Saturday, August 22, 2015

On Why Passes in Publishing Don't Always Mean "Not Good Enough"

A couple days ago, I tweeted a thing that seemed to resonate with a lot of people. In case you missed it, here it is:

Aug 18:
mentoring has already taught me so much about subjectivity. Passes do NOT always mean "not good enough." Not by far. <3 <3

Naturally, since other people seemed to be paying attention to it, I've thought about these words a lot in the past few days. So now, I'm attempting to gather those thoughts into a (hopefully) coherent post--because there's so much more I want to say on this topic than what will fit in a 140 character limit.

Here's how what I observed and experienced while reading slush for Pitch Wars has changed my outlook on the passes I receive on my own work--and how it should change yours, too:

First, the obvious. There are a number of things outside of the writing itself that an agent (or editor...or in my case, Pitch Wars mentor) takes into account while reading a query/submission. Like word count. A book that's 170K, for instance, isn't going to sell in the current YA market. It could be full of voice and have the most beautiful, quotable phrases, but it's not going to happen. Beyond word count, there's genre. A strong voice can sometimes overcome a really unmarketable genre, but a query for a book in a desirable genre will often get requested first (at least, from my limited Pitch Wars mentoring experience!).

But the things above aren't really what I want to talk about. Imagine: your inbox has almost 200 queries and first chapters waiting to be read. Out of them all, there are a hundred books that have appropriate word counts and seem highly marketable. All have great titles. And all have prose that's strong. They start their stories in the right place. They maintain tension throughout their first chapters. There aren't any grammar errors. Their plots seem clear, but also keep you guessing. Their pages drip with atmosphere and voice.

So what makes one stand out from all the others, when so many seem close to perfect as it gets? It's so hard to describe, and it varies from person to person as much as what makes me smile or laugh differs from what makes you smile or laugh.

In Pitch Wars, I couldn't request everything that was really strong; there wasn't enough time. I also didn't feel a pull to request everything that was really strong. The main character of one story, for instance, would resonate deeply with me for a number of reasons I can't begin to list, yet other mentors would request something I'd passed over because the characters in that manuscript had resonated with them.

I used to get frustrated when I'd comb the internet trying to understand what makes an agent request a book beyond great writing. But in Pitch Wars, when I was the one making the requests, I found myself saying something I'd heard so many times while querying (and admittedly, it's a phrase that's made me roll my eyes a time or two): "I'm not connecting." Or, "I just don't feel that spark." And I was saying it about wonderful, polished manuscripts--books I didn't request despite their fabulous writing and tension and seemingly well-executed plots, just because I wasn't feeling a strong pull to read more in the limited time I had for slush (I'm only one person, who gets to pick one mentee, much like agents and editors have limited time and client/author lists they have to keep small to preserve their sanity).  

And as I kept wading through the slush, it dawned on me: Being drawn to a voice or story that's well-written is as complex as what makes us feel. It's different for everyone.

I requested one book, for instance, because the voice felt like a blend of several of the fantasies I grew up reading. It pulled at my heartstrings, almost like it was an old friend. There, I had that "spark." With another, I found myself smiling and actually laughing out loud--and making my husband listen to passages I'd read aloud. Something about the characters and setting felt familiar, yet exciting to me, and even managed to tackle humor (a tough thing to do in books), so I had to request.

But there were other books that had amazing premises, yet the writing or characters didn't grab me. I admired them, but I didn't feel that burst of excitement, for whatever reason. I can't put into words what was missing, and while I don't speak for any agents, I bet some of them would have a hard time saying why they don't feel that "spark" with certain well-written manuscripts.

So the next time you hear the phrase "not for me" or "not connecting," know that it's not necessarily a reflection on the quality of your writing. None of us know what will make someone else feel that spark for a book. It's a bit like falling in love that way--emotional and unpredictable, something that takes a good deal of searching to find!

But you want an agent or editor who will make that connection with you. Who feels strongly about your manuscript, because they're going to spend so much time on it, fighting for it, and making it the best it can be. And after working so hard on your book, you deserve someone who will share your passion for your characters and world.

Too, your search for the perfect agent might be a frustrating process because, as I've just witnessed in Pitch Wars, there are just SO MANY amazing books out there! So many talented writers!! And not enough agents to sweep them all up at once and feel ALL THE FEELS for their books.

--But that just means you have to keep making stories you love, and polishing them, and seeking out agents until you find the one who absolutely loves your book the way you do.

Finding that right agent may be hard, but you should never give up. Once you have a well-written book, it's down to timing, and making that connection.

And you know what? You so deserve it.

