Pitch Wars is a mentoring program where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns volunteer as mentors (that’s us!) and then each mentor or co-mentor pair chooses one writer (that could be you!) and spend three months helping them revise their manuscript. It ends in February with an Agent Showcase, where a pitch/first page is posted online and literary agents can request to read more. If you’re new to PitchWars or want more information, check out the website: www.pitchwars.org.
Note: PitchWars is not a promise that mentees will get offers of representation, nor is it a paid service (no one pays or gets paid!), or an automatic golden ticket to authorial stardom. Okay, now that we’re super clear on all that…
MEET LAUREN AND EMILY:
Hi, I’m Emily! This is my second year as a PitchWars mentor and I had such a great time mentoring last year that I’m back and teaming up with my editor-sib Lauren Blackwood to mentor Young Adult (also accepting NA) Fun fact: My 2020 mentee, Lyssa Mia Smith, is also a YA mentor this year!
I was a PitchWars mentee in 2017, an Author Mentor Match mentee in 2018, and in 2019, I wrote and queried yet another manuscript before signing with my wonderful agent, Chelsea Eberly of Greenhouse, and my debut YA Fantasy duology comes out next June with Wednesday books!
This Vicious Grace features a divinely-chosen savior doing a terrible job, a grumpy bodyguard determined not to laugh at her dirty jokes, and more banter than I ever dreamed they’d let me publish.
THE Tamora Pierce calls it: “Riveting, passionate, and full of high stakes danger”
It’s the fantasy/ disaster movie/ RomCom mashup of my heart, and you can add it on GoodReadsHEREor find pre-order links HERE
In addition to writing, I’m also a co-host on the Basic Pitches podcast, a mom of two, twitter-addict, former teacher, cat-rescue volunteer, and board member with Writer House, a central VA writing non-profit. I grew up in New Jersey before moving to Virginia, so I talk fast and wave at strangers!
Hey, I’m Lauren, co-mentoring YA with Emily this year! My debut YA Fantasy WITHIN THESE WICKED WALLS is a gothic Ethiopian-inspired Jane Eyre retelling about an under qualified debtera who gets in over her head when she’s hired by a moody young heir to cleanse the Evil Eye from his secluded, cursed castle.
This book has everything–creepy vibes, banter for days, a grumpy mentor with a drinking problem, and SO MUCH KISSING. It comes out October 19th, 2021, and you should totally check it out HERE
After writing a handful of what I’ll call “practice manuscripts” I got an offer from my agent, Lauren Spieller, in 2019 (on my birthday of all days! Best birthday ever!). After some revising we sold WTWW to Wednesday Books in 2020.
It’s been a lot of fun being editor siblings with Emily, especially since it’s clear we have the same taste. When I’m not writing, I’m a musician, and am such a kindred spirit with Emily that I am also a twitter-addict and a northerner moved to Virginia (New York, baby!).
WHAT OUR MENTEE CAN EXPECT FROM US:
Writing is personal, so we’ll always strive to be sensitive and considerate in our feedback. We don’t think critique must be harsh, but we won’t hesitate to point out issues (while suggesting possible solutions!) Our feedback will be direct, thorough and we will encourage our mentee to challenge themselves.
We’ll do two passes of your manuscript. For the first, we’ll provide an edit letter (which will be long, because Emily is wordy) and in-document comments with lots of exclamation points. We’ll be specific about areas we think could be stronger, explain our reasoning and offer suggestions, but in the end, it’s your book and our role is to help you make it the best version of what you want it to be. Together, we’ll discuss a revision plan, including a rough timeline for the various stages, and your preferred style of communication.
We’ll read again after that to make sure the changes are working, send suggestions for final clean-up edits before the showcase, and help with line-edits as time permits. We’ll also assist with a query letter, synopsis, and pitch for the agent showcase.
We can communicate as little or often as you need, but while we love to collaborate and are up for some hand-holding, we both have deadlines of our own, so there may be times where we can’t promise instant access. Which leads us to…
WHAT WE EXPECT FROM OUR MENTEE:
While many writers hope PitchWars will propel them to instant-stardom, that really isn’t the best reason to enter. (Emily wants to emphasize that PitchWars wasn’t her golden ticket to an agent/book deal which took two more years and two more books, but it definitely improved her craft and introduced her to an incredible writing community!) With that in mind, we’d like a mentee who willing to work and be a positive (or at least not negative) member of the community.
Mentees are in Pitch Wars to improve their skills, so we hope our future mentee enters the process with an open mind and a willingness to truly consider feedback, even if it feels daunting. (For advice on handling an edit letter, click HERE!).
We do not expect our mentee to agree to suggestions that don’t ring true, but we do expect them to be open to critique, willing to consider suggestions, and committed to putting in the work. Being a mentee is excellent practice for working with an agent or editor, and that means being respectful and open to making changes, while also learning how to hold firm to your vision.
