The best part of the contests for us around here is when we hear about successes. Today we celebrate Amanda Hill and her Pitch Wars mentors, Jessica Vitalis, Joy McCullough-Carranza, and Rebecca Wells! Amanda recently signed with Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown LTD., and we couldn’t be more thrilled for her. So without further ado, please meet Amanda, Jessica, Joy, and Rebecca as they recap their epically awesome Pitch Wars success story.
Amanda, you had an unfortunate experience with your first Pitch Wars experience and received a redo. What was your reaction when you were contacted that you would be in Pitch Wars 2015?
Oh gosh. I think to understand you have to realize that I’d just been hoping for a second chance to enter Pitch Wars, with no guarantee to get in. If Brenda had just offered me that I would have been thrilled. But she offered me a full redo, with three fabulous mentors and a slot in the agent round. I was…ecstatic, so incredibly thankful. I’m pretty sure I said, “I will buy all her books forever.”
But honestly, the words I keep coming back to to describe it are actually from my Pitch Wars manuscript. “Like hope, and answered prayers, and new plants sprouting.”
Mentors, what about Amanda’s application made you want to work with her?
Jessica: I felt so bad after hearing about Amanda’s previous experience that I volunteered to work with her before knowing anything other than that she had a MG story (I figured that since she’d been selected as a mentee the year before, the writing was sure to be of high quality). When Brenda sent over her writing sample to make sure it was a good match, I was blown away. The premise of her story was outstanding, and I immediately fell in love with her quiet, lyrical prose. It turned out to be a perfect match!
Joy: Amanda’s situation was different from most Pitchwars applicants’ in that we all jumped in to mentor her without knowing anything about her manuscript–only that it was MG. It didn’t honestly matter to me what her book was about; she’d had a crummy experience in a contest that is absolutely wonderful for most participants and I wanted to do everything I could to help rectify that, whether her manuscript was a genre I would normally go for or not. As it turned out, it was a quiet, literary contemporary, which is 100% up my alley.
Amanda, tell us about the revision period for Pitch Wars?
So, I know everybody says it is intense, but I think mine was extra intense. haha Remember, I wasn’t picked out of lots of applications and I probably wouldn’t have been with what I had at the beginning of Pitch Wars. I started off with a story about guardian angel grandmas that Joy suggested might work better as a contemporary. So I rewrote the entire book as a contemporary. Then Jessica suggested taking it out of epistolary format because it was killing the tension. And…that was really hard for me to let go of. But I viewed getting this opportunity as an answer to prayer so I took the leap of faith, and rewrote the book (again) taking it from full epistolary, to partial epistolary and present tense prose. After that were line edits with Jessica and Rebecca. I was busy right up until the agent round. But near the end, I reread my last chapter and started crying and that’s when I knew it had all been worth it. That I’d made something special.
Mentors, tell us about your experience with mentoring Amanda. How was mentoring your other team members?
Jessica: I was nervous about providing my initial feedback to Amanda because she’d already been through a grueling round of revisions with Joy and we had a very limited time horizon before the agent round. But I had a strong vision for her story and didn’t feel I’d be doing my job as a co-mentor if I watered my feedback down. I think Amanda was initially reluctant to undertake another big set of revisions, but she ultimately decided to go for it and threw herself into the process with all her heart and soul. Obviously, her dedication paid off!
Joy: Amanda was a joy to work with from the start, and such an incredibly willing, hard worker. I was the first mentor to get my hands on THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC, and while I was crazy in love with Amanda’s writing and the heart of the story, I thought she needed to make some particularly dramatic changes (like completely cutting some major characters who were driving the action). I knew she might dismiss my thoughts, especially since I hadn’t chosen her manuscript. It would have been easy for her to assume I just wasn’t the right fit for it–and that would have been valid to think. I didn’t tell her she had to strip these characters out, either. I explained to her why they weren’t working for me. I was thrilled when she made the incredibly brave decision to take the note and work with it, which created a massive amount of work for her. (But turned out brilliantly!)
Amanda, after Pitch Wars you signed with Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown LTD., tell us about “The Call.” How long were you on submission? What did you do to distract yourself? How did Elizabeth contact you? How did you respond? How did you celebrate? Anything! We love knowing it all.
