Seriously though, there’s some nerdy stuff coming. With math, data, and graphs! RUN!
So Pitch Wars has completed its submission round and now we mentors are frantically digging through our submissions. Some more frantically than others.
Because you see, some of us got kind of a lot of submissions. Like, for instance, yours truly.
I received 101 submissions.
(Technically 103, but two of them were for Young Adult manuscripts, and I was not allowed to take Young Adult. I am a New Adult and Adult mentor only!)
I’ve only read a small percentage of my inbox–about 15%–and I’m going to chug through it this week. But since I’ve read very little of it, I can’t really offer you any meaningful reflections on what I’m thinking. What I CAN offer you is statistics. Lots of statistics! So . . . let’s start with category. How many Adult and how many New Adult did I get?
Of course, Adult dominated. New Adult is just getting off the ground, and not as many people write it.
Now here’s one I’m not too enthusiastic about doing, but people were talking about it/asking about it a little because there was a perception that guys are severely underrepresented in this contest, both amongst the mentors and amongst the entrants. I mostly have name data to go on and to guess someone’s gender based on traditionally male or female names, I have to make assumptions, and I also can’t reliably tell who among them, despite the name, might identify as a non-binary gender. But I took my best guess, and this is how it broke down if I had to guess the balance between male and female in the contest (based on my inbox):
Yep. It’s a female-dominated contest. (I think we all know that publishing is pretty dominated by women, and yet lots of books by male authors get published, so. . . .)
Moving on to something else! What about . . . genre? What kind of genre breakdown did I see in my box? (You can click these charts to see them better if they’re too small or the blog configuration gets in the way.)
I don’t think anyone’s surprised that the mentor who asked for science fiction and fantasy got a lot of science fiction and fantasy. Are you?
I’m just surprised romance is that high.
As you can see if the chart is visible to you, ten people chose “other.” Some of them did so even though their category was technically there, but it looks like they just wanted to be more specific. The “Other” category included one Experimental Fiction, one Christian, one Upmarket Women’s Fiction, two Urban Fantasy, one Historical Paranormal, two Women’s Fiction, one Mythic Retelling, and one Dystopian Paranormal.
What else, you might be saying . . . what else nerdy can you show me? Well, how about word count?
As you’d expect, nearly all the submissions are between 70,000 words and 100,000 words. It drops off sharply after 100K, but yeah, I did have two over 150,000. One person didn’t include their word count and they’re the question mark at the end. I also did get several novels under 60K which is weird to me for adults (most of them were not New Adult), and one was under 50K.
I’m super surprised I didn’t get the biggest books in the contest, though. I did say in my bio that I LIKE long books, and yet the other mentors got the 200,000+-word tomes! Wow!
And just when you thought I must be done . . . NOPE.
Pitch Wars twins! Which mentors did I share the MOST submissions with?
Jami Nord is my supreme Pitch Wars twin, with 30 submissions in common. Just behind Jami are Amy Reichert and Natasha Neagle. Despite being my mentee last year, Whitney wasn’t even in the top five. We actually have somewhat different taste in books.
Okay, okay, that’s all the nerdery I have for you right now. Please tell me if you want me to analyze anything else!
Or don’t, so I can get through my submissions faster. 😉
If the response on Twitter is any indication, some of y’all who are participating in Pitch Wars want to know my decision-making process for my mentee choices. Well, wonder no more!
At the end of the day, most of us are going to want to go with something that doesn’t need too much work–we have a limited amount of time to get you in shape, you know!–and ideally, we’ll also want something we personally like since we’ll have to put a lot of our time into it. For free, you know.
I got a lot of submissions last year, so I’m expecting a lot of submissions this year, and if the preliminary entries before the final submission deadline are any indication, I am going to be buried. So I wanted to come up with a system that will help me avoid having to read entries more than once if I am not going to be working with them, and what better way to do that than a nerdy table?
Here’s my query table. As I read the queries, I’m giving them 0 to 5 points on each of these categories, with 25 points possible. High points is good, low points is not good.
I’m considering each of these categories equally.
Writing Quality: This basically means I’m looking at whether the writing itself is smooth. If the sentences feel like they flow and the language is easy to read and easy to understand.
5 points: Masterfully written, no awkward sentences, easy to follow.
4 points: Adequate writing, though language could be improved.
3 points: Unclear sometimes, makes its point, but feels awkward.
