PitchWars: Should You Enter?

PitchWars is an annual writing contest where writers all over the world compete for the chance to be mentored by traditionally published authors. If you have a completed novel, you can enter. While mentors comb through entries, everyone involved in the contest spends about a month on Twitter making friends, talking about writing, and sharing their favorite GIFs.

Once picks are announced, mentors and mentees work together for two months on the mentee’s novel. After that, there’s an agent round where roughly fifty agents will read the entries and make requests for manuscripts that spark their interest.

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Right? It’s an amazing opportunity to network and get your foot in the door with traditional publishing. The question is, should you enter?

Yes, I think every unpublished writer who wants to go traditional should try it once. I entered this past August and didn’t get a spot, but thought it was a very valuable experience. However, please save yourself some heartache and assume you will not win a spot. Getting into PitchWars is no easier than getting an agent from cold querying.

So why should you bother? As with everything in this bizarre universe of ours, it has its pluses and minuses.

Disadvantages

Seriously, the Odds Are Not in Your Favor

Ignoring duplicate entries, over 2800 people entered PitchWars in 2017. There were 180 spots. That’s a 0.6% acceptance rate. For context, Yale Fucking Law School has a 9.7% acceptance rate.

But let’s say you’re lucky enough to get in. As of July, PitchWars has almost 250 success stories. This means ~250 people have gotten agents out of the 385 mentees selected between 2013 and 2016. Don’t get me wrong, a 65% chance of getting an agent is HUGE, especially compared to the 1% cold query success rate rumor I keep hearing about. But it’s far from a guarantee.

Am I trying to shit on PitchWars? Absolutely not. But you need to go into this with wide-open eyes. You should have faith in yourself as a writer and your journey; your book will find a home (whether it’s with trad pub, self-pub, or small press). But it probably won’t be through PitchWars. PW is not a golden shortcut ticket to unlock the Gates of Traditional Publishing.

The Secret to Getting Picked Is a Goddamn Mystery

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In addition to the numbers working against you, there is no real way to know why your manuscript does or doesn’t get picked. Some mentors give feedback, but most do not. Your book has to fit into a specific and subjective set of standards, which include…

  1. It has to be good. Good voice, solid plot, interesting characters, quality writing, etc. are essential.
  1. But it can’t be too good. *facepalm* I know. But if you’re going to work with a mentor for two months, they need to have a vision for what they can do to help you improve the book. Contest rules say to submit a “complete and polished” manuscript, but I would read this more as “complete and copyedited.” Your lump of clay needs to be good, but it still needs to be a lump of clay.
  1. It has to mesh with the mentor’s tastes. Before you submit your application, mentors will post wish lists about what kinds of stories they’re looking for, which is helpful, but look at their backlist too. Does anything about their work resonate with you? Their voice? Their subgenre? The tropes they use?
  1. But it can’t be too similar to the mentor’s body of work. If the mentor has a series about a talking squirrel who solves mysteries with a cynical school janitor, they probably won’t feel comfortable working with you on a book about a talking chipmunk who solves mysteries with a grumpy hotel maid.
  1. It has to be marketable. Mentors are more lenient about this than agents are, but it still has to be clear where your book will fit in the market.
  1. The mentor has to believe you can work together. Mentorship isn’t just about quality and marketability. It’s an interpersonal issue, too. Some mentors will stalk you on Twitter to see if you’ll be a good fit.
  1. Weird miscellaneous factors can decide your fate. Maybe your protagonist has the same name as their favorite niece. Maybe your book takes place in their hometown—which they HATE. As they always say, this business is subjective. Considering some mentors have hundreds of entries to wade through, it could be literally anything that puts your book in the “Yes” pile.

Not surprisingly, aside from #2, the reasons a mentor will accept or reject your work are similar to why an agent will or won’t request more pages. Once again, PW is not simpler or easier than cold querying an agent.

Social Media Is Hell

What makes PW such an event is the social media component of it on Twitter, but to be honest, I have conflicting feelings about that aspect. In the weeks leading up to the submission window opening, there are all kinds of Twitter games, encouraging you to get to know mentors and other PW hopefuls. Once the submission window closes, the Twitter party continues for another month…but it gets more intense.

The entire purpose of the PW Twitter community is for everyone to get worked into a literal frenzy. They want you to be excited and proud of your work, which is a nice thought, but it also sets up unrealistic expectations. Many mentors post teasers about entries they’re enjoying— there’s an entire hashtag for them. There are also endless posts telling you to stay positive because there’s always a chance you could win a spot. It was an exhausting rollercoaster.

