Avoiding Revision Fatigue

In my post about things I learned from the Sea Story, I mentioned the importance of love: loving your story and loving the act of writing itself. I’m a butt-in-chair writer. I don’t believe in just waiting for inspiration, because inspiration has never gotten me much further than a pretty line or an interesting character — it takes work to make a novel. But the Sea Story taught me something important about love and I thought it deserved its own post.

I’m not a huge fan of revising. I understand its importance, and I throw myself into it wholeheartedly with every novel, but for me, a revision will never compare to the messy, beautiful process of getting a story down the first time. I’ve compared drafting to riding downhill before, and the metaphor still works. First drafts are exhilarating, breathless and free, while subsequent drafts are like riding on the flat: long, tiring and often boring.

I’ve always known this about myself, but what I didn’t know was that weariness I feel when I’m revising can creep into the draft itself. I can, entirely by accident, revise away the best parts of my story. Knowing this, I’ve started assembling techniques to combat revision fatigue, and just in case you are experiencing something similar, I thought I’d share:

Too Many Cooks

A few months ago, McDonalds Australia ran a crowd-sourcing campaign to create a new burger. People all over the country voted for their favorite burger toppings, and for a limited time the resulting burger was sold in stores. I tried it. It was perfectly fine. Turns out, most of Australia loves your standard burger: beef patty, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions,  and cheese.

The problem wasn’t that the burger wasn’t good, it was that there was nothing all that unique about it. It didn’t stand out in any way.

Sometimes, we fall into the trap of crowd-sourcing our novels. I don’t mean in the drafting stage, where it’s just you and your story. I mean in the way we get and receive critiques. Critiques are important — my critique partners are the most valuable weapons in my arsenal — but there is a point where too many voices start to crowd out your own.

What makes your novel special isn’t having a character everyone loves, or plot that’s completely inoffensive. It’s you. You are the special ingredient. Don’t revise yourself out of the story.

Trust Yourself

Before you ask for a critique, it’s important to have a very clear grasp on what you love about this story. Know what you want to keep, what you’re going to fight for, and what makes the manuscript unique, so when you start getting those critiques back you know when to bend and when to stand by your choices.

But it’s not only critiques you need to protect the story from… it’s yourself. Lately I’ve been noticing an insidious trend in my own drafts: changes I’ve made because I think someone might object to them. No one has actually said anything negative about the abrasiveness of a character in this scene, or the way this character cries or lets her anger get the best of her, but I imagine someone one day will, and I take it out. The result is… bland. When you fail to trust yourself and your own choices, when you let all those other voices in, you can accidentally revise the spice out of your story.

Know what you love about your story, and hold it tightly. Don’t let anyone take it away from you, not even yourself.

Take Breaks… Long Ones

I’m terrible at this. Even when I do manage to take a break from my manuscript, while waiting on critiques or leaving a draft to settle, I still spend every waking moment thinking about it. With the Sea Story in particular, I love it so much I’m afraid to let it go, and that’s been detrimental to my own revising process. In the whole year and a half since I started drafting, through 500,000 words of discarded drafts, I don’t remember a single occasion when I felt like I had fresh eyes to see the story.

A strategy I’ve started using lately, with great success, is dual-weilding novels. I never thought I could work on two novels at once, but so far it’s working great! The way I handle it is, I’ve set extremely tough daily and weekly word count goals for my WIP. The only time I’m allowed to even brainstorm the revision on my second novel is when I’ve met those goals. Most days I run out of time. But in those stolen moments, in the midst of the heady rush of a first draft, I’ve found my enthusiasm for the story I’m revising again. Maybe it’s the excitement of an illicit relationship, maybe its the enjoyment of my first draft bleeding over into my other story, but I’ve found the love again. Just as importantly, I’m having fun.

Other Ideas

Another thing I’ve tried is having a theme song for my novel, a song that reminds me of everything I love about the story: the atmosphere, the tension, the drive of my MC. I can’t listen to it too often, because I tend to burn out on songs. After awhile they start to lose their impact. But when I do, I feel it: that spark that started it all.

You could also try moving to a different location. I love working in coffee shops — the right kind, with good coffee, quiet music, just the right number of customers, and staff who don’t bother you too often. But even just working at my kitchen table rather than at my desk can spark something for me and get the words rolling.

