After finishing a MG novel -- not the one I'm hard at work revising now, but the finished one immediately prior to it -- I of course began querying agents. I entered some online contests, too. And while most agents ask for either the query letter alone, or the query plus ten pages, or five pages, or three chapters, or sometimes even fifty pages, most contests ask for a very small sample of the actual work. It might be a pitch sentence plus, say, 150 words, or 250. That's it. And it does make sense. Those first 150 or 250 are crucially important in engaging the reader's interest. There are practical considerations, too. Most contests are slammed with entries, and accepting more than the first page or so from each entrant would become overwhelming.
Still, I've looked at my finished novel, and the one I'm working on, too, and have wondered if they really lend themselves to being evaluated in only 250 words. 400-500? Absolutely. But I've realized that the story structure in both of mine would be hard to get a good sense of in only 200-250 words. And the truth is, I have had much better results with the standard querying process than with contests.
I thought about this question again as I read the beginning of Kate Messner's MG novel Capture the Flag. There was nothing wrong with what I was reading at all. But, really, if the author weren't already agented, I'm not sure how the first couple of pages would fare in a pitch contest. Because there isn't a single child's POV in the entire first chapter. Through an adult's POV, three kids are shown sitting on a bench, but that's it. They don't look up; they don't speak; they're just noticed in passing. The children are not referenced until past the 200-word mark. My guess would be that if you handed the first 150-200 words to a number of readers, many would not realize they were reading the beginning of a children's book. Only the pitch sentence would say otherwise. Yet, in my opinion, the book does begin in the right spot.
I've made similar observations about two other books: What Came From the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt; and Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz. One begins with the dreaded prologue (and not a short one). You know, that thing you're not supposed to use because "everybody hates it"? Neither begins with a child character's POV. Both are awesome, and rather difficult (I admire difficult), MG novels.
If you've entered an online contest, or thought about doing so, have you ever felt that contests may be best suited to certain types of books? Or do you think what I'm noticing is mainly a matter of the three cited authors being allowed to do what they like based on past sales? Might I even raise the question of whether there are two tiers of novels: debuts and/or books from authors with marginal sales figures that need to walk a somewhat narrow line to maximize their chances to be published, and books from proven sellers who have earned the chance to expand into storytelling in all its fullness without always being hemmed by what you "can't" do?