Note from Aimee: My fellow 2021 Pitch Wars alum brings this heavy-hitting post on so many topics that could have been penned by me it aches. Nothing is a guarantee in this business, but damn if there aren’t so many clever ways into making us believe there are ways to be the exception to that rule. Thank you to Astra for shining a light on dark nights…
Content/Trigger Warnings: Mention of death in the family; RSD; query statistics
The Long Dark Night of Pitch Wars
By: Astra Crompton (Follow Astra on Twitter @ulzaorith)
I was a Pitch Wars 2021/2022 mentee. When I was accepted, my hope soared. I thought: This is it; I’ve finally gotten my chance! Little did I know that my class was to be the last Pitch Wars class ever and that, through spectacularly bad timing, my book (and my writing) would be dead in the water for over a year.
How did I Get Here?
I’ve had, like many writers, a meandering journey towards traditional publishing. I started self-publishing ashcans (hand-drawn picture books and graphic novels that my parents helped me print off at a local print shop) as a tween. By the time I was fifteen, I had written my first overly ambitious epic fantasy novel (we’ll come back to that), which I printed and mailed in SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes) to agents in New York. This was before things like Query Tracker existed and everything was still, mostly, done in hard copy. I got nothing but rejections to my first batch of ten queries, but I figured, I was young yet.
Being brash, and with the advent of print-on-demand self-publishing, I leapt at the chance for creative control and spent a decade self-publishing a series of “unmarketable” dream projects. Some of which I’m still very proud of—even if I’d do things differently now.
By 2018, I decided to return to traditional publishing. A vast array of tools had cropped up since the old SASE days: the Twitter writing community, pitching events, Query Tracker, and mentorships like Pitch Wars. I learned hard and fast all the things I’d done wrong in the past. At first, I thought: “That’s why I failed! My querying skills, my knowledge of the market, and—yes—my storytelling skills were all lacking. But the idea!—surely my ideas weren’t the problem.”
After a brief (but statistically decent) stint trying to query my old epic fantasy, I pulled it from the trenches. I had already written all three books in its trilogy, and I’d spent a Tolkeinesque amount of time in that world: creating maps, conlangs, thousands of years of history, different original species, flora and fauna, recipes, myths, and even a home-grown tabletop RPG . . . It wasn’t right for the TradPub world. I would be too precious about it. To have any hope of getting picked up by an agent, I needed to write something more flexible, relevant, and marketable. But the other advice I saw everywhere was: write what you know.
Not ready to abandon my epic fantasy world, I zoomed into a specific corner of that map, to a more humanoid population and a more accessible culture. I shrank the scope of the story down to something more digestible, too: a genderqueer love story following a soft protagonist who struggles against gendered expectations, societal pressures, and an overbearing mother to come to terms with her own bisexuality and stand up for the love of her life—risking jail and ostracism in the process. It had a lot of me in it. It was the book teenaged me needed and never found. It felt relevant and accessible and meaningful. It was the book of my heart; I believed in it. I queried that book for almost two years. I entered it into mentorships: Pitch Wars and Author Mentor Match.
Guess what? No one loved that book aside from me. Readers didn’t get what I was trying to say. Some of them loved the front half but didn’t like the turning point. Others found the front half stifling but loved the more magical second half. Everyone loved the love interest, but no one loved my protagonist—the one based on myself.
The truth was, writing a “book of my heart” exposed me to rejection in ways I hadn’t previously considered. This wasn’t just a rejection of everything that was important to me, but every comment of “not relatable,” “couldn’t root for her relationship,” and “unrealistic portrayal of sapphic love” felt like a personal attack. How I loved wasn’t valid. I wasn’t relatable. It was around this time that I was diagnosed with ADHD. Add that to being genderqueer and asexual, and I fully felt that there was no space for a voice like mine in this industry. I was too weird, too niche, too other to have a market.
