Monday, August 22, 2016

Pitch Wars and the Olympics

Did you watch the Rio Games? For the past two weeks I was caught up in the Olympic television coverage, from swimming to gymnastics, to track and field. I loved everything about the Olympics-- the coming together of nations for peaceful competition, the patriotism, the opening and closing ceremonies. But the thing I liked best? Watching athletes deliver a message I strongly believe in: Hard work can pay off. In the words of women's freestyle swimming gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who broke her own world record to win the first swimming gold medal in Rio, "What you put in is what you get out."
 
And that, my friends, got me thinking about writing.

This year, I am lucky to again serve as a mentor in the Pitch Wars writing contest. As a mentor, I have the impossible task of selecting one manuscript out of piles of submissions. It's heart-wrenching to think I can only pick one. Writers have written an entire novel and trusted me with their words. My heart breaks when I know I'm not connecting with a manuscript enough to say yes. It kills me to realize I'm going to have to pass, simply because I've fallen "more in love" with another novel.
 
My advice to Pitch Wars hopefuls who aren't selected? Follow Olympian Katie Ledecky's advice: Put in the hard work. Keep writing every day. Find beta readers. Attend conferences. Or maybe it's time to outline a brand new novel, like I did last fall:
Writing isn't for the faint-hearted. I've entered umpteen writing contests, and I haven't "won" anything more than a full manuscript request. But I have won other, perhaps more important things: Helpful critique, a closer connection with the writing community, and a chance to realize that the manuscript I thought was "the one" hadn't even been written yet.
 
Mastery of craft, like mastery of swimming or gymnastics, doesn't come overnight. Katie Ledecky started swimming at age 6. I wrote my first manuscript at age 40. We all have different timetables, but without putting in the work, mastery won't magically appear at any age.
 
So contest or no contest, my advice is to devote time to craft.

Print out your manuscript. Read it aloud. Flag troublesome scenes. Swap chapters with trusted beta readers. Read a ton. Write and re-write, a zillion times. Put in the work every single day and work harder than you ever thought possible.
 
I can't guarantee you'll find an Olympic medal hanging around your neck. But your writing? I bet it will shine.

 






Monday, August 15, 2016

Pitch Wars and all that Publishing Pressure

The first time I entered Pitch Wars, I failed monumentally.

My knowledge of query letters, pitches, formatting, and word counts lay right around absolute zero. Seriously, I had no idea what I was doing. I knew nothing. I was the Jon Snow of publishing. And it showed.



But you know what? I walked away with more than just a few mentor rejections. I walked away with a better understanding of everything I had originally messed up. I kept in contact with the people I'd met on the Twitter hashtag and we began swapping manuscripts. And when I wrote my second book, I vowed to enter the contest again and not wind up looking like a total noob this time.



My second Pitch Wars was with my current book, My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights. I finished my first draft just in time to get a couple of beta readers to give me notes. I was lucky enough to find a mentor (the amazing Marieke Nijkamp) who wanted my story. She helped me so much with developing particular elements of the story, and when it came time for the three-day agent round to go live, I was feeling good. Positive. Certain that Tights was going to get some serious attention.



The first day was crickets. The second, they brought their friends. By day three, the post featuring my first 250 words was so absent of agent love I was ready to shove my manuscript into a hole in my yard and let the earthworms turn it to compost. Mine wasn't the only one that didn't get any requests, but there weren't many that failed to. My mentor urged me to query. She told me to not give up because Pitch Wars was simply one avenue. Every query letter I could send out was another. And there were plenty of agents out there I could contact. Stopping then would've been like throwing the car in park and going home because there happened to be one single road closed between your house and Dunkin' Donuts.



So I dusted off my query-writing skills and wrote the best letter I could. I revisited my first page and changed a few things around. I queried a handful of agents and within a few weeks I had three offers of representation. I signed with Uwe Stender of the Triada US Literary Agency and he ended up selling my book to Random House two weeks later.

But imagine if I had thrown in the towel?

Actually, don't. Don't imagine that. Because throwing in the towel, especially that early on, is just silly. I didn't get my book published because of me. I got it published because of all the people surrounding my story who were willing to help me. Whether you self publish or traditionally publish, it really does take a village to get there.



My point is this:

If you want to have a book on a shelf, exhaust every avenue possible. There is no one road to get there. Relying on a single path is, simply put, bad planning. If you get into Pitch Wars this year, give yourself a huge pat on the back and get right back to work. If you don't get into Pitch Wars this year, take some time to feel bad and get right back to work. If you're not entering Pitch Wars this year, support those who are trying to and get right back to work.

