Saturday, November 24, 2007

Business Plan for the Contest Diva

With all this talk about contests lately (American Title—vote for Trish!) (The Golden Heart – deadline's coming up!) (And hey, our own Susan Seyfarth won Best of the Best in Indiana's Golden Opportunity contest!), I think it's time we brought up a very important topic. Okay, it's a dry, boring, left-brain topic, but if you’re serious about entering and winning contests, you're going to need a plan.

A Business Plan.

I speak from experience. I’d been entering chapter contests for years, intermittently and without any particular reason or goal in mind. I was lucky enough to stumble into finalling in the Golden Heart in 2002 and I won a Daphne that same year. Pure luck, I assure you. I didn't know what the heck I was doing or why.

Then two years ago at my RWA chapter meeting, someone announced that one of our members had just become an American Title finalist. A few minutes later, they announced that that same person had just won two other contests. The applause was thunderous, the excitement was palpable, the room was buzzing.

I turned to my friend Maureen and said, “Do you feel that?”

She said, “Yeah, what is that?”

I said, “It’s BUZZ. And I want it.”

Yeah. Buzz.

Uh, no, not that kind of buzz.

I'm talking about the kind of buzz where people are talking you up, they're buzzing, and it's all about you. Your name comes up on the short list when Oscar comes to town. Okay, maybe not Oscar, but you know, Maggie. And Susannah. And Emily. And Marlene. And RITA!! Yeah, that Buzz!

Okay, but back to me. I was an unpublished, unagented nobody, so there was only one way I was going to get the Buzz. Through contests. I needed to figure out the best contests for my purposes and then enter them. A lot of them. Oh, and I needed to win. A lot.

What I really needed was a plan.

So for the first time in my life, I wrote out a business plan. I created a spreadsheet. It was a little frightening. I was left-brain-free, a writer, a geek. But I was slowly transforming myself into a ruthless Business Diva.

I won’t get too specific and I don’t want to brag, but my spreadsheet was a thing of beauty. It was color-coordinated with a time line and pretty border shadings, and it listed the contest names and information (cost, page length, other requirements), the name of each manuscript I was entering, the final round judges, the deadlines, the announcement dates, the prizes, and other pertinent information, including the reason I was entering that contest. One contest had a really pretty necklace as the prize. I wanted it.

(Now, all this presupposes that you've got a fabulous manuscript or three to send out. Of course you do! At this point, all you need is good luck and fortuitous timing.)

For me, I wanted to reach my favorite editors but not come across as a pesky stalker. It's a fine line. I tried to be selective and I tried not to get too greedy. I think I did okay. When I became a Golden Heart triple finalist in 2006, then found out I’d also finalled in the American Title contest, it made for one hell of an amazing conference experience. But I was beginning to worry about that greedy factor kicking in, so after winning the GH, I decided not to tempt fate or karma again. It was time to retire my Contest Diva crown and make room for others to play the game. I’d already hit the jackpot. I’d reached my goal.

I got the Buzz. Yeah!

We're all Contest Divas here, right? And even if we're not up for it this year, we all have friends entering the Golden Heart and RITA, along with all sorts of other contests out there. Care to share some of your strategies and goals out there on the contest circuit? Any fun memories? Horror stories? I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours!

But first, if you haven’t voted for Trish’s American Title entry, today’s the last day to vote – so go vote here! Then come on back and talk!


Anna Campbell said...

Vote for Trish or the bunny gets it!!

Right, having got that off my chest, great post, Kate. Actually I so admire what you did with the contests. I actually wish I'd learnt things like spreadsheets before I sold. It's stuff I now need to learn to tackle. And business plans. And budgets. Life has been pretty free and easy here up till now and I don't think it's going to work long term. Sigh. I'm so right brain! Some might even say lame brain!

And huge congratulations on all your contest success! What a star you were. I was tidying up some papers the other day in preparation for new 'accountant' me and I came across the folder where I kept my contest certificates. I must say looking at them still gives me a glow. I worked hard for them and I remember each little step along the way - the first time I finalled, the first time I placed, the first time I won. And then of course, all the excitement of the Golden Heart, the big daddy of them all!