1 point: Reads like author struggles with language.
0 points: Language is garbled, can’t understand the content.
Errors: This sounds like it’d be a subcategory of the above, but I consider it separately. A person can still write passable sentences and yet have a bunch of errors in them, and because I tend to focus on sentences and punctuation and technical editing when I’m helping with a manuscript, these two are very important to me. I need people to have high scores in these, because if they have low scores I’ll end up doing a LOT of homework, and I’d like to avoid that if possible. Errors could be spelling problems, typos, misused punctuation, or incorrect homophones, and I’m looking at grammar too (but I’m okay with slang or informal usage).
5 points: No errors; author clearly knows how to spell, punctuate, use correct grammar.
4 points: One or more errors, but might be an isolated incident.
3 points: The errors are clearly the norm rather than an occasional glitch.
2 points: Frequent errors.
1 point: A catastrophic number of errors.
0 points: Author fails third grade English.
Trajectory: Super big deal in queries. I want my queries to set up the characters and situation, tell me how it escalates or complicates, give me some stakes, and make me understand and care about what happens to their characters. In other words, this is the Big Query Points category: if your query DOES WHAT IT’S SUPPOSED TO DO, it gets a high score here. If it rambles about your character’s world or their past too much for the context needed, gives extremely vague stakes, or distracts me with themes and messages instead of telling me WHAT HAPPENS, it gets a low score.
5 points: Perfect setup of characters, conflicts, and stakes, gets me invested.
4 points: Might be a little murky, but still strong telling me the story and why I care.
3 points: Gets a little lost or doesn’t have a clear presentation/vague stakes.
2 points: The story isn’t at all clear; it’s characters that do stuff.
1 point: The author says nothing or almost nothing about the book, or says so in a way I can’t access.
0 points: Isn’t actually a query letter–does something else instead of telling me about the book.
Detail: I put this in because I typed it so often last year: you need the right level of detail. And this isn’t a mathematical formula; what’s appropriate varies depending on your manuscript and your genre. But in a query, I want broad strokes, with still enough detail to get a feeling about what your book is like. I want about the level of detail that would be on the back of your paperback book when it’s published. And sometimes a query can lack detail but still be too long; I see vagueness like “she’ll lose everything” instead of WHAT she’ll lose.
5 points: The level of detail feels perfect; I’m not overwhelmed with detail, but not left wondering anything vital.
4 points: The level of detail is either too much or too little, but it’s fixable–might need to ask the author to answer X question in the query or to delete X rambling.
3 points: The query needs a whole extra paragraph or needs a whole paragraph deleted.
2 points: Misses the mark by a noticeable margin–significantly too much or too little.
1 point: Author is treating the query letter like either an elevator pitch (way too little) or a comprehensive synopsis (way too much–may tell the ending).
0 points: Spends the entire letter talking about something other than the book, such as their own publishing credentials, their experience, why they wrote the book, or why they think it will sell.
Personal: And everyone’s favorite: the personal. This is the section where I rate my connection to the material. This does not necessarily mean that I’m rating whether it’s a genre I tend to like or whether the subject matter is my favorite; it means I’m rating whether I have a personal connection with the idea. That’s way more likely to happen for books in my preferred genres (science fiction/fantasy), but you will not necessarily get a lower score if you’re outside that. Personal connection plays a part in everything from your agent to the acquiring editor at your publisher, so I consider this section really important.
5 points: I’m in love, marry me.
4 points: I like it–I could dig this, it’s neat.
3 points: I could definitely see myself reading it for fun.
2 points: Really not my usual thing–wouldn’t check it out of the library.
1 point: A subject, genre, or character I’d avoid on purpose.
0 points: You offended me or pissed me off.
And that’s it for the queries! Now, some mentors say they give preference to the pages. I’m not one of them. I will at least peek at your pages even if I hate your query–I really will!–but a bad query and decent pages will still make me not want to work with you. A query, for an agent, is often the only thing they’ll see, and I don’t want to write it for you or take it completely apart. So, while the query doesn’t have to necessarily be as good as the pages, I want it to be really good. I am giving scores on the query that are equal to the scores on the pages, and will be taking both into consideration for my final decision. If I love the pages but dislike the query, I’ll give you a very high personal score to counteract.
Let’s look at what my (slightly different) table for the pages looks like:
Writing Quality: The five-point scale is the same as above.