WHY YOU SHOULD PICK US!
We’re FUN! The two of us connected last year after the illustrious Pitchwars queen Ayana Gray read each of our debuts and said, “You two really need to be friends” and she was totally right! Since then, we’ve been shrieking in each other’s DMs almost daily, and entertaining our shared editor by planning fictional double-dates for our respective main characters on twitter when we’re supposed to be writing. We’d love to welcome a new writer into our world of gifs and risque jokes and we hope to make the PitchWars experience fun as well as enlightening.
We share a lot of strengths (our banter game is A+ and we both know how to build tension and finesse pacing) but we also have complementary strengths! (Emily is a boss at cutting words and paring prose–see this blogpost for some tips– and Lauren is fantastic at identify areas that need to be developed and knowing where to add words for maximum impact!)
We’ve learned from the best and we give 100%. We both have experience querying multiple books so we’ve honed those skills, and we both work with wonderful agents who sold our debuts in pre-empts to the badass editor responsible for bringing books like Where Dreams Descend and Red White and Royal Blue into the world, so we’ve been incredibly fortunate to learn from some truly amazing publishing minds.
If that isn’t enough to convince you, Emily has been called the “Fairy Godmother of Revision” by critique partners, and she’s pretty sure she was an editor in a past life. We love studying craft and we want to teach our mentee all the ways to capture a reader’s attention and keep them invested.
We are great at:
-Character development/dynamics: We love developing tension, shaping character arcs, and creating characters who feel like they could step off the page. We have a lot of fun (too much fun??) with romantic pairings especially, but those skills apply to other character dynamics as well, and we both feel that compelling characters are the true heart of any story.
–Dialogue: Well-crafted dialogue can accomplish as much with action tags, pauses, sentence structure, and words left unspoken as it can with what is spoken aloud, and we can help you take your dialogue skills to the next level.
–Pacing: We’re both pansters by nature, so we’ve learned how to use story maps and beat sheets to guide our revisions and to outline future books in partnership with our agents and editor, so we can help regardless of which approach our mentee takes. Plus, we know how to use tension, dialogue, humor, and setting to improve pacing, so we’re less likely to say “just cut all these scenes” and more likely to suggest ways to make the scenes you love feel more compelling.
Emily’s been a mentee, so she understand the highs and lows, and is ready to guide you through it all. She’s ready to work with you to figure out how to make this the best experience for you.
Lauren kicked butt in online pitch contests so she knows how to craft a compelling pitch that highlights the hook of your story, and she’s great at giving direct, honest feedback to help you make your work stronger.
In addition to providing an edit letter and helping you with your pitch and query, we’ll provide resources, give you the inside publishing scoop, and be a listening ear when you need to vent. We know what it’s like when the path to publication takes a few detours on the way, and we’re ready to support you on your journey.
Okay, we know why you’re all really here, so let’s do this already! This year, we’re accepting YA (and NA if you’re open to making adjustments that would help it fit into the YA crossover market.)
Both of our debuts are fantasy novels with romantic subplots, and we’re looking to mentor a book in the genres below that also has romantic elements (bonus points for a slow burn that makes us scream, “Just kiss already!”) So, ideally we’d like a high-concept story with some romance but where the stakes are higher than simply “will they or won’t they.”
Fantasy: High/Epic, Portal, Urban/Contemporary, Magical Realism, Paranormal, Historical, Alternate History
No surprise there!
We love fantasy with compelling, complex characters and fresh world building, where there’s a romantic element AND external stakes. Characters falling for each other (or trying not to) as the world burns? Heck yeah! And we really enjoy stories that combine elements from multiple genres. Fantasy thriller? Fantasy mystery? Fantasy RomCom? Yes, please!
Note: We tend to prefer stories where we can get really invested in a central group of characters, rather than a sprawling cast of thirty warring families and twelve kingdoms, so if your book has a cast to rival Game of Thrones, we might not be the best fit.
Science Fiction: Soft SciFi, SciFi Romance, Space Opera, Near Future, Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic!
Space! Fantastical planets! Near-future Earth settings! Cool tech and their inevitable disasters! Dystopian worlds!Yes to all of of it!
We prefer SciFi that is more “accessible/ grounded (not literally— space is cool!) because we want to be able to connect with a character pretty quickly and we need to be able to grasp the basic gist of their world without needing a story almanac or a bunch of family trees to understand what’s going on.
Note: We’re not the best fit for military scifi or lots of time travel. A hop back in time a la Outlander is fine, but too many timelines make our heads hurt!
Adventure: A gender swapped The Mummy, YA Armageddon, or a field trip that turns into Speed 4? Yes! We are here for regular teens thrust into sudden peril, or young adults tackling their lifelong dream of a death-defying mission! Give us all that action, tension, and excitement!