So, for my next book, I decided to break pattern with everything I loved . . . or, nearly everything. I wrote a book entirely trying to be “marketable.” I wouldn’t abandon my principles at the door, so my protagonist was still asexual, but she was also aromantic. There would be no romance subplot. It would still have magic, but rather than my big, beautiful fantasy setting, it would be set in my Canadian backyard: Surrey, Vancouver. It was the first (and thus far, only) book I’ve written set on Earth. The plot would center around hungry ghosts and a witchy woman who could step back and forth across the Veil, solving dead problems for the living and living problems for the dead. It was, in essence, a paranormal murder mystery. Thus was born my Pitch Wars book, GRIGORI BLUES.
How Did It All Fizzle to Nothing?
The writing of GRIOGRI BLUES was far less fun than anything I’ve written before (or since). Writing an urban fantasy “grounded” in a real place was tedious and required a different sort of research into things I didn’t love: bus routes and police department policies and blooming seasons for certain poisonous garden plants. When I got to slide into the Veil, though, that’s when the book came alive for me. Bit by bit, I began to feel like this book had legs. The story was good, the challenges dire but accessible, the characters clever and memorable. I submitted it to Pitch Wars with no real hopes and went back to working on a more fantastic book. “Wouldn’t it be ironic,” I thought, “if the one book that makes it is the one least in line with the second world fantasies I love to write?”
I wasn’t even watching when the Pitch Wars 21/22 mentees were announced. My writing circle from AMM found out before I did. Their congratulations made me scramble to go check and make sure it wasn’t a dream. Sarah Remy had chosen GRIGORI BLUES (and me) to mentor! I’d applied to Sarah in previous mentorship programs because they seemed like a perfect fit in interests and skillset. I was over the moon—and still am; Sarah has been more generous and supportive than I could have wished for.
Thus began a three-month hyperfixation. Like Douglas Adams was, I’m a “performance writer.” If I have an audience, I eat-sleep-breathe my book with total and utter abandon. Shout out to my queer platonic partner for putting up with my absolutely single-minded obsession during the Pitch Wars revision process. I was learning a lot about comp titles and query letters and logline pitching (all parts of the querying process I still abhor, but Sarah helped guide me through). We did two full-book revisions to deepen character connection, smooth out some plot hiccups, flesh out the second POV, and better establish the villain. I felt (and still do) that Sarah made a good book great. We even finished in plenty of time. Everything was as polished and ready as it could be to dive into the querying trenches—starting with the Pitch Wars showcase.
Now, Pitch Wars is not a sure thing. Everyone warned me: the organizers, my fellow mentees (including one mentee who had been through the Pitch Wars wringer a few years before). Their friendship and support have been invaluable. We were all feverishly crunching stats, looking at the percentage of mentees who typically got agents. I was in the Adult category, which typically fared around middle of the road. In previous classes, about 58% of mentees in my category had gotten an agent within a year of doing Pitch Wars. I thought my expectations were fairly tempered with hope.
When the showcase opened, I got 7 requests from agents. Not as many as my mentor had hoped, but I was just relieved I’d gotten any. Some of them were even from my dream agents list. I felt very optimistic. I can’t speak to my fellow mentees’ experiences (both good and bad), but we had a sense that we were all in this together. Little did we know how much we’d need that support as a series of publishing disasters struck.
First, the day after the showcase closed, Pitch Wars was disbanded. Personally, I was devastated. I felt unmoored, gutted. All of a sudden, this important program that had given fledgling authors a leg up for ten years was gone. Any pressure agents might have felt to treat Pitch Wars’ authors as important seemed to have died with the program. Of course, at the same time, TradPub seemed to enter freefall. It was mired in imprints closing, editors quitting, agents retiring, worker strikes, US Supreme Court cases, and a record influx of pandemic hopefuls pitching their books. It seemed that no one had time for us. All the old data and metrics to tell if your query package was working—such as querying in small batches, 3-month turnaround times, rejection feedback, 30% request rates—none of it held true. There were months where I asked myself “is it really that bad in TradPub . . . or is it me, again?”
Thankfully my Pitch Wars alumni and the wonderful Sarah kept me from utterly despairing. It helped, of course, that this wasn’t a book of my heart. If people didn’t want it, liked some part but couldn’t sell it, or loved the writing but not the second POV, or enjoyed it but weren’t compelled to fight for it . . . well, it was just a perfect storm of bad timing. Everyone was struggling and squeezed too thin. It wasn’t personal.
