Thursday, December 20, 2012

What turned me on...and turned me off

For those of you who don't know, Jennifer, Sarah and I are mentors in Brenda Drake's Pitch Wars contest. This meant that aspiring writers had the opportunity to query me, like that would an agent, and send me their first five pages of their manuscript. It was like reading through an agent query box and I enjoyed it a lot. But it didn't take me long to see some definite trends, so I thought I'd share some with you with:

Sharon's Turn Ons and Turns off (in a literary sense of course):

Turn On: Humour - especially making fun of trends

Turn Off: Vagueness - I can't fall in love with your story if I don't know what it's really about.

Turn On: Gut wrenching scenes with haunting writing.

Turn Off: Starting a MS with your MC waking up

Turn On: Contemporaries that take a cultural trend and make it their own.

Turn Off: MC looking in the mirror and describing herself/himself - just don't do it.

Turn On: NA that deals with mental health issues in a respectful way.

Turn Off: Weak opening words. No descriptions of the weather, what your MC is eating for breakfast or what's playing on the radio. No Mundane. Draw us in!

Turn On: A retelling that delves into unique world building and puts an unexpected spin on beloved characters.

Turn Off: Lack of voice in a query - if your query is boring chances are your pages are boring.

Turn On: Alternate Universe stories.

Turn Off: Neglecting world building in your query (too little information or using terms only understood once MS is read).

Turn On: When duty and destiny come between love and friendship.

Turn Off: Queries that read like a synopsis

Turn On: Concepts that are left of centre.

Turn Off: Extreme word counts for category (yes I know there are exceptions like Harry Potter and Twilight, but it as a mentor it turned me off).

Turn On: Genre Mash-Ups - well I already new this, but Crystal confirmed it when her submission came in my inbox.

Turn Off: Lack of high stakes/stakes that didn't make sense/vague stakes.

Turn On: Multicultural characters.

Turn On: High concepts movie mash ups.

Turn On: MC's voice coming through in the query (and I don't mean using the MC to write the query).

Turn On: Alternate histories.

Turn On: Space Opera SciFi

Turn On: Historicals

What made me FREAK OUT: A pitch that was REALLY close to something I'm writing as a basic concept.

As you can see there was more that turned me on than turned me off with the Pitch Wars submissions. I really loved something about every query that came past me, which means the writers who pitched to me had done their homework well. A lot of times I was left thinking "if only the writer had done this" about what I read.

Other times I was completely freaked out thinking - "ow am I going to be able to teach this writer anything as a mentor. They're so good!" Even though I felt that way about my pick and alternatives, I also knew that they were the strongest pitches with the strongest writing and each of them had something that the participating agents were looking for. Pep talks from fellow mentors Fiona McLauren and Stacey Heather Lee helped me get that self doubt under control and I went with the ones that were right for me.

I can't wait to show off Crystal, Meagan and Tiffany and their writing to agents next year. I am predicting the world won't end tomorrow and they will each get a squillion requests.

Overall, this project really reinforced to me how subjective querying is. Here's my tips to help you navigate the slush:

  • Workshop your query with writer friends who haven't read your MS - they'll soon tell you if they don't understand what's going on or ways to make it stronger.
  • Personalise your query - it's not hard to find things out about agents with a little research.
  • Hone your first ten pages and make sure you open your MS with a bang not a whimper.
  • Don't giveaway the ending, but give enough that the agent/editor will want to read more.
So good luck if your on the hunt for an agent.


  1. What an awesome post. Good job Sharon!

  2. Thanks Stacey! I felt like it was a whole bunch of rambling, but I literally went back through my inbox as I was writing this post to remind myself why I passed on some and why I fell in love with others.

  3. Writers are still opening with the MC in a dream? Great quick tips. Thanks.