I fought in Pitch Wars 2015. And I lost.
I mean, I got in. My name was on that list. I saw it at silly o’clock in the morning UK time, after feverishly refreshing my phone’s Twitter app in the darkness of my bedroom, and I thought, ‘This is when it all begins.’ I’d read the blogs, the tweets, the Facebook posts, and one thing was certain: Pitch Wars was going to change my life.
But it didn’t.
I wish I was one of the success stories. I wish that after two months of frenzied mentoring, my overhauled manuscript had got dozens of agent requests, multiple offers, and a book deal, almost before the Pitch Wars agent round had ended. I wish, in the weeks and months that followed, that my name had been on the ever-growing list of mentees who’d signed with agents. I wish, at the very least, I’d come out of the experience with a better book, a better attitude, a better understanding of my skills and bad habits as a writer…
But I didn’t. I didn’t get any of those things.
Going into Pitch Wars, I’d been querying my MS for around seven months. I’d exhausted all of the applicable agents in the UK and most of the relevant ones in the US. Clearly, something wasn’t right with my book. I entered Pitch Wars to find out what.
But unlike the agents I’d queried, my mentor loved my book — and I was so grateful for that. It was validation and positivity right when I needed it. I felt battle-scarred from querying, and here was a kind voice telling me I’d done everything right, that my book was solid, that it only needed the most minor of minor tweaks and a bit of luck.
My mentor told me absolutely everything I wanted to hear — but I did wonder, as my fellow mentees talked of their gruelling rewrites and tense changes and character cuts/additions, whether a few of my mentor’s more critical emails had been lost in cyberspace. I had to keep quiet in the mentee Facebook group. I couldn’t join in with the conversations about my contemporaries’ struggles because I wasn’t struggling. I wasn’t snowed-under with editing. I didn’t have to worry about plot threads. My characters didn’t need more or less personality. They talked of homework, beat sheets, edit letters, in-text line edits. I never got any of that.
Somehow, in a group of over a hundred, I had the most perfect, polished book there. I won’t lie — I was feeling more than a little bit smug.
And then the agent round happened.
I got two requests: one a swift (but nice) rejection, the other never responded to.
All of the good work my mentor had done to build up my confidence was destroyed. It peeled away from me like cheap wallpaper over a crack, and the confusion of hatred and doubt and fear I’d had for that book returned. This wasn’t a new story. It wasn’t a first draft. I’d rewritten and edited it four or five times, I’d queried 60+ agents, I’d been around the block with it, months and months before Pitch Wars even started.
And because my mentor loved the book so much, because she ‘got’ it, because she didn’t want it to change, it didn’t. I tweaked the first page. I rewrote one scene. I gave the entire MS one final proofread and polish.
But, ultimately, I came out of Pitch Wars with exactly the same book I went into it with: a fun, enjoyable story that was a ‘hard sell’ for literary agents — and I still had no idea why.
So I gave up.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe early 2016 was always going to be tough for me, but depression hit. I cried myself to sleep most nights. I felt useless. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t see any way out of it.
And that horrible cloud of negativity happened in the months after Pitch Wars. The months when mentors and mentees were screaming their successes from the rooftops, cheering for each other, jumping up and down in proud, collective glee.
And I wasn’t one of them. I’d never been one of them.
That’s what I mean by the title of this post. I’m not pointing fingers. I’m not criticising the competition. I’m not complaining.
I’m just being honest.
I am one of the Pitch Wars walking wounded.
As contests go, this one has a big reputation. It’s beloved. Adored. Praised. I’m sure you’ve seen the many, many blog posts about it: ‘15 Reasons Why You Should Enter Pitch Wars!‘ ‘How Pitch Wars Got Me My Agent!‘ ‘Why Entering Pitch Wars Is The Best Thing You’ll Ever Do!‘ It’s something of myth and legend: a real-life fairy tale that promises a happily-ever-after.
But I didn’t get that ending. I didn’t get an agent and a deal. I didn’t exit the contest feeling confident about myself and my writing. I didn’t learn anything. And that’s not my fault or Pitch Wars’ fault or anyone’s fault, really. It just is. I was just unlucky.
The past mentees are right when they say Pitch Wars is a great opportunity. It is! Most people have fantastic experiences. I wholly believe that great things can happen to anybody who enters the contest.
But that’s the key word here: can.
Pitch Wars can be brilliant — but for some of us, for the silent minority too scared or too ashamed to talk about it, it wasn’t. We didn’t get requests. Our names weren’t added to the sprawling list of agented mentees. We aren’t the success stories plastered across Twitter. We’re ‘the others’.
We’re the ones who won the battle, but lost the war.
And that’s the truth I’ve been keeping to myself all these months, too scared to voice it in case I burn bridges or offend the organisers or blacklist myself. But I’ll say it now, because someone has to.
Not everyone who gets into Pitch Wars is going to have a fantastic, life-changing experience.
Pitch Wars isn’t a fairy tale for everyone. Of course it isn’t. All mentors are different. All mentees are different. All books are different. Experiences won’t be the same across the board — but, honestly, the only stories you’re going to hear will be the good ones. The sad truth is that with over a hundred mentees, some of us were always going to be left disappointed — especially when there were so many flourishing writers with absolutely amazing experiences to compare ourselves to.
So here’s my message to the people who didn’t make the list:
By all means allow yourself to feel sad and disappointed for a few days, but don’t convince yourself that you’ve missed out on some magical opportunity that was going to fast-track you to your future.
Because here’s the thing. Mentoring is bloody fantastic if you can get it — but you don’t need it to flourish. Being a mentee is no guarantee of success, just like not getting picked as a mentee is no guarantee of failure.
As attentive or helpful or passionate as a Pitch Wars mentor might be, regardless of how many agents your pitch and first page would’ve been showcased for, in the end it comes down to your book, your writing — YOU. And with the wealth of CPs out there, with the online groups, the support networks, the blogs, the friendship, the love, you don’t need Pitch Wars to get that happy ending. You can find it yourself.
Last week, after months of pretending my doomed Pitch Wars book never existed, I randomly figured out how to save it. And guess what? I’ll be rewriting with a new perspective, cutting huge chunks, overhauling the plot, and killing off characters. I’m doing what the other mentees were doing when I was twiddling my thumbs and staring, dreamy-eyed, at my so-called perfect MS. I’m doing big, BIG edits.
And I figured it out all by myself.
So if you didn’t get into Pitch Wars, don’t punish yourself by thinking of the happy ending you’re missing out on — because I was in Pitch Wars and I missed out on that, too. Instead make friends, make connections, and focus on finding a way to reach that happy ending — that brilliant, fantastic, totally deserved ending — on your own terms and in your own way. Because you can. I promise.
Something I’ve learnt over the past year is that however alone I feel, however lost and sad and hopeless, there’s always someone out there, somewhere in the writing community, who’ll pull me to my feet and urge me to keep going. We’re good at that. So however much it might feel like it, Pitch Wars or no Pitch Wars, you are not alone. Ever. You just have to have the courage to speak up.
You know what? Maybe I was right a year ago when I lay in bed in the early hours of the morning with the announcement shining bright on my phone, thinking about how everything was about to change. Maybe Pitch Wars — through acceptance and rejection, success and failure — does change people’s lives.
It’s just down to us to make sure it’s for the better.