I used to think online writing contests were for lucky people. You know the type I mean—some folks are just lucky, always winning free vacations, Goodreads giveaways, or hitting it big on a slot machine. Me? Not so much. I didn’t even win a free water bottle with my employer’s name printed on it, that time they gave away 6 of them at a meeting that only had 8 attendees. No big deal. I didn’t want that water bottle anyway! But I never win stuff. I just don’t have luck like that. So why would I enter a writing contest?
Pitch Wars isn’t just any contest, though. I like to describe it as The Voice, but for writers: entrants submit a query and first chapter of their completed manuscript to their choice of 4 potential mentors, who then choose 1 mentee to work with for a 2-month period with the goal of polishing the manuscript to agent-ready shine. Afterwards, the finalists are presented in a showcase, where agents can directly request pages—which means writers get to skip over the slush pile, and participating agents get the first crack at these new manuscripts.
It sounds great, right? A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—except I’m not lucky. I never win anything. I probably wouldn’t get in. That’s what I was thinking in the days leading up to the submission window for Pitch Wars 2015, but hanging around on the Twitter hashtag (#PitchWars) and seeing the awesome community building even before the contest started, I decided to just go for it. And even though I’m not lucky, I did get in—and it changed everything for me.
I was selected by Kellye Garrett, also a mystery writer (check out her book, Hollywood Homicide, releasing in August from Midnight Ink!) who loves the same books I love, and who also loved my manuscript—except, well, the plot part of it. One of the first things she said once we started working together was, “I love this! We gotta change everything.” Kellye was able to see what I couldn’t—that the character and basic set-up of the mystery were solid, but the pacing was so very wrong that it seemed like I hadn’t even remotely considered pacing or suspense when I wrote it.
(Which was true.)
I considered myself a “pantser,” meaning I fly by the seat of my pants in my writing life, without plotting, planning, or outlining. Free-wheeling! It was working for me—after all, I’d finished five manuscripts in this way. Five manuscripts that had gotten me zero agents. (Maybe it wasn’t working after all.) So after Kellye informed me that we had to change the whole book, the next thing she said was I needed an outline.
By this point, I was a little freaked out. I didn’t know how to outline. I didn’t even know how to revise, since my previous efforts at revision had basically been limited to working on what was already written, rather than thinking up what could be written instead.
That right there is the beauty of Pitch Wars: during those 2 months, I learned those things. Kellye taught me to outline, to brainstorm, to fix pacing issues, to build tension, to begin and end each scene in the right place. She introduced me to the 3-act structure and showed me where to place plot twists to maximize momentum. I ended up essentially dismantling and rewriting the first 2/3 of the manuscript during the revision window. Armed with a new outline and a much, much better understanding of pacing, I rewrote about 60k words in 2 months—because there’s no better deadline than sheer terror, which is something else I learned during Pitch Wars.
I kid, I kid. It wasn’t scary. Pitch Wars was an incredible experience. I met tons of new people, learned for the first time what it means to revise, and I gained confidence in my work that I’d never had before. Even though Kellye wanted a lot of changes in my manuscript, she also believed in it—and me—so much more than I believed in myself. Thanks to her brilliant help on my book, it landed me an agent within a few days of the contest showcase, and a book deal with Minotaur about 2 months after that. And now, when it comes to plotting and pacing, I know what I need to do. None of this would’ve happened if I hadn’t decided to take a chance and entered Pitch Wars. So even if you aren’t typically lucky, forget about all the times you didn’t win a prize at the county fair. Pitch Wars is a contest that teaches you how to make your own luck, and that’s a prize worth winning.
Thank you so much for being our guest here today, Kristen, and congrats on your book!
Kristen Lepionka is the author of The Last Place You Look (June 13; Minotaur). She grew up mostly in a public library and could often be found in the adult mystery section well before she was out of middle school. She is the founding editor of Betty Fedora, a feminist crime fiction magazine, and her writing has been featured at Shotgun Honey, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Grift, and Black Elephant. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her partner and two cats. You can visit her at kristenlepionka.com