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Prospective Pitch Wars Mentees: Want Help Picking Mentors?

The application window for Pitch Wars 2021 is approaching, and mentee-hopefuls are probably looking for any advice they can get. If that’s you, I was in your shoes! I applied for the program in 2020, and had the good luck to be chosen by mentor and bestselling author Elizabeth Little.

Pitch Wars 2020 was a wonderful experience for me, not just because I was chosen as a mentee, or even because the showcase helped me find representation, but because of the way my mentor and I worked together to make my manuscript into the truest, most impressive version of itself. Our personalities matched, our visions for the story matched, and our expectations for the Pitch Wars process matched. This compatibility is what made everything else I’d hoped for possible.

 What I would like to pass on to you is some insight into choosing the right mentors to apply to (You get four choices!), to give yourself your best shot at finding a mentor-teammate who will:

1) pick your application out of the larger pile of submissions and

2) work well with you in service to your manuscript, in the case that you team up.

The Mentor Blog Hop has begun. In the blog posts of participating mentors (and mentor teams), you’ll find information about:

  • what kinds of manuscripts they’re looking for (age category, genre, themes)
  • what their approach to revision with mentees is like, and
  • what they are NOT looking for (e.g., specific triggers, or certain sub-genres).

Out of around 150 possible mentors/mentor-pairs, narrowing down by age-category (adult, YA, or MG) only limits your possibilities so much. In my case, after reading through every blog post in the adult category, I still came away with 10 possible mentors/mentor-pairs (which is 6 more than I was allowed).

But they all sounded great! Toggling back and forth between blog-post tabs, it felt to me like I could pick any of them—and unwittingly not pick the person who would also want to pick me. To make sure I picked the right 4, I made a spreadsheet. But it doesn’t have to be that! You can organize your information as you like. What’s important is that you take the information down so you can compare and contrast particulars easily.

Which particulars? I’m so glad you asked!

GENRE (SPECIFICALLY)

First, I made a column for each of the ways my manuscript could be categorized, from strongest to weakest match. What do I mean by that? Well, I thought of my manuscript as Gothic Romance/a Gothic novel. It’s the truest genre classification for it, as it shares trope-y genes with Jane Eyre and Rebecca. But, the term “Gothic novel” is not a popular genre category anymore, so sometimes what people will say instead is Romantic Suspense, so I made a column for that, and Suspense in general. My last column was sort of an “other” category—marked “Historical/Historical Romance/Etc.” because my book does take place in the Victorian era, and there was always the possibility that a mentor would mention a genre (or sub-genre) that somehow suited my manuscript that I hadn’t thought of.       

The idea was that I could put an X in whatever column (or columns) that applied to the requested genre(s) of each mentor/mentor team—and perhaps quote them directly beside the X with more information. Why did I do this this way? Why not just write down applicable genres in one “genre” column? Because, for me, genre designation was important to my choice. If a mentor mentioned historicals with romance, then yes, my manuscript offered that. But that isn’t the core of my book. Romantic Suspense is even better, because that IS the primary genre I’m working in—though RS can be set in modern times and my manuscript wasn’t. But if a mentor actually used the words “gothic romance” in their blog posts? That meant that, not only were they looking for the genre I was working in—they were looking for EXACTLY what I’d done. They were thinking of Jane Eyre. They were even expecting, perhaps, that the stories they got might skew Victorian, as mine did, or at least toward the historical.

By making three separate columns, from most to least on-the-nose, I was doing more than just gathering the information; I was forcing myself to rank that information in value, visually—to admit to myself that my strongest bets, at least in terms of genre matching, were folks who explicitly mentioned my exact, somewhat specific genre.

You can do something similar, even if your genre IS more in vogue. Perhaps one column is “fantasy,” the next column is “grimdark/dark fantasy” and the third column is “dark fable/fairy-tale retellings.” Whatever allows you to cast a wide net, then get a little picky, and finally to sort of dream-describe your book. Then see how close the mentors you like come to looking for what you made.

