No matter where you are in the writing process – even if you only just have a glimmer of an idea – it pays to pay attention to the marketplace of books. It’s a dizzying world out there, with platforms and pathways to publishing changing by the second, but one thing always holds true: readers are the ultimate arbiters of which books make the big time and which books don’t, and they often make snap judgments about what to read.

In the world of traditional publishing, the first readers – the ones who you must please before you can even hope to have a chance to please others – are agents. Knowing how agents read, and what they respond to, is a great way to learn how readers make those instant assessments, even if your plan is to self publish. After all, agents are simply very well informed readers.

The #PitchWars agent round is happening right now, and even if you have no idea about this contest, or no interest in it, there is a wealth of amazing information for you to learn from. There are literally hundreds of agent pitches posted on Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars blog, and dozens of agents are weighing in on them. You can scan through to see which pitches are getting the most agent requests, and evaluate why. You can also read the agent responses to the pitches. The responses are not typically very extensive – which is common for “yes, please send” requests even out in the real (non-contest) world of pitching – but you can get a feel for what they are responding to.

Note that PitchWars is fiction only. Non-fiction writers can still learn an enormous amount about how to choose a title, how to pitch it, and how to grab the reader from second one. Memoir is pitched in exactly this same way, and most non-fiction follows a similar tack – grabbing the reader with a problem/situation/story and showing them what you are promising they will learn/know/become.

The PitchWars pitches have to be 300 words total, divided between pitch and text, so it’s easy to whip through a lot of them very fast. Note that these pitches will not be up for very long -- the agent showcase closes November 9th.

Here’s how I would recommend using this vast resource of information:

1. Understand what’s happening.

PitchWars is a contest started by Brenda Drake. It pairs writers without agents (mentees) with writers who have agents (mentors). Mentees pitch to mentors, mentors select one writer to work with for two months, and the revised manuscript is then pitched to agents who have raised their hands to participate in the event. The agent round is when the pitches go live to agents – which is what’s happening now.

I was a mentor to Emma Nelson, and for a sense of what we did to her manuscript over the last two months, you can read the series that chronicles the process, listed below at the very end of this post. We will be continuing this series, and showing even more of what Emma did in the coming weeks. Emma’s pitch is #130 in the Adult category if you want to check it out. At the moment, she has three agent requests pending.

2. There are adult, middle grade, and YA pitches, which were posted by date.

Go HERE and read the posts from the date that aligns to the category in which you are writing.

  • November 2: adult
  • November 3: middle grade
  • November 4: young adult.

3. Start by paying attention to the genre.

Scan through all the entries and just look over genre designations. Agents and readers are very specific about the genres – and you need to be specific, too. It’s how books are bought and sold.

4. Next scan the titles. Do they grab you? Why or why not?

5. Click into the entries themselves. Look at the word count. Genres have very specific word count requirements and you need to know what those are.

6. Read the pitch – and stop before you read the text. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it clear whose story this is?
  • Do you know what this story is going to be about in terms of what happens/the plot?
  • Do you know something about why it matters to the main character?
  • Do you have a sense of why it matters to YOU, the reader?

Odds are very good that on the pitches getting attention, the answer to all these questions is a clear Yes.

7. Now read the opening lines. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is something happening right from the start -- not the lead up to the story or the wind-up, but the story itself?
  • Do you feel like you are inside the story – getting inside intel into the main character’s state of mind, their heart’s desire, their problem?
  • Is there narrative drive – forward momentum, a sense that you are already on a journey?
  • Is there rhythm to the words – a sense of voice?
  • Do you want to read more?
  • the text align with the pitch? Does it feel like a promise fulfilled?

Odds are again very good that on the pitches getting attention, the answer to all these questions is a clear Yes.

8. Read the agent responses. Can you tell why some have just a few requests and others have more than that?

9. Put your own story into this format – even if you are YEARS away from pitching, even if you have never considered how to tell your story in just a few lines.

Do it, and see how close you can get to the best of these PitchWars pitches. Some day, whether you go out to an agent or straight to readers by self-publishing, you will need to do this work. And some day, readers are going to be making snap judgments about your story. Start now thinking about how to grab them.