Abstaining from Pitch Wars

For the first time in three years, I decided to abstain from Pitch Wars this year.

I’m not sure why. Part of it was probably that I felt like I’ve been ignoring my own writing in favor of paying attention to other media and wallowing in distractions, and part of it was that I feel like I’ve gotten a little jaded about publishing and whether I really belong giving anyone advice about it. I mean, sure, there are plenty of beginners I know more than enough to help, but the only difference between me and my potential mentees the past few years was that I had an agent and they didn’t. Even after securing representation with agents for two different books and selling one of them, I just kinda started doubting my competence. I haven’t been actively writing much at all, and my publishing career hasn’t gone anywhere since I sold a book in 2013. What I did worked for me, but I don’t know if it would work for anyone else, and it wasn’t fiction anyway.

But honestly I do think I have good advice on improving manuscripts and providing perspective on agent searches. I just think maybe I’ve been using the cause to avoid working on my own projects. It’s time to get back to it.

I have Bad Fairy 2 to finish up; it’s been complete for a long time, but my test readers have all either finished or petered out on reading and dropped off the radar without explanation, and I’m still undecided on how to present the first half of the book since it still feels too much like a sequel in my opinion.

I have Ace of Arts to write. I got really jazzed about this book the other day, wanting to get back into it, but I had just returned from vacation and convinced myself I had some digital housecleaning to finish first. (I did that.) Maybe I should dive back in.

I have a short story I started but stopped writing after a page because I was kinda hating how it was going. I’ll want to start that over again and get it busted out.

I don’t think I have any short stories out for consideration right now. I had a couple rejections in June and then July was just a mess for me, so I didn’t bother addressing it. Need to get some short stories out there to be considered by magazines.

But it’s weird to not be in Pitch Wars. Part of me is glad I’m not, because as usual there have been some hiccups and some nastiness, though there’s also tons of excitement. I am kinda sad that I won’t have a mentee this year. I loved working with my mentees. Year 1 I mentored Whitney Fletcher, who got an agent immediately through the contest. I had alternates Ryan and Jessica; Ryan’s gotten close but his project never hit the right agent, and as far as I know he hasn’t tried writing something new, while Jessica got picked up by a small publisher without an agent. Year 2 I mentored Megan Paasch, with whom I don’t really chat much anymore, and we never found our match, but my alternate Natalka found representation for a book she wrote after Pitch Wars and that book sold also to a small publisher. And Year 3 my mentee was Lynn Forrest, whose book didn’t hit with an agent during the contest but seems to be getting a ton of full manuscript requests these days. I love having a relationship with another writer the way I do during Pitch Wars, and I’m sad I won’t have a Year 4 mentee to put in this list.

I hope whoever I would have picked does well. :/

It sounds weird, but the part I really enjoyed besides mentoring an individual was sending feedback to the people I didn’t pick. I was a bit overwhelmed the first year, but the second and third years I had a ball picking apart and analyzing query letters and initial chapters. And people were so cool about it, taking my feedback so professionally and in some cases having great discussions with me about their work. I miss that part of it too. But you can’t have that without the whole package, and I just couldn’t handle the package this year.

I don’t know if I’m done with Pitch Wars forever or if it’s just this year. Time will tell.

Pitch Wars feedback is out!

Just a short one today to say I spent part of the weekend sending out all my feedback to everyone who applied to me in Pitch Wars. I think I wrote around 600 to 800 words for each Pitch Wars participant, with a little more sent to the people whose additional chapters I sampled.

Many of them have replied to the feedback, and I’m amazed (though not surprised) that everyone’s being so gracious about it.

It’s hard to take feedback. Especially on the heels of disappointment if you didn’t get into this particular contest. Even if the feedback comes with some praise, every piece of feedback that would seem pretty tame to most people will feel like a pick-axe on your heart sometimes–especially if you’re not used to it, haven’t had much critique, or thought you were really close only to hear that someone thinks you have a lot of work to do.

And yet everyone’s being so nice about how I beat them up.

I would honestly expect people who are seeking agents to be professionals here. That’s why I’m not surprised it’s like this. And many of them have been very understanding about the fact that the Pitch Wars mentors are usually pretty busy people who have volunteered for the contest and should be prioritizing edits with their mentees. They’ve made it clear to me that they saw my feedback as above and beyond the call of duty, and they’ve expressed so much gratefulness and appreciation.

I don’t need them to lick my butt or praise me for paddling their babies. But it’s just so affirming to hear that I made the right choice in offering feedback to everyone. I don’t do it for the praise or to get followers on Twitter. I do it because every time I see someone reaching this level of expertise, feeling they’re ready to make that step into the professional world, I know that person must be serious. So I take them seriously. And I treat each one–for the minutes I can spare–like it’s the only story in the world, knowing they’ll probably put my words to good use in fertilizing their gardens.

If they weren’t willing to do that, they probably wouldn’t be willing to do research on publishing or enter contests like this anyway.

So this is my thank-you to everyone who’s expressed thanks to me, and I hope you all continue your quests and reach the destinations you desire.

Pitch Wars Analysis: My Submissions

It’s time for me to commit more nerdery upon you!

Pitch Wars was lovely. I got pretty much exactly what I wanted: lots to choose from, but fewer submissions than last year. Since I love giving feedback on everything I receive, it’s much harder to do a good job on it if you get over a hundred (like I did last year), so this year’s 92 was okay with me. (I got 90 that were eligible; two were marked for categories I was not accepting.)

I selected Lynn Forrest, author of urban fantasy THE MEASURE OF A MONSTER, for my mentee. We don’t have alternates this year, and I was not one of the mentors who volunteered for a second mentee. 

So Julie, what was in your inbox, anyway?
For those who do not want to review my Pitch Wars 2015 Nerdy Analysis of my submissions, I received 60% Adult, 40% New Adult. Of my 90 eligible submissions, I got 45 fantasy, 25 science fiction, 6 paranormal, 5 speculative fiction, 3 contemporary, 2 magical realism, 2 women’s fiction, 1 historical, and 1 thriller. I had two manuscripts below 50,000 words and one over 150,000 words, but most were between 80,000 and 100,000 words. And the mentor I had the most submissions in common with was K.T. Hanna.

