Shortly before my debut YA novel was published in 2016, I spoke to a local writer’s group about my path to publication. Year by year, I recounted the numerous ups and downs of my lengthy journey. After describing a series of setbacks and close calls with agents and editors, I finally recognized that every face in the audience looked absolutely horrified! From then on, I’ve given a swift summary instead: over ten years, three manuscripts, two agents, far too many rejections, just enough praise, and numerous contest finals and wins that validated my work. Indeed, I ultimately found my agent and publisher through contests.
This guest post is by Kristin Bartley Lenz. Lenz is a writer and social worker from metro-Detroit. She writes for Detroit non-profits and manages the Michigan Chapter blog for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Her debut young adult novel, THE ART OF HOLDING ON AND LETTING GO, was a Junior Library Guild Fall 2016 Selection and was chosen for the Great Lakes Great Books 2017-2018 state-wide literature program. Learn more at www.kristinbartleylenz.com.
If you are a querying writer, you’re no doubt aware of the many contests on Twitter, including #PitchWars and #PitMad (http://www.brenda-drake.com/). These are fabulous opportunities and I’m a 2017 Pitch Wars mentor, but Twitter is an extremely crowded sea. For sure, spend some Twitter time swimming amongst these supportive writing communities, but I’m here to encourage you to consider other contests as well.
Jay Asher is well known for his YA novel Thirteen Reasons Why that was recently made into a Netflix series, but you might not know that Jay had a very long road to publication. Numerous contests over many years gave him the validation he needed to persist, and it was winning a contest—the SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant—that ultimately helped him land a book contract.
In my case, I was feeling discouraged after spending nearly a year revising with an agent who ultimately passed on my manuscript by saying, “it’s not you, it’s me.” I was active in the YA blogging community and stumbled upon a contest on Monika Bustamante Wagner’s Love YA blog. Writers were encouraged to submit their queries, and agent Carrie Pestritto from Prospect Agency would choose her favorites. She picked mine, requested the full manuscript, asked me to revise, and then offered representation.
Yes, I was on my way! But I knew there were still hurdles ahead; just because an agent loves your book, there’s no guarantee it will find an editor. And even though my manuscript went through several revisions with Carrie, we had no luck in selling it.
What to do now? Write another book, which I did. But I also had an older manuscript that was still speaking to me. It had been a finalist in several contests and the young adult winner of the Chicago North Romance Writers of America 2011 Fire & Ice Contest, judged by an agent. That agent ultimately passed, and my current agent Carrie wasn’t so sure either. The manuscript needed to be revised, and we were at a crossroads about which direction to take.
My frustration was at an all-time high (ten years, people!). I knew I had a strong story and that the right editor could help me grow it even stronger. Yet again, I stumbled upon a contest. Elephant Rock Books was accepting submissions for their annual Helen Sheehan YA Book Prize. I knew enough to be wary about contests and small presses, but I remembered ERB from a Publisher’s Weekly article: Small But Mighty Presses Prevail at ALA Awards. ERB’s previous Sheehan Prize winner, Carvial at Bray, went on to be a Printz honor winner and a Kirkus Book of the Year. I had read the novel; it was a coming-of-age story similar in style to mine. I scoured the ERB website and found it professional and full of personality. (Yes, even websites can have “voice.”) I submitted my manuscript right at the deadline.
When I got the call that I won the contest, I was elated, but then I panicked. I had known in advance that winning would mean publication, but now it was a reality. I had spent years aiming for a big New York publisher, and now I was veering off course to a small press in Connecticut. And I had to break the news to my agent. This wasn’t the path she had imagined for me either.
But Carrie was happy for me and supportive. She reviewed the contract and worked as a partner throughout the entire process. She negotiated the audio rights with Audible and helped with promotion. The Art of Holding On and Letting Go was the only novel ERB published in 2016, and I received all of their attentive care. They nurtured my book through every stage from intensive editing and design to marketing and sales. They sent it far and wide, resulting in positive reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, VOYA, and many enthusiastic bloggers. It was a Junior Library Guild Selection, and I was invited to speak on a panel at NCTE/ALAN. This small but mighty press continued to prevail.
Prior to the Sheehan contest, I didn’t even realize this path was a viable option. If I hadn’t made the somewhat impulsive decision to enter the contest, I would have no idea how much a small press could accomplish. My detour was surprising and rewarding. Most importantly, I grew as a writer.
How can you make contests work for you?
1. Contests motivate you to meet a deadline, validate your work, and help you improve your craft.
National, regional, and local writing groups around the country offer ongoing contests to support and encourage writers. Look for free or low entry fees, and contests that provide cash prizes, free conference tuition/scholarships, access to agents or editors, or feedback.
Many literary agents offer query critiques that help you learn exactly what they’re looking for. Find them on blogs such as http://www.literaryrambles.com/. My agent hosts a monthly query contest on her own blog at http://literarycarrie.blogspot.com/2017/05/query-critique.html.
RWA offers national and regional contests, agents and editors are often the final judges, and you receive feedback. Darcy Woods’s debut YA novel, Summer of Supernovas, was published in 2016 after she won a series of RWA contests.
My SCBWI-MI chapter offers an annual Mentorship Competition alternating between novels, picture books, and illustration. My critique partner, Tracy Bilen, won a one-year mentorship with author Shutta Crum. After her year of writing and revising as Shutta’s mentee, Tracy was offered agent representation, and a publishing contract soon followed. Bonus for me: What Tracy learned during her mentorship, I got to learn right alongside her. I never won one of those mentorships myself, but I was a finalist every time I entered—further assurance that I was on the right track.
2. Contests can lead you to agents.
Those contests judged by agents? You’ve now bypassed their slush pile. Agents are also paying attention to major contest results. Heather Smith Meloche placed first in the Children's/Young Adult Fiction division of the 80th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Later that same year, she won the Hunger Mountain Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. Several agents contacted her, and she chose the best fit. Her winning short story grew into the young adult novel, Ripple, which was published last fall.
3. Contests can lead to publishing credits and even a book deal.
The same year that Heather won the Katherine Paterson Prize, one of my short stories was a finalist, and Hunger Mountain later published my story in their online journal. I earned a bit of money, gained experience working with an editor, and added an extra credit to my query letters.
The Helen Sheehan YA Book Prize led to my novel’s publication, but how do you find reputable contests? And how do you evaluate the legitimacy of a small press?
Here’s a diverse list of free contests from The Write Life ranging from poetry to picture books to crime fiction.
Did you know St. Martin’s Press has a contest for best first mystery novel?
How about Lee and Low’s New Voices Award for a winning picture book manuscript by a writer of color?
Do you write nonfiction? Check out the Graywolf Press NonFiction Prize.
So you’ve zeroed in on a small press opportunity. Before you enter their contest or agree to a publishing contract, read Jane Friedman’s article: How to Smartly Evaluate a Small Press.
What’s the secret to winning a writing contest?
My writer friend Vicky Lorencen wrote a blog post about creating your own luck. Continue to grow your craft and submit your best work. You know the saying: success happens when opportunity meets preparation.
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