After 10 years, popular mentoring program Pitch Wars and contest #PitMad drew to a close on February 15 with an announcement on Twitter. The news was met with surprise and an outpouring of gratitude by those who found writing community, publishing success, or both through the initiatives. Founder Brenda Drake estimates that the program and contests resulted in nearly 500 authors connecting with agents and launching careers. We spoke with Drake about the impact and legacy of these flagship programs.
Drake’s primary motivation for creating the contest and mentoring program was to help other writers. “It came from my struggles starting out. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing,” she said. When she was trying to break into publishing, blog-based critique contests and “blog hops” had offered support. “It was fun. I was learning the craft, learning about publishing. We were all trying to lift each other up.”
After running a number of blog contests and inviting agents to take part, Drake had a revelation. She noticed that while agents frequently expressed initial interest in a manuscript after reading a few pages, momentum often fell apart as the stories progressed. Watching the reality TV show Cupcake Wars in 2012, she was struck by the mentoring relationship between professional and aspiring bakers. That mentor-mentee model could work for writers, too, she thought. After getting an enthusiastic response to a blog-based contest she called Pitch Madness, she offered another one on Twitter with the hashtag #PitMad as a consolation prize for those who hadn’t succeed in the blog contest. Twitter-based #PitMad was so popular it became a quarterly pitch contest. A year-round mentoring program called Pitch Wars was added not long after, matching aspiring authors with published mentors who would read entire manuscripts and give advice on how to improve them.
The pitch contest exploded in popularity, becoming a highly anticipated event in the writing community each season. It was embraced as a faster, more accessible route to publishing than traditional querying, with the side benefits of helping to foster bonds between writers and improving writing craft. Hundreds of thousands of #PitMad tweets flooded Twitter during the brief open periods, attracting interest from an increasing number of agents. Hundreds of authors applied for each “class” of the mentoring program, which featured an “agent showcase” at the end, allowing dozens of agents access to first pages in addition to pitches. Twitter chats, workshops and other events were added to the portfolio of Pitch Wars offerings. Drake enlisted volunteer assistants to help, and other authors—including Heather Cashman (now an agent), Joy McCullough, and Kellye Garrett—took on prominent volunteer roles in the contest and mentor program organizing.
Through the years, the contest and mentoring program inspired similar efforts on Twitter. But #PitMad and Pitch Wars retained their frontrunner status and continued to produce successful agent-author connections and book sales. Drake signed with her own agent—Peter Knapp of Park & Fine Literary—through the contest and her own career took off with her bestselling Library Jumpers series and five additional YA fantasy novels.
Knapp said #PitMad was a boon to agents as well, especially those who were actively building their lists. “As an agent starting out, it was fantastic. It gave me a way to go online and request stories that sounded like a potential match with my tastes from authors who might not have otherwise known about me because my name and interests were not yet as widely out there.”
Contests like #PitMad have opened new pathways for agents scouting for talent. They’ve helped agents “build their lists by proactively going after material,” Knapp said. “That means that a more diverse group of agents representing a broader range of interests, tastes, and backgrounds have had a new tool to help launch their career. I have to imagine that this has helped lead to a more inclusive range of stories that agents are selling to publishers.”
The impact of the Pitch Wars mentoring program became evident as well. “Submissions that have gone through the mentoring program have been, on the whole, more developed,” Knapp said. “It is essentially an intensive editorial process that really helps to sharpen stories so that by the time an agent is requesting and reading them, the manuscript has been revised and polished to a great degree.”
Tomi Adeyemi’s 2018 YA fantasy blockbuster Children of Blood and Bone (Holt) is considered one of Pitch Wars’ biggest successes. Adeyemi was a 2016 Pitch Wars mentee; her book went on to sell as a trilogy along with film rights adding up to what Deadline called “one of the biggest YA debut novel publishing deals ever.” It spent 25 consecutive weeks as a #1 New York Times bestseller.
Adeyemi’s trajectory is exceptional, but many other solid careers have started through Pitch Wars, including that of Waka T. Brown. Her debut middle grade memoir While I Was Away was published by HarperCollins imprint Quill Tree Books last year. Brown, originally a screenwriter, began querying While I Was Away in March 2017 at the suggestion of a friend. She became a mentee in fall 2018.