Sometimes what I need is space — physical space. Going for a walk and clearing my head always seems to bring that sense of freshness back to my spirit and onto the page. Cleaning my desk and adding small touches of beauty to my workspace helps as well.

Lastly, I’ve become a Pinterest convert. I didn’t really get it at first, but it’s become instrumental for helping me remember what I love about a story. Spending a few minutes before I sit down to write lingering over a story’s Pinterest page and searching for new images to capture my story can be just what I need to get the ball rolling. Somehow, switching over to a visual medium just sparks something for me. For my WIP, I’ve even started doodling in a notebook, drawing scenes and images that recur in the story. Try it — it might help!

So. Maybe you’re one of those gifted folks who love revision, or maybe you’re like me and think nothing can compare to a first draft — either way, I hope you’ve found something here to help you hold onto the love and make the revision process just that little bit smoother.

A spark for the Sea Story
A spark for the Sea Story, taken October 2011
Avoiding Revision Fatigue

What I Learned from the Sea Story

For most people, writing is a narrow, rocky path littered with obstacles. Occasionally you’ll pass another writer on your way and you’ll nod to each other before continuing on. Sometimes you’ll find a stream along the side of the path and you’ll fill your water bottle and maybe lay down for awhile. Some people never get up again. And every now and then you’ll pass a marker that tells you exactly h0w far you’ve come — though not how far you have to go.

These markers are important. They’re the little boost we need to get over the next hill. They show we’re still moving forward, even if the landscape never changes. They tell us that we’ve achieved something — and we have! Not everybody gets this far. You could have given up a long time ago. Half your friends are still back there by that stream. We’re going places. We should acknowledge that.

One of the ways I acknowledge my own little markers is by writing a blog post at the end of every book, listing the things I’ve learned from the experience. I actually used to write these posts at the end of every draft — back then it felt like there was so much to learn, so much ground to gain, and I leaped from marker to marker with energy and gusto. Now, the markers are a little further apart. The things I’m learning are amorphous and harder to put into words. But I think it’s important, still, to pause and take a little Instagram snap of where I am and what I’ve learned.

None of these are dos and don’ts. They’re not rules to follow. They’re just things I’ll be aware of next time when making decisions about a character or a story, things that might make my life easier to avoid. Or, if I decide to include them, things to use with care and intention.

What the Sea Story has taught me:

1. The trouble with outsider characters

I’ve always written outsider characters, characters that are either new to their world, or on the outskirts of it. We all understand what that’s like, to feel like we don’t belong, to be the new person, to be alone in the world. It’s relatable. But while writing the sea story I realized for the first time how difficult it can be to construct a story with an outsider main character.

Dialogue is a powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. It achieves so many things at once: it reveals character, it creates conflict and suspense, it reveals information, and it advances the plot. Outsider characters have less opportunity to interact with other characters in a meaningful way, and you can fall into the trap of having scene after scene of your character just thinking about things. Give your characters friends, siblings, parents, enemies. Dialogue is where conflict happens; it’s the lifeblood of your story.

The other difficult with outsider characters is worldbuilding. If a character knows about her world, she can convey it to the reader, but if she’s new to it, every bit of information must be fed to her (and us) by other characters. If she’s also an outsider in the social sense, this creates additional difficulties.

Outsider characters are important and all these things can be overcome, but next time I will know exactly what I’m getting into before I decide to write this kind of story.

2. The weight of back-story

Imagine your novel in its first chapters is an infant. Still young, not quite able to hold its own head up yet. What you’re hoping as you go along is for that infant to grow, to learn to walk, and to become its own person. Now, imagine your back-story has a physical weight. It’s a metal chain that you loop around your story. In small amounts it can be beautiful — an adornment, a necklace — but too much begins to weigh your story down.

An adult can carry great chains across her back and it might even make her stronger. But even the smallest chain can be too much for an infant. A story will never learn to walk or talk or cover great ground when its first chapters are burdened with back-story.

I knew all this going in to the Sea Story, at least intellectually. But without realizing it, I created a story that was completely reliant on its back-story. The back-story was built into its bones — all forward movement was based upon events from the past. My poor first chapters struggled under the weight of it.

