Do Pitch Contests Help or Hurt?

Today is the crazy Twitter pitching frenzy that is #PitMad.

I proudly claim veteran status of this writing contest, and many others like it. Now that I’m on the ‘other side’ of the query trenches–agent and book deals in hand–I’m asked by many writers if contests like this help or hurt.

Pitch contests can take you on an emotional rollercoaster ride with the hype, the excitement, the swelling hope…and the sometimes letdown.  I know writers who find this process harder than querying.  Don’t get me wrong–I think querying writers should use every opportunity to get their work in front of agents–but I’ve learned that you have to keep contests in perspective so you don’t emerge crushed (and convinced you should throw your book out the window.)

Contests can help writers if they keep a few key things in mind:

#1: Use the opportunity to HONE YOUR PITCH/HOOK/LOGLINE.  Ditto with the first 250 words.  Make them as strong and grabby as they can be and LEARN from the other writers doing the same thing…

#2 Check out the websites of any agents that request to see your manuscript. What authors do they represent? What books have they sold? Make sure they’re legit, and someone you’d want to represent you. The old adage ‘a bad agent is worse than no agent’ is entirely TRUE. On the positive side, I found contests to be a great way to discover and connect with agents.

#3 DON’T LET A PASS GET YOU DOWN (for long) It’s subjective–just like in the real query world. Find encouragement from all the other writers in your boat, then hone your pitch and let the experience springboard you back into querying. (and writing and revising!)

#4 MEET OTHER AWESOME WRITERS This is the REAL gem of contests. I’ve met some of the best critique partners this way–not to mention fellow writers who motivated and encouraged me in the query trenches. There is so much we can learn from each other and from our shared experiences.

#5 WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, WRITE THE NEXT BOOK  Is your MS drifting in an endless sea of rejection? Maybe it’s time to set it aside (for now) and dive in to that next book. Nearly every author I know has at least one “shelved” book. (It was my THIRD book that led to my agent and book deals.

So, to all the writers who bravely put themselves out on the proverbial rejection ledge, whether through contests or traditional querying–congratulations on taking risks and moving toward your goals!

NEVER EVER EVER EVER GIVE UP.

For additional motivation:

 

#8TerribleTitles

Lamegiphy

My fellow Sweet Sixteeners Janet Taylor, author of THE DIM, and Jessica Cluess, author of A SHADOW BRIGHT AND BURNING, tagged me on Twitter to participate in this blog hop! The rules are simple: Scroll through your manuscript and stop in random places. Whatever you land on becomes one of eight terrible titles. So, here are my beauties taken randomly from my YA debut (spring, 2016), ASHES FOR STARS:

  1. The water is hungry
  2. I am so, so close
  3. I still want my banana
  4. A sort of vibration
  5. My hands these days
  6. Five minutes to curfew
  7. Like it might bite
  8. “Huh-uh.”

Haha! #3 is my favorite. This is actually a timely post because my editor has suggested a title change for my book. Hmm, perhaps I should send her this list . . .? Who wouldn’t want to read a book called “Huh-uh”?

*pets tiny dog and muses about titles*

This isn’t my first title change. Every agent who offered me rep was like, “So . . . how attached to the title are you?” (Originally called SUBPARS) And my wonderful, amazingly-British super-agent Sarah was all, “I hope you’re not married to the title, attol.” *hear that in the queen’s English*

Fast-forward to much earnest re-titling and the editors I spoke to were all

Catgiphy

So, good times over here in Title-land . . .

I now tag fellow Sixteeners Jeff Garvin, author of SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN and Erin Schneider, author of WHERE THE WATER FALLS, as well as my amazeballs CP and author of TRUST ME I”M LYING, Mary Elizabeth Summer, my agency sister, Dawn Kurtagich, author of THE DEAD HOUSE, and hilarious writing friend Rena, who is currently outpacing me in NanoWriMo by like,15,000 words. *cues up blog distraction*

Cattapgiphy

Happy terrible titles day, everyone! (And wish me luck finding just the right one to (possibly) replace ASHES FOR STARS . . .