Learn as you go. Make friends as you try. Have fun writing and remember that every author started out unagented, unpublished, and with a head full of words and a gut full of hope.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The PitchWars Experience: from nausea to euphoria (and everything in between)

PitchWars, like pretty much every aspect of the writing life, is a wild ride. This is largely because writers are crazy masochists with no control over their emotions whatsoever. Or maybe that’s just me…heh. But surely I’m not the only one to experience a wide range of emotions during PitchWars.


There’s the crippling self-doubt and angst that precedes hitting the send button; the nausea-inducing anxiety and the delicious hope/terror combo during the how-can-three-weeks-take-so-freaking-long period before the announcement; and the shock/euphoria/no-wait-maybe-it-was-a-mistake/it’s-all-a-cruel-joke/no-really-I-made-it-in of being selected or, sadly, the crushing disappointment of not being selected, despite knowing that with 2000 applicants and not quite as many mentors, the odds are not particularly in our favor. Oh writers, why do we do this to ourselves?


Because we’re crazy masochists with no control over our emotions whatsoever?? Nah. It’s because we’re writers. It’s because stories are meant to be shared. Because putting your work out there is part of the deal. Because working your butt off to get a manuscript contest-ready is one of the absolute best ways of improving your craft. And because the good stuff—the hope, the possibility, the camaraderie, the community—makes all that other stuff so completely worth it.

I was a mentee in 2014. I was thrilled to be picked! Amazing high point! Thanks to my critique partners, my manuscript was in pretty good shape when I submitted it, but my mentor, the brilliant and kind Stefanie Wass (*waves* hi Stef!), challenged me to bring it to the next level. We worked hard on it. And then … I got zero requests. Nada. Zilch. Aaaand the emotional train came crashing down to a deep, dark low point. So not fun.

But you know, I’m very glad I entered, and I like to think that if I hadn’t made it in, I’d still feel that way. PitchWars people are my people. They get me, and they get what it takes to put yourself out there, to fail, to dust yourself off and try again, to never quit. I need my people! I think we all do. So whether you’re doing PitchWars or not, find your people and hang on to them, because yes, the writing life is a wild ride. :)


By the way, I just gotta tell you … that zero-request manuscript will arrive in the world as a real paper-and-ink book this October. (Squee!) Remember, PitchWars is awesome, but if you don't get in, or you didn't enter, it's okay—there are many paths that can lead to Very Good Things.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Importance of a Strong Concept


We are in the midst of Pitch Wars season.

And I must make a confession: I'd never heard of Pitch Wars, or any other online pitching, before I got my first book deal and became more active on social media.

And I'm also not going to lie: since I heard about Pitch Wars, I've been equal parts terrified and enthralled by the idea.

Why you might ask?

Simple: Being able to pitch your idea means you have such a clear concept that you are actually able to deliver it in less than 140 characters (well, perhaps over two or three tweets).

And I salute you.


via GIPHY

Because as a writer, refining my idea into something clear, fresh, AND engaging is one of my biggest challenges.

And being able to pitch an idea that jumps out of a tweet and gets people excited?

Golden.

Oh, I get lots of ideas.

But often they are only flashes of something, and I seem unable to build on them in such a way that it makes my agent sit up and shout "Write THAT!"

Or sometimes I'll get a great idea only to realize my idea has been done a thousand times before and by better writers than me.



via GIPHY

I attended a break-out session with a literary agent at the Winter SCWBI conference this past February. The agent spoke at length about the benefit of having a high concept when it comes to pitching your work to an agent, an editor, the public.

What's high concept?

An idea that no only you can explain easily, but which immediately creates buzz in whoever hears it. It's as if when they hear your concept they think "Wow! What a fantastically original twist on an idea!"



via GIPHY

Think of Romeo and Juliet. Had Will Shakespeare said "Hey-I've got this fantastic idea about a boy and girl who fall in love in Italy" his agent would have said "Um, no thanks Will. Seen it a thousand times before."

But no, Will's got something better:

"Hey-I've got this fantastic idea - the children of sworn enemies fall in love, secretly marry, and thanks to a series of violent and tragic events, must separate, only to be later reunited and die in each other's arms thanks to a terrible mix-up."

His agent's response? "Nice play, Shakespeare!" And the rest is history!


Obviously, not every idea can be high concept nor should it be. The book I have coming out in February, It's a Mystery, Pig Face! was definitely NOT high concept.

Sure there's a mystery surrounding a bag of money discovered in a baseball dugout, but mostly, it's about how the impact of trying to solve the mystery affects the relationships between a sister, her best friend, and her annoying little brother.

But let's be honest. If you have a killer idea AND your idea is high concept, it is going to WAY easier to get people to want to read your book and represent you.

