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!

I HAVE AN AGENT!!!!!

This is an all-caps and exclamation marks kind of post because HOLY WOW–I HAVE AN AGENT!!!!! And she’s none other than the FABULOUS, AMAZING Deborah Warren of East West Literary!!!!!

In case the all-caps and extra exclamation marks aren’t an indication of how excited I am, here are some examples to drive that sentiment home:

excited-baby

giphy

Tangled excited

So how did happen? Sit back. Grab some popcorn (or raisinets or circus peanuts). Pull up your feet and relax.

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel. And I revised it. And I took it to conferences, workshopped it in UCLA classes, brought it to my critique group, shared it with beta readers and critique partners. I did everything I was supposed to, and even though in my gut I knew something was missing and that the market was not right for it, I decided to query it. I did my research, thought I knew what I was doing (HINT: I didn’t. Not really, but I did learn), and workshopped that query to death.

Around query #18, I stopped sending more out because my gut was telling me something wasn’t working and I needed to figure it out. But more than that, there was this fabulous shiny new idea that was more enticing, more personal. And it might even be “the one.” I took everything I learned writing my first ms and poured my energies into this project. I plotted some, I researched lots, and I pantsied some, and before I knew it, I had a first draft. Then I revised and brought it to my critique group, online critique partners, and beta readers.

When I thought it was ready, I started the querying process. I researched agents based on their wish lists, their current books, interviews and, if applicable, Twitter presence. I wanted someone who would love my work but also someone I connected with. Some of the agents on my list weren’t open to submissions, and I heed and hawed and waited because I was pretty certain at least one of them would be at our regional SCBWI Conference in January. I only sent out a handful of queries, mostly because I was swamped at work–and I was okay with it. I entered and was chosen in Pitch Madness (another post coming soon about the benefits of online pitch contests!). I got some full and partial requests. I received rejections.

I wasn’t in a rush like I was with my first ms. Part of it was, again, because I was swamped at work. In October, I got a shiny new idea and decided to try my luck at NaNo. I plotted extensively this time and when Nov 1 rolled around, I started writing. Then I entered and was selected for Baker’s Dozen. I got half-way through ms #3 (through a series of personal set-backs), when PitchWars was announced and I decided–why not? This was going to be my last contest entry. I entered and was ecstatic when I was selected by the awesome Dannie Morin to be an alternate on her team. (And in her blog post, she wrote she couldn’t put my first three chapters down and omg was that so freaking awesome to hear!)

Then I received confirmation that one of the top agents on my list who was closed to queries was, in fact, going to be at our regional SCBWI Florida conference. I was thrilled! Some pretty awesome agents also had my full, so when I got into PitchWars, I decided not to send any more queries out. Dannie sliced and diced my ms and I spent the next five weeks adding and strengthening and polishing my ms until it blinded me. My wonderful teammates became fabulous critique partners as we worked hard to make our stories shine.

Then came the conference. And it was amazing. (I need to write another post about it!) There was such a magical energy in the air. The faculty was excited and energetic. When the agent’s panel was up, and I heard Deborah speak about what she was looking for, I knew she’d be perfect. So did Gaby Triana, one of my critique partners and Deborah’s client. Gaby encouraged me to query Deborah. I did Sunday, after the conference ended, and within a few hours, I had a request to see the full.

I was floored!

Wed afternoon–the day PitchWars entries went live–I was starting class when my phone rang. I’d forgotten to silence it. As I hastily shut it off, I registered it was a California number. And I froze, doing a mental check-off of who I knew in CA. Deborah was in CA. So were some of my online critique partners, but they didn’t have my phone number. As I was in the middle of class and had to focus on teaching, I forced myself to not think until the end, even though all I wanted was to run into my office and check my voicemail. When class was over, I checked my email and almost face-planted when I saw I had an email from Deborah. She loved my work and wanted to talk! SHE LOVED MY WORK!!!! I might’ve stomped. And squeed. And possibly scared a few random people in the halls. Seriously. This was me:

Happy Shocked

But I was at work and had to run out of the office, and calling from the car seemed like a bad idea all around. I listened to her voicemail a few times while I waited to get home. I spoke with Dannie, who gave me a pep talk. I spoke with Gaby. As soon as I walked through the door, I put on TV for my son and called.

And got voicemail.

After a series of phone tags, we finally connected Thursday afternoon. When we hung up, I was over-the-moon and through-the-clouds excited. She was so sweet and so excited about my work and had a clear vision for my career!!! I took the next few days to process all the information and contact the agents who had my full and partials. My entry from PitchWars was pulled when I received Deborah’s message. And on Monday, 1/27, I officially accepted her offer.

I’ve been walking on cotton-candy clouds ever since.

The first of hopefully many other firsts

I’m beyond humbled for my first interview opportunity, thanks to the fabulous Dannie Morin, who picked me out of the slush in PitchWars to be her first alternate. You can read it here. And if you’re not already following Dannie in Twitter or Facebook or her blog, well you should. Not only does she rock as a mentor with mad editing skills, but she’s one of the most supportive people I know.

(I’ll wait while you go do it. Really. I’ll wait.)

I hope you enjoy the interview. It was fun to write–and if I’m honest, a bit nerve-wracking!–but I’m beyond grateful.