Writing Crimes: Overused Words and Phrases

lion

On a recent run, I came across this violated stone lion. Look closely . . . it’s been embellished with blue glitter nail polish, eyeshadow, and yes—lipstick. At first glance, it looked like all the other neighborhood stone lions, but a closer inspection revealed that it had succumbed to a makeover.

Now, personally, I think it’s adorable that some kid took a look at that lion and thought it needed a little something special (sparkles, of course) and that those claws would look better with nail polish. For the purposes of this post, however, let’s call it a non-obvious crime.

Some writing mistakes rear up and smack you on the nose: plot holes, switching tenses, too many dialogue tags, not enough dialogue tags…Grammar, too, is often an easy fix: the right use of its and it’s, lay and lie, and good ‘ol punctuation and spelling. But word overuse is more insidious–often overlooked in first, second and even third drafts.

While polishing my manuscript for submission, I came across a phrase I tend to overuse: ‘my heart pounds.’ And by ‘overuse’ I mean—this pains me to admit—no less than NINE TIMES–followed closely by ‘my stomach twists.’

*face palm*

The worst part is that they’re not even good phrases–‘telling’ writing instead of ‘showing.’ Criminal, indeed.

The good news: I gave my manuscript that close second look (and third and fourth) and caught them. Every writer I know has words and phrases they tend to overuse. It’s the kind of writing crime that can easily go unnoticed (like the glammed-up lion.)

So, as I go through my manuscript and rework these phrases into moments the reader feels along with the character, I’m on the lookout for other such overused words.

Another I caught myself using too much: ‘groan,’ followed closely by its sister, ‘moan.’

O_O

*sigh*

Hey, that’s what the editing process is for, right? This is another instance where beta readers and critique partners are so helpful–they will usually see the nine million times you used the word ‘slowly’ and issue you a friendly citation. Better them, than an agent or editor.

If you’re in the revision process, I’d encourage you to do a ‘find and replace’ search (under ‘edit’ in Microsoft word) Type in a word or phrase you find yourself leaning in to, and see if you’ve committed any crimes. Hopefully, nothing as bad as my heart-pounding, stomach-twisting felonies.

How I quit, started over, and finally received offers of representation.

I remember the moment when I got my first full request for my historical fantasy, THE DESCENDED.

I went into the ugly cry, clutching my laptop to my chest like a beloved friend. “The agent loves it,” I exclaimed through my tears. “She thinks it has potential.” *continued incoherent mumbling*

“I knew it!” my husband shouted. Then there may have been some awkward dancing with the laptop clasped between us.

Because, finally, finally I’d MADE it. Two years of writing and revising my manuscript and months of rejections had led precipitously to this moment when an agent—a fabulous agent whom I liked and admired—opened the hallowed DOOR OF PUBLISHING OPPORTUNITY.

Only . . .not.

I had a lot to learn about the query process then. *shakes head at naive, younger self*

Fast forward months of maniacal email inbox stalking to the kind, but vague rejection. No dancing this time. Straight up despair.

That was it. I sucked. My dream was just the delusion of a crazy person. A talentless crazy person. So I did what any sensitive, creative type would do in my shoes.

I quit.

There I was, crying on a treadmill at the gym with my husband running beside me. (I was at a sedate, depressed walk) I attuned my heart and mind to the things I could do with my life that didn’t involve, you know, words and imagination.

“Don’t quit,” my husband said. “Use what you learned and write the next one.”

Very Obi Wan Kenobi of him. I scoffed and snot-cried. Then did something that seriously surprised me and my battered ego. I went home and started my first YA, THE DREAMSPEAKER’S DIARY. A story about a girl who’s terrified to speak her dreams aloud and then learns that it’s those very dreams that empower her. (Basically, a long note to myself.) I was not going to fear my dreams—even if they sometimes led to heartache and rejection.