At least with agents, you know to pray for the best but expect the worst. Cold querying is beautiful in its simplicity. I send out my package, note the expected response dates in a spreadsheet, and walk away. If I follow agents I’ve subbed to on social media, I don’t have to worry their posts will be hints about submissions they’re reading. Some agents do #tenqueries, but those posts include specific reasons for passing on or requesting more pages of a project. They don’t post cryptic messages about something they might pick.

So if you do enter PW, protect your space. Like all social media, PW Twitter can become too much. Don’t be afraid to block hashtags, mute certain accounts, or take a break.

Advantages – Why You Should Enter Anyway

 

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I know, I raised a lot of issues with the contest, but I still think it’s worthwhile to enter at least once. Whether you’re new to the querying trenches or are a seasoned pro, PW has something to offer.

 If You Do Get Picked, It’s a Great Opportunity

It doesn’t hurt to buy a lottery ticket—just don’t gamble away all your money. Go in with low expectations, but if you do have the fortune of getting selected, the mentorship alone is an amazing opportunity. Not only are you getting free, in-depth help from a professional writer, but you’re also forming a connection with them. I often hear about mentors who still talk to and help their former mentees with their writing. Like with any other industry, you need connections to thrive. Mentorships are invaluable.

As I said earlier, the agent round may or may not yield fruit, but it does boost your chances.

You’ll Make New Friends and Expand Your Twitter Presence

While I wasn’t a fan of certain aspects of the PW hashtag, overall, I did enjoy the sense of camaraderie among entrants and mentors. If you participate in any of the games (e.g., GIF competitions) or interact with the hashtag, you’re bound to connect with other PW hopefuls. Some of these people will become followers, critique partners, and even friends. For some writers, PW has become as much a valued tradition as NaNoWriMo because of the unique community.

PitchWars is also a good excuse to post content and build your brand. Twitter is the most popular social media platform for us writer types, so if you’re looking to network, it’s the place to be. Many unpublished writers are using their growing platforms to build hype around their manuscripts by showing off novel aesthetics, character interviews, and memorable quotes. Taking advantage of the PW hashtag can help you with that.

You’ll Discover New Authors

Since mentors are wading through their slush piles for free, it’s nice to give back by reading their books. There are over a hundred PW mentors, so there is plenty of new content to discover. You might find your next favorite book or a new comp title to use in your query letter.

It’s Good Practice for Rejection

If you haven’t queried agents or publishers before…Welcome! PitchWars is a great way to rip off that first Band-Aid of rejection because there’s going to be tons of it, regardless of how you publish. Agents will reject you, publishers will rebuff you, and readers will scorn you. Get in the practice now with PitchWars. Rejections from faceless agents are way easier to digest after getting rejections from friendly mentors you bonded with.

It’s a Kick in the Pants

Most people don’t enter PitchWars because they simply happened to have a polished manuscript lying around. They prepare. Whether they just found out about PitchWars existed three weeks before the deadline or they’re a third-year PitchWars veteran, PW hopefuls haul ass. If you’re looking for motivation, the contest is a great stimulus for finishing your book and writing a query letter. Even if you don’t get a spot, you’re still way ahead of where you were before.

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PitchWars will re-open in August 2018, but you can read this year’s winning entries here: www.pitchwars.org

nadia's logoNadia Diament writes sexy, funny things. You can ask her esoteric questions on Twitter here, check out her blog here, and read her stories here.

 

The Evolution of Don’t Run Away’s Cover

They say your cover is the most important part of your book. I don’t know who “they” are, or if that’s necessarily true, but your cover is important. It needs to convey your genre, it needs to be eye-catching. The font for your title and author name needs to look professional, yet suited to your genre.

This is a tall order if you want to do it yourself. Way back when I was new at this, I didn’t know as much as I do now, and I was adamant that indies could do their own covers. And you can. You should.

But let’s step back and figure out what a “good” cover is.

I wrote Don’t Run Away as a NaNoWriMo project in 2015. After I released Summer Secrets, I started editing it, I mean, really editing it, so that it was publishable. I took out all the head-hopping, the mixed up POVs, and I turned it into the book that’s going to be released on the 18th. So for the year I spent editing, I blogged about the publishing process and making your own cover. While I blogged about making your own cover, I came up with some doozies, that were, ah, well. See for yourself.

