Lessons Learned from the BookEnds 100-Word Contest

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: May 16 2008

First, let me take care of a little post-contest business. Surprisingly, we’re still waiting on quite a few winners to send us their material for critique. We’re guessing there’s some furious writing and polishing going on. We’d like to request, however, that all winners’ materials be e-mailed to our blog account by June 15th. This seems a reasonable amount of time to polish a synopsis and first chapter, and frankly, I’ll be going on maternity leave a few weeks later and don’t want Jessica to be shouldered with any remaining responsibility.

If your entry didn’t win a free critique, but you’re just dying to know what a BookEnds agent or another agency might think of your work, consider bidding on an evaluation at bestselling author Brenda Novak’s Online Auction to Benefit Diabetes Research. There are some top-notch agents and editors offering critiques there and some other terrific items to bid on. Best of all, it’s going to a great cause!

Moving on . . .

Once the contest ended two things really struck me as I looked back over the results:

1 — The common denominator in all of our winners was a strong voice. Jessica wrote an article about voice a week ago that sparked a great discussion. What seems apparent to me here, though, is that when given only 100 words with which to judge, we always found ourselves reeled in by the voice first and foremost. The hook was secondary.

I think that’s part of the reason we pulled out so many first-person points of view. It can be the toughest perspective to execute well, but can immediately draw the reader into a certain intimacy with the narrator that’s tough to achieve with a third-person POV. Does that mean Jessica and I favor first-person manuscripts? Not at all. While a first-person POV can create that faster connection with the audience, it’s a relationship that can quickly sour. It’s easy for a reader to grow sick of the narrator. That’s why it’s such a tricky skill to master.

Clearly a strong voice is important to a successful book, but I’d also like to clarify that just because a voice may not have struck us in the first 100 words doesn’t mean the manuscript is lacking a great one. It can often be something that builds. In fact, I just signed a client who entered one of our contests and didn’t even make honorable mention. But when I read her submission, I totally fell in love with her voice. I love the story and the characters too, but her writing style is really what hooked me. So please don’t be discouraged from submitting based on the contest results. It was a daunting task to judge based on 100 words, and so we had to make our decisions much differently than we might in the submission process.

2 — This business really is amazingly subjective. I’ll be honest. I really thought to myself while I was judging, “Oh yeah . . . Jessica’s going to pick this one.” I was almost always wrong. Having worked with her over the last four years, I think I have a pretty good idea of her likes and dislikes. I know which projects to pass on to her because they’re more up her alley than mine. But even so, there’s a certain something special between a reader and the words on the page that’s impossible for an outsider to understand. I just couldn’t predict how Jessica would react to those words: which ones would strike a chord and which she’d gloss over. That strange chemistry is even harder to pin down when it’s based on so few words.

Personally, I embrace that subjectivity. It’s part of what I love about this business. The unpredictability keeps the industry exciting. Sure, there’s enough common ground among publishing professionals to keep the business running and establish relationships between author, agent, and editor, but taste still plays a huge factor. There are plenty of NYT bestsellers that I just didn’t “get.” I know Jessica and Jacky would say the same (though their examples would likely be different). There are others that totally clicked with me that I know were panned by other publishing professionals. It’s a fun debate and one I’ll talk about soon in an upcoming post.

In the meantime, what did you learn from the BookEnds contest? And once we’ve had our break . . . what would you like to see in the next contest?


30 responses to “Lessons Learned from the BookEnds 100-Word Contest”

  1. Avatar Katie says:

    Well first, congrats on your coming baby!

    For me, I appreciated the overall experience of seeing so many varying first pages, and simply hearing your viewpoints on them.

    For the next contest? Frankly, I’d just like to take part in one! I was moving over the first few months of the year, and finally got Internet connection the day after the contest for my category closed. Oh well…

  2. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Congratulations on your new baby!!! I hope you can leave work behind, emotionally, and focus on your new little one. That can be hard at first and then coming back when your leave is over is another difficult adjustment. Just hang in there! Having excellent childcare helps a lot.

