Tiffany wrote to ask, "What do you think of writing contests? Are they a good idea for beginning novelists?"
Sure. Contests are a good way for beginning writers to get into the swing of writing. It means you have to write and polish, you've got to meet a deadline, and you are going to allow somebody else to evaluate your work. All of those are good steps. And there are a ton of contests that are good — the Genesis contest, the Writer's Digest Writing Competition, the James Jones First Novel contest. Many universities, magazines, and conferences have their own contests as well — check the most recent edition of Writer's Market or one of the various Writer's Market Guides for up-to-date information. Contests are a great way to gain some needed experience.
Keep in mind that a contest isn't generally a judge of actual talent — it's a competition between the writers who have chosen to participate. So if a bunch of weak writers all send in their manuscripts, then the winner might not be all that spectacular. But it doesn't hurt to tell a prospective agent or editor that you won a "New Writers Award" or the "Short Prose Competition." Publishers love seeing their authors win awards.
Holly wrote to say, "I have a non-fiction book contract and an agent who only represents non-fiction. Since I also want to write fiction, do I need another agent? Is there a way to leverage my current situation to increase my odds of getting a good publisher for my novel?"
Some agents only represent non-fiction projects (and some only fiction projects, or children's projects, or whatever). So yes, the possibility exists that you may need a different agent for your novel. If you're happy with your NF agent and getting good service from him or her, then I'd simply approach the agent and say, "I'm planning to write a novel. Do you want to represent it? And if not, can you put me in touch with an agent you trust to represent it?" That keeps everything out in the open, and allows you to talk career management with your agent. As for leveraging your current publishing relationship, I'd suggest you find out if your current publisher does novels. If so, talk with your editor. Explain what you'd like to try and write. However, be aware of the fact that nearly every writer wants to do a novel, AND that a non-fiction audience can't be expected to follow you across the aisle in order to read your fiction. Sorry, but it's true — even great nonfiction sales don't necessarily translate into fiction readers. So by going to fiction, you're really starting over in your publishing career.
Matt writes to ask, "When an author finishes his manuscript and begins to send out query letters, should he have his manuscript copyrighted first? Or is that only necessary when a manuscript is being published?"
This is a common mistake, and I'm glad we have a chance to talk about it. Here's the truth: As soon as you create something original, it's yours. You own the copyright. You might (in a rare case) have to prove that you were the creator, but your writing is yours. In the United States, you as the creator are protected from plagiarism — the intellectual property rights to your written expressions are owned by you until you license them to someone else. So no, you don't have to fill out a formal copyright document with the government. (And, unlike some people believe, you don't have to mail yourself a copy.) When you sign a book deal, the publisher will arrange to get a formal copyright document filed with the government, and that document should cite you (the creator) as holder of the copyright.
A couple notes: Remember that you can only copyright your unique expressions — so there's no copyrighting a basic idea or a title. And keep in mind that if you write something for another person on a work-for-hire basis, you do not own the copyright for that work — you're giving it to someone else, who has the right to make copies and sell them. Oh…and I should also note that I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not giving you legal advice here. If you need legal advice, call your attorney.