Anna Campbell said...

Aha!!! The GR has come back to Mamma! Vote for Trish or the bunny and the Golden Rooster get it!!! Bwahahahahahaha!

Kate Carlisle said...

LOL Anna...the GR is yours and the world is back on its proper axis!!

Lame brain -- that's me!! The whole spreadsheet thing, it's so not me, I swear! It was like I was having an out-of-body experience the whole time I was doing it.

But that Atlanta conference was fun, wasn't it? We were all superstars there. And hey, it was the birth of the Banditas!

Anna Campbell said...

You're so right, Kate! It's something I'll always be grateful for, my finalling in the 2006 Golden Heart. How much poorer my life would be without the Banditas (and the GR!). Actually seriously thinking of buying spreadsheets for dummies (I'm sure such a thing exists). That stuff just doesn't come intuitively to me! And the fact that you did such a marvellous job and it doesn't come intuitively to you either is a credit to you, my dear Bandita Buddy!

Anna Campbell said...

Kate, can you tell us a little more about your experience as an AT finalist? I find the competition utterly fascinating (and terrifying!).

Christie Kelley said...

Great post, Kate. When I was seriously doing the contest circuit, I had an excel spreadsheet with all the information on the contest. It really sort of drove me nuts. I became too obessed with it--checking every website to see if the finalists had been announced yet. So I let it go. Funny thing was, the contests I'd forgotten I entered where the ones I usually finaled in.

Joan said...

A business plan? Huh. I never thought of it like that.

My "first" was NOLA's The Suzannah. TPD under the title of Captured Hearts won first in the historical category. I was thrilled. I was stunned. I was excited that the agent who'd judged requested a full.

I also didn't really know what I was doing.

I got some valuable feedback and some lectures better left alone. (It's amazing as well as disheartening to have some judges "rewrite" your story. One wanted to change both my H/H motivation, history, conflict into her own version. Sigh.)

I entered a few more with TPD after that; finaled in a few, placed and won in some others. Then that wonderful fateful 2006 GH final was bestowed on me.

By this time, I had come to realize that contests were tools. I entered to target specific publishing professionals. Even finaling got my mss. in front of their eyes (and hopefully imprinted on their subconscience

Atlanta was the first time I realized that perhaps I was doing some low level buzzing. Caren recognized my name at the President's Lunch. Her enthusiastic praise of my mss had the "other" people at the table casting me speculative buzzzzzz looks at me.

Last year in Dallas I was introduced to someone who said "I know that name". My name. Not my manuscript. Buzzzzzzzz.

And now my buzz factor is heightened with my Bandita status. Buzz...even for an good, another invaluable tool.

So TPD won second in PASIC'S BOYH. THE PATRICIAN'S FORTUNE is awaiting final word in Finally a Bride. And Bran, the hero of BARBARIAN SOUL is making his first tentative steps into the buzz world. He'll do ok. He was a gladiator after all :-)

Joanie T feeling an urge to go see "The Bee Movie".

I never considered that

doglady said...

Kudos to my friend Anna on the acquisition of the coveted GR!! Just don't throw him on the barbie!!This was a terrific post, Kate as I slave to get my GH entry ready to mail. This is my first year to enter any contests and I really did it to get some feedback and see if I was even going in the right direction. I never really thought about it as a sort of marketing tool. Very clever, Kate, and I will definitely sit down and map out a strategy for my contest career.

Anonymous said...

Now that I'm crossing over to the land of the almost-pubbed (the purgatory in which I will dwell for the next year and a half, until Book One of my YA series comes out) I am already missing my beloved contest circuit.

I haven't been a huge contest winner. I've finaled a lot, but it always seemed a crap shoot, and I haven't had a lot of requests come out of the contests. I entered hoping for 1) feedback, 2) getting in front of an editor, 3) a little ego boost. In the end, it ended up primarily being the little ego boost that helped me stick with this incredibly difficult business.

