Writing: Learning As You Go

Earlier this year, I paid $25 to enter the Kindle Book Review awards contest for the top, indie books published from May 2012 to May 2014. I was hoping I might make the 20 top semi-finalists, but no such luck. Okay, I was disappointed, but not disheartened. In writing, you win some, you lose some. But I was curious what kinds of books won, because those are books I can learn from.

The whole judging process started with what readers look at when deciding to buy or not buy your book: the cover, the blurb, and the opening, sample pages. If those hooked the first readers, then they passed the book on to people who’d read the entire book. I have no idea how many books made it past the first readings, but I know it’s no easy feat. When I wrote mystery short stories and sent manuscripts into Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines, slush pile readers would scoop up manuscripts by unknown writers to take home and look at. If a writer didn’t hook them in the first paragraph or two, that story got put on the “forget about it” pile. Only a tiny, tiny few stories passed the slush pile to be given to first readers. If the first readers like the stories, they’d pass them on to the editors. Once an editor bought one of your stories, your writing went straight to her desk when you submitted a new one. But you had to earn that right. Writers compete with thousands of other writers. But the truth is, once you make it out of the slush pile, then you’re competing with professional writers. And they know their stuff.

Study your competition when you start writing. And learn by studying the best. I’m glad I entered this contest, because I’m lazy, and I wouldn’t have followed through if I didn’t have something invested in it. When I got the list of the writers who DID make the 20 semi-finalists, I looked them up and did what the judges would have done. I looked at their covers. What made them stand out? I read their book blurbs. What made them better than mine? And I read the free, sample pages.

I write urban fantasy, so my take on what worked and what didn’t might not ring true for literary fiction or mysteries, etc. But every sample I read started with a sense of immediacy, plunging the protagonist in danger from page one. That’s where I made a mistake. I only put two new books online from May 2012 to May 2014, and both were second books in a series. I started the book I chose to submit, Blood Battles, emphasizing Enoch’s relationship with Voronika, because–to me–that’s the theme that would continue throughout the entire series. The antagonist and book’s big problem didn’t come until AFTER I caught the reader up with the fallen angel and his vampire. Maybe not the best strategy. And since I’ve read the beginnings of quite a few of these books (I intend to work my way through all of them), I’ll rethink the opening pages of my novels.

My advice to you? I’m including the link for the writers who’ve won a slot in the top 20 for each genre. I’d go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble or smashwords and look the writers up. I’d study the book covers and blurbs for their novels. I’d read their free, sample pages. And I’d ask myself, How do these compare to mine? Learn from what they’ve done right. Grammar and spelling aren’t enough. Know your craft. Still be yourself, but know what’s out there now. And make your decisions based on that.


If you have any views, opinions, or questions on writing, let me know!

6 thoughts on “Writing: Learning As You Go

  1. This is such an important post for wannabes like me! Thank you, Judith. I must post a link to this or something. Your comments on my blog have stood out with authentic wisdom and real knowledge. Thank you for taking the time to help others.


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