Overcome the Starting Block: Make a List

It doesn’t matter how many writing projects I’ve had. Whether stories, poems, or at my technical writing job, starting a new project is always the hardest part. I have a method, though, that helps me get over the getting started hump.

I make lists.

Before I start, I usually have a very bare-bones idea of something I want to do. It might be a character or a setting, or the beginnings of a plot. I take that seed of an idea and build on it with a list.

For example, I used to write songs with a friend in England, Francis Greene. One day, I really missed the ocean. Having grown up in California, the coast was always a very important place for me. So I started writing down some images from my cold, rocky Northern California beaches. Things like:

  • The water pulling the sand from under my feet
  • Seagulls
  • A foghorn near a lighthouse
  • Ocean spray
  • The pier
  • A ship on the horizon
  • Shells
  • Starfish
  • Hermit crabs

There were a lot more. Many of the items in my list didn’t make the final cut. This is often the case.

I didn’t list only items. I also thought of things I like to do at the beach:

  • Walk
  • Hunt for shells
  • Bark at the sea lions

Once I had my list, I rearranged the items. This is easy to do on a computer, and sometimes (especially if I’m listing plot points), the list becomes my outline. My favorite way to sort a list while brainstorming is to put each list item on a Post-It and stick them to my white board or wall, where I can move them around, group them, make connections, easily add to them, and whatever else comes to mind.

I’ll often use different colored Post-Its and different colored pens for different things so I can easily look at the board and see groupings. Like, maybe green notes are settings and blue notes are characters, and so on.

Once I start making a list, I have never been blocked. I find that as I write each list item, more thoughts and ideas jump into my head. Almost without effort, my brain builds associations between the things in my list, and story ideas and themes start to form.

My song, because I was missing the beach, took on a melancholy feel, even though that wasn’t the original intention. It became a song about loss and loneliness. Here are the final lyrics. See how many of my list items you can spot.

When You Were Here
(Rhoades/Greene, 1997)

The ocean breeze is blowing, fog is drifting in
It’s cool and damp, there’s no one here
The tide is pulling sand from underneath my feet
The sea lions play beneath the pier
Remember how we used to bark at them?
When you were here

(Chorus)
Like that distant ship out there on the horizon
You sailed far away from me
You swore that it was nothing I had said or done, that
You just needed to be free

Across the rocks, a hermit crab scurries away
I find a starfish in the sand
The wind and sea, my wet hair clinging to my face
I always loved to hold your hand
Remember how we used to hunt for shells?
When you were here

(Chorus)

(Bridge)
I remember when I used to walk alone
But then we met and I walked with you
Loneliness was such a very special place
When we walked alone as two

The lighthouse beam, in vain it tries to pierce the fog
A foghorn warns the ships away
A gull is struggling, tries to fly against the wind
My tears disguised by ocean spray
Remember how we used to chase the waves?
When you were here

(Chorus)

(Bridge)

The ocean breeze is blowing, fog is drifting in
A foghorn warns the ships away
The tide is pulling sand from underneath my feet
My tears disguised by ocean spray
Remember how we used to love this place?
Wish you were here
Wish you were here
Wish you were here

You can listen to it, if you’d like, as performed by The Bicycle Riders (featuring Francis Greene). If you listen carefully, you can hear me being absolutely silent.

Exercise: Think of a place that’s important to your character. In Kidlit, this might be a bedroom or a classroom, for example. List key elements of that place. Include objects, but don’t forget to also include sensory things, such as smells and textures. Once you have your list, sort the items and make associations. Note any ideas that surface as you work with your list. Finally, write a scene in that setting. You don’t have to use every item in your list, but pay attention to how the items you don’t use affect your perception of that place.

Pitch Wars 2018: Boost My Bio

Hi, I’m Scott, and this is my fifth year in PitchWars. I’ve been a middle grade hopeful three times, and a young adult hopeful once. I’ve also been a middle grade mentee.

I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area, but I’ve been exiled to Utah for more years than I can count. It’s all my fingers and pretty much all my toes worth of years. I try to get back as often as I can, slipping in under cover of night like a ninja in a film noir, if there were ninjas in film noirs. Films noir. Whatever.

I’ve also lived in Austria and worked a summer in Germany. I speak German and Weanarisch.

This is me, the time I decided to try wearing a man bun:

Something doesn’t quite look right. Maybe I should have shaved first.