Back-story is not a bad thing in and of itself. But if you’re creating a story that relies upon its back-story, rather than using it as decoration, you will need to be especially creative in your execution. My advice? Make your back-story your front-story. Maggie Stiefvater often begins her story at that one important moment in the past that determines all that is to come. Julie Murphy, Jandy Nelson and Gayle Forman have all used unconventional story structures in order to incorporate events of the past into their manuscripts.

(*If you have any other examples of unconventional story structures in YA, please send them my way!)

Back-story is a hurdle, but when used well it can be beautiful.

3. The trouble with first person narratives

I love first person narration. All three of my novels are first person. But when you’re writing a story with a complex world and events happening in multiple locations, a single, first person narrator has its limitations. Your character either needs to be in the heart of the action at all times or have someone else tell them what’s going on — which can lack the drama of seeing it for themselves.

Another difficulty with first person narration is suspense. Alfred Hitchcock, master of the genre, once gave the illustration of two people sitting at a table while a bomb ticks away underneath. If the viewer is unaware of the bomb (as in a first person narrative), then the eventual explosion is surprising but not suspenseful. If the viewer is aware, if they saw the bomb planted there and they know it will explode at a certain time, they become involved in the narrative and long to warn the characters. This is suspense.

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.” — Hitchcock

It’s all about what kind of story you’re trying to tell. This was the first time I even noticed these limitations, and I made first person work for me regardless, but with my WIP I’m giving third person a try. I have a larger kind of story I want to write and I’m looking forward to exploring it from a wider lens.

4. Love

Sometimes, when writing feels like work, when you’re weary and stressed, it shows in the writing.

Sometimes, when writing is a joy, when you’re writing with the exuberance of pure creation, it shows in the writing.

For me, with this story, it was important to maintain the “mind on fire” spirit of writing. When I didn’t feel that, when an entire draft felt like work, that was a huge clue that something wasn’t right. And readers could tell.

I read this great piece by Hilari Bell the other day about embracing failure, because it means you’ve tried something and learned from the experience. Go read it; it’s a good one.

These are the ways I tried and failed while writing the sea story. These are the lessons I learned.

Next time I will fail better.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” — Samuel Beckett
A new friend for a new story
A new friend for a new story
What I Learned from the Sea Story

A Perfect Storm

A month ago I finished my novel. This is a happy thing, I know it is. The feeling of being done, finally, finally done, is just lightness and air and every good and joyous thing. I went out to celebrate with my husband and, unexpectedly, we were joined by pretty much everyone else we know. I took a few deep breaths and I smiled and then I steeled myself for what was to come.

I try to prepare, to think ahead. I start planning my next book as early as possible, months before I expect to need it. But the problem is, the book I plan has never, ever been the one that I end up writing next. No matter how many plugs I construct, they just don’t fit the hole that emerges when I finish a manuscript.

I think partially it’s my mind’s way of forcing me to take downtime. I have to take a break between books. I don’t have a choice. But I hate that time, I can’t stand it, because no matter how many books I read or walks I take or cookies I bake, the anxiety always comes.

Stormy sea

Writing is my therapy — I realized that a long time ago. I started writing when I was a kid in part because it forced my brain to slow down and focus, rather than running in endless, exhausting circles. My mind is like one of those dogs in a too-small yard. Boredom frustrates it. Inactivity sends it wild. It paces the same old, worn paths until the grass is all worn away and all that’s left is dirt and an overwhelming, unnameable terror.

When I’m writing, though, I feel normal. I feel like anyone else. I don’t lie awake at night, paralyzed by everything could possibly go wrong in my life. I don’t spend the drives to and from work running through every embarrassing thing I’ve ever said and imagining crashing on the side of the road just to make the thoughts stop. I don’t spend hours thinking about all the ways I could die or have my loved ones taken from me.

But when I’m not writing, all those things come back.

I know what to expect, my husband knows what to expect, and we mitigate the damage as much as possible. It gets easier every time, because I know what’s coming, and I recognize it when it does. It helps to know that I’ve gone through it before, and always come out the other side. Here’s a maxim I learned when I was a teenager, suffering through my first ever bout of depression: tomorrow will be different. Maybe better, maybe worse, but never exactly the same. How I’m feeling right now won’t last forever.

It wasn’t too bad this time. Or at least it could have been much worse. Because everything that could have gone wrong did, all at once.

