When my first play was produced, I had the chance to sit on the other side of the audition table. This was a total Freaky Friday moment for me after many years as an actor. It was incredibly eye opening to see how often actors were rejected for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with their degree of talent.
I recently had another Freaky Friday experience as one of the middle grade mentors for Brenda Drake’s online contest PitchWars. In PitchWars, prospective participants submit queries and five pages to the mentors of their choice. As mentors, we had a few days to sort through our applicants and pick one—ONE!—and two alternates. We gave our mentees feedback on their full manuscripts, helped them craft their pitches, and later in January, the selected pitches and first pages will go up for an agent-judged contest.
As I sorted through the 65 middle grade applicants who had applied to have me as a mentor, I was suddenly on the other side of the audition table again. After years of my own querying journey, I had a condensed glimpse into the life of a literary agent—and I realized how it’s not always about being good enough or not.
A few observations that I hope might help querying writers:
· I turned down a TON of great material. And I turned it down easily. The quality of my submissions was extremely high—there were only one or two who clearly had no idea what they were doing. Most were really solid. But once I’d read a couple that I absolutely adored, it became incredibly easy to pass on anything that didn’t surpass those. I feel like I better understand now how agents have to absolutely fall in love with something to take it on.
· I read a lot of not-awesome queries followed by fantastic pages. There are a lot of resources out there for query critique, but I don’t think they’re being as well utilized as they could be. This is what I said over and over in my feedback to writers I didn’t select: Queries should sound like back jacket copy, not like a list of events that happen. Try to keep the whole thing around 250 words. Try to answer these questions: 1) What does your main character want/need? 2) What’s standing in their way? 3) What will they have to do to overcome it? (This format doesn't work for all manuscripts, but it worked for probably 95% of what I saw.)
· I read many submissions with completely solid writing and very good voice, but the premise just didn’t feel fresh. Portal fantasies, dying races of magical creatures, feisty princesses, coming to terms with the death of a parent. You might have written a fantastic manuscript around one of these things—I’ve written about one of them myself—but you have to make sure that whatever sets your story apart really shines through in the query and first pages.
· Following agent guidelines is important. SO important. I don’t want to undermine this. If an agent says “no horror” then by all means, don’t query them with horror. But if they don’t mention horror at all, and you think they might be a good fit? No harm in trying. My top pick was, not surprisingly from my wish list, a literary verse novel. But my two alternate picks were things I absolutely never would have predicted I would choose—super creepy & superheroes (not together). But great storytelling + terrific voice trumps all and those two pulled me in, despite having subject matter I wouldn't usually gravitate toward.
Have you ever had a Freaky Friday publishing moment? Have you gotten a valuable glimpse into a different position—an agent, an editor, a reviewer? Did you learn anything? How did it enrich your journey as a writer?