It’s amazing how excited some people get when they find out you own a large bottle of hydrocodone. On April 25th, 2016, I came into possession of said bottle by early afternoon, so the details of the day are a little hazy. I remember the morning began on an operating table, and ended with an email I’ll keep forever. Even though this post is about my experience with FicFest, there are a few events from the past 2 years that brought me to the contest.
Last February I attended a YA writers night in Chicago. It wasn’t to meet agents or pitch manuscripts, just a Q&A from three published authors plus an editor from an independent publisher. They each spoke of their craft, practices and rejections…all pretty standard material. An audience member asked the writers how they each found their agent. The first writer said a conference, the second by winning a contest, the third was unagented. Each of their publications came after histories of rejection through the query process. The editor chimed in with, “Reading queries is like feeding yourself from a garden you cultivated…you may get a ripe tomato once in a while, but it’s much more practical to go to the store than spend all that time working in the garden.” Her store, agents who have done the work for her, was where she spent most of her efforts.
At that point, I had done nothing but query letters. I hadn’t spent any time looking into contests and conferences were not exactly cheap. That evening I did the simple math; 0/3 published writers that spoke found an agent through the query process. Conferences and contests it was then, in that order.
That May I attended the Writing Workshop of Chicago, a one-day conference of various topics for aspiring writers. For an extra fee, 10 minute pitch sessions with agents could be purchased. I signed up with 4 agents, pressed a sharp looking button down, and set out to use my people skills to win someone over. I smiled wide and spoke with confidence when I sat down with each perspective agent.
Agent 1- Requested full, responded 3 months later. She did not find my characters believable, nor my plot plausible. She was excited by my pitch and very disappointed by the piece. This was the first feedback I’d ever received from an agent, and it broke me. She was an agent, her opinion was gold.
Agent 2- Requested full, responded 5 months later. She loved it, said it was beautifully written and had wide appeal to many audiences. My faith and confidence in myself was renewed for 30 seconds until the line in bold, ‘This is not an offer of representation.’ I read it four times, and those words didn’t change. Still, I received positive feedback, from an agent, and that counted for something.
Agent 3- Requested full, never heard from again.
Agent 4- Told me within two minutes I was in the wrong genre and my manuscript sounded more middle grade than YA. She was not at all interested and did not want to see any samples.
The problem with conferences (besides not being cheap) is you’re somewhat subject to geography. Even living outside of Chicago, I only saw a few opportunities.
Time to try contests.
I sent my manuscript to a couple of contests. Along the way I continued to revise with extra emphasis on the opening pages. Much like my luck with queries, I received no feedback or inkling of interest in the contest realm.
At least I still had Agent 2 that liked it and gave me positive feedback. I didn’t need to think about the other agent that didn’t like it, or even the one who told me I was in the wrong genre. She hadn’t read it, how would she even know it was MG and not YA? Sure it had a lower word count, no sex, and a young protagonist, no graphic violen—
She was right.
I wrote an upper MG manuscript and have been pitching it as YA.
Another revision, this time as a true MG manuscript. I wrote with more confidence now, so much that I threw out my opening page and query letter. My pages were tight, voice stronger, and everything felt cleaner for the next conference or contest, whichever came first.
Enter FicFest. A contest that was different from others. Each genre is given equal respect when finalists are chosen. In other contests, YA tended to dominate the finalists. I had a fighting chance, now armed with my MG manuscript. The best part was the prize: 8 weeks of being mentored by an established writer.
I read and reread the submission guidelines to make sure all my affairs were in order. No one had seen my new query or opening page yet, but they felt right. I clicked submit and waited for May 4th to arrive when the winners were unveiled.
While I waited, April 25th was also circled on my calendar. That morning I was scheduled for back surgery, the second of my life. It was a success and the doctor sent me home with a good report and high grade painkillers, the kind where your friends tell you to stop texting because you aren’t making much sense. Between the fasting and narcotics, my thoughts were hazy, scattered, and disjointed. It took all of the senses I had left to comprehend the email I’ll always keep.
One of the mentors from FicFest, Judi Lauren, asked me to send her a full manuscript.
I read it out loud, making sure it wasn’t an after effect of the morning’s anesthesia. I responded immediately, attaching the full. If I possessed the ability to walk that night, there would have been a spring in my step.
The next day she wrote me again, asking me about my query process. Which led to another email about changes I would consider and (if selected) where I would like mentoring help. This led to more emails about writing and our views on the process, then about our backgrounds, and more correspondence about shared interests. By Wednesday we talked about some of the areas I was struggling with and a new chapter I was working on to develop one of the characters.
On Monday I was dreading surgery where I would miss work and be confined to bed for the week. On Wednesday I thanked the universe for giving me this uninterrupted space, perfectly timed with FicFest, to write the chapter that plagued me. Needing my mind sharp and thoughts clear, I stopped taking any and all medication and set to work. The next 4 days were spent writing the chapter I couldn’t get out for months.
Judi and I quickly became very open and honest with each other, the best kind of critique partner to have. Judi was so committed to helping me, she promised to give me feedback no matter what the outcome of FicFest. She also became my friend. At the end of the week I had the chapter I’d been missing and received feedback from a writer who told me my work showed promise. To me, I’d already won.
The #FicFest feed that week was on fire with speculation. The mentors all dropped vague hints about who they liked and were fighting over while the participants exhausted every gif of someone nervous. On Monday, Tiffany (FicFest founder, known by all the entrants as Khaleesi) told us big news was happening that night. She was going to drop some of the winners names two days early.
When I saw my manuscript selected for Team Japan by Judi, I did everything I could to remind myself I could not physically jump in excitement or move quickly at all. I did screenshot the tweet just in case it was an accident.
What impacted me the most wasn’t so much winning. It was knowing that someone selected my work based 100% on my words. I didn’t get to sell it in a pitch session or use a connection, this was all on the page. It was the best I’d ever felt about my work.
Judi and I spent the next 2 months revising, and revising again. We ended up adding an additional chapter and I’m sure she grew tired of commenting ‘show, not tell’ throughout the piece. We felt great about the agent round fast approaching and the work we’d done on Speechless.
Before the agent round closed, I was floored to see that six agents requested to see more of my manuscript. It was even more surreal for me when I wrote them all at the end of the week to thank them, but I had already accepted an offer of representation.
Agent 2 from last May’s conference: I saw her exactly one year after my pitch (in the middle of my mentoring with Judi) and thanked her for the feedback and kind words. She told me she was still waiting on the revision… and wanted it badly. I had no idea she was still interested and told her about FicFest and I was going to see it through. She asked me to send her the revision when that happened. I sent her the revision the same day the agent round opened, thinking everyone would have equal time to read any materials (a few months). She responded three days later with an offer of representation and I accepted.
While I did not sign with an agent directly tied to FicFest, there is no doubt in my mind this contest helped my career. I will never forget the guidance that Judi gave me to get my manuscript where it needed to be, or Tiffany for creating this platform for writers like me to put their work in front of others. And the entrants… what an amazing group of collaborators. The outpour of support from the FicFest community is something you can’t reciprocate. Especially the week before finalists were announced; numerous critique partners were made and friendships created through the common ground of this contest. Writing is a tough road and no one is immune to rejection. Having a group like this to surround yourself in makes a tremendous difference and my work certainly reflected it.
Conferences and contests…as it turned out, both of those forces combined to create a perfect storm to help my career move forward. I’ve learned so much along the way about myself as writer and what I need to continue on this path. I’m grateful for what my work has become, but more grateful for the people I am now connected to.