I applaud your business plan, Kate, I am probably more left brained than some, simply because my job forces me to deal with money and excel spreadsheets (much to my dismay). I'm also an obsessive list-maker (cough**Tawny**cough) and goal setter. So I like the planning aspect of it! But I wouldn't want anyone to get disappointed when they don't final or don't get that request they had hoped for. It really is a crap shoot in a lot of ways--you are dealing, after all, with judges that may or may not have training, skills, and experience. That's why I always counsel people entering the contest circuit not to enter one contest at a time--enter a few so you can get enough feedback to tell if you're dealing with a rogue judge or something everyone feels.

And the GH...well, my GH story is that I finaled in the GH with my first ms and was completely surprised. Then I entered the GH the next year with an historical romance that was doing well in the contest circuit, and my YA. I didn't final. I sad, let's just say. ;-) Shortly after, I got an agent, polished that same YA ms, and sold it.

So enjoy the contest buzz, but don't get yourself down if it doesn't happen for you on the contest trail. Keep improving your skills, working hard, and writing. Always, always, keep writing. :-)

Kate Carlisle said...

Okay, I'm back! So annoying having to sleep when there's fun stuff to do...

Anna, I'll confess the American Title experience was incredibly stressful for me. Our KJ might have a different take on it, but I wasn't prepared to start promoting myself at that level of my so-called career. Winning contests, even winning the Golden Heart can't possibly prepare you for it.

But now that I've gone through it all, I don't think anything in the PR/publicity arena will ever scare me again. Book signings? Public speaking? Workshops? Bring 'em on! LOL.

Kate Carlisle said...

Hi Christie - yes, the whole contest circuit analysis obsession consumed me for about a year. I kept the mailroom busy with my Tyvek mailings for months! LOL

But it never ends, does it? My pubbed friends have been sending out their Rita entries, and they laughingly inform me that my little contest spreadsheet was peanuts compared to the scary spreadsheets they use to keep track of delivery dates and royalty statements and pub dates. Ack! It'll never end! ;-)

jo robertson said...

Wow, Kate, great post! I had no idea you were so single-minded in your contest plan :-D. I love the idea of using contests as a way to generate BUZZ about yourself. Silly as this sounds, I'd never thought about that.

I've been terribly haphazard in my contest entering, willy-nilly at best. Entering the 06 GH and then winning was a colossal surprise, as was the Daphne win last year.

I'd only entered four or five contests prior to that and the scores were so mixed that I got discouraged with the whole idea of contests doing me any good as far as improving my writing.

One judge marked me really low on grammar and mechanics. Come on, I'm a high school English teacher, so how valid is that criticism? I could see that some judges really aren't qualified, so I stopped entering until the GH came around.

My advice: take it all with a grain of salt. Even the GH judges aren't officially trained with a rubric or scoring guide. Someone may love your work, but another hate it.

I now try to enter contests which will put my m/s in front of an editor I really want.

Kate Carlisle said...

Yay, Joanie T! That's the buzz! When people are saying, "I know that name," and they're talking about YOU, that's so cool, isn't it? :-)

This time next year, the buzzzzz going around will be all about editors trying to finding more sensational ancient Roman romances like the fabulous Joannie T writes!!

Tawny said...

Ooooh, the sight of that spreadsheet gave me happy tingles!! Tell me more, tell me more *g*

Kate, you were the ULTIMATE Diva - you so rocked the contest circuit.

I did love contests, and have to admit I'm excited that I am finally able to start entering the pubbed ones. I always saw contests as a means to an ends. A way to get work in front of specific editors or agents I was targeting, or an excuse to contact them (GH, anyone?) The contests I entered purely for ego gratification were never ones I finaled in.

LOL Kirsten, don't you just LOVE lists? Spreadsheets are like lists on steroids, super awesome and they do tricks, like those cool colored bar graphs and pie charts. Oh man, pie charts *sigh*

Kate Carlisle said...

Oh Joanie, The Bee Movie! I just got it, LOL. Hey, I'm a little slow today!

