Monday, March 18, 2013

Tales from the Slush Pile


Right now, it's the last word many of us want to hear.  This winter has dogged us for months, and the slush isn't going away anytime soon for at least half the country.

Today, however, I'm talking about slush of a different kind.  I had the privilege this week of being a "slush zombie" for Brenda Drake's Pitch Madness contest, a place for unagented writers to pitch their novels and hopefully get the attention of some literary agents.  We "zombies" trudged our way through hundreds of pitches, selected ones that stood out, and weeded out others that didn't grab us.

After each and every pitch I read, whether it got a yes or a no, I felt like I had learned something.  Soon I was tweeting up a storm about insights I had gleaned from this process.  Sure, I had survived the query (and submission) trenches before, so I knew how to write a good pitch for my stories, but much more universal themes kept bubbling up and within minutes, my little nuggets of wisdom were getting retweeted like crazy.  Here are some of my slush pile insights, in case you want to polish up your own pitch.

Don't waste your words on hypothetical questions or generalities! Economy of words is key in a good pitch.  Ok, so lots of pitches in the slush pile had all sorts of general statements that took up so much space.  "Has your life ever changed in a moment?" or "What if you had to choose between two things you loved more than life itself?" Typically, avoid questions in queries because the agent may actually answer "no" and then put the query in the trash, but more importantly, you don't have enough space in a pitch to be tossing out questions.  Use the most efficient and evocative words as humanly possible.  Make each word WORK.

Dialogue: it can mean the difference between a yes and a no. Sometimes, I'd be hovering over the "yes" button after reading a great pitch, but then once I got to the sample text, I was stunned by the dialogue.  Dialogue must sound realistic.  Would people say these words, in this way, in this order?  Read your dialogue out loud.  If you think any of it sounds false, re-write.  Possibly shorten it.  Right now my lovely agent Jessica Sinsheimer is doing a dialogue contest, so check out @jsinsheim on Twitter.

Pitches need sizzle for this reason: stories are tropes. We've heard them before. Make yours stand out.  In addition to your pitch being succinct and properly phrased, your pitch needs to be interesting.  Sure, you wrote an entire manuscript, so it's definitely interesting to you, but you need to figure out what would make it interesting for us...and that means it needs to be different.  What's your twist?  Your angle?  All stories have been told before in some way, so what is it about yours that will make us go, "Oh, I've never thought of _____ like that."  Oftentimes, people use "comp titles" or compare their books to current books that are out there, and that's fine, but there needs to be something astonishingly unique about your version or slush readers (and agents) won't bite.

It's important to read within your genre, but if your MS sounds too much like the books you like to read, you won't stand out.  This may sound similar to my last advice, but here I'm talking about your actual text and not your pitch.  Agents and editors read hundreds and thousands of queries and pitches and sample pages.  You only have SECONDS of their time in some can you grab them (gently) by their lapels and pull them in?  By being DIFFERENT.  Having a unique voice is important, but having a voice that is new and fresh IN YOUR GENRE is even more important.  We've all read snarky heroines in urban fantasy, for example, but what about snark in high fantasy?  Think outside the box.  Hell, burn the box and construct a geodesic dome, I don't care.  Just be more original than the last original book you read.  Then outdo it.  Make it even better.

Anyway, I loved doing this contest and I look forward to seeing which of my favorite pitches made it into the final round.  If anyone wants pitch help, feel free to leave your pitch in the comments section!  Be warned... I'm very honest.  I admit that my verbal spank does sting, but hopefully the tingle afterwards will make your pitch feel brand new.

Love and spanks,