Errors: The five-point scale is the same as above. Yes, I will give you a 4 starting with ONE error. I am a horrible witch. I’m not kidding. Don’t sub to me if you can’t handle it.
Character: I am a huge character writer, character reader, and character, uh, mentory person. I will connect to character more than anything else in your book, and this is extremely important to me, so I am looking at it as a grading category here.
5 points: Immediate understanding of who your characters are and what they’re about, with natural personality reveal and good dialogue. Bonus if I want to hang out with them.
4 points: I like your characters and their execution. I get a good feel for who they are and why.
3 points: There’s not a full connection here–maybe I’m watching from a distance, but the characters are still on display and interacting somewhat competently.
2 points: The characters are just there being puppeted, or don’t feel authentic, or give us no information about themselves as they act.
1 point: The characters are caricatures and feel wooden. One dimension and everyone talks alike.
0 points: There is no feel for character at all and there’s no story-relevant reason for it.
Effective Intro: This is where you get the Big Writing Sample Points. DOES YOUR BEGINNING DO WHAT IT’S SUPPOSED TO DO? I need to know you can handle one of the toughest parts of the book: the opening. And I don’t want to rewrite it for you or tell you to start somewhere else. This is it. So if your story’s intro gets me invested immediately and doesn’t stand there behaving like required reading, you’ve done what you came to do.
5 points: You got me fully invested and reading the entire first chapter. You found the right balance between action, character, and background detail to pull me right in.
4 points: You probably have some awkward details about the characters’ pasts or current problem, or spent too much time telling me an aside about your fantasy world, but it’s quite readable and I read the whole first chapter.
3 points: You had an uneven beginning, halting your opening to tell me things or having nothing really important happening. I feel like you started in the wrong place. I may or may not read the whole first chapter.
2 points: You aren’t ready–you’ve figured out your details, but not how to tell the story. You haven’t figured out yet where your story starts and you’re frequently interrupting your action to fill me in, posing your characters awkwardly to make them drop exposition, or rambling about something I’m not invested enough to care about. I didn’t finish your pages.
1 point: You aren’t ready–I can’t even follow the action or figure out who’s who, and the confusion isn’t a consequence of an experimental writing style (because that would get me invested even if I didn’t know what was going on).
0 points: You apparently turned in a first draft and/or have no idea how to pull readers into a story. You haven’t realized yet that readers don’t have to humor you; they don’t have to be here, so they’re not going to wait until it gets good.
Personal: Same five-point scale as the query.
So after I have both scores, I put you in a list. A ranked list. Each person who subs to me has a score next to them on my ranked list (e.g., 17/11) and the total of those two numbers will determine where they fall (but I’ll be able to see how their query compares with their pages). Last year, I had trouble remembering why I put someone where I did in my ranked list, so now, not only can I assign them a score, but I can jump back to their entry and see what I liked and didn’t like about it just by glancing at a number. Obviously some people will have the same numerical score, so when that happens it’s just going to be a gut feeling thing (or I might give preference to people who had higher Trajectory scores in the query or higher Effective Intro scores in the pages).
Also, if I’m torn at the end, I can remember without a lot of rereading what each writer’s strength is and how they compare.
Some of y’all followed the PITCH WARS news very closely as it was going on, so it may have come as a surprise to you when I was pretty tight-lipped about the aftermath. Well, there were two reasons for that.
One: I was on vacation as it was happening, so my ability to blog and flail extensively was limited.
Two: THE EXPERIENCE ENDS WITH EXCITING NEWS THAT I WASN’T ALLOWED TO TALK ABOUT, SO YOU CAN GUESS WHERE THIS IS GOING OKAY.
(Should you be confused about the weird anime characters all over this post, you might want to read about how I picked my mentee in the first place, and how I’m an evil genius quarterback with my mentee as an identity-concealing star running back.)
So let’s back up to mid-December. After choosing my team, I was tasked with reading my main mentee’s entire book, and helping all three members of my team tweak their query letters, edit their initial pages, and craft a short pitch for the agent round. Even though my two alternates, Ryan and Jessica, were not part of the main event, they would both be in the “alternate showcase,” while my main mentee–the mysterious Whitney Fletcher–would be part of the main event on contest organizer Brenda’s blog come January 21.
