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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In the belly of the contest trenches

I’ve been seeing the announcements in Twitter for upcoming pitch contests. These can be rewarding opportunities for writers, and if you have a finished, polished manuscript, I’d say, give them a try!

Late 2013,  I decided to give pitch contests a try. The previous year I’d attempted one with my first manuscript, without any luck. And there’s a reason that happened. It had major flaws and though I love the story and will return to it, I wasn’t ready for it (and it wasn’t ready for prime time). My new manuscript, however, was stronger, the concept more unique. So I  dove head-first into the experience, deciding to see where these contests took me. Let me tell you, it gave me some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in this crazy journey.

I started with PitchMadness, coordinated by Brenda Drake, and was thrilled with beginner’s luck. I made it through to the agent’s round, where a bidding war took place and I had two full and one partial request. I might’ve squeed a little (okay, a lot).

Then came Halloween and with it, two really awesome pitch contests. Still reeling from the adrenaline rush of PitchMadness, I submitted to Trick or Treat with Agents (coordinated by Brenda Drake, Kimberly P. Chase, and Dannie Morin) and Nightmare on Query Street (coordinated by Michelle Hauck, Mike Anthony, and SC.) Unfortunately, this time, I didn’t get in, but I watched from the side lines, cheering those who were in and who received agent interest.

I considered taking a break from contests. NaNo was approaching and I wanted to devote time to this shiny new idea that was brewing. But then I saw that the 2013 Baker’s Dozen Pitch Contest (hosted by Authoress Anon) was approaching and with it a cool opportunity for feedback on the pitch and first 250 words along with the agent round. So I entered and made it to the final round again. Let me say that I received valuable feedback here, not just by readers/other contest entrants, but by editors working with the contest.

Then came PitchWars, which really felt like a long shot. For one, it was like querying. We had to apply to mentors using the tried and true query and sample pages method, and I was worried about my query letter. Two, each mentor (agented and/or published author) could only pick one mentee and two alternates, and there were TONS of writers who entered. The chances were slim. I researched my picks, asked questions, bonded with other hopefuls, and when the submission period came, I sent mine in and prayed. And waited. And I was thrilled when the results were in and I found out that Dannie Morin had chosen me as her first alternate.  This contest was different because it wasn’t simply getting your work out there for agents to see. It’s part of it. But the best part–the most important one–is that you get to work with a mentor for 3-4 weeks. They read your manuscript, give you valuable feedback and encouragement. They help you whip up your query into tip top shape. They answer all questions related to the business. And they cheer you on. Dannie was especially awesome, and I will always say that she’s a serious kick-butt editor. Her feedback and comments helped me revise my ms further. It turns out, I had to pull out my entry from the agent round for a fantastic reason: I received an offer of representation. But I’m positive that my work wouldn’t have been as polished as it was had Dannie not chosen me as her alternate.

So here’s a quick list of why I think pitch contests are great opportunities:

  1. They’re a lesson in patience, as is much of the querying process. Not only do you have to wait until the submissions windows open, but then you have to wait to find out if you got in, and then you have to wait for the agent rounds to see if your entry had any bites. The whole experience is nerve-wracking and nail-biting, but it’s fun if you let yourself have fun with it. It also helps you work on your patience during the querying process.
  2. They’re a great avenue for networking. Think about it: during the entire process, from announcement until agent round, everyone in the contest is Tweeting about it. You get to meet agented and published authors, as well as other writers who are navigating the same trenches as you. I’ve made some wonderful friends this way, and I don’t know if I would’ve met them otherwise.
  3. You might just find awesome beta readers and critique partners through them.
  4. They allow you to hone your pitches and/or first pages. Many have critique opportunities that allow you to get feedback on your pitches and trust me, this is fabulous. Being able to concisely articulate the premise of your story in 1-2 sentences is an art. All the contests (and subsequent Twitter pitch parties) helped me craft a pitch that I was able to use at conferences or whenever someone asked me: What’s your book about?
  5. They get your work, and your name, out there. At a recent conference, I approached an editor after a workshop, and she knew who I was because of Baker’s Dozen pitch contest. It doesn’t always happen, but it can.
  6. They give you practice: in revision, in pitching, in networking, in craft, in the business. You learn not just from the feedback you get, but by reading other pitches/first pages and by seeing what agents are responding to.
  7. They introduce you to agents you might not have initially known and who you could add to your “to query” list.
  8. And sometimes, you might get a chance to catch the eye of an agent who is closed to queries, but who through the contest is making requests!

Yes, you might not always make it into the contests. Yes, the competition is fierce (as it is in the real world). Yes, you might not get any requests (this happened to me, too). But those aren’t the only benefits. Try them out. A new Pitch Madness is coming up this month (very soon, too).

Happy writing!

I HAVE AN AGENT!!!!!

This is an all-caps and exclamation marks kind of post because HOLY WOW–I HAVE AN AGENT!!!!! And she’s none other than the FABULOUS, AMAZING Deborah Warren of East West Literary!!!!!