What I love about Pitch Wars

Even after being a mentee–which I loved–my favorite thing about Pitch Wars is the community. I have a lot of fun participating in the feeds and encouraging other hopefuls (and being encouraged by them), especially those who share my #pitchwarsmg blanket fort and lunch table.

Based on my experiences, I’ve written the Unofficial Pitch Wars Survival Guide, one way I’m paying back the community that has meant so much to me. It’s available for download free on my website. I hope other hopefuls find it useful.

My submission: The Historie of Henry the Fifth Grader

This year, I’m submitting my contemporary middle grade retelling of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V plays. It’s an idea I found in a short note in my idea file from 2008. When it became time to start a new project at the end of 2017, that note captured my imagination.  It feels like a weird choice of plays to retell in MG, but the challenge sounded fun. The end result is a lot different than my original note.

So what’s it about?

Now that he’s ten, Henry “Hal” Bolingbroke V wants to choose his own path and his own friends. But he’s a fifth grader at a school named after his great-grandfather, where his dad teaches and his mother works, so choice takes a back seat to expectations. Especially since Hal’s afraid if he disappoints his father, his dad will fall out of love with him like he did Hal’s mom.

Hal is elected captain of the ragtag school kickball team his dad coaches. Despite his parents’ disapproval, he’d much rather hang out with his older friends, who often get into trouble. Hal’s world changes, though, when his father is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Hal turns away from troublemaking and leads his team toward the championship tournament, determined to make his dad proud before it’s too late.

This is how I imagine the kids on Hal’s team. Hal’s in the top left corner.

My writing

I’ve been writing since before I was first published at the age of eight.

I have published a middle grade short story in Spaceports and Spidersilk and poems in Kolob Canyon Review and other small literary journals. I published an article in The Writer, as well as online markets. I am a technical writer and editor, and have been for a long time. I started with Atari, back in the late eighties, and now work for Adobe.

In addition to being a Pitch Wars mentee in 2017, I finished my Master of Professional Writing degree. I also have a B.A. in both English and Languages and an A.A. in Liberal Arts.
I am also a member of SCBWI and The Academy of American Poets, and a regular participant in a couple middle grade chats on Twitter. I volunteer at a local independent living facility for seniors, where I lead a monthly literary club.

One of my favorite writing accomplishments was the time one of my poems, “Buying Baseball Cards,” was put on display at the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame Library and was featured in a lecture by the Hall of Fame librarian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s really a middle grade poem.

Most of the time, I work from my Schreibwinkl, my home office.

This has become my favorite place. I’m surrounded by pictures of writers, illustrations, quotes, and other things that inspire me.

Books are, of course, an important part of my hideaway.

My favorite part of PitchWars is hanging out with all the writers. I’m looking forward to meeting more hopefuls this year.

Favorites

I like to read fairly widely, from kidlit to classics to medieval and ancient.

I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s works, most multiple times. I’ve also read the entire Shakespeare apocrypha and many plays by his contemporaries. Other stories I’ve written have a Shakespeare influence, especially my YA, but this is the first time I’ve attempted a direct retelling.

But I’m subbing a MG story, so here are some of my favorite MG books I’ve read recently, in no particular order (unless alphabetical is “particular”):

  • Chronicles of Prydain
  • Enginerds
  •  The Evil Wizard Smallbone
  • Fiendish Deeds
  • Half Magic
  • The Inquisitor’s Tale
  • The Last Boy at St. Edith’s
  • The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary
  • Mrs Smith’s Spy School for Girls
  • My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights
  • The Nest (the creepy one about the wasps)
  • Never That Far
  • The Night Gardener
  • OK For Now
  • Out of the Dust
  • The Riverman
  • A Tale Dark & Grimm
  • Treasure at Lure Lake
  • The Wednesday Wars

There are so many more.

Schreibwinkl: A Tour

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about my Schreibwinkl, my combination home office/mancave/refuge. So follow me. I’ll show you around.

It’s not hard to find the Schreibwinkl, thanks to the sign on the door.

People always ask, so i guess the words on the sign aren’t as obvious as you’d think.

Schreibwinkl is German for Writing Nook. It’s a reminder when I open the door that it’s time to work.

Lego Verba Mea is Latin. It means I read my words. But for me, it has a second meeting, my personal motto: Words are my LEGO.