TRIGGERS

For example, I had a column just labeled “Sexual Assault OK?” because, for some, it very much is NOT okay. And it’s not my job as a prospective mentee to change someone’s mind about what they’re comfortable reading. It doesn’t matter if I’ve done a very careful job of not tokenizing the trauma. My manuscript could be ABOUT the problem of sexual assault, and trying to address that social issue (it is), and it still wouldn’t be okay for me to send that to a mentor or mentor-team who said they weren’t comfortable with it. They’re volunteering their time and expertise to help people; it’s disrespectful to disregard the boundaries they have set for their own wellness. What’s more, if you ignore their no-no items, you are definitely shooting yourself in the foot. That’s 1 of your 4 picks that absolutely WON’T get you anywhere.

So, take a minute to jot down (somewhere else) what possible triggers your work contains. Make a list. It doesn’t mean your manuscript is bad or wrong, or that you are bad or wrong—of course fiction should deal with tough subjects! In all likelihood, these triggering topics are incorporated into the thematic strengths of your work. You want someone who is excited to help you refine within those themes, so this is important evaluation for you to do. You’re looking for your best match in a mentor or mentor-team, remember—not to make someone else uncomfortable, or to prove anything to anybody.

If your list is on the long side (say there’s a few kinds of violence), go broad with your column header (e.g., Physical Violence/Emotional Abuse OK?). Then make notes for each of the maybe-mentors or mentor-teams on your list, based on their blog posts, to help you gauge the difference between, say, an “absolute no” and a “qualified yes,” or a “qualified yes” and a “true yes.”

What do I mean? Well, one of my notes for a mentor in this column says “violence is ok, with a purpose.” That’s a qualified yes. Because the sexual assault in my story is not gratuitous, but important to the theme of the story, I felt safe-ish. But another one of my notes in this column, for another mentor, says, “ok, just give me a warning first.” That’s a stronger yes—not the MENTOR being somehow stronger (that’s not what I mean at all), but the assault being ok in the submission is less up to interpretation. Maybe that first mentor won’t think the assault in my story has a purpose, you know? That would mean I threw away a chance, because I misjudged my own work. But with this second mentor, all I need to worry about is remembering to throw a trigger warning into the cover letter that accompanies my application. (I just put it at the top, all caps, before the “Dear Mentors,” if you’re curious.)

As with the genre columns, this will help you separate out good-fit mentors for your work from okay-maybe-fit mentors. Don’t count anybody out at this stage, though—UNLESS they say something like “NO [the triggering thing you wrote about], please.” Then you absolutely strike them from your spreadsheet, for their sake and yours (but mostly theirs, because you care more about being a decent human being than being a mentee in Pitch Wars—right?).

What I did when removing a mentor from the running, rather than delete a row, was to “fill” the row with the same color as the text (black, in my case), so that if I ever forgot why I struck that name, I could remove the fill color and remind myself. That way, you don’t end up circling back to a mentor you already decided against.

REVISION INTENSITY/REVISION APPROACH    

One of my columns was devoted to notes about a mentor’s, or mentor-team’s, approach to revision. But before I could make notes about this, I had to take some time to jot down my own thoughts (elsewhere) about

1) how much time I could devote to revising my manuscript during Pitch Wars, and

2) which elements, or how much overall, I was willing to change in the story.

For me, finding time was not a problem; I was between jobs. Also, I was coming off a very unsuccessful bout of querying this manuscript, so I was in a place where I was willing to tear the book apart if that was what I had to do in order to make it better. There were only a few things that felt absolutely untouchable to me.

I recommend embracing the possibility of changing your manuscript as much as you possibly can. If I’ve gotten anywhere as a writer, it’s mostly because I was open to my craft being improved upon by others who understood what I was trying to do (however crudely) with my words. The worst thing that could happen is that you make some changes that you do like and some that you don’t, and you have to marry some of your new draft into some of your previous draft. Even in that case, you’re still further along on the path to a polished manuscript than you were before, and that’s a win.

Having said that, DO be honest with yourself about how you feel:

  • If you don’t want to change your manuscript AT ALL, don’t apply for Pitch Wars (Sorry! It’s a mentor-mentee program; the changing and growing part is baked right in.).
  • If you only want to polish it up, maybe trim/add here and there, look for language in mentor blog posts that reflects that level of work/approach to revision.
  • If you’re looking for/willing to have a transformative experience, deep-diving into craft, then look for language that reflects that level of commitment and partnership.

