“Unspeakable” Confessions of a #Pitchwars Mentee

It’s finally happened. My amazing mentor Kelly Siskind has handed in my submission for the agent round of Pitchwars. After 55 days of multiple emails, instant messages, and two intense revisions, UNSPEAKABLE has come through on the other side of #Pitchwars, 5,000 words lighter, several scenes and chapters added and axed, and ultimately sexier as WITHOUT A WORD. Above all, it’s emerged a better book.

Regardless of what happens during the agent round, I am so extremely grateful for the #Pitchwars Mentee experience, and honestly it is impossible to quantify everything I have come away with (aside from Without a Word in its current form). Kelly’s guidance was beyond insightful and amazing. But here are the salient “take-aways” for me at the moment:

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  1. I’ve gained community.

Prior to entering #Pitchwars I had a few friends in the writing community in Calgary, but none in the same genre as me. Online, I had found one very knowledgeable critique partner, Kelly DeVos, whom I met through a Michelle4Laughs Query Blog Hop last year, and another in the most recent one. But you need a village in this industry, and I found it through Pitchwars.

Pitchwars has allowed me to connect with writers in the UK, US, Canada, and weirdly, TWO who live on my street. That’s correct, two other Pitchwars Mentees who were selected this year, LIVE ON MY STREET! As far as I know they are also the only two other Calgarians selected in Pitchwars, and we are 3 of 6 Canadians selected overall (as far as I’m aware). So, even if you suck at math, you probably grasping that half of the Canadians in Pitchwars live on the same street. (So, don’t roll your eyes next time someone asks you if you know another Canadian—crazy sh!% happens.) If that isn’t strange enough, we all submitted to several of the same mentors, and write the same genre.

But I digress. I’ve come away with friends, critique partners (many in my genre now, which I was lacking before), and hopefully a community of writers that will hopefully be able to continue to offer support to each other on our respective writing journeys for years to come.

As I write this, I received a notification from the Pitchwars Mentee Facebook page. Ashley Martin posted this, and I think she captures the experience perfectly:

Can I just say how incredible this group is? We come from all different walks of life, we live in different places (around the globe!), we’re all in different stages of our lives and writing careers. But we have this amazing connection: We all WROTE A BOOK. So many stories, with unique voices…funny, sad, romantic, courageous, broken, searching…
It’s seriously beautiful, you guys. And I’m so thankful I get to be part of it.

2. I have a new understanding of commas. 

Prior to this, I thought I understood the humble comma. But alas, I had much to learn. Overuse, underuse, misuse, before conjunctions, after them…bah! Mary Ann Marlow has a great post on the subject here.

3. You need to let go of your darlings.

Writers often quote this line from Stephen King’s On Writing for good reason. When you spend months imagining a pivotal scene and pivotal line, and write thousands of words in anticipation that everything you put your characters through will lead them to that moment, to that line, until you finally get to write it. It comes out better than you imagined, and you sit back in your chair and heave a sigh of satisfaction.

But then your mentor says, “Cut it”. You may say, “What?! But that line is amazeballs. It’s my favourite line in the book.”

Your mentor reminds you about character arc, etc. You have to reflect on your book as a whole. Kelly Siskind helped me see the forest beyond my pretty little trees, and some of those suckers had to be ground down to sawdust.

Sigh. Maybe I can find another project to use it in.

3. Sex is Good Great, don’t pass it up.

200-13I left a lot of the sexy moments to the readers’ imaginations in my previous version of UNSPEAKABLE/WITHOUT A WORD. Kelly reminded me to think about what the reader really wants, and how sex develops relationships. It’s undeniable. So I may have popped my sex scene cherry in rewrites. And I liked it.

These acts are (sometimes) UNSPEAKABLE at grandma’s dinner table. *winks at Kelly Siskind* ( See, Unspeakably sexy…) But as one fellow mentee said, “You have to write like your momma’s not going to read it.”

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Sometimes sex is “unspeakable” at grandma’s dinner table, but not if you’re Brighton Walsh

Kelly Siskind was beyond amazing as a mentor. I have taken away the above things and so much more. I am forever changed as a writer. I had said in our interview with Brenda Drake that that was what I was most excited for—that which I could take with me forever. And I got that in spades. An absolutely invaluable experience. So thank you to Brenda Drake, Kelly Siskind, and to the many fellow Pitchwars Mentees. Hopefully, this is just the beginning.

