A #PitchWars Inbox Breakdown: Thoughts and Infinite Screaming

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The Pitch Wars submission window has come and gone! Now, two things occur: Hopefuls attempt to summon requests through sheer force of will, and mentors read. Forever. (Seriously, so much reading. SO MUCH!)

3456 writers lobbed their words into the void. Of those, 1402 are adult. Of those, 267 sent their word-babies to Laura and I. Counting only the writing sample and assuming the bare minimum of 10 pages per entry, 250 words per page, that’s 667k words for us to read.

667k. That is … a shit-ton of words.

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Between the two of us, Laura and I have officially read all 267 of our subs. But more on that in a moment. First, more stats! Here’s how our inbox breaks down by most common genres:

173 Fantasy (35 urban, 15 contemporary, 11 epic, 4 paranormal, 2 magical realism)

61 Science Fiction

17 Science-Fantasy

2 Horror

14 Wrong Genre (ie. anything not SFF)

Note: Many simply listed Fantasy, Sci-Fi, or Spec Fic as their genre on the form. I’m not digging into each individual entry to determine which subgenre it belongs in, because I am not made of time. And did I mention I read the equivalent of several books over the span of 6 days? I’m tired.

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Now comes the part where I tell you that there are a lot of shiny books in our inbox. Wait, that doesn’t properly convey how many cool books I’ve seen this week. Let me try again. There are A Lot™ of shiny books in our inbox. (Nailed it.) Way more than we can possibly read in the month allotted for breaking 266 hearts choosing our mentee. Our initial pass flagged 34 books we made goo-goo eyes at, but there was easily two or three times that number that sounded amazing but simply weren’t Us books.

Sifting through the inbox slush was tough. The bad news: Remember those 667k+ words I mentioned? Yeah, we didn’t read all of them. Often I noped out of an entry on the first page. Sometimes even sooner. Here’s how I went about wading through our inbox, and the process that leads to a request from us:

Step 1: Genre. Sent us a women’s fiction? Sorry, I didn’t even open it. Those 14 wrong genres were instant nopes.

Step 2: Word count. Did you write something significantly outside of our 70k-150k SFF comfort zone? Well, I probably still checked your pages because you never know, but those 40k and 200k+ books had an uphill battle.

Step 3: Page One. (Yes, I skipped the query and synopsis.) This is where it becomes incredibly subjective. If you made me smile or tickled my fancy with your opening lines, I read on. If reading the first page made my eyes glaze over (or contained problematic content right out the gate), I hit eject. There’s no magic map or set of guidelines for what I liked, but I can tell you some of the common elements which had me noping out:

– Boatloads of grammar mistakes. A typo here or there doesn’t matter (because I certainly make them myself), but if there’s multiple per sentence, my eye twitches.

– Too much telling, not enough showing. I want to be immersed in your world, not read an essay about it. Same with your characters. I want to see them interacting with their world and other people, not locked in their head reciting their own Wikipedia entry.

– Didn’t connect with the voice. This is another of those highly subjective elements. What one person loves, another will loathe. I read entries with a ton of really fantastic voice that I didn’t click with. I also read tons without any discernible voice or one I actively disliked. Again, it’s all subjective. Sucks (trust me, I know), but that’s how it goes.

– Absurdist humor for the sake of humor. By which I mean it felt like the pages existed solely to tell a joke and not to introduce your character and plot. Don’t get me wrong, clearly I love me some jokes and snarky dialogue, but I want to give a shit about your characters first. Humor should enhance character and plot, not be those things.

Step 4: The rest of the pages. End of page one and I’m still here? I read more. (For the record, I read beyond page one far more than I noped out swiftly. And I read the entire sample more than I bailed mid-chapter.)

The most common problems that had me set an entry down and move on were pacing issues. A strong start leading to a saggy middle was a letdown. If nothing picked up by the end of the chapter, I shelved it. A few with pacing issues brought it back around by the end or had such phenomenal voice/writing that I didn’t care, but those were rare.

Step 5: The query. If I made it all the way through your sample, I went back and read the query. I give zero fucks about whether a query is good or an abomination. If I liked your writing, I merely wanted a better sense of the large scale plot/concept and how it compared to your opening.

