After 25 years as a trial lawyer in Los Angeles, I made the nail-biting decision in 2006 to pursue my long-deferred dream of being a novelist. I spent the next two years writing a legal thriller, and, while that was collecting agent rejections, the following two years crafting a literary novel based on a true crime from the Depression era. By 2010 I had what I felt were two very strong manuscripts, but, alas, no agent, no publisher. What was a recovering lawyer to do?
I decided to try my hand at a contest. Two contests, actually. First was Wordharvest’s Tony Hillerman Prize for best first mystery set in the Southwest, defined to include Southern California, where Hush Money, my debut thriller, is set. At the same time, I submitted both Hush Money and my literary novel, Hard Twisted, to the SouthWest Writers International Writing Contest, which has 14 different genre categories.
What was I hoping to achieve? Winning would be nice, since both contests offer prize money, and since the Hillerman Prize comes with a guaranteed publishing contract from co-sponsor St. Martin’s Press. But equally important was the chance to expose my work to publishing-industry professionals, and to have it evaluated against that of the best new voices in the field.
In 2010, I attended the SouthWest Writers’ awards banquet in Albuquerque, N.M., since bothHush Money and Hard Twisted had been named top-three finalists in their categories (Best Mystery Novel and Best Historical Novel). Each category is blind-judged by an industry pro, and the winners in each of 14 categories are then separately blind-judged for the contest’s grand-prize Storyteller Award.
To make a long story short, both of my novels won their categories, with Hush Money taking home the Storyteller Award, besting over 680 other contest entrants. (I would later learn thatHard Twisted finished a close second, prompting Storyteller Award judge Betsy James to proclaim herself “gob-smacked” to learn that the novels—radically different in both style and subject matter—had come from the same author.)
What did winning get me? Validation—of both my career decision and the strength of my writing. Also, and more practicable, the surreal experience of fielding a telephone offer from one literary agent just as another offer appeared in my email with the subject heading “Agency contract attached.” Clearly, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Ironically, though, it was the contest I didn’t win that had the most impact on my career. Soon after I took home the Storyteller Award, Wordharvest named Tricia Fields the winner of the 2010 Hillerman Prize. Oh, well, I thought, you can’t win ’em all. Imagine my surprise when, several weeks later, editor (and contest chair) Peter Joseph of St. Martin’s Press called to express interest in acquiring Hush Money. And did I have anything else I might be working on?
Within a year of rolling the dice on a pair of contests, I’d signed with the David Black Agency in New York City, sold Hush Money to Minotaur Books in a multi-book series deal, and soldHard Twisted to Bloomsbury USA. For this writer, at least, those contests were the best bets he’s ever placed.
Chuck Greaves, a former trial lawyer, lives and writes in Santa Fe, N.M. Web: chuckgreaves.com.