Monday, March 31, 2014

Reminder: April 1 is Free Open Submission Day

Just a quick reminder that Rate Your Story is open to the public for one day — April 1, 2014 — for submissions. Submissions received between 12:00 a.m. and 11:59 p.m. Eastern Daylight time will be accepted. Only manuscripts that adhere to the submission guidelines (e.g. one manuscript per person, less than 2,000 words, proper subject heading) will be accepted. Please make sure to familiarize yourself with these guidelines.

As always, PRO and BASIC members may submit at any time. And watch your email inboxes this week for the monthly eNews and bonus exclusives!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Behind The Curtain: On Being a Writer

Guest post by author Del Staecker

Ten years ago, after decades as a word junkie, I plunged into the world of writing.  It is a place many people dream of dominating through the miraculous application of their talents, yet it often proves to be a land of stark challenge seasoned by rejections.   After 128 of them I landed a royalty contract and a small advance for the hardcover release of my first novel.  That was before Kindle, Nook, print-on-demand, and the rise of self-publishing.  Since then I have seen five more of my books published in multiple formats by two publishers, received flattering reviews, appeared in most forms of media, won some awards, and earned a few dollars.

My success, slow in coming and limited, has taught me much about the “publishing game.”  Based upon my experience, here is what I believe (with interjections from RYS blog editor Ella Kennen, for a different perspective):

  1. The big (six) publishers value bankable names more than literary quality. (Everyone wants to make money off of writing, and publishers can't stay afloat if they can't pay their editors, copy editors, interior designers, cover designers, accountants, and publicists -- not to mention pay for the costs of creating and shipping a physical book and paying the booksellers... oh, yeah, and the authors. So, does money matter? Absolutely. But does that mean that the Big Six don't care about literary quality? Absolutely not.)
  2. Agents want commissions.  It’s their business.  A small number of good ones truly wanted to be writers, but settled for being “in the literary game” and earning a pay check while still loving words and writing.  They are a Godsend, but are few and far between.   (Agents put in the work first with the hope of making money later -- that takes a love of their job and faith in their clients. Can they be pulled in a zillion directions and be slow to respond? Yes. Whether an agent who harbors dreams of being an author is better than one who doesn't is up for discussion.)
  3.  Most small publishers want to grow, and ultimately be big publishers.  But that will never happen, so they mouth all sorts of tales as they search for the next “breakthrough book/author.”   Again, some are staffed by book lovers, but many are not.   Few small publishers know anything about marketing beyond telling writers that it is their own responsibility to sell books. ("Small publisher" is a vague term; some small publishers have amazing reputations and are very good at selling within their niche. Many small publishers have very poor sales track records. Do your homework before you sign any contract.)
  4. The “slush pile,” once sifted through by interns and low level staffers at” the bigs,” was farmed out to agents, and then finally became the morass of self-published, print-on demand, and e-books that flood Amazon’s book section. (Yes, basically. Agents and publishers still get mountains of slush, though -- not a small number from people who self-published first and, disappointed with their sales, want someone to "fix" things. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.)         
  5.  Readers, as a group, are not increasing in relative number.  They are inundated by the onslaught of choices thrown at them.  More and more writers, plus static growth in readers, equals confusion over what to read. 
  6. Bookstores.  As youths ask, “Bookstores?  What are they? ”
  7.  #6 leads to Amazon.  Also lovingly known as, “the 800 Lb. Gorilla.”  A blessing and a curse.  It keeps authors’ works available, but has expanded the slush pile to a point beyond the limits of the reading public.
  8. Blogs?  Widely recommended, can be excellent forums for sharing ideas and techniques, but I doubt that they sell many books. (Does your own blog about writing sell many books? Probably not, though it may help you establish or reinforce a social network. Does going on a blog tour where your book is reviewed or showcased help? If the audience is right and the reach is broad enough.)
  9. The future?  It is so wide open that anyone’s guess is as good as the next person’s. (More hybrid authors -- those who mix-and-match between traditional and self-publishing; more tailored ways to reach the target audience; a continued struggle to capture reader's attention; 

Often I am asked, “What would you do differently, if you could?” 