Big News!

This was in a recent email I opened. And it was the best, most exciting email I have received in a very long time.

Oh, yeah. This is going to be good.
Oh, yeah. This is going to be good.

Now, now, friends and blog followers. Before you go asking, “Did you get a book deal, JR?!” I want you to remember what I said about how these things don’t happen overnight. Before you can get the elusive book deal, several things need to happen:

(1) Write your novel (√)

(2) Revise and rewrite large parts of your novel (√)

(3) Edit (√)

(4) Repeat step 3 several times (√√√ etc.)

(5) Get feedback from beta readers and/or critique partners √

(5) Repeat steps 2 and 3.√

(6) Hire an editor. √ This is a step that is specific to me. I hired an editor because, despite the positive feedback I was receiving, I still felt that the manuscript could be better. I had concerns about pacing, character and story arc, etc. I needed someone in the writing and editing field to help me with it.

(7) Several rounds of edits later, the manuscript is deemed ready to query.

(8) Write query and repeat steps, 1 through 4. √

(9) Query agents. √

(10) Offer of representation. X

(11) Agent requests edits. X

(12) Repeat step 2.

(13) Agent submits proposal to publishers.X

(14) Book deal?

Are you picking up what I’m throwing down? I won’t be announcing a book deal anytime soon. Now that we have our expectations in line, I’m hoping that you’ll be excited to hear my news!

In a recent post I talked about how I  went into step 9, and after some feedback from some lovely agents, I’m back to step 2: Revise and rewrite.

Back to the Drawing Board

I need help with this manuscript to make it better. And I’ve been searching for    someone in the industry who knows the genre and understands what I’m trying to accomplish with Unspeakable.

Enter: #Pitchwars!

Pitchwars

What is #Pitchwars?

It’s an online contest where published or agented authors (or editors) pick one lucky writer to mentor. (The writer’s who enter can submit to five of the potential mentors). If selected, Mentors help the writer (Mentee) edit and polish their manuscript until it shines like Justin Beiber’s hair under the California sun. At the end of two months (yup, two months!) of mentoring and editing etc. there’s an agent round where several amazeballs agents can see the writer’s pitch and first chapter and possibly request further material – basically, this is an opportunity to get beyond the slush pile.

This contest is brilliant and amazing for so many reasons! If selected, you can end up working with a writer you respect and admire. A person who knows the industry and truly understands what editors, agents and readers want. It’s a swoon worthy opportunity.

Elmo Faints

Sadly, there were only 100 125 spots and about 1600 entries. So, basically 96% of the entries won’t get the opportunity to be mentored. But on the plus side, many of the mentors gave detailed feedback to several of the writers who submitted to them. And guess what?!?!

I got some great, detailed feedback.

Like really, really detailed. Like, go over my manuscript with the most insightful fine tooth comb feedback.

Because I was selected as a MENTEE!!!

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Yes, Kelly, I used two of your GIFs, because you are THAT good.

The AMAZING fellow Canuck, super hilarious and talented, Kelly Siskind is my PITCHWARS MENTOR (and yes, I am shouting).

Because this is a HUGE, GINORMOUS opportunity. I NEED this. I finally found the right person to steer my manuscript in the right direction, and better than that, I know I will learn so much about the craft of writing as a whole. I am beyond elated. It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’m ready!

SO, huge shout out and thanks to Brenda Drake who created Pitchwars, and to Kelly Siskind for selecting me. I hope I won’t disappoint.

Now, back to figuring out what a Beat Sheet is.

Showing Character Through Action and Unspeakable Query Update

I missed last week’s post, so today’s a two for one!

1. Showing Character

I’ve been working on a new story idea, which will hopefully become my next novel. To help inspire me, and also as part of my quest to continually work on my craft, I’ve enrolled in The First Three Chapters class at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre.

This week’s class was on showing your character through action. Now, when writing, this is of key importance. I could tell you that Sally is grumpy.

Sally is grumpy.

(Gripping stuff, non?)

Or, I could show you that she’s grumpy through action.

Sally yanked her alarm clock off the bedside table and threw it on the floor.

Did you learn more about Sally the second time, other than she’s a grumpy girl? I think so (i.e., she is not a morning person).

