In the belly of the contest trenches

I’ve been seeing the announcements in Twitter for upcoming pitch contests. These can be rewarding opportunities for writers, and if you have a finished, polished manuscript, I’d say, give them a try!

Late 2013,  I decided to give pitch contests a try. The previous year I’d attempted one with my first manuscript, without any luck. And there’s a reason that happened. It had major flaws and though I love the story and will return to it, I wasn’t ready for it (and it wasn’t ready for prime time). My new manuscript, however, was stronger, the concept more unique. So I  dove head-first into the experience, deciding to see where these contests took me. Let me tell you, it gave me some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in this crazy journey.

I started with PitchMadness, coordinated by Brenda Drake, and was thrilled with beginner’s luck. I made it through to the agent’s round, where a bidding war took place and I had two full and one partial request. I might’ve squeed a little (okay, a lot).

Then came Halloween and with it, two really awesome pitch contests. Still reeling from the adrenaline rush of PitchMadness, I submitted to Trick or Treat with Agents (coordinated by Brenda Drake, Kimberly P. Chase, and Dannie Morin) and Nightmare on Query Street (coordinated by Michelle Hauck, Mike Anthony, and SC.) Unfortunately, this time, I didn’t get in, but I watched from the side lines, cheering those who were in and who received agent interest.

I considered taking a break from contests. NaNo was approaching and I wanted to devote time to this shiny new idea that was brewing. But then I saw that the 2013 Baker’s Dozen Pitch Contest (hosted by Authoress Anon) was approaching and with it a cool opportunity for feedback on the pitch and first 250 words along with the agent round. So I entered and made it to the final round again. Let me say that I received valuable feedback here, not just by readers/other contest entrants, but by editors working with the contest.

Then came PitchWars, which really felt like a long shot. For one, it was like querying. We had to apply to mentors using the tried and true query and sample pages method, and I was worried about my query letter. Two, each mentor (agented and/or published author) could only pick one mentee and two alternates, and there were TONS of writers who entered. The chances were slim. I researched my picks, asked questions, bonded with other hopefuls, and when the submission period came, I sent mine in and prayed. And waited. And I was thrilled when the results were in and I found out that Dannie Morin had chosen me as her first alternate.  This contest was different because it wasn’t simply getting your work out there for agents to see. It’s part of it. But the best part–the most important one–is that you get to work with a mentor for 3-4 weeks. They read your manuscript, give you valuable feedback and encouragement. They help you whip up your query into tip top shape. They answer all questions related to the business. And they cheer you on. Dannie was especially awesome, and I will always say that she’s a serious kick-butt editor. Her feedback and comments helped me revise my ms further. It turns out, I had to pull out my entry from the agent round for a fantastic reason: I received an offer of representation. But I’m positive that my work wouldn’t have been as polished as it was had Dannie not chosen me as her alternate.

So here’s a quick list of why I think pitch contests are great opportunities:

  1. They’re a lesson in patience, as is much of the querying process. Not only do you have to wait until the submissions windows open, but then you have to wait to find out if you got in, and then you have to wait for the agent rounds to see if your entry had any bites. The whole experience is nerve-wracking and nail-biting, but it’s fun if you let yourself have fun with it. It also helps you work on your patience during the querying process.
  2. They’re a great avenue for networking. Think about it: during the entire process, from announcement until agent round, everyone in the contest is Tweeting about it. You get to meet agented and published authors, as well as other writers who are navigating the same trenches as you. I’ve made some wonderful friends this way, and I don’t know if I would’ve met them otherwise.
  3. You might just find awesome beta readers and critique partners through them.
  4. They allow you to hone your pitches and/or first pages. Many have critique opportunities that allow you to get feedback on your pitches and trust me, this is fabulous. Being able to concisely articulate the premise of your story in 1-2 sentences is an art. All the contests (and subsequent Twitter pitch parties) helped me craft a pitch that I was able to use at conferences or whenever someone asked me: What’s your book about?
  5. They get your work, and your name, out there. At a recent conference, I approached an editor after a workshop, and she knew who I was because of Baker’s Dozen pitch contest. It doesn’t always happen, but it can.
  6. They give you practice: in revision, in pitching, in networking, in craft, in the business. You learn not just from the feedback you get, but by reading other pitches/first pages and by seeing what agents are responding to.
  7. They introduce you to agents you might not have initially known and who you could add to your “to query” list.
  8. And sometimes, you might get a chance to catch the eye of an agent who is closed to queries, but who through the contest is making requests!

Yes, you might not always make it into the contests. Yes, the competition is fierce (as it is in the real world). Yes, you might not get any requests (this happened to me, too). But those aren’t the only benefits. Try them out. A new Pitch Madness is coming up this month (very soon, too).

Happy writing!

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