First, my Labrador, Mika, injured her hip. This meant I was without a running buddy for the first time in two years. I was too miserable to try running on my own. I was too afraid to go into the bush without her. Two of my major coping mechanisms — running and nature — were taken from me at the worst possible time.

Then, Robin Williams died. I didn’t realize it would hit me so hard. Celebrities have died before, lots of them, and the sadness has always been momentary and light. I guess it was the way that he died, as well as the timing. It brought up a lot of things for me. I started thinking, if Robin Williams, a man who made his living from laughter, couldn’t make it, then how could I? I guess I wasn’t the only one, because Beyond Blue, an Australian helpline for people with anxiety and depression, received 50% more calls after the news broke.

I got sick, my hours were reduced at work, and then the rain started. Weeks of it. It’s still going — it feels like it’s never going to stop. Even sunshine was taken from me.

But I’ve weathered the storm. I grasped at every good thing I could find. I searched for beauty in every ordinary moment. I went out for coffee a lot (yay coffee!) and I went for walks when the sun came out and I hugged my husband and puppy as often as I could. I tried to be kind to myself, recognizing that the bad moments would pass and I’d write again when I was ready. I wasn’t always good at these things, but I did my best.

And on Monday I took my puppy on her first pain-free walk and then I sat down at my laptop and started tapping at the keys. The flow was slow — just a dribble, but it was something. Then yesterday, I did a session of yoga, Vinyasa-ing until I couldn’t feel my arms anymore, and wrote 500 words. 500 beautiful, wonderful, happy words. I’d hug them, but I don’t want to scare them away.

Today the rain is back and some of the old fears are creeping up on me, but I’m going to sit down at the laptop regardless. Maybe the words will come or maybe they won’t, but every season passes. The good ones and the bad. Tomorrow will be different.

Ferocious sea on one side, calm harbor on the other.
A Perfect Storm

The Road to Pitch Wars Part 3: What Comes Next

I had no expectations going into Pitch Wars. I was so afraid of getting no request during the agent round that I refused to check my entry. At all. Someone would say “Hey Beth! I can’t believe you have x requests!” and that’s how I found out my entry was doing well. In fact, I didn’t even go to the page until after the competition, when I had to send requested material.

Things happened quickly after that. A week later I woke to two offers of representation in my inbox. (When you live overseas, offers tend to come before the call). Over the next week I’d have four more, and almost every morning had a 5am phone call with an agent wanting to represent my book.

I didn’t have much time to research agents or figure out what questions I was supposed to be asking, or even send queries after the competition ended. Maybe that will be you. Maybe you want to know what to expect if the impossible happens. Or maybe you just want a burst of inspiration in your day (which is what these posts were to me before I found representation). This post is for you.

As a recap, here is the road so far (cue Carry On My Wayward Son…):

The Road to Pitch Wars Part 1: What to Expect

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

Agent Bidding

One of the questions I received on Twitter was What did the agent bidding feel like? My only answer is: Absolutely surreal. Only a few months ago, I’d been terrified to send my new story to my critique partners in case they didn’t like it. I keep saying this, but it’s true: my story is strange. Turns out people like strange.

But here’s the thing. I’d had requests before for other manuscripts that didn’t go anywhere. Not this many, not all at once, but I knew not to pin my hopes on a few full requests. It was wonderful to win Pitch Wars, mostly because it meant Stacey’s confidence in me had paid off, but I was digging myself in for a long stay in the trenches.

One point I want to make is, if you’ve made it into Pitch Wars, it means you have something special. You have the spark, that x-factor that pulls someone in and keeps them reading. Some mentees didn’t get any requests during the competition, and I think you have to steel yourself against that possibility. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to get an agent with this book. Some of the mentees who didn’t get any requests are now happily agented. It also doesn’t mean you won’t get an agent with your next book. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say you probably will. If you keep working and keep honing that precious little spark of yours, you will make it. Figure out what makes you special and hold tight to it. But that’s a post for another day.

The Call(s)

I am not a phone person. Or a 5am person. I’d never in my life used Skype. Plus, these were Big Time Agents from Big Time Agencies and they wanted to speak to ME! I have no idea how that happened.

For a week of phone calls, I barely ate. I couldn’t. I was too nervous. I slept, but only lightly, in case I missed my alarm. I floated around in some sort of dream state as agent after agent told me how much they loved my manuscript. It was an absolute dream come true, and honestly, I had so much trouble accepting it was actually happening. I had to stop myself from asking every agent if they were SURE it was my manuscript they were talking about, and you know, they could still back out now if they wanted.

