#Pitchwars Insights: Reading for "The One"

I’m going to lift my head up from the sea of words that’s actively trying to drown me and take a breather. Before I dive back under, there are a few observations I’d like to share. I’m hoping these will come in handy for some of the #amquerying folks out there, along with #Pitchwars applicants.


Ye olde “I didn’t love it enough” refrain

When reviewing my #Pitchwars inbox, I did my best to take on the mindset of an agent or editor perusing their slush pile. One thing that leaps to mind immediately: anyone who’s ever queried a book has heard the feedback “I'm afraid I didn’t love it enough”—I feel like I’ve come to understand what that means. As with an agent or editor, a #Pitchwars mentor is going to read a work in its entirety several times prior to the agent round, and ultimately spend a lot of time on a project. That’s why the first thing I had to be able to say about a manuscript before requesting it was “I love this thing about it.”

For me, that often meant that the project stood out as being unique, yet felt paradoxically familiar (or even universal) in some way.

Obviously, there’s some frustrating randomness inherent with those last two statements—you won’t know what an agent or editor will love in their heart of hearts. You can stalk them on social media, read every public interview they’ve done, talk to their clients, and never discover the one thing about your story that would’ve tipped them in your favor. Maybe they used to write for an online roleplaying game about thieves, or they had a waking dream in the tub one time about islands floating in the sky—the point is, as excellent as your manuscript may be, there is still a subjective element to this process. The only solution? Cast a wide, but targeted net when you’re ready.

(Okay. I also didn’t make up either of those examples. #Pitchwarspoilers. Yes. I’m weird.)

Insights from the inbox and how I arrived at yes or no:

I’ve made a few requests at this point, and I want to discuss how I arrived at “I need to have the rest of this, now!” In order to do that, I’m going to walk you through the process I used:

I started with the query. I know a lot of other mentors start with the pages, but I wanted to hear the author describe their manuscript to me first. There were a few things that were an almost instant no from me.

They were:

  • Queries that talked more about the author than the story. This was my biggest turn off to a manuscript. Let’s be honest, I’d probably like 90% of you if I met you in real life. You’re an SFF writer, and most of us are awesome, fun, quirky people—BUT… I’m here for the words! At this stage, you and all of your awesome come as a very distant second. One or two lines about your relevant expertise and publications were more than sufficient for most entries.
  • Wrong category. Even if your story is amazing, if it’s not in a genre I read, I’m not going to grab it. I wouldn’t know how to help you. Likewise, most agents have insight into the markets they represent, and have relationships with editors who purchase books for those markets. Knowing who you’re submitting to and what they’re looking for is key.
  • Queries with out of line word counts. Know the word count range for debut novels in your genre. (For F&SF under 60k or over 150k)
  • Last, and most overlooked queries that weren’t specific. The words you use and the details you choose to include in your query are critical. This is what makes your story stand out. Try and avoid vague sentences that could land in anyone else’s query and focus on what makes your story unique. Otherwise you will blur into the pack of other queries your reader might weigh that day. In other words: Don’t be a minion.
I mean... really? Can you tell any of these jaundiced, anthropomorphic Twinkies apart?

I mean... really? Can you tell any of these jaundiced, anthropomorphic Twinkies apart?

On queries that failed my minion test, I went right into the pages. If they didn’t hook me quickly, the manuscript was a pass for me. That may seem unfair, but when I’m only going to take one project out of 200+ those are the kind of things that quickly separate one entry from another.

For queries that caught my eye, however, I went to the synopsis first. This is because I wanted to see if the writer understands their plotting, and if the story and its characters are going somewhere. I read the endings first. I know, that seems weird, but I wanted to know where the goalposts were, before discovering how the story from the query travelled to them. This is what carried the most weight into making a request, or passing on a story. A synopsis for an SFF novel is tough to write well. There are a lot of little details and world-building bits, and seeing the writer carve them down to the core assured me they knew which ones were most important.

Stories that sold me on the synopsis could’ve been slow in the opening pages, and I would still been interested. But you know what? They weren’t. All but one of the stories I read that had killer synopses grabbed me immediately with the pages as well. Those were the first stories I requested.

Now, going back to what I said earlier about the subjective nature of this process, there were also around fifteen seemingly awesome entries that didn’t hook me quite as quickly. There is nothing wrong with these entries. They may have simply lacked that one random, unknown little detail to get me jonesing for another taste. These ended up in my “maybe, but revisit later” pile. I have to assume this can happen with agents as well. We’ve all seen those manuscripts that slide out of line on Querytracker while others around them are rejected or requested—I wouldn’t be at all shocked if they’re going through the same thing.

