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What I Learned From Being a Pitch Wars Mentor

This will likely be my last Pitch Wars post. Unless I write another one. Satisfaction guaranteed, or your money back. But I wanted to share the things I learned this year that I didn’t know before. I want to say up front that I’m going to talk about it being hard, but I’m not at all looking for thanks, or sympathy or anything like that. I chose to do it, and I knew what it was about before I decided. But I learned what I learned, and that’s what I’m sharing, and that involves some of the hard stuff.

So with that said…

It was harder than I thought it would be. Somewhere, Kellye Garrett is laughing at me. Because she told me it would be harder than I thought. She was right. (Hey, look — I said it TWICE now) I love working with people on their books. I love helping writers get better. But the submission period is so crazy, and there’s so much to read, that there’s no time to actually do the helping part. And for me, choosing is horrible. I’m a guy who doesn’t like to go to restaurants because I don’t want to have to pick what’s for dinner. And it’s the same way with manuscripts. I enjoy the revision process and working with authors. I really don’t care that much about the premise. I honestly could have picked from our submissions randomly and had an 80 percent chance of finding something I could work with. I’m not saying I could have helped 80 percent get to agent-ready in two months, but I’d have still enjoyed myself, and the writer would have gotten something out of it.

140 submissions is too many. It just is. And people stuck to our wishlist, so it was 140 legit contenders. By the time you read 140 first chapters — or enough of them to know — you’re burned out. So then you’re looking at partials and fulls, but for me, I was tired of reading, so I didn’t do as good a job as I could have. I think I’d plan days off in the process if I did it again. But really, I think I’d do a lot better if I had half the submissions. I’m not sure how to do that in my genre, because I really wouldn’t cut down my wishlist much.

Wishlist thoughts. Our wishlist was  pretty good. Dan really didn’t want cyber-punk or steam-punk, so we probably should have said no up front on those. That was maybe 3 or 4 subs. And I found that I didn’t want stories about gods in human form on earth, which was 2 or 3 subs. I also should have ruled out books that address super serious modern issues in fantasy form — notably reproductive rights. Those stories have their place in Science Fiction — I’m just not the right guy to work on them.

Feedback. I did feedback on 15 to 20 of our submissions, and I’m done. If you were hoping for some and didn’t get it, I’m sorry. I tried to write to people where I thought I had something valuable to say. For me, I don’t have the ability to just say one thing. If I’m going to give feedback, it’s going to be something I think can help. And that means 30 minutes to an hour of work. And I found myself stressing out, trying to get stuff done, with other projects waiting on me, and I just stopped.

But if I had selected you and given you feedback, there’s about a 90 percent chance it would have included one or more of the following notes:

Don’t use so many rhetorical questions in your writing. It’s a weak mechanism that you should use only if you can’t write it any other way.

Use stronger verbs. Don’t use was/were so much. Strong verbs make better writing.

Increase your tension. I don’t care how you do it, just do it. No tension, no story.

One way to increase your tension is to make us care about your main character and what happens to her.

The best way to make us care about your main character is to give her a goal, an obstacle, and stakes, and then show her actively trying to reach that goal. This was the most prevalent failing I saw in our submissions.

The other mentors are great. I had an awesome time talking about your submissions with Jami and Michelle and Dan and JC and Hayley and Carrie and the other Michelle and anybody else who would talk to me. It was like book club, because we were all reading the same stuff, and we got to talk like ‘Oh, did you read that one, what did you think?’ It was just fun.

I knew immediately a few of the books that would get in. There were a couple submissions where I read a chapter and I knew. No, I’m not going to tell you what they are. A couple of them we didn’t even request. But it was not a surprise to see them on the final list.

And some surprised me. There was at least one where I didn’t have it rated very highly. But the mentor has a vision for it that I just totally didn’t see, and it’s brilliant. It happens. And I bet the mentor is right and I wasn’t.

I felt crappy most of the way through the contest. I don’t like telling people no. And I second guess myself a lot. Add these things together, and I felt pretty stressed throughout the whole consideration time. And this is knowing that we got it right. We picked the right book and the right author. I’m sure of it. But it didn’t help.

I probably won’t do it again. Now I could change my mind, so this isn’t by any means a proclamation. Next year I’ll be in a different spot, with different thoughts. But if you asked me to sign  up right now, I’d say no. And it’s nothing to do with the amount of work, or the people, or anything other than the fact that I could get the fun parts in other ways. I like working with other writers. I have that opportunity year round. I have people lined up waiting for me to read for them, and if for some reason I didn’t, I could get my dance cared filled in about 90 seconds. And I probably will, because I love doing it. Or if I wanted to help more people, I could help a bunch of people by doing 500 word critiques — I could probably do 30 of them in the time it took me to go through submissions, and help 30 people. There are just a ton of ways to work with writers.