At the same time, I was having to make all these Big Important Decisions. A couple of agents asked for more time to read. A couple gave R&Rs (revise and resubmits), which would mean turning down all the other agents on the off chance this person would like my revised version. Some agents spoke about movie deals and dollars I couldn’t even comprehend, while others spoke about important themes and reaching readers who needed THIS story, and I had to choose between them.

In all honesty, I was overwhelmed and under-prepared. I never expected this to happen to me. But you don’t have to make the same mistake.

How I Chose My Agent

If you don’t already have a set of agent questions sitting on your desktop or stowed in a drawer, I suggest you get one. Make sure you know exactly what you’re looking for in an agent, so you can interview them appropriately. I made my list after I received the first offer. I scavenged questions from writer friends and message boards and blogs. But if I was doing it all again, there are other questions I would ask. The best list of agent questions I’ve found is here, by Elle Cosimano. Start there, but look wider.

Know what you’re looking for in an agent. Seriously. “Someone who wants to represent me” isn’t enough. One agent even asked me this question and I didn’t have an answer for them. I had no clue.

This was the process I ended up using to choose between these wonderful agents:

– Talk to other writers. Interview the agents’ clients, but also ask around in your own writing circle. What an agent presents to the public and how popular they are with aspiring writers is not necessarily a good gauge of what kind of agent they are. You might hear a few horror stories, or you might hear amazing things about an agent who has otherwise flown under your personal radar.

– Pro/Con lists. I know. Terribly scientific. But the act of forcing yourself to write out cons as well as pros can help you see past your own emotions. Just because an agent is really nice doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best agent for you. Be as honest as possible.

– Figure out what is most important to you. There were two agents I really liked, who I ended up setting aside because they didn’t have much experience with children’s literature. There was another I had to pass on because the agent in question intimidated me, big time. These were excellent agents, but not the best match for me.

– Gut. Most people say they know from the first phone call that agent is for them (I read a statistic that said most writers end up going with their first offer, no matter how many follow. How interesting is that?). My first phone call was amazing. I cried afterward, because I never thought I’d hear those things said about my writing. I could have signed with her on the spot, but I didn’t. She was in my top two all the way along, but in the very end, when it was time to make the big decisions, I chose someone else.

I’m not one of those people who think there is only one perfect agent (or one perfect person, even) for you. Any one of those agents could have sold my book and done it well. When you’re in the moment, it feels like the biggest decision you’ll ever make, and maybe it kind of is, but if you’re having trouble deciding, chances are BOTH choices are good ones.

I ended up choosing Ammi-Joan Paquette and every day I find new reasons to be thankful I did. Some agents were focused on money and some were focused on craft, and Joan was the latter. That was important to me.  She’s made my story stronger and she has always encouraged me to take the time I needed to do it well. Maybe another agent would have sent the story out before it was ready, but I have confidence Joan will never let me do that.

So, that’s how I chose my agent.

Agent Revisions

Someone wanted to know the scope of my revisions with Joan. I’m not sure exactly how helpful this section will be to you, as it totally depends on the manuscript in question. I know other people who signed with agents after Pitch Wars and went on submission pretty much straight away. That wasn’t me.

The scope of my agented revisions were not as large as the scope of my Pitch Wars revisions. They weren’t structural. The bones of the manuscript were sound. It was just the nuances I had to work on, and nuance isn’t easy to get right. I completed my Pitch Wars revisions in 4-5 weeks. I completed my agented revisions in 4-5 months.

Everything went so fast for me. I submitted my MS to Pitch Wars because my CPs said I was ready, but that didn’t necessarily mean I was completely satisfied. It turned out they were right, but after I signed with Joan I was determined to polish the manuscript to a state that I was happy with. It took a long time, and sometimes that was hard. It felt like I was disappointing all those people who were so excited about my story — my critique partners, my writer friends, my agent.

But the thing is, once I admitted to them how I was feeling, every one of them supported me. I love this quote I found on Laini Taylor’s blog:

It will be late once, but it’ll suck forever.
— Patrick Rothfuss

This one by Junot Diaz has inspired me as well:

“The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.”
— Junot Diaz

I’ve done the hard part. I’ve written a story I’m proud of. I’ll definitely keep you updated on what happens next.


