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 1, 2013

Lessons Learned from Pitch Madness Slush

I’m a firm believer that contests are very, very good for writers.

And I’m not just saying that because I snagged my agent thanks to one. (Though, that does help!)

You see, as a querying writer, you know you have competition. Lots and lots of it. And that competition is faceless, nameless and possessing of talent and ideas of a completely unknown quantity.

Which is annoying.

Because, unless an agent gives specific examples of your competition over Twitter or on his/her blog, or you get a chance to read a friend’s query and first 10 pages, it’s really, really hard to gauge what’s hitting an agent’s inbox at the very same time your query makes its appearance.

Now, first, let me be clear: Getting an agent is about your writing. It’s not about whose query is shiniest or who you met at such-and-such conference. Those things help, but ultimately, it’s about the writing.

That said, agents get hundreds of query letters each week. And chances are, they’ll read a good fifty in one giant gulp of yeses (“Please send more.”) and nos (“Not right for me, thanks.”).

So, it helps to stand out in a crowd.

And contests help you do this in a couple of ways:

1. Most have an exclusive window where, if you advance, a number of agents have committed to giving their time to looking at contest entries and making requests.

2. Even agents who weren’t originally committed might hop on and join in on a request-a-thon (my agent was one of those).

But there’s an even larger reason these contests can help you stand out, no matter if you make the agent round: You get a chance to see what everyone is else doing.

And learn from it.

I learned quite a bit from the contest I competed in — not only about what genres were big and better ways to word a pitch, but I ended up with some great critique partners, and my marvelous agent (something I’ll talk about in my next post Sept. 15).

And, you know what? Even though I have an agent, I’m still learning from contests.

This week, I got to work as a slush reader for one of Brenda Drake’s fabulous Twitter/blogcontests: Pitch Madness. I’ve done this once before for Brenda, but I didn’t get to read as much slush as I wanted because I happened to be stuck at a three-day stage trail race in backwoods Arkansas with no Internet. Horrible scheduling on my part.

But this time, I got to read the majority of the 470-something entries in Pitch Madness. Yes, nearly 500 entries, all of which consisted of a 35-word pitch and the first 250 words (about one page) of the actual text.

Now, I know we writers would like to believe this isn’t enough on which to judge a manuscript — especially when you write 100,000-word behemoths like me. But here’s the thing: There’s no guarantee that an agent will read any more than that. Just because you sent a query, synopsis and three chapters does not mean that will get read. In fact, he or she might take one look at your opening paragraph or outrageous word length and send a form rejection.

I know I sound like a jerk when I say this, but in some cases it’s true. And it stinks.

And here’s what you can do about it: Make yourself stick out.

As I mentioned, I read nearly 500 pitches and excerpts over the past few days. And probably 99 percent of them were really good in one way or another.

This is your competition.

So, I want to share a bit about what I learned from reading entry after entry. Now, none of these “rules” really account for subjectivity, which is something impossible to control, but I want you to take a look at your query and sample pages and make sure you’ve taken care of every one of them. Because the competition is fierce and I truly don’t want you to be left behind.

1. Show, don’t tell. This is the first cardinal rule of writing. We’ve all heard it a hundred times. Yet, I saw quite a bit of telling in both the pitch and the actual copy. Yes, it’s beneficial to have both showing and telling in your writing. A mix is great. But in a story’s opening, telling can come off as heavy-handed and un-earned. And in a pitch or a query, you do yourself a disservice by telling. A query or pitch should give your reader a hint your writing’s flavor and if you’re too direct, you kill any benefit.

2. If you start with dialogue, it better be fantastic. Dialogue can be a fine way to begin a manuscript — it puts a reader right in the middle of a scene, giving them a chance to “hear” your characters. But it also can be very tricky in that if it’s basic or too out there, it’s not going to mean a lick to your reader. And they’re going to stop reading. Go back and make sure your dialogue crackles, especially if you’re opening with a conversation.