So I read the book in chunks. Mostly so I could identify global issues early on, send him notes on what I’d read, and let my mentee massage those issues in the rest of the book before sending me another chunk. You know, so I wouldn’t have to scream at him over and over about the same things. I had to do a reasonably small amount of screaming. Without going into detail, most of my form-related critiques involved ranting about dashes or extra spaces and my content-related critiques requested less expository rambling from characters who sounded awkward delivering them. Whitney was fantastically receptive of these critiques. Even when I provided them in obnoxious ways, such as embedding multiple selfies of me eating eggs far past expiration date in order to make a point about how that isn’t actually likely to threaten your health.
Not dead! Not barfing!
By the end of the adventure, I had made well over 800 comments, some of which were just me talking back to the characters but many of which requested changes or highlighted good examples of paragraphs to model exposition on. Sometimes he really nailed it and other times it just kinda wasn’t what I wanted to see, and I’d sensed he would not need much hand-holding to get it where it needed to be. I didn’t have to be gentle. I could just shove and rant like a jerk and he’s like “Okay, cool!” It was really refreshing to have an author so enthusiastic about changing his work to make it even better.
Now on to the hard part. Authors write books. They are rarely also good salespeople–me included. But I’ve learned a few things about pitching, querying, and hooking agents, and what had me worried was this book’s genre. Urban Fantasy. There were mentors in this contest who didn’t want to pick Urban Fantasy just because it’s exceedingly hard to sell, and therefore exceedingly unlikely that an agent would request. On top of that, the book was in the adult category, and as it turned out, many of the agents in the contest weren’t interested in books above YA or NA. There were only nine adult manuscripts in this contest of over fifty, and there was a reason for that. Ugh.
So I knew his pitch would have to be amazing. Time for me to go into tactical genius mode.
The first pitches sent by all my team members needed some work, and Jessica’s was polished first. She’s pretty fantastic at pitching things. o_O The pitch I received from Ryan ended up being good but too long, so I last-minute edited it for length and he approved it. And then I spent the most time and effort going back and forth on Whitney’s.
A couple early requests for certain elements to be braided into the pitch didn’t really result in what I was looking for, so I pulled one of my famous “If I was writing this, it would be something like ‘XYZ'” stunts. And what do you know, Whitney liked my version and we built the final one off that. When I suggested a first line like “Ingrid would rather [something unpleasant] than play bodyguard to Earth’s most wanted” and he came back with “wrestle a manticore,” I knew we were in business.
My team’s final pitches:
When Pitch Wars finally went live, I was on the road, crossing my fingers for comments from agents. Because they were already pouring in for the other mentees . . . and some of them were coming from agents who were supposedly interested in the Urban Fantasy category. By halfway through the first day, my mentee and I were pretty convinced that we would get zero love in this contest, and I was starting to doubt my pitching skills. I wondered if I’d led all of them astray.
Though we were happy to tell ourselves that Urban Fantasy’s difficulty in the marketplace was the reason. Yeah. It’s that. It’s totally not OUR fault!
But then it happened. A comment! A comment!
Yessssss. And what’s even better . . . Lana’s agency, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, wasn’t open to queries, which means a contest like this would have been the ONLY way to get her attention. And she wanted the full manuscript! Not just a partial!
I gave my mentee his instructions on how to submit to her, and the next day there were no more requests. My alternates didn’t get any love, sadly. Though I think they might have if the alternate showcase had been on a different day. I got a few behind-the-scenes e-mails about agents who wanted to check out my mentee’s manuscript too, and when comments for agents outside the contest opened up, we got a second request on the blog–this time from Margaret Bail, who’s an agent at my agency–Inklings Literary. Neat!
Then Things Happened on Twitter, and we were thinking whoa, looks like she’s REALLY interested . . . she’s talking about us, right? I mean Whitney, right?
I got my butt kissed a lot, too. Very nice to know I’m so appreciated. ::grin::
The day after my vacation I was grocery shopping, and when I got home my phone was full of Twitter messages from Whitney. There weren’t any words. Just various animated GIFs of people throwing confetti. Obviously something was up.
While I was trying to figure out how to switch to the setting where I could answer him, the phone rang.
“Lana just offered me representation!”
Two days, son. Two days from request to offer. That is some badass stuff!
(He had also been at the grocery store when he got the news. Weird synchronicity, eh?)
