Observations from Team Titan’s Pitch Wars Inbox

Hello! As another Pitch Wars season wraps up, I wanted to talk about the submissions Team Titan received.

Firstly, thank you to everyone who submitted your stories to us. We are both honoured and blown away by the sheer amount of talent. There were many high concept ideas, gorgeous prose, and memorable characters. Choosing just one story was very difficult, and it took us several rounds before we were able to whittle our way down to one submission. So again, thank you for trusting us with your stories. We know how big of a step that is, and how much faith and courage it takes. Deciding who to mentor was a choice neither of us took lightly.

In total, Team Titan received 261 submissions. Ayana generously tabulated their details in an excel spreadsheet (big thank you to my very organized co-mentor!)

Let’s dive into the stats.

PITCH WARS INBOX STATISTICS – BREAKDOWN BY GENRE

Most submissions we received were in the high/epic fantasy genre, with the next most popular being science fiction. That’s not too surprising, given both Ayana and my interests and experience. But I was excited by all the genres we received, from romance to contemporary, and we did end up choosing Zahra Zelle‘s speculative thriller BORN FROM THE FLAMES to mentor.

STATISTICS – BREAKDOWN BY WORD COUNT

The average word count of submissions was 90,435. The most frequent word count listed for submissions was 90,000.

We received several subs that were outliers, ranging from <50k to well above 160k words.

We had a number of submissions in the 70k word range. There was some concern where those submissions were high/epic fantasy, a genre which relies on thorough worldbuilding. More on this point below.

FEEDBACK

There was a lot to love in our inbox—mythology from across the world, anime and video-game vibe stories, fresh high concepts, strong writing, rogues, pirates, fae, royals, assassins—but one of the most valuable aspects of Pitch Wars is receiving feedback, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on. Below, you will find a list of (subjective) things that did not work for me, and which I noticed cropped up in quite a number of submissions, as well as some general advice.

1.   Opening with the weather

Many submissions opened with the weather only to set the scene, or simply to find a place to start the story. This reminded me of Elmore Leonard’s ‘rules for writers’ (you can read the full list of ten here: https://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html) in which he says,

“Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.”

Writing maxims are never absolute. Many authors break the rules and break them well, but I find these guidelines usually hold some truth, and it can be helpful to keep them in mind.

For me, when a story opens with the weather and it is neither a detail pertinent to the worldbuilding or plot, nor does it illustrate something about the main character, my excitement dips slightly. More often than not, once I got past the weather descriptions, I found the ‘meat’ of the story, and wished the author began the story there.

Always go for something that hooks from the first sentence. I don’t mean big explosions and flashing lights (unless that’s what your story requires, of course). Find the heart of your opening scene, the real reason you have decided to start the story here, and lead with that. Add the weather descriptions once you’ve reeled in the reader, and they’re hungry for this intriguing character to be anchored in a well-described world.   

2.       Opening with exposition

A writing maxim you may be familiar with is ‘show, don’t tell’. This one needs discretion. I have read stories where there was too much showing, and I really needed some telling so I could figure out what was going on before the story got too far away from me. In secondary worlds, almost everything is new to the reader. On top of meeting new characters and conflict, they’re being flooded with terms, magic systems, gods, technology, locations, and so on. Sometimes, we need to be told in plain terms what something means, and preferably when it is mentioned, or close to. Something I always remind myself is that what’s obvious to me as the author is not always obvious to the reader. 

That said, I found many submissions opened with too much telling. Sometimes it was in the opening paragraphs, and the story took on a kind of ‘fact sheet’ feel. Concepts were listed off and explained, and there was no mention of characters. Other times, it was through a prologue that set the scene for the mythology of the world. Prologues provoke strong reactions from readers—some love them, some hate them. For me, it depends on the prologue (and the following is going to be very subjective). I like them when they give information that feels necessary, and occupy just the right amount of page space (and in some cases, this can even be a few pages). This is especially the case in YA, where pacing is a concern and readers are expecting to dive into the story as soon as possible. Prologues related to the mythology/backstory of the world can sometimes come off slightly impersonal and hard to follow, so I prefer those types of prologues to be clear in content and intent, and not to drag on for too long. But I do understand why they are used. In fantasy, you want to hit the ground running but may find there are aspects of worldbuilding the reader must understand in order for the story to make any sense. The trouble is, if your prologue is too long, or the opening paragraphs are too ‘tell-y’, the reader may just glaze over them anyway and still wind up in the same spot: confused, and potentially losing interest.

There is nothing wrong with having a prologue (I’ve used one in a WIP). Keep it, but consider keeping it succinct and to the purpose as possible, and sprinkling in the rest of your worldbuilding throughout the story. Similarly, try not to overload opening paragraphs with exposition. Choose the most important bit of information you need to get that first scene moving, and stick to that alone, weaving the rest in throughout where relevant. As I said above, the reader is new to every aspect of your world. There is a lot to take in and it is easy to be overwhelmed. Spoon feed your worldbuilding, ensuring every morsel of information builds on the last. By the end of your book, we will have a satisfyingly comprehensive and compelling image of your world.

3.   Opening with an action scene with no grounding in character

Opening with something interesting doesn’t have to mean opening with action (but by all means, do so if that is what your story requires). Action openings can be dry if the focus is on beat-by-beat descriptions of a character’s actions with no interiority to add depth and story. (Interiority is a character’s thoughts, feelings and reactions). ‘He swung left, he ducked, he jumped’ seems exciting, but if we don’t know who HE is, we will have trouble caring whether he survives the impending danger. If you want to open with your character in the middle of an action scene, make us care. Give us insight into how the character is feeling about this situation and why it matters to them to get through this. If we know that, we’ll know why it matters to us.

