10 Things I Learned from Pitch Wars
Pitch Wars is an annual competition where writing mentee hopefuls from all over the world submit their completed manuscript for the chance to work with an author mentor.
This consists of submitting a query letter and your 1st chapter to a short-list of favourite mentors and then waiting to see if someone chooses to mentor you. After that, chosen mentees work on improving their manuscript for two months to present in a showcase to literary agents. To learn more visit host Brenda Drake’s website.
Today is the 25th of August and the official announcement day of who was selected as Pitch Wars mentees. As you may have guessed by now, I submitted my own YA Fantasy into the competition, and as I write this (on the 23rd) I am a ball of nerves. And so I decided to write a post for anyone thinking about entering next year, or even people who entered this year, of all the things I learned while participating.
These are tips that will not only be helpful for future hopefuls, but also for anyone who has a novel that they want to get published at some point or another.
Get rid of crutch words
Crutch words are overused and ‘weak’ words that don’t add to the prose and are used as a fallback or crutch to help writing along. Common examples are: just, even, really, etc. Not everyone will have the same crutch words. People use different words depending on their style. A great way to find your own crutch words is to go to Word Clouds and upload your entire manuscript (MS). Yes. The entire thing. And it will create a beautiful display that will mercilessly highlight the flaws in your writing. It’s both beautiful and terrible.
Mine were (glaringly so) ‘get’, ‘even’ and ‘dark.’ I did a search and find for my MS and tried to delete as many of these words as possible. It was so hard, but I noticed the difference when I read. Everything sounded better. I would also suggest going through and examining every adverb you have (words that end in -ly) and decide if you can replace it with a strong verb. E.g. he ran quickly to escape —> he darted through the bushes to escape
Short and to-the-point query
Queries are hard, period. The query letter makes you squish the entirety of your story into three paragraphs AND you have to sell it. It’s not enough to say what your story is about and leave it there, you have to show someone why your story is 1) unique and 2) has feasible conflict. This is so difficult. I originally had a longer query letter when I was sending to agents that I cut down for Pitch Wars.
In an ideal world, the query is like this: 1) hook and character goal 2) story details 3) stakes. Any more than that and it’s easy to veer off into creating a query that reads more like a synopsis. This isn’t what mentors or agents are looking for, as they can get this by requesting an actual synopsis. A stellar place to get feedback on your query is Agent Query Connect’s Query Critiques. This is a forums of writers who share and critique queries.
For anyone curious, I have the query I used in Pitch Wars posted below:
When seventeen-year-old Nicholas Espinosa meets Simran, a witch on the run, he becomes entangled in her coven’s drug ring. Transported to the Otherside, a world where spells are the new cocaine, his only means of escape is to help her—but at the cost of magic that let him walk for the first time in six years.
Nick and Simran’s meeting is cut short when she’s forced back to her own world. With the last of her power, she doesn’t just cure Nick’s muscular dystrophy, she makes him a witch. And he’s not the only one with her magic. It’s being sold on the market and no born-witch can survive long without. With his own witch status marking him as a target, he must navigate the Otherside and find Simran.
Nick teams up with a witch hunter to steal back Simran’s magic from top buyers: members of her own coven. To save her, he’ll need to restore all her magic—including what she gave to him. Walking isn’t worth someone else’s life but the more Nick uses, the more addicted to magic he becomes, and the harder it will be to give it back.
THE LIGHT WITCH is a 99,000-word Young Adult fantasy novel with series potential.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
The query is not the end-all-be-all
When you query agents, if all they ask for is a query, and it isn’t up to par, you’ll be rejected. Harsh, but true. Pitch Wars is NOT like that. The mentors are here to help you with your story and they don’t expect perfection. In fact, perfection won’t get you anywhere in this contest. Many of the mentors said they would read the query AND the first chapter for all enteries. So if you have to choose between spending time on the query or your pages for Pitch Wars, always choose your pages. The pages are what’s going to sell them on your manuscript.
Make your opening count
I’ve queried roughly 20 agents by now, and know that I blew it with many of them because of my original opening. I’m somewhat ashamed to say that one of my CPs told me the opening might not be punchy enough to gain attention. But I was impatient to query and so I didn’t take her advice for querying. But you can believe that I did for Pitch Wars.
You have one chapter to establish your character’s voice, build interest in the plot, and introduce an inciting incident. If you aren’t able to establish those things in the first chapter then you increase your chances of being passed over. The same goes for openings that are overdone (e.g. waking up for school – this was my mistake) because it doesn’t present your book as something unique. A great strategy is to start with action, but not so much action that you lose characterization. For example, if a character dies in the first chapter it won’t have an impact because the reader doesn’t know or care about that character.
And personally, I would avoid prologues. Prologues are vague and, I think, more likely to confuse the reader than interest them. But this is my own personal opinion.
Rejection is subjective
Rejection sucks. It’s beyond terrible to pour your heart and soul into something and have it passed over. Even in a career like writing, where rejection is a constant, it still hurts.