OK, so maybe the sign is a little nerdy. But you haven’t seen nerdy yet. Let’s open the door.

The first thing you’ll notice is that you are greeted with insults, thanks to this great new Shakespeare Insults rug my wife just got me for my birthday:

You might also notice my unusual light switch:

Most likely, though, you’ll notice that there are desks everywhere. I’ve divided the room into workspaces, each with its own general purpose. Although I sometimes mix it up a little, for the most part, when I’m in each space, I know what I’m there to do.  We’ll get to those.

Let’s take a quick look around. We’ll start with the corner just inside the door.

There’s not much space here, so what I can do is a little limited. In my house, where there’s a space, there are books. This corner is no exception. This shelf has most of my medieval books.

The white board is often covered with sticky notes. I’m not planning anything at the moment, though, so it’s been taken over by my grandson.

Working around the room, we come next to my work corner.

I work from home much of the time, sometimes four days a week, so I spend a lot of time in this corner.

Under the window next to the work corner, is my writing desk.

Theoretically, this is where I do much of my writing. And it is, at least when I need a bigger screen. Much of my writing time, though, is spent untethered in the recliner in my cozy corner.

This is where I am right now, in fact. That bookcase has my writing craft books, most of my poetry books (although there are few places in my house where I hang out that don’t have poetry within easy reach), and some language and tech books.

The other corner has my desktop computer. It’s dominated by my Wall of Inspiration.

This was my personal writing corner before I got my Surface Book 2. Now I use it mainly for general computing and media. The hard drive with my digital jukebox is connected over here. The Raspberry Pi I used to build a distraction-free writing computer is in this corner too. I don’t use it much but I could, and that’s the important thing. I have another Raspberry Pi hooked up to another of the monitors on another desk, set up as a retro gaming station.

That’s the grand tour. There are all kinds of little details I might share with you sometime, like cable management strategies (important in a room with so much tech), toys and play spaces, and other little things that help make this space mine. If there’s interest, I can tell you more about these sometime.

I love this room. I shared a bedroom growing up, and never had a room of my own until the kids started moving out. This is my own space, and I spend a lot of time in it. I’m constantly tweaking it, making it a place I like to be, which is important for a room where I spend so much time working and writing.

Writing tools: Index Card app for Windows 10

Earlier versions of Windows included an application called Cardfile, which made it so you could create simple index cards and shuffle through them. Cardfile was useful for keeping track of contacts or recipes, but it was of very limited use for writers.

For Windows 10, however, there’s an app in the Microsoft Store that has become a regular part of my writing process. The app, called Index Cards, creates highly-customizable cards that can be used to track characters, settings, or anything else.

You can download the app for free, but to get the most out of it, I recommend shelling out the paltry $5 for the Pro version, which includes a number of useful features you’ll miss out on if you opt for the free version. The free version is still useful, though. Some of the features I’ll show in this post are not supported in the free version.

Cards can be created in a number of formats and styles. They can be colored, lined, blanked, or use a graph pattern. Templates exist for various list styles, a dot grid, and more.

To further help you organize your cards, you can attach colored tags to the top. You can type on the cards, or, if you have a computer that supports a pen (or fingertip), you can write on the cards, Cards are two-sided, just like the real thing, and you can use different designs for the front and back.

I can’t show you how I’ve used Index Cards to keep track of characters without giving away more about my story than I’m willing to reveal, but these samples should give an idea of some of the things you can do. I refer to my cards all the time as I write and revise.

Here’s a sample from my story, one that doesn’t give away too much:

Basically, you can do just about everything you can do with actual index cards, and much more. The only thing that’s difficult to do is shuffle cards. You can move them around a virtual tabletop, though, rearranging at will. You can use card and ink colors to easily organize types of characters, settings, or whatever.

Index Cards is easy to master, and it’s as versatile as you’d want paper index cards to be, with the added functionality of a well-designed computer program.

One of things I really appreciate about Index Cards is how responsive the developer is. For a free/$5 app, he can’t be making that much money, but he responds to user requests and updates his app frequently.

If you write on a Windows computer, and especially if you have a touch screen (but even if you don’t), this app is a must-have for organizing and tracking story elements.

 

Trim the Flab in Your Writing

We all want our writing to carry some weight. We hope our ideas have some heft. But we want the good muscle weight, not flab.