4.   Saggy middles

The second act sag is a common trouble for writers. What I’ve found helps me is to keep an eye on the conflict-meter as I go. If we get an intriguing, tense set-up, build on that momentum. That doesn’t mean nonstop action scenes. A reprieve is not only important, but also necessary, and if situated in a story correctly, actually helps to build tension. We need these scenes where we (and the character) have a chance to process what has happened, and what could happen in the future. Choose wisely where you place these scenes. Imagine your story as a song and find the parts where there are natural lulls right before the beat drops.

Overarchingly, ensure there is always a sense of conflict and it is always trending up. Often, the saggy middle is caused by the character not knowing what they want, not having a clear goal or plan, or there being no real reason for them to complete this quest. In most circumstances (speaking for SFF at least), your main character must always have an objective. They must have something they want to do, (and something they need to do, which is usually in conflict with their want), and they must be pressed to go after that goal. Walking away from that goal has big consequences, so much so that it is almost impossible. They are locked in, and so are we!

This way, even in the quiet scenes, we don’t lose the tension. We know where the story is going. We know that the main character might be sitting by the fire, tracing shapes in the stars, but this peace cannot go on forever. There is evil to be vanquished/a throne to be reclaimed/someone to be saved, etc., and that knowledge is what keeps us along for the ride.

5.   No sense of time or place

I found the openings of some submissions hard to follow. I was intrigued, but also wondering, “Who said that? What’s going on? Where are they? WHEN are they?” This can be resolved by popping in even one sentence providing some vital contextualization. Again, this advice might feel contradictory, given I’ve said try not to open with the weather, and don’t overload your opening with exposition. It’s about balance. You need just enough to anchor the reader, so they feel comfortable immersing themselves in the story, but not so much that they are overloaded with worldbuilding, or searching through the sensory details for the story.

6.       Tropes with no twist

A necessary disclaimer, seeing as the word ‘trope’ has taken on some negative connotations: something is not bad because it is popular. Every genre has tropes. They are familiar plot elements, concepts and themes that typify a genre. They help structure a story, and readers expect to see these tropes in some fashion.

I actively seek out the tropes I love (revenge tales, twists, enemies who obsess over each another, to name a few), but with the amount of fantasy in the YA category, it could help to do something fresh with your chosen tropes in order to stand out. Reinventing the wheel is not necessary though. I have been delighted by the smallest subversions of a trope.

An example from our inbox was the use of elemental magic (earth, air, fire, water). Elemental magic is great (I’ve used a variation of it in my writing), and rather foundational when you look at the history of magic systems. There are many stories where it is used fantastically, but it is so popular that if the rest of a book also relies on story elements we’ve seen a lot of before, it can feel tired and even weigh the book down. The submissions we received where the magic system (elemental or not) was even a tiny bit different made me sit up and take notice. The magic systems that were woven into their stories so that they felt integral plotwise and thematically were even better.

This applies for all tropes: ask yourself why the version you are telling is different. What is it about your story that it must be read over others? 

7.       Word counts that were too low

Some submissions had great concepts and prose—and were too short.

Generally, anything under 70k words for high fantasy was a concern (and science fiction, but to a lesser extent as not all sci-fi takes place in other worlds/times). There were also some concepts where the word count was 75k, and the story still felt too short because of its unique requirements. This is, unfortunately, a deal breaker when it comes to Pitch Wars, given the narrow window for revisions. Some stories would have required an additional 15k words to allow the story and worldbuilding to breathe, which is generally not feasible to commit to in PW. This may also be the case for agents who are not editorially inclined, and would prefer not to do big revisions with their new client. So, before you call it a day on your manuscript, go back over and see if there are places where scenes or concepts could be fleshed out, or where some plot beats may be missing. (I’ll be doing a separate blog post soon on plot beats/beat sheets, so stay tuned.)

8.       No real sense of conflict or stakes

There were several queries and first chapters where it was not entirely clear what the main character wanted, or what they were trying to do (and why it mattered). The emotional arc of the protagonist (their wants, needs, and fears) underpins a story, and should be the basis upon which everything else is built. (For a great discussion of emotional arcs, and why they are so integral to the success of a story, check out Story Genius by Lisa Cron). 

When querying your manuscript, identify the consequences (the stakes) in unambiguous terms. This is a MUST. If the character doesn’t do X, then Y will happen (and that is very bad, so read on to find out if they succeed or fail.) Stakes are integral to grabbing interest on a query, and integral to initiating and maintaining momentum on the page.

9.       The wrong age category

This one pained me. We received several subs that were great, but worked better either in Middle Grade or Adult. I know you may say, well can’t you take it on anyway? Trust me, we wanted to, but that mis-categorization was apparent to me just from reading the query and first pages. I could tell almost immediately that certain stories, be it their narrative style, but more often the themes and complexity of worldbuilding, didn’t belong in the Young Adult category. If I notice, readers most certainly will, and those readers are not your target audience (because your book is actually an adult fantasy, for example). Simply put, you are doing you and your story a disservice by trying to fit into the wrong category. All the subs Ayana and I felt had chosen the wrong category were fantastic, and I would have happily mentored them. So, please consider where your book belongs. A book is not Young Adult simply because it has a protagonist that fits within the age bracket. The themes must also be appropriate for the category. 

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Okay, that’s it for my feedback on our Pitch Wars inbox. Thank you for reading, and again if you submitted your story to us. In spite of everything I’ve said above, each and every submission was a pleasure to read, and I am grateful you chose us. Keep on telling your stories!

Until next time,
Maiya

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