  3. Avatar Mark Terry says:

    I would just like to say THANK YOU for doing it. I was delighted–and surprised–to have won one of them and I appreciate very much your comments on the chapter and synopsis and query. Very generous of you.

  4. Avatar Keri Ford says:

    Major Congrats, Kim! Sending you happy-easy delivery vibes with a quick recovery. Sprinkle your food with lots of cumin to bring that baby out :O)

  5. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I read every one of the finalists and winners you posted, and was struck by the diversity of the winning entries. It was a reminder, once again, that our best writing is what we do to our own standards, not what we write in order “to sell.” Again, it comes down to voice and originality–writing with something special that catches the interest. If only there was actually a way to describe it! However, your contest definitely gave excellent examples of what works.

  6. Avatar Keri Ford says:

    Ack! Ack! Ack!

    Not cumin but Oregano and Basil!

  7. Kim,

    I think what I enjoyed about the contest were the lessons it provided. The main lesson being the one you pointed out in your post: writing is subjective.

    Is there such a thing as “the” perfect novel? Maybe, or maybe not. There’s good craft, and bad craft, I know.

    But perhaps the attraction to a book is similar to the attraction one feels for a person. I have an eighteen-year-old son, so I hear a lot about attraction. (You can send sympathy cards if you want) He’s always talking about the girls he meets and knows. “She has the perfect body. She’s flawless. She has the face of an angel. She has perfect . . . (Yep, he’s eighteen.)” Then he will point a girl out that he’s really interested in, and I can see that, well, she’s not so flawless. And when I mention this, in a nice kind of way, hoping he’ll learn from it, he’ll give me that you-so-need-to-get-smarter look that eighteen year olds have mastered and say something like, “Yeah, but look at her eyes, Mom. They take my breath away.”

    So in my opinion, I think there is a craft that must be learned to produce a good novel. But when the craft basics are met, I think the thing in a book that makes it a “must read”, can differ from person to person. And maybe that one thing can even keep us from seeing other flaws.

  8. Avatar Rachel Glass says:

    I think I took away from the contest the message to myself that, despite the heavy contest of diversity in the literary world, I have to have a thick skin and pursue constantly, to keep submitting my work and believing in my ability as a writer.

    Thank you for giving us the chance to do that, I find this blog the most helpful out of the ones I peruse.

    And congratulations on your pregnancy! Children are terrific muses, and such a gift. 🙂

  9. Avatar Shalanna says:

    Hi! I wasn’t sure whether I was invited to send anything to you as a result of my novel _Little Rituals_ having been one of Jessica’s picks . . .and I wasn’t sure what to send or where to send it. Could someone please fill me in? I mean, your website says NO UNSOLICITED QUERIES now (if I read that page correctly), and I don’t know whether I have been invited to send a partial or a full or nothing at all. _Little Rituals_ has been complete for a while (there was serious interest in LR from a New York editor for a while, but it didn’t make it through committee. I’d prefer not to name that editor publicly until I’m under contract *GRIN* or maybe not at all, as I was very disappointed because of the early encouragement.)

    Please, someone, clue me in on HOW MUCH to send where. Synopsis and three chapters? The full manuscript? By e-mail and not snailmail? Duh! I couldn’t find any guidelines on the blog as to what to send, which address to send it to, and so forth among the contest posts, but then I could just be really dense (mass divided by volume, or maybe it’s the other way around.)



    (My verification word is “pkdjewsr,” which looks lucky to me and Daphne–PKD for Phil Dick, of course, and “jewsr” as another magical word. Encouraging!)

  10. Avatar Karen Duvall says:

    Congratulations on the baby, Kim!

    Regarding the contest, I loved reading all the entries for first 100 words. But the contest I valued the most was the pitch contest. It helped me come up with a pitch for my query that garnered 6 full manuscript requests!

