How to Benefit From a Pitch Contest Without Entering

I’d never heard of agent pitch contests when I first started querying. I’m sure they existed — Miss Snark’s First Victim started in 2005 — but there certainly weren’t as many back then. These days, it seems every second writer blog is hosting a contest. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it pays to be cautious. Natalie C. Parker and Dahlia Adler have already written great posts on things to consider before entering a pitch contest, (go read them — I’ll wait) so I won’t cover ground they’ve already traveled, but I want to talk about how you can benefit from a pitch contest even if you have no plans to enter.

First, a story. Before I queried my last novel I had a bunch of people critique my query: critique partners, strangers on forums, my husband and even non-writer friends. I wrote a dozen versions of my query and stared at each of them until my eyes were dry and I could no longer tell a semi-colon from an ellipsis. Most of the responses I received were, “It’s good” or “I can’t see anything wrong with it”, so I thought I was ready to query. I was wrong.

From the first ten queries I sent out, I think I received one partial request. That’s it. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. Was it my book? Was it my query? Or was I just querying the wrong agents? No one could tell me. So, I decided I’d try a pitch contest. That contest was Michelle Krys and Ruth Lauren Steven‘s Christmas in July pitchfest. In this contest, Michelle and Ruth wrangled a slush pile of hundreds of entries down to a short list of 30, which were then perused by agents. I was one of the 351 entrants. I didn’t get picked.

By that stage I was getting pretty bummed about the whole process, and I could have given up right then. Instead, I decided to try a different strategy and I’m so glad I did. You see, there is so much to be learned from a pitch contest, even (especially) if you don’t make it through the to agent round. I didn’t get picked, but I kept following the contest anyway. What I learned completely changed the way I approached querying.

Here are a few important things you can get out of agent pitch contests as an observer:

1. The chance to read queries as an agent would:

Query contests are a valuable peek into an agent’s inbox. The overall quality may be higher, as the contestants tend to be the kind of writers who do their research, but you can still gain a good overview of what an agent sees when reviewing the slush. Some contests allow you to see all entries — the ones that make it through to the agent round and the ones that don’t. But even the contests that only post the winning entries can give you an understanding of what stands out to an agent.

Reading pitch entries as an objective observer can help you identify the elements of a good query in a way that having your query critiqued a dozen times might never do. What makes you stop reading? What hooks you? Would you request any of the entries if you were an agent? For me, I found that unless the story was seriously high concept, the two elements that stood out to me first and foremost were character and voice. What I didn’t care about? The minutiae of the plot.

2. A better understanding of the market:

As a querying writer it pays to have an understanding of trends: What’s selling? What’s overdone? If your story is part of a trend, are you on the forefront, breaking new ground, or are you at the tail end, at the point at which it’s more important than ever to stand apart? The difficulty is knowing what the trends are. You can’t rely on the books on the shelves, because those were often acquired years ago. What you need to know is, what is being submitted right now? What kinds of stories are swimming through the slush alongside yours?

The manuscript I was querying was a ghost story. It wasn’t until I read the Christmas in July entries that I began to understand how many other ghost stories were being queried by other writers at the same time. It wasn’t enough to rely on the ghostly element to sell it — I had to show how my story was different than all the other ghost stories out there. I could never have done that if I hadn’t had access to pitch contests.

3. The chance to see what kinds of stories specific agents are requesting:

Querying writers love agent wish lists. The problem is, these wish lists are often out of date, and may not reflect what an agent is actually requesting right this moment. Is an agent requesting a lot of thrillers? Maybe your YA thriller could be a good fit. Are they shying away from all things paranormal? Maybe your kraken-shapeshifter manuscript isn’t for them.

But more than this, seeing what an agent requests can be a good indicator of whether they are a good fit for you. You want an agent who will represent you throughout your career, not just for this one book. It’s important that your tastes line up so you can have hope they will love all your books as much as they love this one. If an agent is requesting a whole lot of  stories that look less than enthralling while passing over your favorites, maybe this is a warning sign you should heed.

4. The skills to write an awesome query letter:

By reading as many queries as you can, identifying their strengths and weaknesses, and identifying the parts of your story that stand out in the crowd, you will be fully equipped to write one kick-ass query letter.

After the contest was over, I ripped up my old query and started over. I looked closely at my story and picked out the elements I thought made it stand apart from other stories in its genre. Instead of writing a short plot synopsis, I focused on character and voice, and wrote my shortest query ever.

I ended up with a request rating of closer to 60-70%, and the number of full requests I received was well into the double digits by the time I finished querying. That manuscript didn’t get me an agent but it allowed me to make some valuable contacts, and I can sleep easy knowing I gave it the best possible chance I could.

I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should enter a pitch contest, but for me their greatest value lies in the glimpse they provide into an agent’s decision-making progress. You can see what other people’s queries look like — the good and the bad — and you can learn to make your story stand out. Don’t make my mistake and be satisfied with a query that inspires mere shrugs. You’re a writer. Write something that shines.

My first sunset over the ocean, and that's one off the old bucket list.
My first sunset over the ocean, and that’s one off the old bucket list.
How to Benefit From a Pitch Contest Without Entering

2 thoughts on “How to Benefit From a Pitch Contest Without Entering

  1. Erika David says:

    This is terrific, and I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s been so educational reading through the entries for two current contests, Like a Virgin 2013, and Xmas in July. Thanks.

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