I found an online tool this week that helps spot the flab so we can cut down on some common sources of extra flab. The Writer’s Diet helps by pointing out these sources of extra rolls around the middle:

  • “Be” verbs, such as be, were, was, and is.
  • Abstract nouns and nouns formed from verbs
  • Excessive prepositions
  • Too many adjectives and adverbs
  • It, this, that, and there

There’s nothing wrong with having these kinds of words in our manuscript–just like there’s nothing wrong with the occasional slab o’ cheesecake– but the Writer’s Diet highlights them so you can see if you rely on them too much.

The way it works is you paste a sample of your writing, up to 1000 words, into a text box and click a button, and a few seconds later your text is highlighted with a bunch of colors. Here’s what it looks like when I paste in part of something I’m working on:

Overall, it’s not too bad, but I need to go in and replace as many of those be verbs as I can with stronger verbs. That change alone will greatly improve this opening.

Also, even though it says my prepositions are healthy, I see more than I want, especially when there are strings of two or more prepositions, or the same one appears too often close together.

I’m finding this site so useful that I now want to go out and buy the book the site promotes. But even if you don’t want the book, if you’re a writer you’ll find the site useful.

 

Books I Read in 2017

It’s time once again to reveal the list of books I finished over the past year. It turns out is was a record-setting year, even though I was way off the pace at the beginning of November. But, surgeries in November and December gave me more time to read, and so I did. My goal for the year was 60 books, and I ended up reading 78, edging out the 77 I read in 2015. According to the count on Goodreads, that was 19,669 pages. My previous high was 18,275 in 2015.

Without further ado, here are the books I read:

  1. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
  2. The Dain Curse, Dashiell Hammett
  3. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, Rebecca Stott
  4. The King Must Die, Mary Renault
  5. On Teaching and Writing Fiction, Wallace Stegner
  6. The Whisper (The Riverman Trilogy, #2), Aaron Starmer
  7. King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard
  8. A Yorkshire tragedy, Unknown (Shakespeare apocrypha)
  9. The 13 Clocks, James Thurber
  10. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, Wallace Stegner
  11. The Nest, Kenneth Oppel
  12. Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman
  13. Sir Thomas More, Anthony Munday (Shakespeare apocrypha)
  14. The Castle of Llyr, Lloyd Alexander
  15. Conflict and Suspense, James Scott Bell
  16. The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, Adam Gidwitz
  17. Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, Roald Dahl (Editor)
  18. Half Magic, Edward Eager
  19. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Laura Shovan
  20. Create Your Writer Platform: The Key to Building an Audience, Selling More Books, and Finding Success as an Author, Chuck Sambuchino
  21. The Complete Old English Poems, Craig Williamson (translator)
  22. Toilet Train Your Cat, Plain and Simple: An Incredible, Practical, Foolproof Guide to #1 and #2, Clifford Brooks
  23. Fair Em, Unknown (Shakespeare apocrypha)
  24. Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse
  25. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
  26. The Aeneid, Virgil (Robert Fagles, translator)
  27. Hunting for Hidden Gold (Hardy Boys, #5), Franklin W. Dixon
  28. Feet of Clay (Discworld, #19; City Watch, #3), Terry Pratchett
  29. Afterland, Mai Der Vang
  30. The Evil Wizard Smallbone,  Delia Sherman
  31. Ein ganzes Leben, Robert Seethaler
  32. Collected Stories, Robert Stegner
  33. Taran Wanderer, Lloyd Alexander
  34. A Most Pleasant Comedie of Mucedorus the Kings Sonne of Valentia and Amadine the Kings Daughter of Arragon, with the Merie Conceites of Mouse, Etc., Unknown (Shakespeare apocrypha)
  35. Fat for Fuel: A Revolutionary Diet to Combat Cancer, Boost Brain Power, and Increase Your Energy, Joseph Mercola
  36. The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart
  37. Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, Donal Maass
  38. Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney, Anonymous
  39. Magic by the Lake, Edward Eager
  40. Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya, William Carlsen
  41. The High King, Lloyd Alexander
  42. A Tale Dark & Grimm, Adam Gidwitz
  43. The Merry Devil of Edmonton, Unknown (Shakespeare apocrypha)
  44. The Storyteller (The Riverman Trilogy, #3), Aaron Starmer
  45. The Gravedigger’s Son, Patrick Moody
  46. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, James Shapiro
  47. Midnight Without a Moon (Rose Lee Carter #1), Linda Williams Jackson
  48. Treasure at Lure Lake, Shari L. Schwarz
  49. The Inferno (The Divine Comedy, #1), Dante Alighieri (John Ciardi, translator)
  50. Worthy of Song and Story (Stian the Viking, #1), Neal Chase
  51. Bob Dylan: Forever Young, LIFE Magazine
  52. The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturlasson (Jesse Byock, translator)
  53. A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, Linda Sue Park
  54. Lloyd Alexander, Jill P. May
  55. Cannery Row, John Steinbeck
  56. Splendors and Glooms, Laura Amy Schlitz
  57. The Night Gardener, Jonathan Auxier
  58. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
  59. The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co., #1), Jonathan Stroud
  60. The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon: Using Speech Recognition Software to Dictate Your Book and Supercharge Your Writing Workflow, Scott Baker
  61. Falstaff: Give Me Life, Harold Bloom
  62. Henry IV, Part 1, William Shakespeare
  63. The Bulletproof Writer: How To Overcome Constant Rejection To Become An Unstoppable Author, Michael Alvear
  64. Henry IV, Part 2, William Shakespeare
  65. Henry V, William Shakespeare
  66. EngiNerds, Jarrett Lerner
  67. Christian Science, Mark Twain
  68. The Lost Celt, A.E. Conran
  69. The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil, Al Ridenour
  70. Unfortunate English: The Gloomy Truth Behind the Words You Use, Bill Brohaugh
  71. The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year, Linda Raedisch
  72. Dragon Professional Individual For Dummies, Stephanie Diamond
  73. Delphi Christmas Collection III, Various
  74. The Adventurer’s Guide to Successful Escapes, Wade Albert White
  75. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, Unknown (J.R.R. Tolkien, translator)
  76. The BFG, Roald Dahl
  77. Bluebonnets, Firewheels, and Brown-eyed Susans, or, Poems New and Used From the Bandera Rag and Bone Shop, David Lee
  78. The Lost Tribes, C. Taylor-Butler

