Monthly Archives: April 2017

Why Query Contests are Awesome

I didn’t get my agent from a query contest, but I entered a bunch of them back when I was querying, and I found contests to be incredibly helpful to me as a writer. But not for the reasons I thought they would be.

Some people do find their agents through contests, but I know I got far more requests querying. When you query, you can pick agents you’re interested in, and who are seeking what you write. It’s a better way to find the perfect match.

Contests are, however, AMAZING for several things:

Feedback – Some contests offer feedback to entrants. These are incredible opportunities! But even contests that don’t offer feedback often will abound with chances for query exchanges or critique giveaways on the contest hashtag.

Community – Contests are often a great way to meet other writers through the social media surrounding the contest. You can learn from tips other writers post, meet potential CPs or beta readers, and simply know you’re not alone in the trenches.

Field Testing – If your query gets picked for a contest, that’s a great sign that it’ll get requests from agents, too. If it doesn’t get picked for one contest, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything—they’re often very competitive—but if you enter a few and don’t get picked, your query or your book may need more work before you send it out to agents. Entering contests is a great, risk-free way to field test your query without closing any doors.

Case Studies in Awesomeness – You can learn a lot by checking out the winning queries in major contests, even if you don’t enter yourself. It can be especially interesting when there are multiple rounds with revisions between rounds, so you can see how the query improves, or if mentors post public feedback you can learn from. You can read the queries (and excerpts, where applicable) and see which ones really want to make you read the book, and learn from what those writers do.

I entered a bunch of query contests when I was querying the novel that got me my agent (the one I wrote before THE TETHERED MAGE). The feedback I got from contests, and from people I met through contests, was absolutely invaluable in improving both my query and my entire novel; I wouldn’t have gotten my wonderful agent without what I learned from them.

I actually entered an early draft of the novel that would become THE TETHERED MAGE in PitchWars when I was still revising it, figuring it would be a good way to test my query at least… and wound up getting requests from all four of the mentors to whom I applied. I had to frantically finish my revisions and send off the full, and wound up getting picked as a mentee… and then got an offer from my lovely agent just a few days later and had to withdraw! But I knew from the huge difference between the judge reactions to that proto-TTM novel and the reactions to my previous novel that I’d finally gotten this right, and this was THE BOOK.

So if you’re a writer looking for an agent, I highly recommend checking out contests. Even if you don’t wind up participating, you can learn a ton and meet great people just by stalking them. (Er, stalking the contests, that is, not the people.) You don’t have to win contests to get published, but they are a fantastic place to find community, learn, and practice, so you’ll be much more prepared to revise your novel into its fully evolved badass form, write a killer query, and get the agent of your dreams.


Success Over 40 and Other Mythical Creatures

So, there was some talk recently about whether you’re washed up as a writer after a certain age and do you have to get published in your twenties and when should you give up and blah blah blah. I think a lot of people have said what needs to be said—which comes down to IT’S NOT OVER TIL IT’S OVER, BABY—but I also get that there are people out there who are despairing of ever finding the end of the publishing rainbow as the clock ticks on, so I wanted to share a bit of my personal story in case that might encourage anyone.

First of all, I am *GASP* over 40.

Okay, not a lot over 40. But turning 40 is a thing that happened in my past. (NOW YOU MAY LOOK AT MY PICTURE AND GO “WOW, MELISSA, I NEVER WOULD HAVE GUESSED.” WHY, THANK YOU. MOVING ON.)

Second of all, I have literally wanted to be a published writer since kindergarten. I know this because I remember we did an activity in kindergarten where we folded a piece of paper into like 6-8 squares and had to draw pictures of different things we might like to be when we grow up in each square. I put “Writer” in the first square and “Artist” in the second square, and then on reflection added “Princess” in the third square. And then I looked at the other squares like, dude, what more do you want from me? WHAT MORE IS THERE?!

I am sure my parents were thrilled to see I had selected such practical career choices. (In fact, I remember one of them—I’m not sure which—explaining to me that you couldn’t become a princess as a job, and that you had to be born the daughter of a king, and I remember thinking that was TOTAL BULLSHIT.)

I wrote picture books as a kid. I made my first real stab at a novel when I was maybe seven or eight, and got about 30 typewritten pages into it, which isn’t bad for a seven-year-old. It was about a princess who was a powerful mage AND had a magic sword AND rode a unicorn AND a dragon (though not at the same time, that would be weird), because WHO SAYS YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL?

In fourth grade, I wanted to publish a book of poems, and my dad got me Writer’s Market. I read that thing cover to cover (what was WRONG with me?) and submitted some stuff and was Terribly Serious about it all.

In my late teens/early twenties, I wrote a really (REALLY) bad novel about a teenage boy who was secretly a prince AND a dragon AND a mage AND a really good swordfighter, because WHO SAYS YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL? …So, yeah, that didn’t get me an agent. Thank goodness. But I tried. An agent even called me up and basically ranted at me on the phone about how I was wasting my potential. She ended the call by saying she had no doubt I’d be published someday. (Needless to say, she didn’t offer rep.)

It was very weird. In retrospect, I’m honored, and she was right on all counts.

I had to calm down and stop writing Mary Sue characters. I had to improve my craft, develop humility and empathy, and embrace revision. I had to grow up, both as a writer and as a human being. (Now, some people are already quite grown up as writers and human beings in their twenties. YAY! I salute those people. They’re amazing. That was not me.)

I got an agent when I was ready, as a writer. I got a publishing contract when I was ready. Before that, I still had more work to do. And that’s fine. I did the work. I learned the things. I wrote and wrote and wrote, I kept learning and getting better, and I didn’t give up.

And now, yay! I have a book coming out in October! MY LIFELONG DREAM IS FINALLY COMING TRUE!

It literally took, what, 35+ years?

And that’s fine. All that time, I was leveling up. Every shelved book earned me a ton of XP. Every word I wrote was a step toward this goal. Some people level up faster than me, and that’s great. But I made it! And you can, too.

The only way to be sure you never get there is to step off the path. Get back on that unicorn—or dragon—or BOTH AT THE SAME TIME, WHY NOT—and ride.