Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Big Personal Risk for a Big Personal Reward, AKA How Sarah Got Her Agent

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


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.

FIRST 250:

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.


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

What an amazing story! And what incredibly valuable info and insight.. ANd oh, congratulations!

E. B. Davis said...

You're a sick and talented woman, Sarah. Taking a risk, putting yourself out there--paid off. Congratulations! You promised me your first interview. I'll hold you to it, and can't wait to read it.

Jim Jackson said...

I can see why yours stood out.

This week, in the midst of a road trip, I’m tearing out the few strands of remaining hair I have while working on the first three paragraphs with my editor. I despair of ever getting them quite right.

But they are the first words anyone will read (other than maybe the back cover) – and as you just proved, they need to grab the reader while remaining stylistically similar to the rest of the book.

All of which you did superbly well, with a great result!

~ Jim

Shari Randall said...

Great story, Sarah! I can see why you stood out - great voice and killer (pun? no pun?) opening. Can't wait to get my signed copy.
Thanks for the pep talk!

Gloria Alden said...

I'm not much into gore, Sarah, but your beginning really grabbed me, and I can see why you got five agents interested. I look forward to reading it.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Great story, Sarah! And great pitch! I'm so happy to see you getting this success and moving toward much greater success in the future.

Sarah Henning said...

Thanks, folks! I couldn't be happier with how things worked out:) Hope my little pep talk is helpful!

Dahlia Adler said...

Oh, that entry... it made me so, so sad I hadn't opened myself up to adult. But so, so happy that Becks had!

Kara Cerise said...

What a powerful opening! I'm hooked and want to read more.

Thank you for the pep talk, Sarah.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was an amazing 250. Can't wait to read the book!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences. And as others have said, I can see why agents were interested in your work after they read your submission.

Congrats, & best of luck (I know, it's not luck. It's hard work)

Sarah Henning said...

Thank you, everybody! <3 <3 <3

Keely Hutton said...

Love this! Thank you for sharing your story. Can't wait to read your book. Sounds amazing. Talk about a "hit you right between the eyes" first line! Congratulations!

Yolanda Renée said...

Wow, that's an amazing 250 words. Very well done!