Yesterday, I posted a little glimpse into a spreadsheet I’ve been using to track my thoughts on various subs. We get a lot of them, so it’s important to jot down some notes as we go — our intial reaction to the premise and the writing, and a log line that will jog our memory. My log lines include things like “High school reunion,” “Royal hate-to-love,” “Crying girl gets guy,” “The bleakest love triangle,” “Nerds get a life,” “Love square,” “Grandmom in a whore house,” and “Cliches and alcohol.” I might start to get a little punchy after a while, but believe me — I know what every one of those MS is about.
When I read a query, the only time I say “no” right away, pages unseen, is if the genre is one I didn’t request — and I got a lot of sci-fi and fantasy despite my super narrow Contemporary Romance wishlist. I might side-eye a premise that doesn’t strike my fancy, but I always, always, always wait to see what the pages will bring. On the other hand, sometimes a query makes me sit up and say, “I soooo want to love this.” Those I mark in my spreadsheet in blue. (Notice there’s no blue on my spreadsheet — more on that later.)
I dive into pages, hoping every single time that I’ll fall completely in love. All of the mentors want to find ourselves buried in so many great subs we just don’t know how we’ll ever decide. BUT – we also have a short window in which to read, so we have to prioritize. When I read pages, I will take a couple of notes on my impressions. Sometimes it’s more detailed, but generally I leave myself a note to remember when the writing pulled me in, and another note about why the writing pulled me out. If the writing knocked my socks off, I mark the entry in yellow. Remember the entries I marked in blue? If they have great writing, too, they get the blue + yellow = green. Those are generally my immediate requests for more pages, and prayers that that the MS holds up.
I had a lot of subs with great writing that I didn’t request more pages from. The reasons were varied. Maybe the voice didn’t appeal to me, or the action on the page didn’t pull me in, or the premise itself wasn’t connecting enough. Why didn’t I request that one in green up there? Maybe I got the pages from another mentor. Maybe another mentor laid claim to it super fast and I decided to wait and watch it. Maybe it had a great premise and great writing and STILL didn’t demand my immediate attention. This is more art than science here.
I had other MS that fell into the dreaded red. Red for me are subs that might have had good writing, but maybe there were other issues that I didn’t think I could overcome during the 2 months we have. This could come down to subjectivity, or maybe the MS felt like it was in an early draft, or maybe I encountered multiple problems with craft such as info-dumping + telling + uneven pacing. (I’ll leave you to do the math on what a purple entry might be.)
Something to note. I counted at least 8 subs in my NO list that other mentors requested. This is a highly subjective business. (I also have entries in green that I’m the only mentor to have requested.) You may also notice in my graph to the left, there’s a red entry among my requests. What’s that about? On that specific entry, I simply couldn’t stop thinking of the opening scene on this sub and went back to re-read it. This happens frequently. An MS worms its way into my head, and days later, I’m thinking, “Where did I see that opening scene? Was it a published book? Oh, no, it was that sub I passed over. Hmmm. Maybe I should take another look.”
As mentors read through requested subs and watch each other mark territory, we know we need to make sure we’ve left no stone unturned. So we start to look back through the subs we didn’t request and re-evaluate. Did I miss something? And surely we have. There are so many great entries to go through, and one of the subs we passed over today could be tomorrow’s big deal. It happens. There’s no scientifically proven way to do this. We’re doing our best to find an MS that speaks to us, but even more, we want to be able to identify exactly how we can help improve it. Do we have the skills to make this MS the best it can be?
This is all a long post to remind you: I could love every sub I get equally and I still only get to pick one. I had 70+ subs. Requesting pages from every author wouldn’t be feasible. I know what it’s like to be on the other side of this. I’ve entered contests and failed to get picked. It’s hard, but you have to remember that contests don’t tell you anything about your worth as an author.
I like to think in metaphor, so here’s my #PitchWars cookie metaphor. Imagine you as the Cookie Mentor were offered a plate of cookies. You might look them over and lick your lips and wonder where to start. But right in the middle you see the dread oatmeal raisin, which in your mind might as well be classified as a vegetable. You know people love them, but they just are not your thing. You pass over the oatmeal raisin pretty quickly.
Now you see there are both peanut butter cookies AND brownies. You love a good peanut butter cookie, but sometimes they don’t have quite as much peanut butter as you like, so you pinch off a piece and taste it. Hmm. It’s pretty good, but a little dry. Better try a piece of the brownie, too. And damn, it’s amazing. You set it aside and survey the platter.
Now you realize you’ve overlooked the snickerdoodles. You don’t even think twice before you’ve bitten into one. The chocolate chip cookies didn’t catch your attention immediately either, but they look so tempting. But you can’t eat them all. You’ve been told you only get to pick one.
How on earth do you decide?
Get the idea? Maybe you’re a delicious pie, and all the mentors are in the mood for cookies. Or cake. Probably cake. But maybe pie? No – definitely fudge.
There is only one thing you can control in publishing: Keep writing, keep learning, keep on trucking. Everything else is luck and timing. Perseverance will help you to be there when luck and timing converge and your pie lands on the desk of the person who was just wondering: Do I want apple or pumpkin today?