Choosing Contest Entries: A Host’s Perspective

As those chosen for Nightmare on Query Street are working hard on their revisions, I wanted to give some insight to the types of things I’m thinking when I read through contest entries. Keep in mind that I am NOT an agent. An agent’s ability to ask to read something is limited only by their time to read. My ability to pick something, on the other hand, was limited by the rules of the contest. Also, as someone who helps in multiple contests, I often have a lot more background knowledge than a random agent reading a query letter (especially since they see so many more queries). So I wound up passing on some excellent entries that an agent might happily asked to read if you sent them a query. Not getting in is NOT a rejection.

Here are some reasons I wound up not picking entries found in my slush pile:

  1. The query told me what to think/how to feel about the book rather than what the book is actually about. For example, “AMERICA’S NEXT REALITY STAR is a hilarious and entertaining look at the inner workings of a reality show! With a spunky heroine and an intriguing setting, this book will grab your attention and not let it go.” All you really know at this point is that I like my own book. That’s good for me, I wrote it. But what’s it about? 
  2. The entire first page was a prologue, which means, 99 times out of 100, the story starts in the wrong place. It also too often means that the entire first page is backstory or other information that gets in the way of the story.
  3. The story was well-written, but I personally didn’t connect with the voice. 
  4. Another manuscript by the same author was recently chosen for another contest. No, that’s not against the rules, but at the same time, I like to give new people a chance. (Also, some agents frown on querying multiple books at once, so that’s in the back of my mind, too.)
  5. The same manuscript was chosen for another contest several months ago and received multiple requests from agents. While that’s not an automatic disqualification, contest agents generally aren’t likely to pick a manuscript they’ve already read, or one they’ve requested through another contest. So, again, I like to give someone else a chance. Getting chosen is an ego boost for authors, but for hosts, it’s about showing agents entries they might want to read.
  6. The same manuscript has been entered repeatedly in contests, with little to no changes. Every book has a shelf life for querying, and I can’t really tell you when it’s time to put it aside and pick up a new book. But when your first page is exactly the same a year later, and you’ve presumably been querying this whole time, it makes me wonder. That’s totally subjective. Plenty of contests hosts don’t feel that way. But it is something I personally think about.
  7. The word count is simply not consistent with genre standards. We want books agents will ask to read.
  8. The query was convoluted or something didn’t make sense to me. Sure, mentors can fix that, but with so many high quality entries, I can also pick one where I wasn’t confused by the query. Especially because mentors can’t MAKE writers make changes. I don’t know that the final query will be different.
  9. The market for this particular type of book is so saturated, I don’t think agents are likely to pick it. Also, the query isn’t clear what makes this book different from all the others.
  10. The tone of the query/first page didn’t match the stated genre/category.
  11. A couple of things jumped out at me as problematic. I’m not a sensitivity reader, but if I’m worried something is insensitive, there’s a good chance other people will pick up on it, too. And sure, a mentor can fix that. But seeing insensitive phrases or stereotypes in the query or first page makes me worry that there will be other issues elsewhere in the book. 
There were also plenty of entries I liked, but didn’t love, or that were in a genre I’m not that familiar with, or were on a topic that doesn’t personally interest me. I’m just one person. There are lots of agents. Not getting picked is not a rejection. Keep going! Send out more queries. The right agent will love it.
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