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Yeah. I blogged about creating this cover. Did I say that I liked it? No. Am I embarrassed that I put something like that on the internet? Yes. But that was naivety and inexperience. Cover design takes practice and a good eye.

Did it get better? No.

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Then I came up with this piece of crap. Yeah, it’s better than that pink monstrosity above, but I would never buy a book that had this for a cover.

Luckily for me, lots of time went by, and I took a break.

When I was nearer to publication, I came up with this:

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And that’s not so bad. I even would have maybe used this. But the problem was, or is, is that Don’t Run Away is book one of a trilogy, so not only did I need to make one cover, I needed to keep in mind that I needed two other covers, and they needed to look like they belonged together.

I came up with these two for books two and three:

I mean, as far as covers go, they aren’t that bad. But ultimately, I turned all three of them down because, in the end, I felt the couples looked fake. When you look through sites like www.canstock.com or www.dreamstime.com there are three different categories of people. Real people:

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You don’t want real people on your cover. I think this is where a lot of indies go wrong. Real people aren’t models, and the photographer didn’t touch up the photograph to make it look less real. I suppose if you found the perfect person, you could run the photo through some filters, modify it somehow so that she doesn’t look like a real person giving you a goofy look through some weeds. But you definitely have to do something to it. That’s where the pink “hell no” cover at the beginning of this post comes from. Real people don’t work.

The second category of people on stock sites are real, but they look better than real.

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She looks good, ya know? She looks like model material, but approachable. The photographer added some sunlight. Depending on your genre, these make perfect covers.

The third category of people are fakes:

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There’s a genre for actual models (erotica and porn), and I didn’t need anything like her for my covers. I needed my couples approachable. My characters aren’t billionaires, they aren’t sheiks, or princes, or even CEOs. My characters hold down-to-earth jobs and have real people problems. I needed my covers to convey that.

So I did manage to find this couple, and I was lucky to find two other couples that looked like they were taken by the same person. Two of them were, but the third was taken by someone else. I probably won’t write anymore trilogies, but if you do, or even a duet, or even more than three, make a plan for your covers because it’s a pain in the ass to change them. Not only do you have to go through the submission process again for CreateSpace, if you use IngramSpark, they charge you for every change you make. And you have to remember to change your cover on Goodreads, too. (Which isn’t the best because your old cover will always be attached to your book on the book’s page.)

Here are the three I chose for my covers:

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I also decided to make the whole picture wrap onto the spine and back cover, so the position of the couple was important too.

Here’s how Don’t Run Away turned out:

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I’m pretty proud of it. And it turned out nice in person (ignore how goofy looking he is):

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Of course, even when you find the perfect picture, you need to play with font, where everything will go, that kind of thing. At first my cover looked like this:

Don't Run Away Experiment

And I didn’t have any qualms about it. But after the proof came in the mail, I realized the title was way too big. It didn’t need to be that large. My friend Gareth made the crack that, what, I didn’t need people be able to see it from outer space? No, I didn’t. So I fixed it, but then the spine was off:

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I was tempted to leave it, but I couldn’t. So again, I sent it in to be fixed, and it came back okay.

I guess my point is, covers go through an evolution of sorts, and it’s never too late to start playing around with fonts and photos.

Look around at other covers and see what’s popular in your genre. Maybe even see if other covers are using the same people you’re thinking about using.

I found this nice one while looking around:

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The site selling it wanted $50.00 for it. I’m sorry, but I like mine better, and it was free. Well, did pay http://www.canstock.com five credits for the picture, which turned out to be around 4 dollars. The fonts I used were all allowed for commercial use for free and I downloaded them from http://www.1001fonts.com/. Be careful if you use this site because some are for commercial use, and some are not.

That ends my cover adventure for Don’t Run Away. If you want to know how I used the photo for the spine and back cover, let me know. It’s fun, and it solves the problem of what to put on the back. Some people don’t care about the back since you’ll sell more e-reader versions, but still. If you ever do a book signing or a giveaway, perhaps on Goodreads, you’ll need a paperback version.

Let me know your thoughts!

Vania Blog Signature

 

 

Let’s Talk about WAS

“Was” is a nasty, dirty, filthy word, am I right? “Was” means, oh my God, you are writing in the passive voice, and all passive voice must be eradicated from your Work in Progress, or you are going to fall into the fiery depths of writing hell when you die.

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Indies are told it’s bad, that you need to take it out of your writing. Even when I edit for others, I will find it, give the authors the bad news that yep, they used it 4,000 times in a 70,000 word WIP.