So how can you take your idea and make it high concept?
  • Push your idea farther. Ask yourself the same kinds of questions Shakespeare must have asked himself when writing his plays "What if..."
  • Ask yourself - is this unique? Has it ever been done like I want to do it before?

How will you know if your idea is high concept?
  • When you describe your idea to other people do they get REALLY excited and already start imagining what your book will be like? (this happened to be with the recent book I sold and believe me, it is a fabulous feeling!)
  • You can easily imagine the movie
  • You can imagine lots of different kinds of kids wanting to read the book and you can imagine parents, teachers and librarians recommending it.

One of the best pieces about concept that I've read online is by literary agent Jill Corcoran, who has killer instincts.  Read her piece here - it will forever change your perspective!

The one thing I know for sure: developing a strong concept can come to you like a bolt out of the blue, but usually, it takes time and a lot of finessing to take your idea and make it something compelling so that an agent will want to sign you, a publisher will want to publish you and best of all, a kid will want to read your book.

But it-is-oh-so-worth-it!

And for all of you participating in this year's Pitch Wars: GOOD LUCK!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Caught in the Contest Hype

It's that time of year again, where writerly folks are all abuzz about PitchWars. I mean sure it's exciting, if you get picked you get a mentor, some awesome manuscript notes, and access to an amazing list of agents reading your submission. It sounds like a dream come true, a match made in heaven, the stars aligning but wait...

Yes I said BUT

and this is a HUGE ENORMOUS BUT,

If that's all you're focused on, you're missing the point of pitchwars and writing contests in general. Let's be honest--and not to belittle PitchWars and other writing contests because I think they have great value to them--you can do everything PitchWars does for you on your own.

1) You can find an awesome beta reader (or several in fact) to help you shine up your manuscript.
2) You can edit and get additional feedback.
3) And you can query most if not all of the agents in contests and more on top of that.

So what do you need PitchWars and other contests for if you can do all this stuff on your own?

Networking - Writing is lonely. It's really easy to get lost and feel isolated, like you're the only one who has gone through this. But you aren't. Many others have. And contests are filled with mentors, hopefuls, and other industry people that are great to meet and interact with. Who knows, you might find your next CP match, an awesome beta reader, or some amazing fellow nerds like yourself. So get out there and talk to folks.

Editing tips - Contests almost always share tips and talk about ways to shine up your manuscripts. You can learn a lot of common mistakes to look for and make your manuscript stand out even more. I've picked up a ton of editing tips that I now use on all my work. So use this time to learn and grow as a writer.

Feedback - In many contests you will get direct feedback on a query, pitch, and/or opening pages. Use that to help hone in your work and make it pop from the first words. If you hook a reader right away, odds are agents will want to see more too. And if the contest doesn't directly offer feedback go back to the networking and find some new people to swap with to get that feedback.

Industry Wisdom - Many contests have writers that are further along in the writing process. Use them as a resource to learn about what comes next. What's it like to have an agent? go on sub? use a publicist? how do royalties work? etc. There's a whole huge writing world out there with tons of previous lessons learned, listen to the advice and gain a valuable perspective on the industry.

Reading material - Looking for new books to add to your to read pile? Looking to explore more in a genre? Need some research material? Contests are a great way to find new reading material. Whether it's the contest hosts/mentors' books, the books the participating agents are repping, or suggestions you get from fellow participants, contests are a great way to find tons of great reading material.

So the next time you find yourself biting your nails over a contest and freaking out about whether or not you'll get picked, take a step back. Look at the larger view of the contest. Get to know the participants, learn some new tips and tricks, and just have fun. Forget about who gets picked and who doesn't. Utilize all the opportunities that are right in front of you. And when you do, you'll be a winner whether you're picked or not.

Friday, July 29, 2016

A Blindfold, a Leap, and a Smile

I just started writing three new books.
Really.
I picked up a pen and notebook – I was feeling really old school – and I wrote the opening pages to three completely new, completely different middle grade novels.

Now, I'm already super busy. Between my three kids and my job and my writing and my author stuff, I don't have a lot of extra time. So why in the world would I jump into writing not one, not two, but three new books?
Well, pick your metaphor. To shake off the dust. To get the blood flowing. To rekindle the spark. To find the magic.