The Road to Pitch Wars Part 3: What Comes Next

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

The Road to Pitch Wars Part 1: What to Expect

Some of you may remember me talking a bit about Pitch Wars earlier in the year. It’s the competition that earned me 15 agent requests (including ninja agents and referrals) and six offers of representation. (You may also remember how completely dumbfounded I was by all this. I spent most of January and February wandering around with a dazed look on my face.)

Anyway, Pitch Wars is being held a little early this year, and to celebrate, I thought I’d write a post about the experience in the hope it may help or inspire this year’s entrants. Last week I put a call out on Twitter for any questions or topics people might like me to cover, and you all gave me so many ideas, I realized they wouldn’t all fit in one post.

Here’s the plan as it stands:

– Post One (today!): What to expect when you’re entering Pitch Wars, including the pitch I sent to mentors.
Post Two (next week): Working with a mentor, including the pitch I worked on with Stacey.
Post Three (in a fortnight): Life after Pitch Wars, including The Call(s), choosing between agents and what I’m up to now.

Sound good? If you guys have any more questions I’m happy to add them on to subsequent posts, or answer in the comments.

*Note: I’m only one person, and I’m certain everyone who entered Pitch Wars experienced the competition differently. If I give any advice, it is purely my own opinion. Take it or leave it — completely up to you 🙂

What to expect when you enter Pitch Wars

Last October I crossed my fingers and closed my eyes as I sent my manuscript out to my critique partners for the first time. I wasn’t thinking of querying or competitions — I was just hoping my CPs didn’t hate the (admittedly strange) story too much. Well, they didn’t hate it. Not at all. In fact, they were all pretty adamant that this story needed to be sent out right now, and that Pitch Wars was the way to do it.

At this stage, I really knew nothing about the competition other than my CP Jaye Robin Brown was going to be a mentor. But, with her support, I scrubbed up my manuscript and put together a pitch to send to the four mentors I thought best suited my manuscript. Honestly, I really wasn’t expecting much. I’d entered competitions before without a great deal of success, but I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring anyway.

So, after you send in your applications, the pitches are sorted into folders by Brenda Drake and her hard-working assistants (It may work differently this year. Gmail gave everyone a lot of grief last time around). Then the mentors are allowed in and they start reading through the applications. Some of the mentors request further material from the applications they like. Some don’t need to — maybe they know potential when they see it, or they have instant favorites.

The mentors last year were allowed to go into each others’ folders and poach favorites. They also shared around entries they liked but weren’t quite right for them. All this to say: if you don’t get a request for further material from your chosen mentors don’t think that means you’re out of the game.

I ended up getting requests for further chapters from two of my chosen mentors, as well as from a third mentor that I hadn’t applied to. All three wanted to know a bit about me and what kind of writer I was. Mentors aren’t just looking for excellent stories — they’re looking for writers who are pleasant to work with. Difficult people don’t make good mentees.

Sometimes two or more mentors might want a manuscript. You saw a bit of this on the Twitter hashtag, and it’s fun to watch, even when they keep the manuscript anonymous. In cases like this, the mentors work it out among themselves. They might trade a first choice for a second and a third, or they might fight to the death. Completely up to them. The one caveat here is, if a mentor you applied to wants your manuscript, and one you didn’t apply to tries to fight for it, your entry will automatically go to the mentor you applied to.

On announcement day, a post will go up listing the mentors’ choices: one mentee and two alternates. If you’re successful, this little group becomes your Pitch Wars family. I’ll go into more detail about working with my Pitch Wars team next week, so stay tuned 🙂

Choosing Mentors

Firstly: Don’t stress. Seriously. It’s an important decision, but it won’t completely ruin your chances if you pick wrong. Mentors are great about sharing applications around and, chances are, more than your four will see your pitch over the course of the competition.

Choose mentors who like your genre, of course, but also take personality into consideration. Read mentor blogs, chat on Twitter, ask questions. If you’re successful, you will be working very closely with this person, and it’s important you get along. For example, I’m fairly easily intimidated and overwhelmed by strong personalities. I needed someone who would keep me calm and wouldn’t expect too much from me in terms of communication. Stacey and I sent a few emails a week, but I wouldn’t have been able to handle three or four a day. That’s just me, though. Know yourself, know who you are applying to.

