A 2020 Mentee Answers Your Pitch Wars Questions

The Pitch Wars hype train is gaining steam again, with mentors working on their wish lists and potential mentees already preparing to submit. If you’re considering entering, this post is for you. Let’s talk about what Pitch Wars is really like, what it means to be Pitch Wars ready, and the pros and cons of this intense mentorship experience.

Pitch Wars is a mentoring program where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer suggestions on how to make the manuscript shine for an agent showcase. The mentor also helps edit their mentee’s pitch for the contest and their query letter for submitting to agents.

Pitch Wars Official Site

I sourced these questions from Twitter and my Discord servers. If you have questions about the mentee experience that I didn’t answer here, feel free to hit me up in the comments or on Twitter! Also, if you’re interested in comparing my perspective today with my perspective a year ago, check out my pre-Pitch Wars reflections from last September.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with the Pitch Wars committee beyond my mentee experience. For Pitch Wars-endorsed answers, you should visit the official Pitch Wars site, FAQ, and blog, where the 2021 mentors are currently sharing some helpful feedback on queries and first pages in the lead-up to the submissions period. Many mentors participate in #AskMentor events periodically on Twitter, so keep an eye out for those.

How much of my book did I revise during Pitch Wars?

My Pitch Wars revision was intense and extensive. I wrote more about my personal revision process in this blog, here. It’s hard to quantify exactly, but based on a document comparison I did in Word, I changed about 70%. The biggest were eliminating settings/subplots and POVs, starting character threads earlier or later, and adjusting some major plot points. I introduced some brand new elements and wrote a new midpoint. I also did line edits with my mentor for characterization, clarity, and worldbuilding.

The level of revision will vary from person to person, mentor to mentor, and manuscript to manuscript. I had a lot of elements in my book that needed teasing out, and a lot of filler in the middle that I ditched for more significant plot points. Keep in mind that I am naturally a pantser so much of my revision process, mentor or no mentor, involves bringing coherence and a plan where none previously existed. Learning how to reverse outline (outlining an already drafted story) during Pitch Wars was huge for me.

What if my mentor and I don’t agree on what changes to make?

My mentor was always extremely clear that any changes we discussed were ultimately my choice. I took most of her suggestions, though I know I rejected a few, and she took that in stride. Rather than dictate changes, we would discuss possibilities and she provided a great sounding board for brainstorming. When I decided, unprompted, that I wanted to change my midpoint at the last minute, her only comment was “Godspeed.” LOL. It was a risky decision given time constraints, but it worked out fine in the end, and I’m grateful that she gave me free rein to take those kind of risks!

I know some mentees who did feel their mentors required more mandatory changes, however. This is a good time to say that not all mentorships will end up being a good fit for both parties. I would encourage any mentee to remember that the book belongs to them, that they are the arbiter of their own process, and that Pitch Wars mentors are often only a step or two ahead of their mentees in their publishing journey. Learning to take feedback is its own skill, but learning to filter it and turn it down when necessary is also a skill. Or, as Neil Gaiman says:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing (Brain Pickings)

This is not to say that you shouldn’t listen to your mentor, but rather that you should trust your own instinct as an artist and retain ownership over your work. As a mentee, you will likely work closely with your mentor, but it is a mentorship, not a co-writing relationship.

What was your experience with the PW mentee community?

The more correct way to phrase this question would be “What is your experience with the PW mentee community?” We are still going strong a year later with an active server on Discord. I adore my class of mentees. They are a diverse, talented, funny, and kind group of writers, and knowing them has enriched my life, leveled up my craft, and acted as a much-needed supportive touchstone through the ups and downs of Pitch Wars in a pandemic year. I hope and believe that many of the people I met through the program will be writing friends for life.

With that said, the mentee group is not selected for their compatibility with each other. With over 100 people writing in vastly different genres for three different age groups, it would be a miracle if everyone’s personalities, politics, and preferences meshed. My class lucked into some fantastic leadership that worked hard to keep our group active, cohesive, and communicating, which prevented any conflicts from boiling over. Community moderation is no small task, so big shout out to our fearless leaders, Morag and Erin of M.K. Hardy, and the rest of our badass Discord moderator team.

