When Michelle Hauck asked me to judge the SFF entries for her New Agent mini-contest, all I heard was “SFF” and “mini-contest.” I’d do anything for Michelle (because she’s awesome), but with Pitch Wars approaching, I hoped the commitment would be small. Then the submission window opened and we got close to 300 entries.
So much for a small contest.
Pitching contests like New Agent and Pitch Madness offer a fantastic opportunity to engage the author community. There’s usually a hashtag (in our case, #NewAgent) for contest announcements, mini-games, and discussions. I can’t stress enough how important it is to meet like-minded writers in this way. There’s frustration and angst and crushing disappointment at virtually every stage of an author’s career. You will need friends who understand what it’s like. Who’ve been through the trenches with you.
The Brutal Reality
NewAgent 2015 drew about 290 submissions. I was responsible for non-MG SF/F, which encompasses a fairly broad envelope — fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, dystopian, paranormal — so I ended up with around 120 entries, give or take. This means that if you submitted a non-MG entry for one of these genres, your odds of success were 5%, which is lower than the request rate for most literary agents.
In other words, there’s a 95% chance that you’re about to be disappointed in a minute.
Even without these brutal numbers, there are other reasons that SF/F is (in my opinion) the toughest category in this contest:
- 250 word limit. The format of this contest is especially challenging for speculative fiction. We’re world-builders, dammit! It meant that your first 250 had to be really, really good. There were many entries where the writing sample was just fine, but simply not enough for me to assess your writing ability.
- Market realities. If you follow any editors or literary agents, you’re probably aware that certain types of books are difficult to sell right now. Dystopians (especially YA), paranormal monsters or monster-hunters, and supernatural detective agency books fell into this category. More on this in a minute.
- Judge subjectivity. Although I tried to give every submission a fair shake, I have certain preferences for and against certain subgenres, writing styles, etc. With 120 submissions, I got to be picky. There’s not much you can do about this. It comes down to luck, really. The same applies to agents and editors. You don’t need ALL of them to fall in love with your project. You just need one.
Why Wasn’t I Selected?
I’ve already given you a few reasons to not give a crap if you weren’t selected. If you don’t want to hear it straight — if you’re going to take offense at the idea that there might have been something wrong with your submission — then please skip this section. If you’re going to complain on social media or send Michelle a long e-mail rant about whether or not I’m qualified to read these submissions and offer some advice, then you should stop here.
What follows is for people who are willing to accept constructive criticism and work hard to achieve success. Let’s dig in.
Is Your Book A Hard Sell?
Someone very wise pointed out to me that some of the most polished projects we see in pitching contests like New Agent are ones that won’t sell right now. Otherwise, they’d already have landed literary representation. If you’re querying a dystopian or a paranormal fantasy, you know this too well. It’s doubly frustrating because we see the success of Twilight and Hunger Games and Divergent and wonder why similar books don’t sell like hotcakes.
The reality is this: a book on the bestseller list today was bought 18 months ago. It was probably written 2-3 years ago. By the time rising trends are apparent to most people, it’s far too late to chase them.
Trends Are A Moving Target
Let me give you a real-world example: Right now, I have it on good authority that many agents would love to see a space opera. That’s because, given the success of books like Ancillary Justice and movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, editors are clamoring for them.
The last thing you should do is go start writing a space opera.
An appropriate word count for an adult space opera is probably 100K to 120K. Unless you’re a writing phenomenon, it will take 6-12 months to write, revise, and polish such a book. By then, every editor will have acquired a few space operas and have a dozen other agented submissions like them on their desks. When you query those agents, they probably won’t be interested, because they already have a couple of space opera projects already on submission.
But if you do have a good space opera, please query Jennie Goloboy of Red Sofa Literary and tell her I sent you *grin*.
What to Do If Your Book Isn’t Marketable
If you’re in this situation, I feel for you. I really do. You spent a long time writing a book that, for reasons well beyond your control, will be difficult to find an agent for. As I see it, you have three options:
- Stop querying, and write a different book. You’re a better writer now, and a second project lets you re-approach with all agents you’ve queried already.
- Stop querying, and rewrite your book. Take out the vampires, zombies, or werewolves. If you wrote a far-future dystopian, make it a near-future, realistic sci-fi.
