If the response on Twitter is any indication, some of y’all who are participating in Pitch Wars want to know my decision-making process for my mentee choices. Well, wonder no more!
At the end of the day, most of us are going to want to go with something that doesn’t need too much work–we have a limited amount of time to get you in shape, you know!–and ideally, we’ll also want something we personally like since we’ll have to put a lot of our time into it. For free, you know.
I got a lot of submissions last year, so I’m expecting a lot of submissions this year, and if the preliminary entries before the final submission deadline are any indication, I am going to be buried. So I wanted to come up with a system that will help me avoid having to read entries more than once if I am not going to be working with them, and what better way to do that than a nerdy table?
Here’s my query table. As I read the queries, I’m giving them 0 to 5 points on each of these categories, with 25 points possible. High points is good, low points is not good.
I’m considering each of these categories equally.
Writing Quality: This basically means I’m looking at whether the writing itself is smooth. If the sentences feel like they flow and the language is easy to read and easy to understand.
- 5 points: Masterfully written, no awkward sentences, easy to follow.
- 4 points: Adequate writing, though language could be improved.
- 3 points: Unclear sometimes, makes its point, but feels awkward.
- 2 points: Frequent clarity issues, poor sentence transitions, feels overworked.
- 1 point: Reads like author struggles with language.
- 0 points: Language is garbled, can’t understand the content.
Errors: This sounds like it’d be a subcategory of the above, but I consider it separately. A person can still write passable sentences and yet have a bunch of errors in them, and because I tend to focus on sentences and punctuation and technical editing when I’m helping with a manuscript, these two are very important to me. I need people to have high scores in these, because if they have low scores I’ll end up doing a LOT of homework, and I’d like to avoid that if possible. Errors could be spelling problems, typos, misused punctuation, or incorrect homophones, and I’m looking at grammar too (but I’m okay with slang or informal usage).
- 5 points: No errors; author clearly knows how to spell, punctuate, use correct grammar.
- 4 points: One or more errors, but might be an isolated incident.
- 3 points: The errors are clearly the norm rather than an occasional glitch.
- 2 points: Frequent errors.
- 1 point: A catastrophic number of errors.
- 0 points: Author fails third grade English.
Trajectory: Super big deal in queries. I want my queries to set up the characters and situation, tell me how it escalates or complicates, give me some stakes, and make me understand and care about what happens to their characters. In other words, this is the Big Query Points category: if your query DOES WHAT IT’S SUPPOSED TO DO, it gets a high score here. If it rambles about your character’s world or their past too much for the context needed, gives extremely vague stakes, or distracts me with themes and messages instead of telling me WHAT HAPPENS, it gets a low score.
- 5 points: Perfect setup of characters, conflicts, and stakes, gets me invested.
- 4 points: Might be a little murky, but still strong telling me the story and why I care.
- 3 points: Gets a little lost or doesn’t have a clear presentation/vague stakes.
- 2 points: The story isn’t at all clear; it’s characters that do stuff.
- 1 point: The author says nothing or almost nothing about the book, or says so in a way I can’t access.
- 0 points: Isn’t actually a query letter–does something else instead of telling me about the book.
Detail: I put this in because I typed it so often last year: you need the right level of detail. And this isn’t a mathematical formula; what’s appropriate varies depending on your manuscript and your genre. But in a query, I want broad strokes, with still enough detail to get a feeling about what your book is like. I want about the level of detail that would be on the back of your paperback book when it’s published. And sometimes a query can lack detail but still be too long; I see vagueness like “she’ll lose everything” instead of WHAT she’ll lose.
- 5 points: The level of detail feels perfect; I’m not overwhelmed with detail, but not left wondering anything vital.
- 4 points: The level of detail is either too much or too little, but it’s fixable–might need to ask the author to answer X question in the query or to delete X rambling.
- 3 points: The query needs a whole extra paragraph or needs a whole paragraph deleted.
- 2 points: Misses the mark by a noticeable margin–significantly too much or too little.
- 1 point: Author is treating the query letter like either an elevator pitch (way too little) or a comprehensive synopsis (way too much–may tell the ending).
- 0 points: Spends the entire letter talking about something other than the book, such as their own publishing credentials, their experience, why they wrote the book, or why they think it will sell.
Personal: And everyone’s favorite: the personal. This is the section where I rate my connection to the material. This does not necessarily mean that I’m rating whether it’s a genre I tend to like or whether the subject matter is my favorite; it means I’m rating whether I have a personal connection with the idea. That’s way more likely to happen for books in my preferred genres (science fiction/fantasy), but you will not necessarily get a lower score if you’re outside that. Personal connection plays a part in everything from your agent to the acquiring editor at your publisher, so I consider this section really important.