Beth said...

I've never been much of a contest diva and the idea of making a spreadsheet gives me the willies *g* I kept track of the few contests I entered the old fashioned way - in a notebook. I had fairly good luck with contests though nothing major (well, except for the GH win *ggg*)

Best of luck to everyone who is entering the GH and Rita this year! I can't wait to get my GH entries to judge :-)

Great post, Kate!

Kate Carlisle said...

Hi Doglady -- Good luck with the Golden Heart! No feedback on that one, but if you final, you're in for a fabulous time, meeting new friends, getting first choice of editors and agents, a fun party at national, and plenty of buzzzzzzz!

And regardless of whether you have a plan or not, meeting new friends that you'll keep for your entire career is the absolute best part of the whole deal!

Kate Carlisle said...

Inara, I totally agree with your advice to anyone entering a contest. If you're not prepared, a rogue judge can do more to damage your psyche than just about anything else in the business.

And the same thing happened to me with the GH. Finalled one year, then nothing for two years--with the same manuscript! It's such a crap shoot.

I didn't start on this whole "contest circuit" thing until after I'd been out there getting feedback for a number of years and had hardened my heart to the more negative comments and strange critiques. I once received an eight page, single-spaced diabtribe against the manuscript I'd entered. That judge was definitely having a bad day, LOL.

And OMG, LOL on your current place in purgatory!! I feel your pain!!

Kate Carlisle said...

Uh, didn't just *win* the Daphne. You snagged the grand prize! AND the Golden Heart! So willy nilly or not, you were ready, my friend!

But ugh, those judges that marked you down for grammar? How annoying!

But hey, I guess you showed them. ;-)

Kate Carlisle said...

Tawny, ROTFL!! Calm down, girl! Step away from the pie chart!! Don't make me call Aunty out of the cave!

Speaking of lists...I've got my fingers crossed that we'll see your name on the RITA list in a few months!!

Kate Carlisle said...

Hi Beth! I love judging the Golden Heart, too. Last year I had YA's and they were so much fun to read. I'm hoping I'll get some of them again this year. :-)

Maureen Child said...

Kate, it was really impressive watching you become the Contest Diva!! Even more impressive seeing you win the GH!

But even the picture of that spreadsheet gave me hives!!!

jo robertson said...

Ah, thanks, Kate. When we get together in SF, you're going to have to show us Banditas that spreadsheet. The whole idea boggles my mind! I wouldn't know where to start.

Kate Carlisle said...

Hey, it's The Maureen! Yes, you were there from the start to see my frightening transformation into a Deeeevah!! Or is it Deeevo?? I'm not sure, LOL.

But you were always there to nag--er, *encourage* me to keep going, so thank you, my friend!

Helen said...

Congratulations to all of you, you have all worked so hard and deserve all the accolades.
Anna the GR has returned to the Land of Oz LOL

Have fun

jo robertson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anna Campbell said...

Kate, I wondered if the AT thing was of the if it doesn't kill me, it makes me stronger variety! Good on you for doing such a fabulous job there!

Helen, that rooster is singing Cock-a-dinkum-doo this morning! ;-)

Anna Campbell said...

And good luck to all the Banditas and proto Banditas (this means YOU, Pam!) in the Golden Heart!

Kate Carlisle said...

Hi Helen, thanks for your good wishes. It's always great to *see* you here!

And you know, I thought it was fine for Anna to have the Golden Cockster back in her hands for a day or so, but now I'm concerned. He's actually singing cock-a-dinkum-doo? Is that code? What have you done to the creature??

Susan Seyfarth said...

Hi, Kate! I'm a terrible contestant. My entry to final ratio is appallingly low, I enter unpolished/unfinished WIPs just on the off chance I'll get some unbiased feedback that isn't insane. (Some contest feedback is always insane. I think it's in the rules.) And I have really no plan beyond getting my pages in front of an editor. Any old editor will do. I'm not even scientific about that. It would be worse if I entered more contests, but aside from the GH (which I enter faithfully with mixed results), I enter a handful of contests in a spasm of optimism, then don't enter anything for a year, then enter a handful more. Winning IGO's best of the best was a real shocker, I have to say. But I figure it balances out all my ignomious losses, so I'm happy. :-)


Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Oh dear, the GR is fair dinkum singin' in Oz. Scaaaaaary. Snork.