Retellings: Lauren’s debut is an Ethiopian-inspired Jane Eyre retelling, so of course we love new twists on a familiar tale, especially if there’s a speculative element! We’re not the best fit for purely contemporary, real-world re-tellings, but if your Hamlet is a mermaid-hunter, or your Rapunzel has hair that kills instead of heals, hello, over here!
WHAT WE REALLY WANT
Okay, so now you know the genres we’re accepting, but what do we REALLY want to see within those categories? (This is the part where Emily adds gifs from our favorite movies.)
WE LOVE: character-driven, high-concept, fresh, immersive settings, and gorgeous writing. Plus, Lauren is Jamaican-American and Emily has ADHD so we are always excited about diverse casts and marginalized authors of all kinds, including but not limited to those who are BIPOC, LGBTQIA, disabled, and neurodiverse!
Excitement, tension, romance, humor! We want ALL the FEELINGS! If you can make us laugh, cry, bite our nails AND swoon, we’re hooked! So, if your manuscript combines some (or all!) of the following elements, WE WANT IT!
Escapism: we love a story/concept/setting that carries us away from the ordinary. SciFi and Fantasy obviously fit this, but we also like stories that *could* happen in the real world, but that most people could never experience, like being a bounty hunter, searching for lost treasure, or a hands-on internship at the CIA. The setting can be bright and beautiful or dark and gritty, as long as it’s interesting! Sweep us away to a whole new world and/or make me say “Oooooh, we wonder what that would be like!”
Humor: Not talking about corny jokes or slapstick absurdity, but if you pair a speculative premise with the kind of snappy dialogue and witty banter found in books like RED WHITE AND ROYAL BLUE, SERPENT & DOVE, or BEACH READ, give it to us right now, please and thank you!
Tension: Wether it’s rivals forced to work together, enemies to lovers, or a motley crew of strong personalities vying for position, we love books with interpersonal tension, so if you’ve got it and you want to learn how to develop more of it, hand over that manuscript!
Romance: Slow burn, enemies to lovers, opposites attract, friends to lovers (especially if they delight in tormenting/teasing each other), love at first sight (but with serious issues)
John and Jane give each other come-hither looks
Action/Excitement: Car chases, battles, ticking clocks.
SOME OF OUR FAVORITE THINGS
BOOKS: Serpent and Dove, This Savage Song, The Hating Game, Ninth House, This Mortal Coil, Red White and Royal Blue, ASOWAR, Legendborn, We Set the Dark on Fire, The Hunger Games, Where Dreams Descend, Hawksong, An Enchantment of Ravens, Daughter of Smoke and Bone,
MOVIES: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Armageddon, Miss Congeniality, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, Thor: Ragnorok, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Mummy, Hook, The Day After Tomorrow, A Knight’s Tale, This Means War, Kate and Leopold, School of Rock, Serendipity, Pride and Prejudice
TV: Orphan Black, Schitt’s Creek, Ted Lasso (Roy and Keely are LIFE!) The Witcher (esp episodes with Jaskier), New Girl, The Good Place, Psych, Downton Abbey, North and South
ROMANTIC ELEMENTS (Just going to keep emphasizing this!): Do you have a SciFi with a duo like Roy/Keeley from Ted Lasso? A fantasy with the bantery swoons of Red White and Royal Blue? An adventure tale that young Brendan Fraser could have starred in? We need it!
WE’RE NOT THE BEST FIT FOR:
Quiet/PurelyContemporary Stories: (Unless there’s a super unusual concept/setting, or it tiptoes real close to speculative.)
Horror: Fantasy with some horror or horror-adjacent elements is fine, but if your book would primarily be categorized as horror, we’re probably not the best fit.
Alpha-hole love interests: We enjoy an angsty grump, but we’re not a fan of abusive jerks who are cruel to everyone except the MC they find attractive. A tragic backstory and good hair aren’t enough to redeem a puppy-kicking genocidal megalomaniac and we don’t enjoy toxic relationships portrayed as romantic.
(TW) Graphic on-page SA/abuse: We’re fine with characters who’ve endured abuse in the past or references to events that are mostly off-page, but we are not the right fit if your book features graphic scenes of rape or sexual assault, especially if it occurs to a secondary character merely as a plot device to motivate a male main character (ie, FRIDGED female chars) and ESPECIALLY if the victims are children.
Grimdark/Unadulterated Gloom: It’s not you, it’s us. We need a bit of light in the dark. Feel free to kill off characters, break our hearts, or conjure wicked monsters, as long as there are flashes of humor or joy to balance it out.
FINAL THOUGHTS FROM A FORMER MENTEE (Hi, it’s me, Emily!)
