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Monday, August 31, 2015

Why Pitch Wars Is Not Your Last Contest

First, I want to thank everyone so much for trusting me with their words. I received 174 submissions from 174 very brave writers, which gave me a lot of amazing options, and a lot of hours fretting over my final pick. It's like being told to pick one cookie from a giant box of new flavors.

Due to some pretty intensive changes happening in my personal life right now, as well as sheer volume of submissions, I regret to say I'll be unable to reply to everyone as I have in prior years. I am truly sorry for this. Instead, I'll be drawing 50 random names from those who signed up, and these subs will receive feedback from me on either their query, if I had questions for the pitch, or my reaction to the opening page, if I found the pitch to be solid.

Remember that this business is highly subjective. That sucks, but it also doesn't, because many of you just need to find the right person—you're doing everything right. There were a lot of solid submissions that I could see someone falling in love with, but that weren't quite a match for me. Heck, I'll admit right now that I could never get into Hunger Games. Should Ms. Collins have stopped writing because I passed on it? I think you know the answer to that.

I also want to impress on you how quickly things can change, and how this contest is a stepping stone, not a barrier. Three years ago, I was sitting exactly where you were, chewing-my-sleeves-off anxious to hear back from the mentors I'd so carefully selected. I'd been polishing my manuscript for months. I had a query that was getting a thumbs up from everyone who critiqued it. A freelance editor had raved about my latest revision, and I had a few contests under my belt, so I knew how to prepare. I was so ready for it to be "my time."

I was about to find out I didn't make it. It stung, yes. Rejection always does. But I had some positive feedback from the mentors I'd subbed to and a growing feeling in my gut that this story, as much as I loved it, wasn't "the one."

I shelved the manuscript. I went back to an idea I'd played around with the year before. I finished it. I entered another contest. I ... well, I lost that contest. But I went back and ripped my first chapter to shreds, and the next contest I entered, I won not only a place among the finalists, but my amazing agent who sold me to a Big Five dream house.

This could be your story next year.

Don't give up.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Pitch Wars 2015 - Stats and Takeaways

With the mentee announcement around the corner, I wanted to go over what I saw in my inbox, the main reasons I passed on entries, and what you should take away from this, regardless of whether you're picked. If you follow me on Twitter, you'll recall I got 174 applications. Of those, I'll be sending feedback to 50 random submissions (with my apologies that I usually try to reply to everyone, but in order to keep my sanity this year, I have to slim it down). It takes me an average of 30 minutes per entry to give feedback, meaning that when all's said and done, I will have spent 25 hours on these emails alone. (In case you were wondering why agents do form rejections. And why you should keep your critique partners close and keep entering contests like Pitch Wars if you're getting said form rejections.)

I had a few trends in my inbox*:

Dreams that become real: 4 (I've had this one all three years I've been a mentor)
Mysterious new boys: 14
Grim reapers/characters working for Death: 5

And the reasons I passed:

Not right for current market: 11
Not right for me (was on my "Not a Best Match" list): 5
Started in the wrong place or too much telling/no conflict in sample pages: 54
Solid submission, but plot wasn't quite my thing: 65
Confusing pitch; stakes not clear and/or no stakes: 18
Reads too young or too old for YA: 4
Liked it, but wasn't my perfect match: 34

(Totaling the numbers above will exceed my submission total as sometimes an entry fit in more than one category. I could still like a sub that started in the wrong place, for instance. It just ultimately didn't work out to be the one I picked.)

And just because:

Highest word count**: 136k
Lowest**: 41k
SCBWI members (yay!): 46
Non-white or QUILTBAG protagonists (also yay!): 25

Takeaways from being in the slush:

  • Your query letter really is all about the story. Whether this is your tenth novel or your first, whether you have a hundred publishing awards or none at all, all that matters is your pitch and your writing. One of my favorite entries was just the pitch and a "thank you for your time" - no personalization, no credentials. So basically: don't stress over these. Your awesome story won't be overlooked if you haven't been published before. DO add personalization when possible - but it won't be the reason you're rejected or asked for sample pages, either. 
    • Reader taste is ridiculously subjective. This is something I knew before, but I went in expecting epic battles over the top picks and that I'd have to defend my choices Zombieland-style. But most everyone's tops were different, and more than one book I passed on in my first cull got snatched up as someone else's first choice.
    • Great pages can outshine a so-so query, but so-so pages will sink a great query. If you're getting all thumbs-ups on your query, but agents seem to be rejecting after they request pages, take a hard look at your first chapter. I went through this too. Sometimes it's a matter of starting in a different place. Sometimes it's a matter of polishing your manuscript as much as you've polished your query.
    • A lot of you are SO close. Holy cow, y'all brought your A-game this year. I was literally driven to tears by the quality of the stories in my inbox, because I was having to pass on things that were really exceptional and that I'd normally request.