Various scrambling happened after that. He had to contact the other interested agents to let them know he had an offer, because, you know, you’ve got to do it right. Despite the praise Lana heaped on him in her offering e-mail, Whitney wanted to make sure he gave everyone else a chance to nibble, and he got a handful of additional full manuscript requests from that. Obviously it’s very tempting to just drop everything and sign with the first agent who loves you–and we both could easily see that Lana was a very good fit for him and his book, as well as his future projects–but you have to play your cards right, you know? I know.
So then the torture began. We had to wait as the other agents read, and keep the whole thing a secret even though we had Major News. Happily, when you have an offer, you can push the other interested agents to rush-read, and you don’t have to wait through the usual long response times. Agents can either step aside if they don’t have time to drop everything and read right then, or they can tell you when they can read it by and make their decision. We had a few other agents decide it wasn’t for them, etc., but a couple kept us hanging on while they read. Whitney had his offer call with Lana and they further confirmed that they’re a perfect fit, and he got all his questions answered about the submissions process.
But man, we had to hold onto our hats and just wait while the final decisions from the remaining deliberating agents came through, and that was pretty maddening.
Finally, the other agents involved had all decided they were stepping aside or dubbing themselves not-quite-right for the project, and so that was it.
LANA AND WHITNEY SITTIN’ IN A TREE!
My mentee is officially an agented author: Whitney Fletcher, newest client of Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, signed to agent Lana Popovic. YEAH!!
A match made in Heaven. With a sort of devilish matchmaker.
And let’s not forget Brenda and her amazing Pitch Wars contest, which made all of this possible. I can’t believe it happened so fast! I didn’t get my agent through a contest but now I feel like I vicariously know what the experience is like, and it’s amazing. 😀
So now my work is done–on this one–and I wish him the best of luck on submission. I have warned him, however, that I will be coming after him if his book sells before mine. Which is now a distinct possibility. 😉
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.
I will now tell you my side of it . . . and how I came to mentor my chosen few, with a little taste of the backstage evil which enabled me to maintain a façade leaving my top pick adrift on a sea of impending disappointment until he clicked on the blog link and saw his name.
PITCH WARS opened and I posted my wish list. Made it clear that I was looking for great character-centric work, primarily of the science fiction and fantasy variety, in the Adult and New Adult categories. Little by little, potential mentees were popping by to ask questions, post on my blog, and engage in chatter with me on Twitter. One of them–the one you see up there in that shiny #1 spot–got very excited that I like the Japanese anime Eyeshield 21, and we tweeted about it back and forth. He jokingly told me I should expect a query full of Eyeshield references.
Then submission day came and my contest mailbox was flooded with submissions. I received 74 queries. And I was afraid to open them, because I had just been contacted by my publisher and had a bunch of work to do on a questionnaire for them, as well as a media interview with a British journalist. I couldn’t hit my submissions for a good three days.
Finally I began to dig through them and then there it was, second submission received:
There he is. There’s that guy. Oh my gosh, he really did make an Eyeshield reference!
So about Eyeshield 21. Let me tell you a thing. So you understand the heap of pain this fellow has just called down upon himself.
Hiruma and Sena. This picture about covers it.
Hiruma is basically a demon. Well, no, not canonically; this isn’t a science fiction or fantasy anime. It’s about American football, oddly enough, being played in a Japanese high school. Hiruma is a quarterback, but he can’t seem to get anyone to join his football team. Because they’re all afraid of him. I can’t imagine why! Such a nice guy who only wants to train hard and get his team to the Christmas Bowl, right?
Okay, not so much.
Let’s just say Hiruma’s got a passion for the game. He is not above using blackmail, threatening you with a gun, or siccing his vicious dog on you to see how fast you can run. He is literally an evil genius, and extremely scary, and very driven to win. He recruits poor Sena, who has an undiscovered and raw but amazing running talent, and forces him to play the star running back for his team, the Deimon Devil Bats. But he hides him behind a green eyeshield so people won’t know who he is and won’t distract him with demands to play on other sports teams.
Don’t ask why he has ammunition. With Hiruma, it’s always best to just . . . never, never ask.
So, people are afraid of Hiruma, but his reputation as a strategic genius and an all-around tricksy dude is also well known throughout the region, and he gets some pretty good respect. Sena frequently fears for his life around this guy, but he understands that the abuse Hiruma heaps upon him is for a good cause. It’s for the sake of his excellence. His success. His ability to realize his potential.