When I got into PitchWars, I thought it was my golden ticket, but my PitchWars book, along with the next book I wrote and revised through another mentorship, both ended up trunked, and I know that sounds depressing, but I wouldnot change a thing. I mean it! we’re a stronger writer, a tougher person, and a much better friend than I might have been if the stars had aligned earlier, plus I ended up exactly where I want to be, with exactly the right book and exactly the right agent and editor, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t run into some hurdles along the way.
So, whether your manuscript gets chosen or not, you are the one who decides how to use each moment to further your goals. It’s never too early, and it’s never too late to reach for your dreams. Give your best effort, keep learning and striving, and keep your eyes on your own paper! Keep writing, friends!
Hey friends! I’ve been promising this post since … um…. last fall? So yeah, I’m a year late and many dollars short, but I’ve decided to copy and paste the rough version of a file I often share with CPs, mentees, and fellow writers looking for a quick and dirty crash course in cutting words and tightening prose. Whether your manuscript is too long or not, I hope you find something in here helpful! This post isn’t super polished, but if I wait for time to do that, it might take me another year, so here goes nothing!
Alternate title: Trimming Wordcount, tightening prose, cutting redundant scenes or dialogue, and “concentrating” the goodness of the story!
Okay, so maybe your manuscript is too long. Or maybe it isn’t, but you feel like it reads a little slow. Or readers like the plot but it takes them a while to connect with your character. Or maybe you just have that sense that something isn’t clicking on the line level and you don’t know what it it. Or maybe none of that is true, but you’re always eager and hungry for tips anyway (good for you!)
At the risk of calling out my Pitchwars mentee from last year (hey, she called me out for saying I was going to post this and never doing it, so fair’s fair! Love you, Lyssa!!!) she entered with a manuscript she’d already cut down from 130k to 108k and while she knew it was still a bit long for querying she didn’t know how she could possibly cut more scenes without ruining the book. And she was right! She couldn’t cut a bunch more scenes, but she could cut a lot of words. And she did. Wooooooow, did she! I threw all the information below at her (and more) and she rose to the challenge, cutting that 108k down to 83k by the showcase without cutting a single scene! Yes, you read that right! Heck, she added scenes! I know, right?!
What? How? Is that possible? Yes!
Think about it. A challenge like cutting 10,000 words from a 100,000k manuscript sounds daunting until you realize it’s about 20 words per page. Bonus, if you end up cutting a scene or combining two scenes, you can easily whack a few hundred or a thousand words in one fell swoop.
First, let’s talk about line-level edits. There are many ways and reasons to cut wordcount that go beyond big cuts and you might be surprised by just how much can be done on the line level to serve multiple goals: tightening prose, improving pacing, bringing out your authorial voice and your character’s voice, and of course, cutting those words.
Like all writing advice, there are no absolutes, there are no rules that can’t be broken, and I am not telling you what to do. I’m just telling you what has worked for me, my former mentee, and many others. Take it or leave it. Your methods may vary. All the usual disclaimers, etc.
Overused words that often aren’t needed:
Cut as many “that/just/probably/maybe/might have/began to/slightly” as you can. As with most things, exceptions for dialogue. Complete sentences are overrated.
Little tweaks like swapping “It was showtime!” for “Showtime!” cuts a three-word sentence down to one word, and, in my opinion, sounds more voicey too. After all, people don’t think in complete sentences. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I don’t think, “That man is a jerk!” I think, “Jerk!” Same for contractions. We were all taught to avoid them as kids, and we were taught wrong. Contractions are great. They add a casual element to voice and reduce wordcount with almost zero effort. Heck, you can even “replace all” but be sure to go back and double check whether any should be switched back for stylistic or clarity reasons.
Past progressive phrasing:
Ex: “was/is + a verb” (“I was singing, he is sitting, she was walking”) and swap it for “I sang/he sits/she walked,” unless it changes the meaning or you need it for emphasis.
Ex: I looked at the tall boy who was sitting at the piano -> I looked at the tall boy sitting at the piano (possibly even better? Cut those filtering words and just tell the reader A tall boy sat at the piano.)
Of course, sometimes you need past progressive! Ex of a good use: “I was sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen when we first heard the war was over.” As with most things, sometimes it’s necessary, but a lot of the time, you don’t need it.
Phrases that can be simplified:
It’s usually obvious what body part is doing an action or how an action works (I nodded my head, I stood up, I sat down) so cut it to the basics (I nodded, I stood, I sat)
-Watch for places you use a dialogue tag and an action tag and ask yourself whether an action tag can do it alone.
Ex: “Oh, no,” he said, standing up from his chair. Vs. “Oh, no.” He stood.
She nodded her head in agreement vs. She nodded. Duplicate actions, descriptions, etc.
Similarly, look for places where characters perform more than one action but the two actions serve a similar function, and ask yourself if one of those actions is effective enough alone. If so, cut the other. If not, is there a different word that could convey the information more effectively than the original two?
