The Road to Pitch Wars Part 2: Working With a Mentor

Last week I spoke a little about the process of entering Pitch Wars, the contest that led to me signing with the wonderful Ammi-Joan Paquette back in February. A lot of things happened between those two events, and that’s what I want to talk about today. For me, the singular draw of entering Pitch Wars was the chance to work with a mentor for five weeks, to improve my writing and come out the other side with a stronger manuscript.

I was very lucky to be chosen as a mentee by the incredible Stacey Lee, along with alternates Rebecca Thomas and Shanna Miles (go #TeamOrca!).

Before I go into what it was like to work with a mentor, I want to quickly note that every mentor and every mentee is different. We all have different needs and expectations. The best thing Stacey did upfront was to let us know what to expect in terms of communication. If your mentor doesn’t do this, ask. It’s very important you’re both on the same page about this. Last year, a couple of the mentors spoke about their mentees expecting too much from them, and I believe this could have been avoided if both parties set down ground rules at the very beginning.

If you’re accepted into Pitch Wars, your relationship with your mentor will likely be very different than my relationship with Stacey, but I hope this post will be helpful or at least interesting to you regardless.

What it was like to work with Stacey

Shortly after the list of mentees and alternates went up, Stacey emailed me to introduce herself and talk a bit about what she liked about my entry. I also received emails from the other mentors I’d applied to, congratulating me and/or telling me why they didn’t choose my entry. All the mentors I communicated with were smart and professional and any mentee would be lucky to work with any one of them, but I was terribly excited to be picked by Stacey.

Over the next week, while Stacey read and critiqued my novel, we started an email chain for #TeamOrca and started getting to know each other. It was a lot of fun. Shanna and Rebecca are incredible writers, and I had the privilege of reading and critiquing both their entries over the following weeks.

Stacey asked me if I preferred to receive her notes in sections or all at once, and I said all at once. I like to start on the bigger things first and work down, but that’s just my process. Once I received her notes, I dug in and got to work right away. We emailed several times a week about my pitch, our writing processes and what was going on in our lives, but for the most part I worked alone. That’s just how I prefer to do it, and I know other mentor/mentee pairings approached things differently.

About a week before the agent round I finished revising, and Stacey was kind enough to critique my first few chapters again, even though she was on deadline herself. If I’d been faster, it’s possible she would have had time to read the whole manuscript again, but I wouldn’t have expected this of her unless she offered.

That last week was also pretty hectic as all of #TeamOrca raced to perfect our pitches ahead of the competition. While the pitch you send to mentors is in query format (about a page), the pitch for the agent round is just a few lines — much harder! And let me tell you, I sucked at this. I sent Stacey so many pitches, and none of them did my manuscript justice. In the end, Stacey drafted a pitch for me, and I made some small changes to it. You’ve probably clued on by now that any success I had in this competition was purely because of Stacey. Truth.

Scope of revisions

This will vary from mentee to mentee, manuscript to manuscript. I’ve heard of mentees who withdrew from the competition because they realized the revision was far too large to complete in five to six weeks, and I’m certain there were others who only needed line edits. I came somewhere in between the two.

Stacey gave me notes on structure and pacing that pretty much saved the manuscript. Basically, my first half was far too slow and meandering, while my back half was like a zipline, rushing you through to the climax. I called the manuscript a literary thriller and it was true: the first part was all literary and the last all thriller.

At the mid-level, certain relationships were strengthened and certain characters fleshed out. Stacey helped me zero in on the questions I needed to answer for the world to make sense, and I spent a good deal of time on the central mystery in the story.

In terms of line edits, boy did I learn a lot. Language is probably one of my biggest strengths as a writer, but that doesn’t mean I’m perfect. I still used a lot of filters and telling verbs (as Pitch Wars mentor Monica Wagner details here) and wow did I love my dialogue tags.

I know that sounds like a lot, but I’d taken off time from work and I was ready to do what needed to be done. I worked so hard over those five weeks, and I’m proud of what I achieved with Stacey’s help.

What I learned

In my experience, working with a mentor is a lot like working with a critique partner. The biggest difference is the balance of power. What I mean by that is, when you submit work to a critique partner, you do so as equals and friends. There are feelings at stake and a relationship to maintain. When you submit to a mentor, you are there to learn and you expect them to be more experienced than you. A mentor doesn’t know you, so their critique might be more in depth than one from a CP. I also felt more comfortable asking stupid questions about writing mechanics from Stacey than I would from a CP, because the embarrassment factor wasn’t there.

The other difference is that once I receive a critique from a CP, I don’t expect anything more from them. My CPs are wonderful and always offer to answer questions and re-read sections, but I’m acutely aware than any time spent on my manuscript is time away from their own. A mentor’s time is no less valuable, but it’s already been allocated to you. They are there to help you as much as you need, within the boundaries set up at the beginning of your relationship.

One of the biggest surprises about working with Stacey was that the relationship didn’t end once the competition did. She was there to help me perfect my query and compile a list of agents to submit to (even if I didn’t end up having time to query most of them!). When I got my first offer, she gave me advice on what to look for in an agent and what questions I should ask on my call. Stacey has been available to me throughout the whole process and I’m endlessly thankful for her time and advice. THAT’S the best thing about Pitch Wars: if you are kind, humble and willing to work, your mentor can become your friend as well as teacher.

Next week I’ll talk about the agent round and what happened after, so stick around if you’re interested. I’ve pasted below a few of my terrible pitch attempts (there were hundreds!), as well as the one we ended up entering with. I hope you’ve found this helpful as you embark on your Pitch Wars adventure!

My revised pitch

Terrible pitch 1:

When a series of drowning deaths reignites a conflict between an isolated island community and their resident orca pod, outsider Anna must disprove the strange island beliefs and find the real murderer before the islanders mount a hunt to kill the whales.

Terrible pitch 2:

Based on Pacific Northwest folklore surrounding killer whales, THE SEA WOLVES follows outsider Anna, a girl who has lost her faith, as she faces up against an island community that believes the impossible in order to solve a series of mysterious deaths, her father’s among them.

Revised pitch:

17-year-old Anna stirs up trouble in an isolated Pacific Northwest community when she discovers a number of unexplained deaths, including her father’s, are connected to a mysterious pod of orca whales, and local folklore hides a dangerous truth.

Writer, adventurer
Writer, adventurer

See part three in the series here: The Road to Pitch Wars Part 3: What Comes Next

The Road to Pitch Wars Part 2: Working With a Mentor

2 thoughts on “The Road to Pitch Wars Part 2: Working With a Mentor

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