13 March 2013

Why a Writing Contest Failure was the Best Thing Ever

original artwork by S.P. McConnell

This Friday, the submission window opens for Pitch Madness, an amazing contest on Brenda Drake's blog, where writers get the chance to showcase their best pitches, and agents compete to win the chance to request pages from the manuscripts pitched.

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while will remember that I entered Pitch Madness last March as well... and I didn't get in. I made it into the slush round, but wasn't picked to be one of the actual showcased authors for the agent round. And I was kind of devastated, because I had put so much hope behind this opportunity. Several of the agents participating were on my dream list, and I just KNEW that if they saw my pitch, they would fight to the death for a chance to read my manuscript.

But I didn't even get a chance to play the game! (Sob!)

A day or two after the selections for Pitch Madness were posted, I saw another frustrated author post on twitter: "The worst part about not making it in is that I don't even know why." I responded to her tweet, completely agreeing with the frustration and wishing that I could also know why I wasn't selected. But I understood that, with the number of entries received in a contest like this, it was totally unrealistic to expect feedback from the judges on the entries that didn't make it. And I pulled out my virtual pom-poms to cheer for those who did make it into the contest, so I wouldn't fall into the trap of heartbreak and bitterness.

Imagine my surprise when contest coordinator extraordinaire, Brenda Drake, sent me a private message (she had seen my tweet) to let me know that my entry had been very close. Half of the judges loved it, the other half did not... so it didn't make it past the slush. She explained the problems that the judges had seen in my submission and offered me a few tips for the revisions. Then, she encouraged me to enter the Writer's Voice contest that she had coming up in May.

I revised, got feedback, revised again, reworked my pitch multiple times and got my entry all beautiful and shiny.

And I chatted with Brenda and the other judges for the upcoming contest on Twitter almost daily.

My manuscript was better than it had ever been. My pitch was nearly-perfect. And several of the judges expressed interest in my story even before the submission windows opened, playfully teasing each other back and forth on twitter over who would get to pick me for her team.

It was a sure thing.

 When the Writer's Voice competition rolled around, I proudly posted my entry on my blog and waited for the fighting over me to commence.


Sure, I got  lots of comments and encouragement from my friends, the other contestants, and a few people who wandered across my blog... but nothing from the judges.

And of course, I cried. I sobbed. I bawled. I threw a couple of mini tantrums (in the privacy of my own bedroom, of course). These judges were my FRIENDS!! They had ENCOURAGED me! They said I was a good writer!! So why wouldn't they pick me?? Maybe they weren't really my friends at all. Maybe they were just big old meanies who had only built up my hopes in order to crush me and laugh at me in public. That was the only possible explanation, right??

As I wallowed in a pool of self-pity and woe-is-me-isms, Brenda sent me another private message. "I really wish I could have picked you. I think you have talent, but your manuscript still isn't ready. You didn't really do anything about those issues I mentioned the last time, and they're still holding you back."

She offered to work with me, once the contest was over, and so I sent her my manuscript, which she promptly ripped to shreds. And I cried again. (Are you noticing a pattern here??) I turned off my computer and told my family that I was done being a writer. Obviously, I didn't know what I was doing, and I could revise this thing forever, and it would never be good enough, and I should just give up on that silly, old writing dream.

Then, I fired up the computer again and took another look. And of course she was 100% right.

So I revised and edited and sent the manuscript to critique partners for feedback... and revised and edited and got feedback from new critique partners... and revised and edited and revised and edited... and many drafts later, I entered a few more contests.

This time around, I made it to the agent round of a couple of contests, and I even got a few requests.

If my friends had "played favorites" with me and allowed my not-quite-ready-yet manuscript to slide through into the agent rounds of the contests, the agents would have been tired of seeing my pitch by the time I was actually ready. Which would have hurt my chances in the long run, and not helped at all.

And so, a year later, I am so grateful for these contest judges (still friends of mine) who had the courage to face hundreds of hopeful authors, like me, and boldly say: You may not be ready yet, but keep trying. You'll get there.

And I'm trying my luck with Pitch Madness again this year. I have a brand-new, never-been-pitched-before, polished and shiny manuscript. And this is truly the best novel I've ever written. It might even be "The One." But if it's not, I'll learn from this failure too... and my next novel will be even better. (I'm already in love with the new story. It might be "The One!")

Update: It turns out that the polished and shiny manuscript I was working on was indeed "The One!" My debut novel, TWELVE STEPS, will be published by Swoon Romance in March 2014!


