[Path to Publication] The Call of the Contest

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!

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Tags: book, contest, proposal, publishing, writing


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Comment by Elizabeth Enslin on December 10, 2013 at 7:37pm

Will do, Kelly. And thanks for the marketing tips -- great ideas!

Good luck on your publication journey.

Comment by Kelly Hayes-Raitt on December 10, 2013 at 6:07pm

Elizabeth, if you have an email list of folks you are keeping apprised of your books and its publication, please add me!  HayesRaitt   (at)  aol  (dot) com.  I'm interested in your book! 

I maintain a list of people who sign up at my web site who are interested in my book by promising a pre-publication discount (even though I have no agent or publisher -- or even a finished ms yet!).  I have about 800 folks on my list so far...

Thanks for being so generous with your time and expertise in describing how you developed your chapter summaries.  If I can reciprocate with any marketing ideas, please email me.

Best of luck -- and, again congratulations on your publishing deal!

Kelly Hayes-Raitt


Comment by Elizabeth Enslin on December 10, 2013 at 5:18pm

Glad to be of help, Kelly. My book is tentatively scheduled for publication in the Fall of 2014. I'll be sure to announce further details here.

My memoir is in 1st person, but synopses tend to be in 3rd person (at least the ones I've read). And writing in 3rd person is the other thing that makes those chapter summaries so darn hard, at least for a memoir writer. But it also gave me some perspective to see myself as a character in need of narrative development.

Do feel free to contact me off-line for further conversation.

Comment by Kelly Hayes-Raitt on December 10, 2013 at 3:01pm

Fabulous help, Elizabeth!  Thanks for taking the time.  What an incredible opening chapter summary!  When can I buy your book?

I notice you did your summary in 3rd person.  Is your memoir in 3rd person?  Is there a reason you went to 3rd person (rather than 1st, if that is the perspective of your book)?

I've got my homework cut out for me this week...I appreciate your time.

I'd suggest we move off-line for this conversation, but I'm hoping other memoir writers will join in!

Kelly Hayes-Raitt


Comment by Elizabeth Enslin on December 10, 2013 at 1:51pm

Thanks for pushing me for more detail, Kelly. I love that.

I had to go back and look at my proposal. It's been awhile. Most of my chapter summaries are 1-2 paragraphs, though a few are a bit longer. I did have to nail down the narrative arc of my entire book first, then use my chapter summaries to highlight turning points. That helped me figure out what to leave out of the summaries (and I left a whole lot out). Here's the summary of my opening chapter as an example:

In a loft over a buffalo shed in the nondescript village of Gunjanagar in Chitwan Valley in the plains of Nepal, American anthropologist, Elizabeth Enslin awakens to another day of painful, but unproductive contractions. After forty hours of labor, she’s stuck between 4 to 6 centimeters in cervical dilation. She could have made plans to give birth in a well-staffed hospital in Kathmandu, but she wanted a home birth — even though home was more rustic than she would have liked. The family decides she should go to the local hospital, 45 minutes away over potholed, rural roads. Her brother-in-law fetches a three wheeled motor rickshaw to take her. Relatives and neighbors crowd the courtyard. Waddling from the shed to the vehicle, she sees on their faces what should have been obvious long before: she could die.

I remember finding a post by Jane Friedman helpful: Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis. For each chapter summary, I tried to follow the formula she provides: Incident (Story Advancement) + Reaction (Color) = Decision (Story Advancement).

Also, it looks like Cami Ostman's proposal for Second Wind is still available to peruse from the contest guidelines I followed last year. Have a look at that. I found it extremely helpful.

My memoir doesn't follow a regular pattern of scenes and insights. In the summaries, I did mostly stick with actions, trying to focus on key moments that brought me to particular insights or decisions.

I also ended up preparing several versions of my synopsis: a one pager, a three pager and the ten page version I included with my full book proposal. It helped me to tack back and forth between all those. By working on the one pager, I could better pull out the key points. The longer versions simply expanded on those.

Your idea for a webinar on this is great. I struggled a lot with it and put of the work off for many years.

Any others have thoughts on all this?

Comment by Kelly Hayes-Raitt on December 10, 2013 at 1:18pm

Hi, Elizabeth, let me ask in more detail -- I really want to learn from you!  You're writing a memoir, so, presumably, you have scenes about your interactions with the Nepalese and others you meet in your travels.  Again, I'm presuming here, but these interactions change you in some way, yes?  And those changes form your narrative arc? -- The "universal truths" that Brooke Warner advises should be in memoirs?

So, in your chapter summaries (how long are they?), how do you weave the scenes with the lessons?  That's where I get bogged down.

My book is about my recovery from a mid-life loss by working in the Middle East with Iraqi refugees.  In each chapter, I have several scenes that weave together to provide an insight on my journey.  (...Or, at least, I hope I do!)  It's difficult for me to "soundbite" that insight -- it sounds so pedantic -- and I find myself preferring to summarize the action.  Hence, horrible, unfocused chapter summaries.

Help!  Perhaps other SheWriters have conquered this?  Or perhaps Brooke and Linda Joy Meyers (National Assn of Memoir Writers) could do a webinar on this tricky topic?

Kelly Hayes-Raitt


Comment by Elizabeth Enslin on December 10, 2013 at 12:49pm

Congratulations on all those literary awards, Kelly. That's impressive. I tried your approach but found my chapters didn't stand alone well without major reworking. But I do enjoy using contests and submission calls as writing prompts.

Chapter summaries are no fun. First jotting down key points or scenes in each chapter helped me focus without getting bogged down in details. Then, I had to give myself a two week time frame and slog through chapter by chapter. Like I said, I didn't allow myself to work on more than a few each day. That would have driven me mad. But finishing several summaries every day gave me a sense of accomplishment and then freed me to do something more fun.

Thanks for the link. I'll check it out. Good luck on finding an agent.

Comment by Kelly Hayes-Raitt on December 10, 2013 at 12:08pm

Elizabeth, congratulations on your publishing contract!  Personally, I don't write pieces specifically for contests, I enter contests that I feel my existing journalistic memoir's chapters might win.  So far, 8 or my chapters have won a total of 19 literary awards.  Prize money keeps me in coffee, and the accolades feed my flagging ego.  Sure wish a literary agent would take notice, though.

I, too, have the toughest time with my chapter summaries in my book proposal.  Any tips?

All the best for your book's success!

Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Mosey on over to my web site www.LivingLargeInLimbo.com for your free gift ~ an mp3 of me reading my first chapter about a beggar in pre-invasion Baghdad.

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