In case the all-caps and extra exclamation marks aren’t an indication of how excited I am, here are some examples to drive that sentiment home:

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Tangled excited

So how did happen? Sit back. Grab some popcorn (or raisinets or circus peanuts). Pull up your feet and relax.

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel. And I revised it. And I took it to conferences, workshopped it in UCLA classes, brought it to my critique group, shared it with beta readers and critique partners. I did everything I was supposed to, and even though in my gut I knew something was missing and that the market was not right for it, I decided to query it. I did my research, thought I knew what I was doing (HINT: I didn’t. Not really, but I did learn), and workshopped that query to death.

Around query #18, I stopped sending more out because my gut was telling me something wasn’t working and I needed to figure it out. But more than that, there was this fabulous shiny new idea that was more enticing, more personal. And it might even be “the one.” I took everything I learned writing my first ms and poured my energies into this project. I plotted some, I researched lots, and I pantsied some, and before I knew it, I had a first draft. Then I revised and brought it to my critique group, online critique partners, and beta readers.

When I thought it was ready, I started the querying process. I researched agents based on their wish lists, their current books, interviews and, if applicable, Twitter presence. I wanted someone who would love my work but also someone I connected with. Some of the agents on my list weren’t open to submissions, and I heed and hawed and waited because I was pretty certain at least one of them would be at our regional SCBWI Conference in January. I only sent out a handful of queries, mostly because I was swamped at work–and I was okay with it. I entered and was chosen in Pitch Madness (another post coming soon about the benefits of online pitch contests!). I got some full and partial requests. I received rejections.

I wasn’t in a rush like I was with my first ms. Part of it was, again, because I was swamped at work. In October, I got a shiny new idea and decided to try my luck at NaNo. I plotted extensively this time and when Nov 1 rolled around, I started writing. Then I entered and was selected for Baker’s Dozen. I got half-way through ms #3 (through a series of personal set-backs), when PitchWars was announced and I decided–why not? This was going to be my last contest entry. I entered and was ecstatic when I was selected by the awesome Dannie Morin to be an alternate on her team. (And in her blog post, she wrote she couldn’t put my first three chapters down and omg was that so freaking awesome to hear!)

Then I received confirmation that one of the top agents on my list who was closed to queries was, in fact, going to be at our regional SCBWI Florida conference. I was thrilled! Some pretty awesome agents also had my full, so when I got into PitchWars, I decided not to send any more queries out. Dannie sliced and diced my ms and I spent the next five weeks adding and strengthening and polishing my ms until it blinded me. My wonderful teammates became fabulous critique partners as we worked hard to make our stories shine.

Then came the conference. And it was amazing. (I need to write another post about it!) There was such a magical energy in the air. The faculty was excited and energetic. When the agent’s panel was up, and I heard Deborah speak about what she was looking for, I knew she’d be perfect. So did Gaby Triana, one of my critique partners and Deborah’s client. Gaby encouraged me to query Deborah. I did Sunday, after the conference ended, and within a few hours, I had a request to see the full.

I was floored!

Wed afternoon–the day PitchWars entries went live–I was starting class when my phone rang. I’d forgotten to silence it. As I hastily shut it off, I registered it was a California number. And I froze, doing a mental check-off of who I knew in CA. Deborah was in CA. So were some of my online critique partners, but they didn’t have my phone number. As I was in the middle of class and had to focus on teaching, I forced myself to not think until the end, even though all I wanted was to run into my office and check my voicemail. When class was over, I checked my email and almost face-planted when I saw I had an email from Deborah. She loved my work and wanted to talk! SHE LOVED MY WORK!!!! I might’ve stomped. And squeed. And possibly scared a few random people in the halls. Seriously. This was me:

Happy Shocked

But I was at work and had to run out of the office, and calling from the car seemed like a bad idea all around. I listened to her voicemail a few times while I waited to get home. I spoke with Dannie, who gave me a pep talk. I spoke with Gaby. As soon as I walked through the door, I put on TV for my son and called.

And got voicemail.

After a series of phone tags, we finally connected Thursday afternoon. When we hung up, I was over-the-moon and through-the-clouds excited. She was so sweet and so excited about my work and had a clear vision for my career!!! I took the next few days to process all the information and contact the agents who had my full and partials. My entry from PitchWars was pulled when I received Deborah’s message. And on Monday, 1/27, I officially accepted her offer.

I’ve been walking on cotton-candy clouds ever since.

The first of hopefully many other firsts

I’m beyond humbled for my first interview opportunity, thanks to the fabulous Dannie Morin, who picked me out of the slush in PitchWars to be her first alternate. You can read it here. And if you’re not already following Dannie in Twitter or Facebook or her blog, well you should. Not only does she rock as a mentor with mad editing skills, but she’s one of the most supportive people I know.

(I’ll wait while you go do it. Really. I’ll wait.)

I hope you enjoy the interview. It was fun to write–and if I’m honest, a bit nerve-wracking!–but I’m beyond grateful.