Also, look at how mentors talk about what revision IS, and jot down anything that sounds similar to how you think about writing. In her blog post, Elizabeth wrote about treating the mentor-mentee relationship as almost like therapy, focusing on mentee’s feelings about their work, the revision, and their craft. This put me at ease because I see a deep connection between a work and its creator. I know from experience that, if I’m defensive of myself in a critique situation, I will then get defensive of the work, and focus on protecting it instead of on improving it.

Elizabeth seemed like the kind of mentor who could have high expectations without wielding them like a weapon. I also liked that she said she was only interested in making a writer’s work the best possible version of itself (as opposed to changing its essential nature).

MENTORS’ WRITING STYLE/WHEELHOUSE

Set aside some time to track down possible mentors’ most recent books, and READ some of them. I did this when I was narrowing down from 5 mentors to 4, so I bought e-books, but if the cost of doing this part of your research is prohibitive, then find book previews on Amazon or Google Books. A first chapter will tell you plenty (and maybe find you a new favorite author).

After or as you read, jot down some notes about the mentor’s style in your spreadsheet. Why? Because frankly, if you don’t like the mentor’s writing style (for whatever reason), you probably won’t be a good fit. It doesn’t mean they’re bad writers; it just means you will probably bristle when they (quite unconsciously) start to help you, because they can only be themselves, this is how they write, and you (subjectively!) don’t love it.

Reading mentors’ work might also clue you in to what they’re really after genre-wise, in a way their blog post did not. Genre categories mean different things to different people; going directly to a source can clear up the things that get lost in translation.

For example, in my notes for one mentor who was seeking dark fantasy but also Gothic fiction, I wrote, “this has more action in it, and is punchier, than I write.” It was a work of dark fantasy, not a Gothic, so it may not have demonstrated this mentor’s whole range as it concerned me and my manuscript. But it did help me understand a marked difference between the ways my writing lends itself to my specific, Gothic genre (being more languid, a bit slower) and the ways her craft instincts, perhaps, would not line up with mine. I could have been wrong about that, and I didn’t count her out over it! All this taught me was that, MAYBE, she was not my strongest choice, if there were 4 stronger ones.

OTHER STUFF

Anything else in the blog posts that jump out at you as VERY STRONG connections go here. One mentor wanted anything that could be comped to Crimson Peak, so I wrote that down in this column. Another mentor mentioned loving Ouran High School Host Club, and I wrote that down. Both of these are important to me for very different reasons. The former suggests a love of the Gothic, atmospherically horrifying, Romance. The latter suggests a delight in non-traditional romances, especially sexual power dynamics and kink, in a sort of soft, sweet light. For this particular manuscript, the Crimson Peak comp is the more important; when I was ready to compare mentors row by row, I had to own this fact and make a decision.

WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK

Finally, make a column for questions that occur to you, about anything that remains unclear even after reading their entire blog posts. Then, take those questions to those mentors in whatever place they’re comfortable answering them (assuming they’ve offered that in their blog posts).

I followed up with a few mentors via Twitter with questions about whether the specific case of sexual assault in my manuscript would or would not bother them, or if they had any problem with a book that contained BDSM/kink. One mentor got back to me quickly and kindly, and gave me an answer that made me more confident about applying to them (which was super helpful). Another got back to me quickly and kindly, and gave me an answer that made me certain I should NOT apply to them (which was super helpful, too). A third mentor never got back to me, which made me saturate their row in my spreadsheet so I didn’t consider them either way anymore (and even that was super helpful, because it made my decision for me in that case).

ASSESSMENT TIME

By the time you’ve jotted down some stuff in all these columns for all of your “maybe pile” mentors, you should be in a position to compare rows and rank your options with confidence. Look at everything, and weigh the combinations. Maybe one mentor’s genre matches are iffy, but the way they talk about revision really resonates with you, and their writing style is similar to yours. Maybe the reverse is true of another mentor. Between the two, figure out which combination feels strongest to you.

Ideally, it will become clear that 1 or 2 mentors (at least) check all your most important boxes. Of my total 4, I had 3 strong candidates like this, and I got full manuscript requests from 2 of them!

I firmly believe that it was only through evaluating mentors so carefully that I landed on such strong connections. Before my spreadsheet, the decision felt as arbitrary as a coin toss; after my spreadsheet, the right decisions were much more obvious.

I hope this helps, and good luck with applying to Pitch Wars!  

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