The best part of the contests for us around here is when we hear about successes. Today we are so happy to have Whitney Fletcher and his Pitch Wars mentor Julie Sondra Decker here for a little Q and A. Whitney recently signed with Lana Popovic at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. So as to not make this post a novel, we’ll jump right into the interview.
Whitney, you were chosen for Pitch Wars, which was such a great accomplishment with over 2,000 applications and about 660 writers entering. What made you decide to send an application to Julie?
A lot of things, actually. First was that she was super cool, approachable on Twitter, open about her process as a Pitch Wars Mentor, and personality-wise, a good fit. I read her Pitch Wars blog post, and then other things on her blog, and I got the sense that we would get along well. This included our shared love of the anime EYESHIELD 21, which I worked into the personalization of my query. Second, I looked at her wish list, and of all the mentors, she had the most checkmarks for genre and category: adult, urban fantasy, and LGBT stories were high on her list. In many ways, the process was similar to when I researched agents. All the mentors I applied to were fantastic, but Julie was always my favorite.
And wow, was I right. You there reading this? If you do Pitch Wars next year, and Julie is a mentor, apply to her. She is dedicated (over 800 comments on a 340 page MS), insightful, incredibly smart and funny. It was truly a pleasure and an honor to be her mentee.
We will second that! Julie is pretty amazing. And you, Julie, what about Whitney’s application made you choose him?
First of all, the query had everything; I knew immediately when I read it that I was dealing with an author who knew what queries are FOR.
It established a problem, provided the stakes, and built up to a climax without getting bogged down in detail. On top of that, the characters as described in the query were people I wanted to meet. And when I read the pages, I was so pleasantly surprised and relieved to read a submission that wasn’t struggling to get to its feet at all. What struck me most was that the protagonist felt like she’d been alive long before Page One; she clearly had a history and a set of experiences that she was now showing to me without whispering in my ear, and I was left to figure it out while getting invested in her life. The author had done all the work for me, and all I had to do was fall in love.
Also, I was tickled pink that our protagonist had such an unusual set of circumstances and characteristics: She was an ex-valkyrie—a character from mythology that has in no way been overdone—and she was a lesbian without making that her whole identity, and she was overweight without apologizing for it. (I’m very sick of heavy characters in books being transformed through weight loss as a metaphor for “improving.” More fat ladies, please!)
Add to that the fact that we had several things in common and quickly developed a rapport through goofing around on Twitter, and I knew I’d be able to work with him easily, too. In the query he mentioned wanting a mentor like Hiruma from the anime Eyeshield 21, and that was enough to make me cackle evilly. Hiruma is basically a demon. He’s very hard on the folks who look up to him, but he makes them better through his unyielding demands. I was more than happy to take on that role for someone else—someone who was ready for the Death March to challenge him and make him unstoppable.
I’m feeling a little love/evil geniusness at first sight . . . So Whitney, revisions can be daunting and Pitch Wars’ schedule was such a rush for everyone involved. Tell us about your revisions for Pitch Wars.
Julie talked about this more on her blog, but we essentially decided the most efficient way was to do what I call “rolling revisions,” where I sent her a batch of chapters, she’d read through and make comments, and then I would take those and work ahead, attempting to fix issues she’d spotted in the first batch so that hopefully subsequent batches would be better. This worked, mostly, with the exception of errant extra spaces and the damnable dashes, two formatting problems that took until the end of the MS for me to conquer. Overall, I have to say it was a fantastic experience. Julie’s comments made me giggle, gave me warm fuzzies, and made me think about my manuscript in new ways. A single sentence caused me to restructure most of a chapter, resulting in a vastly improved product overall. There was nothing she said where I thought “Oh no, that’s way off.” Although there were a number of times I headdesked over an egregious (DAAAASHEEEES!) error.
Intense! What about the other side, Julie? Could you tell us about your experience with mentoring Whitney? How was mentoring your other team members?
Mentoring Whitney was a little different from any other critique partnering situation I’ve had because we did some of our discussion on the phone and on video Skype. I’m usually an in-text-only type of editor, and the author’s responses will come back in text, but ours was a weird hybrid. His manuscript was relatively polished (except for a few punctuation glitches), and many of my comments were just questions for him to consider or impressions I was getting. The content issue I addressed most frequently was out-of-character infodumps, and Whitney was very receptive to my criticism. He was also pretty independent in the editing phase; I could say something and he understood entirely, enough to take my comments and run with them.
He was also truly adorable when he “blushed” in text over my compliments. I love watching him melt into a puddle. It was heartwarming at times how highly he valued my opinion and how much he trusted me as well. He told me several times that he hadn’t expected to get picked at all—especially not as a main mentee!—and that he’d simply entered the contest hoping to make friends and connect with others in the fabulous writing community. It’s so wonderful that someone with no entitlement issues—someone who had his heart in the right place—ended up being rewarded.