My strategy when choosing mentors was:
1. Personal recommendations. Ask your writing friends if they know any of the mentors and if they can recommend someone who might suit you and your story.
2. Blog and twitter stalking. What does the way they communicate online say about them?
3. Book recommendations. When I had a shortlist, I asked each of the mentors if they could list their favorite books. I wanted my mentor to have a similar taste to my own.

Other Tips

– I’m kind of cringing giving this one, because it won’t be true for everyone, and I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but if you’ve already entered a whole bunch of online competitions and half the agents have seen your entry already, Pitch Wars may not be the best competition for you. I say this because I don’t think it’s fair on the mentor who chooses you if half your chances are already gone, and it’s not fair on the applicant who may have a fresh manuscript who didn’t get in because of you. Again, this is only my opinion. Every situation is unique. Trust your gut.

– Get on Twitter! If you put the agent side of Pitch Wars aside, it’s still incredibly worthwhile because of the connections you make with other writers. These people will become your best friends. They will be there to critique your pitches, cheer on your entry, and commiserate through disappointments. Trust me, I wouldn’t have made it this far if I hadn’t been lucky enough to find amazing friends and critique partners, and this is an excellent place to find them.

– Have fun! Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t whinge and don’t bug the mentors unnecessarily. This isn’t your last chance to get your manuscript read. I truly believe all the mentees who had success through Pitch Wars would have found agents the traditional way (querying) as well. The benefits of Pitch Wars lie in the connections you make with other writers — both mentors and your fellow entrants.

My entry

As promised, here is the entry I sent to Stacey and three other mentors. I hope you find it helpful, because I’m kind of cringing here!

Name: Bethany Smith
Category/Genre: YA Literary Thriller
Word Count: 80,000

Dear Stacey,

People are dying on Skana Island, swallowed up by the icy sea. For seventeen-year-old outsider Anna Delmore, this stirs memories of her own father’s drowning death on a research dive only a year ago. The islanders believe hanging whalebone over their doorways and stringing red beads in their hair will save them from death, but Anna doesn’t believe the islander’s stories. No, she believes the threat comes not from orcas or ancient magic but from the islanders themselves, and that their superstition blinds them from the human killer among them.

When another girl goes missing after secretly contacting Anna, Anna enlists the help of Jeremy Renwick, the faithful son of the local sheriff, in order to disprove the islander’s beliefs. But the closer she grows to Jeremy the more her conviction wavers. Time is running out and when the islanders mount a hunt to kill the orcas they believe responsible for the deaths, Anna is forced to choose: stop the killer from taking another life, or save the whales her father tried so hard to protect.

THE SEA WOLVES, complete at 80,000 words, is a YA literary thriller based on Pacific Northwest folklore surrounding killer whales.

Next week: The Road to Pitch Wars Part 2: Working with a Mentor

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The Road to Pitch Wars Part 1: What to Expect

What the Water Gave Me

I’ve had a hard couple of days, writing-wise. The details aren’t important. What is important is there’s a epigraph at the beginning of my novel —

“The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea.”
— Isak Dinesen

— and I’d tried the first two already, so it was time to go to the sea.

I went to this same beach on the day I received my first agent offer. On that day the sea gave me sun and foam and easy beauty.

My beach.
My beach.

Today, the sea gave me wind. It gave me rain so fine it was hard to tell if it fell from the sky or sprayed from the waves. It gave me cold and wet and grey.

Before the rain.
Before the rain.

It gave me wet rock cut deep by the encroaching sea.

The old lifeguard station.
The old lifeguard station.
Wet. Oh, so wet.
Wet. Oh, so wet.

A stormy sea. A plank of wood. A deserted beach.

Rock, sand and sea.
Rock, sand and sea.
No Prince Eric attached, unfortunately.
No Prince Eric attached, unfortunately.
Not a soul.
Not a soul.

It whipped my hair into wild tendrils, froze my fingers, smudged ink on the pages of my notebook. It grew wilder and ate up the beach, reaching for me, coming closer with each break. No part of me was dry. No part of me was warm. Even my tea grew cold.

And in the end, it gave me exactly what I needed.

The cure for anything. Sweat, tears, or the sea.

What the Water Gave Me