In March 2012 I entered the first #PitchMadness as a bright eyed and bushy tailed hopeful. I got very lucky, met amazing people, had requests, and got signed.
Since then, I’ve helped pay it forward every year, every #PitchMadness. Including this year that makes 5 PitchMadness slushpiles. I’ve been first or second readers every time.
This year I wanted to do something a little different for my post slushpile post. Sometimes writing can make us all a little loopy, but things like PitchMadness make it easier, because we know we aren’t alone.
First and foremost though, I want to say:
YOU DID IT. YES, YOU. All of you who entered, you wrote a book. You sat your butt in that chair, and wrote your heart out. Don’t let anyone take that from you. It is an amazing thing.
So, this time I’m doing a list of what made me say yes, and what made me hesitate.
What made me say yes:
The pitch, while important, wasn’t the be all and end all. Sure, it had to show that the story had something significantly fresh about it, but as long as it gave me a good view of the story and the stakes, I was fine. Sometimes, a very good pitch could really tip me if the writing was good, but not amazing.
Overall, there were some amazing concepts outlined in those pitches, and I can’t wait to see some of them on the shelves.
I’m a HUGE voice fan. If I can tell the voice from the first line and it continues through? I’m in. 100% no holds barred, I’m in. A lot of things about writing can be taught, but voice is difficult to learn. Give me the atmosphere, and good grounding (combined with a twist to the concept) and it’s golden.
If the writing flowed, built the sensory, showed the world and expressions, set the world of the story apart in my head? Then it was an in. Stellar writing could easily pull through a weak pitch. If the pitch gave enough to confirm a good concept, and the writing was amazing? That was easy to let through. Good of both? Also easy.
What made me hesitate/say no:
If there was no indicator that the concept hadn’t been seen before. There were many times that the concept read like something seen over and over again. While this is okay in some genres, it doesn’t work in all of them. If your concept is a little well worn, then your stakes need to be exceptional.
Suggestions: Check your pitch over and make sure it can do the following.
1) Does it highlight what about your book is different, what makes it stand out? Why should someone want to read your book over all the others in the genre? What is the exact part of the concept that sets it apart?
2) Are your stakes viable? Does your hero/protag have a personal choice to make that is truly a difficult choice and not just a case of not being selfish?
This is harder to pin down, but it’s the overall tone, the mood, the setting. Your narrator and their quirks. The point of view and how the story is set up from that very first word. Sometimes there was no atmosphere to tug me in. A strong voice goes a long way to this. Thing is – Voice can be there even when the writing isn’t.
Know your narrator, your point of view. Make sure you know what about them makes it unique and find a way to express it. I realize this sounds sort of vague, so I defer to the awesome Chuck Wendig here.
There were a lot of elements that stuck out about the writing, of course, writing itself is far easier to pinpoint than something like voice.
I found this especially prevalent in third person. Which was odd. Watch your prose for it. Make sure you can’t add “by Zombies” to the end of it and have it make sense. It makes the writing drag. Avoid too much feel, seem, had done, had found etc
Telling, not showing
We hear this all the time. Don’t tell us, show us.
This is telling:
Samantha always walks home after school. She kicks the rocks along the way because she’s sad, and dreams of adventure.
There is nothing here to entice, or draw the reader in. It’s a simple statement of facts in her life.
Example: Samantha trudges along the path and its perfectly manicured lawns on the way home from school. Rocks scatter as she kicks them, landing in a haphazard pattern that echoes her mood. Her shoulders sag and she chokes back the sudden catch in her throat. If only her life weren’t so dull.
That might be a little too detailed/over the top. But I’m trying to show how much you can change from telling to showing.
Beginnings that seemed to have no relevance to the pitch
When your beginning doesn’t have a hint of the character mentioned in the pitch, of anything to do with the pitch in it? I wonder why it’s starting where it is. In your pitch, you break your book down to its most important elements (or you should be doing this), so if your beginning has no relation to that pitch, ask yourself if you’re starting in the right place.
Repetitive sentence structures
I’ll state right out that I am biased to this. It’s one of my pet hates. Just because it’s first person doesn’t mean 50% of your sentences should begin with I. The same goes for third person and he, she, the, they etc. It shows as lazy writing or a bad habit. It’s a good bad habit to break.
Multiple use of the same word in short spans (or a variation thereof). This can be done with a lot of words of course. But the most common thing I saw was feel. Feeling, felt, feel… Try not to use it at all, and your writing will be much richer.
Instead of I suddenly felt cold. Come up with: My stomach cramped as a chill crept up my spine, goosebumps spreading in its wake.
This is dialogue with lots of he said and she said modifiers. Aim for variation. You don’t always need an actual dialogue tag. Give us physical sensory in there too. Bring the dialogue to life for the reader.
Age Category inappropriate
I got this a lot. Whether you’re writing for MG, YA, NA, or Adult. Please make sure your narrator/pov is age appropriate. There were many cases of a too young narrator in the case of YA, NA, and Adult, as well as a few that were too old for MG. There are mannerisms that will differ, word choice, overall wisdom and sarcasm dispensing will vary depending on the subject matter they’ve experienced.
TL;DR – Make sure the pov/narrator is from the character’s point of view and history, not the author’s.
I saw this more than I expected to. Since the excerpt was only 250 words, I didn’t really expect to see any, but there were quite a few instances where the point of view headhopped between characters.
Unless psionic (of which there weren’t that many) and capable of reading minds, the odd of your pov character knowing what their friends are thinking is pretty close to zero, nada, nix. Make sure your prose reflects the one point of view you are telling it from. If it has multiple points of view, make sure your switches are made with clear definition (my preference is scene/chapter breaks – I find paragraphs without other differentiation get a little iffy).
If you’re going to pick present tense, please keep it in present. Likewise with past. Jumping between tenses on a constant basis interrupts the flow and causes confusion. Frankly, it just makes it less fun to read. And especially when you’ve got a great concept – we WANT to read.
Soooo I’ll drop the link I shared in the PitchMadness feed here. WORD COUNT DRACULA
Know your genre’s acceptable range. There are always exceptions, but it’s better to aim for something at least close to these. 2,000 words, or 300,000 words are generally red flags (unless the writing is amazingly, astronomically stellar from the get go – and even then…)
To be honest, I was very impressed by the entries. Even the ones that had some of these mistakes, showed promise. Just a bit more practice, more critiques, and a few more edit passes and a lot of them will be exciting to see.
I want to note that no one entry had all of the things that made me say no. A few had some of them, but no one had all of them. This is a good thing.
I really hope this has helped some. If you have any questions about any of these, please @ me on Twitter or the PitchMadness feed and ask them, or ask them here and I’ll do my best to answer them in a timely manner.
Good luck to everyone who entered. I think you’re all amazing, brave, and going to make it as long as you never give up! Remember – you wrote a book.