    For future contests, if you and Jessica are so brave as to subject yourself once again to the chaos, I’d love to see a dialogue contest, and a chapter end contest. That would be very fun.

    Thanks for all you do!

  11. Avatar Shalanna says:

    Aha–here is what was said to an early winner, Spyscribbler: “The prize is a critique of the query letter, synopsis, and first chapter of the winning entry! The winner will e-mail us the additional material and we’ll provide our notes privately, not on the blog.” So . . . did I actually win, or was I just a “mention”? Sorry to be so stooopid. Just trying to make sure I don’t overstep. Because I think I was merely an honorable mention, not a winner, in the first place!

  12. Avatar Kim Lenox says:

    What I learned from the Bookends contest: That there are a lot of talented writers out there.

    And I like all that subjectivity too. Like you, there’s lots of NYT books or “big” books I don’t get. That subjectivity in agenting and editorial selection is what gives us variety, so that everyone — no matter their sensibilities — can find something that suits their tastes.

  13. Avatar Moth says:

    I really like the contests. I wished I’d won one but it’s still fun.

    I like the idea of the chapter ends contests. I was also thinking maybe love scenes but with some kind of rating system or warning or something so no one gets offended. Dialogue sounds good too. Depends on your guys’ stamina but I personally really liked seeing the actual writing samples better than pitches and queries.

    Just my two cents.

    Love the blog, btw!


  14. Avatar Kim Lionetti says:

    Shalanna —

    I believe your excerpt was one of Jessica’s honorable mentions. While only the first-place winners were entitled to detailed critiques of their query, synopsis and first chapters, I would strongly suggest that anyone whose excerpt was a runner-up or honorable mention — and the manuscript is complete — query either of us letting us know that you were one of our picks. We’d love to hear from you.

    Our website states that we don’t accept “unsolicited proposal packages,” meaning that we prefer to receive a query before you send any partials.

    And thanks to everyone for the congrats!

  15. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    Roben1I missed the paranormal category and that ms. was complete. I kept reading all of the entries and waited for the romantic suspense and entered the beginning of my WIP. I did get an honorable mention from Jessica and will submit when that book is finished.

    The main thing that I got from reading all of the categories was the wealth of talent that is out there. I almost didn’t enter. But I think everyone who has said this is right, it’s a subjective business.

    I do understand that even though my beginning may have recieved some notice, it is just the beginning. I think if the first sentence catches the reader’s attention, so must the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter, the first act. As writers we can’t ever slack off. And on that note, this slacker had better get to work, there is writing to be done.

    Congrats! on the baby! Enjoy every moment of your maternity leave. It’s a wonderful bonding time.

  16. Wow, I’m shocked the winners didn’t respond ASAP! But I do know that last minute fear factor of wanting to give it a polish just one more time. Even when it’s on the shelf and ready to go I can’t resist giving it a go-over one more time. Call it last minute jitters.
    One thing I did not like about the contest was that I read so many great beginnings I want the rest of the book!!!

  17. Avatar Shalanna says:

    Thank you, Kim! I shall query. Using the G/L on the agency site, of course. *grin* And add my congratulations on the blessed event–I forgot about that when I was stressing over the query thing earlier. . . .

  18. Avatar Paty Jager says:

    I learned to work on my openings even though that has always been one of my strengths.

  19. Avatar Ana says:

    Such wonderful news, Kim. Congratulations!

    The challenge of writing 100 words to capture the eye and soul taught me so much. When writing a novel, it’s easy to look at the prospective size and feel that we have plenty of time and space to make our point. I often have to remind myself that Dostoevsky probably wouldn’t make it past the partial in today’s market. Learning to tighten my writing so that a mere 100 words can engage the reader was a tremendous growing experience. Thank you for the opportunity.

    And one final personal perk: the 100-word challenge inspired a completely new storyline, and I’m now five chapters in!