Great post Kate. I'm laughing over your charts. I love lists, as I confessed to Tawny on the Jennifer blog, but the spreadsheet thing? Hives. Too much like work. Heehee. My dh is an accountant/CFO type. He dreams in Excel. :> He set several up for me with contest things. Now he's setting one up for me for tracking deadlines and so forth. I think our darling Trish is the one who needs a spreadsheet though!

As to contests, I entered them at first for feedback and quickly learned to skim for what I guardedly refer to as the "repeat comment." This is when you hear Your Hero is a dork four or five or seven times. When you do, its time to rethink his profession of garbage man turned spy. Heehee. But the grammer stuff? Like Jo, I ignored the majority of it because one of my former CPs is a doctoral-level composition instructor. I don't have comma issues with her around. Ha!

Once I got more secure I only entered contests for the final round judges. I figured if I could write well enough to get to the finals, then I got my mss in front of an editor for a mere $25 rather than spending $10 on mailing it to the slush pile and waaaaaaiiiiiitttttttiiiiinnnnngggg until I was old and grey and getting a pre-printed "Dear Writer" rejection letter. Grins.

I got requests, which is great if you finished the d**n manuscript. Then I finished, did GH, finaled and met the Banditas. :> Woo-hooo! I also got more requests. But it was an editor agent appointment that sold my GH manuscript, so I recommend those too!

Oh, BTW? Like any good Bandita, I already voted for Trish, so hands off the GR, Anna. As to the bunny...well, hold that one hostage for the rest of the crowd until they vote...Bwahh-haaa-haaaa!

Buffie said...

Loved the post Kate! It had me smiling. I am not a writer, but I am one of those over organizing people. I lurve me some spreadsheets!!!! I mean, I am one of those people who has an Excel spreadsheet for her grocery list. Yep, I just said that . . . her grocery list. I print that puppy off every week, check off what I need, and then head to the store. Why make a list for scratch every week??!! I know, I'm weird. But that's me!

Suzanne Welsh said...

Kate, a spreadsheet with a pie chart for contests? Impressive.

I'd been writing for 12 years before ever entering anything in a contest. When I did the dang thing won the Harlequin Intrigue contest (out of 750 other manuscripts). Okay, now I was hooked!

I have had several mss final in various contests, and two in the 2006 GH where I met all the Banditas! Alas, I am still eligible and have recently mailed off my newest GH entries. Keeping my fingers crossed they do well this year.

As for what I've learned from contests? There is always one judge who is waaaaaaaaaaay off base. Usually comments are good and some are very helpful. AND if all the judges have a problem with one aspect of your story, it usually means it has to be fixed.

One last recommendation. Don't get into so many contests that you go broke. I generally do 2-3 contests/year along with the GH. Anything more than that is just greedy and expensive on my part.

Anna Campbell said...

Suz, good luck with the GH!!! Actually great advice on not going broke. The other thing is don't let the contests become your end goal. The end goal is to get a publishable manuscript to an editor and for that editor to buy it. It's very easy to get caught up in the contest excitement and forget that this isn't actually the prize. The prize is publication.

Buffie, I have a master shopping list too! That's not weird! That's just smart - or so I say, anyway! ;-)

Kate Carlisle said...

LOL Susan! I like your theory that contest rules require secretly hiring on some nutball judge to smack you down a rung or two when you were starting to feel good about yourself. LOL

Nutball judges need to make a living too, I guess. ;-)

Donna MacMeans said...

LOL Kate - I'm a spreadsheet diva, but I never thought of setting up a contest plan on a spreadsheet. Good for you!

