The first 250 words of a novel may determine its fate. For aspiring authors — especially those seeking representation — pitching contests are therefore incredibly valuable. In Brenda Drake’s #PitchMadness, for example, entrants submitted very minimal information: manuscript title, age category/genre, word count, 35-word pitch, and the first 250 words. There were over 500 entries in the current contest, all vying for 60 slots in the all-important agent round.
The first- and second-round slush readers have done a wonderful job of live-tweeting their comments as they read entries. Those remarks offer tremendous insight into what works and what doesn’t work. Using my own brand of techno-wizardry, I collected about 2,000 tweets from the #PitchMadness hashtag. I learned something important: so many of us are getting it wrong.
Many of those tweets are below; I leave them unchanged except removing the hashtags. Special thanks to these folks for tweeting so often, and so astutely: Brenda Drake (@BrendaDrake), L.L. McKinney (@Tangynt), Rae A. Chang (@RaeAChang), Sharon Johnston (@S_M_Johnston), Lady Lioness (@lionessbkshelf), Sarah L. Blair (@SarahLBlair), Veronica Bartles (@vbartles), Jami Nord (@JamiNord), Fiona McLaren (@BookOmnivore), Rebecca Weston (@callmebecks), K.T. Hanna (@KTHanna).
Age Category Problems
Surprisingly, a large number of entries simply get the age category wrong:
Pick one category for your pitch, not two. -@S_M_Johnston
The voice in this MG contemp reads more YA. -@Tangynt
Please make sure the voice suits the category. I can’t stress this enough. Adjust accordingly. -@KTHanna
Pick one category for your pitch, not two. -@S_M_Johnston
The genre is something that should be easy to get right. And yet, tweets like these were common:
Adult, Young Adult, New Adult, Middle Grade. These are not genres. These alone tell me nothing. -@Tangynt
I wish this one had been marked horror instead of what it is. If it’d been horror, I’d definitely mark it a maybe for now. -@lionessbkshelf
Hokay, placing something featured in your story after the age category does not make it a genre. -@Tangynt
….that’s not a genre. #TagOrPass #PitchMadness -@Tangynt
Remember that age group and genre are different things. Admittedly, these lines are often blurred on agency web sites, even on QueryTracker. But aspiring authors need to understand and make the distinction.
Word Count Problems
Here’s another common issue: the word count is not appropriate for the age category and genre. Most often, it seems that the word count is too high, but under-shooting the correct range is also possible.
This word count is crazy wrong. If it’s the right amount then it’s way too short. Missing a 0 and it’s too long. -@S_M_Johnston
Watch your word count! Too high or too low for your genre/category will be an automatic red flag. -@vbartles
Ack! Love the premise. Love the writing. But the word count on this one makes me squicky. *whimper* -@SarahLBlair
Low word count for the category/genre. Pitch has a Q, writing is strong, but nor strong enough. -@S_M_Johnston
My face literally just contorted into this expression at sight of one entry’s word count. _Literally_. -@lionessbkshelf
Come on, guys, this shouldn’t happen. Check out this article if you don’t know the right word count for your category/genre.
Pitch Problems: What’s at Stake?
One of the most common critiques addresses what’s probably the toughest part of this contest: nailing the 35-word pitch. In that brief format, you have to give character, conflict, and stakes that aren’t generic. The remarks:
Finally have a chance to dip into #PitchMadness slush. The biggest problem I’m seeing so far: vague pitches. Give me a reason to read on! -@vbartles
This pitch is too vague and just doesn’t tell me enough. -@S_M_Johnston
#PitchMadness tip: When writing a pitch, make the stakes real, compelling and personal. Make me care about the troubles your character faces -@vbartles
“… or she’ll be forced to sit at the loser’s table forever” is more compelling than “… or the world will be destroyed.” -@vbartles
I liked this one, but pitch had a pet peeve: vague consequences. Don’t be vague, be specific. No ‘never be the same’ etc -@S_M_Johnston
A character’s world being turned upside-down (cliche btw) is most books. HOW is this done? #Vague #TagOrPass -@Tangynt
First 250: Starting in the Wrong Place
Here’s a problem that many manuscripts seem to have with the beginning. I’ve already written about the importance of a great opening. This is where many pitches seemed to fall short.
I don’t think this YA starts off in the right place. #TagOrPass -@Tangynt
I can tell that this one started in the wrong place. -@lionessbkshelf
Figuring out the right place to begin your book is SO hard. For contests when all you see is 1st 250 you really gotta nail it. -@SarahLBlair
This may be something only a critique partner or beta reader can tell you.
Writing Needs Improvement
The writing sample (first 250) is often enough to reveal when the writing just needs some work. Maybe it’s showing instead of telling, maybe it’s simply tightening things down.
MG Fantasy: the premise is interesting but the voice doesn’t grab me. Could use tightening. -@Tangynt
The premise in this YA paranormal is compelling, but the writing tells me what’s going on instead of shows me. -@User
I love Steampunk, but this pitch is confusing. The writing is great, expect world building isn’t explained = more confused #PitchMadness -@S_M_Johnston
The name of the game is Tighten. There are many lists on the web containing dozens of filler & fluff words to kill. -@Tangynt
When entering contests or sending queries it always helps to have a buddy to send your entry to FIRST. #DoubleCheck -@SarahLBlair
Don’t tell me your character is scared, angry, sad, embarrassed, whatever. Show me her tight jaw, his sweaty palms. -@Tangynt
What NOT To Do
Bless these slush readers, they were honest about many of the things that were wrong with submissions. Some are subjective, but some are likely deal-breakers. Read on.
