A year ago I entered THE FUNERAL SINGER in a contest called Pitch Wars. The experience was simultaneously terrifying, exciting, and rewarding. It also proved to be the most important step I would take in my five-year path to publication.
If you are already
obsessed familiar with Pitch Wars, you can skip this bulleted list while I explain how the annual contest works:
- Contestants send in a query letter and the first few pages of their manuscripts to mentors--authors and agent/editor interns or assistants who volunteer to participate and who specify on the Pitch Wars website what genres they're most interested in. Last year's rules stated we could submit to three mentors of our choosing.
- The mentors then review their submissions and select one writer and two alternates they wish to work with.
- The selected contestants send their full manuscripts to their mentors for critique and, if they agree with the mentors' suggestions, they have about five weeks to make revisions.
- With a new and improved manuscript ready to roll, contestants post a pitch and the first 250 words of their manuscript on the Pitch Wars site.
- A group of amazing editors and agents review the pitches and first pages and make requests to see more if interested. The contestant with the most requests wins!
I entered the contest in December 2013 and was thrilled to be selected by one of my targeted mentors--the generous, talented, and incredibly supportive Erica Chapman. Getting accepted (from among about 2,000 total entries) was a thrill, but it was just the start of my Pitch Wars rollercoaster ride. So, what happened, and what did I learn? Here are the top five lessons I took away from my Pitch Wars experience:
1. Prep, prep, prep.
I'd spent four years writing and revising this manuscript and another year exploring publication options, so my query letter and pages were definitely as strong as I could make them. At last, all those critique partners, workshops, and hours of hard work would pay off.
Also, I researched my selected mentors carefully. All three were people I wanted to work with, and all three were people who seemed like they would be great fits for my manuscript. This targeting--much like the targeting writers need to do when seeking agents and publishers--made a huge difference in my response rate, as all three of the mentors expressed an interest and requested to see more pages.
Finally, I did tons of research on the market. I knew where my story would fit in the young adult world and what types of readers might like it. In my query letter, I said THE FUNERAL SINGER "took AUDREY, WAIT! and dropped it onto the set of SIX FEET UNDER." Turned out, Erica was a huge SFU fan and had also read and loved AUDREY, WAIT! Talk about a perfect match!
2. Sometimes your manuscript needs tough love.
freaked out about waited patiently to see Erica's critique, I had some hopes and fears about what she might suggest. Were there sections that moved too slowly? characters who needed more fleshing out? word choices that didn't quite work?
Hahahahaha! If only. No, Erica came back with one main comment: I needed to change my main character's ultimate love interest. Yes, you read that correctly. SHE WANTED ME TO MAKE A DIFFERENT CHARACTER THE MC'S LOVE INTEREST! That is not a tweak, people. That is not a light revision. That is a REWRITE of most of the novel. And I had five weeks to do it. Keeping in mind, it took me FOUR YEARS to write it.
My immediate reaction: I'm done. I'm quitting. I cannnot deal for one more minute with this novel. I told my husband this. Then I
made the mistake of through the grace of God read him Erica's email. "Can you believe that?" I asked. "She wants me to make HIM the love interest!" At which point, Joe, who by the way is SUPPOSED TO BE ON MY SIDE, DAMMIT, said, "I think she might be right."
This did not make me feel better. This made me want to go to bed and cry for fourteen hours. But it also made me go back, review my novel with Erica's critique in mind, and decide to try. And you know what? She was right.
3. Sometimes you need to go with your gut.
In addition to the whole love-interest thing, Erica made a number of smaller suggestions. Some of them I followed, but a couple I didn't. While I of course respected her expertise and her opinions, in the end, THE FUNERAL SINGER was my story. Certain elements meant a lot to me, and I wanted to stick with them.
I did, however, take a look at her comments and consider other ways to address them. Sometimes when an agent, editor, or critique partner suggests a change, what they are really saying is, "What you did here isn't quite working." As they say, there is always more than one way to skin a cat.
For example, Erica wanted me to make a major change to my climactic scene because she worried that my main character's actions in that scene made her too unlikeable. Without giving any spoilers, I did not make that change, but I massaged it enough that, while her actions remained the same, the context around them changed enough that (I hope) the reader is able to at least understand them.
4. With enough motivation, incentive (and a hard deadline!), anything is possible.
As someone who works full-time and writes at a snail's pace even on the weekends, the thought of revising my novel in time for the agents/editors round was more than a little intimidating. Did I mention I had five weeks? And needed to change the LOVE INTEREST?!? So, yeah.
But I knew Pitch Wars offered a great opportunity, I knew there were hundreds of writers out there who had competed for that opportunity, and by now I knew that Erica's revision suggestion was just what my novel needed to take it to the next level. So, I did it. And even if this list of lessons ended right there, it would have been worth it.
5. Contests can work!
But, the list doesn't end there! I received seven requests from agents/editors (which was not enough to win ... the winner got eight ... but I wasn't complaining!). I ultimately did sign with one of the agents, Andrea Somberg from Harvey Klinger Inc., and even ultimately (outside of the contest) found a home for my novel.
Had it not been for Pitch Wars, THE FUNERAL SINGER would not be a book today! It was released on September 24 by Swoon Romance, a longtime dream come true.
Don't you just love happy endings?