Good luck to everyone who's been part of Pitch Wars! And to everyone who's currently querying! Have patience and persevere; after reading so many wonderful stories these past few days, I believe in you all!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

PITCH WARS TIME: Mentor Bio and Wishlist

Hi everyone! I'm incredibly honored to be a YA mentor in this year's PITCH WARS, and I can't wait to see your beautiful manuscripts in my inbox! I could ramble on, but let's get right to the good stuff instead:


-Fantasy is my greatest love. I especially enjoy epic and historical. Have something like Lord of the Rings with a female-centered cast? I want it! (HUGE Tolkien fanatic here). Have the next Graceling, The Winner's Curse, or Girl of Fire and Thorns? Gimme! I also love fairytale retellings, especially any lesser-known fairytales. And please, give me all your dark fantasies!!!
-Ghost stories, provided they're original. I read heavily in this genre and could really help someone with a compelling ghost story. Keep me up all night and make me scared to go to the bathroom alone, and I'll be yours forever! Think something like the movie The Woman in Black or The Conjuring- not gory, but heavy on using atmosphere/setting to build tension. Or, if you have anything like Simon St. James's historical ghost stories with romance, that'd be a huge win!
-Historical, particularly with unusual time periods and/or interesting events. Pre-1920s preferred, with one exception: I'd love a YA version of the TV show Astronaut Wives' Club! And definitely no WWII-era settings, as they're outside my expertise/interest. However, if your book is set during The Great War (WWI), try me!
-Mysteries/Thrillers. A fresh take on the genre though, please! Also, I'm of the belief that most books should have some element of mystery in them. It helps keep readers turning the pages!
-Sci-Fi. I love sci-fi almost as much as fantasy! More character-driven and less technical though, please! To give you an idea of my tastes here, I'm a Browncoat. I also love Farscape, Stargate: Atlantis, Defiance, and the new show Dark Matter. Currently, I'd be most drawn to an earth-set sci-fi that's full of quirky and memorable characters a la SyFy Channel's Warehouse 13, Eureka, or Haven. But if you have awesome aliens and diversity in another world, please still give me a try--I adore anything with a Farscape feel and I've love to mentor in this genre!
-Southern Gothics. I'm a Southern belle (I even attended cotillion) who loves to be creeped out. If you have curses, sweet tea, spirits, and drama--send, send, send!

*Also, if you have anything that reads like the show True Detective Season 1, please share.

*Adding a special call-out here for any YA novel about Vikings. I've got Scandinavian heritage and would love a historical or alt history focused on Viking culture...and shieldmaidens!

*I don't normally read contemp, but here's a special call for the two types of contemp projects I'd look at: A YA version of Breaking Bad or Weeds (or if you put this concept in a fantasy? GIMME NOW) and a YA version of The Big Bang Theory.

*I love Avatar: the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra beyond reason. If you're a huge fan of either (hopefully both) of these shows, I know we'll get along!!! (Just to quickly add: what speaks to me about these shows are the themes of friendship, tolerance, bravery, and being true to yourself. I'd love to find a book with characters as strong and diverse as the casts of Avatar and Korra!)


-LGBTQ+ , especially the L and B, but not coming-out stories. Bonus points if your ms is SFF!
-Building off that: diversity in all its forms--thoughtfully written, of course. Diversity in the authors submitting to me is welcomed and encouraged, too!
-Unique settings: from the Amazon to the Arctic to ancient empires...take me somewhere new!
-Love stories: I love being in love. Give me a romance that sweeps me off my feet (steamy scenes are great, by the way-I'm an advocate for sex in YA!), but I'd prefer that romance isn't the sole focal point of your novel.
-Family relationships: Siblings, parents, and/or grandparents often play important role in teens' lives. Send me novels that deal with these complex relationships!
-Structural quirks: send me your multi-POV novel, or stories told in reverse!
-My dream manuscript is also a perfect blend of commercial and literary. Basically, a high-concept plot balanced with lyrical writing and excellent pacing.
-Oh, and in case this wasn't clear enough, I love a strong female heroine. Especially one who doesn't need to put her male counterparts down in order to show her strength! In my books, the girls go on the quests. The girls save princes. They also love and respect their male friends!


Contemporary (see the two exceptions above!)
Horror that's gory.
Novels in verse
-Anything dealing with animal abuse; hits too close to home because of my rescue pups.
-Anything involving rape/sexual abuse
-Gratuitous/excessive torture. If you have characters like the Boltons from Game of Thrones, your novel is absolutely not for me!
-No angels, demons, or were-anything, please! *Edited to add: But I love fairies!


