Pitch Wars 2016 Mentor Bio & Wishlist

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THIS IS NOT A DRILL, PEOPLE! It’s Pitch Wars time again and I am so freaking excited to be mentoring MG this year!

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If you’ve stumbled on this post by accident, you might be asking yourself: What’s Pitch Wars? It’s only the best contest ever, held by Brenda Drake, where selected mentees work with mentors to polish their manuscripts extra shiny for an agent round. You can read more about what Pitch Wars is here, the details here, and the schedule here.

The best part isn’t getting to have your work in front of agents, though. The best part, in my humble opinion, is the amazing community of writers and writer friends that comes with this contest. Because not everyone will get in—that’s just part of how a contest works—but everyone can take part in the building of friendships, improvement of craft, and connection with like-minded peeps that comes with all the contest hoopla.

About Me:

Letter I *have been on both the mentee and mentor sides of the Pitch Wars. In 2013, Dannie Morin chose me as one of her alternates, and in 2015, I served as a co-mentor with her. Both times, I’ve met so many wonderful, hard-working writers. Some of us have gone on to become beta readers and even CPs! In fact, Dannie and my co-mentees and I still keep in touch and read each others’ work.

*Image is part of the Pitch Wars Scavenger Hunt.

Some quick facts about me:

  • I’m Colombian-American. While I was born in the States, I spent many summers between Bogotá, Medellín, Manizales, and Cali (a city in Colombia, not California). I still have family there and visit whenever I have a chance. The Andes mountains will always feel like home for me.
  • I’m completely bilingual in Spanish/English. In fact, Spanish was my first language. There’s a funny story about me, kinder, and getting lost. In addition to Spanish, I know a sprinkling of French from two years I took in high school.
  • I’ve been an English professor for over ten years. I teach composition, creative writing (poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction), and U.S. Hispanic/Latino Literature. I started teaching when I was 24… and many of my students were my age. I might’ve had a laugh or two pretending I was a student at the start of a semester.
  • I’m also a full-time wife and mom. My son is almost nine-going-on-fifteen and swears he knows more than I do. It’s a good thing he’s cute.
  • In 2011, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and low-level lupus (also sometimes called undifferentiated connective tissue disorder or pre-lupus).
  • I’m addicted to coffee, though I have to drink decaf past noon or I won’t sleep! Sit me in a café, give me a latte, and I’m a happy camper. But I don’t like coffee desserts (e.g. ice cream, tiramisu, etc.). Go figure.
  • I love musicals. Sometimes, I wish life were a musical and I could burst out into song and dance at key moments.
  • My great-uncle, Bernardo Arias Trujillo, was a Colombian novelist and poet. I like to say writing is in my blood. So is music. On my father’s side, I have several aunts, uncles, and cousins who’ve played professionally and who even founded a school of music for kids in Manizales—La Rafael Pombo.
  • Right now, I’m on submission with a MG portal fantasy that features Colombian folklore and the Colombia of the early 90’s. Colombia tends to seep into much of what I write.
  • I’m a poet and fiction writer. I write for kids of all ages—PB, MG, and YA—and I’m agented by the lovely Deborah Warren of East West Literary.

If you want to know more about me, click on About above.

So…why pick me? Because I’m awesome. Duh.

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Okay, no—for real.

I have over twelve years’ experience in reading critically and editing other people’s work. I grade over 400 assignments (essays, poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction) per semester. In addition to the grading–in which I look at, comment on, and correct everything from grammar to content–I critique and beta read for several published and pre-published writer friends.

Here’s what you can expect from me: I’m going to be honest. I’m going to fangirl over the stuff I love, but I’m also going to let you know when something’s not working. I’ll also help you brainstorm, if you need me to. Most of our communication will be via email or chat (Twitter, Google, or Skype).