The thing about Pitch Wars that hopefuls need to understand (and at this point, I think most hopefuls do) is that 2,000 odd some people apply and only a few hundred can make it. The odds of getting in are low. It’s not that what you wrote is bad, but that it isn’t the best fit for that mentor (e.g. they don’t know how to help, or they don’t read that genre). Hell, I know some people will get rejected because their MS is too good for mentors to help in any way.
And beyond that, there are successful authors who never entered Pitch Wars. There are successful authors who entered and didn’t get in. There are MENTORS who applied and didn’t get in. It’s one contest and it’s not the deciding factor for whether or not you will ever become a successful writer.
Synopses are guides
My novel is 99, 000 words and I squished the entire thing into a one-page single-spaced synopses. How? I cut out every plot that wasn’t directly tied to the main character’s goal and stakes as outlined in my query.
It’s alright if you don’t hit on everything that happens in your novel in a synopsis. All that matters is you hit on all the main points so the reader knows exactly how the character goes from point A to point B. Other things that are important to include: character motivations and how they change, any plot twists and the ending. You MUST include the ending.
Voice is SO IMPORTANT
The mentors participated in various chats before the deadline for submission, and when asked what they looked for in a sub, most of them said ‘voice.’
When I heard this I was immediately terrified. Because I didn’t know if that’s something my MS had. It’s difficult for me to define voice. It’s a combination of writing style and characterization. But in the most simple terms, it’s personality. Voice is what gives life to your characters and makes it easy to imagine them as real people. Inconsistent or weak voice can make it hard for mentors to connect with the writing. Moreover, many mentors admitted that voice is the one thing they can’t teach someone.
A method I use to help me hear my character’s voices is reading. The more I read other books and hear their character’s voices, the more in tune I become with my own. Voice is present, not only in the way the character talks, but how they look at the world, what they notice, and how they react. If there’s something to always keep in mind as you write, it’s voice.
Social media DOES matter
Social Media in Pitch Wars is important in a lot of ways. Firstly, Twitter connects you with mentors, their thoughts and advice throughout the process. Sometimes this means torturing yourself by reading their teaser tweets, but mostly they’re just fun and helpful.
Moreover, Twitter is a fantastic platform for connecting with other Pitch Wars hopefuls. It’s a competition, but it feels more like a communal love-in. Everyone is supportive of each other and willing to help out with query swapping and little games to keep you distracted. I also joined in on a Facebook group which was fun for speculating about mentor choices and sharing hopes and fears that maybe felt a little too raw to share with mentor eyes present.
For public image
But aside from the positive, what you post on social media is public. Mentees were asked not to share when they got requests in consideration of those who may not be getting any. And breaking that rule is an easy way to upset mentors. Posting negative or hateful comments was another sure-fire way to turn off mentors from working with you. The same goes for complaining about not getting requests.
It’s hard not to feel angry or upset but burning bridges isn’t the way to react. If you need to vent, do it away from social media to friends and family, or over private messages to an online friend. And remember that mentors are VOLUNTEERS. And negative behaviour isn’t the way to pay them back for donating their time.
It isn’t over until it’s over
I’m writing this on the 24th, aka Pitch Wars eve. I don’t know if this is a term people use, but I kind of want to make it a thing. Tomorrow is the official announcement day.
There are a lot of people on Twitter and Facebook that have already counted themselves out. And I admit that it’s sad to see people down and out, but I’ve been privy to those feelings myself. But there’s also that little glimmer of hope that says ‘maybe.’
I would encourage anyone participating to keep that glimmer alive. It can be tempting to protect yourself from the sting of rejection, but it’s painful to get down on yourself before anything has happened.
Support is there!
Out of thousands of mentee hopefuls only a few hundred will get in. That means after announcements there will be a ton of people there for you either way.
If you get in there’re people cheering for you that can’t wait to read your book. And if you don’t make it there’s a whole community ready to support you with critique partners or tips for moving on to querying agents. You don’t have to go into a cave and hide.
I’m beyond happy to have participated in Pitch Wars. Now I have an MS that feels so different, better, than what I had before. For that, I have to thank the community and all the mentors for the advice they shared.
It took until Pitch Wars eve to ‘get-it’ but I know feel confident that I can put in the work to have my MS see the light of day. I’m hopeful whether I’m a mentee or not.
Thank you to all the mentors and Brenda Drake for donating their time and efforts to Pitch Wars. It’s an invaluable experience!
August 25th Update
Today, as of the official announcements, I have not made it into Pitch Wars. I definitely had a moment of sadness when I read through the names. Then I went back and looked and was happy to see someone I knew and congratulate them 🙂
Of course, at this point, I don’t feel fantastic. It’s hard to put yourself out there and not be picked. But at the same time, I feel like I’m in a good place. I got some requests this year in Pitch Wars and still have requested material out with agents. And I plan to save up $200 and get a sensitivity reader (I have a Twitter user I super admire in mind).
Something the mentors and even mentees always say is, this is not the end all be all. Writing and becoming a published author is about perseverance. I know it’s cheesy, but you only fail when you give up. And I’m not going to.
I hope anyone thinking of entering next year who’s reading this does! It’s such a great experience and community to be a part of. It’s well worth the possibility of disappointment.
What’s something you’ve learned from querying or participating in Pitch Wars?
Or what’s something in the writing, querying, or Pitch Wars process you want to know about?