- 5 points: I’m in love, marry me.
- 4 points: I like it–I could dig this, it’s neat.
- 3 points: I could definitely see myself reading it for fun.
- 2 points: Really not my usual thing–wouldn’t check it out of the library.
- 1 point: A subject, genre, or character I’d avoid on purpose.
- 0 points: You offended me or pissed me off.
And that’s it for the queries! Now, some mentors say they give preference to the pages. I’m not one of them. I will at least peek at your pages even if I hate your query–I really will!–but a bad query and decent pages will still make me not want to work with you. A query, for an agent, is often the only thing they’ll see, and I don’t want to write it for you or take it completely apart. So, while the query doesn’t have to necessarily be as good as the pages, I want it to be really good. I am giving scores on the query that are equal to the scores on the pages, and will be taking both into consideration for my final decision. If I love the pages but dislike the query, I’ll give you a very high personal score to counteract.
Let’s look at what my (slightly different) table for the pages looks like:
|Writing Quality||Errors||Character||Effective Intro||Personal||Total|
Writing Quality: The five-point scale is the same as above.
Errors: The five-point scale is the same as above. Yes, I will give you a 4 starting with ONE error. I am a horrible witch. I’m not kidding. Don’t sub to me if you can’t handle it.
Character: I am a huge character writer, character reader, and character, uh, mentory person. I will connect to character more than anything else in your book, and this is extremely important to me, so I am looking at it as a grading category here.
- 5 points: Immediate understanding of who your characters are and what they’re about, with natural personality reveal and good dialogue. Bonus if I want to hang out with them.
- 4 points: I like your characters and their execution. I get a good feel for who they are and why.
- 3 points: There’s not a full connection here–maybe I’m watching from a distance, but the characters are still on display and interacting somewhat competently.
- 2 points: The characters are just there being puppeted, or don’t feel authentic, or give us no information about themselves as they act.
- 1 point: The characters are caricatures and feel wooden. One dimension and everyone talks alike.
- 0 points: There is no feel for character at all and there’s no story-relevant reason for it.
Effective Intro: This is where you get the Big Writing Sample Points. DOES YOUR BEGINNING DO WHAT IT’S SUPPOSED TO DO? I need to know you can handle one of the toughest parts of the book: the opening. And I don’t want to rewrite it for you or tell you to start somewhere else. This is it. So if your story’s intro gets me invested immediately and doesn’t stand there behaving like required reading, you’ve done what you came to do.
- 5 points: You got me fully invested and reading the entire first chapter. You found the right balance between action, character, and background detail to pull me right in.
- 4 points: You probably have some awkward details about the characters’ pasts or current problem, or spent too much time telling me an aside about your fantasy world, but it’s quite readable and I read the whole first chapter.
- 3 points: You had an uneven beginning, halting your opening to tell me things or having nothing really important happening. I feel like you started in the wrong place. I may or may not read the whole first chapter.
- 2 points: You aren’t ready–you’ve figured out your details, but not how to tell the story. You haven’t figured out yet where your story starts and you’re frequently interrupting your action to fill me in, posing your characters awkwardly to make them drop exposition, or rambling about something I’m not invested enough to care about. I didn’t finish your pages.
- 1 point: You aren’t ready–I can’t even follow the action or figure out who’s who, and the confusion isn’t a consequence of an experimental writing style (because that would get me invested even if I didn’t know what was going on).
- 0 points: You apparently turned in a first draft and/or have no idea how to pull readers into a story. You haven’t realized yet that readers don’t have to humor you; they don’t have to be here, so they’re not going to wait until it gets good.
Personal: Same five-point scale as the query.
So after I have both scores, I put you in a list. A ranked list. Each person who subs to me has a score next to them on my ranked list (e.g., 17/11) and the total of those two numbers will determine where they fall (but I’ll be able to see how their query compares with their pages). Last year, I had trouble remembering why I put someone where I did in my ranked list, so now, not only can I assign them a score, but I can jump back to their entry and see what I liked and didn’t like about it just by glancing at a number. Obviously some people will have the same numerical score, so when that happens it’s just going to be a gut feeling thing (or I might give preference to people who had higher Trajectory scores in the query or higher Effective Intro scores in the pages).
Also, if I’m torn at the end, I can remember without a lot of rereading what each writer’s strength is and how they compare.
I wonder if I’ll find any 25/25 entries?
Will it be you?