Pitch Wars: The Feedbackening

So it’s done. After having chosen a mentee and an alternate, I gave my feedback to 103 people who entered the contest, in individual e-mails, with around a page to a page and a half of personalized commentary.

It came to about 60,000 words, and some people are like YOU BASICALLY WROTE A YA NOVEL WITH YOUR FEEDBACK. (Well, an awfully critical, disjointed YA novel, but yes, word-wise, it was a lot.) And honestly, this is one of my favorite things about the contest: giving people who didn’t get picked a ladder to climb so they can leave with bright prospects.

Though please let me state and reiterate that MENTORS WERE NOT REQUIRED TO PROVIDE ANY FEEDBACK AT ALL and most of the mentors could not spare time to draft more than a form letter or some abbreviated feedback. The fact of the matter is that qualifying as a mentor means you basically have a writing-related or editing-related career, even if you’re not full time, and many of us are working multiple jobs, parenting multiple kids, and juggling multiple responsibilities. For most of the mentors in this contest, their own deadlines and other responsibilities just had to take precedence. I really, really don’t want the fact that I happened to have time to draft this feedback to make anyone in this contest resent that other mentors didn’t or couldn’t do the same.

And you folks who received feedback from me: Wow, everyone’s been so gracious about it. Even for the people I was really hard on, I mostly received effusive thank-yous and appreciation, with a few requests for clarification mixed in (which I generally don’t mind, though if you see this, please don’t ask me to read a new version of your query unless I’ve volunteered explicitly to look at it; I think I’m burned out on queries!).

“But Julie,” say some people who didn’t submit to me, “what was this glorious feedback like? What did you tell them that has them cheering for you and screaming your name on Twitter?”

Most of my “pass” mails focused on the query letter. I yelled at people for lack of trajectory or too much/too little detail, mostly. I gave specifics in each case and a push in the direction I’d like to see it go. For some, I suggested picking up a couple paperbacks in their genre and modeling a query synopsis after the back-of-the-book description. And when I commented on pages, I would talk about whether I connected to the character, why I thought their language was too passive or inundated with unnecessary speech tags or adverbs, and how I’d like to see them reconceive their opening if I thought it didn’t work. If I didn’t read the whole first chapter, I sometimes told people so and explained where/why I disconnected.

And, of course, I screamed about grammar. Dashes, mostly, and curly quotes/straight quotes. (This is not what kills you, though. Obviously. Since I said that kind of thing to my mentee.) If you didn’t know there are differences between hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—), you may have gotten yelled at by me. If you didn’t know that some quotation marks and apostrophes get “curled” by certain programs and others are left straight (and you used more than one program to show me your document, including Scrivener), you may have gotten yelled at by me.

But getting yelled at by me isn’t always bad, and it’s not terrifying. I tend to be kind of informal and even occasionally funny when I offer critique. I constructed my feedback as I read each submission (which is why it took me so long to get through them), and I reread them before sending to make sure a) I hadn’t been too mean, and b) to adjust where appropriate when I wanted to tell someone how close I’d come to picking them or comment on if they got chosen as mentee or alternate by someone else. In rereading the stuff I wrote in these slap-happy late-night editing sessions, I found the following silly, creative, and plain weird pieces of advice or commentary. My apologies if these were said to you. I have to do something to keep myself entertained.

You need to set off an adverb repellent in this manuscript and start killing some of these suckers. Don’t make it such a sprawling metaphor, or we start to think you’re going to wander away from us into this guy’s head and forget you’re supposed to be pitching a book.

You want this ending to punch, and it’s just too sprawled out all over the bed right now. With a bunch of pillows and stuffed animals.

I suggest times a hundred that you wait wait wait to tell us how things work.

That’s pretty long for one sentence, despite the cunningly used dashes. (I’m very fond of dashes.)

You write likable sentences; I’d sit with your sentences in the lunchroom.

I’m going with something that hits me in my sweet spot and your subject matter is slightly behind and over to the right of my sweet spot.

I like present tense (though it’s terrible in the wrong hands). Fortunately, yours seem like pretty good hands.

I felt it was mostly spent setting the scene instead of getting me invested. Like the props were still being put on stage at the start of the play. Tell us what the person loses, not just “control.” I want it to be a lot tighter and really smash us in the face.

Word-count-wise it sounds a little on the short side? But I guess that’s because I’m used to hulking fantasy books.

I really love this beginning and it’s honestly a relief to read something that knows how to give exposition I can hang my hat on.

Dialogue tags should tell us things we can’t tell by what is being said (like volume, as in whispered, or like tone, as in sarcasm if we couldn’t detect it from context). When you switch them up so often, they become very noticeable instead of invisible, and those are not the parts of your writing you want us to notice. They’re road signs, not attractions.

It’s like you went from microscope to binoculars with nothing in between.

The answer to “Can X do Y?” is almost always yes, and if we’re reading because we want to know the answer to that question, we’ve already answered it. “X must do Y or else Z” is much better than “Can X do Y?” Even though it’s actually quite a well-written query, it lacks meat. I just want to eat the meal, not be told what it tastes like and what its ingredients are.

This sentence and others like it should be banished forever from your querying vocabulary. I’m only yelling at you for this because you have so little else to scream about and I want you to be perfect.

Some people will probably tell you that starting with prologue-like italics is a bad idea and I will tell them to go sit on it.

Most really good queries hint at complexity while displaying simplicity.

Our protagonist is doing her thing, acting in the midst of the stuff we need to understand, getting on with her life rather than posing for a Chapter One Centerfold.

And I’ve got to admit that the sudden random boner at the end of the chapter threw me off.

So there you have it, folks. The kind of advice Julie Sondra Decker gives to people.

::bows::

My mentee and alternate are in for some wacky comments. I can feel it.

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