Hey Julie, what kind of feedback can we expect?

I will be sending out my feedback soonish to everyone who submitted to me, but my day job and my social life have been more demanding than usual this week, so I’ll be rolling it out as soon as I can. I composed 55,646 words of feedback during the consideration window. None of it is “form letter” stuff–though I think form letters with a little bit of feedback are also a good way to handle feedback for the mentors who are not able to offer lots of individualized feedback for various reasons. I had the luxury of working a job that doesn’t take up much of my life and I don’t have to take care of any children and I wasn’t on deadline, so I probably have more opportunity to devote time to this when compared to some of the other mentors. I hope nobody uses my feedback offerings to shame anyone else if they are not able to do the same. Giving feedback is optional in this contest. I hope those of you who submitted to me will be able to benefit from mine!

I am giving specific advice about what to change in query letters, and there are quite a few places where I started line editing. I tended to give more feedback to people who had better submissions, because they were almost there. If I didn’t give much feedback, it’s because I felt like there was too much to fix and stampeding in to micro-manage might not be a good idea for a developing voice. My feedback is fairly irreverent and sometimes extremely goofy. Hopefully it is not going to be interpreted as mean if I joke around with you a little. And there are a few of you who might get personal notes or questions from me. I like to make friends during the contest too. 🙂

Yo, Julie, didn’t you say you give some kind of “score” to submissions?

If you weren’t aware of my nifty Pitch Wars report card, you may be interested to know I gave a rating to every submission I considered, with 25 points possible for the query and 25 points possible for the writing sample. No one got 50 points. The highest score I gave was 22 on the query, 23 on the pages, 45 total. And that score was given to someone who was not my mentee. My mentee was the #2 spot, not the #1. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

Weirdly enough, the person who received the highest score from me isn’t even one of the writers I asked for more pages from. She doesn’t even know she was one of my favorites. (I’ll tell her in the feedback.) I didn’t ask for more pages because I had a personal reason I knew I could not take her manuscript, and it’s frustrating to get someone’s hopes up if you know you won’t end up taking them. Everyone I requested more pages from was someone I honestly considered for the mentee spot.

It just goes to show you how much that “subjective” thing really is true. Everyone does it, all the way up the ladder. Right now I have a manuscript on submission to editors that today got a “not my thing” rejection, you know? I dunno, I think it’s kinda like dating. Some mixture of attraction, common interests, mutual availability, and shared goals results in good matches, and someone who wants to be a good match with you can’t just barge in and say Excuse me, I fulfill what I have determined to be your requirements; you are now required to give me a chance! (Well, they can do that, and sometimes they do. While insisting that they’re quite eligible mates and deserve your attention. Which makes them even less attractive, right?) Oh dear, I have digressed again. Silly me.

How many writers did you request more pages from? 

I only asked for more pages from six writers. I’m not going to reveal who they are here, but I will say I requested four adult urban fantasy books, one adult science fiction book, and one new adult fantasy. Three authors got the same “score” as my mentee did. The one in my group of six with the lowest score–41 points–was the one I came closest to picking for my mentee before I decided to go with Lynn. So I guess my scorecard helps me figure out which individual aspects of writing my applicants are good at, but doesn’t necessarily help me make a decision.

Initially I thought I ought to ask for more pages from everyone who got 40 points or above. That would have been 17 authors! Maybe I should have. If I do Pitch Wars again next year, maybe I will do that.

Julie, did you go to battle over your mentee? Did you lose any battles?

Two of the authors I was considering had at least one other mentor either considering them or choosing them as a mentee. I am a pacifist in most senses and declared that I would not fight any other mentors over mentees. I had enough stuff I liked that I would have simply chosen someone else if it came down to it. So no, no battles for me.

You’ve been doing Pitch Wars for three years, Julie. Did you get any submissions from authors you recognized from previous years?

Yes! One author who’d submitted to me last year submitted to me again this year with a new manuscript. And one author who’d submitted to me last year submitted to me again this year with the same manuscript. Both got high scores from me but neither was my selection.

How many authors who submitted to you had really good submissions? How many just weren’t ready?

This is a hairy question and a sometimes-subjective one. I did sort my submissions into the following categories:

  • Ineligible–wrong category
  • Not ready
  • Ready, but not for me
  • Low maybe
  • High maybe

The high maybes were reserved for folks I requested pages from. If I hadn’t connected with any of the additional chapters in my high maybes, I would have started requesting from my low maybes, but it didn’t happen.

Of my 92 submissions, I had 2 ineligible books, 42 not-ready books, 34 ready-but-not-for-me books, 8 low maybes, and 6 high maybes.

Sometimes stuff I determined to be not ready was enjoyed by other mentors, so I can absolutely say it was subjective. I also put perhaps unfair emphasis on the query letter. Many of the other mentors say the pages matter more than the query, and they’re right, but I also know agents use the query to decide what they want to read, and I did that too. Sometimes if the query was way off, I still put it in the “not ready” pile even if the pages were okay, because it made me feel like the person did not do basic research on what a query is supposed to be, and that indicates lack of readiness in a different way. There were a couple even in my high maybes who had queries that needed some serious work, but they weren’t way off. You definitely need to pay attention to what query letters are if you’re entering a query-letter-centric contest.

What were the biggest problems in the query letters? What were the biggest problems in people’s writing samples?

More or less exactly like last year, in the queries I yelled at people for lack of trajectory or too much/too little detail. 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. 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.

The most common problem I saw was lack of trajectory. 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

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.

Marry 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 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.

Anything else cool to tell us? 

Well, you tell me what you want to know! Here’s just one more cool factoid: Protagonist names!

I’m a name nerd and I love paying attention to naming trends. There was no one Most Popular Name in my submissions, but I went through to see if I could find any patterns, and the most I could find was I had two Alexes, two Ambers, two Claires, and two Victorias. (I only counted one protagonist for each book, and if it had multiple perspectives, I just picked the character whose name was mentioned first.) Here’s the list of protagonist names in my 92 submissions, for all you other name nerds!