My preference is to work with MS Word Track Changes, where I’ll provide tons of in-text comments. Some of these will be questions I have. Some will be comments/observations. Some will simply be snorts of laughter or me yelling at the characters. I can get intense when reading. You will always have feedback on big picture items (plot, characters, setting, world building, etc.) and small picture bits (grammar, syntax, punctuation, tense and POV shifts, etc.) In addition to the in-text comments, I’ll be providing a detailed edit letter addressing main concerns. My goal is to get you one extensive, comprehensive critique and a second, quicker read before the agent round. It all depends on how fast you revise within our two-month time period.

There will be many moments like this:

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And many others like this:

Rapunzel Writing

I’m looking for a mentee who’s not afraid to get dirty in revisions, who’s a good listener, who’s not afraid to ask questions, and who will work hard. I shouldn’t be the first person who’s looked at this manuscript (in addition to you–the writer–and close family) and this shouldn’t be a first draft, but I don’t expect it to be perfect either (otherwise, you wouldn’t be entering Pitch Wars!) Together we will work to make your story be the best it can be and get it ready for agents.

My Wishlist:

As a reminder, I’m mentoring MG this year. Here’s what’s right for me:

  1. Fantasy: Fantasy is probably my favorite genre. Give me a unique setting and story, a grand adventure, fabulous world building, and characters I can fall in love with, and I’m sold! Even better is if it’s something that hasn’t been done before or in a setting that’s new. Some of my favorite MG fantasies are SE Grove’s The Glass Sentence, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
  2. Adventure: I’m also a sucker for fast-paced adventure and nail-biting suspense. Two MG adventures I love in this genre are Christina Diaz Gonzalez’s Moving Target and the Scholastic 39 Clues.
  3. Magical Realism: Magical realism is one of those genres that people often mistaken for fantasy, but the two are not the same (though both fall under the speculative fiction umbrella). Magical realism is deeply rooted in the ordinary with only a hint of extraordinary. Here’s a great post by fellow Pitch Wars mentor Joy McCullough-Carranza on the difference between magical realism and fantasy. MG examples of magical realism are Because of Winn Dixie, When the Butterflies Came, and The Secret Garden. 
  4. Diversity and #ownvoices: I’d love to see stories with nuanced, underrepresented characters. I’m open to all, but there’s a special place in my heart for characters who have a chronic illness and non-Western cultures that haven’t been done much or at all, like Wonder and The Red Pencil.
  5. Historical or near historical: In this genre, I’m particularly attracted to stories from underrepresented cultures and/or that feature adventure. I’m also interested in historical fantasy.  The Red Umbrella, Inside Out & Back Again, Just a Drop of Water, and Echo are some good examples.

What’s not for me right now:

  • Contemporary (unless they fall into #’s 2 or 4 the above). It’s not what I read most so I don’t think I’d be the best mentor for you in this category.
  • Mysteries, thrillers, satire, gothic, sci-fi, horror (I seriously can’t watch scary movies. I will never sleep! I scare/startle easily)
  • Stories that don’t offer some kind of hope at the end. I’m okay with a not-so-happy ending as long as there’s a glimmer of hope.
  • I have a bit of a squeamish stomach, so on-the-page rape or murder or gruesome scenes will not be for me.

Some other things to consider if you want to pitch to me:

  • I love stories with a nuanced, strong sense of place. These don’t have to be fantastical worlds, either—place is important in both contemporary and fantasy.
  • I tend to be drawn to lyrical language (it’s the poet in me), but I also love humor and sarcasm. Ultimately, though, it’s about the characters and their journeys and how connected I feel to them.
  • Having tons of grammar errors in the opening pages or query is a turn-off. I don’t expect perfection at all (heck, I’ve made typos before!) but if the opening pages—which are often the most looked at in the revision process—are riddled with errors, it makes me worry the rest of the manuscript will be in worse shape.
  • Before I select a mentee, I will ask for more pages and a synopsis. Yes, yes. I know. Synopsis are icky. But they’re valuable. So if you haven’t already worked on one, get to it! If you don’t know how, check out this how-to.
  • As much as I would really, really love to give feedback to everyone who pitches to me, I don’t want to promise something I can’t deliver. I will try my hardest to offer at least some nugget of feedback or advice, but the truth is that Pitch Wars falls right when the semester starts, so my focus will be on giving my mentee and my students my undivided attention.