So, back to my mentee.
This was an incredibly appropriate metaphor and an extremely wise choice. As an Eyeshield fan, I knew that if I were to take this mentee literally, he would be up for any amount of evil stuff I could throw at him in order to make him better. And it doesn’t hurt that Hiruma is my favorite character. Not to mention I have my own relatively evil grin to use.
Why yes, I moonlight as an anime character. Why do you ask?
So when I saw that reference–at the end of a query I had to read twice to find anything I would change–I took a deep breath and scrolled down to the sample material.
The words that went through my head were something like Please don’t suck. Please don’t suck. I want to like you so badly.
It didn’t suck, y’all.
I won’t go into detail–that’s for my mentee and me to discuss in private–but the voice of this thing was just peaches. None of the speed bumps I’m used to seeing in first chapters where authors try so hard to tell me everything I need to know about the characters. All the focus was spent on getting me invested. And I spent five pages falling in love with our protagonist. Who am I to say no to a beefy blond lesbian Valkyrie, anyway?
(I did ask for books featuring queer characters, y’all.)
For the record, I realized there was no turning back for me when Ingrid weighed the pros and cons of being sympathetic or being aggressive to get some answers, and decided to go the loud and angry route because doing otherwise would be “some faerie godmother bullshit.”
And I was like
Meanwhile, on Twitter, it became clear to me that this fellow was monitoring his four potential mentors very carefully. He noticed everything. He kept track of everything we said that might hint for or against his being picked. And after I’d finished my first third of submissions and I still hadn’t run into one I liked better, I checked out what the other mentors were doing and was startled to see someone else had beaten me to the punch in requesting his additional chapters. Lady Lioness liked his voice too.
Oh well, I thought. Hey, what were the chances that he would actually remain my favorite through this WHOLE THING? I still had like 50 more submissions to read! I could pick any card I wanted! Surely someone would kick him out of spot number one, right? I wouldn’t end up mentoring the second damn submission I read, right?
And I wouldn’t let my rapport with him interfere, right?
Because man, I was really afraid of that. So I started actively fighting it. I wanted to find a reason to pick someone else, so I wouldn’t look like that jerk who picks someone because they’re my friend. After all, I have integrity. I encouraged my critique partner Jay to enter the contest but not to submit to me (because after all, he’s already had a query critique and manuscript massage from me; what would be the point?). I don’t engage in favoritism. Do I?
But he’d be such fun to work with! Ahhh!
So I had to be extra careful not to let my personal feelings get tangled up with the quality.
One by one I started recognizing manuscripts from people who were also being awesome and sweet to me on Twitter. I’d open their manuscripts and hope for amazing, and then I’d find something that sealed the deal for me–nope, I can’t take this. Sometimes it was a quality issue and sometimes it was a personal preference issue. I got a really terrible pit in my stomach every time someone I knew and considered a friend or friendly acquaintance submitted to me and I had to put them in the rejections pile. My heart sank every time I wrote an edit letter for a person I’d had a conversation with.
I blogged about my selection process and thereby showed one of my cards: Yes, I did plan to ask for more material from all of my top picks AFTER I was done reading everything. I noticed Mr. C.B. Whitney sleuthing it up on Twitter again, hiding behind his eyeshield-like pen name. He disclosed to me that the hints from the other mentors so far indicated that his might’ve been trashed since manuscripts unlike his were looking like their front-runners. I don’t know what Lioness said to that effect, but I checked with her and yes, she had read the chapters and wanted to mentor someone else. She was more than willing to surrender him to me if I wanted him. Oh hell yes.
And then, fairly early on, I came upon Gyre by Jessica. I had not talked with her and knew nothing, but her story about a young woman who discovers she can teleport captured my imagination, and after the query pulled me in, the writing really got me going. Again, I’ll give her more detail privately, but it was really the way her protagonist acted in crisis that worked for me. She acted like a person, not a character. Yes, yes.
