Pitch Wars commentary from a mentor

After a week or so of living and breathing Pitch Wars, I figured it might be helpful for all the applicants–chosen as mentees/alternates or not–to check out some observations I’ve collected! Here we go.

Your Query’s Synopsis Blurb:

The most common problem I saw was lack of trajectory. I gave feedback on every entry I received, and the one comment I found myself typing over and over was a request for firming up the straightforward direction of the query. This means when evaluators look at queries, they’re generally looking for you to tell them what happens and who it happens to/who makes it happen. We want to see your character(s) defined; we want to see the problem in your story; we want to see how your character(s) might approach solving said problem; and we want to know the stakes (what will happen if they don’t succeed).

This won’t do for every query, because obviously not every story is so straightforward, and some have more than one problem. But remember, this isn’t an attempt to sum up your book in two paragraphs. This is an attempt to pull us into your story enough to start reading it. You don’t have to tell us everything. You don’t even have to tell us about every plot if your book has several. This is a document that is designed to do nothing more than get us to open your book and read page one.

A list of common issues I saw in the synopsis bits:

  • Too much detail (we need broad brush, not explanations of each plot point)
  • Attempts to insert storytelling into the query (we need story, but not “and her heart soared when he kissed her in the rain”)
  • Presenting final stakes as a question (“Can she save her mother in time?”–yes, probably; now we don’t have to read it)
  • Vague stakes (“or he will lose everything”–nah, tell us what he will lose specifically)
  • Cursing (snark is okay, but I recommend against actually using swear words in the query)
  • Giving too many character names (main characters and villain okay; every member of expedition team, not)
  • Telling the ending (yes, you tell the ending in a “synopsis” attachment; you do not tell the ending in a pitch blurb)
  • Message and themes (show us what your story illustrates, but don’t tell us it’s deep or unique or that it examines human nature)
  • Too much setup (you need to bounce right into the plot, not spend a paragraph on who the character was before the plot happened)
  • Lists of what happens in what order (pitches are not a stark outline of your book’s plot points)

Your Query’s Personal Section:

The most common problem I saw in the bios was irrelevant information. Most people did pretty well giving me just a little taste of their writing background and pub credits (where applicable), but I did get a fair amount that went into loads of detail about their other projects–especially when said projects were unpublished, reviewed by nobodies, or published by nobodies. Queries are for agents who want to get you a mainstream publishing deal. They care about your publication credits and writing affiliations, but they don’t need to know about them if yours aren’t impressive or indicative of a building career.

You should personalize your queries and by all means tell an agent a little something about why you think their website, blog, or Twitter presence suggests you have something reasonably professional in common. But you should not deviate into rambles about your personal life or shift focus onto other projects.

A list of common issues I saw in personal sections:

  • Authors telling me who they think they write like
  • Authors comparing their work to established work and giving me long-winded explanations of why it’s similar
  • Authors telling me this is their first book (and I say don’t do this because this is like going into an interview saying “Hello, I’ve never done this before, but hire me!”)
  • Authors claiming their self-published books or small-press books got good reviews on Amazon (please focus on THIS project, and only quote professional reviews for other projects)
  • Authors telling me they’ve been rejected by others
  • Authors sharing details about why they wrote the book
  • Authors launching into in-depth explanations of special rules in their fantasy books and explaining their cool concepts, divorced from story
  • Authors discussing their writing or publishing process (do not say how long it took to write, how many agents you’ve queried, how long you’ve been looking for representation, how many revisions you’ve done, or who you hired to edit it–notifying me that it’s been proofread as a guarantee of quality is a mistake, because we expect professional quality)

I hear that agents also often get promises from authors that the book is going to sell well and/or transform the genre and life as we know it, but I didn’t actually see any like that. If you were considering making promises about the sales and success, don’t.

Your Sample Pages

Ah, the biggie. Now everyone wants to know what I thought of their actual writing.