If you’d like a sense of what I like to read, you can find me on Goodreads. It doesn’t list everything I’ve read and I don’t always do a good job at updating it, but I think it can give you an idea of my reading tastes.

If you have any questions or if you’re not sure if your project fits my wish list above, feel free to ask! You can @ me on Twitter.

Happy pitching!

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2014 SCBWI Florida Conference

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love writing conferences. I’ve been attending them for about five years and SCBWI ones for the last three, when I decided to focus on writing for kids. Writing conferences offer a unique opportunity that’s equal parts inspiration, craft, and networking. And there’s something special about those that specialize in kid-lit. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s a collective embracing of everyone who’s new, an inclusion into this fabulous clique. Kid-lit writers are some of warmest, nicest people I’ve ever met.

(NOTE: I’ve met wonderful writers in all the conferences I’ve attended. And I know some pretty amazing writers who don’t write for kids, writers who’ve been instrumental in guiding my writing career. It’s just that when strictly speaking about conferences, I seem to find more camaraderie at SCBWI conferences. Maybe it’s because I’m more “seasoned” now and more comfortable in my own writing skin. Maybe it’s because I know more people. There are many variables, of course.)

This past January 17-19, I went to the 2014 SCBWI Florida Conference in Miami. Third year in a row. Fifth SCBWI Florida conference. And it didn’t disappoint. In fact, if you read my I Have An Agent post, it rocked! But that’s not why I loved it (well, okay, it was part of it, but the truth is, I’ve loved every single SCBWI FL conference I’ve been to, even those where my work didn’t elicit such positive feedback–and yes, I’ve had many of those moments.) I loved this conference because of the people I met and because the workshops offered some great talks on craft and the business.

I attended the Friday Novel Intensive with agent Jen Rofe of Andrea Brown Literary, editor Stacy Abrams of Entangled Publishing, and author Chris Crutcher. It was intense (pun intended), and the topics ranged from the market, to germinating ideas, to execution and beginnings. Then the trio tackled first page critiques, and for the first time since I’ve been attending, everyone who submitted an anonymous first page received feedback. Mine offered an “aha!” lightbulb moment, which I executed right away–and it was that missing link I couldn’t figure out. During the course of the day, we learned that right now, editors are looking for:

  • Commercial and fun picture books
  • Character-based chapter books
  • Fun middle grade, especially for boys
  • Well-written, high concept YA
  • NO paranormal or dystopian
  • Nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction (autobiographies/biographies)

There were some awesome gems during this intensive, too.

  • “Write that thing that scares you.”–Jen Rofe
  • “When you’re sitting down, writing your story, tell it in the most raw, intimate way you can tell it.”–Chris Crutcher
  • “Now is an awesome time to be a writer because there are so many ways to market.”–Stacy Abrams

I didn’t get to attend the Picture Book Intensive, but all the talk I heard said the same: Deborah Warren, Laura Whitaker, Andrea Pinkney, and Toni Buzzeo were fantabulous. If I could’ve cloned myself, I would’ve!

Friday evening was kicked off with the first-book’s panel, which is always wonderful. And this year it was even better because my writing friend Vivi Barnes was up there with her debut novel, OLIVIA TWISTED. So it was great to know one of the cool kids on the panel! All four of the authors were fabulous: Nancy Cavanaugh, Steven dos Santos, Cristin Bishara, and Vivi. Check out their books!

Then, attendees gathered at Books & Books for snacks, mingling, and a mystery panel of experts: a group of kids ranging from 6 to 16 who answered questions from the moderator, Gaby Triana, about all things books. This panel elicited many awww’s, and it was wonderful to see how eloquent the experts were at verbalizing what they read, their preferences, and what they wished there was more of out there in the book world.

