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Contests for kidlit writers are big draws because they’re an opportunity to break into the business, but I must say to publishers—please stop with the public vote-to-win process.

Publishers may think that open voting ensures that the public’s favorite—and thus, the best book for their audience—will win, but how is that going to happen when the writers are campaigning for votes via social media?

Sure, votes demonstrate the author’s reach and may indicate how well they’ll market a published book, plus it gets more eyeballs on a publisher’s site. But the thing that will really sell a book? A GOOD story.

Writing contests should be chosen by an experienced editorial team, not by Aunt Sue in Schenectady. Because it’s one thing to ask for a writer’s friends and family to click a button and yet another to ask them for cash once the title is released. Just because someone spends two seconds to vote does not mean they’ll spend hard-earned money on the completed book.

Contests that require people to vote once a day for a prolonged period are even more exhausting to the writer and the people who are repeatedly asked to vote. And vote again. Just one more click. Another? Pretty please? It may even cause that writer’s social network to shrink.

And think of the disappointment when the diligent voters learn their time was for naught. Think of the writer’s disappointment having to tell their audience that it was for naught. Will people spend the time voting for that person again? Maybe. But maybe not.

Yep, social media isn’t always so social. And it shouldn’t be exploited.

As a kidlit enthusiast, I want to see good stories published for children to love. The public voting process does not ensure that. Like a Student Council election, it ensures that the most popular person wins. But the most popular isn’t always the most qualified or the most deserving.

In the end, these contests are more about marketing for the publisher than about discovering real talent. And if you have real talent, you should avoid them. Spend your time polishing your manuscript for submission, not campaigning for votes.

I’m sure this post will cause a stir. So please, debate away in the comments. I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

Laurie Isop is one lucky woman. Then again, luck has nothing to do with it. It’ more like skill, talent and persistence.

Who is Laurie Isop? She’s the first winner of Cheerios’ annual New Author Contest, which she won in 2009. Her book HOW DO YOU HUG A PORCUPINE? will appear in a million Cheerios boxes and the hardcover will be released with Simon & Schuster in July.

So how did Laurie get so lucky? (Err, I mean, how did she win?) Luckily (and this time I mean it), she agreed to an interview! Today she shares her journey with other aspiring children’s authors.

So go grab a bowl of the famous breakfast O’s and read how you, too, could have your name in boxes.

When did you first hear about the Cheerios contest and what made you decide to enter? How long had you been writing for children?

I’d been trying to crack the children’s market for about 10 years when I heard about the contest. I had drafted the story, “How Do You Hug a Porcupine?” prior to learning about the contest. My sister owns a bookstore in Stoneham, Massachusetts (shout-out to The Book Oasis!) and she sent me a link to the contest and encouraged me to enter.

How did you get the idea for your story HOW DO YOU HUG A PORCUPINE?

We were sitting around the dinner table talking about “warm fuzzy” people vs the “cold prickly” types, and the idea was born from there. I wanted to do something with animals to make it more age-appropriate. We had such a good time, talking about the different animals and envisioning all sorts of ways for the porcupine to win his hug. I probably revised my story eighteen or twenty times before I submitted it.

How did you find out that you won? What was your reaction?

I was having “one of those days” last October 2009. You know, one of those self-fulfilling prophecy-type days your mother warned you about when you were twelve, and again when you were thirty? The sky was ashen, the roads slick with the endless, penetrating drizzle of fall in the Pacific Northwest. Paul and I were several hours behind schedule, and I was eying the front door of a house I knew contained a bathroom in desperate need of cleaning. Lucky me, I sulked, my hand poised to open the door.

And then the phone rang.

I looked at Paul, sighed, and pasted an I-love-my-job smile on my face. “Studio 6 – this is Laurie!” I gushed, expecting a bride-to-be on the other end (our ‘real’ jobs are with the wedding studio).

“Is this…Laurie Isop?” queried the lovely voice on the other end. I rolled my eyes. Darn solicitors, I thought. They aren’t even sure how to pronounce my name!

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Then I cried a little, and called my mom and sister.

What was the process like to produce the book? Did you make revisions? Did you have a hand in selecting the illustrator, Gwen Millward (whose illustrations I loved in GUESS WHAT I FOUND IN DRAGOD WOOD)?

My editor at Simon & Schuster worked closely with me to tweak and polish the manuscript. They were in charge of selecting the illustrator, and I was able to communicate my design ideas to her. Once the proofs started coming in it got super exciting!

