Having our mentees land an agent or a publishing deal is one of the highlights of being part of Pitch Wars. We’re so excited for Emily Ungar and her mentor, Stefanie Wass. Emily signed with Kerry Sparks of Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency after Pitch Wars 2015, and we couldn’t be happier for her! Please, help me in congratulating Emily and Stefanie on their Pitch Wars Success.
Emily, what was it about Stefanie that made you choose to send her a Pitch Wars application?
This was my third time applying to PitchWars and my second time applying with a middle grade book. I read Stefanie’s bio in previous years and thought she sounded wonderful—warm, engaging, and incredibly supportive. When I applied in 2015 with a contemporary heartfelt novel, I instinctively thought about Stefanie but then second-guessed myself. This was a lesson for me in learning to trust my gut. But luckily another mentor to which I had applied passed my submission to Stefanie, and a match was made!
Stefanie, what was it about Emily’s SCARLET RUNNER BEAN that hooked you?
I was hooked by the authentic characters, pitch-perfect middle grade voice, and the amazing premise.
Emily, tell us about the revision process for Pitch Wars?
Stefanie is so amazingly organized and efficient that she had notes for me right away. I was able to use the excitement and momentum of being chosen and channel that into getting a head start on revisions. She made incredibly thoughtful suggestions and comments. I’m a spreadsheet lover, and I organized each suggestions into a row in an Excel document and tackled them one by one so it didn’t seem so overwhelming! I took several weeks to tackle the first pass and then Stefanie read my revisions quickly and got back with me with notes for the second pass. She was encouraging through email and Twitter and I knew she was with me every step of the way. It’s been a year and a half since we began working together and we still check in with each other. I’ve found a writing mentor and friend for life, and I feel so incredibly thankful for her. She is truly my writing guardian angel!
Stefanie, tell us about your experience mentoring Emily.
Emily was a dream mentee! She was open to feedback, timely in revisions, and ready to push her writing to the next level. She never complained about my nit-picky revision notes, either!
Emily, after Pitch Wars, you signed with Kerry Sparks of Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. Please, tell us about “The Call.” We love all the details about the offer, how they contacted you, how you responded, celebrations, emotions . . . How long did you have to wait and how did you distract yourself? Anything! We love hearing about all of it.
I queried Kerry in January 2015 upon recommendation from my mentor, and Kerry requested the full within a week. I was so excited; I loved the types of books she represented. I tried not to get too hopeful. One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite books (HOLES by Louis Sachar) is “If Stanley and his father weren’t always hopeful, then it wouldn’t hurt so much every time their hopes were crushed.” This is totally me. I’m a Pollyanna, glass half full, poster child for hope. But high spirits have a heavy drop to the ground, unfortunately. I heard back from Kerry at the end of February with an open door to revise and resubmit. I’ve not told Kerry this yet, but when I received the pass from her I laid on my bed and sobbed. The thing is, I’ve gotten hundreds of rejections over the years and I’ve only teared up at a few. Why was my reaction so strong? It could only mean I really wanted Kerry to be my agent! Her revision letter was so kind, and helpful, and on point. Once I had a day to clear my head, I immediately started working on the revisions she had suggested. But I still doubted myself. I asked everyone: Do you really think she wants to see my revisions? And everyone assured me: YES! Around this time I became obsessed with the Broadway musical Hamilton. I didn’t want to throw away my shot; I had to wait for it. (I blogged further about how Hamilton inspired my revisions in this post at To The Shelves, the blog produced by the PitchWars 2015 class about writing and publishing) I sent the revision in April, and Kerry said that she would be happy to take a look.
Fast-forward to June. The email reply arrived in my inbox. I held my breath. I don’t want to start my weekend with a rejection. I opened it and the first sentence my eyes focused on was “I’d love to work with you.” I was stunned and I remember the tears running down my face. Above all, I felt this incredible feeling of relief. Funny thing, though—Kerry ended up going on maternity leave within just a few days, so we had our first call after Kerry returned to work in the fall. We had a great conversation, and I just knew right away I wanted to work with her. It was all worth waiting for!
Emily, how do you feel Pitch Wars helped with your success?
In major ways. First, the fairy godmother of publishing—Brenda Drake— is fantastic. It’s amazing that an opportunity like PitchWars exists, not just to help writers perfect manuscripts and find agents, but to find a writing tribe. My fellow 2015 PitchWars mentees are my writing tribe, and they changed my life. And of course, my manuscript never would have been in suitable shape were it not for Stefanie. One of the most important things she taught me was using subtle action with dialogue to move things along, a technique that I think about every time I write.
Now for some fun! The following questions are for you both to answer.
If you could live in any fictional world and take everything you love with you, where would you choose to live? What would you do there? And why this world?
