Sunday, August 23, 2015

Pitch Wars: Behind the Curtain

For the third year in a row, I’m a mentor in a contest run by Brenda Drake called Pitch Wars. You’ve heard this spiel before in this space, but this basically means that querying writers submit to contest mentors (usually agented writers). The mentors then pick mentees to help them get their manuscripts in the best shape possible before an “agent round” where a select group of agents comb through the entries and make requests publically on each entry.

The contest has a growing number of success stories, with dozens of writers agented and/or gaining book deals in direct correlation to the contest. My mentee last year, the super awesome Kellye Garrett, was offered representation IN A BAR at 10:30 at night by an agent who loved her Pitch Wars submission (they were at the New England Crime Bake the week after the agent round).

So, yeah, Pitch Wars does incredible things for writers. Mostly because it provides a spotlight on something that might be great but overlooked in a pile of queries. I’ve benefited from that spotlight myself, meeting my agent through the contest in its first year.

Thus, as I think it’ll be helpful for querying writers to hear, not just those in the contest, I thought I’d give a little insight. Well, actually three little pieces of insight:

1. Numbers matter
2. Taste matters
3. Context matters

First, the Numbers: The quality of the work always matters, of course, but here’s the deal: ALL the submissions in my contest inbox are wonderful. Seriously. The competition is FIERCE, the queries are strong, the opening pages are polished and all the writers seem affable and ready for a working relationship.

Which is awesome. Except there are 78 of those hardy competitors in my inbox. In the whole contest there are 1,591. Less than a tenth of those will be chosen as mentees. This year, there are no alternates. Each mentor choses a single mentee. Which means I have to reject 77 great writers. And some mentors with wider tastes have to reject double that.

Now, think about an actual agent and not just a contest mentor. Many agents get at least 100 queries per day. Maybe more. Yet many only take on a handful of clients per year. Maybe only one or two. Yet they get possibly 365 times the number of queries I have to comb through for this contest.
Moreover, of the clients they take on, less than half will get a deal out of their first book on submission.

Yes, it will always be a numbers game.

Second, Personal Choice: I am not an agent or an acquisitions editor, but, like them, I am human. Which means that as I comb through my entries, there are some that snag my attention much quicker than others. I have a tendency to enjoy crime fiction (duh) but I also really like humor. I can’t read strictly somber books any more than I can watch strictly somber movies. I’m sure they’re amazing. I. just. Can’t. And that is my humanity showing.

Thus, as I sorted my submissions into “Favorites,” “Maybes,” and “No, Not for Me” folders, I decided to go with my gut. After doing this twice before, I’m starting to get a little better at understanding what works for me personally and what doesn’t.

Unfortunately, because there were so many great submissions, I ended up with 30 Favorites, 30 Maybes and 18 No, Not for Me.

My gut likes many things, obviously. Which leads me to my third insight…

Third, Context Matters: There have been truly great manuscripts that didn’t get a single request in Pitch Wars but went on to be agented and sold after the contest. Yes, this happens. Why? The contest setup.

Pitch Wars is different than querying in that each writer gets 300 words to show their stuff, not a query and 10 pages (or whatever a certain agent prefers). Here, there’s a pitch of about 35 to 75 words at the top of the page and then about 250 words of the writer’s first page below it. That’s it. From there, agents request partials and fulls.

Therefore, the first page and the concept are extremely important in this contest. I’m convinced the only reason I “won” the adult round of Pitch Wars the first year is because my pitch and first page described (in sickening detail) the death of a chef in his very own kitchen with his very own tools. It worked very well within the contest parameters. Even if it was gross.

As I narrow down my favorites and my maybes, I’m thinking not only of how I personally feel about the manuscript, but how I’d craft a pitch and what the first page would look like as a teaser. Those things are just too important to success in this arena. And I want my mentee to feel successful and get as much out of the contest as possible.

This might seem cold and calculating. BUT, in a way, it’s “just business.” Agents and acquiring editors must do this too. Agents might be looking for a certain type of book that fills a spot in their list. Or something that they know editors are looking for in a submission. Editors are hoping to fall in love with a book that works in their imprint, catalog and calendar. They turn down far more than my 78 submissions in a year because they have to, not because they want to.

SO, all that said, if you are querying, entered in a contest or in my inbox (hi!), please understand that there is a heavy amount of thought that goes into evaluating writing submissions. It’s not a perfect science. It’s run by the reader’s heart, head and gut—just like your writing.


  1. Sarah, what an interesting post and wonderful insight into the how the process works.

  2. I have never participated in a pitch war but it sounds interesting.

  3. You articulate what we really know but don't like to think about. The odds are tremendously set against the individual writer. Of course the agents have their own tastes and preferences--they are human. And some types of fiction, especially the ones that build from an "ordinary" beginning (I think of Psycho) probably aren't going to catch anyone's attention.

    Thanks for the insight!

  4. Thanks for the peek behind the pitch war curtain, Sarah. I'm interested to find out who you pick to be your mentee.

  5. Sarah, it sounds like a stressful event, and one I wouldn't want to be involved in, to tell the truth, either, as submitting my pitch, and especially not reading all those and having to make the decision which one to pick. I judged a section of poetry (humorous poems) for the N.C. Poetry Society once, and I found that extremely difficult. It's so subjective.

  6. It is stressful! But it's totally worth it. I love meeting new people in the writing community!

  7. What a great look "behind the scenes". This writing business is made up of a whole lot of hard work to polish, courage to put oneself "out there", and patience to wait for that person who loves your story as much as you do, and can help propel you to the next level. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Hi! Thanks for your take on pitchwars. It's very exciting to be on the other side of the fence, so getting a sneak peek at what the mentors are up against is fascinating. Pitchwars is a great opportunity, even if not picked--the networking, the friendships, and the sheer fun of it are great. Not to mention the furious work to get query and ms in shape. Thanks for all you do for fellow writers--so much appreciated!