No secret here: The writing was usually better than the query. We’re writers, right? Not salespeople. (Unless we happen to be both.) Pitching is something we have to learn to do, and we can grumble about it, but yeah, for most of us, the strength is storytelling. I did reject some submissions that had good writing and bad queries–just because I honestly didn’t think I could handle rewriting their queries for them. But I did give a lot of preference to the pages in deciding whether I’d work with someone, and here’s some reflection on what didn’t work for me.

By far, the most common problem (and the most fatal problem) in people’s sample pages for me was unnatural backstory. If you are already launching into history and context and setting up your world while your characters stand still and it’s in the first five pages, I know you haven’t quite figured out how to tell this story. You’ve figured out your stuff, you’ve realized it needs to be in the story, and then you’ve . . . dumped it on us at the beginning. I tune out. Because I’m not invested yet. I have to care first. If you begin a novel by expecting me to sit for a lecture first, you’ve mistaken your book for a class I have to take. I don’t have to be here. I can put the book down anytime I want. Remember that and get us hooked immediately.

My chosen mentee, C.B. Whitney: Opened with a young woman covered in blood getting into a cab. Driven by a supernatural protagonist who pretty much considered this normal.

My alternate, Ryan Glover: Opened with a supernatural creature attacking a woman and child, killing the child, and responding to the woman’s hysteria with a suggestion that the child is the lucky one.

My alternate, Jessica Harvey: Opened with our protagonist getting slapped by her ex-best friend in front of an audience.

Marry those background details to character perspectives, natural revelations through story, or dialogue. And you can probably leave out more than you think. We’re pretty observant–we’ll figure it out. A great example would be one of Ryan’s well-conceived revelations: His protagonist picks up “the pills” from a windowsill and goes to his mom’s room. Immediately we know his mom’s sick and he’s the caretaker. No narration or mental explanation points out to us that his mom is dying of cancer. This comes out in a conversation when he suggests things will be better in the future and she replies, “You don’t get better from Stage Four cancer.” Up until that point we only saw Mike taking care of his mom, doing little things for her, treating her like a loving son treats a sick mom. The narration didn’t have to helpfully tell us “Oh btw cancer.”

A list of other common issues I saw in sample pages:

  • Telling (narration tells me a protagonist is good, or has been a doctor for 10 years, or has three children, instead of letting me just see it come up)
  • Characters have an awkward conversation about things they both/all know so I can learn about it
  • Setting and situational backstory relayed through narration and divorced from character
  • Spelling and grammar errors (!!!)
  • Disconnected storytelling (I passively watched the character do things without understanding what they wanted or why they were doing it)
  • Opening with something exciting, then backing up halfway down the page to tell me how we got here and slowing the momentum considerably
  • A feeling that I would have to be patient to get to the good part (I shouldn’t feel like I’m humoring an author by reading their stuff; they need to make me want to read it!)

I was excited that I really got very few clichés, though. I didn’t see a lot of authors writing the opening that describes the sky or the weather. I didn’t see the protagonists waking up on a normal day and trying to decide what to do next. I don’t think I had anyone describe their protagonists by having them look in the mirror. Kudos!

What always got me, though, was compelling characters and authentic storytelling. Quite a few of my favorites were genres I don’t even read much of–for instance, I had a non-SF women’s fiction and a hard science fiction make my top ten. I liked them as much as I did because of the storytelling–the character connection, the ability to pull us into a situation without stopping the story to listen to explanations, the feeling that I was going to be entertained and intrigued by these characters and their futures. If I got to the end of the five-page sample and I found myself murmuring “Awww,” I knew it was way up there.

There’s more I would say on querying and character creation in general, of course, but this is just here to cover the issues I had with Pitch Wars submissions specifically while they’re still fresh in my mind. Hopefully this is helpful to some people, whether you wanted to get some direction or you just wanted to be reassured that you’re already doing what you should.

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