What has been the best part of your experience with the Cheerios contest?

Actually winning the contest was fantastic and very emotional—it was something I wanted for a long time. It was like a whole new page was turning and I felt like doors were going to open for me, so that’s an exciting feeling. It’s all been very flattering and also validating. And, winning the contest has motivated me to write every day. The best part, though, was receiving a letter from a mother of a two-year-old boy in Illinois. She told me he had never said more than one-word “sentences.” She picked up the story in a box of Cheerios and read to him. Right away he asked for the story to be read again, and again! She wrote in her letter that his first sentence was “how do you hug a porcupine?” Pretty cool.

Wow. Now I’m crying! What a touching story. 

What are your upcoming plans? Do you have more books in the works?

I am working on a few different projects and I have several titles in various stages of the submission process. I’m incredibly excited to do some local readings and signings once “How Do You Hug a Porcupine?” is out in hardcover in July, and I’ve been invited to Boston to read/sign in some bookstores. Coast to coast!

What is your best piece of advice for new writer’s hoping to break into the children’s market?

Be persistent – don’t give up! Read your book to anyone that will listen and note their reaction. Are the children wide-eyed and wanting you to turn the pages? I also recommend writing in different settings; I used to write in coffee shops, libraries, karate places – anywhere that provided inspiration. And, of course, edit, edit, edit.

Thanks so much, Laurie! Congratulations and best wishes with your book!

It’s official! I’ve been crowned one of the worst writers in America. No, I’m not talking about the number of rejection letters piling up, but my recent success (or failure) in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Am I proud? Yes, and disturbingly so.

Now in its 26th year, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest seeks to find the worst opening line to a novel. I have received the dubious distinction of penning a sentence so vile, it received a barely-coveted 2008 “Dishonorable Mention.”

Rudy’s feline senses tingled as he watched Minerva pour a glass of milk, thrusting his tongue outward involuntarily, urging him to inexplicably lick his hand and smooth his cowlick, but he could not let Minerva know about the vampire kitten that had sucked his neck–attacking him with a feral ferocity that belied its adorable whiskered face–and how the meowing and purring that had become an integral part of their lovemaking was really just an injection of half-dead Calico.

And yet, I don’t think this was the most wretched of my submissions! For your reading displeasure…

Zander surreptitiously slid closer to the woman whose figure resembled an upside-down butternut squash as he envisioned himself splitting open her rough, dimpled skin to scoop out the pulpy innards of her flesh and devour them raw, ravenously, a primal desire that could only be unleashed during Oktoberfest.


Even the lettuce dripped with anticipation, its romaine surface glistening like Roger’s sweaty brow as he stabbed into his Caesar, pricking it with the tines the way Phyllis had poked holes in his heart; he wanted to confess how no waitress had ever affected him so deeply, defiantly pouring dressing over the top, drowning the croutons and his soul, rather than serving it on the side as he had requested.


The mountainous mountains loomed large and omnipotent before him, precipitous precipices too gnarled and scraggy to pass, so he endeavored and lamented, heaved himself prodigiously and collapsed in anguish, for he would never scale the bed linens to reunite with his beloved binky.


Immediately upon laying his eyes upon the four day-old stubble upon her sturdy legs, he longed to canoodle with her like two cautious porcupines (for he had a bristly, dishevelled beard to match), but due to professional obligations, Dr. Lovelace would unfortunately have to settle for just administering her annual pap smear.


The contortionist sulked backstage and tears zig-zagged down his cheeks like the legs twisted behind his head; his limber limbs had been catawampus and askew, jammed into awkward angles and improbable positions, only to be upstaged by a clown doling out balloon animals.


Devon’s nemesis recoiled in fear and trepidation, intimidated by the glistening edge of the enemy’s knife and the deftness with which Devon wielded its herculean power and lunged forward upon the mighty blow of the referee’s whistle, commencing a slicing and dicing the vigorous likes of which had never before been seen at the Auxiliary Women’s League annual bake-off.


The blizzard winds howled like an alpha-female wolf in heat—a she-wolf ready to mate, not heat as in temperature hot, for our story begins in the frigid north, and therefore a wolf cannot be hot, although one could argue that a wolf’s short, thick undercoat keeps them warm in winter, but certainly not hot—sniveling longingly across the bitter prairie.
Think your opening lines are as shockingly repellent?  Then start submitting! The 2009 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is already underway. You, too, can be one of the worst writers in America. (Just don’t mention it in your query letters. I doubt Random House will be impressed.)

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