Emily: I admit that before my sons became interested in superheroes, I knew nothing about them or the worlds they inhabited. Now I’m very interested in all of the Marvel heroes and their backgrounds. I spend so much time in very realistic, contemporary settings that I think it would be good for me to hang with the billionaire Ironman and his high-energy, high-stakes world.
Stefanie: I would move to Terabithia for the solitude. Among the tall pines, I would write, of course!
Somewhere in the (known or unknown) universe, you’re in a high-speed chase and have to escape the bad guys. Who are you running from and what fictional character is your side-kick?
Emily: I’m probably running from a gang of angry U.S. mail carriers. I have a very stunted imagination for fantasy (I bow in awe to the experts) and this is the only thing I can think of. My own mail carrier doesn’t like me and often leaves a nastygram in my mailbox if a guest parks too close to the mailbox and makes it difficult to deliver the mail. I guess my sidekick would be my neighbor Shannon, because with adjoining mailboxes, we’re in this thing together.
Stefanie: I am running from bad guys who use nothing but incorrect grammar. My sidekick is Carley Connors from ONE FOR THE MURPHYS. She’s been through some tough stuff so I have a feeling she’ll be able to hold her own and defend me as well.
What do you think is the most fascinating invention from fiction and what book is it from?
Emily: I’ve always had an obsession with the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. I know it wouldn’t necessarily be useful outside of Hogwarts, but I think it’s pretty darn terrific. Maybe it could be used in high school cafeterias so that no one ever has to sit alone? There could always be, for example, a table for fellow Hufflepuffs.
Stefanie: For me, the most fascinating invention from fiction is the magical pencil in Kate Messner’s ALL THE ANSWERS. Who doesn’t want to know the answers to everything?!
Share with us your writing process. Do you write everyday, in sprints, early in the morning, in the bath, pen and paper? What works for you?
Emily: Becoming a parent has presented a unique set of challenges. I learned that it’s okay to only write twenty minutes at a time, or to type character notes on my phone while I’m waiting in the carpool line at preschool. When I pieced it all together, I had written way more than I thought. When I worked on SCARLET RUNNER BEAN, I usually wrote no more than a page or two in one sitting.
Stefanie: I write every day, M-F while my kids are at school. I do my best writing in the afternoon, though I often write from 9-3, with an hour break for lunch. I type everything using Word, though I do make a paper outline before the first draft.
You have one day to finish the last pages of your next bestselling novel. What food/drinks do you get and where do you go hide out to meet the deadline?
Emily: Hmmm, so I’m a bestselling author. Are we talking Danielle Steel money here? Because if so I’ll be checking in at The Conrad in downtown Indianapolis (assuming I don’t have the time to charter a private flight to Bora Bora). Door locked, bathrobe on, Keurig churning. And then when I’m done, a celebratory swim in the pool and a deep tissue massage. (And now back to reality…)
Stefanie: I gather Cinnamon Dolce Starbucks Keurig pods, Teavana tea, and plenty of Ritz crackers for fortification. I hide out in my bedroom office with my laptop and my dog.
What or who keeps you motivated, inspired, or is your biggest support to keep writing?
Emily: Stefanie continues to be an amazing mentor, truly out of the kindness of her heart. She wants her mentees to succeed. She is very encouraging, as are my PitchWars mentees and my husband.
Stefanie: I am a part of MG Beta Readers, a group of writers who offer support, feedback, and humor for this bumpy journey.
Please, share any last words you would like to add.
Emily: I have been writing and improving and querying for almost ten years. I didn’t give up, and finally I found an agent who loves my writing and really “gets me,” both now and in my writing goals for the future. If you’re serious about writing but find yourself getting down with rejections and other setbacks, it’s okay to take a break. But please, if you truly want this, don’t give up. No matter where you’re at on the writing and publishing journey, persistence and improving your craft is the best formula to break through those writing obstacles.
Stefanie: Never, ever give up! Emily didn’t land an agent directly following Pitch Wars, yet she kept polishing her manuscript, believing in herself, and remaining patient.
Thank you for sharing your success story with us. We wish you all the best in your publishing journey! CONGRATULATIONS!
Emily Ungar is a writer and lover of middle grade books! She’s been writing stories ever since she could hold a pen. She daylights as an editor and project manager and moonlights as a writer. Her 24/7 job is the mother to identical-twin preschool boys. Lately, she’s completely embraced making new writer friends. She started a blog to collect her thoughts about writing and the path to publishing and to connect with writing peeps.
Stefanie Wass’ personal essays have been published in the LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, Seattle Times, The Writer, Cleveland Magazine, Akron Beacon Journal, This I Believe, Cup of Comfort, and 15 Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. She was a finalist in the 2012 National Association of School Principals Book of the Year Contest. Stefanie is a member of SCBWI and MGBetaReaders, a three-time Pitch Wars mentor, and a blogger on www.middlegrademinded.com.