Our favorite part of hosting pitch contests around here is when we hear about successes. Today we celebrate Heidi Stallman and her Pitch Wars mentor Jessica Vitalis! Heidi recently signed with Lisa Rogers of JABerwocky Literary Agency, and we’re so over-the-moon excited for yer. So please join me in congratulating Heidi and Jessica as they share with us their awesome Pitch Wars success story.
Heidi, what made you decide to send a Pitch Wars application to Jessica?
A number of things jumped out at me as I read Jessica’s blog post describing her critiquing style and manuscript wish list. Her critique partners had glowing things to say about her. She also said that she was going to make her mentee work very hard but she would be there to cheer him or her on the whole way. Most of all, everything about her post was genuine, sincere and confident. She was one of the few mentees who didn’t use a ton of gifs in her posts — nothing gimmicky, nothing that tried too hard. Just a straight, honest post about what she had to offer and what she wanted in return. That really resonated with me. I wanted someone with strong editorial skills. I wanted to work hard. I wanted encouragement from someone who loved my story. But most of all I wanted someone who would understand the heart of my story and the way I work because she’s a genuine, sincere person with a big heart, and I found that in Jessica.
Jessica, what about Heidi’s application made you choose her?
I was drawn to the magical premise and when I read the first chapter, I thought the writing was solid. But it wasn’t until I got to the journal entry at the end of the first chapter that I fell in love. The manuscript had structural issues, but since the voice was there and the writing was strong, I knew we could whip it into shape before the agent round. I also appreciated her thorough and professional response to my follow-up inquiry about her writing history (which I sent before making my final decision); it was clear to me that we’d work well together and she wasn’t a raving lunatic. J
Heidi, tell us about the revision period for Pitch Wars?
It was intense, stressful and exciting. I chose to treat this experience like I would treat being chosen by an agent and then having to do an extensive round of revisions before going on submission. I trusted that my mentor truly loved my story and chose it because she had strong ideas of how to make it better. I also trusted myself enough to know I’d say “no” to anything that didn’t feel right. Then I dove in and tried everything she suggested, with my own twist when needed. I rewrote the beginning a few times. I changed my ending. I made character arcs stronger. We brainstormed and kept in touch, and then we went through a second round. I made revisions on almost every page of the manuscript and I did it all in eight weeks. Talk about intense! In the end I had a stronger manuscript that was somehow much closer to the original story that I’d wanted to tell but hadn’t seen my way clearly to before.
Jessica, tell us about your experience with mentoring Heidi.
Heidi was everything I could have asked for in a mentee––dedicated, hard-working, and talented. I’m sure my (lengthy) editorial letter must have come as something of a shock, but she embraced the process wholeheartedly. One of my major suggestions was that her story needed a new climax; she immediately generated a brainstorming document, which over the course of the first week or two grew to something like 20 pages as we batted ideas back and forth. The part I enjoyed most was watching her manuscript change––Heidi didn’t just Band-Aid problematic areas. She really dug deep in order to address the underlying issues, and her hard work paid off.
Heidi, after Pitch Wars you signed with Lisa Rogers of JABerwocky Literary Agency, tell us about “The Call.” Can you tell us the details about the offer: How long were you on submission? What did you do to distract yourself? How did Lisa contact you? How did you respond? How did you celebrate? Anything! We love knowing it all.
I enjoyed my call with Lisa. She loved my story and loved my writing, and both her and her agency felt like a good fit for me. She had ideas for revisions, which I was able to hear and respond to confidently, partly because of my experience with Jessica. The thing that’s fun about agent editorial letters is that it feels like your agent loves your manuscript and hates your manuscript at the same time. How could she possibly want that huge change if she loved my book enough as it was to offer representation? But I knew from my intense editing and brainstorming sessions with Jessica that I could dig down deep and make my story even stronger if I trusted the editorial process. And that’s what helped me discuss my manuscript professionally and confidently with my agent. I am once again trusting the process with Lisa as we undergo more revisions before I go on sub. I know it will eventually work out great although right now my manuscript feels like a mess.
All I’ll say about the querying process before my first offer was that it was soul-crushing hard for me. It has been that way every time I’ve queried a novel. I found it almost impossible to write and be creative during that time. I didn’t celebrate my signing. Not really. I experienced it with a quiet joy and a deep sense of relief and gratitude that I’d made it this far after working for so hard and so long. Right now, every day I spend with the realization that “I have an agent!” feels like a mini-celebration to me.
How do you feel Pitch Wars helped in your success?
I’ve been right at the cusp of getting an agent for years. Something in my writing was eluding me, that last little bit of story-telling skill that would lift me up into the top 1% of the slush pile, instead of the top 5% where I’d been sitting for so long. Working with Jessica helped me to pinpoint and develop those elusive story-telling skills, especially how to structure my work to better tell my story. It’s made all the difference in the world.