    I'm ready for a month-long nap now, but I can't wait to see all the "I have an agent!" announcements that are sure to follow, whether or not you were chosen for Pitch Wars. Remember, I didn't get picked as a mentee or alternate when I entered.

    Hang in there, writers. More soon ...

    *I still requested pages from entries containing these themes, but you might consider what you could do differently with yours if your request rate isn't high.

    **Word count alone is not a reason to reject unless it is way under or way over the expected averages here. However, it's always a good idea to check your word count against those expected averages before you query, and try your darndest to get inside them.

    Monday, August 17, 2015

    Interview with YA Interrobang

    The immensely wonderful YA Interrobang interviewed me about my inspiration for Duplicity, Bloody Mary, and what I would do if my own reflection started moving on its own:

    Sunday, August 2, 2015

    Pitch Wars 2015!

    It's here!! I so look forward each year to my time as a mentor in Pitch Wars, an online writing contest where unagented writers audition for a free full manuscript critique from agented/published authors and professional editors. Winners will have their work showcased for top-notch literary agents in November. Over 40 of last years' 70 entrants are now agented and/or have book deals. If you have a finished manuscript, I highly recommend entering! Click here for more info.


    Okay, I know you've been on other mentor blogs, so let me just open with this:

    [Shoulder devil pointing at shoulder angel] Don't listen to that guy. He's trying to lead you down the path of righteousness. I'm gonna lead you down the path that ROCKS.

    If that's not enough to convince you, how about THESE qualifications:

    • Impeccable taste in dark chocolate.
    • Love of mountains, the ocean, funny people, sarcastic people, random thoughts and fireplaces.
    • East Coast survivor (lived in MA and NY). I now ride a horse to work in CO.*
    • Video game savant.
    • Swoon-worthy husband who is a marathon runner, expert hunter, and Forensic DNA Analyst. He has a flashy agent badge, a conceal-to-carry permit, and has literally caught us dinner before. If zombie apocalypse survival is a priority to you, well. I think you know which mentor to choose.
    • Part hacker I mean... in my other life I used to program stuff.

    Or these actually relevant qualifications:

    • This is my third time doing Pitch Wars. In January 2014, my mentee and I tied for second place overall with nine full requests, and my alternate Julie Dao signed with an agent in February. Last August, my mentee and I raked in eight requests and one ninja request, landing us again amongst the most-requested entries in the contest.
    • That means I am two for two with mentees in the most-requested entries out of 70+ finalists per contest.
    • I'm represented by the incomparable Brianne Johnson of Writers House, who found me in an online writing contest much like this one.
    • Bri is also one of THE Pitch Wars Agents. Am I conspiring to find my next agency sibling? Yes. Yes I am.
    • My debut, DUPLICITY, a YA cyberthriller about a hacker whose mirror reflection goes rogue and trades places with him, released from Macmillan in March this year. It has been highlighted by both the Huffington Post and USA Today.
    • I write both boy and girl POV. DUPLICITY is boy POV, and I'm currently working on edits for a YA horror that's girl POV. I've written both contemporary and fantasy, and have helped many a critique partner with world-building.
    • My own work has been through many developmental edits by critique partners, my agent and my editor. I know what to look for, what to leave alone, and how to present editorial notes in a constructive, encouraging fashion.

    Or maybe you'd rather hear about my boss editing style:

    I have done several full manuscript critiques for my mentees and critique partners, all of whom I'm happy to say are now in one of 3 places: 1) working on R&Rs for agents 2) agented 3) have book deals. Should I be lucky enough to work with you, expect that I will be 100% honest about the strengths of your work as much as its weaknesses, though always in the interest of preserving your vision. I'll provide both high-level notes on things like characterization, world-building, structure, and pacing, as well as inline comments for more specific observations. You will have full creative freedom to address my concerns as you see fit. As long as you're willing to address them, we're going to get along just fine.

    Please With A Cherry On Top, Send Me:
    All genres of YA (except those in the "Not A Best Match" list below). I do mean all. Horror, fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, historical fantasy, suspense, etc. I'm drawn to boy POV as much as girl. I love quirky, flawed characters and wacky, unique plots. I have a soft spot for anti-heroes, creepy things, magical realism, humor, Twinkies, and psychological anything. I love atmospheric books where the world is its own character, and rich, underrepresented cultures (or unusual fantasy cultures). And if your MC is facing his/her greatest fear or desire, I NEED IT.