My response is that I would simply focus more on my writing.  I would still participate in all the usual marketing and promotional efforts, but I would not get “angst ridden” over their application.  I believe if someone focuses on the money and fame they will be sorely disappointed.   To avoid that, I would spend a great deal of time remembering certain moments.   For example, I would savor the time at my first event when a credit card machine failed and an attendee walked through a blizzard to a cash machine, returning to purchase my book.  Later he tracked me down through my publisher (before I had a website) to tell me how much he enjoyed my work.  Or, I would relish the day after Christmas when a publisher called me to say that he read my book on his rare day off and liked it very much.  And, I would relive as many moments as possible of my sponsored tour of three Mediterranean bases as a U.S. Navy Writer on Deck.   Most of all, I would constantly tell myself, “It’s about the writing.”   So, if I could change anything, anything at all, I’d just write and write and write.

Del Staecker is the author of, to date, five mystery and suspense novels and one nonfiction book. Del describes himself as a storyteller. He has been a soldier, lived on a boat, and has completed all but one item on his list. He is a member of the Royal Society of Arts, London, United Kingdom and currently he lives and writes in his Pennsylvania home, which is shared by his wife and the colorful characters in his head. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Writing Contest Wrap-Up

We promised a contest wrap-up post in our winners' announcement last week, so here it is.

Total Entries: Just shy of 300. (Pretty amazing for our first-ever contest!)

Number of categories: 3

Most popular category: Picture book

How our judges reviewed your MSS:
Our judges read manuscripts on a completely "blind" basis. All names and were stripped from manuscripts by a non-judge first and each was given an alphanumeric code. The manuscripts went through two rounds of judging. Round 1 judges selected top-ranking entries in each category, and those were considered finalists. New Round 2 judges took over in ranking the finalists and choosing winners and honorable mentions.

Number of finalists across all categories: 29

Number of prize winning manuscripts across all categories: 9

Number of honorable mentions: 12

Quantitative "Takeaway" from the contest:
By the numbers, it's obvious that writing is fiercely competitive. Especially if you write picture books for children (that category received more than 60% of the total submission count.)

Qualitative "Takeaway" from the contest:
From one of our judges: "My biggest issue [while judging] was how to weigh writing style versus originality. I decided to favor originality, figuring an author could hire an editor to help with style, but originality is something you can't buy."

Well, there you have it. Congratulations to everyone who entered—the courage it takes to put your work out there in the world is something to be applauded.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

2014 Writing Contest Winners!

Our judges say that choosing was no small feat!

But for now...

This is it, folks. 
The moment you've been waiting for. 

Out of nearly 300 entries total, we are very proud to announce. . .

The Rate Your Story 2014 Writing Contest WINNERS!

Picture Book Category - Prize Winners

Credit: Roxyanne Young
1st Place

How We Made the Sky. . .Cry 
by Anne C. Bromley
and Jane L. Patton
A lyrical, free verse picture book about six-year-old Callie’s unique solution to the severe drought that has befallen her town.

2nd Place
Ribbit! Ribbit! Gotta Go! 
by Jill Proctor
When Froggy escapes from his cardboard dungeon he leads his captor, giggling school children, and a broom-wielding teacher on a flagpole-flying, death-defying chase, ultimately winning his freedom to return home to his children.

3rd Place
Little Orphan Sandy: The True Story of a Stray That Became a Star 
by Nancy Churnin
The true story of a teen who rescues a dirty, neglected and frightened dog and turns him into a Broadway star.

Picture Book Category - Honorable Mentions

A Tad Too Short 
by Heather Preusser
When Tad tries to follow his older brothers aboard the Buccaneer at Pirate Playland, the burly pirate at the other end of the plank says he’s too short, so Tad finds some friends and develops a plan to pull one past the pirate.

Funny-Face Grace 
by Krisann Bergo Brown
When Grace makes a silly face that gets stuck, she sets off a hilarious epidemic that changes the face of the world.

No Dragons Allowed 
by Kevin White
Harold the dragon's simple quest for an egg from the castle (needed to bake a cake) turns into a tale of disguises, favors, and acceptance as they all discover unity in their diversity.

Run! Run! Run! The Amazing Story of Elizabeth Zane 
by Sue Frye
In 1782, Elizabeth Zane easily outran every boy at Fort Henry, and when the fort came under siege, she made her famous run through flying arrows to grab the hidden stash of gunpowder – which saved the fort.   

Pumpkins and Promises: America’s First Halloween
by Nancy Churnin
Historical fiction about an Irish immigrant girl in 1851 who teaches her American friend about her favorite Irish holiday, Halloween, and how together they give the celebration an American twist by carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns instead of the traditional turnips.