But what is luck if not “right time, right place”? That one thing I couldn’t control. As the months passed and the rejections rolled in, and the requests turned into rejections . . . I felt my hope oozing away. “That was my one chance. And it could never come again because Pitch Wars—and so many of the other mentorship programs and pitching events—were no more. I had done ‘everything right’ but it still hadn’t been enough.”
In the end, we didn’t get enough data to find a common denominator. These days, authors are lucky to get a form rejection—if we hear back at all. Things are trickling through like molasses. I’ve received form rejections 15 months after submitting. I still haven’t heard back from some of my initial full requests. With the requirements to have your comps be no more than 2 years old, they could expire before you even hear back from the agents you’d queried!
What was I supposed to do with this new reality? I tried writing something I was passionate about: too weird, too ambitious, too rigid for TradPub. I tried writing something personal and specific: too niche, not relatable enough, no market. I tried writing something specific to the market, something edgy but grounded, accessible but inclusive: it still wasn’t enough.
For the first time since I was twelve, this lifeblood thing, writing—that had brought me joy and release and expression—went cold inside me. I felt like I’d let everyone down: my mentor, my father, my partner. My deceased librarian mother who had instilled in me my love of books and my oma (who died during querying) who had “always believed I’d make something of myself.” Maybe it was personal. I had never had writer’s block in twenty-six years, but I had it now. I had it something fierce. I wanted to write, but what was the point? I wanted to write . . . but what?
Where Do I Go from Here?
Thankfully, I write for my day job and for my freelance work. The muscles didn’t get a chance to atrophy, and writing to a brief is far less scary. TradPub claims to know what it wants but “no, not like that!” In truth, it’s all luck: right idea, right style, right time, right agent. Throw enough darts at the board, you might get there, but there’s no guarantee. Accepting that those aspects are outside of my control has been enormously freeing for me.
As the months trickled by with no new writing for myself, I dug into other creative pursuits: sewing a 1780s French Pollonaise dress, learning to embroider, refurbishing worn-out corners of my home, doing fantasy illustrations. I wrote a short story and submitted it to a couple magazines (no luck). And I finally opened up that old epic fantasy trilogy and started editing it from the beginning. Here was a story that didn’t need to be for anyone else. I could see ways to improve it I hadn’t noticed before. I rewrote precious sections, I cut large swaths to improve the pacing, I honed my sentence craft until it sparkled. And it was a relief to see how much I had learned. Yes, I still wanted to write. I still had stories in me itching to get out.
When it became clear that GRIGORI BLUES was dead in the trenches, my mentor asked me what I wanted to do next, and I was honest: I didn’t know, just write. I pitched them a few of my WIP concepts. After some discussion, they encouraged me to work on BLOOD MOONS & BINDING MAGIC. It’s another urban fantasy, but this time it’s second world, where I most love to play. I flailed about in the document for months, drafting random scenes and bouncing things off my lovely CP and my ever-patient partner. I still have no idea if this story has any legs where TradPub is concerned. It might be recognizable enough that an agent knows what to do with it; it might be not unique enough to break out in a crowded market. At this point, I don’t care. The important part is that I’m enjoying writing again. I have characters I love who make me laugh and choke up with tears. My characters matter, even if only to me.
So, I may have lost my one chance with Pitch Wars, but I gained valuable temperance. I learned how to step back into writing for the right reasons. I gained so many creative, talented, supportive writer friends along the way. Whatever happens from here, writing will always nourish my soul.
Bio: As an asexual biromantic author, Astra Crompton is passionate about diverse queer representation that showcases the foundational importance of found family. Her speculative fiction has been published in All Worlds Wayfarer magazine, Anthology for a Green Planet, and Blood Moon Rising anthology. They’ve also written for the Unity RPG and Vampire: The Requiem by White Wolf. By day, she’s an editing and illustrations coordinator who lives in Victoria, Canada with their queer platonic partner and two cats: the snuggly but drooly Abyssinian Deos and the affectionate but anxious tuxedo rescue Schrödinger. Follow Astra on Twitter @ulzaorith.