  • Abigail
  • Addie
  • Addisyn
  • Adela
  • Adele
  • Alby
  • Aldonza
  • Aleks
  • Alex (2)
  • Alistair
  • Allison
  • Alyssira
  • Amber (2)
  • Ami
  • Ana
  • Anna
  • Arietta
  • Blake
  • Brandy
  • Cami
  • Carrie
  • Cassandra
  • Charlotte
  • Christine
  • Ciro
  • Claire (2)
  • Cole
  • Daphne
  • Dhel
  • Dillard *
  • Dinah
  • Edison
  • Eithne
  • Emma
  • Enzo
  • Erissa
  • Erling
  • Evelyn
  • Freya
  • Greg
  • Hadley
  • Hope
  • Horatio
  • Ian
  • Inga
  • Jack
  • Jamie
  • Jay
  • Jem
  • Jeremiah
  • Jim
  • John
  • Katherine
  • Keegan
  • Kerry
  • Kharis
  • Kitty
  • Lavie
  • Letty
  • Linus
  • Luke
  • Maggie
  • Marietta
  • Marla
  • Mike
  • Natalie
  • Nathan
  • Nora
  • Nyra
  • Peet
  • Reilly
  • Rhiannon
  • Riam
  • Robert (R.J.)
  • Rose
  • Sam
  • Santos
  • Sara
  • Silen
  • Simon
  • Suzanne
  • Theo
  • Tilly
  • Tiny
  • Verity
  • Victoria (2)
  • Vivian
  • Zayria

* (“Dillard” was listed as a protagonist’s last name, but no first names of protagonists appeared to be listed in the query.)

My Mentee for Pitch Wars 2015

Last night, Brenda Drake surprised all the Pitch Wars participants by announcing the mentors’ picks early, and it was so much fun watching my new mentee celebrating on Twitter and getting so excited!

Er, oh yeah . . . everyone meet my new Pitch Wars mentee for 2015, Lynn Forrest!

Lynn is the author of a nifty urban fantasy entitled THE MEASURE OF A MONSTER. It is a very odd pick for me because it includes both vampiric creatures and a sort of detective story, neither of which is generally my bag at all. But there are a ton of reasons I picked it . . . and I’ll be able to discuss these more coherently after I’ve had some time to settle into editing the book. 😉

I’m quite happy to be working with Lynn. And it really is a great feeling to make someone’s day (even though it meant I had to disappoint 91 other people), and because I think Lynn and I are really going to get along well. Before I knew if I was going to pick her, I definitely wanted to be pals based on her values and her interaction style. Making a new friend is always something to get excited about. (At least, if you’re me!)

Me as a Mentor

Well, the time is drawing near: Pitch Wars mentors are finalizing their picks, and entrants are biting their nails (or, er, anxiously awaiting the announcement, as the case may be). Backstage, we’re discussing our intentions–are we going to offer edit letters for those whose work we sampled beyond the initial chapter? Are we going to send feedback? Are we going to tell our backup picks how close they were and offer to help them later? Are we going to put our mentees through hell?

That last is the intention of quite a few mentors, by the way. If by “hell” I mean Really Big Revisions over the course of two months. I think the ability to issue requests for huge developmental editing changes is really amazing, because I don’t think I’ve ever done it. I’ve never read someone’s work and said “cut this perspective” or “switch to third person” or “add a character who does X” or “make it end like this.” And I’ve known authors whose mentors or critique partners have said things like that and made their books way better, and they’re grateful for it, and they successfully get signed or sold under that advice.

But I’ve never been comfortable doing stuff like that. If I find a book that doesn’t work for me, I usually don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know what it “needs” most of the time, though I might be able to identify what I don’t like about it, where it falls apart for me, what isn’t satisfying, or what aspect causes disconnect on my end. I’m better with little changes (especially grammar and sentence structure), and I can be pretty excellent with helping develop characters. But I worry that injecting specific direction on a really big scale might, in my case, interrupt the author’s ability to develop the story or the authenticity of their storytelling voice, so I find myself unable to “finish their sentences” for them, so to speak. The most I can do is point out if their sentence isn’t finished or contradicts itself somehow. Then I leave them to figure out how to fix it.

So what can my mentee expect from me when the choices are announced?

  • I’ll be offering a ton of line editing. Grammar, punctuation, the works.
  • I’ll give honest opinions about what I think is working well and what I think is lacking.
  • I will probably yell at the characters in the margins, make ridiculous jokes, talk back to people, type sarcastic comments, and give a play-by-play of what I’m thinking as I read.
  • I will definitely provide guidance on the query, top to bottom; I think I’m pretty good with queries, and letters that come through me generally do result in requests.
  • I will give honest, though not necessarily nice, realistic thoughts on my mentee’s chances of getting published.
  • I will be there to bounce ideas off of, to come to with questions about querying or specific agents or basic writing insecurities.
  • I will be more than willing to listen to both doom-and-gloom raving and over-the-top squeeing as we ride the publishing train together.
  • I will be a friend if my mentee wants one.

I don’t want to be the hard-ass who insists you take my advice or fail, and I don’t want to create a situation where you feel intimidated and pressured to do what I want. I’m okay with a little “please help, Obi-Wan!” because I understand we in Pitch Wars Land have cultivated this understanding that mentors theoretically know what they’re talking about, and if you look up to me that’s fine and dandy–I guess you’re supposed to. But I want you to understand I don’t intend to put myself on a pedestal or Tough Love your manuscript to the point that you don’t recognize it. I will indeed murder unnecessary commas and squawk indignantly at every misused homophone, but I do not want to compromise the soul of your book, and I want us to have the kind of relationship where you’ll tell me if you think I’m wrong about something.

That said, I do of course want respect for my time and realistic expectations of my literary magic. I do take some responsibility for how well we do in this contest together, but I cannot guarantee that an agent will nibble on you or sign you, and I don’t want to get singularly blamed or crap-talked if the stars don’t align for glorious victory. You’ll have my support and my advice and hours and hours of my time, and I like to think most people who submitted to me would be happy with the level of attention I will devote to polishing their work and getting it ready for the world.

