What Really Makes Contests Worth It

Online pitch events are exciting and addictive when you have a query-ready manuscript. Recently we’ve had WriteOnCon, Operation Awesome’s Secret Agent Contest, Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars, and Adventures in YA Publishing’s Pitch Plus Five. And that was just August!

The primary goal of contests seems to be grabbing an agent’s attention and garnering requests for your work. But these four were fabulous for another reason. Each offered feedback before the judged component, often from many critiquers at once.

The multitude of feedback has been a tad overwhelming for me, but also helpful. In the interest of helping and supporting others, when I landed a spot in Pitch Plus Five, I decided to read every entry and give at least one line of response. If you enjoy entering these contests, I highly suggest you try reading all the entries at least once. Here are a few things I learned:

1. It really is subjective.

You can hear it over and over again, but experiencing it first hand gives you new perspective. There were some amazing, well-written pages in Pitch Plus Five that just weren’t for me. I’m not a huge fan of straight historical, and some jump-off-the-page voices just rub me the wrong way. I get that they’re good. I admire them. But they just don’t fit my personal tastes.

2. Contests take more time than you realize.

When I set out to read all entries, the simple math looked like this:

5 pages X 50 entries = 250 pages

Most books I read have more than 250 pages. I should’ve been able to go through them easily in about two days. But starting at the beginning and trying to immerse yourself in a new story takes more time than reading a book straight through. Then you have to think about what you enjoyed and what questions you had to frame your feedback. I didn’t log my time, but it took much more than I expected. Contest judges volunteer their time on an even larger scale. Even if you don’t agree with the feedback you get, you should always appreciate that someone took the time to try to help you. Time that could’ve been spent on their own writing, reading, or outside lives.

3. Your opening pages need to match the tone of your pitch.

In the first round of Pitch Plus Five, you only see the pages. The pitches don’t come in until the second round. For all of my favorites, I got a clear sense of the genre, tone, and the main character without the pitch. For so many others, I felt like I was missing something. I enjoyed many of those pages. But the ones with the clearer tones stood out.

4. Seeing what works and what doesn’t can help you improve as much as a specific crit on your own work.

My top five submissions were in different age groups or genres, but they all had certain things in common. Each pulled me in from the opening paragraph. They gave just a bit of exposition before jumping into the action. None fell into opening chapter cliches, and I didn’t have to go back and re-read sentences for clarity. As I revise this time, I’m trying to check off these items on the list.

If you’re out there in the contest trenches, I wish you luck and throw my support in your corner. I also encourage you to get the most out of the experience, from finding new writer friends to improving your craft.
There are so many ways to win.

Music for today: All the Rage Back Home by Interpol

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