With a few pitch contests coming up in the next couple of months, I thought I’d share what it is I’m looking for when I read the slush. I can hear the collective groan now. “We know, we know: You like women’s fiction. Dogs like bones. Fish like water. We get it.”
And okay, yes, that’s true, but did you know that I re-read the Harry Potter series every year? And ALL of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall/Circle of Magic books. (That’s 27 books, at last count. A year.) The one of the highlights of last year was getting to hear a lecture from Kathy Reichs? That one of my beloved CPs and the most talented author I know writes middle grade? I don’t only read women’s fiction. I don’t want people to think, if they have a WF or contemporary adult entry, they’ll absolutely be chosen. And I don’t want people who write something else to think they have no chance. Last October, 10 of my favorite 13 choices were MG/YA SF/F. That’s only part of it.
So, here’s what I’m looking for (Note that I do not speak for all slush readers in all contests. This is personal to me.):
- The first thing I look for is the first thing I see. Grammar, spelling, punctuation. Did you send me a wall of text? I don’t want to read that. If the first page is full of mistakes, I’ll assume the rest of the MS is, too – and so will the agents. It’s not ready.
- How well you respond to feedback. This should go without saying, but some of these contests include a feedback round. If we go to all the time and trouble to send feedback for this contest, and you reply with “You’re an idiot, my MS is perfect”…. you should not be surprised when your entry is not chosen for the agent round. You should also not be shocked to discover that the contest hosts, who tweet constantly about the contest, are on Twitter and reading your tweets. If you bash the hosts, bash the feedback, talk about how stupid the whole thing is…. well, see above. And some of us are in some of the Facebook writer groups. If you want to complain privately to friends, make sure your communication is actually private. Meanwhile, I could name two entries that made the finals last year because of how well they rose to the challenge of the revisions we sent them (but I won’t).
- Whether you incorporated the feedback we sent. Thhe feedback round is not required in PitchSlam this year. You don’t have to do it. But if we send you a letter that it’s completely perfect except for one misspelled word… and you don’t fix it? That could make me hesitate. I’m not talking about subjective changes. That’s fine – you have to do what feels right for your manuscript. But if we take the time to point out obvious typos, you should take the time to fix them.
- Genre. Maybe this is a special pet peeve of mine. But I want to see actual genres. Don’t tel me that your book is post-apocalyptic because you’re hoping I’m too stupid to realize that means it’s dystopian.
- Word Count. Make sure your book is within acceptable ranges for a debut author. For many agents, 100,000 is a HARD STOP for a first time author, even with sci-fi and fantasy. No exceptions. For most adult novels, an agent isn’t going to take on something that’s less than 65,000 words. For children’s books, check this post. (If I’m unsure, that’s where I’ll be going to look.) I might take something amazing that’s a little bit over – but if you’re going to break the 100,000 word barrier, there better not be a SINGLE unnecessary word in your first 250. No very really just that only, etc. No “was walking”. It has to be TIGHT. More likely, if I’m picking between two entries and I only have space for one, the entry that’s within the generally accepted word counts wins. Is that harsh? Maybe. But we sometimes have to make tough decisions.