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Today’s Workshop Wednesday guest is Harlequin romance author Helen Lacey sharing her tips on how to use writing contests to snag a book contract.

Firstly, here’s a little about our guest today: Helen Lacey grew up reading Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables and Little House on The Prairie. These childhood classics inspired her to write her first book when she was seven years old, a story about a girl and her horse. She continued to write with the dream of one day being a published author, and writing for Harlequin Special Edition is the realization of that dream. She loves creating stories about cowboys and horses and heroines who get their happily ever after.

Her latest release (available for pre-order from Amazon) is:

Marriage under The Mistletoe – Harlequin Special Edition November 2012

HE’S SO WRONG FOR HER, HE JUST MIGHT BE THE ONE

Strong. Sensible. Dependable. That was Evie Dunn’s type. Certainly not young, fearless gorgeous firefighter Scott Jones. She knew the wisest course was to keep her distance, but she couldn’t resist the allure of a holiday fling. Now the widowed single mom found herself with an unexpected post-Christmas gift – she was having Scott’s baby!

Scott came to Crystal Point to see his sister tie the knot, not fall for the alluring owner of the town’s oceanfront B and B. He knew he was all wrong for Evie, but he would do anything to win her heart and build the family he’d always wanted. All he had to do was persuade Evie to take the biggest risk of her life…on love.

I’ve read book one and can thoroughly recommend Helen’s Crystal Point series, so if you love romance novels too, make sure you grab a copy of Marriage under the Mistletoe.  And now, here’s Helen’s advice to aspiring authors…

Helen Lacey: I spent many years trying to get published and received close to twenty rejections in that time. My plan and process to achieve the elusive published author goal was a simple one – I actually didn’t have one. Oh, I knew what kind of books I wanted to write and which publisher I wanted, but that was about it. Which, considering I had worked most of my life in a day job that thrived on planning and organisation, seems oddly out of character to me now.  It was this realization a few years ago that shifted my focus.

Of course I knew I had done a lot of things right – I joined writing organizations like Romance Writers of Australia, went to conferences, had critique partners etc. And although I had entered a few writing contests over the years, generally this was done ad hoc and without any real objective other than to win. When I worked out that contests were in fact a window of opportunity to avoid the dreaded slush pile and get noticed by an editor, I started looking at them with purpose and strategy.

Within eighteen months of developing this approach and through two separate contests that I had won, I signed with my agent and sold my first book, Made For Marriage, to Harlequin.

So here are my top tips when entering writing contests:

  • Do your homework – By this I mean make sure you enter contests that are run by professional writing organisations, editors, publishers or agents. With writing organisations, they usually have an entry fee and you don’t want to waste money or time on contests that aren’t credible.
  • My advice if you’re entering contests for judges feedback or critique – don’t. Many contests have first round judges who are very often readers or other writers, often unpublished themselves. If you’re looking for critique/feedback on your MS find a critique partner or writing group. Or utilise the services of a professional manuscript assessor. If you reach the final round you’ll have opportunity to take note of the feedback, particularly if this is from a final judge who is an editor/agent /publisher.
  • Look at who the final judge is for the contest. Is it the editor/agent you are hoping to work with? If it’s an agent and you don’t know them, check out their website, see what they’re acquiring, what they’re looking for, what deals they’ve made recently. It’s worth doing your research to work out if this is someone you want as an advocate for your books.
  • Look for contest opportunities. There are some great sites that give detailed lists of upcoming contests such as Stephie Smith – and keep up to date with what’s happening on publisher’s websites. Work out where you book would best fit and make it your business to know what that publisher/editor is up to. Many publishers and agents have online pitch opportunities. Maximise opportunities by looking for contests where the final judge is the editor/agent who you are targeting.
  • Follow the guidelines. It might sound obvious, but now that I do first round judging for several contests, it’s amazing how many entries are marked down because of silly spelling and grammar errors, or disqualified for being over allowed word count. You might have written a brilliant first chapter – but if it’s poorly edited it could miss out on a coveted top three placing that usually goes to the final judge. Think of each contest as a proper submission – would you send a poorly edited manuscript to the editor you were targeting?
  • Don’t get bogged down by low scores or negative first round judge’s comments. Contests are subjective. Do keep a file on what you’ve entered and who was the final judge and how the entry placed or scored, and use this data to watch for improvement and celebrate successes.
  • And finally, if you get a request from a final judge who wants to see more of your manuscript, make sure you send it!

Louise: Thanks so much Helen.  Great advice for aspiring authors who are wanting to take a more professional approach to their careers.  As Patrick pointed out in last week’s Workshop Wednesday on How to Self Publish an ebook, many writers are losing the opportunity to enter contests for ‘unpublished authors’ by racing their novels to ebook prematurely.  Information helps you make informed decisions, and belonging to organisations like RWA or the QWC (Qld Writers Centre) keeps you ‘in the loop’ with vital industry information.

If you have any questions for Helen regarding writing contests or romance writing, please ask them below as comments.  We’re looking forward to helping you on the road to publication!

Other Workshop Wednesday topics: Deep Point of View and Writers working with the Media