What’s the #1 reason not to do PW?

If your goal is getting a gold star on your writing as it is today, Pitch Wars is not the right program for that. I have seen many people mention that they want the validation of getting a request or mentorship, and even though I also felt that way to a degree when I applied, it shouldn’t be your main goal. Most mentors specifically look for a manuscript that needs work, so if your work may get passed over because it is too polished.

In addition, if you’re not prepared to learn and work hard on your craft, you’re not ready for Pitch Wars. It’s a really good idea to have some experience working with feedback through critique partners or beta readers before you enter so that PW is not your first time receiving constructive criticism. I know I sound like a broken record on this point, but processing feedback is its own skill and you will likely need to process a lot of it if you become a mentee.

The other big reason you might not want to apply to Pitch Wars is if you have major concerns about its impacts on your mental health. I suggest having a plan in place for maintaining your mental health throughout the program. With an editing period of about two months, Pitch Wars is a very short timeline for extensive revisions, and it can be very stressful. Ideally, you would have good self-care habits established beforehand.

I had the privilege of a good pre-existing counseling relationship, a work-from-home setup, a supportive partner, no need for childcare, and an established yoga/mindfulness practice. I knew I thrived under time constraints and could produce fairly polished work under deadline. But the short timeline was still extremely tight. I still experienced high stress levels. I still lost sleep and worked myself too hard despite my mentor, therapist, AND spouse’s best efforts to make me take breaks. Without the support systems and self-care practices I had in place, I would have really struggled to balance the deadlines and demands of the program with the demands of my personal life and day job work.

There are other mentorship programs that don’t have the same tight deadlines, such as Author Mentor Match. If you are concerned about the impact of the timeline, you may want to consider those programs. They can provide different benefits, but are no less helpful and may be a better fit for some writers and manuscripts (especially longer ones).

What were the unexpected surprises, good or bad?

First, the surprise downside: I did not expect the outsized emotional impact of watching fellow mentees get offers of representation while I didn’t. Even though I told myself daily that it was not a competition and I had already “won” thanks to the quality of my mentorship, craft development, and community, the agent showcase and post-showcase period can feel like a race because everyone enters the querying trenches at more or less the same time. It was and is challenging to watch my heart book get passed over when others received offers. If I didn’t also have my small press book deal to focus on after the showcase, I think this would have been even more difficult for me. (ETA: my book deal is for a different manuscript than the one I took to Pitch Wars.)

At this point, I have come to terms with the outcome so far, and most days I believe it’s not a reflection of my skill as a writer. However, sometimes I wish that I had chosen to skip the agent showcase. To the best of my knowledge, none of my science fiction cohort who are now agented got their representation directly through the showcase. (ETA: I have been informed that at least two SF mentees did get rep as a result of showcase, but not directly from showcase requests.) So if you are writing sci fi this year, be aware that the market has been contracting and that not many sci fi agents participate in the Pitch Wars showcase. You will benefit from your mentorship either way, but you may have the most success with cold querying.

The best surprise was the connection I made with my mentor, Ren Hutchings, and her group of PW and AMM mentees. I expected to get a teacher and I did, but I also got friendship that outlasted the program. That’s a gift. Of course, every mentorship experience is different and not every mentee and mentor click like this. However, beyond mentorship, so many of the relationships I built with other mentees, other hopefuls, and even other mentors have all been incredibly valuable to me.

What was the most important thing you learned?

The most important lesson of Pitch Wars for me was gaining a deeper understanding of the publishing industry and writing as a career. I learned that the industry can be unpredictable, that publishing is a long journey, and there’s no finish line. You haven’t “arrived” when you get into Pitch Wars, but you’ve taken a big step toward a writing career. I’m still learning every day about this vocation and all the nuances involved with it. I’m still learning not to move the goalposts as soon as I hit a milestone. And I’m still learning how much I have yet to learn.

