As some of you know, I mentored in FicFest earlier this year. It is a contest in the same vein as Pitch Wars (finalists receive mentorship before an agent round) so I was surprised at how many differences there were in the submissions I saw. First, the good news. After that I’ll talk about some tips that will help you get past an agent’s slushpile once Pitch Wars is all over.
The Good News
The good news is that Pitch Wars submissions were incredibly high quality. Much higher than the agent’s average slush pile. You guys are already going to beat out a lot of your competition, and I’m so freaking proud I could make embarrassing squealing noises, but I’m going to try to refrain and give you hard data instead.
-Good queries: The majority of queries I saw were highly polished. They included characterization, plot, AND STAKES, as well as very few typos and loads of voice.
-Good synopses: On the Twitter feed, Pitch Wars participants seemed very nervous about this, but all the synopses I requested were fantastic! Not an auto-no in the bunch. They clearly summarized the book, they gave away the ending, they did not attempt to be a chapter by chapter outline, and they were easy to read.
-Few adverbs: one of the most common mistakes I see from new writers is overuse of ly adverbs, especially in dialogue tags. (Example: “What?” he asked angrily, while shoving her viciously. “Don’t touch me!” she screamed shrilly.) In Pitch Wars, I saw none of this. PW people know their craft.
-Reasonable word counts: Not all mentors were as lucky as me, I hear, but I only received 2 entries whose word counts were out of line for market standard in their genre. This is super easy to fix if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Just Google: “Word counts by genre.” Nothing will get you an auto-no faster than a word count well outside the norm for your genre.
Congratulations, Pitch Wars! Doing your research is half the battle, practicing your craft is the other half, and you’ve obviously done both.
The Not-So-Good News
In every contest, you start to see trends of not-so-good things that help you in narrowing down your final choices. For Pitch Wars, I saw three easily avoidable mistakes. Fix these, and it will go a long way toward getting you from an agent’s slush pile into their request pile.
–Mispunctuated dialogue tags:
Several mentors tweeted about this before the contest, but it’s still the #1 grammatical error I see in every contest. Short version: period and caps for an action beat, comma and lower case for dialogue tag.
The right way: “That goat is ugly.” She stomped away. “That other goat ate my Spanx,” she said.
The WRONG way: “That rocker is ripped.” she smiled. “I bet he has piercings in fun places,” She rubbed her hands together in delight.
Mentor Michelle Hauck has a great article explaining this in more depth: Tags and Beats.
–Inciting incident, where art thou?
An inciting incident is when everything changes for your character. It is where your story starts. So, by definition, it should BE where your story starts. I saw quite a few first chapters with nice writing or fun characterization, but the characters were just doing…stuff. Rule of thumb: if you have time to wonder, “Where is this going?” your inciting incident comes too late, and you’ve probably already lost the interest of an agent or potential mentor.
First, figure out what your inciting incident is. It is NOT a normal day. It is the thing that changes to kick off everything that happens in your book. Found it? Okay, now, move it closer to page 1. Closer than that. Okay, just a little closer.
The only thing we really need BEFORE the inciting incident, is enough of a sense of setting that we know where and when we are (you can do this in a sentence) and enough about your character to care about their story (you can do this faster than you think). For example, if your book is about a guy recovering from a car crash, the car crash shouldn’t be in the first sentence. That would just be disorienting. But it SHOULD be early in the first scene.
Remember, an agent or mentor reading through the slush pile has a shorter than average attention span because they just read a billion first chapters. Get to the point fast, before you lose them.
This one really pains me, because it’s not a writing error. It’s not really bad writing at all, it’s just bad luck. There’s nothing wrong with these openings, except a lot of other people thought they’d be great openings, too, so agents get SUPER tired of seeing them. Their eyes glaze over and they stop reading.
This is stuff like starting your book with waking up, having a bad day, jogging while thinking, or riding in a car. The best way to find out if your book’s opening is overused is to religiously read contest-veteran Amy Trueblood’s First Five Frenzy interview series. She asks agents what they’re looking for in the first five pages of a submission (good things to know, people!) and one of her questions is what is the overused opening they’re seeing the most of lately.
The most common opening I saw in Pitch Wars was having a bad day and/or spilling coffee on yourself. Now, I know, an inciting incident is by definition a good day gone wrong. I’m more talking about the “hair looks like crap, boss yelled at me, missed the bus” kind of bad day, whereas an inciting incident is more like, “the mob kidnapped my infant.”
Also, this may be because I’m a romance mentor, but I also saw a lot of main character’s boyfriends/husbands getting caught cheating. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that–your book may have a lot to do with a cheating significant other, and I’ve seen very funny scenes like this. Just know if it’s a very common opening, you need to find a way to stand out. Write it differently than everyone else. Make sure there’s no better place to start your story.
I saw several overused openings that were elevated by superior writing skills and/or humor, which is a good first step. In fact, three of my favorite book openings of all time are people having bad days, just because the writing was outstanding. However, beating out the fierce competition for an agent means understanding trends and making them work for you. If you can open in a unique way AND have outstanding writing, that will always be your best shot at standing out in a crowded slush pile.
That’s all for now! Pitch Wars submissions were honestly so good that I have very little new to teach about improving the query and first chapter. Give this blog a follow, though, because soon I’m going to be doing a post on the #1 reason partial manuscripts don’t get upgraded to a full.