Now for some fun! The following questions are for you both to answer:
What fictional academy/university/school would you most want to attend? (ie Starfleet Academy, Hogwarts, Jedi Academy, Camp Half-Breed, Battle School in Space, Beauxbatons, etc)?
Heidi: Hogwarts would be so much fun!
Jessica: I’m still waiting for my Hogwarts letter to arrive in the mail. Perhaps I need to get an owl to ensure delivery?
What fictional character would be your confidante? Enemy? Idol? Kick-butt ally?
Heidi: Hermione Granger and I would get along famously and kick some serious butt. I’d turn to Brother Cadfael if I needed help solving a mystery or sneaking out of a castle, and I’d love to fly a giant bat with Gregor the Overlander because COOL!
Jessica: My confidante would have to be Annie from Nikki Loftin’s Wish Girl. The lens through which she sees the world would remind me that the small moments throughout each day can be filled with wonder, if only we’ll stop and appreciate them. When thinking about my literary enemy, it becomes clear that I have serious daddy issues, because Joseph’s father in Orbiting Jupiter comes to mind, as does the father in Pax. But if I had to pick a middle grade enemy, it’d definitely be Shay from Fish in a Tree. She’s mean, and she goes after Ally for her learning differences (I have a daughter with dyslexia, so this hits especially close to home). I don’t know that I have any middle grade idols, but if I had to go back to my middle school years, I’d certainly aspire to be a lot more like Miri from Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy––she’s smart, courageous, loyal, and kind. When it comes to picking a kick-butt ally, I’d for sure go with Katniss Everdeen.
What fictional food/beverage would you most want to try?
Heidi: It would be pretty sweet to have a Star Trek food replicator programmed with every food in the Alpha Quadrant, although I could do without any writhing insect delicacies from the Klingon home world. I’ll also pass on Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Bean in puke flavour.
Jessica: I’ve been craving chocolate all day (who am I kidding? I always crave chocolate) so I’m going with V’s Mystery Fudge Cake from Lisa Graff’s A Tangle of Knots.
You are faced with your nemesis! You instantly grab your trusty __________. (lightsaber, phaser, wand, mace, girly scream, katana, broadsword, etc)
Heidi: My 10-year-old self wants the wand, but my adult self would grab a katana or bow, although hand-to-hand would also be fun.
Jessica: Pen, of course! (Because we all know it’s mightier than the sword)
What is your work fuel of choice? (food-wise)
Heidi: I love hot Rooibos tea and a hearty soup with warm broth for breakfast. That will fuel me for hours as curl up and write on my couch.
Jessica: I don’t generally snack while writing. Although during the colder months, I do occasionally indulge in hot chocolate. If calories didn’t count, it’d be a whole different story and I’d probably OD on Peanut M&Ms. Or Reese’s Peanut Butter cups, although dealing with sticky fingers while typing might be a deterrent.
Whose work inspired you to start writing?
Heidi: C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia!!! Those stories were life-altering and mind-blowing to my 8-year-old self. I wrote a 120 page copy-cat novel, very similar in structure to the Dawn Treader, the week after I read that amazing book.
Jessica: In college, my writing professor, Dr. Robert Miller, asked me to write an essay for a new edition of his book, The Harbrace College Handbook. I’d always loved to write, but this gave me the confidence boost I needed to think maybe I could be a “real” writer someday. About the same time, I read The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and rediscovered my love of literature. But it wasn’t until years later, when I read David Almond’s book, Kit’s Wilderness, that things finally clicked for me and I set out to write a book of my own.
Any last words you’d like to share or tell us that wasn’t covered in the questions above?
Heidi: I’m so grateful for the Pitch Wars experience. It was exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. Thank you, Jessica and Brenda!
Jessica: I’d like to thank Brenda for the hard work she puts into this contest, my fellow mentors for welcoming me into the Pitch Wars family, all the wonderful writers who submitted their work to me, and Heidi––for trusting me with her pages.
Thank you both for sharing this experience with us!
Heidi Stallman lives in Columbia, Missouri, where she writes and lives for middle school readers. Her heart got stuck in those awkward years, so she’s trying to spread a little magic through the power of a good book.
Jessica started writing stories in third grade.
By middle school, she’d moved on to poems. One, written in sixth grade (and submitted for an English assignment because why waste a good thing?), was read years later by my homeroom teacher during a high school commencement speech.
When asked to write an essay for the Harbrace College Handbook her senior year of college, Jessica toyed with the idea of writing full-time.
Somehow, life got in the way (as it often does) and she instead embarked on a business career that culminated in obtaining an MBA at Columbia Business School. While at CBS, she took a class called “Creativity and Personal Mastery” and was assigned the task of identifying her ideal career.
Writing, of course!
Armed with this knowledge, she eagerly traded my business card for a library card. Jessica now lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, two precocious daughters, two black cats, one adorable dog, and writes stories for middle grade readers.