You see, I was at a bit of an artistic crossroads. I'm just wrapping up the rough draft of one novel, and sharpening my knives to begin revising. We recently finished final edits on my next published book (SCAR ISLAND, January 2017: cover reveal HERE). And I've been busy doing some outlining/mapping/groundwork for a series I plan to start writing this fall. Like I said, I'm busy. I was at a lull, and feeling a little overwhelmed. A little hemmed in by deadlines and targets and calendars.
My imagination was getting a little itchy, and I wanted to scratch it. My mind wanted to do some exploring, some discovering, some no-stakes playing around in the land of stories. So that's what I did.
I'd had a few ideas bouncing around in my head, waiting for their turn to come out into the world. I'd been putting them off, busy with all my “have-to's.” No more, I said. Let's open up a window and let some fresh air in.

I gave myself some ground rules before I began: No second-guessing. No worrying about the next chapter or next scene. No stress about getting it right. No worries if the stories went nowhere and died on the page.
There was no commitment, no pressure, no obligation.

Starting a story is so fun. You get to choose, from almost infinite possibilities, the exact starting point. You get to form a character out of the dark clay of your whimsy and breathe life into them. You get to try on a voice and see if it fits the telling; you get to plant the seed of an idea and see if it sprouts in the soil you gave it; you get to dream, and then move tenderly beyond dreaming into creating.
You get to close your eyes, imagine a world, and then clear your throat and start singing it.
I didn't outline. I didn't do any character sketches or plot maps or protagonist interviews. I didn't look down the road and worry about where the story was going. I just held each story idea in my head for a moment, took a breath, and began telling. I leapt in with both feet, blindfolded. 

It was awesome.
I know the humble pages I wrote may go nowhere. In one of the cases, I'm sure they'll go nowhere (isn't it weird how an idea can feel so alive and promising in your mind, and then just lay there on the page like a gutted catfish?). Even the ideas that have that glow and spark in them will almost certainly have to be reworked, rewritten, reimagined.
But that's okay. That's great and exciting, actually. And it's also tomorrow's job.
Today, I got to play in pure possibility. And that's important sometimes. I highly recommend it.

If you're stuck in a stubborn project, or just wrapping up a troubling tome, or casting about for inspiration that won't show itself, or overwhelmed by work or writing or life or all of the above, that's my prescription for you: start telling a story. Or three, even.
Don't worry about finishing a story. For god's sake don't think about writing a whole book. Don't even worry about telling a story well. That's tomorrow's job.
Just take that deep breath.
Tie on that blindfold.
And start playing. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Office Bathroom that Made Me a Writer

As the release date for my first novel approaches, more people in my every day life are asking me questions about being an author. By far, the most common is some variation on, "Why/How did you start writing a book?"

I've got lots of answers for this, because there are lots of reasons - but I haven't shared the most direct reason yet. It's almost kind of embarrassing. But here at Middle Grade Minded we come clean. So *deep breath* here's the story about the day that I first began to write the book that would eventually become The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee.

I was just getting settled in to being married, settled at a pleasant new job, and settled into a really great place by a river that felt like home. Basically, everything was going shockingly well. My coworkers were exceedingly pleasant, caring people, and my boss did things like install a communal massage chair in the office and play meditation music while we worked. It was wonderful.

But I felt itchy. Happy, but itchy - like I was missing something.

http://yogadivinity.blogspot.com
 You know that feeling where there's a song you can't get out of your head, and it fills you up with longing and nostalgia? It was like that only the longing and nostalgia was for some unknown place I couldn't put my finger on. I needed to make something. Unfortunately, I was totally out of practice in my writing. For years I'd only penned comedy sketches, lesson plans, or corporate copy. And also, I didn't know how to write a book. I mean...how do you just, "write a book?"

http://giphy.com
I thought maybe I should take some classes or something, but schedules and conflicts and commutes and blah blah blah - you get the idea.

Then I had to pee. This is a key element in the story.

My boss, the one with the meditation music, was also big on inspirational quotes. So much so that she furnished the office bathroom with its very own quote-a-day calendar. No knock on the effort, but this daily bit of zen usually provided more eye-roll fodder than inspiration for me.

But this day, the day that I first started writing a book, the calendar that sat next to a very nice vase of flowers and some Bath and Body Works hand cream read:

"A year from now you may wish you had started today." - Karen Lamb

I thought about that. I really thought about that. And it was true. I didn't know how to write a book, but I was going to learn, and I was going to start learning that day. On my lunch break I found some paper and started brainstorming. What were those swimming ideas that seemed so elusive to me? It had to do with a river, and it had to do with ghosts, and it even had to do with a cafe that served best-in-the-world hot chocolate. I just scribbled down everything I could capture.

That was Day 1. The day that I really became a writer was due in large part to a bathroom calendar.

So, I've come clean. That's my big origin story. But the sentiment on that calendar, cheesy though it may be, has stuck with me and did absolutely change the course of my life. What do you want to do?

Just start. Start today. Future you will be glad that you did.