“I received a fair number of requests through the agent showcase,” Brown said, adding, “I definitely was not one of the writers who was picked up right away.” She signed with Penny Moore of Aevitas Creative Management in May 2019 and her memoir sold to Alyssa Miele in a two-book deal five months later.
Brown credits Pitch Wars with accelerating her move into writing for the middle grade audience. “When I compare it with how long I had spent writing feature-length screenplays—that went nowhere—I am very grateful for how Pitch Wars helped open doors for me,” she said. Her second middle grade book—a novel, Dream, Annie, Dream—came out last month and she’s under contract for two more.
Debut author Erin E. Adams had a similar accelerated timeline for her horror/thriller novel Jackal, coming in October from Bantam. Adams was a member of the Pitch Wars class of 2020. “Pitch Wars was my first attempt at getting traditionally agented,” said Adams, who is currently getting an MFA in dramatic writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “I decided to use the application process as a trial run. Also, it gave me a deadline. If I didn’t get selected this round, I planned to revise and try traditional querying.”
She submitted the following pitch to the agent showcase. “Liz, a jaded Black millennial, reluctantly returns to the Rust Belt for a friend’s wedding. When a twelve-year-old disappears, Liz is the only one who sees a pattern. They’re all Black girls. But as she gets closer to uncovering the truth, she risks being devoured by the beast lurking in her town’s dark past. Lovecraft Country meets The Lovely Bones.”
Adams had an offer for representation within the first day after the showcase ended and 10 offers by the end of the two-week reading period. She signed with Kerry D’Agostino of Curtis Brown, whom she had traditionally queried. The novel sold after about two weeks in a two-book deal.
Beyond helping her achieve her publishing goal, Adams said the mentoring aspect of Pitch Wars provided invaluable support. Even after the program ended, her mentors “have continued to impart their knowledge at every step of the publishing process. When it comes to my class, I’m part of a community of writers who support each other.”
Passing the Baton
For all its successes, Pitch Wars was not without its challenges. “It’s a lot of work,” Drake said. Numerous volunteers and mentors donated countless hours to the programs. When a fee was introduced to cover costs, potential participants objected that it gave an unfair advantage to those who could pay. The fee was withdrawn.
The lifespan of the initiatives took place during a period of escalating rancor on Twitter. The high profile and competitive nature of the program led to ongoing scrutiny of the processes and outcomes. Grievances were publicly aired. There were incidences of harassment. Some participants had issues with the conduct of agents or mentors during or after the contest. There were even objections to the name of the program, which some interpreted as pitting mentees against each other in a battle. That wasn’t the intention. “It started with the idea of being ‘in the trenches,’ ” said Drake, a common phrase associated with writing and querying.
To address criticisms, Drake developed a committee and board of directors and in 2018, Garrett took on the volunteer role of managing director. “She did a phenomenal job” and professionalized the program, Drake said.
But the stress of the pandemic compounded by medical issues, bereavements in Garrett and Drake’s families, and the death of a mentor, led to the decision to shelve the programs. “We need a break,” Drake said. “We wanted to end with good memories while we were still on top.”
Drake has declined multiple offers to take over the program and its name. #PitMad and Pitch Wars have been retired, but she’s not completely closing the door to the idea of some sort of return in the future. “I hope that other programs come out going forward. I hope that writers get support writing better manuscripts and doors open for more people. I hope it brings about more diversity.”
Knapp said, “While Pitch Wars has been one of the better-known showcases, a whole host of other showcases and contests have formed over the last decade, such as the #DVpit Twitter contest.” Among the other notables are the #ReviPit contest, WriteMentor, Author Mentor Match, and Diverse Voices, Inc., a nonprofit mentoring program.
The majority of manuscripts are still discovered through traditional querying routes. But contests such as #PitMad have made an impact. “I don’t think these sorts of contests are going anywhere,” Knapp continued. “They aren’t just great tools for agents to find new material, but they also serve an important function in connecting authors and creating writing communities.”