Review: Rocketbook Everlast Notebook

It’s no secret that I love notebooks. So when I put together my Christmas wish list this year, it included the Rocketbook reusable smart notebook. And I got one.

So, how does it work?

The Rocketbook Everlast is a reusable notebook that can be set up to automatically upload pages to favorite online services. Unlike the Rocketbook Wave, you don’t microwave the notebook to erase it. You simply use a damp cloth or even a paper towel and wipe it off. While the Wave claims you can erase the pages five times, the Everlast doesn’t have that limit. You can supposedly erase it as many times as you’d like.

One caveat is that you need to use a Pilot Frixion pen. The good news is that these pens are inexpensive, easy to find, and come in various sizes and styles. Pens are a very personal choice (indeed, like notebooks), so some people might not be happy about being forced to use a specific brand, but I find the Frixion reasonably comfortable and smooth enough on the Everlast’s glossy pages.

There are 18 sheets, 36 pages, in my notebook. The notebook comes with a black pen, but you can use any Frixion pen, with whatever color and thickness you like. It also comes with a cloth, but you can use any cloth you’d like.

When you’ve completed your notes, use the Rocketbook app to take a picture of the page and upload it to your favorite online service. At the bottom of each page there are seven faint icons. If you mark one, the app automatically uploads the page to the location you configure for that icon, which can be common cloud services or email. For example, I configured the first icon to upload to a specific directory on Google Docs. When I used the app to scan the page, it worked flawlessly, quickly dropping either a PDF or PNG (your choice) to my folder.

With good OCR software and better note-taking penmanship than mine, you could theoretically turn your notes into text files that you can copy into Word or whatever editor you like.

The notebook is network agnostic. The connection is handled by the mobile app, so whatever your phone or tablet is connected to is your notebook’s connection.

Another thing I like is that the pages use a dot grid rather than lines. Lines can be restrictive and I often ignore them. For people whose notes include sketches and doodles, a dot grid is great. Or for people like me who like to avoid rules and borders when brainstorming. Revision is for coloring inside the lines. Drafting has very few lines, and the lines are very personal, defined by needs that can change constantly.