So, the lovely Sarah Johnson, our class instructor, had us write down different descriptors of our main protagonist for our work-in-progress (WIP). Then, she had us write a short paragraph where the character walks into the room and we show those descriptors.

First, let me show you what mine would look like if I just told you about my main protagonist.

Demi walks into the crowded bar and spots Todd immediately. Pissed off, she walks over, her braided hair not budging. Demi is not someone you mess with.

Okay. So we’ve learned that Demi is pissed with Todd, that her hair is braided, and that you shouldn’t mess with her – but little else.

Now let me show you who Demi is.

She’s been here for barely a breath and already she spots him. For a moment, she barely shifts. But then her spine goes ramrod straight and she tucks an imaginary stray lock into her already tightly braided hair. Her eyes narrow and she doesn’t even hesitate. Her slim legs launch forward in a crisscross motion, like sharpened scissors, as she heads straight for him. Her razor-like stride is audible across the room. He shrinks back. He has nowhere to go. He’s cornered.

Do you have a better sense of Demi? I hope so. Whatever descriptors come to mind, they’re not wrong, because they’re your own. I’m letting you decide, dear reader, who you think she is. As a writer, we have to trust the reader to have an imagination and to fill in the gaps. I think it’s much more gratifying to share the journey of the story, rather than tell you about it. photo-1421986527537-888d998adb74

2. Update on Unspeakable

I’ve taken the plunge. I’ve finally done it. I’ve started querying. Some of you have asked me what querying means. Well, basically, it’s sending out letters to literary agents requesting representation. Unspeakable is commercial fiction. Large publishing houses will often not even entertain the idea of publishing your work without an agent. Agents understand the industry and help you find the right home for your book and also assist in sale and deal negotiation.

Nestpitch is also on the horizon (ten more days! But who’s counting?). So it’s time. Time to let go, and put my work out there. Wish me luck!

#nestpitch: Making It To The Agent Round

I have finished my rounds of edits with my editor, Tanis Nessler, from ReVision Editing! My goal for April was to (1) polish up my query letters, (2) make a spread sheet of agents I want to query (I’ve been using Query Tracker), and (3) then send out queries. I’ve done the first 2 of these 3.

So, “Why J.R.”, you ask, “are you not sending out your queries?”

Well, it’s very simple, I’ve made it to the agent round of #nestpitch! On May 11th, the Nestpitch blog will post our pitches and a sample of our work. In the meantime,  mentors will help us polish our first chapters in the upcoming weeks. Even though I’ve spent the majority of the last year editing my manuscript, I’m always open to a fresh set of eyes. There’s always room to improve.

So here’s the new plan. Once all of the final feedback is in from my Nestpitch mentor, I will begin querying.

I want to send out my deepest gratitude to Tanis, from ReVision Editing. She helped elevate Unspeakable into a polished, agent ready manuscript. Because of her, I feel confident moving forward.

I also want to thank the Nestpitch Team for seeing something in Unspeakable, and giving me the opportunity to present it to a tremendous panel of agents. Thank you.

And of course, thank you to You. My supporters, friends, and cheerleaders.

A Glimpse of Kendra: Creating Hybrid Characters

When I attended the recent workshop, Focus on Character,  at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre, Emily Ursuliak discussed creating hybrid characters. That is, creating characters that contain elements from different people in your life, and blending them together into a whole new person – a hybrid.

Kendra, my main character Hanna’s sister in Unspeakable, is just that: a hybrid.

Physically, Kendra is a cross between my sister and my close friend (who is of Asian descent.) Both of these special women’s first names start with a K, so to keep things straight in my head when I first started plotting out Unspeakable, I gave her the name Kendra – and it never changed.

Personality wise, Kendra is a combination between my sister and myself. But her backstory, to me, is the most interesting part.

Now, some elements of her backstory are invented of course, and some are inspired by elements of our childhood (my sister’s and mine) and my good friend’s childhood. But one essential element about Kendra came from a rumour that was started when my sister and I were kids. I asked myself the question: What if that rumour had been true? The answer to that question helped me create a plot point that was essential to the subplot of Unspeakable (sorry, you’ll have to read Unspeakable to know what that is…)

Here’s a sneak peak of Hanna with Kendra (with a little hint as to how Hanna meets Hank for the first time).

I go through the motions of completing my order and then take my sandwiches and drinks out to the picnic table.

