I received 86 queries, most of which fit my manuscript wish list (MSWL). Deciding early on that I would only have two piles, a Maybe pile and a Pass pile, I read the query letters and usually just the first 2-3 pages of the writing sample.
Those that made it into the Maybe pile had a well-written query letter that gave me a sense of the premise, plot, stakes, and character(s) - some or all of which resonated with me on a personal level - and pages that started in a scene with some sense of stakes, emotion, and/or intrigue. The most common reasons I passed were that the submission didn't fit with my MSWL or the story didn't start in the right place. There were a couple of cases where the first five pages were actually outstanding, but the premise or main characters just weren't my cup of tea.
I did notice that I became pickier about halfway through the submissions, which would suggest that those who submit early have a slight advantage. That said, there were definitely some very strong submissions that came in later, several of which made it into my Maybe pile and I think one or two even made it to Round 3.
As I went through the 86 queries I made very brief notes about both the query letter and the pages. On Sunday and Monday I tweeted all of them - both Maybes and Passes - but by Tuesday I'd decided that was crazypants, so I only tweeted the Maybes. I did, however, email my brief notes to every single person who submitted to me. Although this wasn't particularly challenging work, it was time-intensive, adding 2-3 hours a day onto my workload.
During Round 1 I hadn't paid attention to how many submissions went into the Maybe pile. I ended up with 33. In order to narrow these down to the 10 Requests for Partials (RFPs), I focused mainly on the 5-page writing sample. In a few cases I also went back and re-read the query letter for plot and word count. Maybes that made it to the RFP pile demonstrated strong craft and voice in the pages, had some sort of emotional impact, and the catalyst or inciting incident showed up in the first five pages (or I at least got a sense that it was coming soon).
I took notes on all 33 of the Maybes, and the authors of the 23 I passed on each received a paragraph of feedback explaining not only what drew me to the story but also why I ultimately passed. I often offered a suggestion or two about what could make their 5-page sample stronger.
For the RFPs, I asked for the first fifty pages of the ms PLUS the five pages that included the Darkest Moment (including where in the ms they were, e.g. pp. 189-193 of 280) and the last two pages of the book. These materials, I hypothesized, would give me a good sense not only of the plot's pacing, the characters, and the craft but also of the narrative arc.
I also asked these ten authors what they hoped to get out of the editing process and how much time they could realistically devote to revision during the editing round.
The criteria on which I based my decision about which manuscripts to work with toward the agent round, as communicated to the 10 authors at the time of request:
- How well it fits my mission statement for this contest: character-driven genre fiction that explores important questions about being human in today's societies in ways that are fresh, accessible, deeply connecting, and entertaining.
- Real feels.
- Whether we can get your ms query-ready in the time we have to work on it.
- How well it fits one or more of the P2P agents' MSWLs.
- And of course that ineffable, inexplicable tingliness I get from reading your pages.
The other half was much harder. A couple I ruled out because I didn't see more than one agent whom I thought would be willing to consider it, and the third I passed on only because I was 0.0000002% more attracted to the other two manuscripts for their emotional impact on me. None of these decisions was easy on an emotional level; they'd all made it into my top 10 because I felt strongly attracted to their stories and their writing styles. I cried. I really did.
In the end I chose two authors to work with toward the agent round and emailed the other eight authors 2-3 pages of feedback on their partials.
The day-to-day realities
All of this I did in a week. Less than a week, actually, because I started reading for Round 1 on Sunday, March 6th, and I submitted my two picks to Samantha and Becca on Friday, March 11th. Needless to say, it was a busy time.
Most days, I got up around 7am, drank coffee all day, found a few minutes here and there to shove a piece of bread or some carrot sticks down my throat, and finally passed out from exhaustion somewhere between 2am and 4am. Aside from taking my dog for short walks around the neighborhood, I don't think I left my house at all. I completely neglected my family and friends (whom I'd warned ahead of time so they wouldn't take it personally).
I worked harder during this week than I'd worked in years, and by the end of it, I was emotionally and physically exhausted.
What kept me going? Waking up every morning to emails from authors whose books I'd passed on expressing their sincere appreciation for my feedback (omg I'm getting teary-eyed again just thinking about it). Hundreds of positive, mutually supportive tweets in the #p2p16 feed every day that kept the entire community energized. The conversations both in email and on Twitter about the writing process and good writing and publishing. The knowledge that what I was doing mattered to the authors. All these factors gave me a natural high that I rode all week long and that somehow managed to keep my brain alert and functioning.
What I got out of it
Participating in P2P met my needs for meaningful contribution, learning, challenge, appreciation, and fun. I had a chance to hand-pick manuscripts I wanted to work with, books that fit my vision for the kinds of stories I want to see more of in the world. It gave me a venue for paying forward the kindness and generosity so many people showed me when I first started my freelance business. I got some new professional learning out of it, and it increased my confidence in my editing skills and taught me that I can glean more than I'd expected to be able to glean from only five pages. And it brought me a handful of new clients with whom I am unbelievably excited to work.
This experience was phenomenal, and I can't wait to do it again.
Forthcoming related posts:
- Reflections on the editing round
- Your first five pages
- Your Darkest Moment
- How to prepare for October P2P16