In Pitch Wars 2013, I chose Whitney Fletcher as my mentee. I had an issue with one of his early scenes feeling too crowded with character cameos, and when I gave him direction he came up with a solution far more elegant than anything I could have suggested. He took direction awesomely throughout. He got an offer of representation two days after the contest closed and is currently represented by Lana Popovic. We are still in touch regularly, chatting by phone, Skype, and Twitter DMs.

My alternate team for Pitch Wars 2013 consisted of Ryan Glover and Jessica Gunn. We don’t have alternates this year, but it was pretty cool to have them in previous years. Jessica ended up selling her book without an agent to Curiosity Quills. Ryan completed edits with me and continued seeking representation, and he got to listen to me praise his work in person when he took me out for sandwiches when I was in his neighborhood lecturing at Princeton.

Last year I picked Megan Paasch and Natalka Burian as my mentee team, with Megan as my mentee and Natalka as my alternate. Megan did a bang-up job polishing the heck out of her book and tweaking her query, leading to multiple requests during the agent round. I haven’t managed to play witness to her happy pairing with an agent yet, but we’ll see! And Natalka, the author of the weirdest book I read in 2014, mostly just got line editing from me until I told her what I didn’t like about the ending, and she rewrote it in a phenomenal way that wham-bammed me. When I was in New York for the Lambda Awards Natalka bought me a nice Italian lunch.

So it’s pretty much a rule now that if I come to your city you have to buy me food if I mentored you.

Thanks, future mentee, you’re too kind!

I look forward to working with you, whoever you are, as I pretend not to know who I’m picking. Can’t wait to spill the beans and find out what I can do for you–what your book needs, what your publishing journey will hold, and what we can be to each other as writers and crit partners. (This is your warning that I have been known to hit up past mentees for beta reading.)

::quietly slips onto the Pitch Wars train and rides away::

Nerdy Pitch Wars Analysis 2015

So it’s time for me to commit some nerdery around here.

Pitch Wars! The submissions window is closed! Which means I’ve received all the submissions I’m going to receive and I can now start narrowing it down. How would you like a peek inside my inbox?

No, I’m not going to tell you which entries I’m liking or any hints about how many authors I’ve requested additional pages from. I’m just going to tell you some stuff about what people sent me. 😉

Last year was pretty overwhelming. I had over 100 submissions (AND MY BOOK WAS RELEASING THE SAME WEEK). I tried to be a little more restrictive in my bio this year and make it clear that I honestly want to focus on SF/Fantasy/SpecFic, and really don’t want submissions featuring romance-centric stories or stories grounded entirely in reality. That seems to have worked a little; I did get fewer submissions this year than I got last year.

How many eligible submissions did I receive, you ask?


90 people would actually want goofy old me to mentor them. Hahaha.

Now I’m going to show you some graphs, so please get out of here if that frightens you. (Or if the photo of me wearing Hello Kitty earmuffs frightens you.) (Or if I frighten you in general.)

Just go. I mean it. I’m gonna graph.

You were warned.

First up: CATEGORY.

I received 2 manuscripts that were not Adult or New Adult, so I’ll have to disqualify those. Of the remaining 90: How many were Adult and how many were New Adult?

I was surprised by how many New Adult submissions I got! At first I thought there must have been a mistake because my first five submissions were all New Adult, and last year only 17% of my inbox was New Adult. It’s really growing as a category! And I have consistently chosen a mixture of Adult and New Adult manuscripts for my team in the past, so I would say the New Adult has just as much of a chance.

Now let’s try something more complicated: Genre.

Last year we had drop-down boxes with predefined genres. This year we had fill-in-the-blank. I’m not a huge fan of that because people are notorious for making up their own genres or handing us four or five in one to make this weird fusion genre, and that makes it just that much harder to pitch. So first I’m going to show you a version of my genre breakdown with simplified genres (which you can click for a better view if it runs into the sidebar or doesn’t show up properly for you):

Now here’s what it looks like according to the authors’ interpretation of their genres:

I think I prefer having it identified as a more easily categorized, mainstream genre first, then having “X with Y elements” or whatever just mentioned in the query somewhere. That helps agents understand how you think the book should be handled marketing-wise.

So, anyway. Clearly I got a ton of science fiction and fantasy! I’m excited that I got some with LGBT elements and some unconventional takes on the genres. Can’t wait to be dazzled by all the strange worlds (or weirdness lurking in our own world!).

So what else nerdy can I show you? How about some word count graphs?

Here is a representation of how long the books in my submission pile are.

As you’d expect, the sweet spot is 80,000 words to 100,000 words, with mostly New Adult manuscripts taking the lower end and big fat fantasy novels spiking up to 150,000 words. My one submission that was over 150,000 was also over 200,000. Ahh, I remember those days. One of my novels was 255,000 words. It became a trilogy. Wheee! I was also puzzled by one submission claiming to be 4,900 words. Even if they meant 49,000, that’s still pretty short for a New Adult book, but we’ll see.

And just when you thought I must be done . . . NOPE.

Pitch Wars twins! Since submitting authors could choose five mentors, some of us were especially popular in certain genres. Which mentors did I share the MOST submissions with?


By far, the mentor with the most submissions in common with me is K.T. Hanna. We shared 50 submissions, which is more than half of my entire haul! Sounds like we must like a lot of the same things! Hayley Stone, J.C. Nelson, and Lynnette Labelle shared a large number with me as well, and I wasn’t surprised to see quite a few in common with Emmie Mears, Samantha Joyce, and Charlie N. Holmberg. A few of the folks listed above with submissions in common with me actually shouldn’t have been there, because occasionally someone would send a submission to a mentor who does not take that category (but some of the mentors on their list DO take the category).

I’m going through my submissions slowly and writing feedback as I go, just like the last couple years. We aren’t announcing our picks until September, so I’ve got some time, and I want to make sure to do a really nice thorough job. So far I’ve had a great time chugging through the submissions, and I can’t wait to find out which ones I’ll fall in love with.

