For several years, I’d been telling myself not to participate in any more submission calls or literary contests unless they helped move my memoir on Nepal forward. I’m too easily distracted and had to keep my focus on my book. So I refused to prepare any more submissions unless they inspired me to polish a scene or a chapter.
Evaluating benefits has not always been straightforward though. One winter, I couldn’t resist a seemingly unrelated contest and worked on a lyrical essay that seemed frivolous at the time. But what emerged helped me discover a key theme I’d been missing in my book. I became a finalist in that contest but didn’t win or have my essay published. I soon realized that was all for the best. I didn’t want that piece in print. I found it most useful as a guide to help me rethink the focus of my book.
A year ago, I noticed the call for the Seal Press Publishing Contest at She Writes. I judged it with my usual criteria. I was excited by how well it fit. I needed to write a book proposal and had been putting the task off for years.
I scanned the Seal Press catalog to evaluate whether my book might be a good fit. Topic-wise, it was. But the version I was working on was too long in comparison with other books Seal had published. Way too long. So, I let the contest be my guide and motivation to do what I had long known I needed to do. I had to buckle down and write a book proposal. And in doing that, I discovered a way to divide the bloated manuscript I’d been working on into two books. I pushed aside all the bits that fit in the second one and began work on a clear narrative arc and book proposal for the first.
The looming contest deadline motivated and disciplined me. No matter what the outcome, I would have a clearer vision for my book and a solid proposal in hand. If I didn’t win a contract with Seal Press, I could use the finished proposal to find the right home for the book.
What I felt most grateful for all along was how the contest and Cami Ostman’s sample proposal for Second Wind: One Woman's Midlife Quest to Run Seven Marathons on Se... demystified the process of writing the book proposal. The books I’d read and web advice I’d seen made the task seem like something only a literary agent or marketing genius could do. But broken down step by step, the process seemed straightforward enough.
Finishing the book proposal was a huge task. I had more fun than I expected with the market analysis and comparative title sections, but I hated writing those chapter summaries. “Just let me write the chapters,” I whined to myself (and my attentive standard poodle). But with a deadline approaching, I quickly sketched out each chapter in a rough way. Then over a week or so, I fleshed out and polished a few each day. No more than a few, I told myself. And when I finished each day’s quota, I let myself write something fun or go for a walk.
The day I finished the proposal (all 100 pages!), I declared myself a winner. I had done it. I went on to win what seemed unimaginable last December: a publishing contract with Seal Press. I thank She Writes and Seal Press for that opportunity.
But I also want to thank She Writes and Seal Press for setting up a contest process that made it possible for anyone to have an opportunity to move their projects forward in some form or another.
What do you think? Have contest and submission opportunities benefited -- or distracted you from -- your projects? Share your thoughts below!