The Lessons of Slush Pile Madness

For those of you who haven't heard (and if you haven't heard, where have you been?!), Brenda Drake is hosting a pitch contest called Pitch Madness.

The contest calls for a 35-word pitch and 150 words. Four judges will pick their top ten favorite pitches to post for the eyes of some fabulous agents. Two submission windows have already closed, but there's one more on Tuesday! (click here for all the deets)

I've had the opportunity to be one of the readers of the slush for this contest. A few other fabulous writers and I are work behind the scenes, reading all of the pitches that come in and sorting them into piles of "yes," "maybe," and "no." Then Brenda and the other three judges pick their top ten from the "yes" pile.

Let me tell you, it's hard. And scary.

I've been an entrant in contests like this before, so every time I read a pitch, I know what it feels like to be the writer. And I feel terrible when the pitch or first 150 words aren't quite strong enough or intriguing enough to earn a spot in the fated "yes" pile.

SO, I want to share some of what I've learned from the process--which is a lot. Some of these tips have already shown up on twitter. Hopefully, they'll help you guys. I don't feel terribly qualified for this. But I'll share my thoughts anyway, so even if your pitch isn't one of the finalists this time, you can fix it up so maybe it will be next time.

Here we go!


             THE INTRODUCTION - the first glimpse at what the novel is about

Your pitch should be riveting, like Robert Downey Jr.

(ladies, try not to let him distract you from finishing reading the post!)

Your pitch should show how your plot is unique.

Aim for specificity in the pitch -- 1 or 2 choice details are far better than stating something like "and then bad things happen."

The details you add enhance the voice of your pitch. A distinct voice is far more likely to stand out and capture a reader's attention.

Try to make the voice of your pitch match the voice of your novel. Remember, the pitch should show the reader what to expect. If the opening of the novel has a different feel to it, the reader may feel cheated.

Don't be too tell-y in the pitch and say things like "this is a suspenseful adventure story." Work on showing intriguing elements of the plot.

*The strongest pitches tend to not include question marks.*

Check spelling/know basic grammar. <-- It's really not that hard. Don't let something that's easy to fix weaken your pitch!

The best advice: Read through short movie descriptions or book blurbs and see what hooks you and what doesn't! Use what you learn to shape your pitch.


           THE NOVEL'S OPENING - the words that will make the reader want to
                                                                keep reading

The first 150 words should show some sense of genre.

They should include details of setting. Don't bog down the opening with too many details--just enough to place the character in the scene. Setting works especially well when intermingled with character action.

The action doesn't have to be radical--you don't need to open with a girl shooting her brother to capture the reader's attention. But something important should be happening to the character, or he/she should be doing something important, or you might be starting in the wrong place.

Try to write an opening that will make a reader ask a question. Then he/she is more likely to keep reading for the answer!

Don't spend all 150 words describing the character. Things like hair color, whiteness of teeth, occupation, or whether or not he/she is cool enough to wear a bowtie can wait.

The reader first needs a reason to care.

Give the reader a reason to care about the main character.

95% of the time, cutting the prologue makes the opening stronger.

If your pitch mentions two main characters, and then the first 150 introduce a different character who seems important, it can be very confusing.

If you're going to open with dialogue, make sure it's not bland. It should be eye-catching and intriguing, because the reader doesn't have any reason to care for the characters who are talking yet.

Again, check your spelling and know basic grammar!

If you ever read the first 150 words and say to yourself they're "good enough," you might want to try something different. It's easy to say words are "good enough," and it's also easy for a reader to close a book. Why not strive for the very best work you're capable of doing?

Trust your gut. Always. (Try not to ignore it.)

The best advice: Read the first page of your favorite novels, figure out why they work, and apply it to your own manuscript!


Look for phrases like "he saw" or "she noticed" in your manuscript and cut them. For example, "He saw Arya jump" can just be "Arya jumped." This deepens the POV.

To save words in a manuscript, remember you can replace "she sits down" with "she sits," or "we jump high up" with "we jump high."


That's all I've got, at least for now. I hope these tips help.



  1. Great tips. It's been fun watching all the twitter comments rolling in! Thanks for reading the slush.

  2. Great tips, Stephanie! I've been following your suggestions on twitter and loving all of them. Thanks so much for being a Pitch Madness reader and helping give us some insight into the process.

  3. That last pic cracked me up!

    Great advice and tips. I've learned a lot from reading pitches and first paragraphs on other blogs (Miss Snark for example) but it's still tough to hit all the right elements in my own work.

  4. Such awesome advice! Thanks so much for reading the slush!

  5. This was excellent! I saw some of your advice on your Twitter as well :) Thank you! This helped a ton.

  6. I've been enjoying all the tips. Makes me want to read some slush! :)

  7. Stephanie,

    Sharing what you've learned from your own journey is paying it forward. I appreciate you! Thanks.