And can I just say it’s also super awesome that we’ve become friends as well as critique partners? We’re on the same page on just about everything, which has led to famous digressions on everything from social justice to literary taste. He’s sympathetic and thoughtful and easy to talk to. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with, and someday soon he’s going to read one of my books too.
I have not yet read the full manuscripts of my other two team members, Ryan and Jessica. I will be reading Ryan’s next, but I’ve read his first three chapters and they are amazing. His stuff is also very polished and needs next to no help. To be honest I’m surprised he isn’t already signed. Working with Ryan was fun partly because he was just so low-key and receptive. I feel like he’s so close to making it that I just know that “yes” is going to come someday and I’ll be thrilled to have been a part of it. He and I went out for hoagies recently and I got to tell him to his face how much I like his work. Hooray!
Jessica is also such fun to work with, but because she was considering some agent feedback at the same time as considering mine, we had some speed bumps over where her book should actually begin and how it’s going to play out in the long run. She’s a little earlier in the process because of this but very earnest about climbing the rest of the mountain and developing her fantastic concepts into an execution that will wow the agents. Her pitching skills are quite impressive—she doesn’t struggle with the awkwardness I saw in some other queries, and I think you’ll be hearing from her one day.
Sounds like an all-star team! Whitney, we all know that things move slowly in this wonderful writing world of ours. What was the wait like during the agent round?
It was, well, interesting. And a bit unusual. I’d done some background research on last year’s Pitch Wars, and I saw that a majority of the requests came on the opening morning, so when the afternoon rolled around, I decided it was time to dust myself off and start sending out queries. In fact, I’d only sent out one query for this MS at that point, about two weeks before the agent round. So when I sent out that batch on Wednesday, I had a total of 6. It was about then that my phone buzzed with a DM from Julie saying I had a request from Lana Popovic! We laughed about how I had a tendency to count myself out (I had done the same thing during the slush selection process).
I took one last look at my MS and fired it off to Lana. The next day, I got an email from her saying she’d already dived into the MS and was loving the voice. This induced a mild heart attack, from which I quickly recovered. Heart Attack #2 happened on Friday when Lana tweeted about a mysterious urban fantasy that had her very excited. I struggled to contain my squeeflailing, and decided to go to the grocery store. While I was standing in line, I decided to check my email, and there it was. The magical, terrifying (1) of a new message in my inbox. I held my breath and started to read. As a writer who has queried before, I’ve trained my eyes to scan for the Dread Words: “unfortunately,” “although,” “because of this,” “however,” and “regrettably.” First paragraph: she loved my MS. No Dread Words. Hope level: 60% Second paragraph: she REALLY loved my MS. Still no Dread Words. Hope level: 90% Third paragraph: Offer. Hope level: INFINITY. Two days from request to offer. I was stunned. The woman scanning my groceries had to politely remind me how to use a credit-card reader.
The next phase, obviously, was to nudge the other agents, including those who had made ninja requests during Pitch Wars. A number bowed out, and others asked for fulls. Ultimately, none of the requesting agents ended up making competing offers—which, truth be told, was kind of a relief for me.
Dread words. I like that. I’m using that from now on. (I think we all develop that skill at some point . . .) And by the way, OHMYGOSH, Whitney, you signed with Lana Popovic with Zachery Shuster Harmsworth! Tell us about “The Call”. . .
So, when I said that not having to choose between offers was a relief, a big part of that was The Call. The day of my phone conversation, I started getting pretty nervous. What if she’s changed her mind? What if this is all an elaborate prank? I had visions of someone jumping out from behind a tree and yelling, “YOU’VE BEEN PUNKED! THERE IS NO LANA, THERE IS NO JULIE, NO PITCH WARS! NOBODY EVEN READS BOOKS ANYMORE!” I was also nervous because of how much Lana liked the book, actually. I’d never even gotten close to an offer with my previous works, so I couldn’t help but wonder whether my writing could actually be as good as she thought it was. Anyway, I was starting to freak myself out when I got a DM from Julie, and it read: “Don’t worry. Agents are just giant dippy book nerds who love good stories.” That settled me down right quick. (See also: reasons why Julie is awesome)
My phone rang, and The Call began. Lana told me a bit about herself, about ZSH, about how she got started agenting and her agenting style. I found myself nodding and squeeing in equal parts; I had done my homework prior to the call and knew she would be a good fit, but I never expected a total mind-meld. And that’s exactly what happened. We had similar tastes in books, similar visions for the MS, and what I wanted in an agent fit what she had to offer perfectly. By the time we were done talking, I couldn’t stop smiling. Lana was so enthusiastic about my manuscript, so confident and knowledgeable, that I knew in my gut that I wanted her as my agent.
Happy endings for everyone! And now for some epic Rae mischief! 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)?
Yeah, no surprise here. I’m going with Hogwarts. But I think I’d be a real pest. I’d constantly be asking questions like “Why does magic work this way?” “Is there a limit to the number of times we can cast a spell?” “Why do the words themselves matter?” and trying to create my own spells. So, I’d probably wind up blowing my face off by my second week of classes.