I re-read the pages for Queen of Shards again to make sure this hadn’t beaten it, but I still loved Ingrid on a slightly different level than I loved Chelsea–just a personal thing, I guess–so I stuck it in underneath at the top of the list. Going on down the line I found I was getting mostly fantasy and science fiction, a little women’s fiction, a paranormal here and there. One women’s fiction made my top ten. Contemporary and urban fantasy kept ranking high. Then I ran into McTavish by Ryan. Oh man, the length of the query almost sunk it (and I’ll tell him more privately), but then I hit the pages and whoa. Easily one of the most polished and evocative beginnings I’ve read, with absolutely engaging and realistic characters. Sold. And truthfully, the only reason I decided against bumping him to my mentee was that I read those QoS pages again and determined that I wanted to be BFFs with Ingrid. As well-written as it was, I didn’t quite connect to Mike personally. I wanted to see what happened to him but didn’t have that weird desire to hang out with him.
And meanwhile, my secret favorite was entertaining me with tweets as I pounded out edit letter after edit letter. You see, I was determined to leave feedback for everyone, and ended up creating over 45,000 words of feedback over the course of four days. He sent me fight songs and stayed up late with me in solidarity to encourage me along. I guess this might have also been his attempt to keep the pilot light burning, but it was so much fun. I was really afraid by this point that someone else would oust him from the top, but at the same time I kind of wanted them to so I could be sure I wasn’t picking him for his own awesome factor, not the awesome factor of his manuscript.
The rest of the pitches rolled by and I found several more top-tenners right at the end, but my top three remained. I realized I had to request more pages to be sure–since some books don’t stand on their own after the first chapter and the flaws become more pronounced–and then it hit me.
A weird Hiruma-like desire to mess with my mentee’s head.
Hiruma chews sugarless gum. ‘Cause he’s already way too sweet.
At that point old C.B. was in surveillance mode, gathering information, seeming to have given up hope on the other mentors, but still graciously never pressuring me. All the compliments he sent me did not have a butt-kissing vibe whatsoever. All the teasing and silliness were just . . . the way I always act with my pals. And I realized that I could give myself the blessing to pick this guy and that we’d have a blast. But first . . . I had to send out my page requests, knowing he would be waiting for one, knowing the jig would be up that he was in my top tier if he got an e-mail from me.
So I just read the pages he’d sent to Lioness without asking for them directly. Because I am what we call in the industry a Total Jerk™.
Well, or because he SAID he wanted Hiruma to mentor him.
I maintain that this is ALL his fault. He forced my hand!
I requested pages for my other top two, plus three more I was really interested in: a historical fantasy/fairy tale (my #5), a contemporary fantasy (my #6), and a hard science fiction (my #7). My #4 was a New Adult Fantasy and I stole the pages from another mentor also.
When asked, I admitted to C.B. that I was indeed receiving pages. Subtly admitting–or so he probably thought–that I hadn’t been interested in his. He gave a gracious little speech on the PitchWars tag about how awesome this contest had been and went to take a nap or something. Soon he was back anyway. And we were bantering again. And despite the apparent snub, still playing off our rapport, knowing I hadn’t owed him anything, knowing we could still play around even if we weren’t in the contest together. After the mentors were encouraged to tweet teases about their favorites, I said I couldn’t be too specific because of all the detectives, and I pointed at C.B. with an Avatar/Korra GIF.
HEY. I got my eye on you! WATER TRIIIIIIBE!
He responded with this:
Oh my God. It’s enough to warm my cold black heart.
I read the pages, secretly declared my top picks, and waited.
So, after a day or so of believing he was out, and me vacillating between Hiruma-like cackles and feeling guilty for more or less deliberately tricking the guy into believing he didn’t have a chance in Hell, Lioness hinted that one of her picks used a pen name and I guess maybe he was thinking that was him? But then Brenda pulled a fast one and posted the mentor picks early because we all happened to be done. (We still had some stragglers last night! What happened??)
The announcement came through our e-mail and we all prepared for battle, sidling onto the Twitter hashtag and stirring up the hornets’ nests. I told the other mentors that my mentee was going to freak if he was around, because he was expecting he was out. Someone asked for specifics and I admitted to the horrible thing I had done. It was agreed that yes, my mentee was going to freak.
Yeah, he did.
I of course began speaking entirely in Hiruma GIFs after that.
