Of Contests and Queries…

I apologize for the length of this post. It reveals the giving nature of more than one awesome writer and, well, that much awesomeness just takes a while.

In my last blog post I mentioned contests in my writing journey and how important I felt they were in my search for an agent, even though my agent pulled my old-fashioned query out of her slush pile. As promised, here’s the meat of the details I left out of the other post.

My full querying journey starts in January of 2014 with my first completed manuscript, A GIRL CALLED GRAYE (AGCG). I sent out a total of 63 queries on AGCG, and received seven full requests, all of which ended in rejection.

At some point while querying AGCG, I found this fantastic resource called AgentQuery Connect. Other writers jump on in their “free time” to critique and help other writers hone their query letters. It’s truly invaluable for writers and if you think your query letter is perfect, you need to go there. It was here that I discovered just how dreadful my first query letter was, and I marveled that I even received one request for my manuscript. Now, hold that thought, I’ll be coming back to it again in a bit.

I also learned of online writing contests while querying AGCG, but being the true introvert that I am—I was too chicken to enter any of them, except for one. In June of 2014 I heard about #SFFPIT (Science Fiction and Fantasy Pitch), hosted by Dan Kobalt. All I had to do was draft a single line pitch for AGCG and include the appropriate hashtags. I put emphasis on “All I had to do” because, well, have you ever tried to fit the gist of an 84,000 word manuscript into less than 140 characters? Not easy, my friend. That’s what I headed back over to AgentQuery Connect—they also have boards for pitches too!

Now, I didn’t know what to expect from this. In the end, I had one request from a small publisher but somehow, my introverted-self managed to buddy up with another writer throughout the day. We continued to exchange messages and soon after Mel Stephenson and I were both friends and critique partners.

Point one: Contests are about more than getting and agent or catching the interest of a publisher. They’re about relationships. You don’t have to be on this writing journey alone.

So by this time I still had a couple of fulls out with agents and the one full with the small publisher. At this point I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to submit to both agents and publishers at the same time, so definitely my bad. No harm was done, since all of the fulls from agents resulted in rejections and from the small publisher—a fantastic revise and resubmit.

Then Mel and I began sharing chapters on my second manuscript, OLIVER’S GHOST MACHINE (OGM), while we waited on our other submissions. To be honest, I was much more confident in this manuscript and so was my husband. He even declared it “the one” after reading the first chapter. Little by little, my attention turned from AGCG to OGM. Mel mentioned another contest coming up—In With the New, by Michelle Hauck. And I did the most horrible thing any CP can do to another CP.

I forgot about it.

So a day or two before submissions were due, Mel mentions it again. Profanity flew from my mouth and I had to admit I wasn’t sure. I mean, this contest was much more intense than #SFFPIT. This one would require the meat of my query letter and the first 250 words of my manuscript. Plus, not all entries would make I through. Everyone’s pitches were visible on Twitter during #SFFPIT, but not so with IWTN/NewAgent. This one had the opportunity for something that would feel a lot like failure. Scary!

In the end, I entered alongside Mel. And I really should reiterate, I would NEVER have entered if not for her. Relationships, ya’ll, relationships! We chewed our fingernails and lived on Twitter while the judges made their selections. Only 30 entries would be selected. I was sure Oliver wouldn’t make it. I mean, there was some serious talent in that contest and I knew it. Then I saw a tweet by Amy Trueblood, one of the contest judges. She mentioned loving her MG entry because it made her laugh out loud. Oliver had the potential to make someone laugh out loud. It gave me a twinge of hope, and I clung to it until July 21, 2014 when the contest results were announced.

You can see Oliver’s winning entry here, selected by Amy Trueblood!  I was over the moon! And I got requests from agents! What the WHAT! Talk about an adrenaline rush! Who needs extreme sports when you have writing contests? RIGHT?!?!?!

Point two: Step out of your comfort zone and embrace the writing community. It’s made up of some of the most amazing and generous people I’ve ever met.

So I was now fully committed to OGM with plans to return to revising AGCG sometime in the future. This is probably one of the hardest things for a writer to do—to shelve one manuscript that has your heart and commit to another.

