So, if you're considering submitting to me for the Pitch Wars contest and you're wondering how I'll be making my decisions, wonder no more.
First of all, anyone submitting to me should of course read my wish list thoroughly and only send me stuff that's on that list. Second, you should proofread everything you send me because I am pretty unforgiving of mistakes; I have an editing background and plan to line-edit my mentee's book, so I want to work with someone who can prove right now that their book isn't going to make me pull my hair out. And lastly, yes I will be reading at least some of everyone's sample chapter even if their queries turn me off, and I will be requesting more material from authors I'm considering for mentoring.
I got 73 submissions my first year doing Pitch Wars, and I got 103 submissions last year, so I'm expecting even more this year. So just like last year, I'll be using a grading system that will help me avoid reading entries more than once if I am not going to be working with them. Guess what that means?
I'll be grading every query and every writing sample with an extremely nerdy report card.
My table for the queries looks like this:
As I read the queries, I'm giving each 0 to 5 points on each of these categories, with 25 points possible. High points is good, low points is not good.
I'm considering each of these categories equally.
Writing Quality: This basically means I'm looking at whether the writing itself is smooth. If the sentences feel like they flow and the language is easy to read and easy to understand.
- 5 points: Masterfully written, no awkward sentences, easy to follow.
- 4 points: Adequate writing, though language could be improved.
- 3 points: Unclear sometimes, makes its point, but feels awkward.
- 2 points: Frequent clarity issues, poor sentence transitions, feels overworked.
- 1 point: Reads like author struggles with language.
- 0 points: Language is garbled, can't understand the content.
- 5 points: No errors; author clearly knows how to spell, punctuate, use correct grammar.
- 4 points: One or more errors, but might be an isolated incident.
- 3 points: The errors are clearly the norm rather than an occasional glitch.
- 2 points: Frequent errors.
- 1 point: A catastrophic number of errors.
- 0 points: Author fails third grade English.
- 5 points: Perfect setup of characters, conflicts, and stakes, gets me invested.
- 4 points: Might be a little murky, but still tells me the story and why I care.
- 3 points: Gets a little lost or doesn't have a clear presentation/vague stakes.
- 2 points: The story isn't at all clear; it's characters that do stuff, or it's a list of elements the book contains without showing me how they manifest.
- 1 point: The author says nothing or almost nothing about the book, or says so in a way I can't access.
- 0 points: Isn't actually a query letter--does something else instead of telling me about the book.
- 5 points: The level of detail feels perfect; I'm not overwhelmed with detail, but not left wondering anything vital.
- 4 points: The level of detail is either too much or too little, but it's fixable--might need to ask the author to answer X question in the query or to delete X rambling.
- 3 points: The query needs a whole extra paragraph or needs a whole paragraph deleted.
- 2 points: Misses the mark by a noticeable margin--significantly too much or too little.
- 1 point: Author is treating the query letter like either an elevator pitch (way too little) or a comprehensive synopsis (way too much--may tell the ending).
- 0 points: Spends most of the letter talking about something other than the book, such as their own publishing credentials, their experience, why they wrote the book, or why they think it will sell.
- 5 points: I'm in love, marry me.
- 4 points: I like it--I could dig this, it's neat.
- 3 points: I could definitely see myself reading it for fun.
- 2 points: Really not my usual thing--wouldn't check it out of the library.
- 1 point: A subject, genre, or character I'd avoid on purpose.
- 0 points: You offended me or pissed me off.
Let's look at what my (slightly different) table for the pages looks like:
|Writing Quality||Errors||Character||Effective Intro||Personal||Total|
Writing Quality: The five-point scale is the same as above.
Errors: The five-point scale is the same as above. Yes, I will give you a 4 starting with ONE error. I am a horrible witch. I'm not kidding. Don't sub to me if you can't handle it.
Character: I am a huge character writer, character reader, and character, uh, mentory person. I will connect to character more than anything else in your book, and this is extremely important to me, so I am looking at it as a grading category here.
- 5 points: Immediate understanding of who your characters are and what they're about, with natural personality reveal and good dialogue. Bonus if I want to hang out with them.
- 4 points: I like your characters and their execution. I get a good feel for who they are and why.
- 3 points: There's not a full connection here--maybe I'm watching from a distance, but the characters are still on display and interacting somewhat competently.
- 2 points: The characters are just there being puppeted, or don't feel authentic, or give us no information about themselves as they act.
- 1 point: The characters are caricatures and feel wooden. One dimension and everyone talks alike.
- 0 points: There is no feel for character at all and there's no story-relevant reason for it.
- 5 points: You got me fully invested and reading the entire first chapter. You found the right balance between action, character, and background detail to pull me right in.
- 4 points: You probably have some awkward details about the characters' pasts or current problem, or spent too much time telling me an aside about your fantasy world, but it's quite readable and I read the whole first chapter.
- 3 points: You had an uneven beginning, halting your opening to tell me things or having nothing really important happening. I feel like you started in the wrong place. I may or may not read the whole first chapter.
- 2 points: You aren't ready--you've figured out your details, but not how to tell the story. You haven't figured out yet where your story starts and you're frequently interrupting your action to fill me in, posing your characters awkwardly to make them drop exposition, or rambling about something I'm not invested enough to care about. I didn't finish your pages.
- 1 point: You aren't ready--I can't even follow the action or figure out who's who, and the confusion isn't a consequence of an experimental writing style (because that would get me invested even if I didn't know what was going on).
- 0 points: You apparently turned in a first draft and/or have no idea how to pull readers into a story. You haven't realized yet that readers don't have to humor you; they don't have to be here, so they're not going to wait until it gets good.
So after I have both scores, I put you in a list. A ranked list. Each person who subs to me has a score next to them on my ranked list (e.g., 17/11) and the total of those two numbers will determine where they fall (but I'll be able to see how their query compares with their pages). Last year, the score wasn't the final determining factor in who I chose--my mentee didn't get spot #1, but there was a personal reason spot #1 wasn't chosen--but it did give me an idea of why I liked what I liked so I could efficiently comb through my favorites and make my choices. A ranked list will also help me if my favorites are chosen by other mentors and they beat me out when we fight over them. Obviously some writers will get the same numerical score, so when that happens it's just going to be a gut feeling thing (or I might give preference to people who had higher Trajectory scores in the query or higher Effective Intro scores in the pages).
Also, if I'm torn at the end, I can remember without a lot of rereading what each writer's strength is and how they compare.
Last year, my highest score was 23/23; no one got a perfect score. Because I'm terrible and evil. But maybe this year will be different. Maybe you, the person reading this, will be the first to impress me so thoroughly I'll puke rainbows and beg to be your friend. And hey, if that's not you, you can still probably count on a decent explanation of where yours fell short for me, and that'll help you on your querying journey in the future.
Please ask if you have a question. I don't mind explaining my thoughts on this if you're curious about something I didn't cover. I may share some hints on how to get higher language scores from me later this week. GET READY TO HEAR ME COMPLAIN ABOUT ELLIPSES AND DASHES, MORTALS.