Last week, I had Julie S. Decker on my blog to talk about her experience as being a mentor for the Pitch Wars contest. See here for that post. This week, she’s talking about the problems and issues she saw with submissions, which would be helpful for someone querying since her advice is similar to what agents say.
So what were the most common problems with the Pitch Wars Submissions?
The most common problem in queries was lack of trajectory. Many queries failed to tell me about their story arc, and that’s very important in a query. I found a lot of vagueness, like “she must find herself” or “in a race against time, they must succeed before it’s too late” without giving me a clear understanding of what the characters want/need and what will happen if they don’t get it done. I also found that too much detail was a problem, and occasionally I would see explanations of themes or morals that didn’t need to be there. And some authors praised themselves in their queries, told me irrelevant details about their writing process, or included inappropriate personal details.
In the writing samples, the most common problem was infodumping on page one. When I saw awkward recitations of background details or people having conversations that were clearly contrived to convey context to the reader, I froze up and disengaged. Readers should never feel that the characters are standing still while the author lectures. Books need to begin when something is beginning–something we want to watch. It’s a delicate balance to suggest the characters and world have history and depth without halting the story to tell us about it, but that’s why writing is an art! Other problems included failure to get us invested in the characters, “telling” me a character’s attributes instead of showing me, and spelling/grammar/punctuation errors.
I did get a few weirdly categorized books–like projects that were pitched as YA to one mentor but NA to me for some reason–and a few people sent me things I specifically identified as NOT my style in my bio (horror, category romance, stories where women characters are objectified or killed for the sake of the male hero having “motivation”). I think most of the people who didn’t follow directions just didn’t realize that they weren’t allowed to send manuscripts to someone who wasn’t taking their category, but other than that people were good about following the directions.
One thing I’ve always wondered about with these contests is whether the judges (or agents) feel that the submissions were ready for querying. Of course that’s subjective, and part of Pitch Wars was to work with a mentor to prepare the submission, but what did you see, Julie? Were a lot of them query-ready or did they need a lot of work?
I thought most of what I received wasn’t polished enough to get an agent. Sometimes that was just a query issue but usually it was the pages. I’d say around 20% of what I got was definitely not close to ready, and 80% of it (including that 20%) probably needs quite a bit of work (though some might be close enough that an agent will give an R&R or offer representation and then give pointers). Then maybe around 20% of the submissions I received had both a decent query and decent pages which made me think they will do well with agents if they query. Some, I found out, haven’t started querying at all yet. Even the folks I picked for my top three need some help, though there were a couple in my top ten that I didn’t pick for personal reasons and still think they will do well with agents. In a couple cases I have even mentioned that I might be willing to set up a referral even though I didn’t pick them. I don’t do that often though.
I’ve been in several contests over the years, and I can definitely say that I wasn’t ready for some of them. It’s hard not to jump into contests because you’re so excited about getting your story presented to agents, but it’s best to wait and make sure it’s polished and ready.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about contests in general?
I think any author entering a contest should do it more for the experience than the prize. The mentee I chose actually volunteered to me during our first conversation that he was primarily interested in forming relationships with other writers and trying to expand his team of willing beta readers and critique partners. Even if you’re not chosen, you can really enjoy the community and form relationships with others in it, and start following their blogs and learning about their lives s/o you begin to build a network of people with similar interests and similar aspirations.
Thanks for stopping by, Julie. It was interesting to hear about your experiences. For prospective judges, I’d definitely recommend looking into the time commitments before you volunteer. And for contestants, don’t jump into contests until you know you’re ready.
Anybody out there want to be a judge/mentor for a contest? Despite all the work, I think it would be fun, but obviously for me, I’m not quite qualified yet to be a judge or mentor.