An Inside Look – Part I

Just recently I’ve gotten to know another writer, Julie S. Decker. She’s in a unique circumstance in that she has an agent for fiction and a 2nd for non-fiction. And she has a deal with a publisher for her non-fiction book
Earlier this winter she was a Pitch Wars mentor. What happened for that contest was an applicant sent their query to three mentors of their choice, and the mentor picks their favorite out of all the submissions. Then the mentee and mentor work together to prepare it for the agent round.
There were around 2000 submissions, and about 35ish mentors. Julie had 74 submissions sent to her. Which I’m sure was a lot to wade through. And FYI: her mentee ended up getting an agent. So, good job, Julie!
Since I’d gotten to know her a bit, I asked a ton of questions to learn how Pitch Wars worked behind the scenes, and here is the first question. How did you narrow down your submissions?
I read each submission’s query letter and made extensive notes in the form of a letter to the author as I was reading. It took a while–as I was expecting–but I was determined to leave decent feedback for everyone who was brave enough to enter the contest. It was generally very easy to see in the query if I was not going to be working with someone. I would then go on to read the pages, and usually make fewer notes on the actual writing. If I liked something a lot, I usually gave MORE criticism–if someone is closer to a polished project but only needs a little push, I’m willing to invest more time into them. And if, based on the pages, I thought a project was not ready to query, I said so. I left at least one, but up to two and a half pages of feedback for everyone. My total amount of feedback was 46,000 words written over the course of four days.
All I have to say is wow. I don’t know what other mentors did, but that sounds like a ton of feedback to give.
After reading the submission I would rank each one. I just kept a list of them and every time I read a new one I slid it into the list above something I didn’t like as much and below something I liked better. At the end I had a complete ranking of 73 submissions. (One participant got an offer of representation during the contest and dropped out. She happened to be one of mine.)

I modified some of my feedback to let some of them know if they’d made my top five, my top ten, or my top twenty. I didn’t tell people their “rank” in general and didn’t mention it if they were below twenty. Since I had a rank at the end, I did not have to go back and re-read or wrestle too much over my team choice.

I believe my choices were more about good writing than they were about personal preference, but I acknowledge that personal preference did figure in. I am all about character. Some of the writing that I thought was excellent still pushed me away a bit if the perspective was more distant or if I didn’t feel a connection to the character. If I liked an idea but thought the writing didn’t carry it, the idea couldn’t save it for me. I value execution over concept.

My top ten was entirely made up of fantasy and science fiction except for ONE women’s fiction that I thought was an excellent character piece. The top ten did contain some genres I normally am not interested in, such as hard science fiction and supernatural romance. One of my top three–my first alternate–is about supernatural happenings at a military school, which is normally something I’m not interested in either, but the writing is fantastic. My second alternate’s work also involves the military since it takes place on a submarine, but I loved it for the character. Several other stories with military elements made up my top twenty, and that really surprised me.

It’s kind of nice to hear that mentors will branch out into genres other than their favorites.

All these contests run a little differently, and I’m sure that once a mentor/judge gets into it, they discover how hard it really is. Did being a Pitch Wars mentor turn out to be what you expected?

Honestly it was pretty much exactly what I expected, except that I didn’t think I’d get quite that many submissions. My bio was very picky and I thought I came off like a curmudgeon and a very strict killjoy at times, and it was kind of intentional; I wanted people who can take criticism. I was pleased and surprised that so many people connected with my style and thought I was a good match for their writing. The only other thing I was surprised by was how many technical problems we had with our mentor e-mail, but nobody could have predicted that. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Ah, and the backstage discussions with the other mentors were more active and supportive than I’d initially expected.

What really surprised me was the amount of time Julie put into this contest. And that didn’t even include working on the story with her mentee. As a contestant in these types of contests, I would definitely appreciate that kind of feedback.
So next time I’ll have more on what kinds of problems she saw with the submissions, because really, these mentors see the same type of things agents do. And it’s a good list of things we should check before we query.

So have you ever done any contests? Or been a judge/mentor in a contest?

6 Responses

  1. I’ve entered lots of screenwriting contests and at least one other (prose) writing contest, but nothing like what Pitch Wars is described as. If they do it again, I’d love to take a swing at it.

  2. Wow! I was thinking it would be fun to judge something like pitch wars, but now I’m wondering if I would have the time for it. Thanks for working so hard Julie, I know the contestants appreciated it ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Wow. I did Gugtaa or however it’s spelled a couple years ago and that was EXHAUSTING. I can’t even imagine doing this kind of stuff. Oh no wait… I will be doing it at Storymakers. Whoops! Guess I have a mentor to help me with this mentoring stuff now!

  4. This is AWESOME information! What a lot of work, but it sounds like the help and feedback were invaluable. I really love the questions you asked Suzi. We can learn so much from this! Thanks so much for sharing this, Julie!

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