He walked slowly -> He strolled.
She quickly reached to pick up a pen. -> She grabbed a pen.
They giggled, clutching their sides as tears of joy rolled down their cheeks. “Giggled, clutching their sides, and tears of joy” all basically convey the same thing to readers, so you can cut at least one without changing the impact. You don’t have to, and sometimes, you want to use more than one to create a heightened mood, but there are times when less is more. It just depends!
Watch out for “stage directions”
Stage directions are where writers describe all the little movements of a character, especially common in first person. Cut as many as possible. You the author may need to know exactly what every character is doing, where they are standing, that the door is in the far left corner, etc, but odds are good that your readers do not. This details are important in a screenplay, but not so much in a book. You rarely need to tell readers that someone stood up AND then walked across the room. If they’re walking across the room, we assume they stood first.
Ex: She bent over and reached down to pick up a hat from the floor-> She picked up a hat from the floor.
Showing AND Telling
We writers talk a lot about showing versus telling, but often, as we get better at showing, we forget to stop telling and end up doing both. And while there are great times to show and great times to tell, there are fewer times where your reader needs both at the same time. (I am very guilty of this in early drafts!)
Ex: Character A sees Character B walking by. B is described in a way that suggests she’s beautiful, we see him staring in awe and tripping over stuff, and then the writer includes a line saying, “She was so gorgeous, he couldn’t take his eyes off of her.” That last line isn’t needed as long as we trust our readers to get the subtext based on Char A’s behavior just before it. Or, say, a character is described as staring longingly at a pie in a store window. We don’t also need to be told that he’s hungry, his mouth is watering, and he hasn’t eaten all day. The author showed a clear signal that he’s hungry and all those smart readers get it without being told directly.
Descriptions (Trim, baby, trim!):
Unless it’s really important for readers to stop and picture something, it’s worth looking out for places where descriptions stand alone. Many time when there’s a line that’s JUST a description, or even more so, a paragraph that’s just description, it slows down the pacing and adds to the word count. Especially in the opening pages of a book when there is so much to accomplish and you want readers to connect with the characters are soon as possible, the “page real estate” is too valuable to spend most of it on descriptions. (Don’t come at me! I love descriptions! Again, YMMV! But working descriptions into the action can be a great way to preserve them while making each sentence work harder!) Also, too-long books are harder to sell because they cost more to print, and in a time when people have shorter attention spans than ever, we don’t want to risk losing their attention by spending too much page space on descriptions that aren’t moving the story forward. Instead, try to sprinkle descriptors in with actions.
Ex: A woman strolled into his line of sight. The moonlight highlighted the curves of her body as her hips swung with every step. She wore a blue silk dress and her blond hair was curled into tight ringlets. She brushed a curl from her cheek and smiled. (47 words) Vs: A woman strolled into sight, hips swinging with every step. The moonlight caressed every curve, gleaming on blue silk. She smiled, brushing a blonde ringlet from her cheek. (28 words)
Repetition (see, I’m repeating myself even as I advise you not to. No one’s perfect, and this blog post sure isn’t!)
Watch for places where you repeat information, including but not limited to emotions or observations. We often don’t even realize we’re doing it, but a close read can reveal two or more lines on a page that basically describe the same thing twice or tell readers information they already know. (Again, guilty as charged! Fixing this is a major part of all of my first revision passes!)
Trust readers to read between the lines. Often, we are so worried that readers won’t “get” something or “feel” something that we whack them over the head with it, when one line or even one word is enough to clue them in and they can—and will!—fill in the rest, and be more satisfied because they did it for themselves. Movie example: The hand flex from Pride and Prejudice has more impact than a 5-minute monologue ever could. Trust yourself to have done the work to set readers up, and trust them to figure out you’re your context clues mean!
I’ll pop back in and tidy this up later or add anything I forgot to, but I hope something in here is helpful! Happy trimming!
We’re all stuck at home with withering social skills and a desperate craving for human interaction so my friend Anna and I are doing what everyone is doing these days–we’re making a podcast!
Check out Basic Pitches on twitter @2basicpitches and listen to us on your podcast streaming platform of choice as we chat about writing, finding writing community, and forming writing relationships! Episodes drop on Mondays and we might even start having special guests soon….
Check out the very first character art for The Last Finestra, created by an incredible young artist who brought my fictional babies to life! (And follow the artist on twitter HERE!)
I am OBSESSED!
As a writer, I’ve spent years wandering through fictional worlds with imaginary people who become so real to me that I often discuss them as though they’re neighbors or people living in my basement. It can sometimes be a lonely experience to love these characters who very few people even know “exist”, and since I still have approximately 18 months to wait before that changes, it is just incredible to see them for the first time.
