First of all: most of the submissions in my inbox are YA high / steampunk / contemporary fantasies, mysteries, retellings, and thrillers, all of which are exactly what I love.
Sadly, no psych horror this time around.
There are also very amazing submissions I’ve had to read through, but unfortunately only three of which I could pick. This is why although I read through my subs fairly quickly, it took me longer to agonize over my top three picks.
Take a look at Brenda Drake’s post to see my final choices, along with the other mentors’ picks. I’ve written personal critiques and replies to people who did not make the short list (I know the feeling – I’ve worked the trenches too, querying agents but often getting standardized rejections). but I’ve also written this lengthy post regarding the reasons I might not have chosen your work, so I hope this helps! (Other mentors received subs from other genres, so their experiences may differ from mine.)
1. Dystopians masquerading as scifi and / or fantasy. If your MS falls under the “MC uncovers a conspiracy being kept hidden from people by the government / ruling class / whoever’s-in-charge and now must escape / rebel while being aided by love interest / friends”, then this is a dystopian book. No matter how many scifi or steampunk elements you add in there, the premise still makes it dystopian, and this genre has been on the wane for awhile in YA. I’ve seen a number of manuscripts that were well-written and well-developed, but unfortunately still fall right into this genre, which is also a major reason for me to pass on it.
I understand that at times there is a very thin line between both genres, but it is up to the authors at this point to widen the distance between them as much as possible. The less you are able to make it sound like a dystopian with a scifi setting, then the better the chances of agents taking an interest.
A good example of scifi.
Not a scifi.
A horrible example of scifi, because duck boobs.
Which also brings me to #2.
2. Originality issues. A lot of submissions sound like rehashes of books already in existence. This is something that I have mentioned in a few of my personal replies to some submissions. I call this the “first-to-market” problem. Books become popular in cycles, and a cycle could easily last for a generation. Within this timeframe, a book becomes popular if
1.) they have a unique concept or plot within that cycle, and
2.) they are the first or one of the first books of this kind to be published then.
As an example, let’s use Hunger Games again. The concept in itself is not necessarily unique – The Most Dangerous Game and Lord of the Flies follow the same idea, but these books have been published many, many years before – TMDG in the 1920s as a serial, and LotF in the 1950s. If you figure in that a literature cycle would take about 20 years, you can argue that the 90s – 2000s would be ripe for a book with this concept, since no similar book has been published within that timeframe – and especially because “YA” wasn’t a popular term when LotF was written. (I can also argue that Battle Royale is also very similar to the Hunger Games, but Battle Royale, while popular, is also not as well known outside of Asia. Most of the time it’s books published in North America / the U.K. that often sets the trend, but there are always exceptions. The secret to better success though, is to assume you are NOT the exception.)
So what does this mean, exactly? It means that the author who publishes the first book of its kind within a certain timeframe will always have the advantage. Hunger Games is popular because of this. Divergent was the next book in terms of popularity because it was also roughly the second dystopian series out (good writing helps tremendously).
BUT! The more dystopian books introduced into the market, the more original your own work will have to be. It doesn’t matter if your book is set in a castle in the sky or an underground cave instead of in Panem. It won’t matter if there are spaceships and different worlds. Setting helps define the genre, but plot sets it in stone. In the same way, you can point out that you’ve written a book about mermaids, angels, dragons, etc., but if it follows the “girl meets monster and falls in love” trope, then it’s still going to read as a Twilight rehash.
The same holds true for retellings. Greek mythology might be susceptible to this. Alice retellings, more so. Common fairytales and legends (Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Robin Hood, Red Riding Hood, Peter Pan) already have a lot of books out.
This is the disadvantage of authors who are late to market. The burden is on them to think up a much more different spin on their books to differentiate themselves from what’s already out there, and the more books of its kind available, the harder it’s going to be. Authors will need to do the research first. Check out upcoming books on Goodreads to see what future competition might look like. It’s easier to rewrite the plot BEFORE you actually write the book, rather than fix it afterward.
3. Too many literary elements with a commercial plot. This is the one that made me cry when I was looking through subs. I have seen gorgeous writing and beautiful prose that could easily set them apart as a roving literary masterpiece – and then I check the genre and find that it’s a YA Fantasy / Scifi / Thriller.
It is good to write a literary-style work regardless of your genre. In fact, I highly (being biased) encourage it, as this is what I also write. But – and you know there’s a big ‘but’ coming –
let me pause here to deliver a visual pun.
– literary works tend to read smoothly, but peddles slowly through plot. Genres like fantasy / scifi / thriller work best when the pace is quick and the stakes are high. You need to find a balance between going fast enough to keep readers hooked, but pausing at the right moments for readers to appreciate the beauty of your words. I have read lovely pieces in my inbox that writes beautiful exposition, but the action doesn’t seem like it’s taking place until halfway through the story.
Rule of thumb: introduce or cite the major obstacle within the first three chapters. Don’t litter your first sixty or so pages with nothing but character development and background. It’s a beautiful read, but conflict is also what readers are here for. For this genre, you need some kind of affirmative action (even if it’s not about the major conflict) happening every three chapters to remind yourself to move the plot along.
These were easily the submissions that were the hardest for me to reject, but I knew the authors would have to cut a lot of things down first to make the MS work.
4. Character disconnect. Now, I’m pretty okay with a lot of characters. In fact, characters are easily some of my favorite things about most novels, even if I’m not on board with the story itself. My favorite characters have ranged from pioneering criminal profilers with mustaches and round heads to pompous lawyers played by James Spader to fallen angels who sometimes sound like they’re either ridiculously naive, or on a twenty lifetimes-long acid trip.
What I dislike about a lot of characters, though, are when they are at their extremes – 1.) when their personalities or quirks are overexaggerated, or 2.) when they’re too distant. The first is called Flanderization.
Play upon your character’s idiosyncrasies, but within reason. If your character is afraid of mice, have them freak out when one is nearby. Don’t have them nervously checking the cupboards every waking moment for them.
On the other hand, if readers are interested in your characters BECAUSE of a specific quirk you mention they have, then take the time to let them see this in the first three chapters. There are certain kinds of characters where it’s okay to show off their personalities more (Fred and George Weasley as pranksters, Glenn Quagmire and ‘giggity’, C3PO’s stress levels, hypochondriacs and special needs kids) though still within limits. My suggestion would be to run amuck with character personality on your first draft, then sensibly cut them down on your second and succeeding edits. The worst kind of characters for me are not the ones you don’t have anything in common with, but the ones you don’t understand because their thoughts don’t flow with the narrative.
The balance between showing too little and showing too much of a specific character trait is also something that can be subjective, but another rule of thumb (I am running out of thumbs) is to follow the majority opinion. If five people like your MC while two hate it, then five trumps two.
Other reasons I might have turned you down may be: I could only pick three subs (in the end, I fretted over ten manuscripts), or because some other mentor has laid claim to your work, and I had decided to bow out (in which case I made a few critiques if I had any, but also sent you a congratulatory note).
In conclusion, the one thing most fellow writers won’t ever tell you is this truth:
The first is bad; the second is what you should be aiming for.
Most importantly: Pitchwars is a contest, not a dealbreaker for your manuscript. Not getting picked doesn’t mean agents won’t like your work. I got an offer of representation literally five days after being rejected in another Brenda Drake ™ contest only last year. Understand that opinions vary, and that it’s up to you to choose – not the critique that praises your work, but the critique that will help improve it. Work hard, learn that patience is a writer’s most valued virtue, and you’re going to be fine.