I had drafted all kinds of feedback for my folks who didn’t make my top three, though it made me really sad to write them for the folks I knew and the folks who’d come really close. My e-mail broke because it thinks I’m a spammer now for all the group e-mail I sent to the other mentors, but I have the feedback for my two alternates ready for when it unbreaks, and am working on some pretty heavy stuff for my mentee (I read those chapters and yep, we do definitely have some asses to kick!), but when it all came down to it, how could you resist a hefty heroine who says things like this? [language warning]
So now my team is picked, and my two alternates found me on Twitter (and I had to quick follow them, oh my God, embarrassing, I hadn’t even followed them), and now we’re going to be BFFs of course. While I perhaps chase them with vicious dogs and bark orders while remaining incredibly charming.
We’ll figure out Eyeshield characters for my other teammates eventually. . . .
So the ship has sailed and the submissions are in for Pitch Wars. The avalanche began December 2. The mail fairies sorted the applications for us and we gained access to our submissions on December 3. Today is December 4.
I haven’t begun to read mine yet, and I am frightened.
I ended up being the ninth most popular mentor out of the forty-six of us (well, at least that was my “rank” when I counted at the beginning of yesterday). I received over seventy hopefuls. Three of our mentors (that I counted) got over 100 submissions. (Good luck, ladies.)
We’ve been having a few e-mail issues, and those have clogged up our process, but I think we’ve got it straightened out now. But I still wouldn’t have started yet. For the record, it’s mostly because I got a book deal at a kind of difficult time, and my publisher’s requests for information have kept me a bit busy the last few days. I’ll be able to start devouring submissions when I get through with my publisher’s questionnaire.
But once I start, here’s how I plan to handle my submissions!
I will open each submission and read the query letter. I will make notes on what I like and don’t like.
If the query letter makes me want to read the material, I will read the included pages. That’s right–I may actually not read them at all. Just like an agent. I’m thinking most of my potential mentees will at least write a query letter well enough to make me want to read the pages, but there are some who don’t. I will make notes on the writing.
I will prepare a letter that outlines each submitter’s strengths and weaknesses. This may sound weird, but the MORE criticism an author gets from me, the BETTER they probably already are. If there’s a lot to fix in the query and pages, I will not be interested, and I will consider the time investment too costly. So if I crap all over an author, they’re probably almost there, because I think they’re close enough to be worth the spanking.
I will privately rank each submission. As I read through them, I will put them in a list, putting the ones I like best at the top and the ones I like least at the bottom. At the end, I’ll have a quantitative list of every potential mentee from best to worst (in my opinion). The top three will be my mentee and alternates.
Before I’ve decided for sure on my top three, I may request additional pages from a small portion of my applicants. I request pages very, very rarely. I will almost definitely request more material from fewer than ten participants, and it will probably be fewer than five. But I will definitely request those three chapters from anyone I’m considering as an alternate or mentee. I probably will NOT be requesting synopses or outlines. Your requests from me will be late. Probably not for a few days. Don’t lose hope. You will not find out whether you are one of my picks until Brenda announces them on December 11, but if you get a pages request from me, you will know you’re on a very short list.
Authors who have applied to me are invited to stay in touch throughout and after the contest. Even for those I do not choose, I may be available in the future to critique submission materials and even full books, but only if we develop a rapport and they don’t respond to feedback by throwing hissy fits. (I’m afraid this has happened to me.) I acquired a very sweet critique partner in my last contest mentoring experience and I edited her entire book even though doing so wasn’t part of the contest. One of my other picks from last year is agented (though it didn’t happen through our contest), and another has gone on to self-publish (and seems very popular!). I really hope I don’t lose a bunch of Twitter followers because of people being sad or mad that I didn’t choose them–that has also happened–but if you stay in touch with me, I’ll be happy to give you all the help I can once the contest and my publishing preparations aren’t taking up the lion’s share of my time.
I LOVE new writer friends, and if an entrant has an active blog that’s at least partially about writing, I may be interested in following them and adding them to my blogroll if we have some positive interaction! Let me know, y’all!
I decided to apply to be a mentor in Pitch Wars for the first time this year, and I got accepted to be part of the group! It’s a contest hosted by the illustrious Brenda Drake, designed to connect un-agented writers with mentors. Authors apply, cross their fingers to get selected, and end up getting their pitches and full manuscripts shined up for perusal by agents. Yay! I’m here as a mentor this year to guide one special author through all the hoops, as well as providing cheerleading and moral support. Sound great? That’s because it is!
If you want to apply to a mentor or four, head to Brenda’s Blog and read the full rules, signup directions, and important dates!
About Me: Accepting Adult and New Adult Applications!