For several years now I’ve half-watched the #PitchWars contest, devouring blogs about craft and enjoying authors and professionals encourage one another in an exceedingly tough industry. This year, I decided to jump in. Hopefully after reading this brief account, you might decide to take the plunge, too!
What is #PitchWars?
Brenda Drake’s website (click HERE) offers an incredible explanation since she is the genius behind the contest. But in a nutshell, bring a polished – but not agented or represented – draft novel to the party and pitch to mentors who each select a mentee to spend months with working to create a finished copy, ready to market to agents.
What are the benefits?
Many! First, the process of getting your manuscript ready to enter is a wonderful motivation. Researching the mentors introduces you to amazing new authors (and books, I have a list I’m working on now!) Both mentors and prospective mentees promote the contest with blog posts, query and first page contests, and other resources all wrapped up in the neat hashtag. And honestly for me the best benefit has been allowing myself time to invest in my craft. Let’s face it, most of us are not writing as our primary career, and it’s easy to shortchange the profession. The way the contest is structured, information is distributed bit by bit, making it so easily digestible and a neat, ongoing project to feed your writer soul.
What do I need?
As mentioned before, a full manuscript draft in good condition. Sure, the mentor will help you, but you have to bring something formidable to the table. And you also need a query that will be persuasive enough to entice mentors. Click HERE if you need a good Query 101.
How do I select mentors?
When the mentor lists come out, in various categories based on what you write, on Brenda’s blog, it’s sort of like Christmas in July. (Take a look at this year's mentor lists HERE.) Read their tweets. Check out their blogs. Start creating a list of favorites, BUT wait to make your final choices until their manuscript wish lists come out. My absolute favorite mentor of the YA batch isn’t looking for what I’m writing, and as much as it broke my heart to scratch his name off my list, I did it.
How do I get started if I have no idea what I’m doing?
That was me initially. Search #PitchWars and take it all in for a day or two. Then ask questions! The community is welcoming and will help you. Once you’ve done this, write a query, research mentors, and get ready to submit a query and first chapter to four (or six if you donate) mentors of your choice once the contest opens.
Were you successful?
I have absolutely no idea. The contest submission period starts August 3rd (so if you have all the right stuff there’s still time!) I have my dream mentor list set, I’m ready to send off my work, and fingers crossed by the end of August I’ll be selected as a mentee. But even if that doesn’t happen for me this year, I still consider the whole process a win. I’ve discovered new authors, received valuable feedback, and given time to my career as a writer, which means a lot.
I’m luxuriating in the moment where I’ve finished a manuscript after various edits, received the beta reader thumbs up, and added a few final touches. Now queries and the manuscript itself are in various agent and editorial hands, and I want to reflect upon the most helpful resource I used during the novel-writing process. Without a doubt, it was the use of a mentor text.
A mentor text is a work in the selected genre of what you want to tackle. For example, I was writing a middle grade novel (something new for me) so I specifically chose two texts to help me understand the structure and language of middle grade writing. While my goal was magical realism, I opted not to select a magical realism mentor text because I was worried about inadvertently including too much of the texts’ ideas into my work.
Emulation = awesome. Imitation = not so awesome.
I settled on Holes and When You Reach Me. When you’re selecting a mentor text, first and foremost read it once through for the sake of reading and enjoying. (If you find yourself bored or disengaged, drop it like a bad habit. It’s not the right mentor text for you!) Award winners or popular books are great because they’ve proven their success. Don’t shy away from older books, BUT I’d pair it with something more modern as well. As much as I love Holes, I wanted a book written in the past few years, too. Styles and trends change. (Goodreads and Amazon are my two favorite spots to find mentor texts, because works are broken down by category and reader reactions abound.)
Once you’ve read it/them for fun, get ready to be a detective and see how the book ticks. My process falls into Post-Its, a timeline, and a reader response journal. (Fellow English teachers, you’ll recognize that guy from what you assign your students, I’m guessing!)
1 – Note larger things such as plot structure, rising action, climax, high vs. low stakes, etc. Ultimately I chart the skeleton of the book. To make my life easier I do this all on multi-colored Post-It Page Markers, breaking my notes down into plot, character, and conflict.
2 – Pacing is key, and a simple chapter timeline showing where the ups and downs of the novel happen provides a lovely visual. (In other words don’t just write down what’s happening. The closer it is to the top of the paper, the happier it is for the protagonist. Conversely the low moments look low on the page.) Ultimately you can compare it to your own work down the road and see if you’re keeping the reader as engaged.
3 – Your reactions as a reader are, in my opinion, some of the most important harbingers of success when looking at how a novel functions. When does it make you love the protagonist, or hate them? When do you have faith in the narrative, and when are you hanging by a string?
As a Creative Writing teacher I’m always a bit horrified by students who love to write but refuse to read. “I don’t have time,” they argue. But without reading it’s nearly impossible to sort out the structural nuts and bolts of writing. The best prose cannot stand alone. Gorgeous lines must be draped on a formidable skeleton to support and highlight what you can do.
Good luck finding mentor texts, and happy writing!
Writing has always been an escape, a passion, and a friend. And I love the fact that in my free time and through my career I can help others discover their voice, too.