Pitch Wars Round Up: Five Things

This was my first Pitch Wars as a mentor, and I have to say, it's been an amazing experience. The amount of talent and creativity out there is astounding, and the fact that anyone would choose me as a possible mentor is humbling.

I have my pick--the name has been inscribed in the Official Spreadsheet and I'm working now on the edit letter for a book that blew me away. I couldn't be happier that I found a book I want to read and re-read and re-read again, and yet, I can't help but wish I could have had four or five or twenty mentees. The pages were that good, you guys. And the people I've met through the contest have been that wonderful and lovely, too.

Everyone who submitted to me will receive some sort of feedback. I took notes on every submission and query, and if I asked for pages, on those as well. I know I didn't have to do this, and I know that not every mentor will be giving feedback. Some mentors received over 100 entries, but I was not one of those, so maybe this is a little easier for me to do. But I also feel like giving the feedback is important, because I'm not a gatekeeper. I'm one of you, still pounding my fists on the gate to be let (back) in. So if I can do anything to help someone with a boost up and over, I'm happy to do it.

I also thought I'd write up some of my thoughts--some hints and tips--for those of you that submitted to me, and even those of you that didn't submit to me. (Why, exactly, did you not submit to me? hmmm???)

Ready? Here goes:

1. Don't Be a Special Snowflake: 

I've always known how important getting the right format and tone is for a query letter--I've read slush and worked as an acquiring editor in the past. But I'm still floored by the number of entries I received that still didn't follow the accepted format.

GUYS--I beg of you, do the research to find out what a query letter looks like.

  • Sneaking in an extra couple of paragraphs about your plot, doesn't help you--it makes your book seem unfocused.
  • Giving a pitch about why you would be a great marketer or explaining the deeper meaning of what the book is doing doesn't help you--it makes you look like you don't understand the query and publication process.
  • Having a 300 word bio that mentions a bunch of things not pertaining to the book and/or writing doesn't help you, because the agent isn't selling you--s/he is selling your book.

In short, you do not want the query letter itself to stand out. You want the pitch--the hook of your story--to stand out, and it can only do that if your query is following the prescribed conventions.

If you're not sure what those conventions are here are some really helpful links that I used to get three different agents:

Query Shark: If you haven't read through ALL of these, you aren't ready to query

Query Tracker: Read through the queries of people who have landed agents. Copy their structure and form.

Writer's Digest Successful Queries: Read through the queries from your genre and other genres. Get a sense of what a query should look like/feel like.

The key thing to remember is that agents are busy, busy people. They need the query to be short and pithy. They need to know that you are not going to be a Capital-P-Problem if they sign you--they need to know that you know the rules and can play by them. So make sure that you learn the rules. And then play by them.

2. Your Book Probably Doesn't Start Where You Think It Does

I requested a LOT of pages: 35 synopses, 23 first-50s, 8 fulls. I requested a lot of pages because I saw some absolutely outstanding writing. But I requested a lot of first-50s because the entry had a solid query with a great hook, an outstanding voice, and (usually) a slow start. I requested first-50s so I could see whether the action/conflict would pick up within the first 50 pages. I wanted to give those entries with kickass queries and voices that captivated me a chance, because I, too, am part of the Too Much Exposition club. I'm the queen of slow-starting drafts. 

Look, I know just how hard it is to take a scalpel (or, let's be honest, a chainsaw) to those first few chapters. After all, they are the pages that you have probably spent the most time on, lovingly crafting and re-crafting them until they are PERFECT.

Except, usually they're not. Those first pages tend to be a lot of treading water to set the scene. Those first pages are your love letter to the story to come, but they aren't necessarily the best place for your reader to start. I promise.

I'm working on a R&R right now for a middle grade that I think (correction: thought) was perfect as is. It took me weeks of banging my head against the desk and saying that I couldn't cut anything to figure out that it wasn't perfect, that the start was really too slow, and I could definitely cut lots of things. So I completely restructured the first third, cut 10k words from a 60k word book, and (wonder of wonders), it's better now. MUCH better. My darlings lay bleeding on the floor at my feet, but the book itself is better an maybe will even sell.

Here's the thing, I don't really buy the three-act structure and I have a love/hate relationship with SAVE THE CAT. I think the book WAY oversimplifies the art of storytelling. But...I think the author has a point about getting the story going faster, and I think that his ideas about pacing can really help during revision.

If you haven't read the book, it's worth a look-see. If you've read it, it's worth reviewing the way he breaks down pacing. The big thing for me is to make sure that I have a call to action--a challenge that the MC will have to take up--within the first 15% of the story. If the hero isn't on her journey by page 50, you're probably moving to slowly (if you're writing for a commercial audience). 

Need help figuring out how to do that? I use this spreadsheet to help me either plan or reverse outline during revisions. Sometimes the SAVE THE CAT beats feel too simplistic, so sometimes I use this other spreadsheet with Acts and Stages. If those don't work for you, Jami Gold has some other Worksheets to help you analyze your plot and pacing if these don't work for you.

