Monday, September 9, 2013

Agency Lesson: Contests

Here in Texas, the end of summer means only one thing: Friday Night Football. But in the writing community it's contest time. Here's the good, the bad and the cautionary.
The Good
I love contests. They are a great introduction to putting your work out there and a wonderful way to meet other writers and get involved in our happy little community. You don't have to look long to find a contest posted along with gleeful lists of past winners and their current successes (signing with agents, getting deals, meeting Oprah...okay maybe not that last one).

Another great aspect of contests is the mass effect. Here you have a chance to "send" one query and get it reviewed by a fair number of agents. The exact number will depend on the contest, but there is definitely a "more bang for your buck" situation here. Not only that, but occasionally agents who are closed to submissions will participate in contests, giving writers a chance to send their query to someone they might not otherwise have a chance to work with.

The Bad
Contests can be a bit of a dice roll. You have tons of entrants with maybe only a handful of agents making requests or picking winners. When the contest you enter has six participating agents, this is the odds equivalent to sending six blind queries. You don't get to hand-pick the agents or tailor your entry to their style or preferences. There's not anything inherently bad about that, but it's hard to keep that in perspective when you're in the midst of the contest frenzy. They are exciting and fun, and when you're having fun, you aren't really thinking about the logistics that only a few of the participating agents are even looking for your genre. So don't let a non-win make you think you aren't going to make it or that you're a bad writer. Contests are a bit like slot machines. You can hit it big with one pull of the handle, but this is not where most writers will find their agent.

The Cautionary
Some of the best contests, in my opinion, are those that allow entrants to get feedback on their submission. And not just from agents, but also from the writing community. There's nothing like having 20 people all say "this opening page is too slow" to show you exactly why your aren't getting manuscript requests. But be careful here. Remember that the people commenting can be anyone. I've never run across a case of a commenter being intentionally misleading, but just because someone doesn't mean to lead you astray doesn't mean that they aren't. Make sure you don't make sweeping changes to your manuscript based off a single person's feedback. And trust your gut. If you get some feedback or advice that doesn't sit right with you, either ignore it or reach out and ask others.

So are contests worth it? Yes and No. It all depends on where you are in your writing journey, what you hope to get out of the contest, and your own maturity as a writer. Overall, I think most contests are awesome and the amazing writers who give up their time each year to organize them are heroes of our industry. If you're willing to go in with realistic expectations and a healthy dose of consideration, a contest can be the magical unicorn you've been waiting for.

Because let's be honest...we all want a magical unicorn.

Have you entered any contests lately? What has your experience been like? Any advice you'd give to a writer considering their first contest?

12 comments:

  1. I was off for the summer and decided to dive into the contests with help from my crit partners--one of them signed with Pam Van Hylckama and got a three book deal with Penguin/ACE from a contest. Anyway, I entered: Christmas in July (didn't make it in), Like A Virgin (alternate...heh, alternate virgin :P. Great feedback from my judge BTW), Mina Vaughn's pitch contest for a free pass through slush rounds of Pitch Madness (not selected, but Mina was kind enough to give some wonderful feedback), and Pitch Madness (didn't get in). Despite my poor showing, I felt like I learned a lot, and I'm positive that my first 250 reads tighter than when I started. My query looks better, too...it got a request for a partial from you :D.

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  2. I like contest, for the reasons you've given. I enter contests every once and a while (whenever they align with a finished manuscript). I entered Pitch Madness from WriteOnCon back in March and got some really helpful feedback about my query letter. Those are the type of contests I like best -- the ones where you get feedback. Because, like Leslie said, even if you don't win you still know whether something is working or not. Contest are kind of like querying. You don't know what will come of it unless you give it a try.

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  3. I remember re-doing my first 250 words over and over just to win a contest. When I had an agent critique later on, she said it sounded like I didn't start the story in the right place. I was so focused on winning, I lost sight of what was important.

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    1. Good point, Eliza. We have to remember the end game isn't winning a contest. Our main goal should be to produce the best work possible and find people who love it. Sorry you had to go through all that. :(

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  4. I used to enter contests. They are great exposure. I also appreciated the input. I actually did quite well in the RWA contests, even my YA books, but YA is harder because there are so many sub-genres all in one category. I'm on the board of YARWA and we are developing a YA contest with its own genres, which I think will be a fantastic way for more YA authors to be recognized.

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    1. The lumping of YA all into one big genre (even though it's not a genre) is a pet peeve of mine and it certainly can make things difficult. Sounds like the YARWA board is ready to push YA to the next step. :)

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  5. On the other side of the spectrum, hosting contests is a great way to make new friends, help other writers, and promote your blog and twitter accounts. Plus it is fun!

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  6. Wait, are you in Texas? I am in Houston but I always just assume all agents are in NYC.

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    1. Yep, our agency is based in NY, but I work remotely from home, sweet home in West Central, Texas. :)

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  7. That's awesome!! How did you work that?? I was born in Midland, Texas. It's HOT there! :-)

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