Monday, March 11, 2013

Contest Reflections

Back on MLK day, Shannon “Awesome-In-All-Ways” O’Donnell and I put forth the call for unagented writers to submit their query and opening page. We then took the week to whittle it down to 3 finalists, at which point we received the first 25 pages from them, took a week to read and consider, and finally chose our winners to have their full manuscript sent to our agent with our full endorsement (the 2 runners-up also received critiques from Matt & Dianne).

The idea for the contest came to me when I thought of how much I had wanted to find an agent back when I was “single” (unagented) and I realized how hard it had been to start from scratch. With that first manuscript in flash drive, my green, anxious self set out on my way to queryland with grand ideas (I thought I’d be J.K. Rowling…the second…a male a different name). But reality quickly set in. I wasn’t destined for greatness from my first step like I’d hoped; it was more like I was in a dark room with my arms outstretched, no idea where I was going, what I was bumping into, or what I was even looking for. I realized my manuscript was pretty crappy (and way too long for debut MG), I didn’t even know what a query was, and I kept hitting dead ends down every road. I remember thinking: I wish I had someone to give me a chance. Just a chance. And thus, years later, the MLK contest was born, with Shannon hopping aboard for the crazy ride.

Soon after we got the contest going, Shannon and I emailed each other about how fun it was, how hard it was to judge, and how good the overall quality was. We decided at that point that it’d be a good idea to reflect on the experience later on in a blog post and describe the experience. THIS is that blog post.

Mike’s Thoughts:

Man, I was so impressed by the quality of the submissions. Overall, I received 36 entries in just a few days, and I had a hard time narrowing it down to three. There were maybe 5-10 that were not quite "there," another 10 or so that were very close, and then another 10-15 that were really good. I read and read, probably more than agents read before asking for more. Then again, I’m no agent. But then I thought of Alyssa's taste and let that be the deciding factor in whittling it down to my top three. 

Truth be told, the very first one I received was put in the “Yeah, this is good” folder and that was Theresa Milstein’s MURIEL AND THE MISFITS. More came in, some good some not at good and then—BAM-BOOM-WHAM—I got one that IMMEDIATELY grabbed me. I now know what agents mean when they say they “just know” because of this one. The writing was great, the voice was stellar, and even though it wasn’t my thing at all, I was hooked. It ended up being the winner, Gail Nall’s MG about figure skating (which I don’t care for at all) titled DON’T FALL DOWN. I actually emailed Gail right after I read hers and complimented her, and told her to be ready to send the first 25 pages. They kept coming in, many good ones, until I received Monica Tesler’s SPACE JUMPERS, which reminded me of my own writing (I hope that’s taken as a compliment). It was high-concept, tightly written, and very intriguing. That did it: I had my top three. I read them and really battled for a while, but Gail’s grabbed me so much that I must admit: I asked her to send me the full manuscript early on so I could read it. And then, just when I’d finished reading Gail’s manuscript and loved it, she emailed me to tell me she had an offer from another agent. I laughed and said, “Great minds think alike. That agent must have good taste.” I forwarded Gail’s book to Alyssa soon afterwards as my winner and gave her my full endorsement. In the end, Alyssa praised it but decided to pass—which goes to show the subjectivity involved. But no worries, because Gail is now represented by Julia Weber. Yay, Gail!

Shannon’s Thoughts:

The response from our MLK agent contest was fabulous, and I enjoyed reading each of the entries submitted. I must admit, though, that it was harder than I anticipated. The overall quality of the submissions blew me away. There are some really great writers out there! My first step in narrowing it down was word count. While I loved many of the stories I received, some of the word counts were too low for middle grade, which I know my agent is a stickler about. One of those stories, though, would make an AWESOME chapter book (in my opinion). Another needs quite a bit of expansion, but with an expanded storyline and higher word count, I know it would be scooped right up.

When it came to selecting the best submission for Terrie, choosing between my top two finalists was incredibly difficult. I found myself leaning slightly toward one story, but I thought Terrie would likely lean toward the other one. That was tough. However, I'm not the agent--Terrie is; therefore, I chose the best fit for her. We're still waiting to hear her thoughts, but I know she's going to enjoy it. My fingers are crossed for Linda!

In the end, Shannon and I both had a blast. We like to think we identified some gems—diamonds in the rough, you could say—and we wish all the contestants the best with their search. But…hmmm…anyone want to talk us (Project Mayhem) into another contest soon? I won’t speak for us all, but I’m all ears. Suggested format? Prizes? What do you think?


  1. Anyone who can write a gem of a query deserves high praise. This is a great idea, you two.

  2. Queries are like rocket science when you first try them. Like my blogmate Dee, I have come to enjoy writing them over the years, and think writing one helps me flesh out a story from the outset. But at first...oh yeah, hated it!

  3. Thanks for sharing what the process was like for you both. I bet it was very hard to choose. It'd be awesome if you could find other agents representing middle grade authors willing to look at a partial or full submission as part of a contest. I know getting them to accept a full could be hard so a partial might be easier.

    1. Good idea. MG agents are always full of energy so we will have to put the word out. Maybe maybe it a regular I Have A Dream contest every other month involving agents.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!