A Breakdown of PitchMadness, Clue Edition by Dan Koboldt
Brenda Drake’s Pitch Madness contest, Clue Edition, wraps up this week with a Twitter Pitching Party (#PitMad) on Tuesday.
Pitching contests are rich with opportunities for aspiring authors: a chance to pitch one’s work in short form, get some feedback, network with other authors, and maybe even win the attention of a literary agent. What distinguishes Pitch Madness from other pitching contests? For one thing, there’s a fantastic team of slush readers and blog hosts who read through hundreds of submissions. Entrants provided five pieces of information:
- The title of their completed manuscript
- Word count
- A 35-word pitch
- The first 250 words
From these, the host teams each picked their favorites. There was live tweeting involved. Participants hung out on the hashtag for days. The feedback here was valuable; I collected about forty informative tweets on my blog, and Heather Murphy Capps posted an interview with slush reader L.L. McKinney.
But enough about writing craft. These contests are also valuable because they offer a look at the competition. Un-agented writers of middle grade, young adult, and adult fiction could enter #PitchMadness, so the field was wide open. From the sheer number of entries that flooded in, that competition looks to be fierce.
Brenda generously allowed me to parse the entries and generate some summary statistics, now that the contest is over. I work with noisy data all the time, but e-mail just happens to be a terrible medium for consistent formatting. Many entries were too garbled to be reliably extracted, so these numbers are based on 415 out of more than 500 entries.
There were four age categories in this contest: middle grade (MG), young adult (YA), new adult (NA), and adult. If an entry didn’t specify MG/YA/NA, then I put it in the adult category. YA was the most common category by far, accounting for 46% of entries. The other half fell into adult (28%), middle grade (15%), or new adult (11%). The final 64 picks reflected this distribution rather well (44% YA, 23% adult, 25% MG, 8% NA), though MG entries outperformed the other categories. Way to go, MG authors!
(Submitted Entries) (Picked Entries)
One of the most common remarks (complaints) from slush readers: genre problems. I found myself echoing the slush readers, and saying, “That’s not a genre.” A book’s genre should be in industry terms, and these tend to be broad. “Space Opera” is not a genre; it’s a subtype of science fiction. A related problem: trying to claim multiple genres (e.g. “MG Adventure/Fantasy”). As a reader said, genre is like the Highlander: there can be only one.
On the bright side, PitchMadness entries comprised a wide swath of different genres. Fantasy was the most common (24%), followed by contemporary (12%) and science fiction (11%). Other well-represented genres included paranormal, thriller, romance, mystery, and women’s fiction.
I was keenly interested to look at the word counts across genres. Word count might be the most flexible of criteria for pitching/querying manuscripts. Even so, each age category has a sort of “acceptable range” and a sweet spot. Remember, querying authors, this is not a good area to stand out from the crowd. Note: When parsing this value, I gave authors the benefit of the doubt: surely that entry with 900,000 words is actually 90,000 with an extra zero.
I’ve heard it said that new authors should rarely (if ever) go over 100,000 words for their first book. Fantasy authors should stay under 120,000 words. There are good reasons for this: longer books are more expensive to edit, print, and keep on a bookshelf. Readers are also more likely to try a shorter book from a new author than a 900-page tome.
Most authors in PitchMadness were within the accepted range. Median word counts were 41K for MG, 71K for YA, 80K for NA, and 85K for adult. The longest work pitched (that I parsed out) was around 160,000 words. Is this publishable? Sure. But I wouldn’t want to query it. Almost every manuscript could stand some trimming.
Category Average Median
MG 43,334 41,000
YA 73,323 71,000
NA 79,087 80,000
AD 85,998 85,000
The 35-word Pitch
Word economy is an art form. As many (if not most) entrants found out, pitching an 80,000 word novel in 35 words or less is just plain HARD. You can cheat a little bit with contractions and hyphenation, but not much. An ideal pitch tells us about the character, goal, stakes, and setting without being vague or cliché. It’s tough to do, but many of the pitches were simply outstanding.
When I generated a word cloud from the 35-word pitches, many common themes jumped out out: must, save, world, truth, magic, friends, life, love, death… all words loaded with meaning and emotion. There were many fantastic pitches. I was wowed.
All told, PitchMadness made for a fun, lively, and extremely informative contest. There are many people we should thank: the volunteers who devoted so much time and energy to making it happen, the literary agents who agreed to play along, the authors who submitted, and the many writers who cheered from the sidelines. Thank you, everyone, for participating!