Over the past week, I’ve had the pleasure to work with three speculative fiction authors as part of Michelle Hauck’s team in #SunVsSnow. This pitching contest was open to all writers who had a completed manuscript and were seeking representation. The first 200 submissions received after the submission window opened would go into consideration, and we hit this quota in about 6 minutes. Every submission had the following:
- Age Category and Genre
- Word Count
- 100 words on whether your MC would prefer to live in heat or cold
- Query letter (without bio, 250-300 words)
- The first 250 words
What Matters in a Pitch Contest?
Let us be honest: This is a contest designed to help authors find literary representation, so the query letter and first 250 words are paramount. These are two different but complementary tests of writing skill that reveal much about whether or not a manuscript is ready. Even so, the first three items are more important than some authors realize:
- The title is the first thing we see about the manuscript. It may suggest the type of book, especially for genre fiction. The title is also one of the first things an agent will see in the subject line of an emailed query. The importance of a catchy, memorable title can’t be overstated.
- Age category and genre matter for a few reasons. They often dictate which agents will read your query, since certain agents don’t represent certain categories/genres. They also have implications for the book’s marketability. At any given time, some things (adult sci-fi) are easier to sell than others (dystopian).
- Word count also impacts marketability. Market expectations drive certain expectations in word count, often according to the age category and genre. When I read submissions for Pitch Wars, I was looking for adult SFF so I wanted a word count of 80-110k. Longer is sometimes acceptable, but I knew I couldn’t read and critique a 140k book in time for the agent round.
How Submissions Were Chosen
In #SunVsSnow, my team leader (Michelle Hauck) picked all of the entries, and assigned each mentor three of them. I love the three that were assigned to me, but I don’t know that I’d have made the same choices because I’m more of a hard-ass about the things I mentioned above.
There’s a great party game called Apples to Apples, which is played with two decks of cards. Each player gets five red cards, which are nouns: people, places, events, etc. Then they take turns playing “Judge” which involves putting out a green card. The green cards are adjectives like cold, sexy, annoying, unforgettable. All of the other players put out one of their red cards that best suits the adjective. For example, if the category card is “Hot” I’d throw in my card “The middle of the sun.” The judge collects all entries and chooses the one he or she likes best.
The funny thing about Apples to Apples — especially when you play with family or close friends — is how players decide which red card to put in, based not only on the green card (adjective), but also who will judge the entries. For example, if I’m the judge and I put out a green card like “Awesome,” suddenly everybody is throwing their geekiest cards at me: Star Trek, dragons, that sort of thing. Of course, I’ll pick dragons in this instance, and whoever put in that winning card will smile and say, “Know your judge.”
Subjectivity is just as important in publishing. A key to success — whether you’re querying agents, submitting short stories, or your manuscript is going out to editors, is to know your judge. Query the agents who represent books like the one you’ve written. Submit to magazine editors who’ve liked your previous stories. This whole subjectivity thing is why literary agents exist. They know which editors want what type of book at what time.
My Corner of Team Snow
As I said, Michelle was picking the entries this time around, but I was thrilled at the submissions she chose for me. And because they had to send in query letters without a bio, I asked each of my team members to share theirs.
THE STEPPING STONES by Alexei Collier (Adult fantasy)
Alexei Collier grew up in sunny southern California, but powerful forces flung him deep into the heart of the Midwest, where he lives across the street from Chicago with his wife and their cat. His short fiction has appeared in CICADA, IDEOMANCER, and TALES TO TERRIFY. When he is not busy creating and destroying worlds, Alexei cultivates a healthy fascination with evolution, culture, art, and the human spirit. He also maintains the face of a twenty-year-old, the enthusiasm of a ten-year-old, and the sense of wonder of a four-year-old, but he denies all accusations that he keeps these items in a row of jars on his writing desk. You can stalk him on Twitter (@AlexeiCollier) and facebook (facebook.com/alexei.collier).
Alex’s #SunVsSnow submission is an adult epic fantasy called THE STEPPING STONES, about a woman who disrupts the all-male status quo for magic users in her world, drawing the ire of ancient organizations who see her ability as a kind of heresy. The world-building in the first 250 is so riveting… I can’t decide if I’m more impressed or envious.
I, PERSEPHONE by Diane McIntire Rose
While she has no experience as a goddess, Diane is a long-time mythology geek who won a national contest on the subject while in high school. And she sometimes pretends to be a deity online, if that counts. Besides writing, she loves the piano, spicy food, world travel, and the Washington Nationals, having concluded that each of these is a great deal more fun than what she used to do: practice public-utility law. (She’s assured me that, no, you really don’t want to know what that entails.)
Diane’s #SunVsSnow submission is I, PERSEPHONE, an adult fantasy inspired by Greek mythology. I don’t know much about the tradition, but my understanding from Diane is that she’s traditionally a rather pitiful victim: kidnapped by Hades, shuttled back-and-forth as a pawn in the games of greater gods. Let’s just say that Diane’s retelling gives her a lot more agency, and it’s funnier, too. I don’t even normally read this stuff and I’m very excited about it.
HANNA BUYS THE FARM, by Aaron Scott Hildebrandt
Aaron is an animator and narrative designer based out of Vancouver, Canada. He grew up in Winnipeg, but moved after discovering that there were places in the world where your skin didn’t literally freeze off in the winter. Did you know that at -50c your skin will die after three minutes of exposure? Aaron knows. Now, he spends his days drinking copious amounts of tea, working on video game cinematics, writing, and coding interactive fiction. He can be stalked at aaronhildebrandt.com.
Aaron’s #SunVsSnow submission is HANNA BUYS THE FARM, an adult sci-fi about a career hacker whose “job of a lifetime” nearly kills her partner, and leaves her with an allergy to technology. She can manage it with an expensive treatment, but the money’s going to run out and some point. Worse, an overzealous client kidnaps her sister and best friend unless Hanna meets his demands. The style of the writing, the voice of it, grabbed Michelle and me right away. We couldn’t wait to read more.
Go Team Snow!
Over the past week, my team members have busted their humps to fine-tune their entries for tomorrow. I’ve gone round-and-round a few times with each of them. They handled my critiques with grace and enthusiasm, with entries that were [hopefully] even stronger when we were done. Alex, Diane, and Aaron clearly have what it takes, and I have high hopes for them.
There is, of course, another team of entrants to worry about. Team Sun. They have some good mentors; I know that much. I’ll bet they have some good submissions, too. Even so, I’m not terribly worried. Theirs is the team of summer.
And winter is coming.
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