3. Names, names, names. I absolutely love unusual names for main characters. This sets them apart, gives them personality and, if done well, is a perfect part of them. That said, if you’re going to use an unusual name, make sure a reader can pronounce it in his or her head without much help. If someone stumbles on your main character’s name in the very first instance, that’s a stumble you may not recover from depending on how well the reader/agent likes your premise and writing. Believe me: You can’t afford this. Ask your friends and family to read the name aloud to you to see if they get it right. Seriously. On the flip side, if you use a “basic” name, you might want to make sure it hasn’t been overdone or check other query contests and writer groups to see how many times it’s been used by others. I saw several Jakes, Devs (yes, Dev), Jane/Jaynes and Hopes.

4. Sentence structure and paragraph starters. In the heat of writing and editing, you might be looking for just the right word or phrase or bit of dialogue. But when you’ve got the copy to where you need it to be, take one final pass and look at how your paragraphs appear on the page. If you find more than two paragraphs in a row that start with the same word (usually I, He, She, They, etc.), change it up. I can’t tell you how many little 250-word excerpts I read that over-used the same sentence structure several times in a row. Sometimes, this can be done purposefully to create a certain rhythm. But most of the time? It’s just a go-to way of describing the action that needs to be changed up. The same goes for sentence length. Vary it. Once you start looking, page-by-page, at your manuscript, these things will appear if you’re overdoing them. I swear.

5. A 35-word pitch isn’t a query, but it’s dang close. When you tell someone you’re a writer, they probably ask about what you’re writing. How do you describe it without regurgitating your query? Even if you never use it, you need to perfect how to tell someone what you’re writing in as short of a space as possible. Not only will this help them understand what your book is about, but it’ll help you learn what your book is about. Seriously. Before I start writing any book, I write myself a short pitch and basically the meat of a query. I learned this trick from one of my writer buds and I think it’s genius. It really helped me zero in and go from this nebulous idea to something that has great shape, detail and direction.

I hope you’ve learned a bit from what I saw in those nearly 500 entries. I know some of it sounds like stuff we all know, and we probably do, but knowing it and implementing it is something different altogether.

And if you’re a Pitch Madness person reading this and freaking out because you have an unpronounceable character name, a page full of dialogue and a boatload of “telling” shoe-horned into sentences that exclusively start with I?

Don’t worry.

Seriously. Because, in the end, it all comes down to the writing. You can break every rule in the book and still be successful.

Just make sure you stick out.

What do you learn from reading the work of others?


Gloria Alden said...

Very good and thought provoking blog, Shari. It makes me want to go back over some of my work and check out if I started too many sentences the same way.

Sarah Henning said...

Thanks, Gloria!

Jim Jackson said...

I was a reader for Poisoned Pen Press for a couple of years and poor writing does often show up very quickly, and when it does, it is almost impossible for later good writing to overcome the damage done.

~ Jim

Linda Rodriguez said...

I'm a preliminary judge for a number of first book contests, Sarah. I read the entire manuscripts, but never once have I found that a problem first page hid a great manuscript. Editors don't read the whole thing. They do their reading in their spare time because their workdays are full of meetings and tasks focused on books they're publishing. You have to make your first pages shine--ideally, your entire manuscript.

historywriter said...

I've learned so much about writing over the years by entering lit contests and it's always a pleasure when someone does take notice and comments or moves the work onto finalist or even winning. It means I'm on track. Pitching 35 words has been a challenge but a fun one as it helps me find the most important essence of the story. Just hoping a snowstorm, body and the Gestapo worked for the first page. So tricky. But I will learn something new.

historywriter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah Henning said...

Jim and Linda, I'm glad you've had the same experience here. The first page is so important, yet also often representative. Not only does it set the story's tone, it sets the tone for your writing.

Warren Bull said...

As an editor and contest judge, I second all your suggestions.

Shari Randall said...

Hi Sarah,
Thank you for sharing what you learned from the contest. I'm going to go over my manuscript with these guidelines in mind.
At least I don't have a Dev in my ms!

Kara Cerise said...

Thank you for sharing what you have learned, Sarah. I'll have to try writing a short pitch before beginning a story. What a smart idea.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Sarah, it's fascinating to learn about this process. You've given some great advice for all writers. Thanks!