Of course, a plain old notebook is pretty near perfect, and this is a new thing that can be improved with time, but it’s great if you’d like to store notes digitally rather than in a pile of notebooks on a shelf or closet.

So, I’m not about to throw out my unused notebooks and use this exclusively, but it gives me another option that works great for some tasks.

What it’s like to be chosen in Pitch Wars

It was August 24. I was on vacation, visiting my mother for her birthday.

Earlier in the week at a San Francisco Giants game with friends, I’d talked about the contest and my hopes, and said no matter what happened, I don’t think I had ever felt more writerly than at that moment.

On Thursday, I knew it was the day the mentees would be announced for Pitch Wars, so I spent much of the morning watching Twitter and email.

Finally, it was time to take my mom to the movie she wanted to see, my birthday present to her. I had my shoes on and was heading for the door when the notifications on my phone started going crazy. The first one I saw was from the #PITCHWARRIOS Facebook group, congratulating me and some other group members for being in the 2017 class of mentees.

I immediately went to the Pitch Wars web page. Of course, it had crashed. I was getting a near-constant stream of congratulatory messages on Twitter, so I figured it must be real, but I couldn’t see the list for official confirmation, and had no idea who my mentor was, if I had really been chosen.

I called my wife, told her I thought I was picked, and headed to the movie. I checked my phone in the theater parking lot. Lots more notifications, plus an email from Neal Chase, congratulating me on being his mentee. That’s when I figured it was probably real. I finally got to see a screen shot of the list while waiting for the movie to start. Yes, my name was there.

My manuscript had been chosen.

If I hadn’t been picked, Pitch Wars ’17 would still have been a success. I made a lot of new friends, and had a blast in the feeds. Pitch Wars is all about community, and it’s a lot of fun. In so many ways, this year was even better than my previous three attempts. But being chosen was pretty cool too.

Phase II

Being a Pitch Wars mentee is a heady experience, especially those first couple days. The morning after being chosen, I was woken up at 6:30 by a constant stream of Twitter notifications on my phone. That’s when I learned that the little icon showing how many mentions you have only goes up to “99+.”

I exchanged a couple emails with my mentor over the next few days. He gave me homework: think deeply about my characters and their relationships. So I did that over the next week while I waited for my edit letter.

Other mentees reported that their edit letters were from about five pages long to nearly 30. Some of them were being asked to completely restructure their books, to create outlines and story maps and all kinds of things. Not once did a mentee say something like, “This is going to be so easy.” There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, loud keening for the darlings that were going to die, and a lot of panic. People wondered how they’d make all the changes in the time we have, and even commented that their mentors must think they are better writers than they are.

No wonder agents watch this contest. They know that when the Agent Round comes, they’ll be getting good manuscripts that have been vetted and workshopped by professionals. These aren’t light, easy revisions.

I read the panicky messages from other mentees while anxiously waiting for my own edit letter. I had no idea what was in store for me. I knew there were problems with my manuscript. After all, I’d shelved it “permanently” at least twice because I worried it wasn’t fixable, before pulling it out in early July and deciding to try to get it ready for Pitch Wars. I wanted my letter to get here so I could stop worrying and get to work. There’s comfort in working, and the three-day Labor Day weekend was quickly approaching.

Then the letter came. 13 1/2 single-spaced pages detailing several global issues and then going through the manuscript chapter by chapter. Good thing I wanted to get to work because there was a lot of work to get to. My biggest issues had to do with my characters, especially my main character, and some pacing problems. A bunch of other stuff too, but much of the letter dealt with those.

So I’ve spent the last few days revising. I’m making good progress, but there’s still a lot to do. I’m mourning over killed darlings, deleted jokes, cool stuff I found during my research.

Like the other mentees, my thoughts have run from “I love that my story is loved” to “How could I have been chosen when my manuscript is this bad?” Every feeling that comes during the long development of a novel has come up in the last few days. Often several at once.

So?

So how does this part of Pitch Wars compare to what happens before the announcement?

It’s still all about community. We chat with our mentors, but mostly the mentees chat with each other, commiserating and encouraging one another through the revision process. I like that a lot, but it’s not as fun as it was before the announcement. There’s pressure now, on top of the nerves we’ve felt all along. Plus, we’re all working too hard to spend as much time in the feeds as we did before the announcement.

