Cold querying isn’t the only way to catch a literary agent’s attention. In the past few years internet pitch contests have grown in popularity. Today Stacey Nash of Aussie Owned and Read is talking to Brenda Drake, one of the leading pitch contest hosts on the internet. They chat about success stories, what agents want, and making your contest entry shine.
- Hi Brenda, Thanks for joining us. You’re known around twitter as the contest queen. Tell me, when and how did you get into contest hosting?
Ha! I am? That just made me smile. Well, I just kind of fell into contests. I started by joining blogfests and entering contests on wonderful blogs like Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing and Miss Snark’s First Victim. I didn’t make it into many of them, but I met some fantastic writers and it helped me get out of my writing cave. Since I got so much out them, I decided to hold my own contest.
- What was the very first contest you hosted? Was it anything like the contests you run now?
I first held an editing contest with a freelance editor on my blog. It was so well received that I held an agent one afterward. That was a success, so I held another one. Before long, I started adding themes to my contests to make them fun, and Pitch Madness was born with #PitMad, Pitch Live, and Pitch Wars following.
- I imagine there is a lot of behind the scenes work involved. How much time goes into organising each contest?
I should say tons to impress you all, but actually it’s not too much work. Staying organized and scheduling time for it helps. I also bring in talented peeps to help out. It’s a community effort, and we’re all in it to help our fellow writers.
- I know that you often have help in the form of slush readers, judges and host blogs. How you choose the people that help you?
I choose people who have experience or whose writing I’ve seen in a contest that impressed me. Someone whose heart is in the right place and who genuinely want to help their fellow writers. It’s very important that they are honest and won’t have an issue with rejecting friends’ pitches to pick ones that are better and agent ready. Integrity is very important, especially if you want agents to keep doing your contests.
- What makes a stand out contest entry? You know the type. The ones we see the judges fighting over on twitter?
A well written pitch that clearly states the plot and conflict. A killer first line. Opening pages that have voice and grabs your attention right off. Opening pages that clearly introduces the main character in a scene. Opening pages that start in action but not the kind of action as in a car crash, fight scene, or any other scene that they feel “dropped” into without an introduction. Opening pages that don’t start with boring scenes like dreams, the weather, a surprised test, or fixing dinner. Originality wins every time.
- You’ve seen thousands of pitches. Is there anything you’ve seen too much of?
School settings that aren’t original. If you’re starting your story in a school, find something unique that hasn’t happened before, which is probably hard to do, so maybe start someplace unsuspected. I see a lot of Paranormal and Dystopian, which are tough sells right now. Stories like that need to be unique or they’ll get passed over in the current market. I see a lot of pitches that I believe start in the wrong place. Some I think, I’d like to know what happened before this scene, and others should start somewhere after the opening scene. I had cut three chapters of my young adult novel, LIBRARY JUMPERS, to get to where it starts now.
- There’s always a really great line up of agents. What are agents asking you to see?
The agents ask for great writing first. Lately, it’s been Contemporary, something in the real world for all categories. A middle grade with a boy point of view character. More mysteries and thrillers. Literary. Fantasies that feel grounded in our world, instead of unknown worlds. For those who take on Paranormal, they want new creatures not overdone ones like angels, vampires, werewolves, et al. Give them something new. Romances with real conflicts, not ones that are forced. Situations that can’t be easily solved. On Twitter, Sarah LaPolla had mentioned that parents get kidnapped in middle grade and young adult a lot, and “calling the police is apparently a preposterous idea every single time”. You must show us why the kids can’t call the authorities. There has to be a good reason why your main character is the only one to save the day. Don’t force plot, develop it.
- Have there been many success stories from your contests?
There have been many successes from the contests. I haven’t kept track, but there has been a lot. I’ve had some success stories on my blog. I think it’s nearing thirty, but just under. I should probably do a call for successes and come up with a better number. But with Pitch Madness contests, the Twitter pitch parties on #PitMad, Pitch Live, Pitch Wars, and The Writers Voice (created by Krista Van Dolzer and where I was a coach), the numbers are high.
- Is there any advice you’d like to give to contest entrants?
The competition is steep, but the rewards are many.
If you get in, your pitch is showcased on the blog and doesn’t have to compete with the daunting agent slush pile. One of the number guys once gave me a percentage of getting representation from the contests (35 percent chance) versus getting representation from the slush pile (8 percent chance). Of course, that is, if you make it into the final round of a contest.
If you don’t make it into a contest that you’ve entered, you’ve gained experience pitching and hopefully met some fabulous friends on the hashtag. It’s important to play a contest to your advantage. After hitting send on that pitch, participate with the other writers on the hashtag. Make new friends and critique partners. Cheer on the winners. My best writerly friends have come from me putting myself out there. Join in the fun. Don’t wallow in rejection. Your dream may be just around the corner, in the next contest.
- Last question. Your YA novel, Library Jumpers is due for release later this year. What genres do you like to write?
I enjoy writing middle grade and young adult, usually fantasy, but I’m having a lot of fun writing a thriller with my co-author, Rebecca Weston, at the moment. I think whatever I write has to have a lot of action to keep my attention. I love fast-pace stories with many colorful characters.
Thank you for joining us, Brenda.
Library Jumpers, Brenda Drake’s YA novel is due for release February 2014.
Add it to your Goodreads to read list.
Stacey Nash met many of the Aussie Owned contributors via Brenda’s Contests. They have grown into friendships, beta readers and invaluable critique partners. You can catch Stacey on twitter, facebook or at her blog.