- Stop querying, and look into self publishing. This might be the only way to beat the clock if you have something that’s hot on the bestseller list but “unsellable” for literary agents.
Notice how each of those options involves the phrase stop querying. I truly believe that’s what you should do.
If you didn’t submit a book with a marketability problem, you might want to skip the next part. Even though the odds of getting in, numbers-wise, were fairly slim, I’d be lying if I said there were 25 submissions that I wanted but couldn’t have. My “Maybe” pile had about 14 entries, and a couple of those ended up being team picks. But the four that I picked for my team never saw the Maybe pile. I picked them right on the spot no matter how far I was in slush reading. That should tell you something about the rest of the slush pile.
Is Your Query Solid?
Since I only saw 250 words of prose, the query counted for a lot. Most of the queries were okay. I’d say that the major query issues came down to one of two things:
- Trying to do too much. The somewhat-flexible length of a query tempts people to bring way too much in — too many characters, subplots, plot twists, complications, etc. This feels like you’re taking the whole book and trying to squeeze it all in. I recommend you start from scratch and keep it simple. One protagonist. One goal. One source of opposition, and plenty at stake.
- Summarizing rather than enticing. A lot of queries just summarized what happened in the book: this happens, then this happens, then this happens. Save that for the 3-page synopsis. In the query, there’s no need to provide the backstory or chronicle the plot points. You definitely don’t want to give away the ending. It’s like the cover copy on the back of a book: short, snappy, unique, and designed to get someone to read the thing.
There’s plenty of good advice on how to write a good query. Even if you think you’re following the ideal formula in the best way possible, get a second opinion (or five) from some other authors who write in your genre.
Problems with Prose
I didn’t let a problematic query sink any submissions, because that’s honestly an easy thing to fix. It was more about the writing sample. Here are some of the issues I encountered with the prose.
- The writing isn’t strong enough. Writing publication-ready prose is a craft that takes years to develop. Sometimes I only needed a paragraph or two before I could tell that an author isn’t there yet.
- Dialogue can make (or more often, break) your chances. Poorly-written, stilted, or otherwise unnatural dialogue was a common issue. If the first 250 had no dialogue for me to evaluate, that hurt your chances. I need to see how well you handle it. Only one of my team picks got in without dialogue.
- Too much world-building too soon. In the first 250 words, I didn’t need much. I wanted to meet your character and see him/her doing something interesting. More than a few made-up words had me feeling lost.
- Spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors. If your 250 had any, it really hurt your chances. That’s because I’m extrapolating how much work you have to do before the rest of the book is polished to perfection. Two mistakes in 250 words equals 640 for an 80K book.
- The opening didn’t grab me. Sometimes the prose was clean, the writing was good, but nothing happened. I saw a lot of teens sitting in class or talking to their parents. I saw many 250-word backstories.
The best way to improve your work is to get detailed feedback from someone else. I’m talking about beta readers and critique partners who are not related to you. Yes, it will take time to get their feedback. Yes, you will generally be expected to read something in return. But I feel this is the best way to uncover issues with your work and get some ideas on how to address them.
Team SFF: Four Picks Revealed
So, which submissions were chosen for the agent round? Be sure to visit the blogs of Michelle Hauck, Max Wirestone, Wade White, Natasha Raulerson, and Laura Heffernan to see all of the pick announcements, including two surprise “Host Saves” on Michelle’s blog (one of them is SF/F). Here are the six I’m allowed to reveal (in no particular order):
- The Notorious Sorceror’s Penultimate Work (Adult Fantasy) by Diana Evans
- Double Minded (YA Sci-fi) by Robin Hammer
- Prom, Magic, And Other Man-Made Disasters (YA Contemp. Fantasy) by Rena Rocford
- The Frequency of Blue (YA Magical Realism) by Jayme Stryker
- Shattering Dust (YA Fantasy) by Casey Krikus
- Eidolon (YA Gaslamp fantasy) by Cathryn Martyn-Dow-Jensen
Congratulations to these fantastic authors — I’m looking forward to working with you! To everyone who entered, I want to say thank you and bravo. It’s not easy to write a book or to put it out there for others to judge. No matter what, you should be proud.
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