Okay, so it’s not Christmas. But in the KidLit writing community, this time of year may feel like it is.
There’s hustle and bustle, a mad rush to get things done by a circled calendar date, the never-ending consumption of sweets to fuel one’s efforts. And like at Christmas, some writers receive the gift they’ve always wanted and some writers are left holding an empty stocking.
Such is the season of writing contests.
I don’t know why, but fall and early winter abound with opportunities for Young Adult and Middle Grade writers to enter contests for which the “prize” is often a chance to have agents review their work. Great! Terrific! Exciting! And it is. It’s also nerve-wracking, frightening, and disappointing.
Because some writers will get the gift they’ve always wanted (an agent requesting their material) and some writers will be upending an empty stocking wondering what went wrong, why they didn’t get a single request.
It happens both ways, often to the same writer. It happened that way for me.
Last year, about this time, I first entered the Land of Twitter. And my writing mind was blown. Support, friendships, and contests. Contests? What have I been missing?
From the first contest I entered to the last, I experienced wins and losses. And the losses don’t just come from an agent not requesting your material, sometimes they come much earlier than that. For those unaware of how many of these contests work, let me explain.
Often a very generous writer will spend countless hours putting together a contest to promote and support their fellow writers, to give back to a community that has helped them. They’ll come up with a clever theme, invite writers to submit their work, and have an assembly of agents the contest organizer has recruited peruse the material. However, often before the agent “round,” there is a round where fellow writers review the submitted material and narrow down the field. This is a necessary, hard, and probably thankless task for these generous folks. Picking and choosing who moves and on and who doesn’t, I imagine, is extremely difficult (I’ll find out in December, but more on that later).
The courage to put our writing out for critique, many times public critique, does not come easily. Once we do, we know in the back of our minds we may be disappointed. I did. I never expected to move into the agent round of contests. When I didn’t though, the disappointment was like getting socks for Christmas. When I did, it was like I received a Barbie. When I won, when an agent requested, it was the Barbie Dream House.
Some writers shy away from contests, and I understand why. There’s so much that goes into being chosen: right day, right time, right reader, right agent. No matter how objective one tries to be, this field is inherently subjective. Some may love your writing, and some may hate it.
But my advice to writers trying to decide if they should enter contests is to do it. 100%. Absolutely. This is coming from someone who both won and lost. And I’ll tell you why: The ones I lost made me reevaluate my work. Why did my pitch fail to garner attention when that other one did? Why did my opening not resonate? Is it one opinion or several? Can I learn anything from the winning entries? Can I make my writing stronger? Can I, for the love of all that is good in this world, figure out how to write a one-line pitch for my book? (Still working on that one.) But without the pressure of contests, I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did.
Receiving feedback is invaluable. When fellow writers and agents donate their time to critique your work, TAKE IT. This is how your writing will get better. Which is great, because, there’s always another contest. Another chance.
When I got handed that empty stocking, I evaluated the feedback. Did I agree with all of it? No. Learning what criticism to take and what to let roll off your back is a topic for another post. But the comments that resonated made me work harder. And then, when the next circled date approached, I swallowed my courage pills and submitted again. And I won. In many ways.
For one, by putting my writing out there, I was also putting myself out there. Myself as a writer. I entered the online community of KidLit writers. I found critique partners through contests — fellow writers who simply loved my story so much, they volunteered to read it. And when those critique partners turned into the friends they are today, my writing world collided with my personal world in a way that I never expected and couldn’t be more thrilled about.
And yes, I did wind up winning some contests, getting agents to request my material. I got the Barbie Dream House a few times. I won’t deny it felt as great as Christmas morning when I was five. Those agents didn’t turn out to be my agent, but I know writers who did sign with agents as a result of a contest win. The chance is there in every contest. It’s not just a dangling carrot one can never grasp. Many, many writers grab it and chomp like Bugs Bunny.
So hone your pitch, perfect your pages, and enter, enter, enter. Expect disappointment, hope for a Barbie Dream House. If you’re lucky, you’ll make friends to share it all with.
Here are some upcoming contests that I participated in last year and encourage you to do the same this year. Swallow those courage pills!
1. Trick or Treat with Agents: Act fast, closing tonight at 9 pm EST!
(For what it’s worth, I made it into the agent round last year with an adult MS; requests but no buyers.)
2. Baker’s Dozen: Adult and YA/MG, starting October 29.
(Didn’t get chosen. However, this site also runs monthly Secret Agent contests. With my revised material, I entered the January 2013 contest and won, which helped me land my current agent.)
3. Pitch Wars: Full MS contest, open on December 2.
(I applied with BECOMING JINN, coming from Feiwel and Friends Spring 2015, but did not get picked. I revised based on the feedback I received and subsequently won other contests and landed my agent and book deal. This year, the roles will be reversed. I will be a mentor, working with one YA writer on their full manuscript. Check back here on November 20, sign up for e-mail updates, or follow me on Facebook and Twitter to find out what kinds of stories are on my wish list.)
4. 5th Annual YA Novel Discovery Contest: Opens November 1.
(I applied and won over hundreds of applicants and was able to speak with a literary agent for the first time. Gulp.)
5. Adventures in YA Publishing Pitch+250: Watch for it in February 2014.
(I entered, advanced to the final round, and had to bow out due to accepting the offer from my agent. Woo-hoo!)
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