Okay, so that’s enough of my splashing geekery all over you. Let me know if there’s another aspect of my submissions you want me to analyze for you, and we’ll see about getting some more graphs going! (You know I just want to be distracted, right?)

Hope you enjoyed that. 🙂

Avoiding the Red Pen of Doom


So you Pitch Wars folks may have heard I’m a grumpy editor and that I will be grading your papers–excuse me, your manuscripts–extra hard on silly things like spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word use.

Well, you heard right.

I don’t really want to spend this post rambling about the importance of a polished manuscript, so if you want to read my philosophy on the topic–which could be summed up as “please don’t make me be your literary janitor”–I have already written a post on that. But one major reason you want your manuscript to avoid certain common errors is that doing so makes us feel like we’re in good hands.

Ahh, we think when our internal editor can go to sleep and just enjoy the story. Finally. Someone who knows what they’re doing. That’s it, really. I want to feel that sense of confidence, like I’m dealing with a professional. For that reason–and because I would love to work with a mentee in Pitch Wars who will allow me to give my red pen a rest–I am now going to lay out the most common glitches I find myself yelling at people about over and over again during editing.

You may be surprised what you don’t know. Trust me here.

1. Extra spaces.

The standard now is ONE space after terminal punctuation. If you currently have a manuscript featuring two spaces after sentences, you’ll need to globally replace every set of two spaces with one space. You don’t want to look outdated/old-fashioned. I also often find two spaces between regular words, or even more than two spaces, so I recommend a good old automatic search-and-replace.

2. Mixture of straight quotes and curly quotes.

Nearly every manuscript I’ve edited has this problem and I don’t know why, but this formatting inconsistency is usually a consequence of editing in more than one program. (I’ve heard conversion to Word from Scrivener sometimes causes this if you then start editing inside Word after the conversion, for instance.) You should do a final once-over to make sure your quotes are all curly or all straight. Inconsistency looks sloppy and we can see what parts you’ve been messing with. You need to be especially careful about apostrophes; sometimes they flip the wrong way if they’re curly, and apostrophes should look like a tiny nine, not a tiny six.

3. Inappropriate use of single quotes.

US standards and UK/Australian standards are sometimes different on punctuation, and this is one of those times. But since I am US-based, I am explaining the US rule. Dialogue should be in double quotation marks. Quotations should be in double quotation marks. Scare quotes are also double quotation marks. Single quotation marks rarely make an appearance except inside doubles (to indicate something quoted inside something else that’s being quoted). I’m not sure why it’s so common for authors to use single quotes like my example above, but you shouldn’t.

4. Inappropriate dialogue rendering.

Dialogue appears to be one of the world’s last great mysteries to some folks. I see quoted text blending into stage direction that’s handled like a speech tag; I see commas used after question marks and exclamation marks; I even see people forgetting their commas before speech tags or using the wrong capitalization/punctuation for attaching speech tags. Bottom line is that you should end your dialogue with terminal punctuation inside the quotation marks unless the sentence continues outside the quotation marks to attach a dialogue tag, and if what follows after the comma is NOT a dialogue tag, it needs to be converted to the proper verb form before you add it on there. (For instance, in the first example in the graphic above, you’d write “Just don’t,” she said, walking away scowling, or “Just don’t.” She walked away scowling, or “Just don’t,” she said as she walked away scowling.

5. Improper rendering of ellipses.

Ellipses baffle many. That’s probably partly because three dots looks right and four looks like too many, and partly because there is a special character to create ellipses that converts automatically in some programs. Well, the Chicago Manual of Style is a common style guide for many editors and publishers, and these days it recommends spaces before, between, and after a set of three periods to indicate a pause–unless it is at the end of a sentence, in which case you get a fourth period that ends the sentence (flush against the sentence it ends, just like a regular period), followed by the spaced-out periods. It’s also not three periods followed by one space, which I also see a lot.

6. Improper rendering of dashes.

Dashes! Ask anyone who’s ever received editing from me: I harass people mercilessly over dashes. Turns out people don’t know there are different punctuation marks for different types of pauses, and many authors don’t know the difference between the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash.

The key:

( – ) Hyphen (shortest!): Used for connecting related words, like short-haired and dust-covered. Or for number words like forty-two. It is not used for a pause in a sentence. Created using the hyphen key on the keyboard.

( – ) En dash (medium!): Used for certain rare, peculiar hyphenations that involve connecting a two-or-more-word phrase to another word, like Michael Jackson–themed or yellow jasmine–scented. It is also used for ranges, like scores (“they beat us 27–6!”) or in substitution of the word “to” (“the Canada–United States border”). Created using alt-0150 on the keypad.

( — ) Em dash (longest!): Used to indicate interruption or pause in a sentence. You can use it to indicate that someone’s dialogue is getting cut off (“But you said I could if I—”) or to set off separate phrases or asides inside a sentence (The clown—still wearing his red nose—sighed deeply) or to add another idea to an existing one (Sometimes I think about dropping out—it’d be a relief, really). Created using alt-0151 on the keyboard.

The em dash is also sometimes indicated by two hyphens next to each other ( — ). If you are formatting your manuscript without the special dash character (which sometimes is converted automatically to a special dash character if you type two hyphens), you should not include spaces before, between, or after the dashes.

Please don’t make me yell at you over your dashes.

7. Comma splices.

Ever heard of comma splices? I used to have all kinds of comma splices in my writing until I found out they were a no-no. Comma splices can be hard to explain–both what they are and why they’re unacceptable–but once you get the idea of what they are, they start to jump out at you everywhere. Comma splices are essentially when a comma is used to join two parts of a sentence that should be more independent from each other. They usually need a stronger separation–such as a period, a dash, or a semicolon. The example above could be fixed with a semicolon or a period, just depending on stylistic preference. I tend to see comma splices more often in sentences that are already quite long, with several of them in a row. Look up comma splices online to figure out what they look like if it’s not clear to you already, and then kill them all.

