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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Book Review: JUST A DROP OF WATER

I only recently got the change to read JUST A DROP OF WATER by Kerry O’Malley Cerra and let me tell you–I’d been missing out!

Here’s the blurb:

JustADropOfWaterEver since he was little, Jake Green has longed to be a soldier and a hero like his grandpa, who died serving his country. Right now, though, he just wants to outsmart–and outrun–the rival cross country team, the Palmetto Bugs. But then the tragedy of September 11 happens. It’s quickly discovered that one of the hijackers lived nearby, making Jake’s Florida town an FBI hot spot. Two days later, the tragedy becomes even more personal when Jake’s best friend, Sam Madina, is pummeled for being an Arab Muslim by their bully classmate, Bobby.

According to Jake’s personal code of conduct, anyone who beats up your best friend is due for a butt kicking, and so Jake goes after Bobby. But soon after, Sam’s father is detained by the FBI and Jake’s mom doubts the innocence of Sam’s family, forcing Jake to choose between his best friend and his parents. When Jake finds out that Sam’s been keeping secrets, too, he doesn’t know who his allies are anymore. But the final blow comes when his grandpa’s real past is revealed to Jake. Suddenly, everything he ever knew to be true feels like one big lie. In the end, he must decide: either walk away from Sam and the revenge that Bobby has planned, or become the hero he’s always aspired to be.

A gripping and intensely touching debut middle grade novel by Kerry O’Malley Cerra, Just a Drop of Water brings the events of September 11, which shook the world, into the lens of a young boy who is desperately trying to understand the ramifications of this life-altering event. 

This novel is a Florida Book Award winner, winner of the Crystal Kite Award, and named to VOYAs Top Shelf Fiction for Middle Readers’ 2014 list.

I read JUST A DROP OF WATER in one day because I could not put it down. The chapter headings count down to that fateful September 11, 2001, which really increases the tension. It’s a day I remember vividly, and it’s tackled in just the right way for the target audience who did not live through it. There were so many poignant lines in it. One of my favorites is this: “Anger can lead us to a place of hatred and intolerance. And if we get to that point, then everything that really matters is already lost.” Anger–and what to do with that anger–is a constant theme in this novel, and it’s handled beautifully without being preachy. This is one of those stories I will read again and again.

JUST A DROP OF WATER is powerful and timely and it should be on all middle school lists. Jake and Sam are two best friends whose lives and friendship are turned upside down as a direct result of the horrific events of 9/11. It’s the story about friendship, doing what’s right, and not giving in to anger and fear. The storyline is gripping, the characters heartfelt and flawed, the voice on point, and the writing beautiful.

At our latest SCBWI Florida conference this past January, Kerry accepted the Crystal Kite Award with a touching and moving speech–there was not a dry eye in the house! It’s a testament to the heart that she brings to everything she does, including her novels.