In my last post, I talked all about lessons learned from Pitch Madness, a fabulous contest created to help writers get a precious bit of agent attention away from the inbox slush.
Working as a slush reader for the contest, which had nearly 500 entries, I got to read a LOT of the sort of things landing in agency inboxes each and every second of every day. It was enlightening to say the least.
My takeaway: contests are a great thing for writers on many levels, and, just like in an agent’s inbox, you have to stand out if you want to get picked.
And I told you I understood this quite well because I found my lovely agent, Rachel Ekstrom of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, through a contest called PitchWars.
I had several people who wanted to know a bit more about that experience. So, in a phrase: It was crazy awesome.
And it nearly didn’t happen.
Because, here’s the thing: Putting yourself out there is hard.
Really, really hard.
And though I’ve been in newspapers far too long and write a column every week, it was quite another thing to put work out there that wasn’t true-to-life and came straight from my brain. I knew that if I entered PitchWars and made it through to the agent round, I’d have to let a pitch and 250 words sit out on the Internet for DAYS, waiting for agents to comment as to if they wanted a partial or full or nothing at all. Everyone in the contest would know if I had requests or didn’t. And who was asking.
Plus, everyone I knew could read those fictional, straight-from-my-brain words.
And, as you’ll see in a second, those first 250 words are pretty much a doozy. They do not jibe with the sweet Midwestern vibe I project in both my newspaper career and real life. They don’t, AT ALL.
Somehow, in my mind, this juxtaposition would be fine if it were in something official, like say a book, but the idea of putting something up that may or may not go anywhere was pretty much terrifying.
So, I thought long and hard about entering. And nearly didn’t. But my good friend and critique partner Joy was entering, and so we kind of dared each other to do it.
Honestly, I didn’t think I stood a chance. I knew how many people were entering this contest (nearly 500). I knew that because of how it was set up, there were only six spots (initially) for adult works, with thirty more reserved for YA and NA.
And, furthermore, I knew my book was not for everyone. It’s pretty much Top Chef meets the most gory episode of CSI you’ve ever seen and dumped onto a discarded set from Dexter.
Now, if you read my last post, you probably know what I’m going to say next. The thing I didn’t realize about my manuscript was how much it stood out.
It stood out like a sore thumb.
Or maybe like a pulled pork sandwich in a sea of lightly sautéed kale.
Here’s what agents (and everyone else) saw the two days they could request off my pitch and 250:
NAME: Sarah Henning
MENTOR: Rebecca A. Weston
TITLE: DEAD MEAT
GENRE: Foodie Thriller
WORD COUNT: 100,000
When a sadistic killer begins butchering South Florida’s hottest chefs, Detective Ellis Cash and ex-cop-turned-culinary-school-professor Chase Bowman wade through a veritable stew of knife-wielding chefs, vindictive food editors and ice-cold investors as they race to find the culprit before he incinerates the Palm Beach restaurant world from the inside out.
Funny fact: Human flesh sears just as easily as lamb. Crisp skin on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside.
Not that anyone would be eating this bit of flesh any time soon.
It’d been seared, strangled and baked off the bone.
Plus it was mostly raw.
A good portion didn’t make it into the well-salted cast-iron pan on the stovetop for a nice cheek-fat
sear or into the oven cavity for a good off-the-bone roast. No, the majority of the meat was rigid, sprawled on the floor in the middle of a kitchen in one of Palm Beach’s hottest eateries, bookended by sky blue garden clogs and a face that was now just another anonymous crust on the bottom of a hard-working oven.
But the face wasn’t the worst part, believe it or not.
No, the worst was the neck. Maybe twelve hours ago it was a stout eight inches in diameter, bent over a computer screen balancing the books after a successful dinner service. Now, it was at best a constipated hourglass, a muddy hash of vocal chords, windpipe and whatever’s to be found in an Adam’s apple.
I swallowed hard, my arms crossed against the hum coming from the hallway—a payroll’s worth of restaurant workers milling behind yellow crime scene tape, all wanting to know when clean up could begin. Just so they could start a late lunch service and go back to earning tips the size of my car payment.
Soooo, yeah. Different than you’d expect from me, right? You can see why I was terrified. Yet: I ended up with five requests from the contest. And, come the next week, I had four official offers of representation.
That contest changed my life.
And it paired me with Rachel, whom I adore and trust completely.
I will forever be a fan of writing contests, especially the kind that allow writers to step out of the slush pile and into a special situation that can shine a spotlight on what makes them unique.
And you know what? Even if I hadn’t made it through the first round of PitchWars, or hadn’t gotten a single request, I was still glad I did it. And I’d still be a fan and enter anything I had prepared. Writing is hard. Publishing is hard. Putting yourself out there and letting a neon sign light up with “This came from my brain!” is hard.
But doing something hard is almost always worth it, because it gets you closer to where you want to be.