If you don't feel like you need/can use that kind of structure, you're probably wrong. I didn't think I needed it. I thought I understood literature, stories--I've built my life around reading and studying them. But I'd never really analyzed them from a craft perspective. I wrote my first couple of books on gut instinct, and they sold, but my writing has gotten 100 times better now that I've take the time to also study craft from a writer/storyteller's perspective.

I have a hard time with the overly simplified instructional craft books, but I absolutely adore Robert McKee's STORY. I come back to it again and again when I'm brainstorming and drafting, and I'd highly recommend it if you want to think about storytelling as structure. 

Bottom line is, from the really talented and high-quality submissions I've received, a lot of people are still starting their stories too early and the action/conflict is coming too late.

3. Manuscript Conventions Matter

I know, I know. Not knowing all the conventions of manuscripts is not necessarily going to be a deal breaker, but the can hurt you because they put one more thing in the way of the gates of publishing opening to welcome you in. Here are some important ones to be aware of:

  • Double space, but don't have extra spaces between your paragraphs: It makes it difficult to read, and you're shortchanging yourself if an agent asks for 50. With all those extra spaces, you're probably only sending about 35.
  • Use tab to indent your paragraphs. And be sure to indent your paragraphs--this isn't a business letter.
  • Mark scene breaks with a # (to differentiate between unintended extra spaces)
  • Use Page Breaks to start a new chapter rather than hitting return a bunch of times
  • Put your name/title in the header, with page numbers and make sure the file you send has your title in it.

One more hint:

  • If you're aiming to sell in an American market, be sure you're using American Standardized conventions. I saw a few submissions that used 'single' instead of "double" quotes. Again, not a deal breaker, but you'll need to change it eventually, so you might as well start now.

Like I said, probably none of these are a deal breaker, but if you're trying to lower the height of that gate to publication, why not do everything you can?

4. It Really Is Subjective and Not at All Personal

You know that one book that your best friend loves, or the one that's tearing up the best seller charts, or the one everyone is talking about, and you don't get it? Yeah, that one. I mean, maybe it's because you have superior literary tastes, but I'm gonna say probably no, huh-uh. You don't get it/want to read it/like it, because reading is subjective. It's personal. Same goes for agents and contests and publishing in general.

If I didn't request pages, usually it had very little to do with the quality of the writing itself or the innovativeness of the pitch. There are just certain types of stories that I'm more interested in reading than others. They're not better or worse, they're just my preference.

So if you didn't get a request from me--or from any mentor--do not take that as some indication of your book's quality. Do NOT take that as a sign that you should quite right now because it's never going to happen.

I had a ridiculous number of submissions to go through, and I know at least three other mentors who had twice as many as I did. There isn't time to request pages from everyone, and sometimes it just comes down to personal taste. Sometimes, I hated not requesting, because I knew the book was probably good or I knew the person was lovely on Twitter, but I also knew it wasn't going to click for me.

5. Own Your Awesome

Dear writers, especially lady writers: Stop apologizing. Own your awesomeness. Own it and send it out into the world.

Like I said, I requested a lot of pages. I received a surprising number of apologies--for the state of the synopsis, for not answering my request the second it was made, for not including a plate of freshly baked cookies with the pages. (Okay, that last one didn't happen, but I'm always open to cookies).

STOP IT. 

YOU HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK. YOU ARE A WRITER.

PERIOD.

Write the synopsis and send it. Let it speak for itself. Do not apologize for it or any of your pages. It sends the instant message that you are unsure of the book, of yourself. And if you're unsure of the book...

And did I mention, YOU HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK! 

YOU ARE A BADASS.

OWN IT.

Look, you're lucky in this crazy business if you can get anyone to pay attention to you, much less request something from you. In the query trenches, you're probably going to get more "no response means no" than anything else. If you get a request--from an agent, from an editor--assume that they LOVED what they saw. In an age where anyone with a word processor can write a book, to get any sort of request means that what you wrote RAWKED. Because, and I've already said this, YOU ARE A BADASS.

Don't apologize. Revise the hell out of your synopsis or pages, thank the person for their interest, and hit send. That's it. They wouldn't have asked you for anything if they didn't have high hopes for what you'll send them. Don't preface your response by undercutting yourself and your work.

So that's it, for what it's worth, the five things I wish I could let everyone know about my experience reading Pitch Wars submissions.

Writers, remember: There were 1591 pitch wars submissions. There are not 1591 mentors. Not getting into pitch wars doesn't mean you're not ready or your book isn't good enough. 

If you didn't get in:

  • Find CPs that can help you
  • Query, because maybe you ARE ready
  • Hire a developmental editor to help you out
  • Keep writing, Keep revising, Never Surrender

Not sure what to do next? I have lots of editing experience and my rates are reasonable, and if you mention Pitch Wars, I'll give you 20% off for the next 6 months. Just follow the link at the top of my page.

Best of luck in the query trenches, and I hope to see you all on a bookshelf soon :O)