My fictional babies in black and white!
As someone with zero knowledge of most non-writing forms of art, I’m sorely lacking in the vocabulary to explain my thoughts, but Andie’s drawings make me think of Rodin’s statues and classic paintings of Greek Gods, with an aesthetic that resonates so beautifully with the Italian setting and sense of timelessness I hoped to create in the world where TLF takes place. I adore it!
For context, in the scene depicted (no spoilers), Alessa is trying to convince her very stubborn and very injured bodyguard to let her take care of him after he’s endured a really rough few days.
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Hello, friends. It has been an incredible honor to spend the last month swimming through a vast sea of PitchWars submissions. I am in awe of your talent and enthusiasm, and I so wish I could have chosen dozens of mentors, but alas, I could not.
I know how disappointed many of you are feeling right now, but I really hope you don’t feel defeated. Nearly 600 of you were brave enough to share your work with me and I was absolutely blown away by your talent and creativity.
As I’ve publicly shared on twitter, I went into my first round of read-throughs expecting it would be relatively easy to pare down to a short list of strong contenders. I was so very wrong. Even trying to be tough, I was left with about 250 strong contenders. And a second, more brutal paring, only got me down to 140.
I think you can see my predicament, here. Even the fastest reader in the world would struggle to read 140 books in a matter of weeks. I simply couldn’t pare down any farther via any concrete metrics, so I simply asked myself which manuscripts I was most drawn to. In the end, I only requested about 5% of my submissions, and even then, had to read night and day for weeks before making a final decision. So, if you did not get a request from me, please don’t assume it says anything about your skill or potential as a writer.
I wish I could provide personalized feedback to everyone, but time simply won’t allow it, and I do have to write this sequel eventually (Don’t tell my agent, but I’ve written nothing in six weeks!)
If you are interested in potentially getting some brief feedback, however, please fill out the form below by November 16th. I doubt I’ll be able to respond to everyone, but I’ll try to get to as many as possible over the next few weeks!
(Note: I just realized this post has been sitting in my drafts folder since September, so that’s why I’m posting it today!)
My earliest attempted novels were, I’ll be honest, boring. And at the time, I didn’t understand why. My concepts were interesting! My characters had backstories and exciting things happened to them!
Ay, there’s the rub. Exciting things happened TO THEM. The characters themselves… well, they didn’t much, aside from reacting to those things. Something dangerous appeared, they’d fight or run away, then wander off until another exciting thing happened to them. The characters weren’t driving the plot. The plot was driving them around. They were passengers. And it’s just not as interesting to read about a character being taken for a ride as it is to read about a character who grabs the steering wheel and charts a new course.
I knew, in theory, that readers liked active characters, but not all of my characters were “active” in the sense of butt-kicking, strong, confident, go-getters, so how could they be expected to make everything happen?
Because character agency, not sword-slinging, makes the difference between active or passive characters. An “active” character doesn’t have to be a sword-slinging badass, but they do have to make choices that lead to what happens next. An inciting incident is often described as the event that kicks off a story, but that’s only because it spurs the main character to take some sort of action, to make a choice. For example, most people would correctly say that the inciting incident in The Hunger Games is when Katniss’s sister is chosen, but the STORY really begins the moment Katniss decides to take her place.
Agency is what makes characters compelling. In a way, they almost need to write their own story. Well, obviously, you write it, but it should feel like the characters are the ones making the story happen.
As I discussed in THIS POST , I’m a pantser, so I usually write a synopsis after I finish a first draft. There’s usually a lot of “and then X shows up/and then X happens” so I zoom in to examine how I’ve connected each plot point. (Eternal recommendation: Watch SouthPark writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker talk about “but/therefore” HERE) If most of my connective sentences start with “And then,” that’s a red flag, warning that I may have a series of events rather than a story. When I ask myself, “What did my MC do that led to these plot points?” and the answer is, “she didn’t, stuff just happened,” then I have structural work to do.
For example, in my 2017 Pitchwars book, the main character was originally asked to join her mother at her research laboratory for the summer. While there, my MC accidentally stumbled across a secret, and this is the big turning point of the story.
In the final draft, my MC jeopardizes her college plans by asking dangerous questions, then tries to get her life back on track by offering to join her mother for the summer to prove she can be responsible and follow the rules. Then, of course, the first time she notices something mysterious, she chooses to poke around even though she knows she should walk away.
It sounds like a relatively minor change, but in the later version, the character’s hands are on the wheel, and when she goes off a cliff, it’s mostly her own fault. Really, that’s what readers crave. They want the character to take them on a ride, rather than watching the character be taken for a ride.
Obviously, outside forces still exist, and plot points often occur because someone or something else acts on the character, but whenever possible, ask yourself how your character can exacerbate the problem, or react to it in a way that causes the next problem. If you can get your readers to sound like horror-movie viewers, yelling “Nooo! Don’t open that door!” then you’re on the right track.