  1. A few things here.

    1. I totally get what you're saying. I felt the exact same way after I got my first big rejection. I was heartbroken. I felt like I was a total hack and nothing good would ever come of my writing. I lived in a depressed haze for the rest of that day. (Which is unfortunate, because I got the rejection in the last few hours I was spending with my favorite cousin on a trip to Arizona...kinda ruined it.) But then, after I got over the initial funk, I realized that everything the agent said about my book was right. I realized that her feedback helped me, rather than hurt me. (And then I apologized to my cousin.)

    2. The book you're pitching this year is AMAZING! I'm so excited about it! (And if you want any feedback on your pitch, send me an email.)

    3. "(I'm already in love with the new story. It might be 'The One!')" Does this mean you're working on a wholly new book that I don't know about? Because that's what it sounds like! I wanna know about it!!! :)

    1. I am working on a whole new book. I thought I mentioned the idea to you, but I might have forgotten. I'll send you an email :)

    2. You probably did, and I just completely forgot. Brain like Swiss cheese. I bet you'll send me the email, and within a few words, I'll be all, "Oh yeah!!!!"

  2. Wow! :D I completely get that! Good luck on Pitchmadness! I hope you make it to the agent round!

    1. Thanks! I have my fingers crossed! (Well, not literally, because that would make it hard to type.) But even if I don't make it in this contest, I know I'm much more prepared this time around, and I'm going about this querying/contesting thing with a much better game plan this time around. :)

      And I have my other manuscripts to work on in the meantime.

      Are you entering Pitch Madness this year?

  3. What a great story (and so true!) I didn't get chosen for Pitch Wars in November, but Brenda was so sweet through the whole thing and gave me hope. My second book is the one that landed me my agent, I hope you have the same experience with your second one! :)

    1. I didn't get picked for Pitch Wars either. Kind of funny... Since my move brought me to Brenda's hometown, I've had the privilege of getting together with her frequently, and I kind of worried that people might think there was favoritism involved when I got picked for Pitch Wars (I was so sure I'd get in!!) - but then I didn't even make the cut for the alternates! So much for the theory that "it's who you know" in this business! There's no substitute for good writing and a salable story!(Like I said, though, that manuscript has been shelved for now. I have big hopes for the one I'm entering into Pitch Madness!)

  4. Did you take this from my own life? LOL! Yes, I totally feel your pain. Rejection in writing is so personal, but if you learn to look at it, it helps you grow.

    1. :) This story mirrors the story of probably every aspiring author out there! The key is finding the lessons in the failures and moving forward!

  5. Thank you for sharing your story! I waited to read it until I posted mine, I didn't want it to taint my post LOL! Good luck in pitch madness! My new ms is not ready so I'm sitting this one out.

  6. So...I've commented and erased several times. Left the page and come back. All signs that you have stirred up a reaction. :-D

    I do appreciate your words, and they have complete merit. I agree with them completely, because I have taken all of these steps, including working with a wonderful professional editor. One of the slush readers mentored my pitch before hand and they loved it. I posted it on my blog and got great comments...

    And...I didn't make it out of round one, in Pitch Madness.

    I'm not so much upset, as baffled.

    1. My advice? Try sending out some queries. I've seen so many of the slush zombies commenting on how some of their favorites didn't make it to round 2 of Pitch Madness. Yours may well be one of those. If you're confident with your manuscript and your pitch, and you're getting good feedback, what do you have to lose?

      Contests are great, but they're not your only shot at catching an agent's attention. I think the biggest benefit of contests, for me, has been the way preparing my entry has pushed me to grow as a writer and to find the little flaws in my pitch & pages that I might have otherwise overlooked. So now that you've polished your pitch, send it out into the world and see how it fares in the agent slush!

      Good luck!! :)

    2. Thanks Veronica,

      I am querying. I'm totally open to growth and refining, as I hope my post reflected. Though I may be stomping my foot a little, it's not in stubbornness. :-)

      Thank you for the great blog.

    3. Sometimes, a little foot-stomping is absolutely necessary before we're ready to move on to the next step. :)

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. From the creaking basement of the past, comes this update. I'd forgotten this post and that I'd responded. Then today Debra posted below and it sent me a followup.

      So...here is the update.

      This pitches, that got me nowhere in the contest, were exactly what I needed! An author friend tweeted me that Escape was looking for NA novels. When I went to the site I found they wanted a few short sentences about your book and the MS. (the rules for submitting were different for this short time.) If they liked your pitch, they'd give the MS a look.