8. Unnecessary, “creative,” or adverb-infested dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are one of the most frequently decorated parts of an amateur writer’s manuscript. One good rule of thumb is to avoid telling us how someone said something if what they said already made it clear. You don’t need to find a flashy word like roared or expectorated if the tone is already obvious just from reading the quote, and if someone says something pleasant and well-mannered, you don’t have to add “she said politely.” Give us adverbs or clarifying permutations for the word “said” or “asked” if something about it is not clear from the dialogue itself, like if the phrase is whispered and we wouldn’t otherwise know, or if it’s said sarcastically (provided we can’t tell already from context).

I think the main reason people think these gaudy tricks are good writing is that they imagine variation makes their sentences more attractive and innovative, but all it really shows is that they don’t know the purpose of dialogue tags. Think of your writing as a road and your plot as a series of tourist attractions. Your job as you lay out the road is to guide your drivers to the attractions; the storytelling is the highway, and the stage directions and dialogue tags are instructions for traveling it correctly. You want the roadside signs to guide the drivers, not become pretty enough that they’re mistaken for attractions themselves. Their job is to guide the driver and get out of the way–to be as invisible as they can be while still being understood.

9. Inconsistent usage.

Inconsistent usage is tough to nail down because every writer has different problem spots, but I see it often in stuff like “toward” and “towards” both being used in the same manuscript (you should pick one and use it consistently, “toward” being more commonly accepted, and the only exception is dialogue). Usually I’ll see this with authors sometimes capitalizing a person’s title and sometimes not; or spelling, hyphenating, or capitalizing special terms made up for the story differently each time.

10. Extraneous phrases and words.

Extraneous words are clutter. They jumble your sentences, make them more awkward to read, and can even slow down your pacing. “She wondered if she’d ever see another thunderstorm” is way more effective than “She found herself beginning to wonder whether or not there was ever going to be another thunderstorm.” Not only is the former around half the length of the latter, but it’s so much more readable and effective.

Watch for unnecessary words and phrases like started tobegan to, and in order to. Avoid phrases that are redundant, like whether or not (just whether works) or thought to herself (unless the character’s speaking telepathically, they are most likely always going to be thinking “to themselves”). Cut unnecessary uses of the word that. Avoid using really, quite, and very if they’re not necessary (and this is where creative word swaps do come in handy; I’d rather see “enormous” than “very big”). And try to avoid the word thing (except in dialogue) if you can think of a more specific word that describes what thing.

I can deal with a few writing quirks and mistakes here and there. I’m good at helping authors identify their language problems, and I’m sure whoever I choose for my mentee will have a couple glitches I can help them with. (For the record, ending sentences with prepositions is accepted usage in informal writing, and starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions is similarly fine. These are not the types of petty problems I scream about.) However, I would prefer to work with someone who won’t make me feel like I’m grading an English paper or watching out for mistakes all the time. Learn these common problems, excise them from your book, and help keep all of my hair in my head.

And for those of you who will still insist on committing these sins . . . be prepared to feel the sting of my mighty red pen.

Pitch Wars Agent Round: The Aftermath

My second year as a Pitch Wars Mentor is complete. And again, I declare it a smashing success.

Some reflections on the whole process:

  • Both my mentee (Megan Paasch) and my alternate (Natalka Burian) were a pleasure to work with. They were polite, patient, grateful, receptive, enthusiastic, and hard-working. I felt so fortunate that I chose folks whose personalities appeared well suited to the temperament one needs in this profession.


  • Both my mentee and my alternate entertained me incredibly with their novels. They were very different–one a New Adult fantasy, one an Adult literary–but I never got bored or tired reading their work, and it never felt like an obligation. They’re both very good writers–well, that’s why I picked them–but they also wrote stories with a soul, and that’s not something that can be taught.


  • Both Megan and Natalka got two agent requests (update: another one came through for Natalka!). It surprised me. Not because I thought they wouldn’t get requests–I thought they would–but they didn’t necessarily come from the agents I thought might nibble on them. I took a chance on both of them–New Adult wasn’t popular in the mentee round, and literary is often such a hard sell in these contests–but I’m pleasantly surprised by the attention we got. I strongly suspect I will have news of one of them signing with an agent very soon.


  • I hope and expect to remain friends and critique partners with both these ladies as we move on in our writerly lives. They’ve both expressed interest in my work too, and I would happily trust them to offer reflections on my own in-progress books. Just because I’m the mentor and they’re the mentees doesn’t mean I can’t learn from them too.


  • Brenda Drake managed this thing like a boss. I’ve never tried to run something on this scale, but I have an inkling of what it takes because of some other stuff I’ve directed, and it’s not easy. She did a fantastic job with all the organization required, but on top of that, she managed to not pull all of her hair out and she handled disputes and gave advice and laid down the law a few times in ways that had to be frustrating, and yet she still comes back up smiling and ready to do it again.


  • The mentors were supposedly the big cheeses in this contest, but we’re insecure too sometimes. If our mentees got no requests, or fewer requests, we questioned ourselves. Did we give bad advice? Did we pick the wrong direction in which to push our trusting writer pals? Was our judgment faulty? Did we FAIL THEM? Well, the truth is, there is some element of chance in every agent match and every book deal. There is ALWAYS “the right place at the right time.” Some of us would certainly not have our own agents or book deals if we hadn’t experienced some synchronicity or excellent luck; don’t get me wrong, because you do have to have a polished book and write a good story, but the publishing industry is full of chance. Not only did some of the good books in this contest just happen to not strike the fancy of the browsing agents, but some of the books did. It’s not “just luck,” but the agents in the contest are a small subsection of the agenting population, and they pass over things for plenty of mysterious reasons. If an agent requested everything, you’d suspect they had no standards, and you wouldn’t want to sign with them anyway. So authors chosen in this contest can take what they’ve learned and go forth into the querying wildernesses, not only with a stronger manuscript and better query, but with the support of their mentor and a whole community behind them.

Some reflections on this year’s Pitch Wars as it compares to last year’s:

  •  Last year’s mentee match was kinda ridiculous for me because I clicked incredibly well with Whitney Fletcher and we’re still writer BFFs. I don’t have quite as much in common with my folks from this year, but we were still able to connect personally as well as professionally, and I feel comfortable with them.


