Alternatives to Writing Contests: Other Ways to Find a Literary Agent

With the Grande Dame of writing contests sneaking up on us—yes, I mean Pitch Wars—writers from all genres are polishing up manuscripts in hopes of landing a highly coveted mentee spot. In fact, writing contests have become such a big part of the unagented writer’s life, sometimes we develop the mindset that the only way to find a literary agent is through a contest.

Pfft!!! Sorry, folks. Most writers find a literary agent through other channels, and getting into a coveted contest is no guarantee you’ll come out on the other side with offers in hand. Trust me, I know.

3 Ways to Find a Literary Agent

Though contest mentors definitely help, to use the cliche, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. But how else can we connect with the agent who will champion our work? Here are three different alternatives to consider:

  1. Querying.
  2. Conference pitching.
  3. Pitch events.

You’ve likely heard of these options before, but let’s take a closer look!

1. Querying

SURPRISE! Nothing beats the good old-fashioned slush pile.

Writing the query letter that will get you noticed can be just as hard as finishing a new manuscript, but the resources are vast. For example, check All The Kissing’s ”The Key Components to a Romance Query Letter”.

It’s also equally important that querying authors research agents carefully. Not only to legitimize the agents, but also because the closer the match between your words and the agent’s wish list, the higher the likelihood the agent will request your work.

Manuscript Wish List, or MSWL, is one of the quickest ways to find out which agents are looking for what you wrote.

Full of helpful information, agent Jessica Sinsheimer has done an excellent job of gathering agents’ manuscript preferences into one spot for your convenience. In addition, MSWL’s regular blog posts about the industry are super insightful.

While individual agency websites may take a little longer to reflect wish lists, MSWL is updated regularly and has the bonus of the #MSWL hashtag on Twitter. Searching the hashtag can give you on-the-spot updates about what a particular agent is looking for.

I’m not gonna lie—the querying process is stressful. As authors, we want instant validation that our latest work is fabulous, but querying just doesn’t move quickly. We wait and we watch QueryTracker, angst-ridden, and wonder why our query was skipped on the timeline. Did the agent not receive it? Did they set it aside to come back to? Did they hate it so much they’d rather not respond?

Yes, it’s a stressful process. But it’s also practice for the hurry-up-and-wait industry we’re all part of.

2. Conference Pitching

With the Romance Writers of America® (RWA) national conference sneaking up on us, be on the lookout for new All The Kissing blog posts about in-person pitching and networking at conferences. For those who’ve never been to a writer’s conference, agents there often provide you with the opportunity to pitch your book in person. Known as an elevator pitch, it’s kind of a verbal query proposed informally and in person to an agent, with the goal of having them request your work.

Why would anyone want to pitch face-to-face with the scary agent? Because literary agents are not really scary at all.

They’re people like us who are busy AF. You also want to pitch in person because speaking with agents and editors face-to-face can help them remember you later on.

Generally, you sign up for formal pitch sessions, but there are many other ways to connect with industry professionals during a conference. Perhaps you chat them up at an evening mixer, or discuss their wish list over lunch. And while most agents don’t ask you to hand over your manuscript on the spot, they’ll likely tell you to query them with a specific subject line if they’re interested—if you’re lucky, they’ll ask you attach the manuscript as well. Still, hello again, slush pile. The pile is just shorter for requested manuscripts.

Hot Tip: Don’t accost an agent in the bathroom to pitch your work. RUDE. Also, don’t hold them up and make them late to their next meeting or workshop while you prattle on about your book. You don’t want them to walk away feeling annoyed.

3. Pitch Events

Not technically contests, pitch events like #DVpit and #KissPitch are designed to grab an agent’s or publisher’s attention in a pitch limited to 280 characters.

Twitter pitch events can feel like contests, but that’s only if you compare yourself to the other participants.

Workshop your pitches with your friends beforehand and give agents a polished sentence or two to look at. You never know—you might just get a heart and a little bump up in their slush pile…but you’re still going to be in the slush pile.

Landing an agent without ending up in a slush pile first is like finding an Easter bunny-unicorn hybrid who poops cupcakes with sprinkles. Direct query, contest, pitch event, or pitch session, chances are you’re still going to send a query letter and endure the stressful hurry-up-and-wait so prevalent in publishing. However, contests and the like can move you a little closer to the top of the slush pile.

The majority of authors who enter contests don’t get selected and don’t find agents that way. If you don’t get into a contest, it doesn’t mean your writing blows! There are a lot of factors in contest selection that may not affect you when you query. Perhaps your story wasn’t a match for a contest mentor, or your voice didn’t strike a chord with the coaches. It doesn’t mean that your writing won’t connect with an agent.

In actuality, these contests where we think agents are beating down the doors of all the participants are meant to prepare you for querying. Agent requests are a bonus, never a given. Don’t give up on your dream agent just because you didn’t get into that latest contest.

Simply find another path.

Feature image by Mike Burke on Unsplash

Tricia Lynne
Tricia Lynne is fluent in both sarcasm and cuss words and has little filter between her brain and mouth––a combination that tends to embarrass her husband at corporate functions. A tomboy at heart, she loves hard rock, Irish whiskey, and her Midwestern roots. She’s drawn to strong, flawed heroines, and believes writing isn’t a decision one makes, but a calling one can’t resist.

A member of the Romance Writers of America, she lives in the North Dallas ‘burbs with her husband, and three goofy dogs. Her debut, Moonlight & Whiskey, is slated for release Spring, 2019 with Random House/Loveswept.
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