13 Ways to Win in Pitch Wars, and Three Ways to Lose

As a 4-time participant, I’ve learned there are many ways to be a winner in the Pitch Wars writing contest. Here are a few:

  1. If you are chosen by a mentor, get an agent, and get published, you’ve won Pitch Wars.
  2. If you’re chosen, get an agent, and don’t find a publisher, you’ve won.
  3. If you’re chosen but don’t get an agent, you’ve won.
  4. If you’re not chosen, but get feedback, even if only a little, you’ve won.
  5. If you don’t get any requests, but improved your manuscript to enter it, you’ve won.
  6. If you don’t get requests, but think about ways to improve your MS while you wait, you’ve won.
  7. If you find new CPs or expand your circle of writers, you’ve won.
  8. If you got feedback in the forums, you’ve won.
  9. If you learned something in the feeds, you’ve won.
  10. If you had fun, you’ve won.
  11. If you gained experience in the query process, you’ve won.
  12. If you wrote your first query letter, you’ve won.
  13. If you entered, you’ve won.

There are so many ways to win, way more than I’ve listed here. What winning means to you depends on your personal goals and where you are in the writing process.

I only know of three ways to lose:

  1. If you don’t participate, you can’t win.
  2. If you let Pitch Wars discourage you and you quit, you lose.
  3. If you look for the negatives and let yourself be bitter or angry because you’re not picked, you lose.

Stay positive. You have not failed or been rejected if you’re not chosen.

It’s OK to feel elation or disappointment or whatever else you feel. Even if you feel a wave of anger, that’s OK, but I’d highly suggest venting somewhere other than the Pitch Wars feeds, because you don’t know who’s watching.

This business is tough and it’s a rough ride emotionally. Pitch Wars is everything in the business in a compressed time frame. If all you get out of the contest is experience dealing with those emotions, then you’ve won.

So, 14 ways.

How to Succeed at PitchWars Without Even Crying

We’re a little more than a month away from the opening of PitchWars, and writers everywhere are starting to talk about it. As a veteran of four PitchWars (two where I’ve gotten feedback and two where I haven’t), I thought I’d share some pointers to help you make the most of your PitchWars experience.

What is PitchWars, anyway?

First, in case you haven’t heard of PitchWars, let’s explain what is it. PitchWars is an online writing contest in which agented, published writers, agency interns, and other industry pros each select a manuscript from the hundreds of entries and mentor an author through the process of polishing the manuscript and submitting to the Agent Round, where literary agents have the opportunity to select entries for possible representation.

It’s a way to avoid the agent slush pile. If you make the Agent Round, the agent can be pretty sure you’ve submitted a quality manuscript that has been vetted and workshopped by a professional writer.

There’s no cost, although beginning last year a small donation gave entrants a chance to pitch to additional mentors. I don’t know yet what this year’s policies will be.

Sounds Great! Tell me how to win.

Like everything in the publishing world, being chosen by a PitchWars mentor is a fight against long odds. Although there are typically close to 100 mentors, there are many more potential mentees than that (we’re talking thousands), and each entrant pitches to multiple mentors. The odds of being chosen are better than they are in the slush pile of the typical agent, but they are still slim.

The good news is, although being chosen may be the ultimate goal, it’s not the only way to win. Here are some tips to increase your chances of having a successful PitchWars.

1. Define “winning”

You’re most likely to have a good experience if you broaden your definition of what it means to win. For some, the only positive outcome is to be chosen by a mentor. These entrants are more likely to be disappointed. Not because they’re bad. Because there are so many hopefuls.

Over the course of the contest, you’ll have the opportunity to broaden your circle of writing friends. You’ll gain the experience that comes from submitting and, more likely than not, you’ll start to develop the thick skin that is necessary for success in the publishing world. You might get feedback from your chosen mentors (if only a sentence or two), and you might get information that helps you improve your work.

Three years ago, I received positive feedback from my chosen mentors, but all agreed on one thing: my manuscript was too short. I followed their advice and entered the same manuscript the next year. Again, I wasn’t chosen, but the feedback I got was amazing, including one author who said she loved my book, but didn’t choose it because she thought it was too polished for her to be of any help.

Not everybody gets this, but you might. And if you don’t, that’s a kind of feedback too. There’s always more work to do. You can still have a useful, positive PitchWars.

2. Respect your mentors

There are several ways to show respect to your mentors:

  • Carefully read their bios, which contain information about what they like, and pitch to the mentors who are most likely to like what you wrote. This increases your chances, and decreases the odds that you will be ignored. In other words, treat your mentor pitches exactly as you would agent queries.
  • Ask questions. Many of the mentors happily answer questions about their wishlists, the contest, or writing in general before the submission window even opens.
  • Understand that mentors are volunteers who receive nothing in return but the honor of helping one writer get closer to his or her goals. They go into this knowing (and not liking) that they’re going to disappoint a lot people, and that some people will even become angry when they are not chosen. Don’t be one of those people.
  • Give your mentors your best work. I can only imagine the time it takes to consider dozens of entries and look through additional chapters or full manuscripts requested from the lucky few who become finalists. Make their jobs harder and more enjoyable by giving them your best writing. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but make sure it’s good.
  • Be friendly and courteous when mentors post on Twitter. Much of the contest communication is carried out over Twitter. Mentors often drop hints about what they’re reading.
  • DON’T SELF REJECT!┬áIt’s best not to submit something to a mentor who specifically says they don’t enjoy that kind of book, but if you don’t see anything in the mentor wishlists that matches your manuscript exactly, don’t assume that nobody is going to want it. Maybe yours has exactly the unique premise that’s going to excite mentors. Because it’s unique, nobody thought to include it on their lists. If it’s not that unique, maybe they just didn’t think of including it.