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The Last Finestra and its sequel are going to be published in Germany! LYX bought the German translation rights at auction!, and I’m so excited that we’ll get to share my debut duology with a whole new group of eager fantasy readers!
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With PitchWars gearing up (and my final edits due soon! Eeep!) it’s a great time to talk about edit letters–what they are, how to handle one, and what steps to take when you get one! (Disclaimer: This is all just my opinion, based on my experiences. YMMV.)
In the years since I began writing towards publication, I’ve received edit letters from freelance editors, mentors, my agent, and the acquiring editor for my upcoming debut novel. They’ve ranged from a page of big-picture thoughts to 17 pages of notes broken down by scene. If you assumed the 17-page one was when I was a newbie writer and had the most to learn and that they got shorter as I gained experience, you’d be completely wrong! The length of an edit letter depends on a whole host of factors, especially the editor’s style. A short edit letter can lead to a massive rewrite, while a lengthy edit letter can simply mean a bunch of smaller, page-level adjustments. It all depends! So, don’t judge your worth or your book’s quality by the length of an edit letter, because that’s not the point. The point of an edit letter is to provide constructive critique intended to help you, the author, improve your manuscript.
For example, I tend to give extensive feedback! (I blame my mother’s english teacher/editorial genes.) As my critique partners will tell you, I send pages and pages and pages of notes, which often seems intimidating at first but is rarely as daunting as it looks. I do this because I don’t like pointing out issues without mentioning specific examples so I know the person understands what I mean, and I like to provide potential solutions along with my critique. I’m also wordy in general. That’s just my style. So, anyone who gets a long edit letter from me should know that it’s a reflection of my feedback style, not the quality of their work!
Anyway. Enough about me. Let’s get back to you. So. You got an edit letter. Hooray!!! But also, oh no.
You start reading it. You feel dizzy. You want to lie down. Maybe you’re a little disgruntled. Doesn’t this person realize how hard you worked on this book? Can’t they see how rude it is to point out a million “flaws?” Who does this person think they are, anyway, and what right do they have to pick apart your precious manuscript? And that note about Char A? Totally off base! You’re going to email them right back and tell them the hundred ways they’re wrong, and why their suggestions are impossible. I mean, why did they even say they liked your book if they were just going to critique everything in it? Did they actually like anything? What’s this person’s problem???
First, send a brief, calm response. Something like: “Thanks for the feedback. I’m going to take a few days to gather my thoughts, and I’ll touch base when I’m ready to discuss.”
Good job! Now, it’s time to decide how you’re going to process and handle this feedback!
A Very Important Note: Sometimes, feedback feels “wrong.” That doesn’t mean it is, or the feedback giver is evil or that they will be mad if you (politely) push backafter you’ve taken the time to calm down and give it careful thought.PLEASE READ THAT PART AGAIN. No matter what, it is almost always a bad idea to fire back an angry or defensive email right after you get an edit letter.
So, again. Breathe. Let’s walk through this, nice and slow. We’ll get there.
Step 1: Read through the feedback. Do this in stages if you get overwhelmed. Take your time. Jot down some notes. Whatever gets you through it. Step away from the email. Away! If you must, draft an email but do not send it! Take your finger off the send button right now, I mean it! Step 2: Sulk. Eat some ice cream, pour some wine, go for a long run. Whatever you need to do while consumed by your feelings. Step 3: Reread it. Still grumpy? Go to step 4. Feeling better? Go to step 5. Step 4: Vent. To someone OTHER than the feedback-giver. Call a trusted CP and whine. Use expletives if needed. Write in your diary, “My mentor/agent/editor is a big doodoo head who wouldn’t recognize a good book if it flew through an open window and landed in their lap!” if you need to. Make a big stack of books that did that thing you were told to change and they were allowed to! Good. Feel any better yet? Step 5: Organize your thoughts. My favorite trick is to sort feedback/suggestions into lists: -That’s a good point AND I know how to fix it! 🙂 -That’s a good point, but I don’t know how to fix it. 😐 -I’m not sure about this/I’m not ready to deal with this yet. Save for later. :-/ -Things I need to discuss further and might have to push back on. 🙁 Step 6: Touch base. Set up a call or send an email and let the person know where you are, in terms of processing the feedback. Need more time? Let them know. Ready to chat? Same. Step 7: Brainstorm/Collaborate. This can be really fun! This is the part where you realize you have someone on your side who cares about your book and wants to help you make it even better! so exchange virtual high fives about the stuff you know how to fix and are excited to do. Brainstorm solutions for the stuff you want to fix but you’re stuck on. If there’s stuff you still don’t feel confident about, you can broach the topic now, or let them know that you want to discuss it later, once you’ve tackled the other tasks. (We’ll discuss ways to handle that sort of feedback below.) Step 7: Get to work. (Repeat previous steps as needed!)