      I, literally, took three of my pitches, tied them together and popped it over, never expecting to hear a thing. One week later I saw an email from them. "Another reject..." was my thought as I punched it open on my phone.

      I nearly passed out when I read that they wanted to publish Tearing the Shroud. November 1 it released, I've submitted book two in the Shroud series and am writing the third.

      Everything we do can be helpful in the long run, even the things that seem a dismal failure (like I felt about my entries.) Don't give up folks!


  7. What a fantastic post. It's nice to read someone else's journey and know with absolute certainty that we are just not alone. Surprisingly for me, I'm not bummed out that I didn't make it into round two this time around. I learned some stuff and connected with amazing people.

    I know there are awesome writers out there, including you, and I'm happy to cheer on from the side. Someday, my MS will be ready, after many revisions (hopefully)

    I think was great that Brenda reached out to you and that you've been able to build a relationship with some of the judges, the work they do goes beyond anything we can ask for. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. I think the best thing about writing is the supportive community of writers. I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the encouragement I've received from others along the way. And every setback I've ever had has been a good thing in the long run, even when it was heartbreaking at the time.

      Good luck with your revisions! :)

  8. That post really hit home. Thanks!

  9. Totally great story! It definitely hit home!

  10. Love this story...total inspiration :D

  11. Thanks for writing this :) I know it was written awhile back but it feels completely appropriate. What a wonderful mentor you found in Brenda Drake, it must have hurt like crazy and I say that is exactly what I dream for now (until my manuscript get's torn to shreds ;).
    What a neat turn around that now you are helping with the contest! I'm so excited to read your book!!

  12. <3 I think we all go through those times in our writing lives when we're totally discouraged & thinking we'll never get anywhere. When the downs hurt so much that we don't even notice the ups. That's why I wrote this post. To remind myself (and others) that every great moment can be traced back to something that felt like a tragedy at the time. And when I realize that eventually I'll find the joy in the lessons I learn from my hard times, then I figure I might as well skip over the being miserable part and move straight to being happy about it. :)

  13. It's nice that the writer community reached out and helped you, especially Brenda Drake.

    People always give the advice of reaching out and making connections, but I've tried that. I've tried engaging other writers with vast amounts of experience (like Brenda Drake) and following on twitter, only to be ignored (not return followed) and treated, imo, like social pariah.

    It's difficult enough being a diverse writer (not only multiracial but also neurodivergent and having chronic and painful disabilities), and writing about diverse characters: it's even more difficult to be snubbed by other more successful writers.

    OR participating in twitter pitching contests like pitmatch, only to discover the 'popular' group of writers and friends were matched with agents. It hurts and it's extremely discouraging to not only myself but also diverse writers.

    1. I'm so sorry that you feel discouraged. Sometimes, it's really easy to feel like you've been lost in the shuffle. It's very likely that you aren't being snubbed intentionally. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I don't automatically follow everyone who follows me on Twitter. Not because I'm playing favorites or putting people into categories of who is worthy and who isn't ... It's just that my Twitter notifications go by so fast, and I often don't notice who is following or unfollowing me. (I know there are apps that keep track of those things for you, but paying attention to the implied popularity contest makes me sad, so I don't.) If someone talks to me frequently about things that make me happy, or if I see someone spreading joy, I'll follow that person. And I hope that people follow me for the same reason. :)

      Twitter pitch contests are also really hard. They're fun and exciting, and sometimes lead to amazing matches ... But they're also insanely fast-paced, and there's no way to catch every possible match. I know, with PitMatch specifically (where pitches were being matched to agent wish lists), there was a huge effort to study the agents' MSWL wishlists and to make as many matches as possible. (We were playing for bragging rights, after all, and only got points when requests were made!) I can assure you, I didn't have time to search for agents to match my friends' pitches. There was no favoritism from me. I simply read through the feed as quickly as I could, and when I saw a pitch that grabbed my attention, I matched it with the agent who had requested something like it. And I know a few Cupids were still making matches LONG after the event was officially over. (Brenda Drake, for instance, was matching pitches to agents until well after midnight, when the contest ended at 4!) But even with all of that, it was impossible to match all of the amazing pitches to the agents. There was just too much to go through.

      But that's the wonderful thing about manuscriptwishlist.com (the website associated with MSWL)! You can search the agents' wishlists for yourselves and make your own match! Find the agents who are actively seeking mss similar to what you write, and send a query!

      There's a huge want/need for diverse books, so you're in a good position. Just be positive. Be optimistic. And don't give up! Each failure leads to success, if you keep moving forward! <3

      Good luck!!