The obvious first: Tolkien, Rowling, Gaiman
Patricia McKillip
Garth Nix
Charles de Lint
Tamora Pierce
Libba Bray
Laini Taylor
Ann Bishop
Rae Carson
Spencer Quinn

ABOUT ME (Aka, why you want me as your mentor!):

-I'm a soon-to-be-published author. My debut YA historical fantasy novel Fear the Drowning Deep comes out in September 2016 from Sky Pony!
-I've got a good amount of industry knowledge and insight accumulated over the past several years. I'm represented by Christa Heschke at McIntosh and Otis Literary, and can give you advice and guidance on the path to traditional publishing!
-I write across all age levels of children's literature, from YA to picture books!
-I won contests while querying, including the one that landed my agent!
-I've mentored in several other contests like Query Kombat, Sun vs. Snow, and Nightmare on Query Street! I've helped many writers polish their queries and manuscripts, and formed lasting friendships with my mentees from previous contests. I've also had several CPs sign with agents in the past year!
-If you want total honesty in your critique, combined with kindness and support that won't end when the contest does! Choose me, and I'll whip your manuscript into fighting shape--all the while pointing out your strengths and helping you sharpen your writing skills! And occasionally making you laugh.
-I'll school you in everything from voice to story structure and pacing! I'll clarify your action scenes and help you streamline your world building, something I've worked hard on this year! I can help you bring settings to life and craft a compelling romance if there's love in your story!
-If you aren't afraid to work hard, truly want to improve your writing, and hopefully make a friend for life, I'm your gal!

If you choose me, you'll get this genius in the mix, too! ;)
*When I'm not working on my books, I'm spending time with my four rescued greyhounds. I work to raise awareness about puppy mills like the one my Italian greyhounds Romeo & Juliet were saved from. I'm a proud nerd, and love playing video games and card/board games (Star Realms, 7 Wonders, or Lords of Waterdeep, anyone? I'm a big fan of Wil Wheaton's Tabletop, too!) with my equally nerdy husband. I also attend events like FaerieCon and AwesomeCon to celebrate all things magical and nerdy.

These are some of my crazies!

*My love for Harry Potter (Slytherin represent!) is rivaled only by my love for my husband (a Ravenclaw) and rescue pups!

These are more of my crazies. Yep, I have a dog circus!
*I like to relax by painting with watercolors. If your book inspires me, I might paint you a little something!

*I still think vampires are cool.

*I met Tamora Pierce one time and it was bloody amazing. Pick me as your mentor and maybe some of my Tamora-Pierce-meeting luck will rub off on you? ;)

Tammy. She's incredibly kind and made me glad I've looked up to her for so long!

I keep adding to this post, but whatever. Here's me acting stupid with Milo Ventimiglia (Jess from Gilmore Girls/Peter Petrelli from Heroes!)
*You can find out more about me by checking out my Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, and Instagram. Please do this--if I'm one of your top mentor choices, engaging me on social media like Twitter will be a great way for us to get to know each other while I'm trying to decide on a mentee!

*Here are a couple of interviews I've done, if you want to read more about me and my writing:

Query, Sign, Submit with Sarah Marsh on Write for Apples

Team Rogue YA Introductory Post with Sarah Marsh

***All that being said: I understand what it's like to put yourself out there by entering your work in these sorts of contests. I'm shy, and understand some of you might be, too. So, I promise to treat you with the utmost respect if you reach out to me!


-If I love your query and first chapter, I will most definitely be requesting additional pages and a full synopsis of your work, so make sure you have one polished and ready to send off! Also, be prepared for me to ask about your query history with this book. If a book hasn't been seen by many agents yet, it'll have a better chance in this contest!

-Please include comp titles in your query. Bonus points if they're for books I've enjoyed or TV shows I love (a few are mentioned in this list, but others include Castle, Supernatural, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters, Sleepy Hollow, Grimm, Vikings, Agents of SHIELD. Lighter things include Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Friends, and The Big Bang Theory).

-Additionally, please don't sub to me if I've critiqued some or all of your work before. If you're a CP or past mentee, you already get to pick my brain, and I'm always just an email away! I want this opportunity to go to someone new.


*If I request pages from you, I'll tell you where I stopped reading and why.

*If you sub to me at all and I'm passing on your pitch, I'll give a brief explanation as to why. 

Also, the cover reveal for my debut FEAR THE DROWNING DEEP is happening over on Pop! Goes the Reader today, so if you're inclined, please go check out the pretty and ENTER TO WIN AN ARC!!! YAY!

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