  • The interaction with the other mentors this year was wonderful. We had a Facebook group that facilitated discussion and putting out of fires, and I got to know several other mentors better than last year. I think a discussion group is a great idea for these contests, and I know the mentees and alternates had their own group too (which I haven’t seen), so I think that helped them too.


  • This year we only got to pick one alternate, and last year we had two. I think it was nice to be able to pick more people, but it ended up just slightly overwhelming for some of us, and I think one alternate is the right choice.


  • Last year my mentee was the first (I think) to be offered representation from an agent who picked him in the contest. It happened within two days. I don’t know the details but I think that ridiculous two-days-from-request-to-offer window might have been beaten by someone else this year. Sure wish my agent search had been in that fast lane!


  • I think the alternate showcase had more love this year. Maybe agents weren’t as overwhelmed with two alternates to view for each mentor? My alternates didn’t get any nibbles at all last year. I’m pretty good with pitching (ya think?) so I don’t think their pitches were terrible–it just seemed kind of quiet when it happened.


  • I got more replies to my feedback this year. Nearly everyone I wrote my page or so of feedback for wrote to thank me, and a dozen or so asked for additional advice or clarification (though I by and large did not re-critique edited query letters). I did disclose to some of the folks who were close that I nearly picked them, and some of the folks I connected with stayed friendly with me through e-mails and on Twitter. That was fantastic!


  • Last year we had problems with our Pitch Wars gmail accounts–primarily because we were all trying to log onto a group account and the system called shenanigans and kicked us out a lot. The submission forms, forwarding to multiple individual mentor accounts, were a huge improvement. (Thanks to Dan Koboldt!) The only down side was that we could not peep on each other’s submissions (which is what enabled me to mess with my mentee’s mind last year and grab his sample pages from another mentor without him knowing I was interested), but that’s a small price to pay–especially with how open we were in our discussion group.


  • Last year we had ninja mentors. This year that didn’t happen, though there were some last-minute changes with mentors because of having to drop out for personal or professional reasons. I think that was a good choice too because it might have felt like dragging the choosing part of the contest out too long, and I thought it was best with one set of decisions followed by moving right on to the critique.


  • Last year we couldn’t request full manuscripts and this year we could. That helped a lot of mentors make their final decisions, but I didn’t request any full manuscripts. I did request more material this year than I did last year, and I requested as I went along instead of waiting until the end. I would do it that way again, and maybe request full manuscripts this time.


  • Last year AND this year I left my decision until the last minute. Last year I strongly suspected I was going to be picking Whitney, even though he was my second overall submission out of more than 70, but I wasn’t positive after reading the excerpts. I really fell in love with the manuscript from my first alternate, Ryan. I still went with Whitney because of a stronger connection to the character. I feel I did make the right decision, but I was conflicted after reading more material. I felt the same this year when I had one mentee in mind and then didn’t feel the same after reading the excerpts. Sometimes you just know, but sometimes it’s about the long game.


  • Last year and this year I accepted Adult and New Adult. I think I will continue to do that if I participate next year. I think I will emphasize in my bio that I don’t want romance books. These past two years I did say I would take romance as long as the romance wasn’t all there was, but I still received a fair amount of romance and fell in love with none of it. That’s not really fair to the people who submit to me thinking I’m more open to it than I am. Next year, if I’m involved, no straight-genre romance.


  • Last year I gave a ton of feedback to the people I was passing on–just over 45,000 words for 74 submissions. This year I gave a similar amount of feedback to the people I was passing on, but I had far more submissions, and my total word count on the feedback was about 60,000 words for my 103 subs. I would do it again. I enjoy the process and love helping these writers. Last year it felt more laborious, though I still liked writing out my thoughts in a constructive manner. This year for some reason I enjoyed it more. I’m glad since there was so much more to do.


  • Last year I did not have a book coming out the week of Pitch Wars decisions, and this year I did. That put my stress level through the roof. I had taken the week of my release date off so I wouldn’t have to be a distracted slacker at the office, but to be honest, Pitch Wars ate it. If I have my choice, I will never, ever share a release date with a Pitch Wars event again. It was too much. But I survived. Thanks to coffee, my friends, and the support of my community.

I’m looking forward to cheering people on as they move forward in their writing careers, whether that be to agents, straight to publishing, or on to their next books.

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.


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

Pitch Wars 2014: The Aftermath


And there were battles, I assure you.
But I’m not here to tell you about those. First, I’d like you to meet my fresh new team:
MENTEE: Megan Paasch, with her incredible New Adult fantasy Charlotte Elemental.
ALTERNATE: Natalka Burian, with her heart-rending/mind-blowing Adult Literary/Speculative Fiction Everything Is Flowing.

Check out Brenda’s full list of mentees, alternates, and mentor matches here:
And now, what you all want to know . . . why them? Why not someone else? Maybe why not you?
I’m going to tell you about how this went down for me. Let’s look at the beginning.

I got 100 eligible submissions. (103 total, technically, but two were from a category I was not mentoring–YA mistakenly sent to an Adult mentor–and one was a book of short stories, which generally isn’t something agents are considering from authors without book-length fiction already published.) So, nice round number. Easy to work with. I wrote feedback as I went along, and am going to send it to the authors little by little shortly after I finish blogging about this. Most applicants got somewhere between 600 and 1500 words of feedback. Don’t like math? That’s okay. I’ll do it for you.
All told, I have written just under 60,000 words of feedback for the Pitch Wars applicants.
And before you say I’m dedicated, etc., it’s mostly because I just can’t shut up when I get into trying to help someone.
I “ranked” each person according to a numerical score generated through a rubric. The extended version of this analytical process was described in a previous blog post. Essentially, I had this rubric:


Writing Quality Errors Trajectory Detail Personal Total
5 5 5 5 5 25

Writing Sample:

Writing Quality Errors Character Effective Intro Personal Total
5 5 5 5 5 25

You can look at the previous blog post for an explanation of what I mean by those categories.