For many of us, this is the first time we’ve had to write to a deadline. I do it all the time in my day job, but I haven’t had to do it with my own creative writing. It’s different.

We’re all aware that some of the people who weren’t chosen are watching, wishing to be in our shoes. Some of those people have become our friends, and we want to live up to their well-wishes. We all realize how lucky we are, especially when we’re dealing with edit letters that show we’re not quite as good as we might have felt in those moments after finding out we were picked. So many other hopefuls were good enough to be where we are, but aren’t.

Although I’m excited to see where this part of Pitch Wars takes me, I really do miss the fun of that first stage and the constant interaction with the other hopefuls. That’s probably still my favorite part of Pitch Wars. I like this phase too, but it’s different. The playful fantasy and hopefulness of the first stage has given way to work and pressure. It’s what we signed up for, and I love revising. But it’s all so real right now, with real stakes.

Being chosen means hard, intense work. And I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.

13 Ways to Win in Pitch Wars, and Three Ways to Lose

As a 4-time participant, I’ve learned there are many ways to be a winner in the Pitch Wars writing contest. Here are a few:

  1. If you are chosen by a mentor, get an agent, and get published, you’ve won Pitch Wars.
  2. If you’re chosen, get an agent, and don’t find a publisher, you’ve won.
  3. If you’re chosen but don’t get an agent, you’ve won.
  4. If you’re not chosen, but get feedback, even if only a little, you’ve won.
  5. If you don’t get any requests, but improved your manuscript to enter it, you’ve won.
  6. If you don’t get requests, but think about ways to improve your MS while you wait, you’ve won.
  7. If you find new CPs or expand your circle of writers, you’ve won.
  8. If you got feedback in the forums, you’ve won.
  9. If you learned something in the feeds, you’ve won.
  10. If you had fun, you’ve won.
  11. If you gained experience in the query process, you’ve won.
  12. If you wrote your first query letter, you’ve won.
  13. If you entered, you’ve won.

There are so many ways to win, way more than I’ve listed here. What winning means to you depends on your personal goals and where you are in the writing process.

I only know of three ways to lose:

  1. If you don’t participate, you can’t win.
  2. If you let Pitch Wars discourage you and you quit, you lose.
  3. If you look for the negatives and let yourself be bitter or angry because you’re not picked, you lose.

Stay positive. You have not failed or been rejected if you’re not chosen.

It’s OK to feel elation or disappointment or whatever else you feel. Even if you feel a wave of anger, that’s OK, but I’d highly suggest venting somewhere other than the Pitch Wars feeds, because you don’t know who’s watching.

This business is tough and it’s a rough ride emotionally. Pitch Wars is everything in the business in a compressed time frame. If all you get out of the contest is experience dealing with those emotions, then you’ve won.

So, 14 ways.

My Personal Pitch Wars History

This is my fourth Pitch Wars. I thought it might be fun to summarize my experiences each year. I considered doing it Pitch Wars style–in a tweet thread–but decided against it.

2014

I heard about Pitch Wars a couple days before I submitted. The submission window might have already been open. I don’t remember for sure.

I had two manuscripts to choose from, a YA and a MG. I had another YA in the works, but it wasn’t ready yet. I chose the MG because I wasn’t sure what I thought of it myself. I hoped for some feedback on whether it was any good at all.

The #pitchwars feed was fun, so I followed it, participating some. I lurked far more than I posted, though.

Because I joined late, I didn’t take much time to research mentors. I quickly skimmed some of the mentor bios and found four I thought might be interested. I ended up getting brief feedback from three of them. Each of these mentors said basically the same thing: The story is good, but at only 28k words it’s much too short.

This gave me the confidence to keep working on this story. Maybe it was OK after all.

2015 – My Big Year

I returned to Pitch Wars in 2015 with the same book, only this time it was about 30% longer. While adding to the book, I discovered an important new character. I also discovered some important things about my main character, especially about his relationships with his parents and other characters. And I changed to 1st-person POV. In other words, I did a lot of work.

I spent a little more time researching mentors, at least enough to read through all the bios. I didn’t do anything before the submission window opened, so I still didn’t have a lot of time to prepare.

I only remember getting one request (could have been more), but I learned that manuscripts were shared behind the scenes and that the number of requests doesn’t really tell you how many people are looking at your work.

I got into the feeds more the second year. I felt more relaxed and confident, and participated more. I had fun.

