Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"On Being an Unhanged Arthur Finalist"

Guest Blogger Pam Gross Barnsley is a finalist for the Unhanged Arthur Award for the second time.

Now that we’re in the last, nail-biting weeks leading up to Crime Writers of Canada’s Best Unpublished Novel Award (the Unhanged Arthur), I’m trying to be all Zen about it. After all, this is my second year making it to the shortlist. Just breathe, Pam, let it go; your chances of winning are nil. Still, the odd fantasy manages to creep in when I’m supposed to be sleeping, flossing my teeth, listening to the CBC news, or earning a living. I can feel that Bony Pete statuette in my hands, count the sales to Kindle and Sony e-readers, action doll figures, movie rights, Oprah, the Giller and Guv General committees coming to their senses as they realize crime writing can be fine literature too; and I just know Bobby Hepditch will finally regret dumping me after the high school prom. Okay; being Zen ain’t easy.

But then writing a novel isn’t easy either. All of you fellow crime writers know this. The only thing harder than writing is getting published.

Contests can improve your chances of publication, and increase your sales once you are published. Just making it to the longlist is enough to get you a closer reading from agents and editors. So enter! And when you get longlisted or shortlisted, put it in the first line of your query letter.

Louise Penny entered the UK’s Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award and her unpublished novel, Still Life was shortlisted. She didn’t win, but making the shortlist garnered her attention from editors and agents and secured her an agent. Louise has gone on to write four more novels and win numerous awards. That first contest set her on her way.

Phyllis Smallman won the first ever CWC Unhanged Arthur and was published by McArthur and Co Publishers, who have just published the third novel in her Sherri Travers series. Phyllis was also shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger.

For unpublished crime writers there is also the St. Martin’s Minotaur/ Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition; again, the winner is considered for a publishing contract.

The Killer Nashville/ Claymore Dagger Award comes with a chance at publication with Avalon.

More information for each of these contests can be found on their websites. CWC and the UK’s CWA both offer valuable tips on how to give your manuscript the best chance of impressing the judges. Fees range from $35 to $50.

Last year, after my novel, This Cage of Bones, made the shortlist, I attended the CWC Awards ceremony in Ottawa, followed by the Bloody Words Conference, and I had a blast. It was wonderful to finally meet other writers whom I’d known online for years. I schmoozed like a campaigning politician, made some good connections in the writing biz, and hob-nobbed with sundry ink-stained wretches, Attila-the-Hun agents, media types and fans. I maybe should’ve been cut off after the third glass of wine when I pitched my novel to one of the waiters. But hey, he liked the idea of being an agent and said it would save him having to graduate high school, which apparently was looking kind of dodgy anyway. In the meantime he cut me a bigger percentage of the chocolate mousse.

I did pitch to a real agent at the Conference, and she asked me to send her the manuscript. I decided I’d first eviscerate my novel, so I cut two hundred pages of the most compelling, heart-wrenching, literary prose. Re-wrote the thing for the four hundred and twelfth time, slashed, wept, replenished my lost electrolytes with carrot juice and added three semi-colons.

By then I was also fifty thousand words into the next book in the series and it was time to enter the Unhanged Arthur again. Tempus fuggit, eh? A second agent saw the announcement when I was shortlisted last month and asked to have a look at it. Ultimately it wasn’t for her, but she did compliment me on my writing.

Even if I don’t win (again) this year, making the shortlist provides credibility for my career and a boost to my saggy self-esteem. Being a writer means living on an emotional roller coaster that seems to not just plummet earthward, but actually crash through the earth’s crust and take you down to where that infamous slough of despond is stashed.

If I don’t win I’ll go home and pick up the beast and carry on. I will try to improve it again; I will try to find someone who loves it. I will keep writing because I have no other choice. I will find joy in the words I craft that come alive off the page for me and keep waiting for my time to be ready.

So enter those contests, and keep on writing!