Novel/Novella Category - Prize Winners

1st Place
30-Minute Superhero
by Sandy Grubb
Ten-year-old Nick would rather impress his friends than their mothers, but when shaking his Mr. Nice Guy image proves impossible, he takes it undercover like his old hero Superman, only to be faced with a mystery that must be solved … and time is running out.

2nd Place
Perfecting Albert Hall
by Irene Wittig
Perfecting Albert Hall is the story of a lonely, middle-aged man whose need for purpose takes him to Uganda to search for his friend’s missing child.

3rd Place
The Case of the Missing Hand
by Marcia Berneger
If Robbie and Becca don't solve the case of the missing hand, and the ensuing attempted murder, their grandparents could spend the rest of their lives in jail.

Novel/Novella Category - Honorable Mentions

Hoofin’ it to Hollywood
by Kenda Henthorn
Twelve year old Katie Kitchen dreams of Hollywood stardom, but instead, she’s stuck competing against her two older brothers for a role in her parent’s small-time, small-town western movie where it seems summer can’t get any worse—until Josh Sullivan steals her heart—and her part in the movie.

Mom Wars
by Mindy Alyse Weiss
Twelve year-old Jennifer Michaels is already at war with Mom over money issues and Dad’s disappearance when two unpredictable boys, a mysterious check, and a summer filled with secrets turn her world upside-down.

Before I Sleep
by Patti Richards
Only the Wordkeeper knows why forest darkness causes death, and Ada must find him before time runs out for her mother and her world.

Everything Else Category - Top Winners

1st Place
“Ernie Buford, Ripsnortin’ Whopper Teller” (short story)
by Sherry Walz
Ernie Buford hails from a long line of whopper tellers, but he doesn’t believe in his own ability to tell incredible tales – that is – until the day he tangles with a rough and tumble tornado.

2nd Place
“Stubborn Sam”
by Carol Woodson
A very active youngster gets more than she bargained for.

3rd Place
“I Can Do That Job in Six Sh*ts and Ten Son of a Bi*ches”
(short story)
by Mary Jo Wagner
The story of what happens when one rather non-mechanical man decides to fix a garage door opener, and prompts his children to count the swear words until the typical disaster is over.

Everything Else Category - Honorable Mentions

“Princess Polymita and Zunzun, the Hummingbird Prince: A Cuban Love Story Retold”
(folk tale)
by Betty Matthews
When Polymita, the world’s largest and most colorful land snail, despairs about her beauty and self-worth, Zunzuncito, the world’s smallest hummingbird  must tell the story behind their unusual friendship.

Ethan to the Rescue
(chapter book)
by Sheri McCrimmon
Ethan finds out superheroes have a hard life when practice rescues turn into embarrassing disasters and epic problems loom.

“Helpers of 9/11”
(nonfiction essay)
by Jacquie Sewell
In the midst of the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attack, the strength of our nation shone bright in the actions of the many Americans who answered the call to come and help.

The Magic Nose Pinchers
(chapter book)
by Danielle Dufayet
Isabelle, the French mouse, loves beauty and cleanliness, so her husband invents a pair of magic glasses that she wears everyday until one day they fall off her nose and she gets a shocking and heartbreaking surprise.

Congratulations, all!

Also, we'd like to extend a very special thank you
to the prize donors, including:

Karen Grencik, Red Fox Literary

Madeline Smoot, CBAY Books

Miranda Paul, Children's Author

Our many, many judges!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Writer As Archeologist

Guest post by Pat Miller

I was weeding outdated history books from our school library collection. A teacher saw what I was doing and asked, “History already happened. How can it become outdated?”

The events of the past can’t change, but what we learn about them does. New information is discovered. Biases are revealed. New angles and connections are found. In fact, I saw how history “changed” as I researched my own book.

When I began I knew only one thing, something I learned from a boat tour: the man who invented the hole in the doughnut was buried near Boston Harbor. As I researched, I was like an archaeologist who hypothesizes different animals as she digs up various bones until she discovers enough to see the true creature.

I discovered that the inventor was a sea captain named Hanson Gregory. I found an interview of the captain by The Washington Post on March 26, 1916. Based on this, my first manuscript had a child questioning the captain along similar lines, with his fellow mariners adding facts and humor to the story. It became historical fiction, and I imagined wacky illustrations by David Catrow.