Saturday was full of inspiration. We had fabulous speakers: Chris Crutcher, Augusta Scattergood and Andrea Pinkney, Sarah Pennypacker,Peter Brown, and Lois Duncan. We cried. We laughed. Our heart strings were tugged and twisted. And like with Friday’s intensive, there were beautiful, inspiring gems:

  • “Go find those fundamental things (like grief) that are so human, they’re universal. We have to be willing to go there, be embarrassed, tell it all.”–Chris Crutcher
  • “Grief– you do it ’till you’re done.”–Chris Crutcher
  • “When you’re telling a story, just sit down and tell the hell out of it.”– Chris Crutcher
  • “There are readers you will never meet but whose lives you will impact. That is what matters.”–Andrea Pinkney
  • “A book connects the reader to the rest of his tribe through time and space.”–Sara Pennypacker
  • “Everyone needs their stories reflected back at them. Not just those in extraordinary circumstances.”–Sara Pennypacker
  • “Stories allow for empathy.”–Sara Pennypacker
  • “Never give up. Learn from your mistakes and keep going…Never burn your bridges…Don’t be afraid to take chances.”–Lois Duncan
  • “Every life is a story.”–Lois Duncan
  • “The only thing stronger than law enforcement is the power of the pen.”–Lois Duncan
  • “Don’t let yourself be crushed with rejections of a book today. If you really think it’s a good book, keep it.”–Lois Duncan

The agent panel featured agent extraordinaires Deborah Warren, Jen Rofe, and Ammi-Joan Paquette, while the editor panel included stellar editors Stacy Abrams, Kat Brzozowski, Laura Whitaker, Andrea Pinkney, and Aubrey Poole. Both panels were enlightening and so fun to listen to. It’s always eye-opening to hear what agents and editors are looking for in manuscripts, what entices them to keep reading. What did I learn? The time for problem novels is over. Instead, agents and editors are looking for work that contain “issues” without being about the issues,  for diverse characters whose stories aren’t (only) about being diverse. Paranormal and dystopian are out… for now. The market and editors’ lists are completely full for now. Tuck those PNR and dystopian manuscripts for a later time. Agents and editors also looking for writers to have an online presence, but as Ammi-Joan Paquette pointed out, “an awkward [online] presence is probably worse than no presence” at all. And it certainly shouldn’t come at the expense of your writing! Others wish list items mentioned: country song in a book, boy books, dirty dancing YA, book about singing, multicultural books, picture books, exotic/overseas settings, books about food/eating/bakeries, experimentation in format, LGBTQ, diversity, piercings/tattoos.

Saturday night ended with a Steampunk smash. The Clockwork Ball was a huge success and showed just how well South Floridians like to party. The costume contest was fabulous, the food was good, and the company was even better–which means there were many sleepy, groggy conference-goers the next morning!

Sunday’s workshops were varied and timely. They included topics from voice in YA, to picture books, to romance, character development, and nonfiction–and everything in between. I wanted to split myself up so I could attend them all! I sat in Kat Brzozowski’s workshop on voice in YA and Laura Whitaker’s editor/writer relationships, and both were enlightening. Kat brought in some very cool acting exercises to illustrate how important it is to know our characters’ voices, and she had us dissecting published pages to do the same. Laura’s talk on what editors want in their writers, along with the current state of publishing, was enlightening and hilarious.

We said our final good-byes after the workshops. It was bittersweet. This was perhaps one of the best–if not the best–writing conferences I’ve attended. I’m looking forward to see what our Mid-Year Workshops (June 6-7 in Orlando) will bring. SCBWI Florida Regional Advisors Linda Rodriguez-Bernfeld and Gaby Triana, along with the rest of the SCBWI Florida crew put together some pretty awesome conferences! And check out this lovely slide show, put together by our Assistant Regional Advisor Curtis Sponsler.

Happy writing, everyone!