Avoid cliche phrases. Avoid cliche everything. -@Tangynt
There’s some basic rules you all are ignoring: Word Counts, Rhetorical Questions, Weather Openings, MCs Looking in the Mirror -@S_M_Johnston
Rhetorical questions in a pitch (or query) rarely work. Like, A leprechaun riding a unicorn under a blue moon rare. -@Tangynt
#SlushTrends Pitches with questions. YOU GUYS! CUT IT OUT. You have 35 words and questions annoy agents. -@S_M_Johnston
A typo in your excerpt … Aw, man! I really like you, too. Making my decision hard. -@LaurenKMcKellar
I like the sound of this YA urban fantasy, but there’s a lot of introspection w/a character I don’t care about yet. -@Tangynt
Dark and stormy night beginning means a pass from me. -@S_M_Johnston
Personally, I don’t need a detailed snapshot of what a character looks like in the first 250, but that’s me. -@Tangynt
People keep having MC names that are tripping me up -@S_M_Johnston
Don’t say “blink my/his/her eyes” or “nod my/his/her head”. I’m certain you can’t blink or nod anything else. -@Tangynt
For the love of all that is Holy, please stop staring your excerpts with your characters waking up. -@BookOmnivore
YA Sci fi pitch tossing out lots of lingo unique to the world. I came away with the MC’s name and little else -@Tangynt
People don’t speak with flawless grammatical correctness. Some may, but most don’t. -@Tangynt
Trying too hard to be mysterious, leaving things unexplained or undefined, is just plain confusing sometimes. -@Tangynt
The opening with a character waking up seems universally despised. I seriously had a nightmare last night that my submission had that.
Sage Author Advice
The slush readers made plenty of remarks that were just good advice for aspiring authors.
Try to vary word usage. Always advisable – especially in the first page -@KTHanna
Correct way to attribute age: Fifteen-year-old. Not 15yo or fifteen year old. Hyphenating it counts as one word, so no excuse. -@S_M_Johnston
What you should aim for is TENSION in your opening pages. This is different from action or trauma. -@Tangynt
#Pitchmadness tip: make sure your character’s language is suited to their age. Every word counts! -@LaurenKMcKellar
Seriously, you guys. You have to make yourself AVAILABLE. If I love your entry and can’t stalk you, how will agents do it?! -@SarahLBlair
Read your favorite books to see what they did to hook you at the start and pull you through. -@Tangynt
Reading hundreds of pitches let our hapless slushreaders do some trendspotting:
Things I’m seeing a lot of in #PitchMadness: Angels/demons, mythology inherited, fable retellings, dystopians, cheeky MG, hidden secrets. -@JamiNord
Something I’m noticing in pitches across all age groups: Focus on conveying romance when the genre’s not romance. -@Tangynt
Note, #PitchMadness, this isn’t a BAD thing, but if it’s a common trend, yours needs to have a fresh take/twist. -@JamiNord
I personally love this premise, but this type of YA fantasy has been done to death. -@Tangynt
There are a LOT of very similar books on #PitchMadness. Writing tip – push yourself to create even FRESHER ideas. -@BookOmnivore
Remember, when you’re trying to break in, offering something unique — voice, concept, setting, even character ethnicity — helps set your work apart.
My opinion is that authors should try to ignore trends, and write what they’re most passionate about. That said, two particular genres (paranormal and sci-fi) were noted as things that, right now, are hard to sell to agents and editors.
This adult paranormal got my attention, but not sure if the industry has recovered from previous saturation. -@Tangynt
Two years ago I would’ve picked this YA SciFi in a heart beat. I squee over it, but it won’t make it through this year. -@S_M_Johnston
I like how some are trying to hide dystopians & paranormals behind ‘sci-fic’ & ‘urban fantasy.’ Didn’t work, but good effort. -@lionessbkshelf
This market is over saturated. Two contests ago and I would’ve picked it. -@S_M_Johnston
I hate when the writing seems REALLY good, but the concept is so, so sold out. -@JamiNord
Removed a YA SciFi from my list. Writing wasn’t strong enough and it’s a hard sell genre. -@S_M_Johnston
Remember that publishers work two years ahead when acquiring books. The things that are hot now were probably written in 2011 or even earlier.
Some Winning Pitches
With over 500 entries for 60 slots, the slush readers really had to narrow things down. Brutal honesty was simply necessary. That said, there were certainly some pitches that wowed. Here are a few examples.
Okay, this YA fantasy painted such a clear picture without bogging down prose with description. I’m in love. -@Tangynt
OH MG Horror, how you have stolen my heart. Your concise yet startlingly beautiful descriptions have stolen my heart! -@BookOmnivore
I think I just fell in love with this MG. Great prose, catchy pitch, fantastic premise #PitchMadness Noting so I can buy when it comes out -@KTHanna
The voice and premise of this one is so off-beat that I kind of love it. -@User
But this next #PitchMadness is just right. The pitch paints a clear picture of the story, so I know what to expect. & the excerpt delivers. -@vbartles
Special Thanks To…
All of the blog hosts, slush readers, and contest organizers are volunteers. They didn’t have to pitch in here, or share their impressions via Twitter. In particular, I’m grateful to Brenda Drake (@BrendaDrake)L.L. McKinney (@Tangynt), Rae A. Chang (RaeAChang), Sharon Johnston (@S_M_Johnston), Lady Lioness (@lionessbkshelf), Sarah L. Blair (@SarahLBlair), Veronica Bartles (@vbartles), Jami Nord (@JamiNord), Fiona McLaren (@BookOmnivore), Rebecca Weston (@callmebecks), and K.T. Hanna (@KTHanna).
Please give them a shout out and say THANK YOU!
What Did I Miss?
I’m sure there were other gems posted by the #PitchMadness readers. Please leave a comment and let me know your favorites!
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