Cheat Sheet for My Future PitchWars Mentee

I am going to tell you how to win PitchWars. Why? Because I want everyone to win! And while you can’t all be my mentee this year, you can ALL get agents.

When I mentored in contests in the past, it broke my heart to see great writers with huge potential being held back by preventable mistakes. So I’m going to make it really easy on you (and really hard on me) by telling you all the tricks I use to decide which entries I don’t want.

First, objective things. These are the things agents will also be looking for, and other mentors. This is good SH*T to know, whether you are submitting your manuscript to me for the PitchWars contest or not.

Objective Things

–Word Count: Know your genre and RESEARCH what is an acceptable word count for your genre. Here is a decent link to get started, but google YOUR genre specifically and look on several different sites to get a consensus. http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post

Also know that even if you’re writing fantasy or sci fi, under 100K is a safer word count for debut novelists. It will make your book an easier sell to agents and also to publishers. Guys, publishing is tough. The statistics are stacked against you. Don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to bend the rules, especially for word count. Will I pick a mentee whose novel is too short or too long? Maybe. But if I have two great choices and I have to chop 15K out of one of them? I might pick the one I don’t have to butcher. Cutting scenes makes me sad, because I know the author loves them.

–The dreaded mirror scene: If you already know what I’m talking about, skip to the next item on the list. If you don’t, I’m talking about describing your main character by having them look in the mirror. Is there any reason you can’t do this? Well, no. (And YES!)

To me, the mirror scene is the canary in the coal mine. I mean, could the canary have died of natural causes? Uh, I guess. But most likely, he didn’t. Most likely he died of invisible poisonous gasses that should be telling you to GET OUT OF THE COAL MINE! What does this have to do with writing? When I see the mirror scene, I automatically want to stop reading because it tells me the writer hasn’t done enough research to know that this is an incredibly overused technique and agents are deathly tired of it.

Have I used the mirror scene in earlier novels of mine? YES. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with it, and when my CP told me, I wanted to die of embarrassment. Now, I realize it’s hard to describe a main character in a first person POV book without a mirror, or possibly her best friend saying something ridiculous like, “Oh, with your blonde hair and almond-shaped blue eyes and size-six figure, I’ve always wished I were you!” So here’s a great article on how to get around that issue:


–Fatally flawed opening– Try to stay away from overused starts (weather, waking up, a dream, etc.). Also, please don’t have a whole chapter of the character having a normal day. I know this is a great way to get to know your character and I highly suggest writing “My MC having a normal day and possibly getting attacked by a muskrat” as a brainstorming exercise before you start writing. Don’t have that be your first chapter. That’s not hooky enough. Also, in PitchWars you only submit your first chapter. If your hook is in the third chapter, it won’t matter, because I won’t see it.

The #1 problem I see in manuscripts is that they start in the wrong place. For more advice on do’s and don’ts in the first five pages, see Amy Trueblood’s excellent series interviewing agents on this topic. It’s called First Five Frenzy and I swear it will save you at least 5 rejection letters later in life or I’ll buy you a beer. A good beer, too, not one of those cheap nasty ones.


–Amount of conflict: Make sure your book has enough conflict. Both in the book and in the synopsis (see next bullet point). If your entire plot is based on a misunderstanding (He said, “I love you!” And she heard, “I love Yugoslavia!”), it doesn’t have enough conflict.

–Synopsis: Have a one-page synopsis ready (single spaced). Two pages IF YOU MUST but I will be much happier with one page. It should include all the conflicts and major turning points of the book, and it should give away the ending. It should be really specific. It should NOT be a summary of every scene and everything that happens. If I like your entry, the first thing I’m going to request is a synopsis and more pages. If I don’t like the synopsis, I will be a lot more skeptical about the pages, because I’m using the pages to judge your writing quality and the synopsis to judge the quality of your overall book plan (is there enough conflict, do we have plot twists in the right places, does the ending seem like it would be satisfying, etc.). Here is a fantastic site to help you write your synopsis:

How To Write A 1-Page Synopsis

If you have multiple POVs, this is an article that might help you organize your characters in a synopsis or query:

How to Write a Synopsis When You Have Lots of Characters in Your Story

Subjective Stuff:

This is stuff that I am personally looking for in my PitchWars mentee. It might help you eventually find an agent, might not, but rest assured if you want to hook me as a mentor, this stuff will help! Also see: my wishlist.

–Voice- This is my favorite way to pick a new book. I like an MC with a super realistic, down to earth and honest voice. Extra points if they’re funny or sarcastic. Not that I won’t pick an ms without this (my FicFest mentee had a different voice than I normally jump for) but it helps. Think John Green, Kelly Siskind, Alexis Hall. Witty, a little self-deprecating. If you have this voice? SEND ME YOUR ENTRY!

–Cheater elements- This is all stated in my mentor wishlist, but it bears repeating. These are the things I love, that will make me perk up with interest when I read them in your query/synopsis/book: Anything to do with New Orleans, musicians (or music industry support personnel!), horses, rock climbing (double check your detail work!), tortured heroine books, non-gun-related fight scenes, outdoor sports (not soccer, guys. Think hiking, canyoneering, SCUBA diving). Anything set in SW Utah. M/F or M/M romance. BDSM (though I’m not taking pure erotica this year). Diversity–racially or culturally diverse, neurodiverse, I’ll take it all. The only thing I’m not taking is F/F and that’s just because even though I find it awesome, I don’t have enough experience writing it to properly mentor it. Strong friendships of any kind are catnip for me. Or fanfic- I’m a fanfic author and I love other fanfic authors, or stories that include mentions of fanfiction.

manbun motorcycle

Speaking of cheating: let’s have a random manbunned hottie

–A great work ethic- I want to know you are willing to make edits and work hard. A mentorship is not a dictatorship, and if you took every one of my suggestions to the letter, I’d be worried about you. But I want you to listen to what I have to say, digest it, compare it to your vision of your story, and figure out how you can use my feedback to better convey your vision of your story. I don’t want to spend dozens of hours combing over your manuscript only to see you move two commas, rename the monkey, and call it good. If I’m spending more time on your manuscript than you are, that’s a problem and let’s be honest: I’m going to spend a LOT of time on your manuscript. Probably more than I have to spare.

What You Don’t Have to Have

–A perfect manuscript- I don’t need your book to be flawless to catch my eye. I will still choose it if I love it and there is work left to do.

–A witty, gif-filled bio- If you don’t have a blog, or a bio, that’s okay. If you don’t have a Twitter account, that’s okay, too. If I love your book, I will pick it, even if I’ve never spoken to you before. I chose my #FicFest mentee without knowing anything about that person aside from their query and first few pages.

–A perfect fit for my wishlist- If I take your genre but didn’t mention any of the elements from your book, that’s okay. If I mentioned some elements but not others, that’s okay. If you think you want to work with me, and I take your genre, please sub to me! To use my #FicFest mentee as an example again, she met NONE of the criteria for the type of books I normally like. Her voice was different than the voice I normally prefer. Her genre was different than my favorite. Her setting was nothing like what I normally go for. But she wrote beautifully. And that’s all it took.


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  1. Pingback : Round-up: Pitch Wars mentor blog posts – Lisa Leoni

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