I entered contests for the feedback, but please remember you can get rather ridiculous feedback along with the good stuff. I don't mean nastiness (although sometimes some of that pops up), I mean people meaning to be helpful but suggest really stupid stuff. Hmmm...that could make a good blog.

I think the thing that helped me most with contests is judging them. You really get to get a sense of the competition out there when you judge a contest. Plus you can recognize problems in someone else's work faster than you can in your own. I can't tell you how many times I wrote a diatribe about a suggestion and then realized I should follow my own advice!

Donna MacMeans said...

Kate -

I swear I was not the one writing an eight page diatribe against a contest entry (gulp!) I did write one or two pages, but never negative. That will teach me to post a comment before reading all the comments *g*

Kate Carlisle said...

Jeanne, your dh dreams in excel? How lucky you are! I mean, to have someone willingly set up all those charts and spreadsheets for you! That's my kind of guy! ;-)

And you've just reminded me how all the spreadsheets in the world can't compare to making personal contact with an agent or editor -- and having a fabulous *completed* manuscript to send them!

Kate Carlisle said...

Wow Buffie! I think you should win a prize! excel spreadsheet to do your grocery shopping?? You're my idol!!

Kate Carlisle said...

Suz, good point on the money issue. And it's not just the price of the contest itself. You have to factor in the price spent on stamps for the envelopes, plus the return postage, plus paper and printing cartridges to print out 3 to 5 copies per contest. Yikes!!

Kate Carlisle said...

Oh Donna, I totally agree with you! I learn so much from judging contests. It really is a smart thing to do for yourself. And just trying to formulate exactly why something isn't working--and trying to put it into words as nicely as possible *g*--is an invaluable exercise.

And P.S., I know who wrote the diatribe, LOL

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Jeepers, and 8-page diatribe? Yikes! I'd have to scream over that one. :>

I love judging contests for the very reason Donna mentioned. It really gives you an insight into what might be wrong in your own work, as well as giving a great insight into what an editor goes through.

I sometimes think about all the bad contest entries I've gotten - and that's a mere 25 pages, usually - and multiply that by a hundred times to get the reality of the editor's slush pile. Urg. However, I know too that I've gotten an entry in one contest, done my best to make positive comments, then seen the same entry the next season, much improved. One challenged entry I had seen early on in a contest actually finaled in the GH, so it sure did improve! :>

I agree though about always remembering that publication is the goal, not the pretty necklace. Grins. (I sure would like the Suzannah's lovely pendant...they let pubs enter this year!)

Christine Wells said...

Hi Kate! Great post. You make me laugh. Hey, now I WANT that buzz, too:) It's so interesting to know what an impact finaling in a few contests has. I didn't realize that, being so far removed from the hub of things over here.

Though I'm not at all left-brained, I admit, I had an excel spreadsheet to keep track of contest entries/finals/wins. I entered contests where I was interested in the editor/agent judging. It became the only way I could choose between the myriad contests out there.

Advice? Celebrate your wins but don't hang your entire ego on them and don't think every judge is right. As any bandita will tell you, the contest circuit is full of swings and roundabouts.

Good luck to all the GH entrants!

Tawny said...

*raising my hand to join the spreadsheet master grocery list then slinking out of the lair*

Joan said...

Kate said:

And you know, I thought it was fine for Anna to have the Golden Cockster back in her hands for a day or so, but now I'm concerned. He's actually singing cock-a-dinkum-doo? Is that code? What have you done to the creature??

God only knows, Kate. I don't think Demetrius will EVER get that tic out of his eye! She's passionate, our Anna is.....

Kate Carlisle said...

Jeanne, *oh yuck* on the editor slush pile if you multiply all those awful contest entries times a gazillion......gads, what they must deal with! LOL on the jewelry prizes. And I do love badge jewelry as prizes, too! ;-)

Hello Madame! Good advice on the ups and downs of contests. And so glad to see hanother spreadsheet aficionado among the group!

Tawny, we knew anyone with a List Fetish like yours would have to 'fess up to some Excel Love eventually. *gg*

Joannie, LOL! Poor Demetrius! Maybe he's just winking at you....