Probably only certain anime nerds will get this, but how about Alice Academy? Obviously only if I had a superpower that could be accepted there, because otherwise they wouldn’t let me in. :/ It’s actually pretty similar to Hogwarts in that it seems whimsical on the outside but something pretty dark is actually going on.
Love how you both picked something completely different yet similar. What fictional character would be your confidante? Enemy? Idol? Kick-butt ally?
I think Luna Lovegood and I would get along pretty well. We’re both kind of weird, brainy types who didn’t fit in much at school.
As a confidante I’d love to hang out with Stargirl (from Stargirl); she’s my kind of enthusiastic hippie girl and she can even play a ukulele. As an enemy, I think one of the people I’ve hated most in all of fiction is Dolores Umbridge (from Harry Potter); I think most of us have faced a horrible adult like her who uses authority and order against children “for their own good.” As an idol I’m all about Jean-Luc Picard—if he said “make it so,” I’d listen. And as for a kick-butt ally, can I please steal Holly Short (from Artemis Fowl)? What a badass.
(sigh) Ohhh, Picard. Everyone needs more Picard in their life. And Holly Short? Can I just say . . . YES! And of course, no epic adventure is complete without delicious sustenance. What fictional food/beverage would you most want to try?
I’m going to say the Wow-Wow sauce from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I’m a condiment junkie and I’ve always wondered what it would taste like.
I’ll pull out another reference nobody knows and say I want to eat reversed ketchup from The Boy Who Reversed Himself. Mmmm, reversed ketchup. I want it right now. The science is kind of sketchy, but long story short, characters traveling into the fourth dimension and then coming back to the third dimension ended up “reversing” the molecules in the ketchup packets in their pockets and it turned into this ridiculously awesome creamy chocolaty-tasting stuff. Also it got you high. But I want to know what it tastes like.
Little weirded out here . . . I feel like these condiments might eat ME. BUT SOFT! You are faced with your nemesis! You instantly grab your trusty __________. (lightsaber, phaser, wand, mace, girly scream, katana, broadsword, etc)
Ingrid, the MC in my story, has a pretty badass mace made out of phoenix-forged iron, chimera bones and echidna (not the real-life ones) spines. I’m going with that.
. . . Water gun? I’d probably squirt them and run.
Whitney, you scare me in the best way possible. And Julie, we can hide behind the mace together. What is your work fuel of choice? (food-wise)
Oatmeal raisin chocolate chip pecan cookies and chocolate milk. Mmmm.
Predictable answer over here: Coffee. With some assistance from crackers and hummus.
Whoa. That’s a lot to put in one cookie. (Also, Brenda would like several of them to go with her gallons of coffee. No, Brenda, where are you going? Whitney, if she shows up at your place, call me.) Until she turns up, whose work inspired you to start writing?
Wow. There are so many fantastic authors, it’s hard to choose. Some of the female authors who inspired me are Ursula K. LeGuin, Ilona Andrews, Rachel Aaron, Kate Elliot. Some of the male authors are Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Richard Kadrey, China Mieville, and Tad Williams.
I’ve been answering the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question with “AN AUTHOR!” since I was about five, so it’s hard to tell. Since the first novel I wrote at age fourteen was a thinly disguised rip-off of one of Lois Duncan’s books, she’s probably the first author who comes to mind. As a very young author I was inspired by the introspective, character-centric works of William Sleator, Louis Sachar, Diane Duane, and Judy Blume, and as an older author I feel I’m influenced by Joan D. Vinge, Shannon Hale, Octavia E. Butler, and Spider Robinson.
Last question: (This one’s from Brenda, guys.) Which team are you? Team Brenda or Team Rae? Kidding. No really. Thank you for sharing your success story. Rae and I couldn’t be happier about it – CONGRATULATIONS!
TEAM BRAENDA FOREVER! Thank you so much for putting together Pitch Wars. Even before I got an agent, I already felt like I had won. Meeting so many new people and establishing friendships is really a wonderful experience.
Wait, I didn’t even know there were sides to choose! But even though everything we do in these contests is organized like a competition, I think we’re all on the same side. We all want to help other writers. We all want to see each other get our stories out there. We all want to READ each other’s stories. And we all want to forge those unique lifelong partnerships with other people who GET us—who know why we do what we do. That’s being made possible on the Pitch Wars dance floor, regardless of who goes home as Prom Queen, right?
Though Whitney does look nice in that tiara, yes?
Wonderful interview, you two! You guys are such a perfect match, and we’re so happy that you will continue your friendship and critiquing after the contest. Congratulations on the success, and we’ll just sit here and watch you walk hand-and-hand into the sunset together. Everyone else go say hello to them on Twitter.
Why are you still here? Scram. Give them some love! (And steer clear of the condiments.)