And in case you missed it, I loved being part of the community. I genuinely had fun spending way too much time on twitter. But also, that’s not good for me. I let things consume me, and Pitch Wars definitely did that. So unless I can figure out some way to change how I am about that sort of thing, the positive becomes a negative.

Everyone does Pitch Wars for different reasons. As a mentor, I don’t have an editing business to advertise. I don’t have a book to sell (though hopefully that changes, yeah?). I did it purely for fun. And I’m really glad I did it. I enjoyed meeting all of the people I met. I enjoyed helping the people I could help.

For those of you who got a mentor, listen to me. It’s a door. That’s all it is. You walked through the door. What you choose to do now that you’re inside is up to you. If you think that Pitch Wars is a magic ticket to getting published, and that you don’t have to work, you are going to be sad. Learn from your mentor. Learn from the other mentees. Hell, learn from somebody else’s mentor, or from reading a craft book, or whatever it takes. But it’s on you. Every mentor is different. That’s life. Every agent is different, too. Every single path is different. Make your own path.

If you tried but didn’t get a mentor, listen to me. It’s one door that closed. That’s it. Find another door. Learn from other writers, or from reading a craft book, or whatever it takes. Read MK England’s blog post on homework. Read Brighton Walsh’s stuff. Or any of the other 20 mentors or 2000 other people out there who have put free resources online for you to learn from. Keep writing. And Make your own path.

For those of you who took the time to read this or my other posts, thanks. I’m really flattered that you chose to do that. Be good to each other.

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10 Comments

  • Judy L Mohr says:

    What you have done is awesome, Michael, and don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise. This industry is incredibly subjective and the chances are slim at every step along the path. Rejections come in tidal waves. Some of us will drown, but some of us will build ourselves a submarine to go under the waves and plow through toward our end goals.

    Everything you have posted on over the last few weeks has shown us that all of us can stand to take the time to look at our own processes and examine ourselves using that critical eye. This is the first time you have ever been on the other side of the fence, putting yourself in the agent’s shoes. Your insights into that process have been great for me, because it helps me see how subjective the industry really is. Now that’s not a bad thing… It’s just a fact.

    Agents and publishers have to feel passion for a story, just like a PitchWars mentor does. If that passion isn’t there, then they won’t fight for that manuscript like another could.

    I know it sounds cliche, but thank you.

  • Jane Gilmartin says:

    Thanks for that. Enlightening and interesting. And it makes me feel a bit better about not getting any requests this year.

  • Thanks for the hard work and all the updates, Michael. You were very enlightening throughout Pitch Wars.

  • Michael, you were a joy to watch during Pitch Wars. You aren’t the only to get consumed. I think writing can be so lonely for people, especially new writers, that the community is irresistible. I’ve really admired the honesty in your posts, your generosity, and your humor. Well, I should’ve put humor first ’cause a girl loves a good laugh!

  • I haven’t commented much, but I’ve read many, no most, of your Pitch Wars posts. I’ve enjoyed every single one – this one included. Thank you for being fun and for being honest. I think you’re awesome. You will publish a book, (I’m quite certain) and I will be one of many signing up to preorder it because you’re, well, awesome. 😉

  • Heather Elliott says:

    Michael,

    I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed all your Pitch Wars posts. They were insightful, informative (loved the numbers you offered even though they didn’t apply to me–there’s something so comforting about numbers), and frankly gave me something to enjoy as I was waiting, waiting, waiting for news. Hope you have a chance now to R&R!

  • Dan Koboldt says:

    nice post! I should clarify that most of the time when Mike and I realized we didn’t want a subgenre, it’s because we haven’t read enough of it. If we don’t know the canon, we probably aren’t the best mentors for it.

    • Good point. And we did say we probably weren’t great fits for Steampunk in our wishlist. Although I read Heart of Veridon this year, and it was awesome. So people should read that. And two of the Cyberpunk books that we didn’t pick got into Pitch Wars anyway.

  • Don’t know if I would have wanted to be in your seat. I agree, 140 was a lot.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the experience. If I ever find myself in this position, I’ll remember what you’ve shared.

  • Ro says:

    Have loved your posts – thanks for taking the time to share!

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About Me

I am a Soldier and a Science Fiction writer. Usually I write about Soldiers. Go figure. I'm represented by Lisa Rodgers of JABberwocky Literary Agency. If you love my blog and want to turn it into a blockbuster movie featuring Chris Hemsworth as me, you should definitely contact her.

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