For those of us who didn't make it this time: you've heard it before, but I'm going to repeat:
Don't. Give. Up.
(I say that as much for myself as everyone else). It's tempting to feel fatally discouraged, but,
Just Keep Writing, Keep Querying.
As we all know, the #PitchMadness feed during the slush read was a treasure trove of good advice, but sometimes hard to follow because there were so many other conversations happening simultaneously.
L.L. McKinney - otherwise known as @Tangynt - graciously agreed to distill some of her thoughts for us.
Before I get started, want to be clear that anything said is my personal viewpoint on the matter. I am no expert of final authority in any case, and my opinions are my own.
1) What were the top 5 problems/weaknesses you saw in pitches?
Vague phrases or terms that don't give the reader a sense of the story. Saying the character has to face evil, defeat darkness, will risk it all, discover mysterious pasts or secrets tells the reader nothing. This goes for saying someone's world was turned upside down/rocked, or their lives will "never be the same" as well. These describe almost every book ever written in some way. Trying to be mysterious often results in being unclear, confusing, or downright boring. Details set stories apart.
No mention of the stakes. What does the character have to lose if they don't take action? Saying a character must solve a mystery, uncover a truth, discover what it means to be loved, unlock their past, is only part of the equation. That's the setup, and people tended to stop there. Follow through! Tell the reader WHY all of this happens.They why is often the draw.
Too much/little information. Everything in moderation and all of that. The pitch is to hook the reader and provide a glimpse of what the book is about, not tell the whole story. Manuscripts are complex things with colorful casts, complex plots, and interlocking subplots, but all of that cannot be squeezed into a pitch and folks shouldn't even try. Pick the MAIN conflict and goal and focus on that. The rest will be revealed when the book is read. On the flip side, there's a balance to these things and not giving enough info is just as bad as packing it in too tight. Refer to the previous statement about trying to be mysterious.
Rhetorical questions. Sometimes they work, most of the time they don't. Especially if said question is put to the reader in a "what if you/your" phrasing. "What if you met the love of your life one night but didn't get his name or number?" Firstly, I know exactly what I would do, so ends any mystery about it all. Secondly, this isn't about me, it's about this character, who I now know nothing about.
This meets That pitches. Comparisons are great, don't get me wrong, but if I've not read the book or seen the show/movie, I have no idea what to think of a manuscript. Using widely known stories for comparison will help. Some agents/editors auto-reject if a current worldwide bestseller is used, say The Mortal Instruments meets The Hunger Games. This doesn't bother me personally, but to avoid said auto-reject try substituting a popular story for one that's well known. Buffy meets Thunderdome for instance. Both are well known, but neither are part of any current trend fever.
2) Top 5 problems/weaknesses in first 250?
Passive voice. The ball was thrown: passive. He threw the ball: active. It can be taken further with verb choice. He hurled/chucked/lobbed/tossed/flung the ball.
They were standing in the hall: passive. They stood in the hall: active. Verb choice, they milled/gathered/congregated in the hall.
Research passive and active voice to get rid of the former and better utilize the latter.
Telling instead of showing. Saying a character is scared, or embarrassed, or angry doesn't pain a picture for the reader. Show them trembling as they crouch in a corner, heat branding their face while they can't make eye contact, or their fingers curl into fists as their jaw clenches around a curse.The same works for setting. "It's cold" should be icy temperatures biting exposed skin or eating through layers of cloth.
Vocabulary unique to the world or story that isn't explained. This was a big thing with fantasy and science fiction stories more than others. Made up words and such is totally fine, but without context clues to help the reader understand what's going on/being said, the story may as well be written in another language altogether. That goes for steampunk and such as well.
Prose in need of tightening. The internet is full of lists containing ugly/fluff words unnecessary in writing. They take up space and slow the pace. For instance:
"She blinked her eyes as she backed away from him, certain that he was the one who killed those other women."
"She recoiled, certain he'd killed those women."
The sentence is physically shorter and reads quicker.
Info dumping was another issue. This can cover a lot of things, but I'll focus on two that cropped up the most, in my opinion: Lots of description, and background information.
Personally, I don't need a paragraph containing every detail of the character's appearance on the first page. Hair color and length, eye color, height, weight, etc., work that stuff in as you go along, and those aren't the important bits in this moment. Give me a name, gender, where they are, how old they are, and who they're with. Those last two can even come a little later, but not too far.
Keep in mind how any time taken to describe something or someone is time taken from the action. Imagine watching a movie, and it's getting good. You're on the edge of your seat, attention rapt. Then the person you're watching the movie with pauses it to point out/explain something about the character, or the setting, or how this guy is like this because blah-blah-blah happened to him in the past.
I've gone into full blown melt-your-face mode on people for pulling me out of the story/world with stunts like that. Am I going to miss anything without their explanation? Is the information they have to share that important right now? Half the time the explanation given is something like "But I want to make sure you understood what was going on so you wouldn't miss the big picture." Thanks, but I got it.
3) Since we learn so much about our own writing when critiquing others, did you have any special "aha" moments that made you want to go back and edit something in your current WiPs?
Nothing in particular. I tend to go back and look for everything I mentioned and more when editing because--whether folks like to admit it or not--all ten of those issues crop up in first drafts. I'm sure I have loads of unique vocab I haven't properly explained, passive voice, or prose that needs tightening and what not in my current WIP. Rounds of editing and revision help smooth that out.
4) What was your favorite part of doing the slush reading?
Saying yes. And not just yes but omg, this right here, pick it pick it PICK IT!
THANK YOU so much for your time, @tangynt!!
About L.L. McKinney:
Fantasy is my first love, particularly urban fantasy. There’s nothing like imagining the impossible happening right here at home. Though science fiction is a close second.
About me, let’s see, I’m a freelance writer, a published poet, and a core member of Novel Clique, a writers group that meets weekly here in the Midwest. I’m also a member of YA Lit Chat, and an affiliate member of the Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. via Midwest Pen and Ink. So many groups and clubs, almost makes me sound social, doesn’t it?
What else, I live the single life in Kansas, surrounded by more nieces and nephews than I know what to do with. I write for the joy of it, and when it is time for my voice to be heard, God will provide the means.
He always has.