Thursday, March 27, 2008

To Contest or Not to Contest (or: Am I a Sellout?)

BookEnds is having a contest this week here for the first 100 words in women's fiction. I debated whether or not to enter. Firstly, while my new book is well beyond 100 words, it's not even a running start at a novel yet. Secondly, because of that, the beginning may change another 25 times before I decide it's good enough. I tend to rewrite those first two or three pages over and over seeking the perfect way to draw the reader (and, let's face it, agent) in. Thirdly, my first 100 words (not a word more) gave a very incomplete picture of where the story is going. You have to have 123 words to get that. So I did what may have been a mistake.

I compressed.

I took out information I really wanted in in order to gain a better overall view in those few words of where the story is headed. I'm not sure yet it I think that is a sell-out. Should the manuscript an author submits really adequately paint a picture in 100 words or less?

I can see why an agent would tune out if the first 100 words are cumbersome and obviously poor writing, but what if the writing is good and interesting.... don't you get more than 100 words to frame your story?

Most of the submissions to this contest, as well as the other contests that BookEnds has done recently, do this well. Somehow, in the first 100 words there is a tiny story. At the end, I know who the protagonist is, and somewhat of what their dilemma is.

Mine doesn't do this. I thought that I was doing great by getting to the first HUGE problem in the story by the middle of the second page. A great big POW! I-didn't-see-that-coming kind of moment that entirely needs the first full page to set the stage for the POW.

The set-up is this trifecta of breakfast woes: the sausage and gravy biscuits that are causing a heartattack; the milk on the cereal that causes a severe allergic reaction; then the boring but safe bagel that leads to an ambulance trip followed by a helicopter trip followed by a diagnosis that changes their lives.

But 100 words barely covered the sausage gravy thing, and that itself didn't seem enough. So I clipped, chipped, rearranged, and in the end got 123 words into 99, and I feel like I lost a little something in the process.

I don't really think I'll win, so maybe the point is moot. But in not winning I'll wonder if it's because it's not what I would actually submit or if it's just not good enough to begin with.

For what it's worth, here is the "real" beginning, what I would have posted had I been allowed a few extra lines:

I’m no killer, but if I was, my family would say my MO is death by breakfast. During Travis’s mid-life physical, his doctor informed him my daily eggs and sausage gravy on biscuits was drivin’ him to an early grave. He handed me the lab results, claiming Travis’s LDL numbers were higher than a crackhead. I said if a crackhead had my sausage gravy he’d give up the crack and rather die of plugged arteries. He didn’t laugh. We switched to eggs and toast.

When Logan was young enough to run around bare-tushed, he developed hives and a propensity for up-chucking. His pediatrician pointed to the milk we poured on his Cocoa Crispies each morning. Who the Sam Hill is allergic to milk, I asked. We switched to PopTarts and apple juice anyway.

But bagels and orange juice were the ones that finally done us in. ‘Course, they were white bagels, not those whole wheat ones with all those grains in them, and they were slathered in butter and honey. And the orange juice was really Sunny D, which I know is mostly water and corn syrup, but it’s got all that vitamin c in it so it must be some kind of healthy. Besides, it was all I could get Ashley to cram down before trying to catch the bus each morning. She got her late genes from Travis.

So there it is. Now time to go do my real writing.


  1. Here's what I think-

    You entered the contest with 100 words, but yu can still keep the 123 words!

    This was a good exercise really, because it's good for any of us to learn how to cut words out. We usually need to. BUT if you really feel that you need all of the to tell the story, keep them.

    This has a great voice, by the way!

  2. Heidi- You're absolutely right. It was a great exercise for me, and I did pare some of the original down, and changed a few verbs to be more interesting. I should take this approach with the entire thing. It would be much tighter and more vivid.

    Still, I look through some of the entries and they are these amazing complete stories, neatly packaged, and I wonder if people actually wrote them just for this contest of if their stories really start that way, that concisely, because I don't think most books do. Are other people paring theirs down, or are they just cutting and pasting from their originals?

    Thanks for the compliment. This is such a fun one to write because the narrator has such a strong voice, and she is so different than me. She's one of those fun people to spend time with, which is more than I can say of some of the people in my last book. By the time I finished with them I was a little disgusted by them. I wanted to yell, "Just pull yourself together already!" People think we can just write them however we want, but they are who they are, and sometimes that is annoying!

    Hope you are feeling better these days!

  3. I'm starting to feel better, yes. I'll take what I can get!

    You know, I wonder sometimes if people are entering contests and getting such a great hit off of it that it ends up being all they do. I've backed off of it because it was getting to be a distraction and I have plenty of distraction already!

    It's so nice though, being in touch with other writers who get it- that our characters are so real to us. And they have to be, since we spend so much time with them.

    I was surprised that my favourite one turned out to be my hero-villain. He kinda stole my heart. The thief...

  4. I haven't entered many, mostly because the timing isn't right. I'm not doing any query contests these days because I'm not at the stage. My query for my last one is done, and the next book isn't ready yet. Same with lots of others. But I just finished working on this first chapter and thought I'd throw my hat into the ring, so to speak. I'm not sure why, actually.

    As I went back through some of the entries, I am surprised by how each is like a hook instead of the beginning of a book. So many end with this "gotcha" sentence. Mine isn't even close, and if that is what they are looking for, instead of the actual beginning, I've got no shot anyway. Which is silly, because I don't have a query, nor is the first chapter ready to be critiqued, so I'm not sure I want to win the prize. Still, of course, it's always nice for someone to say, this isn't too bad.

    I was so glad to "meet" you and know I'm not the only one who sees my characters as real people. This past few months chatting with other authors has made me feel more sane. And maybe more authentic.

    I am so glad you are starting to feel a little better. I'll continue to pray full well-being is on the way!

  5. I can say that 100 compelling words are the test to see if I would be interested in reading more. I cannot how you would be a sell-out. Whats so wrong about wanting to be paid for doing what love.