Step 6: Decision time! Did I enjoy this? If so, do I want to read more? You’d think the former would make the latter a no-brainer, but that wasn’t always the case. Some were an enthusiastic Yes. Others a solid Maybe. As always, the reasons were entirely subjective, but the most common for a no here were:

– Story starts in the wrong place. If we’re dropped into the middle of the action with no context or grasp of the characters, it’s confusing and thus hard to become invested. Conversely, if absolutely nothing happens and it’s just some random dude wandering about his day, also hard to care.

– Nothing plot-relevant occurs. If all your chapter does is introduce us to your world and character, it’s not doing enough no matter how fun or well-written. While every scene must justify its existence, first chapters, in particular, have to carry the entire book on their shoulders. Your inciting incident doesn’t need to be front-and-center (in my book currently on sub, it doesn’t happen until Ch4), but something needs to happen.

– No end hook. If your chapter ends and I don’t feel the urge to flip the page, I won’t. Laura’s fond of approaching each chapter in terms of G-C-D: Goal-Conflict-Disaster. Your character wants something (Goal), they try to get it but something stops them (Conflict), while overcoming that conflict, something worse happens (Disaster). That disaster is your end hook leading into the next chapter (where the goal, assuming same POV, is overcoming the previous disaster). It can be something as big as a ship hurtling toward an asteroid, or as small as the MC spilled ink all over their boss’ favorite grimoire. There simply needs to be something that compels the reader onward.

None of those problems are automatic no’s. If the writing is solid and the characters are interesting, all three are fixable. Nonetheless, they were a mark against the entry in a very competitive field.

Step 7: Lob Yes/Maybes at Laura (and vice-versa). Final step in the narrowing down process is comparing notes. If one of us likes an entry, it’s time for the other to read. Said entry is either vetoed or thumbs upped. Anything with a double thumps up gets tossed onto the To Request pile.

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While we’ve done two rounds of requests already–and marked several entries for round 3 and beyond–we’re still on this step with plenty more needing review. Requests are going out in waves, and we plan to continue requesting and reading for the next month. We might pick the first request to mentor, we might pick the last. All a request means is we think (again, subjective) this is a cool book and wanna read more.

How we narrow it down beyond that, I can’t tell you yet. Mostly because we’ve barely dipped a toe into our requests. Who knows, maybe there’ll be a Part II of this post in a few weeks?

What I can tell you is that (barring a tie) I will absolutely not take market trends into account when picking a book to mentor. Because I don’t know enough about that to judge. Same goes for PW agent wants (I don’t even know which agents are participating this year and have no plans to check until closer to February). Laura and I will pick a book we love that we think we can help make even better. That’s it.

Next up, trends! These are neither good nor bad, simply things I kept seeing pop up as I read.

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– Thieves

– Lawyers

– Witches

– Superheroes

– Opening with a character waking up

– First chapters set in bars

– Snarky MCs

– Heist plots

– Sword & sorcery-style medieval fantasy worlds

– Elves/Fae

– Dragons

– Books billed as adult that feel more like YA

– Books starting in the wrong place (I know I mentioned it above, but it bears repeating)

– Queries with more about the author than the story

Aaaaand I’m gonna end it here because I’m rambling and this is gone on far longer than anticipated when I sat down to write. That, and I’ve got a bunch of shiny books on my kindle that I can’t wait to read.

For any Pitch Wars hopefuls reading this, I’ll leave you with one final thought: Make friends.

There are 3455 other writers out there all freaking out, all stressing, all developing anxiety-ulcers as they wait for October 12th. Find them. Get to know them. They are your people. I will forever holler to the heavens that the real prize in Pitch Wars is this community of amazing, generous, and talented people. Find your place in that and you’ve won, selected as a mentee or not.

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4 thoughts on “A #PitchWars Inbox Breakdown: Thoughts and Infinite Screaming

  1. This is the kinda thing I’ve been starving for: stats and a super-secret peek into the mind of a mentor!

    While I did not submit to you and Laura (and all my prospective mentors have been 99.9% radio silent), it’s very cool to get a glimpse of what is going on behind the curtain.

    And, I can see my odds dwindling down to about 3456 to one. So I guess what I’m trying to say is–there’s a chance. 😉

    Like

  2. This was great. Thank you for giving us an insider look and after a week of hitting the refresh button on the pitchwars hashtag, I can see why you say the community is the most important aspect. Thanks again and good luck with all of that reading.

    Like

  3. Pingback: A #PitchWars Inbox Breakdown Part II: Now With Extra Screaming | Ian Barnes

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