Pitch Wars isn’t the only path, either. I got a book deal without it, albeit on a different manuscript. My publisher offered the same day I got into the program, while I was on my introductory call with Ren! You don’t need to do Pitch Wars to get an agent or a book deal. But will it give you tools, experience, connections, and knowledge that will help you navigate the publishing world? Yes, absolutely it will.

What communication did you have with your mentor prior to selection?

When Ren requested my manuscript, she included a series of thoughtful questions about my goals for the book, what I would consider changing, what I thought the manuscripts strengths and weaknesses were, my query history, and what I loved about it. After she read the full, she sent a few more specific questions that addressed some ideas she had about it. (At that point I started wondering if I had a chance at the mentorship, but I didn’t dare to entertain the possibility overmuch!) I sent back a rather longwinded answer and we exchanged a few emails after that talking about time loops, Star Trek, and various aspects of the plot.

She later said she had to stop herself from going further because she didn’t want to give the game away! But we definitely had a strong vibe going. It was clear from the outset that she “got” me and what I was trying to accomplish with the book, which was really exciting for me as a writer. By the time she sent me her welcome email, I felt like I had a good idea of who she was and the kind of creative, free-wheeling dynamic we would have. But I was definitely still surprised and overwhelmed when I got selected even though I knew she must be seriously considering me by then.

What, if any, is a common feature of people who get picked?

I’m not sure there is a common feature! If anything, it’s that everyone who gets picked is passionate and committed to their writing, but I think that may be a feature of PW applicants. I would say people who get picked are probably more serious than the average about pursuing a writing career, are willing to work hard, and have a manuscript with strong potential that still needs work to become query ready, but not more work than can be accomplished within the 2-3 month period set by the Pitch Wars calendar.

What do mentees not consider, but should, when picking a mentor?

I think that it’s crucial to have similar communication styles and a good understanding of what level of editing you are looking for from your mentor. Most mentees make their choices based solely on wishlists and don’t realize that it’s the quality of the mentorship relationship that will ultimately make the biggest difference to the end result. Editing and publishing experience varies widely between mentors, with some mentors being recently agented writers who have not gone through many professional edits, some having several years of mentorship experience, and some having extensive experience with the publishing industry. (As an example, my mentor had been agented for a few years with a pending book deal, but had mentored through several events and was working on a publishing degree concurrent to our mentorship, so I benefited from her experience in all those areas.) Mentors with editing experience may be more hands on with their feedback and advice.

As a caveat, though, just because someone is a first-time mentor or newly agented doesn’t mean they won’t be a good mentor. Many of my class of 2020 cohort is mentoring for the first time this year and I know their mentees will be lucky to have their guidance. But it is a good idea to consider what kind of mentoring and editing experience a prospective mentor has in order to match that up to your needs, expectations, and preferences at this point in your writing journey.

Have more questions? Please ask!

Thanks so much for reading and I hope my perspective was helpful! I’m always open to comments and questions about my experience with the program.

Small plug: my mentor and I both have books coming out soon. I can’t wait for Ren Hutchings’ twisty, time-bending sci fi debut Under Fortunate Stars! She’s an amazing writer and all-around fantastic human, and you’re not going to want to miss this one. (Add it on Goodreads!)

Finally, my debut urban fantasy, Cambion’s Law, comes out in just over two months! Read more, add it on Goodreads, and preorder it here. Or, if you can’t wait for a sneak peek, subscribe to my newsletter to read the first chapter and get access to other goodies, news, and future ARC opportunities. My next newsletter will be winging its way to inboxes soon, so sign up today!

2 thoughts on “A 2020 Mentee Answers Your Pitch Wars Questions

  1. This is awesome Erin! You really helped focus a lot of thoughts and questions I have whether PW is right for me, and what to expect.

    Ps- you might want to clarify for folks coming across you for the first time that you have two manuscripts-the one you got a book deal for when you started pw, and your pw manuscript, which is different. (At least, I think, right?)

    Liked by 2 people

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