Hillerman Prize-Winner Tricia Fields Shares Insights on the Award Process

Scratchgravel RoadThe same day I opened my inbox to read another generic agent rejection, I also received a phone call from editor, Peter Joseph, from St. Martin’s Press. His first question: Have you placed your book? Beyond my marriage proposal, that’s probably the most satisfying question I’ve ever been asked. I had recently received agent rejection number twenty-six, and had begun to imagine that with each “send” click for my carefully crafted query letter, there was a similar “delete” click on the other end.

My route to publication happened almost by accident. While searching for a mystery writer’s conference on the internet, I foundWordharvest, a conference that would allow me to network with professionals in the mystery field. Just as intriguing, I discovered the conference hosted the annual Hillerman contest for the, “best first mystery set in the southwest.” My mystery is set in West Texas. It was a perfect match. Best of all, the prize included a $10,000 advance and a publishing contract with St. Martin’s Press.

The key is to plan carefully, research, and submit your perfectly polished manuscript to the contest. St. Martin’s Editor, Peter Joseph, explained that, “TheWordharvest contest receives approximately one hundred submissions each year for the Hillerman mystery competition.” Can you see how your odds increase exponentially by going this route? And, if you haven’t written a mystery set in the southwest, not to worry. There are plenty of contests geared toward all of the major genres.

According to Larry Light, Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America, “Winning MWA’s First Crime Novel Competition is a terrific career springboard for beginning authors. The winner, culled from 200-plus entrants, gets a publishing contract from St. Martin’s Minotaur, one of the premier imprints in the mystery field.”

Other contests may not offer publishing contracts, but careers are started, nonetheless. Carol Ritter, Professional Relations Manager for Romance Writers of America, stated that the Golden Heart is awarded in ten categories, with a total of sixty-five to seventy finalists. “Twenty to twenty-five percent of the finalists will receive requests for full manuscripts by the contest judges.” She stated that one of the contest finalists recently participated in an agent pitch session at a conference. Telling agents she was a Golden Heart finalist was like, “having the golden ticket!” Agents knew that she had a quality manuscript and were immediately more receptive.

An added benefit to winning a contest is the support you often receive from the contest/conference organizers. Anne Hillerman and Jean Schaumberg, Wordharvest co-founders, have been great supporters of, The Territory. For the book’s release, I was invited back to the Wordharvest conference for a book signing, and to present a session to participants. They also included my name and a link to my website in their newsletter and on their website. When I signed with St. Martins, not only did I have a publishing contract, but I also had an instant support network. The same holds true with other contests. Larry Light, from Mystery Writers of America, stated, “Stefanie Pintoff won the contest for, In the Shadow of Gotham, and that book went on to win an Edgar Award for best first novel.”

Carol Ritter, from Romance Writers of America, offered this advice for prospective entrants: follow directions carefully and use the contest checklist. She also stated that the Golden Heart is highly competitive, and that writers must have the manuscripts technically perfect, but there also must be a great story.

Since winning the Hillerman award I have signed with an agent, my second book will be released in March 2013 (see book cover above), and book three is undergoing its first edit. My advice is, if you think your manuscript is as good as you can make it, attend a writer’s conference to get feedback and advice from professionals and other writers. Wordharvest is an excellent choice. (Bonus: you’ll have the chance to interact with St. Martin’s editor, Peter Joseph, one of the best in the business!) If possible, join a writer’s group and/or connect with other writers who will offer you sound feedback. Keep in mind – the award has gone unclaimed two separate years. That sends a message that your manuscript must be the best it can be before submitting. The payoff is well worth the extra edit.—Tricia Fields

Tricia Fields’ second mystery, Scratchgravel Road, will be published on March 5, 2013. Learn more here.

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