I sent out about 15 queries the day Pitch Wars ended to all my top agents and Elizabeth was actually my very first query request on this manuscript! I honestly called it a victory just getting the request and figured it wouldn’t go anywhere. For the seven weeks between that first query and my first offer of rep, I’m not sure I did distract myself. haha I’m pretty sure I hung out on the Pitch Wars facebook page and obsessed with everybody else. Then I got an offer two days before Christmas and had two weeks to make a decision. Because everything was over the holidays I heard almost nothing until the day before my decision date. And within ten minutes of each other I got two emails asking for phone calls. I dropped everything and went to a friends house for five hours. She watched the kids while I spent the day emailing clients, talking on the phone in my car parked in her driveway, and just generally freaking out.
The call was good, except I was so flustered because my mind kept screaming, “OH my gosh it’s Elizabeth Harding!” and so I kept losing my place in my list of questions and then trying to ask really winding questions that I couldn’t quite articulate. But Elizabeth just has this really calm, soft voice and she kept saying, “That’s okay,” and “I know what you’re trying to ask.” And then she actually did and gave great answers. I got off the phone and knew there was no way I could ever turn her down. I celebrated by not cooking dinner and ordering dessert. 🙂
How do you feel Pitch Wars helped in your success?
It wouldn’t have happened without Pitch Wars. Period. I’d still be sitting here trying to query a story about guardian angels and thinking I was better suited for fantasy than contemporary. Pitch Wars didn’t just teach me about writing and how to craft a story. It showed me what I was capable of and what I was good at, and it wasn’t the kind of stories I’d been trying to write. It changed everything.
Now for some fun! The following questions are for you both to answer: You and your favorite character from your favorite book are meeting at your favorite restaurant. Which character are you with, what restaurant did you choose, and what’s on the menu?
Amanda: All I want is to sit in the dining hall at Hogwarts and drink butterbeer with Dumbledore.
Jessica: Oh, boy. Asking me to pick a favorite book is like asking which one of my daughters I love more––impossible to answer. But if I had to pick any MG character to have lunch with, it’d probably be Gladys Gatsby from Tara Dairman’s ALL FOUR STARS. Since she reviews restaurants, I’d let her pick the restaurant and do all the ordering (but I might put in a special request for Kevin Gillespie’s Atlanta restaurant, Gunshow, which serves new dishes each week).
Joy: Well it’s too hard to narrow down my single favorite book, so I’m going to say my favorite book boyfriend, Etienne St. Clair from ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, is taking me…well, anywhere he pleases, really. Maybe French food in Paris, but I honestly don’t really care what we’re eating, if I’m with St. Clair.
Rebecca: I have the feeling that Sophie (from Howl’s Moving Castle) would be the greatest meal companion ever. By the end of her first adventure she’s blossomed into a no-nonsense, straight-shooting go-getter. It would be fantastic to meet up with her at the Rosebud in Davis Square (Somerville, MA) and attack a giant rack of ribs together while making our plan for world domination. With pie, of course!
What author would you like to spend the day with, and what would you do with him/her?
Amanda: Kate Dicamillo. I subscribe to her facebook page and she just seems like the most lovely person. Plus I love everything she’s written and want to be just like her. So, I’d probably want to spend the day walking around beautiful places with her and picking her brain and trying not to act too incredibly creepy stalkerish.
Jessica: Again, you’re asking me to pick which child I love the most? Aaaaaaahhhh…Let’s see, at the moment I have a total author crush on Gary D. Schmidt. I’d probably lock him in his office and make him walk me through every single scene in Okay for Now, explaining how he pulled the story together.
Joy: Oh gosh, so many! I mean, JK Rowling, obviously. But I imagine she is way too overbooked with imaginary dinner parties and such, so I’m going to say Rebecca Stead. I got to listen to her speak at a book signing in the fall, and I would just love to hang out throughout a normal day with her and pick her brain and learn from her, absolutely anything she had to teach me, whether it was how to bust up structural conventions in MG or how to use the NY subway system.
Rebecca: Diana Wynne Jones. She was the grandmaster of children’s fantasy, and I would just love to spend the day drinking tea, eating cake, talking, and attempting (but failing) to figure out how she came up with such bizarre (and yet utterly perfect) creations.
What book character or movie character best describes your personality?
Amanda: I seriously identify with Hermione Granger. Go in, get the job done, keep the rules until they have to be broken. Smart and take charge. I read lots about anything before I dive in. She’s me with a wand.
Jessica: The character I wish I was most like is Leslie Burke in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. But the truth is, I’m probably a lot more like Jesse Oliver Aarons, Jr.––there’s a lot of creative potential locked up inside me, but learning to embrace it has been a long, gradual process.
Joy: I’ve got more than a little in common with Hermione Granger.
