Friday, July 28, 2017

Most Common Query Flaws I See as a Pitch Wars Mentor

If you don’t know what Pitch Wars is, you probably should! It’s a contest that hooks querying authors up with established authors and editors to help their books become “publishing” ready. Read more about it here:

My job? First, I get emailed a bunch of submissions from people who are interested in me as mentor. They come in very much like a query to an agent. Query, and first chapter. I read through all my submissions and am allowed to choose ONE to mentor. The amount of submissions vary year to year, category to category and mentor to mentor but so far I’ve averaged around 80 submissions. That’s 80 query and chapters to read through in a couple weeks, and that’s not including the full manuscripts I’ll request. And honestly? The hardest part is choosing only one.

No, not kidding. I’m convinced that the quality that comes in through Pitch Wars is higher than the average slush pile (not that I can compare, I’ve never peeked inside and agents inbox but I’ve heard stories!)

So how can you stack the deck? How do you make sure your query is on my list of "Yesses!"? How I pick my "THE ONE!" is honestly pretty personal, just whichever story I connect with for whatever reason. But you can do a lot of things to make sure you're at least one of the stories I agonize over not picking. So here are some of the most common issues I see in my submissions. You may noticed they go a bit beyond the basics, because, like I said, the qaulity in Pitch Wars is pretty high!

1) Confusing query

Some books are easier to pitch than others, that’s a simple truth. I’ve written books nearly impossible to write a great query for and others that just flow from my little typing fingers like honey. To you, as the author, it all makes sense. You know this story in and out—but I don’t. Sometimes it’s really hard to take a step back and look at it through fresh eyes to see the gaps in logic. It probably makes perfect sense in the book, but in this tiny one page summary… it doesn’t. The solution? Other people need to read your query and not just your critique partners. You need fresh eyes, someone who knows nothing about your book (also, preferably other writers. Non-writers just don’t quite understand what is expected out of a query) that can point out places they get confused. 

2) The story is missing the “why?”

 I’ve noticed this a lot, I remember tweeting about it as I read my submissions last year. Most of you understand that you need “stakes” in your query, but stakes aren’t quite so powerful if we don’t understand why _______will happen if your character doesn’t ______. How does it connect? One big one is, why YOUR CHARACTER needs to be the one to do it. What are his personal stakes in this? Why was he chosen? Why not someone else? If there are 100 people out also trying to save the world, well, if your character fails, someone else may succeed. That sucks out the tension.

3) Confusing first pages

One part of this are pages that don’t fit the query. This can get tricky with multiple POV books but if your query hooked me, I want to start reading that story, not a different one. Make sure they feel connected. Another part is trying too hard to hook with high intensity but not grounding the reader. It’s VERY important that we understand the surroundings, characters and their immediate goals right away. 

4) Overlooking character

Plot vs Character is an old debate and personally, I’m hooked by great ideas. I love concepts. What ifs. Something new and exciting! But if I don’t care about the people involved in those great ideas? It’s all for not. I won’t keep reading. Personally, I don’t think plot and character should be fighting each other, they should be working together. You need BOTH. Personal stakes are just as important as external stakes. 

5) Pages that require the query to make sense

Something is stated in the query then it’s just assumed we’ll know that in the pages. Your pages must stand alone. Don’t look at them like a pair, look at them individually. Will my pages hook a reader if they haven’t read the query? Will my query hook a reader without knowing anything about the story? The story is the important part, the query is just a tool used to convince people to read your story.

6) Not showing us what’s special

This is honestly the number one reason a query goes in my no folder. There have been millions of books published. There are thousands upon thousands of books being queried right now. If your book doesn’t stand out, if you don’t show me something, anything new, for me to latch onto, it’ll get buried alive. It won’t stand out on a book shelf, the same way it won’t stand out in the slush pile. Often, we find trends in our queries. Not publishing trends, just things that for whatever reason, several people decided to write at once. You’ll hear mentors talking about these, “A lot of red heads in my queries this year.” “Wow, that’s the fourth friendly ghost story I’ve seen so far”. Those things don’t mean the kiss of death. One of those friendly ghost stories might be AWESOME because it has something super unique about it that the others don’t. It might be an *amazing* voice or writing style that flows with the story (my very first mentee was like that. About a girl who sees a boy’s spirit. Not overly unique. But her setting and voice and atmosphere was THROUGH THE ROOF and I couldn’t get it out of my head). But not everyone has that kind of writing style (I don’t) so you find another way. A twist, a unique setting, an unexpected tone. 

So think about this, just assume, for arguments sake, that there are several other books being entered into Pitch Wars with a similar story as yours. How will yours stand out? You wrote a mystery with a whodunit, why will I choose yours over the other 5? You wrote a romance. Why is yours the one I’ll remember over the others? No, you don’t need to add in Cyclopes clowns to make me remember you. Make it something real. Something engaging. Something that gets my mind spinning through the possibilities. What will engage and hook one mentor will be different for another, so don’t worry about that. Not everyone will love your work. Just make sure, somehow, it stands out. Show me what is special about your story. Show me how your future publisher will market you. 

If you can stand out, explain the story in a way I can understand, include compelling emotions in your characters,  with decent writing and it all fits into my wishlist, you'll very likely find yourself in my (much too long, I'm sure) want pile!

This year, I'm mentoring YA with the lovely Rebecca Sky, you can find out more about the submissions we're hoping to receive here:

Good luck Pitch Warriors!

1 comment:

Mirka Breen said...

All these points make it clear why someone who never read the manuscript should be a beta for the query. Indeed!