Kendra whistles and shakes out her hand like she touched something hot. “Wow, did you see that hottie pants who just walked out of the restaurant? This town may stink, but the view sure is fine.”

I shrug and unwrap my sandwich.

“C’mon, don’t tell me you didn’t notice.”

I don’t want Kendra to know the effect he had on me; she’d never let it go. “He was nothing special.”

Kendra shrieks and slides her sandwich over. “Nothing special? Uhmygod, that’s like saying the sun isn’t bright.” She pauses in the middle of unwrapping her sandwich. “Huh, maybe that’s it.”

“What’s it?”

“You’ve stared at the sun too long and it broke your eyes.”

I chuck a piece of lettuce at her. “Eat your sandwich.”

Kendra plucks the lettuce out of her hair. She scans the sandwiches and drinks I’ve placed on the table, raises her palms, and frowns. “Hey, you forgot my cookie.” So much for not letting him affect me.

#nestpitch: Making It Past The Slush

Happy Easter Monday everyone!

The Little Yates' Eggs
The Little Yates’ Eggs

I debated about what to post this week. I was thinking about posting a deleted scene from Unspeakable, and use it as an example of Showing vs Telling – which if you’ve ever taken a writing class, you’ve no doubt heard about ad nauseam.

But the scene I was thinking about sharing was…well, deleted for good reason. It didn’t add anything to the story and when reading it back, I couldn’t help but notice all the mistakes. Even though there are nice instances of showing, there’s also filtering, telling, adverbs, and the list goes on. Although frightening to see how poor my writing was in the early stages of the first draft, I am buoyed by the fact that I noticed these mistakes immediately upon re-read (which means I’ll be less likely to make them in the future…right? – I can only hope.)

If you’re wondering about filtering etc., don’t worry, I plan on explaining these concepts in future posts.

But today… I want to share some exciting news! I was preparing my query letter and synopsis to send out to agents, when I noticed a contest on Twitter called #nestpitch.

What is #nestpitch?

#nestpitch is a contest where you submit a 35-word pitch and the first 300 words of your manuscript. If you make it to the final round, your entry is posted on a blog where 12 pre-selected, reputable agents will take a look, and hopefully request more.

Here’s how it works:

In Round #1, entries that don’t meet the qualifications are removed.

In Round #2, there are 9 teams that then whittle it down to their top 5-8 submissions. At this point they may request additional pages.

In Round #3, they pick their final 4-5 and work with the authors to improve their manuscripts. Once this is completed, they go to the next round!

The Agent Round: Submissions are posted on a blog, where a number of preselected agents peruse and hopefully make requests for you to query.

Basically, this helps take your query from the slush pile to the “I want to know more” pile. Anybody who knows anything about the publishing industry knows that this can be a huge advantage.

I felt like I was pretty much done with Twitter pitches (I had participated in 2 others), as I felt that my novel was perhaps best represented in a traditional query letter (and p.s. I never win anything!!). But I figured, since my manuscript is now truly ready, the timing was right, so I entered.

And guess what? I have received requests for more material from two three different teams! Cross your fingers for me that Unspeakable makes it to the agent round.

Further vs Farther

I’m posting a little later this week as I’ve been hard at work, reviewing my editors preliminary edits of the manuscript for Unspeakable.

I’ve learned quite a few things. Among them? I’m dash crazy – a fact I already knew. 😉

One of the things that surprised me though is that I used “further” incorrectly. Check out this sentence from Unspeakable:

I decide to take what little I can get and sink further into the couch, further into him.

My editor, Tanis, with ReVision Editing, changed it to this:

I decide to take what little I can get and sink farther into the couch, farther into him.

What’s the difference? Well, I wasn’t sure. So I asked my husband, a man who uses the word “tranche” in everyday conversation. True story. Over beers with friends, he used the word “tranche”. But I digress.

He wasn’t sure, but said he preferred my version.

So, I looked it up. And here’s what I found out:

Farther’ signifies distances. As in, “The hare is farther down the track than the turtle.”

Whereas, ‘further’ is a figurative term, as in, “You’ll get further in life, if you study hard.”

However, some dictionaries say that they can be used interchangeably. So, I guess it depends on who you believe and what feels right.

This is my final version of that sentence:

I decide to take what little I can get and sink farther into the couch, further into him.

I always meant the second ‘further’ to be figurative, as when she sinks into the couch, she is allowing the relationship to progress further.