Nobody got a perfect score, by the way. The highest I had was 23/23, total of 46.
I’m kind of merciless.
Everybody from #50 and above scored at least 30 points. Only eight people got 40 or above. And–strangely enough–two of my favorites didn’t make that top eight.
I ended up with a shortlist of SEVEN potential mentees, all of whom I requested extra chapters from. I made my choices from those folks based on the query and three chapters. If you got a request from me, you were one of seven out of one hundred submissions, and I honestly considered each of you for the top spot at some point in the process. Congratulations.
BUT. Choosing these seven wasn’t as simple as I’d thought it would be. I’d assumed it would be as easy as just grabbing the top picks on my easy little list, but it wasn’t. My mentee was not #1 on the list. My #2 on the list didn’t end up as my mentee or alternate. I didn’t even ask for more pages from my #6, #7, or #8, but did so for my #9 and my #12.

I had scored them using this rubric to get a more objective idea of how much I liked them, but then I realized two important things about the scores. One: I didn’t consider marketability in my rubric, and that ended up being vital. And two: Some of the ones that scored higher than others were manuscripts I knew I could not take for personal reasons. Let’s be honest: This contest isn’t “fair.” You enter for free. If you win, you get critiques for free and guidance for free. If you don’t get picked, you might get feedback and you might not. We try to make it balanced as to what mentees and alternates get as a minimum, but we are volunteers giving our time to help writers, and ultimately, that gives us a little bit of freedom to be selfish if we want. Sometimes, we just picked what we wanted to work with, not what was “good.”

The problems I encountered were about the same as last year: Queries without direction, queries that lacked trajectory and just listed what happens, queries with too much or not enough detail, pages loaded down with backstory or unnatural dialogue, query bios that were full of irrelevant details or sounded like bragging. My individual feedback will make it clear if one of these was your problem. But as for my top seven who inspired me to ask for more:

  • One, a New Adult Fantasy, became my mentee, and that’s because her modern-setting story featuring Fae and elemental influences captured my imagination and contained believable dialogue/no unnatural backstory.
  • One, an Adult Literary, became my alternate, and her creative premise and perfectly executed characters drenched in lyrical prose pulled me in and established an emotional connection. Its premise is very weird so I don’t know about marketability, but we’ll see what we can do.
  • One, an Adult Contemporary, came really close to getting selected as my mentee, but I pulled away after reading additional chapters because the exposition felt heavy filtering in and I wasn’t sure how I could guide it to become more natural. I was in love with its beginning but didn’t maintain that throughout the rest. Gosh, I love this one, though.
  • One, an Adult Fantasy, was mesmerizing with its story of a brilliant protagonist forced to play a game he doesn’t understand, but I passed partly because the beginning felt a little slow and I wasn’t quite as taken with the characters as I wanted to be. I’m still so curious about how it develops and messes with my head!
  • One, an Adult Experimental Fiction, personified an idea and let us watch as the idea poisons people’s lives. It’s just so innovative and compelling, but the weirdness of it and wandering between focus characters made me think I just wouldn’t be able to sell it in the agent round. I still want to devour it.
  • One, a New Adult Science Fiction, bowled me over with its talented protagonist, alien cultural examination, and character writing, but honestly the query made me think the story would go in a dramatic direction I would personally find hard to read. But I became so invested in the characters right away and really want to know what happens to them.
  • And one, an Adult Fantasy, had a hero-champion-is-chosen-to-literally-save-the-world plot, but its execution really won me over. I was personally quite impressed with it, but elected to go with something less traditional, because pitching another savior-of-mankind story would be daunting considering what you need to stand out in that crowd.

What else scored high for me but didn’t make it to page requests? An Adult Science Fiction about a clone situation; great idea and good execution, but I felt like it wasn’t my thing. She got picked up as someone else’s alternate. An Adult Fantasy about a djinni. Fantastic query with pages I didn’t connect to like I wanted to, but I was surprised this one didn’t get picked up. An Adult Thriller in a sort of dystopian future surprised me with how much I liked it because thrillers really aren’t my thing (and that whole detective vibe is why I decided against asking for more). An Adult Science Fiction with a female warrior with alien heritage whose query was super and pages didn’t quite work for me, but really wow. And a peculiar Adult Historical–another thing I almost never connect to–with a premise I loved but an atypical storytelling style and confusing sentence in the query that made me think I should choose something closer to my heart.

Some surprises for me:

I got a handful of straight-up romance novels or people labeling their work romance (but the query blended it with thriller). I wouldn’t absolutely refuse to take a romance if everything about it was amazing, but to be honest it’s a hard sell for me to work with romance–not only because I don’t like it, but because I don’t read it and wouldn’t know how to mentor someone who does read it. I’d probably be giving bad advice and trying to turn it into something it isn’t. I like stories with incidental romance if it’s there at all, and I truly don’t mind if a romance is important in a character’s life, but it can’t be the plot or else it’s just not my thing. I must not have made that very clear in my wish list post because I got more romances than I understood the reason for.

I had a lot of queries with typos. Typos, y’all. Please, we aren’t agents but this contest at least pretends it’s held in a professional capacity for purposes of turning you into professional authors. Maybe I’m weird but I did actually expect perfect proofreading on the queries and near-perfect proofreading on the chapters. A typo wouldn’t absolutely kill you, but for me, it indicated lack of polish. Please watch these.

I was amazed by how engaging some of your stories were. Most of you really knew how to pull me in at the beginning, though a lot of you then turned around and started heaping on the backstory and that ruined it. I was just impressed by some of those first lines, some of those abilities to evoke emotion and establish setting. And how different the voices were, how fresh some of those ideas are, how much fun it was to enter each of your worlds for a few minutes and be glad that I did.

My specific feedback for each of you will go out soon. Please comment if you were one of my submissions and you have something, anything, to say, or even if you weren’t but you have words for me or my audience.

I had a blast writing out my feedback this year and I found that I truly enjoyed picking through the massive flood in my inbox, searching for those gems, and finding some polish and a rag to hand to those whose weren’t quite shiny enough yet.