Pitch Wars – and What Makes “No” So Hard

Many of my readers know I’m one of the mentors in the 2013 Pitch Wars competition organized by the amazing Brenda Drake.

For those unaware, the situation in a nutshell, is that during December a group of published authors act as mentors for authors seeking representation. In January, a group of agents review the pitches written by the authors and their mentors and may (and hopefully do) decide to review the authors’ manuscripts.

TL;DR: published authors helping other authors hopefully catch an agent’s attention. WOO!

Last week, the pitch wars applicants submitted queries and sample pages to the mentors of their choice. Well over five dozen applicants selected me. It’s a humbling experience to open your inbox and see that many talented writers–and trust me, each and every one has real talent–willing to put their faith in me.

So, first and foremost, I’d like to thank each and every writer who submitted work to me. I am truly sorry I couldn’t work with everyone.

After the humility came the heartbreak–out of all those entries, I had to choose one, and two alternates, to work with. Only three.

That decision is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a published author. I would rather write a hundred thousand words of fiction than two hundred telling a hopeful author that I’ve had to pass on choosing him or her for Pitch Wars 2013. I know how badly rejections hurt — even when they come from another author and not an agent.

The day I opened that inbox, I felt the weight of dozens of dreams. Dozens of authors, each one eager to receive the chance this competition represents. The chance to be heard. The chance to be seen.

The weight of that decision fell on me with a weight that took my breath away. You see, I don’t think of myself as a gatekeeper–I consider myself an advocate, a mentor, and a friend. Someone who can come alongside and help another author, as my friends and critique partners help me every day. I didn’t consider the decision-making part of the process, or realize how hard it would be to tell a talented person “not this time.”

I won’t sugar coat it–I HATE THAT PART.

Worst of all, an overwhelming percentage of the applicants who queried me have work that’s not just good, it’s publishable (or essentially so) in its current form. The vast majority were books I’d buy and read if I saw them in a store. It’s hard enough to choose among manuscripts in need of help–it’s crushing to have to choose among dozens of polished stories, each a gem deserving of success.

I lost sleep over this decision. I pondered the stories. I read every single page of every submission, and over 500 pages of extra material I requested from some of the applicants. I wrote personalized letters to every author who sent me a query. I tried to give some feedback when I could. Unfortunately, in many cases, the only answer I could give was the very one I hate to give the most: I didn’t connect with the work as closely as I did with a couple of others.

Have I mentioned how much I loathe that answer?

I loathed it when I heard it from agents and editors, and I loathe it even more when I’m the one who types the words. I loathed it from others because it told me nothing about what I could do to change the “no” to “yes” in a future project or further edits. It didn’t help me become a more publishable writer. And yet, when I heard it from others, I didn’t appreciate–not fully–that sometimes there is no other answer. Sometimes, there’s nothing a person can do. It’s not that I didn’t love the submissions, I simply gravitated more to some than I did to others. That’s a normal, human reaction, even though I didn’t understand it fully until it was my mind and my heart in the catbird seat.

To the authors who won’t receive a yes from me on December 11: please accept my honest promise that I didn’t reject you, professionally or personally, I simply thought I could help another manuscript even more.

At the end of the day, a decision had to be made, and I couldn’t make it on the basis of talent alone, because the field was full of talented entries. I had to make the decision by listening to the pull of my mind and heart, and by picking the manuscripts and authors for whom I believed that my skills would make the best match and provide the best assistance.

For those who didn’t receive a yes, from me or from another mentor, I think I’ve found a way for you to understand what it means when we say “I connected more closely with another work.” Go to a bookstore and stand in the aisle that houses your genre. Look at every book on the shelf where your books will someday sit. Pick up each one and ask yourself, “if I could buy only three books from this shelf, would this be one of the three?”

I think you’ll discover pretty quickly how hard the decision is–and how the choices you make will come down to instinct rather than quantifiable factors. If one shelf seems bad, consider: the dozens of entries I received spanned seven genres (some with crossover), not just one– and every single story appealed to me.

I’ll leave you with that thought, and with this one: if you pitched me, please do tell me when (and it is when, not if) your book is published. I would love the opportunity to offer public congratulations on your success–because you will succeed, if you want to. 

Of that, I have no doubt, where each and every one of you is concerned.

11 thoughts on “Pitch Wars – and What Makes “No” So Hard

  • December 10, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Please let me say no matter what the outcome, you are appreciated. I am with you I detest the “I didn’t connect.” But I do understand it. You and all the other mentors had an extremely tough job and for that we all say “Thank you!”
    The ones of us that don’t make may take a small hit but when it’s all said and done, We KNOW the answer hand we not tried. No is never a negative thing because at least you tried.

    Thank you again for this heartwarming note.

    • December 10, 2013 at 12:12 pm

      Thank you Leslie. It’s funny – part of my brain realized that was an honest answer, but I never truly appreciated how hard it actually is to SAY it until this week.

  • December 10, 2013 at 11:41 am

    You have been so kind. Thanks for everything.

    • December 10, 2013 at 12:12 pm

      Thank you Dawn! I’m just sorry I can’t have the chance to work with everyone. Still, I’m looking forward to working with the picks I was able to get!!

  • December 10, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    You sure can’t hide you’re a writer. 🙂 You made me feel your anguish. Thanks for volunteering your precious time. What I’ve enjoyed with Pitch Wars is finding new books to add to my Xmas wish list and gift ideas for others! Not to mention peeking at other author websites. 🙂 Happy Holidays!

    • December 11, 2013 at 2:00 pm

      Happy Holidays to you, too, Amy – and thank you so much. I love PitchWars, even though it’s hard to make the choices, because it lets me help other authors who are still on the way to publication. I remember the people who helped me, and I love having the chance to pay it forward.

  • December 10, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    Dear Ms. Spann,

    I submitted my novel, OBLIVIOUS, to you for Pitch Wars, and it seems Gmail must’ve eaten the feedback email, as I’ve yet to receive anything. Thank you so much for your time! Your kindness is incredible. 🙂

    • December 11, 2013 at 1:59 pm

      I’m sorry about the gmail glitch! I’ll get my feedback email out to you ASAP. It seems the contest gmail hit its daily maximum for sends, so some of the emails looked like they sent but did not. If I need to, I’ll send it on from my personal email.

  • December 11, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Hi Susan,

    I know you’ve had a busy week with Pitch Wars! Sadly, I was looking forward to your comments re: my “Jazz Age” mystery, BATHING BEAUTIES but have yet to receive an e-mail. Any advice or suggestions will be welcome. Please feel free to contact me at your convenience. Thanks for your time!

    • December 12, 2013 at 8:17 pm

      Hi Ellen,

      I remember your mystery, and did write a feedback email. Brenda is sending out the emails from the contest gmail as she can – gmail limits our daily message quota. If you don’t get my email within a day or so, let me know and I’ll send it directly from my personal email.

  • December 12, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    I was delighted to get your thoughtful email–it was definitely worth the wait! I really appreciate your kindness and generosity.
    So flattered by your nice remarks!
    I do have a couple of questions I’d like to ask you if you have time, but in any case I will follow up.
    Best of luck working with the lucky winners. Thanks so much! Ellen

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