In all of your communications with the mentors and other writers, be nice. Be positive. People are here because they want to be helpful. Most of the mentors are sincere when they say they’d pick everybody if they could.

3. Don’t stop with your pitch

Many PitchWarriors submit their pitch package and then stop and wait for the announcements of who was chosen. Although this is a perfectly valid way to participate, you can have a better experience if you participate more fully.

Even if you’re not a fan of Twitter, you can bask in the (mostly) positive glow of the Twitter chats. It’s very much like a conference, where even introverted writers can absorb energy from other writers. Watch for hints that might refer to your work, or might not. Encourage other participants who are feeling down or doubtful. Or hopeful. And don’t forget to pimp your bio.

Sometimes, during the course of the contest, mentors and agents make special offers. Last year, an agent requested my manuscript as a result of one of these special offers. You might see offers for critiques, books, query help, and other things. But you won’t see any of those if you don’t pay attention.

This year, for the first time, there are PitchWars discussion forums where you can make friends, get critiques on queries and pages, and ask questions of specific mentors. Whether you post in the forums is up to you, but even reading other people’s posts can help you learn, and learning something in PitchWars means you’ve won.

It’s corny, but true: the more you put in, the more you’ll take out. Even when I’ve participated without any response, I’ve enjoyed hanging out online with other writers, other people with the same hopes and dreams and frustrations.

4. Redefine “winning”

Even if you’re not chosen, find the positives in your experience. It’s fine to be disappointed. We all are. But don’t be bitter or angry. Look at all these positives:

  • You’ve gained query experience.
  • You’ve had fun hanging out with writers.
  • You’ve found new critique partners.
  • You’ve used PitchWars as the incentive to polish your manuscript.
  • You’ve put your work out there for others to judge, a very difficult thing to do.
  • You might have gotten some feedback. Even if it’s not much, it will help make your story better.
  • You’ve learned more about how PitchWars works, information you can use for an even better experience next year.

In this world where participation trophies are too common, it sounds trite to say that everybody who participates in PitchWars is a winner. And, it’s not entirely true. People who come out of it bitter and angry or convinced that their writing sucks are not winners.

But, people who come out of it understanding the positives, and realizing how hard it is to write something that’s ready to enter in a contest like PitchWars, and how it’s even harder to put that baby out there for other people, have won PitchWars. You’ve gained valuable experience that will help you persevere through the difficult query process, and you’ve had a fun couple of weeks (or more) of playing the game.

So, yes, there is crying in PitchWars, but if you do it right, the tears will not wash away all the experience and resolve you can win by having the courage to play the game.

Feeling Positive About Long Odds

In an interview on the Agent Hunter blog, Gemma Cooper of the Bent Agency was asked:

How many submissions do you see annually? And how many of those submissions will end up on your list?

Her answer:

“I see around 6000 submissions annually, and take on about 2-3 new clients a year.”

Based on other things I’ve read, I’d say this might not be a typical answer. Many agents take on fewer new clients each year and receive more queries.

Let’s break down those numbers, shall we?

I don’t have exact stats, obviously, but I’m betting at least half, maybe even 3/4 or more of those submissions can be immediately eliminated from competition, either because the author queried too soon with a manuscript that is not yet ready or because the author failed to do the requisite homework and queried an agent who does not rep that kind of story. None of us wants to believe we’re one of thosewriters, but if we’re not, chances are good we have been.

If we’ve sufficiently polished our manuscript and done our homework, this means our odds are improved from impossible to merely astronomical.

In a typically perverse writerly kind of way, this gives me some positive feels.

Another reason this makes me feel better is that it means when an agent says my story does not connect with her the way a story needs to if she’s going to rep it with the required enthusiasm, it might not just be a line. Agents may indeed be superwomen and supermen, but even super heroes have limited time. Well, usually. Unless their super powers include manipulating time, a power I’ll bet most agents would love to have but, sadly, just don’t.

It’s not like the agent is accepting everybody else’s manuscript and declining mine. Better books than mine are likely being rejected on that same day.

I’ve had other writers tell me they love my story, people who didn’t have to tell me anything at all. This means there might still be that one agent out there who doesn’t automatically push my query into the pile of 5,998 that will not make it.

There are a lot of agents out there. If they all choose one or two, or even three, new writers, that’s still a lot of new writers. Maybe I’ll be one of them. Maybe you will.

And if not, we’ll keep chugging along because we believe in our stories, but mostly because we just love writing them.