedman
‘Category Archives: Query Letters,’ by Writer’s Relief Staff, Writer’s Relief
Edit 6 March 2018: ‘How Query Shark Works’ by Janet Reid, Query Shark
Literary critics are one source of feedback, but there are other less expensive, or even free, options out there. Keep an eye out on Twitter and on trade association websites for more focussed competitions and feedback events. You may be lucky and find helpful opportunities even in a tight timescale. When submitting my second contest entry, I was able to receive feedback on my synopsis through an RWA Chapter contest, and on my cover letter though a twitter hashtag, namely the #queryswap thread. The feedback from both of these greatly improved my submission. I also now have a critique partner, which I thoroughly recommend. Edit 6 March 2018: Another option is to use online writing group Scribophile but do check how the organisers define ‘prior publication’ and enquire if unsure. If you aren’t able to get notes from within the writing community, do make sure each part of your submission has been proofread by someone else. That’s the level of input I had for the #AmishBlitz. If you can think of a friend or family member who might be able to go further and make suggestions for improvement, don’t be afraid to ask. I was braver the second time round, and asked more people for help. You can do it!
Edit 8 and 9 April 2018:
General Writing Contest Advice
25 Point Checklist for Contests, Florida West Coast Writers Inc.
- I hope this rundown of my preparation steps and resources I have found has been helpful. Good luck!
*There are my own views/suggestions only. I am not in any way affiliated with Harlequin/Mills & Boon or HaperImpulse. This post simply reflects my personal experience of submitting to their opportunities.
Updated 6 March, 8 & 9 April and 12 December 2018. Updates in italics.