Okay, now let’s talk about the feedback that hurts and/or just doesn’t feel right, even after you’ve cooled off. There are a few possibilities here.
1. The feedback may be “correct”, but you still aren’t ready. Sometimes, feedback that feels wrong or “mean” is actually spot on and usually kinder than you realize, but you just aren’t ready to process it yet. Often because it means a lot of work or because you’re unsure how to fix the issues. You also may have skimmed right over all the praise and fixated on the tough stuff, and you need to step away for a bit longer, then re-read it again when you aren’t so raw. I’ve been guilty of this. Most authors have.
“Everything they suggested is impossible and wrong, plus they clearly hate my book and they probably hate me, too!” is a fairly normal writer response, but it’s almost never true. Usually, once we let it sit for a while, we see things more clearly. When I’m in this position, I often stew and angst until a brilliant solution wakes me up at 3am. Then, I promptly forget all my gloomy musing and decide the feedback giver was actually a magical book wizard all along.
2. The feedback is “correct”, but the suggested fix(es) aren’t right for you. Let’s say your edit letter criticizes the pacing for being too slow and recommends you cut a bunch of scenes (hey, been there!) “But wait!” you say. “I need those scenes for character development. I can’t cut those!”
(Wait, is this you… or it is actually me? Um… *nervous laughter*)
Anyway. You could ignore that feedback entirely, but maybe, just maybe, you suspect, deep down, that it might actually be very true. So, now what? Well, maybe you can add more tension to the current scenes, or merge two scenes into one, or change the setting more frequently to add a sense of forward movement, or break up that rambling dialogue into smaller chunks and work it into a few active scenes. Or, maybe you need new scenes to break up the current arrangement, or you could raise the stakes, or add more conflict, or or or or…..
See where I’m going? The feedback may be spot on, but the suggested remedy doesn’t feel true to your vision, so it’s up to you (and maybe the feedback-giver, too, depending on how collaborative you are) to figure out a solution that addresses the problem so it’s satisfying for everyone.
3. The critique is actually “wrong.” I put this one last for a reason, because we writers have a tendency to jump right to this option whenever critique stings. It’s understandable, because your book is your baby, and it can hurt to have someone suggest your baby isn’t perfect, but the fact is, no one makes it very far in publishing if they dismiss any and all feedback they don’t like. So, please test out the first two options before you land on this one.
That said, sometimes even after you’ve let it percolate, vented to a trusted confidant, talked with the feedback-giver and spitballed some possibilities, that one bit of feedback still feels wrong.
This is when you get to be a professional and professionally (read: politely, but firmly) explain your objection and be prepared to stand your ground. This is the opposite of throwing a tantrum. It means telling the other person, “I’ve given this a lot of thought and I understand why you suggested X, but I feel that doing so would change a fundamental aspect of this book in a way I’m not comfortable with for the following reasons. I appreciate the time and thought you put into this, though, and I’m excited to see how my other edits turn out based on your insight.”
Think of this as a “get out of jail free” card and use it sparingly. If you respond to 75% of feedback with, “You’re wrong and I’m not doing that,” agents or editors may eventually get tired of working with you, and that’s… kind of fair, honestly. Agents/editors (and mentors, to a lesser extent) have a vested interest in your book and they want a partnership based on mutual respect. They aren’t your boss, per se, but you also aren’t theirs. If you can’t respect their professional opinion and aren’t open to considering edits they genuinely feel will improve your book’s chances of selling, then the relationship may be a poor fit for both parties.
I can honestly say I’ve run into at least one non-negotiable in most edit letters I’ve received, and every time, I worked myself into a stress panic before working up the courage to tell the other person how I felt. And you know what?
It was alwaysfine!
Most times, they responded with some version of “Okay, well, it’s your book!” and that was it! Sometimes, the response was closer to, “Hmm. I still have concerns, but I understand where you’re coming from. Let’s see how it feels once the rest of this revision is complete.”
My point? No one got angry. No one was rude. No one burned bridges or steamrolled the other person into doing it their way. Remember, you have the same goal, to make your book as good as possible. An editorial relationship shouldn’t be adversarial, and it generally won’t be as long as both parties treat the other with respect.
Okay, I’ll wrap this up, because it’s getting long (See, I told you I’m wordy!) but I hope this was helpful or can be helpful in the future.
Writing is an act of courage, and opening yourself to feedback is an act of courageous vulnerability. Be gentle with yourself, respectful to those who seek to help you, and try to treat your book like a phoenix, not an egg. As long as you save those drafts, you can’t shatter your book beyond repair. You can, however, fuel that creative fire until a more beautiful version of it rises from the ashes.