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!
- Alex (2)
- Amber (2)
- Claire (2)
- Dillard *
- Robert (R.J.)
- Victoria (2)
* (“Dillard” was listed as a protagonist’s last name, but no first names of protagonists appeared to be listed in the query.)