I originally wrote the following article for the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA) a group of about three dozen members of science fiction fandom, some published authors and some not.Â I decided to post it here to record my thoughts on the contest.
IÂ’m afraid I donÂ’t have much for you this timeÂ—no mailing comments, only one story, one or two small articles, and a sad tale of addiction. IÂ’ve discovered social networking, and it has eaten my life.
It started innocently enough. I got an e-mail from Borders talking about First Chapters Writing Contest. This contest was sponsored by Simon & Schuster, along with Borders. Any writer who had not yet had a novel published could enter their novel in the contest. There was no entry fee. The winner got $5000 and a publishing contract from Simon & Schuster. The four runners-up got $500. There were substantial prizes for best comments on each of the 20 quarter-finalists. Basically, it was American Idol for novels.
I decided to enter my novel Char. I needed an incentive to get off my butt and revise it anyway. That was the start of months of madness. I entered the contest on March 7th. The contest worked like this:
You gave Gather the completed work, plus the first three chapters, each broken out separately. They posted the first chapter. People had two weeks to rate it. If you were one of the top 20 rated entries, you went on to the next round, where they would post your second chapter. If you were one of the top 10 rated in that chapter, you went on to next level, where they posted your third chapter. If you were one of the top 5 in that round you were in the money--$500 at least, and you had a one-in-five chance at the big prize.
Chapters were rated on a scale of 1 to 10. Raters could rate anonymously or leave a comment. Authors could rate other chapters. They could solicit friends to join Gather and vote. As you can imagine, those rules made for a free-for-all.
Over 2500 people entered the contest. During CharÂ’s viewing period there were always between 500 and 700 chapters on display. In that horrendously crowded field, the overwhelmingly important thing was to be noticed. That was hard. Gather had expected the field to be around 250. They werenÂ’t set up to handle ten times that many. The chapter names and the first couple of sentences in each chapter were displayed, twenty to a page. The only official way to get from the front page to say the fifth page was to page through each of the intervening pages individually. If you were on any page past about 6 or 7 you were effectively invisible to most people.
Char went up the day before a large surge of other chapters that pushed it down to near the invisible point. By the third day of the viewing period, no one was finding it. I figured that there was one way to get my chapter noticed. If I could bring in enough friends to bring the rating high, it would show up on the highest-rated list, and then hopefully more people would see it, like it, and rate it highly. The process would become self-sustaining and Char would rise to the top.
Good idea, but it didnÂ’t work. Most of my friends were reluctant to get involved or had trouble figuring out how to get on Gather.Â Six or seven did show up and give Char a boost, but that was nowhere near enough in this environment.Â A few dozen authors or their friends had taken to hanging around the highest-rated list and automatically giving entries that got up there anonymous ones to drive their scores back down. Char made it to the top page or two in terms of ratings several times during the contest, both through the efforts of my friends and through the ratings of other Gather members. Each time it got shot back down into the pack within half an hour, usually within fifteen minutes. Contestants started calling the anonymous 1 ratings drive-bys.
The math worked against me. It took a rating of pretty close to 7 to get into the top-ranked page. If someone gave me a 10 and someone else gave me a 1, the points averaged 5.5, which left me firmly back in the pack. It took two 10 rankings to offset one of these drive-bys.
I quickly figured out that getting to the top ranked page wouldnÂ’t work. Some authors were getting hit with 40 or more drive-bys. It would take 80 friend votes to offset all of those drive-bys, even if every one of those friends voted me a 10. I simply donÂ’t have that many friends willing to go online and help me out. At some point I would have to get into the high rankings, but I would have to set up a solid foundation first. When only a dozen or so people had rated you, one or two drive-bys could devastate your average rating. I needed to get more people ranking my chapter. How could I do that with an invisible chapter?
I never found a good answer to that, but I did find some partial ones. I started using the social networking features of Gather. I created an Alternate History group, a Science and Technology for Writers group, and aScience Fiction Television group. I joined every group I had an interest in, and introduced myself, including a tagline about Char and a link to it. I wrote articles or recycled them from my Point of Divergence or FAPA zines. That helped a little, but not much.
Other things worked better. I put together an article where science fiction authors could post synopses of their chapters, along with a link to them. That helped me, and it also helped other science fiction types in the contest. I read a bunch of the chapters and pointed any science fiction entry and any reader who expressed an interest in science fiction to that list of synopses. As the list grew it became more useful to everybody on it, and to readers.
I also sent carefully targeted e-mail requests for people to read Char. I individualized each request, but I always included a synopsis.Â I gradually refined the synopsis until it read:
One Fourth of July evening near a small town in near-future Wisconsin, Char of the Real People walks out of a mud hole that she didn't walk into, wearing a deerskin skirt and carrying a crude wooden spear. She has a larger than life-sized wolf-head tattoo on her chest. She is bleeding from a spear wound in her leg. She finds herself in what to her is a strange and empty forest. She is apparently being chased by mysterious and powerful enemies. Is she dreaming? She hopes so, and that's the only explanation she can think of, but if this is a dream it seems frighteningly solid. Two worlds are about to collide and both of them are in danger.
I hate spam e-mails, so I targeted only people I knew were reading a lot of chapters and giving them honest, in-depth comments. The e-mail worked well, but it wasnÂ’t enough. I got a little over 60 rankings from all sources, and that wasnÂ’t enough. I hit a ranking of 6.8 at one point late in the viewing period, but then a concentrated barrage of drive-bys drove me back down to 6.3Â—not in the running.
Char was not one of the 20 finalists. Once I understood the nature of the contest and the number of people in it, I didnÂ’t seriously expect to win. I did get an enormous amount of very good feedbackÂ—more critiques and higher quality critiques than IÂ’ve gotten in nearly a decade of APAs and writers conferences.
I should be happy. Actually, I am happy, but IÂ’m not satisfied. There are hints that Gather is going to do this kind of contest again. If they do, I will probably enter again, though I would look over the rules first to make sure Gather has solved some of the problems that plagued them this time.Â If there is a next time, I want to win, or at least get out of the first round.
If anyone from FAPA is in the same situation I amÂ—a novel completed, but nothing of that length published, this might be an opportunity for you. You can check on the Gather.com site for any announcements or let me know you are interested so I can e-mail you when/if something is announced. You might want to get a health check before you try it though. It was a high stress couple of weeks, plus another couple of weeks waiting for the top 20 to be announced. There is also the possibility that Gather will proceed to eat your life like it has mine.
If you just want to stop by and watch the soap opera, or if you want to act as my minion in my next attempt to conquer the publishing world, let me know via e-mail , and IÂ’ll show you the ropes on Gather. ( YouÂ’ve always wanted to be a minion, havenÂ’t you?) Even if you aren't interested in the contest you may find the science fiction related groups worth visiting.
If you would like to take a look at Char just click on this link. I'm still looking for good readers and reviewers.