  20. Avatar ORION says:

    What is so interesting to me is that even after publication there are lessons to be learned reading this blog. Pitching, hooks and first pages are critical at every level.
    I think it can’t be said enough- perseverance – that’s the key.

  21. Avatar Cindy Procter-King says:

    I thought it was a great contest, but don’t have suggestions for another (too lazy to brainstorm, really!) I think you and Jessica both made it very clear when the contest was going on that just because an entry didn’t garner a win or a mention doesn’t mean people shouldn’t query. I’m surprised that many of the winners haven’t submitted their material! Maybe chapters were written, but synopses unfinished, etc. However, I’m not sure I see the point of entering a pretty specific contest when you know up front what the winner “wins” and then not following through on the submission. It’s a great opportunity. Send in your chapters, winners!

  22. Avatar TLCarter says:

    At the risk of sounding lazy, I’d rather have you pick the subjects/genres. After all, you’re more attuned to what is hot right now.

    The contests did help me move out of my comfort zone and forced me to work a little, “faster”.

    Here’s wishing a quick and easy birthing day.

  23. Avatar Diane says:

    Hi Kim!
    First of all, congratulations on your baby! I bet you’re excited.

    I wanted to thank you for having the contest. You gave all of us an incredible opportunity to grow as writers.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading the entries you posted and getting a sample of everyone’s voice and style. The comments that you and Jessica made were also really cool to read.

    Egads! I just read your comment about submitting. As runner-up with Out of the Shade I will definitely submit my manuscript when it is completed.

    As for future contests, dialogue would be pretty cool or maybe a description of a place, room or person without a complete info dump.

    Thanks again.

  24. Kim,

    First, congratulations. Babies are lifes greatest wonder and joy.

    Second, thanks to both of you for all your hard work in the blog in the contests.

    I did learn a lot. Not sure it stuck with my brain long enough to improve, but I’m working on that.

    Future contests? Dialogue, setting, chapter endings, humor.

  25. Avatar Usman says:

    Congrats on the baby…the best thing God created and helped us be part of it.

    I loved the entries and yes what i took away was the voice dominated all.
    I didn’t enter. Either I have a lousy voice or I fall into the second category where the voice ‘grows’ over time. My first 100 words didnt have that ooomph in them. I could have revised them, but I felt that was like cheating. ???
    Thanks a lot

  26. Avatar AstonWest says:

    What I learned…was that you don’t represent what I write.


  27. Avatar Jules says:

    I learned it was an amazing feeling to wake up in the morning, have my nice cup of java and read this blog to find my name mentioned along with my entry in the last round! Kinda like a nice little pat on the back! There were so many diverse entries I totally loved reading each and every one of them!
    Thank you Kim and Jessica for taking the time to devote to something like this, considering you have such hectic schedules! And Kim, a baby on the way as well!
    I’ll be sending along my query for sure!

  28. Avatar Shirley says:


    Congratualations Kim on your new baby, sending you many happy hour vibes. Babies are wonderful time wasters, but I loved evey precious moment of every one of mine. And those moments go so quickly. So enjoy.

    The thing I learned most was how to convey your meaning with brevity and clarity to make an impact in those first hundred words. It is not an easy skill and in most cases necessitated a severe prune back.

    Did that destroy the meaning? Not at all, if anything made the opening even more crisp and attention getting.

    Thanks so much for using your very valuable time to help others.

  29. Don’t forget: anniversary tribute to Miss Snark on Pat Wood’s Blog starting May 20th.

  30. Avatar Laura says:

    The I think the most useful thing I gained from the contests was some perspective on the wide variety of ways with which a novel could be opened.

    Being a “classics” junkie, accustomed to the slow-build, it was very enlightening to see how other writers dive right into the action, dragging you along with them. Lots of great talent here.

    Lastly – on a personal note – Kim – Mazel Tov on your new baby! ~ Fawn