More research made me think my first approach was cavalier. I learned that Captain Gregory altered the doughnut as a teen assistant to the Hardscrabble’s cook. Gregory married, but left his wife and children for months while commanding fast sailing ships. His cargo was dangerous; it caught fire when wet! Now I wanted to reveal Gregory’s life in a chronology that involved sidebars about the lime trade, tall ships, onboard cooking, and more. I got caught up in the period and the book became unwieldy.

Census records, death certificates, newspaper archives, maritime museums, and public libraries revealed emotions long forgotten. Gregory’s youngest sister had three sets of twins by the time she was 26. When the oldest were five, her husband died of yellow fever in Cuba and was buried there. I located four tiny tombstones next to hers—three engraved with the same date. Two of Gregory’s young children disappeared from the census and his grandchildren all died tragically. To cap it, Captain Gregory, the youngest Master Mariner to sail from Maine, was driven from the sea by the dominance of steam-power. I felt bound to bring this man back into history. But how to write about so much determination in the face of towering grief? What about the doughnut hole? That version was too bleak.

I eventually uncovered a strong connection between this 19th century sea captain and modern day Dunkin’ Donuts. What about a book that developed that relationship? And what about the connection with the doughnut girls of World War I? Several attempts to write that version of events fizzled out when the emotional depth was lost.

After six months and 22 rewrites, my 200 pages of research were whittled to 1,071 words about this sea captain I knew better than my extended family. That version did not sell. I rewrote another with just 716 words, centered on Gregory’s invention of the doughnut hole. I had to condense all the rest into five short author notes. This version sold.

One burden of writing nonfiction is choosing what goes in the work (and gets read), and what remains in one’s research. Captain Gregory outlived his entire nuclear family and much of his story died with him. I grieved as I let the life I had reconstructed slip back into the soup of history, for now. And so history seems to alter as new information is uncovered, and writers and historians choose what to reveal.

Pat Miller is a career educator and school librarian and author of 24 books. The Hole Story of the Doughnut was contracted by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She writes from Richmond, TX, where she is also busy organizing an exciting conference for rookie nonfiction children’s writers, NF 4 NF: Nonfiction for New Folks. Pat is a certified Master Gardener and enjoys making author visits and performing as a storyteller. You can contact her at

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Premises, Premises

Picture it: While on vacation in New York, you find yourself sharing the elevator of your superswank hotel with a hotshot literary agent. This is your chance to pitch your saga about Jimmy the Pirate’s quest for redemption and ultimately doomed struggle against schizophrenia.  You squeak something about having a manuscript ready for submission.

She sighs and glances at her watch. “Lay it on me.”

“Well, uh…” you start in your awesomely articulate way, “there’s this pangolin, you see.”


“Pangolin. But, uh, that doesn’t really matter, because he runs away on the third page.”

She raises an eyebrow.

“Umm, I mean, it’s, like, totally important for the…uh… set-up… because then Jimmy the Pi—”

DING. The elevator doors open. “Well, good luck with your project.” And with that the agent strides out of your life forever.

You  cover your face in shame. “Why? Why didn’t I work on my pitch? ”

No, but really. Sitting down and writing a premise doesn’t just come in handy during elevator pitches, but also interviews, tweets, and other real life circumstances.  It’s actually a good way of testing whether your story idea is actually worth pursuing.

There is more than one way to write a premise, but an easy way to think about it is: [optional: set-up]…[protagonist]…[verb]…[goal]…[obstacle/stakes]

And here is how it plays out with some popular books and movies:
  • An unloved orphan discovers he’s really a famous wizard who must battle against an evil wizard to redeem his family’s death and save the world.
  • A rougish yet charming pirate joins forces with a young blacksmith in a gallant attempt to rescue the Governor of England's daughter and reclaim his ship from an even more rougish pirate.
  • When a thirty-year-old elf learns he is human, he leaves the North Pole to live with his birth father, who’s not really prepared to have an elf as a son.
  • Then there’s good ol’ boy meets girl: can their love overcome their conflicting backgrounds? Variations of this fit everything from Romeo and Juliet to Twilight to Warm Bodies.  

Sometimes coming up with a good premise is no harder than putting a fresh spin on a tried-and-true concept. And sometimes it makes you realize your clever idea is actually an obvious rehash of what’s been done before. Painful as that may be, it’s much better to figure it out after you’ve written out a one-sentence premise than a whole manuscript.

What are your thoughts on premises? When do you write them – before you start drafting or after you’re done? And how does that affect your manuscript?