When it was over, I wasn’t chosen. I did get a very nice note from one of the mentors, however, saying that she loved my story but didn’t feel it needed enough work to need her as a mentor. She generously offered to coach me through the query process and even recommended me to her agent. She’s still helpful a couple years later, a real writing friend. I’m still querying this work, and am getting nibbles of various sizes, but nobody has bitten yet.

One of my favorite things that happened that second year was that I was introduced to #mglitchat, a weekly Twitter confab of MG writers. This chat greatly expanded my circle of writer friends, introduced me to a bunch of great books, and made me feel part of the greater community of MG writers. I can’t overstate how much the #mglitchat has meant to me and how I feel as a writer.

2016

Last year, I entered the YA that was still in progress in 2014. I had pretty much given up on my other YA, the one I nearly entered the first year. Something just didn’t feel right about that first YA. And, although I felt like I was part of the MG community, thanks to #mglitchat, I didn’t want to enter the same MS a third time.

I started reading the mentor blogs as soon as they were available, making lists and being more careful about my choices. A couple of them felt like excellent fits for my manuscript, and I was feeling pretty good about it myself, although I still struggled with a few parts of the story. I was pretty sure nobody would say this one was too polished to need a mentor.

I participated even more fully in the Twitter feeds, and even pimped my bio. The third time’s the charm, and my experience the previous year was so amazing that I expected something similar this time. I mean, I even joined the Pitch Wars dance parties.

And I got very little response. It was practically crickets.

There was, however, an agent who during the waiting period offered hopefuls a chance to pitch, and liked my pitch enough to request a query and pages. That was a win, even though she ultimately rejected the query, because it gave me confidence in the premise.

Participating in Pitch Wars was still a positive experience, but it was hard to compete with the rush of success I felt after 2015. I planned to participate again in 2017, but I hoped I wouldn’t need to. I was in the midst of a Master’s degree, didn’t have a lot of writing time, and my latest WIP had stalled. So I pinned all my hopes on that MG I was querying and moved on.

2017

Which brings me to this year. With my shiny new Master’s degree, and a pile of new ideas, I was writing again, but I still hadn’t sold my 2014/2015 MG book.

I briefly considering entering the YA book again. I’ve done some pretty significant revising. But I really wanted to stay within the MG group. I’d had great Pitch Wars experiences in MG. More importantly, participating in #mglitchat had made me feel like part of the MG community. I have also read a lot more MG. I feel like an MG writer.

But what should I enter? My only complete MG manuscript was the one I’d entered twice and been told was too polished to need mentoring. Of course, that was only one mentor’s opinion. Maybe another would help me figure out why it’s not landing with an agent.

Then there was the YA I almost entered the first time. A couple people had told me it felt more like a middle grade book back in the day, but I had kind of written it off as a tween book, and those weren’t doing so great so I’d shelved it. I pulled it out for another look. It had a lot of problems. But, because I had read so much MG lately, I saw where the people were coming from when they said it felt more like MG.

I decided in June that, if I could get it ready in time, I’d enter that one in the MG category. If not, I’d try the other one for a third time. It needed a ton of work. It was too long for MG, had some technical issues, and the POV didn’t feel real to me. So I dug in, doubtful that I could finish it in time.

This year, I got involved in Pitch Wars earlier than I ever had before, while I was still buried in revisions. I discussed what I was doing, and when the mentor blog hop opened, I read the bios carefully and corresponded with nearly every mentor who might be interested in the book.

I still wasn’t positive that I’d be ready with this manuscript until a week or two before the sub window opened, but I really wanted to sub that one. It looked like more mentors might be interested in it than the other one, based on wish lists, so I kept working on that one.

And felt ready, just in time.

For my fourth Pitch Wars, I feel more relaxed, much less stressed. I’m enjoying the community and having fun. I hope to be picked, of course, but if I’m not, I’m still getting encouraging responses to my other MG and I don’t believe Pitch Wars is my only path to success.

Of course, it’s too early to know whether I’ll get any response or feedback on this new/old manuscript. But I’ve learned that, for me anyway, Pitch Wars is more about the people that the manuscripts. I believe I’ve made some good connections–friends, even–through interacting with mentors and other hopefuls, so I feel like I’ve already won.

And, once again, I’m already looking forward to next year, while hoping I won’t be eligible to enter in 2018.