Exploring personal likes and dislikes further, I got a lot of manuscripts that fell into certain categories, or tropes. Heading into #Pitchwars, I thought I had a pretty good handle on what I was looking for, and what I like to read. During the reading, I found out that there were a couple things that aren’t really my own, personal brand of orange Crush that I wasn’t aware of, and shoulda ended up on my Nopelist. I mentioned this to a veteran mentor, who promptly replied “Pitchwars, teaching mentors their tastes in novels since 2010!” One of the things I found out I don’t love, are psychics. This probably relates to a bad experience I had watching Firestarter as a child. As it turned out, I received a LOT of submissions prominently featuring psychics (20+, I think).

And yet… I requested a book featuring, you guessed it, psychics. The query was on point, the pages had excellent voice, and the synopsis held all kinds of room for character growth. So… as much as submissions are random and subjective, as many variables exist that we can’t control as writers, there are still a few things purely in our hands.

The continuous focus we put into refining our work, and the ongoing bravery of sending it to people who can fall in love with it, drastically increases our odds of finding the one person who will.

Things I Got Wrong About #PitchWars

#PitchWars always scared the hell out of me.

As a new writer on Twitter (and one struggling to figure out how even that worked), I used to see these fun and interesting posts about something called #PitchWars. I made a mental note to check it out, but then the intimidation factor rolled in.

It had rounds.

War was in the title.

You had to get picked.

There were running conversations about what “winning” in #PitchWars meant (More on this later).

As someone with a proud tradition of getting picked last for… well, everything, that’d always been enough to hold me back from applying.

But there’s this thing that happens to writers who keep grinding away at their craft and blasting their words out in the universe, bracing for certain rejection, but stubbornly hopeful that this may be the time someone else connects with the story they’re trying tell.

It starts happening.

Suddenly, you open an email prepared for another courteous “No” and instead it’s a “Send me more,” or better still, an “I want it.”

I’d gotten a few of those, and suddenly when #PitchWars rolled around last year and popped up on my Twitter feed shortly before the deadline, instead of “Won’t be me,” I said, “Why not me?” Taking the risk to enter #PitchWars was the best gamble I’ve made in my writing career since deciding to drive an hour from my house to hang out with a bunch of crazy writers I met at a Con and join their crit group. The community, friends, and learning that I’ve taken away from the #PitchWars experience have transformed a passion I’ve cultivated since childhood.

Now, I want to address a few of the things that spooked me away before (AKA, my misapprehensions):

First, the rounds in #PitchWars are actually really simple. The process goes something like this. Check out the blog posts of mentors in the category you are interested in, and apply to the ones you feel a connection to. Then, if that mentor selects you as their mentee, the two of you work collobaritively to make your book awesome-r than it already was. Then, as an added bonus (and if you’re ready!), it goes up on a website where agents can ask to read more of your work. That’s #PitchWars in a paragraph.

Second, if there is a war in #PitchWars it is a war of writers against unrevised manuscripts—with the battleground being the pages that need to be cut, sculpted, and molded into something greater. Rather than an air of competition, the community both publically and behind closed doors is one of cooperation, support, and mutual shared purpose. To get everyone across the finish line where they can say this book is as good as I’m going to make it.

Third, getting picked isn’t some kind of popularity contest—and it isn’t necessarily even about how strong your manuscript is. To be clear, I hardly participated on Twitter prior to #PitchWars. I’d randomly read my mentor’s blog a few times prior, but had more to do with the regular Q&A sessions she was doing with agents when I was building a submission list (Michelle does a fantastic job with these and many other things, her blog here). Rather, my quirky, Western Urban-Fantasy made her laugh, and reminded her of a few places she’d visited in Arizona.

My point is, there’s still some randomness to this process of what connects to your readers and what doesn’t. The same subjective truth is true of submitting to agents. In the tidal wave of manuscripts, many of which can be good, sometimes it’s the little, random things that can make you stand out.

Every year you’ll also here about fantastic manuscripts that didn’t get a single #PitchWars request that went on to get signed while the #PitchWars class is busy revising, and sells shortly after. Getting picked or not picked isn’t the end of a work, just another beginning.

But it is an opportunity and a great avenue to practice your craft with awesome people.

Which leads into my last point about “winning” #PitchWars. Not to be all postgame Juice Boxes N Snacks for everyone, but there are no losers in #PitchWars. Those who spent their time to revise their manuscript, to stick through it and make it better have won. Those who take the risk to submit their work and share their words have won. Whether they are picked or not. Whether agents request their work or not. They have taken the time to advance their craft and moved another step forward.

To those who intend to enter this year, I hope that this can be the great experience for you that it was for me.