Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Secrets of Kidlit: An Insider's Look at PitchWars

For the second year in a row, I signed up to be a PitchWars mentor. Fellow MG Beta Readers and Kidliterati contributors Ronni Arno Blaisdell, Ben Brooks, and Brooks Benjamin are also middle grade mentors this year, which makes the whole thing even more fun!

What in the world is PitchWars? It's this unique writing contest where unrepresented writers apply to a group of mentors. If chosen, the writer works with a mentor for two months to polish a manuscript. In November, the writers' 25-word pitches and first 250 words will be posted on contest organizer Brenda Drake's blog for a group of agents to peruse.

I love that other writers are kind enough to let me see their work, and as anyone who's ever entered a writing contest knows, that takes a whole lot of bravery! I also love that I get to learn from the writers who send me their queries and chapters. So, I thought I'd post a few insights I've picked up both this year and last year. I'm going to use Jen Malone's fabulous AT YOUR SERVICE as an example, since it's brand-new to the world as of yesterday!

1) Hook 'Em! Basically, you've gotta have a hook. When your query is sharing swimming space with hundreds of other queries in an inbox, your query needs to jump out and bite. For example: Thirteen-year-old Chloe is the best--and only--junior concierge in New York, but she might be out of a job when she loses a visiting princess. The hook is what makes your book different from every other book out there. I can't stress how important it is to have one in order to stand out, and I'm not sure I truly understood that until I had to read an inbox full of queries!

2) Trend Watch. I'm not going to get too specific with trends until after the mentors announce their picks, but there are at least distinct three trends in my inbox. If your book lands in one of these trends, the hook becomes even more important. There are two manuscripts I'm considering that fall into these trends, but they both have strong hooks, great writing, and compelling voices.

Credit to Justin Gaurav Murgai.
Used under a Creative Commons License.
3) Voice it Up. It's all about the voice with me. You could be writing about the life cycle of green beans, but if you do it in a smack-me-in-the-face voice, I'll read the whole thing and recommend it to friends! When I first read Jen's work, it was the voice that got me. And that's true for AT YOUR SERVICE, too--Chloe's voice is both funny and compelling. One of the things I enjoy most about PitchWars is seeing how unique everyone's voice is. But you've got to have one that stands out, or your work will get buried under those that do.

Credit to Thorsten Becker.
Used under a Creative Commons License.

4) Get Closer. Distance from the main character was the biggest problem I saw with PitchWars entries last year, and I'm still seeing it this year. You've got to be in your main character's head, whether you're writing first person or third person. When you're not, it become hard--and sometimes impossible--for the reader to get to know your character. And if I don't understand the character or care about him or her, I lose interest in the story. In AT YOUR SERVICE, Chloe sidles right up next to you from the first page. You're never at a loss for what she thinks or feels, even (especially!) if she doesn't come out and say it. And that's the best kind of writing, in my opinion.

5) Who Cares? This is stakes, and lack of stakes is the biggest problem I'm seeing in entries this year. Big stakes don't have to be saving the world or saving a life, but they do have to be personal to the main character. In AT YOUR SERVICE, Chloe has to find the princess, or she'll lose the job that means everything to her and disappoint her dad. So, sure, a lost princess is big stakes, but it's the personal reasons that Chloe needs to find the princess that makes this book a must-read.


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