A conversation with Rachelle Chase and Leigh Michaels about the 2006 and 2007 Chase the Dream contests. Many of the answers are in response to commonly asked questions or comments in surveys sent to participants requesting feedback.

Q. What made you decide to run a contest in the first place?

Rachelle: In 2001, I took an online romance writing class taught by Leigh. It was the first creative writing class I’d ever finished and Leigh’s feedback was instrumental in helping me launch my writing career. Then, in 2003, my first published work, “Out of Control” in Secrets Volume 13, got its start by winning best-selling author Lori Foster’s online “Pick of the Week” contest. So, as a way to help other writers get off to a great start like these two authors helped me, I dreamt up the idea for the Chase the Dream contest, and begged Leigh to host it with me.

Leigh: When Rachelle mentioned that she was thinking of sponsoring a contest, I was sort of like a kid jumping up and down shouting, “Pick me, pick me!” I thought she had a wonderful idea, passing along the help she had received by offering a no-cost contest, and I wanted to be involved in that.

Q.  Five of the eight finalists in the first contest fell into the paranormal category. Is that a favorite subgenre for you guys?

Rachelle: No. Prior to the contest, I could count on one hand the number of paranormals I’d read. Laurell K. Hamilton is the only name that comes readily to mind. While I can appreciate the talent it takes to create these unique characters and worlds, I’ve always been drawn to plain ole contemporary romance.

Leigh: Not particularly. Though I enjoy time travel stories, Mary Janice Davidson’s Undead series, and the occasional werewolf, witch, or psychic, the key for me is how well the story is written. I’m more likely to get hooked by a paranormal character if he or she has a sense of humor  – but that’s a personal taste.

Q. So why were five of the eight finalists in the first contest in the paranormal category?

Rachelle: Purely by chance. It wasn’t the subject matter that made them winners, it was how the author pulled me into the story. Those particular entries started with action and very quickly drew me into the character’s lives, making me want to read more.

Q. You didn’t set out to choose paranormals?

Leigh: Nope. We also didn’t set out to choose contemporary over historical,  or sweet over erotic, or romantic comedy over romantic suspense, or any one sort of book over another. The eight finalists all have one thing in common – they reached out and grabbed us and made us want to read on.

Rachelle: No. I agree 100% with Leigh.

Q. How many entries were there in the first contest?

Rachelle: We averaged between 25-40 entries per week.

Q. How many entries were there in the second contest?

Rachelle: We averaged close to 100 entries per week.

Q. What did you do differently in 2007?

Leigh: We tried to get information about the contest out to a wider audience of writers. The first time, we missed some opportunities to promote and spread the word. We were also feeling our way with that first contest, but the second one ran more smoothly, and we were able to handle a larger number of entries. For the second one, we also started the mini-critiques from the very first week, and included some mini-critiques of entries that almost made it.

Rachelle: We became more interactive. The first year, we weren’t set up to allow discussion about the finalists and mini-critique winners. Last time, we took advantage of the blog format to allow a dialogue with visitors about the entries. Additionally, the first year, everything was very manual, i.e., I personally confirmed receipt of every entry, forwarded entries on to Leigh, etc., which took quite a bit of time. Last year, more of the process was automated. Lastly, the editors who viewed the finalist entries the first year did so informally. Last year, we made them a formal part of the contest, announcing them upfront.

Q. What will you do differently in 2009?

Rachelle: We’re excited about the addition of the agent/editor photos and audio clips on the Agents/Editors page. This lets writers hear, firsthand, what these industry experts are looking for in a submission. Also, we’ll continue to explore new ways to get the word out about the contest. And I’ll make sure I comment on each of the mini-critique winners this time around. Since Leigh excels in this area, I didn’t think my input was needed. However, since we are both co-sponsors and want to encourage visitors to participate, it makes sense that we both participate in all aspects of the contest.

Q. What will stay the same?

Leigh: Entering Chase the Dream is still free, and you can enter once a week if you like (though finalists can’t keep entering. Please visit the Rules page for details.) We’re keeping the 1,000 word limit (and it’s a strict 1,000 words as calculated by Microsoft Word.)  All romance-related genres are welcome.

Rachelle: Entrants can still enter the same non-winning entry each week or a different entry. A finalist and a mini-critique winner will still be chosen each week. Plus, the changes mentioned above for the last contest will remain.

Q. What about the judging?

Leigh: The judging criteria will be the same as last time – at the end of the 1,000 words, do we want to keep reading?

Q. How about splitting the contest into categories?

Rachelle: Splitting it into categories forces us to choose winning entries in each category. Last year, the types of entries we received were varied and we did not get entries representing every subgenre each week. Thus, being forced to pick winners in a specific category or subgenre could put restrictions in place that prevent us from choosing the best entry for a given week.

Leigh: Offering categories is a good idea, but it’s just the two of us, and we’re running the contest along with keeping up with our own writing and our many other obligations. This is a very hands-on contest that already requires a big commitment of time from both of the sponsors. Breaking entries into categories would be almost like running several contests at once. We’d rather keep it simple, and free to enter, than to get elaborate.

Q. How come you allow published authors to participate? It seems like they have an unfair advantage over unpublished authors.

Rachelle: We want the contest to be a true reflection of the publishing world. Editors and agents look at the quality and marketability of the manuscripts that cross their desks. They don’t say, “Oh, I see this author is unpublished. I’ll give him/her a break.” In the real world, unpublished authors are competing with published authors. Good writing is good writing. And that’s what editors and agents are looking for. However, in promoting the contest, most of my efforts are aimed at making unpublished authors aware of the contest.

Q. Why just 1,000 words?

Leigh: Primarily, to keep the contest manageable – but a thousand words is approximately four to five manuscript pages, and that is about how long the average agent or editor gives a manuscript before making a decision on whether to read on or send it back to the author. It’s also about how long a reader standing in a bookstore gives a story. If it hasn’t captured her attention in the first few pages, she’s likely to put it back on the shelf and reach for the next book.

Rachelle: I agree with Leigh, particularly on the last sentence. Just how important the opening scene is was clearly apparent to me during the last contest. Suddenly, I was able to empathize with agents and editors, who get tons more submissions than we did for our contest — for, on those nights when I was in the midst of my own deadlines and had dozens of entries to read, if it didn’t capture my attention in the first few paragraphs, I had to move on to the next one. In fact, I blogged about the Lessons Learned From My Contest.

Q. How did you choose the mini-critique winners?

Leigh: The entries I selected for mini-critiques were ones that I thought all participants could learn from analyzing. These beginnings showed both strengths and weaknesses – strengths which the writer might not realize she had but could build on once she was aware of them, and weaknesses which appeared not only in that piece but in many of the entries. It’s frequently easier to see the flaws in someone else’s story than in our own. Because we know how our own story will unfold, it’s harder to see whether we’ve actually put on the page what the reader will need to know. So seeing someone else’s story analyzed often helps us see the flaws in our own.

Q. Will you give each participant feedback or a review of her work?

Leigh: We wish we could. But this is a contest, not a writing class or a critique group.

Rachelle: We know what it feels like to submit your work and not get feedback but, unfortunately, there are just too many submissions for us to give feedback to everyone. We hope that writers can learn from the comments we give on why something worked or didn’t work, and apply them to their own work, as well as learn from the comments of others.


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