By this time Mel and I were official contest junkies. We prepared to enter Pitch Wars, hosted by Brenda Drake and we entered Krista Van Dolzer’s “Agent’s Inbox” and both got in, though Mel took home the prize on this one! And I got some, well, very critical comments on my query. Ouch! Back to AgentQuery Connect I went.

Here’s the turning point you’ve been waiting for:

Pitch Wars, hosted by Brenda Drake. Over a thousand entries. Seventy five mentors stepping forward to help new writers polish and refine their manuscripts. Agents galore coming to see the winning manuscripts and request like crazy. Pitch Wars is the crème de la crème of writing contests and it went down in August, 2014.

There was no way in hell I would place in this contest. But by golly I dared to dream.

We could submit to only four mentors. Talk about a hard choice! They were all fabulous. My Internet stalking skills went up a few notches during this time as I researched them all mercilessly. I kept ending up with a final list of seven mentors. How I ever got that down to four I still don’t know.

Every mentor I sent my entry to asked for more pages. There were Twitter exchanges. I dared to hope a little more. The reveal finally came.

And I didn’t make it in.

I was CrUsHeD! That same day I heard from every mentor I subbed to plus one or two more. It seems there was quite a bit of conversation about OGM behind the scenes. I was still flattened by not making it in, but a bud of hope remained.

I’ve remained in contact with all of those four mentors on some level or another: Gail Nall, Cat Skully, K.T. Hanna, and Michelle Hauck. They each gave me extensive feedback that they didn’t have to. Several advised me to query their agents. One gave me a personal referral to a new agent at an SCBWI contest. And I got conflicting feedback from them—two advised me to remove the majority of the dialect from my MS and two begged me not to.

In the end, I remembered asking every single beta reader and my new CP if the dialect was simply too much (OGM is set in the rural South during the late 1800s). As much as it pained me to restrict Oliver’s voice, I ended up deciding to pull back heavily on the dialect. The result was beautiful.

And then came Brenda Drake’s #PITMAD in September 2014—the online Twitter pitch event for writers who didn’t make it into Pitch Wars. I got a little more help with my pitch from Brenda herself, and received more than a few agent requests during that event. But I wasn’t ready to send off materials for those requests just yet—remember that painful feedback I got on my query during Krista Van Dolzer’s contest? I planned to listen.

Enter the fifth mentor I met during Pitch Wars, one that I had to cut from that original list of seven: Naomi Hughes. I loved her wit and her writing insights throughout Pitch Wars. She also does editorial work, including query letters, so before sending out my new shiny manuscript I went to her for help with my query.

It took a couple of back and forth emails before we pronounced it finished on September 9, 2014. But when we did…and I sent out the new query letter and the new MS…I got six full requests right out of the gate.

Followed by six or seven form rejections, but who’s counting! (Umm, all of us, right?)

More full requests followed after that. It was truly much like a roller coaster—peaks of requests followed by valleys of rejections. Up-down-up-down. Painful and exciting all at the same time! About here is where a sixth mentor would enter the picture, Juliana Brandt, who happens to live in the same city as I do. We met for coffee and talked writing and it was just awesome.

Point 3: Writers give freely of their time and knowledge. All you have to do is put yourself out there.

But what about the hard numbers? Well, I happen to have those as well.

Before Pitch Wars feedback/edits to the manuscript and Naomi’s work on my query, I received a total of 6 requests for OGM, four of which were partials from Michelle Hauck’s New Agent contest.

After Pitch Wars feedback/edits to the manuscript and Naomi’s work on my query, I received a total of 17 full requests and two partial requests —and that includes the one from my agent in November 2014!

In short (haha! This is seriously the longest blog post I’ve ever written!), though my agent didn’t request my materials from the contests I entered, the relationships and feedback I found in those contests shaped the manuscript and the query letter that led to her pulling me and my story out of her slush pile. And I am eternally grateful to each and every one of these awesome writers. THANK YOU simply doesn’t seem sufficient.

Point 4: What are you waiting for? Polish those manuscripts! Enter those contests! Listen to that feedback! Polish, query, submit, and sign!

*These numbers include two partial requests not listed in my previous blog post. These two agents weren’t listed in Query Tracker and weren’t included in my earlier numbers.

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