But just how bad is it?

I’m reading The Snowman by Jo Nesbø right now. I love it. I saw the trailer for the movie, and I wanted to read the book before I watched the movie. (Chances are after I finish the book I won’t want to watch the movie anymore, but that’s a different blog post.) But you know what I saw when I opened up the book? Well, yeah, I saw the front matter, the title page. But what was the first sentence of the first paragraph?

It was the day the snow came.

A book by an acclaimed author whose book was turned into a movie started his book with passive voice. He could have written, Snow came that day or It happened the day it snowed. Something. But he didn’t. Why didn’t he? Why didn’t his editor catch it? Ask him to fix it? I wonder how many “was” words he uses in his book.

When should you write out “was?” Here’s what I think.

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When it’s an indicator of tell, not show.
This is another no-no in the indie world. Always, always show, not tell. And for the most part, I agree. Description is always a lot better than telling your reader something.
When I was editing Don’t Run Away one of my little triumphs was:
Dane was livid.
I turned it into:
Dane trembled with rage.
You can see right away that’s a better way to go. I didn’t do it so much as to get rid of the “was” word, but I wanted my readers to picture what Dane’s anger looked like.

When the sentence simply sounds better without it.
This is tricky because how do you know? You can try to rewrite your sentence, but if you can’t get it to make sense without “was,” leave it alone.  Writers use “was” because it’s easy. It’s a lot easier to say, The sky was blue, rather than, The blue sky shone; not one cloud masked its brilliance. But not every sentence needs to be written that way–it’s up to you as the author to pick and choose, to decide where you want to put your energy.

When you freaking use it too many times. 
It always sucks when you do a search to see how many times you’ve used a crutch word. Just, 500, that, 1,000. Nodded, smiled, rolled eyes, shrugged.  “Was” is no different. If you have a ton of them, it could mean you are doing more telling than showing, that you’ve gotten a bit lazy, and you need to examine your WIP to see what you can fix. A paragraph describing a room like this:

The bedroom was small. A bed was pushed against the wall to make room for a desk that was filled with papers. A dog was sleeping at the foot of the bed, and a picture was hung crookedly on the wall. The rug was dirty, and the closet door was open, revealing clothes hanging haphazardly on their hangers.

Can be turned into this:

A dog lay on an unmade bed that had been pushed against the wall to make room in the small space. A desk filled with paper sat under an open window.  A rug that had seen better days lay in front of a closet that hadn’t been closed properly, and Janet wrinkled her nose in distaste at the mess inside. She straightened the crooked picture on the wall before leaving. Jack wasn’t there. She’d have to look for him somewhere else. 

Not only are you getting rid of “was” words, you are getting rid of repetition. I’ve edited for a few people whose paragraphs sound the same. Subject + verb + the rest of the sentence. If you want to get words down and move on, that’s fine. Some writers like to worry about the editing later. But please do go back and mix up your sentence structure. Sometimes this includes getting rid of “was”, sometimes it means starting a sentence with a prepositional phrase.

When you can fix the verb.
Don’t say, He was standing say He stood. She was watching turns into She watched. This is an easy fix and will save you some words too, if your WIP is bloated and you need to cut it down.

Rewriting some sentences that have “was” in them can make a sentence or paragraph stronger, can show your reader something instead of telling them what is going on.

But I also think that “was” is a lot like “said” in that it is invisible to a reader. The room was dark, and Stacy stumbled. We know what that means. We can picture that just as clearly as Stacy couldn’t see two inches in front of her face. She didn’t know what lurked in the shadows of the bedroom, and she tripped over God knew what when she gingerly took a step inside. Did the second example sound better? Maybe it did, but it’s also exhausting to read that all the time. It’s also exhausting to write that way. If every author tried to eradicate “was” from their writing, every book would be as thick as a Stephen King novel.

There is room for “was,” and I’m not as hardcore to get rid of it as I used to be. As long as you’re conscious of how many you have, if some of them can be replaced with something stronger and you do, then you’ll be okay.

Sometimes we can get too caught up in following every single rule out there. And it’s disheartening to be trying your best when you read trad-pubbed books doing things you’re trying not to do. Give yourself a little break. Keep on eye on the numbers, take your beta-readers’ opinions to heart. Listen to your editor.

Avoiding “was” hell won’t matter too much if you’ve trapped yourself in editing hell. Find a happy medium. Your sanity, and your readers, will thank you.