I've entered lots of contests--some I've had success and others not--and think they are a fantastic way to get your work out there in front of agents. I recently entered a contest that had 356 entries! Just the thought makes my stomach sink. I didn't make it to the 30 open slots, but that's okay. I've definitely developed that "thick skin" everyone's always talking about. But I still feel it. Like a mosquito bite...slightly annoying, kind of itchy, but it goes away eventually.
From querying the past year, I've had 8 full manuscript requests from agents (many more partials, but I haven't counted them). Each of them has said in some way that, while "well-written and entertaining," my book doesn't stand out from the saturated market. It's WAY competitive in YA. That contest with 356 entries? 201 were YA. I could easily tell myself, "Self, you've been at it for a year, around 66 agents have had a looksy. Put the book down. Try again." And in a way that's what I'm doing.
Lesson One: Always Be Writing. Not just thinking, but practicing your craft. You can eliminate the "weak writing" problem straight away. So agents never see your training wheels.
But then I read all kinds of success stories and Querying Journeys through the Trenches and it reminds me of:
Lesson Two: Never Give Up. Sounds cliche, but it's so stinking true. You know it is. You can smell the truth from here.
But perhaps the most important lesson I've learned this past year is:
Lesson Three: It's all about your Idea.
I've had agents say that my concept is "cute," "good," "compelling," but that my story doesn't "blow me away" and needs "an element of mystery or a thriller aspect." An agent recently asked, "What's the hook?" I was confused because I thought it was apparent. I have to work on that.
So many people who've entered contests with me this past year are signing with agents and selling books. The common denominator is this: Their stories had great hooks. Their stories started with a great Idea. I wish it hadn't taken me a year to realize this. But that's what querying is about. You don't know until you try.
Quiet stories are always going to be a tougher sell. Just look at how much people have criticized Pixar's Brave. It's not as popular as other films like Monsters, Inc. but it has it's place. Also, it wasn't Pixar's first film.
Debut authors have to STAND OUT big time to get noticed and compete in the market. Good writing should be a given, but Ideas are Gold. I hope this helps some of you writing your cute little butts off. And thanks for listening.
Now tell me: What books out there do you wish you had thought of or written?