Because, at the end of the day, my passion is to write. I crave an audience like every artist, but something in my soul needs to create these worlds and characters—even if I’m the only one who experiences them.

I was a lot smarter this time making the query rounds. Slog it out in the query trenches long enough and you learn a few things. Mainly–have critique partners comb through your manuscript before you send it out into the world.

DREAMSPEAKER’S did well. I won contests, I got requests. LOTS of requests.

THIS WAS IT. I was poised on the brink of REPRESENTATION. Even the rejections coming in were personalized and detailed, so complimentary that I printed some of them and tacked them to my inspiration board. Then . . .

EVERY. DOOR. CLOSED.

No weeping treadmill pity party this time. No Yoda-like pep talk from my husband.

I was not giving up. Period. So I sent another draft to my CPs and Betas. Took all their critiques on the chin like a champ (some of them were tough) My revised manuscript morphed like a snake shedding its skin. I attended conferences. I read EVERYTHING in my genre (and outside of it). THEN, finally, I sent my polished little baby out into another batch of queries.

But, like I said, I was smarter now. So, instead of focusing on the queries and rejections, I started another speculative YA, SUBPARS.

And this story, I LOVED. The main character is a knock-me-down-but-I’m-getting-back-up kind of protagonist that inspired me and challenged me through the PITS OF QUERY HELL.

I couldn’t wait to query the agents who liked my writing with DREAMSPEAKER”S. In a fit of bravado, I even queried a couple agents I thought were unreachable–the ones I’d admired from afar and Twitter/Blog stalked for years. So with a shaking finger on the send button, and a please, please, please mantra in my head, I sent them SUBPARS.

I heard back right away from THREE AGENTS OF AWESOMENESS. Requests!! And the next few days went something like this:

“Ohmygosh, I’m so HAPPY!!”

Then,

“I’ll never make it. This SUCKS. I am in rejection HADES!!!”

I was told great things about my writing, but that the paranormal and speculative markets were FLOODED. And DEAD.

*Cue violin* I slid right into a post-rejection funk.

I may have drank my celebratory champagne spitefully. I may have bought myself a few pairs of shoes to cheer myself up. I zombied out on Twitter, read other writers’ success stories. All I needed was balloons and black crepe paper to make my pity party complete.

It just wasn’t going to happen for me. I was a writer—an author, even. But I just wouldn’t be a published one.

I told myself I was okay with this. And ate excessive amounts of chocolate.

I hoped against all hope for good news in my inbox.

Meanwhile, I completed an R&R (revise and re-submit) with an agent who was interested in DREAMSPEAKER’S. I focused hard on that project. (And re-wrote the novel from start to finish)

I waited. And refreshed my email constantly. And said please, please, please a thousand times in my heart.

And then.

I got an offer of representation from the agent who had my R&R. I sent emails to all the agents who had my queries for both manuscripts.

More agents responded.

The UNREACHABLES reached out. They LOVED SUBPARS. They loved my writing.

With my feet floating above the ground, I tried to make sense of the words I was reading in my emails–because all at once, multiple agents were offering me representation.

I drank champagne again. My boys toasted my joy with sparkling cider. We danced around to the song “Happy.” I wore my red rejection shoes just because.

champagnephoto

So, here it is, the moral of the story: Dream big. Quit if you need to. But then start over. Dream bigger. Grow. Learn. And above all—HOPE.

This isn’t the end for me. Just a new chapter on a journey that may or may not ultimately lead to my book sitting on a shelf in Barnes and Noble (please, please, please)

I’ve got more rejection to face. Probably more closed doors. Definitely new books to write. But hope is the one essential ingredient in it all.

Well, and puppies. Puppies really do make everything better. And shoes. And friends who “get it.” So there you go, fellow dreamers and writers. I get it. Hang in there. Keep on going after it—your own happy dance might be right around the corner.