This is a hard post to do, knowing so many writers will be disappointed with the results on September 2nd. That's one of the reasons I try to stress other parts of contests, such as finding critique partners and learning from the twitter wisdom. Not everyone will reach the agent round, but everyone can benefit.
So let's start with stats. I had about 63 submissions. That can be rounded up to a two percent chance of being picked by me as I didn't request any material that wasn't sent directly to me. I read through all of them by Tuesday night, both query letter and the chapter. In most cases I read the entire chapter to the end. A few times the chapters were unusually long or needed so much work that I stopped early. Out of those 63, a handful were the wrong genre or age category. I still read them as they had my name on them but marked them accordingly.
Eight entries got labelled from the start as material I wanted to see more. I requested fulls from all eight. Eleven got marked as maybe entries. With so many fulls of about 100K words and such talent, I didn't have much time to look deeper at the maybes. In fact I'm still reading from the eight fulls as of Saturday. But I plan to let those people know there was something about their entry that stood out from the crowd.
I would say the query letter got twenty percent of my attention. Query letters can easily be redone. Not so much with the writing and concept. So the first chapter usually determined whether I wanted to see more or not. Sometimes the reason for a no was the writing,--too many grammar/punctuation problems usually also corresponded to flatter characters and less interesting/original dialogue and plot--but often the decision was subjective because the subject or main character just wasn't for me.
I was looking for first chapters that had many layers to them. And by layers I mean depth and accomplishing many goals in the one chapter. It should show: Depth of characters. Writing that showed about the characters. World building that told me something about the society or theme. Hints or action on the overall plot. An element to make me curious. Something of interest happening.
First chapters should avoid giving information that doesn't add to the plot at that point. Don't bother telling something that won't happen or come up for another three chapters. Don't bother describing something about your character's looks if it doesn't also show their personality. If their hair is pink because they are in a rebellious stage that shows me something about the character. If their hair is brown, it doesn't really mean anything or need to be said in the first pages.
I didn't rule anything out because it needed too much work, but most often those entries would failed to catch my eye. If an entry had problems with tense and grammar, it seemed to be likely that the writer hadn't developed the skills yet to create stand-out characters or unique situations. And that's okay because we are all at different spots in our journey.
Contests are one way to gain that experience, and acquiring critique partners are the best ways to learn about writing. I recommend everyone have readers of various levels of experience to teach you new things. The only way to grow your skills is to write more and never stop learning and that's true of all of us, including Pitchwars mentors.
I know there will be a lot of disappointment next week. I know exactly how that feels. I understand the bitter taste of not getting chosen for a contest. It took me four manuscripts to get an agent. That book was on submission for a year and never sold. It got tons of rejections and those editors weren't limited to taking just one book. It hurts. There was so much pain that had to be hidden and kept inside every day for a year. But you have to use that feeling to keep querying or to write your next book.
It's sad but true that by the time your book is published and up to the public for review, you need to have a very thick skin. Embrace that graciously, believe in your writing, and your way will be easier.
For my one pick, I plan to go for something that makes me excited to read. That has characters to care about and a unique concept that stands out in a pitch. A story that I love. And most importantly, something I feel I can read over and over without getting tired of it.
Now the hardest part: feedback. I plan to give notes to everyone that I requested more material from. I'm afraid I can't do much for everyone else. Last year I sent a personalized letter to all. This year I have deadlines and a sequel to write. Also last year, I sent line edits to my requests for their first 50 pages. This year, I won't be able to manage that. I feel badly about that, but I have made a vow to put my writing first this year and putting it aside for two weeks is enough.
I plan to have an afternoon slot on twitter where I will answer any questions about your sub. If you want to know what notes I put on your entry, then contact me by twitter on Thursday, September 3rd after 3:30 pm Eastern and I'll dm you a response.
Feel free to ask me questions. And remember there are other contests coming such as Pitch Slam and Nightmare on Query Street in October.