    Some of my favorite authors are Patrick Ness, Laini Taylor, Leigh Bardugo, and V.E. Schwab. For titles I love, click here. You can also find out more about me on my official bio page and on Twitter.

    I'm Not Your Best Match For:
    Novels in verse, high/epic fantasy (i.e. anything LoTR/Game of Thrones-ish), historical (without fantasy elements), dystopian/post-apocalyptic, war themes (like Saving Private Ryan or Jarhead) or political themes. Also, I'm not allowed to consider Adult, NA, or MG manuscripts.

    If you've subbed to me before: You are welcome to resub with a different manuscript.

    In summary:
    You have an amazing story to tell. I have a foot in the door.


    *Part of this sentence is a slight exaggeration.

    Don't forget to visit these other fabulous mentors!

    Tuesday, May 12, 2015

    Writing From The Other Other Side

    (Not to be confused with the "Writing From 'The Other Side'" post that I already did, back when I thought there was only one "other side" to publishing...)

    OMG. I can breathe again. Almost.

    It's been a non-stop freight train of awesome (and a few not-so-awesome) things since Duplicity released on March 17. Here are the things I did and what I learned from them in these past two blurs you call months:

    • March 21: Duplicity launch party & reading. Not as terrifying as I thought it might be, maybe because I practiced what I was going to say 3784 times the week before. Confirmed my suspicion that cake wins all parties. Learned I need to think of clever conversation topics for strangers, because there were two awkward silences when teens who'd been browsing around brought books up and it went from "AUNT HAZEL! So glad you could make it!" to "Hi. Um. How do you spell your name...?" #dyinginside
      • I was also asked if I could write an encouraging message in one of the books for someone who was trying to get published. I wish I had thought to ask how long he'd been at it and if he was feeling discouraged or not. This is a book I wished I had back so I could personalize it a bit more.
    • Rest of March through early April: Panic-checking reviews, Amazon and Barnes & Noble sales ranks, and libraries for the barest hint of how the book might be doing and If It Will Be Okay. Awesome things: finding libraries in other states (and other countries) that already have all copies of my book checked out. Not-so-awesome: negative reviews. I KNOW - the first rule of negative reviews is that you do not talk about negative reviews, so I'll be brief. Some of them I totally understand and see their point. My book is not going to be everyone's type of book, and not a single book out there is unanimously loved. Some of them really hurt my feelings with the assumptions they make. But there are also some amazing positive reviews, so I binge on chocolate for a little while and move on.
    • April 11: This is one of my favorite days of last month, where I got to meet my amazing critique partner Lori Goldstein at a conference in Denver to teach a workshop on writing voice. Lori is the shiz, and you should definitely check out her debut Becoming Jinn if you have even the slightly curiosity about genies. I also had the pleasure of meeting multi-award winning author Andrew Smith, wherein I learned that I don't do words very well around people I admire, because when Andrew asked what imprint published me, I had to ask Lori. I also couldn't remember the name of one of the editors I'd met on my last trip to New York, or how to pronounce Feiwel and Friends (Lori's publisher, who apparently I COULD remember). Thank goodness I knew my agent's name when he asked. Good lord.
    • April 15: Presented a "How To Get Published" lecture to creative writing students at my old high school. I thought I was going to die of nerves going in. I was so glad I did it going out. The kids were wonderful, engaged, and even laughed at my ridiculous jokes. And they had the best questions, including one I'm still thinking about: "How do you make characters?" because at this point, it's such an automatic process in my head. But I'm ready for next time, y'all. Bring on your tough questions.
    • April 25: Science fiction panel at a Barnes & Noble in Nebraska. This time I signed books like a pro, and even had a conversation with a teen who brought a book up for me, and who was also curious about how to create main characters. OH YES. I HAVE AN ANSWER FOR THAT. Also, meeting other authors is officially one of my favorite parts of my job.
    • April 27: Had to put my sweet 7-year-old cat/writing buddy to sleep. She'd been diagnosed with lung cancer in January and I'd been hoping to have a couple more years with her, but the cancer spread very quickly, and it was time. 
    • April 28: My birthday. Yup.
    • April 17 - present: Began work on a sekrit project. Lots of words and a tight deadline, which is not so easy to do when driving two days there and back to Lincoln, or with said writing buddy now missing from my lap. But it's been a refreshing distraction and something I'm very excited about. Hoping to have more on this soon.

    As I would answer Taylor Swift - nope, we're not out of the woods yet, but we're getting there.

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