Rebecca: A Slytherin (assuming in this instance that Slytherins have the capacity to be dangerously quiet and also not on Voldemort’s side). Not Snape, though.
You just won a spot on The Amazing Race what fictional character do you team with and what makes him/her/it a good match for this adventure?
Amanda: I’m going to have to go with Willow Chance from COUNTING BY 7’S, because that girl is smart, can pick up languages fast, and knows her plants.
Jessica: Having never watched The Amazing Race, I’m not sure what qualities would be the most useful. That being the case, I’d go with Gypsy Beaumont from Ingrid Law’s book, Switch. I have to imagine that being able to freeze time would come in handy in a competitive situation.
Joy: These are such fun questions!! My first thought was Sybella from DARK TRIUMPH by Robin LaFevers or Karou from DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE by Laini Taylor, because they’re tough and brave and generally kick ass. But I think on The Amazing Race you need someone with a good sense of humor, with whom you have a great personal dynamic. I always love the parent-child teams, when they’ve got a healthy relationship, so I decided on Charles Maxim from ROOFTOPPERS by Katherine Rundell – the fictional character I most wish was my own father.
Rebecca: Ella, from Ella Enchanted. Somehow she made it across the entire country of Frell while being under an obedience curse, so I’m pretty sure she can handle anything The Amazing Race can throw at us.
You only have two hours to finish edits, where do you go for some quiet time?
Amanda: My bedroom, with the TV on in the living room to babysit, I mean, distract the kids. It’s just two hours, right?
Jessica: I bundle up warm (because I’m always cold––always) and lock myself in my office.
Joy: I can’t work anywhere with ANY distractions, including other humans breathing quietly. So the reality is I send my family out of the house and work from home. They are used to this. My husband is the king of entertaining our kids at coffee shops/bookstores/libraries/parks while I’m working.
Rebecca: My bed. It’s cozy!
What fictional character would best describe your mentor/mentee (alternate)?
Amanda: Okay, Joy is Susan Smith from THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE because she took this scruffy, dirty manuscript/writer and taught it how to function in the world. Jessica is Professor Mcgonagall because she wasn’t afraid to mark up my document with so much virtual red pen but always saw the potential in it and was just getting me there. Rebecca is Anne of Green Gables because she read both this years Pitch Wars manuscript AND last year’s manuscript. And Anne likes to read, so I think she’d approve.
Jessica: Like Miri from Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy, Amanda never gave up hope, and continued to believe in the power of love and magic even during her darkest (Pitch Wars) hours.
Joy: I’m going to say Batty from THE PENDERWICKS IN SPRING – she’s thoughtful and wise, manages the input (meddling) of multiple sisters (mentors) with grace, and faces some really tough stuff, including artistic and emotional challenges, but comes through the other side a stronger artist and person.
Rebecca: Honour (Beauty) from Robin McKinley’s Beauty might be a good fit. She’s quiet and unassuming, but she’s much more complex than you first realize, and she always gets the job done.
Any last words you’d like to share or tell us that wasn’t covered in the questions above?
Amanda: Never be afraid to take a leap of faith and try that revision note that’s too big, too scary. The one that might force you to trash 75% of what you’ve written or start over. Maybe it won’t work out and you’ll go back to your original manuscript. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll discover the magic that was hidden in your manuscript all along. You lose nothing by trying.
Jessica: It was a pleasure co-mentoring with Joy and Rebecca, and a privilege to accompany Amanda on this portion of her journey. I can’t wait to see where her story goes from here!
Joy: Amanda didn’t complain when she went through her first Pitchwars experience. It wasn’t until the next year’s applications came around that she simply asked if she could apply again, with no expectation that she deserved any special treatment. A lot of writers would have been far more vocal, felt far more entitled. We see some of those over-entitled writers throughout the Pitchwars process. And it’s such a fine line. I appreciated Amanda’s grace in the situation, but I also wish she’d spoken up sooner. I think all worked out well, but it’s such a fine line–how to advocate for ourselves, and how not to be entitled jerks in the publishing process. I’m not saying Amanda should have done anything differently, but I guess I would encourage future mentees who are having a legitimately negative experience to remember that it’s all right to speak up for the support you need.
Rebecca: Amanda is a fiercely determined and talented writer who put an unbelievable amount of work into her manuscript during Pitch Wars. I am SO pleased and proud of her success, and am looking forward to whatever she does next!
Thank you for sharing your success story, Amanda, Jessica, Joy, and Rebecca. We couldn’t be happier about it – CONGRATULATIONS! Everyone, rush off and say hello, celebrate with them, and if you don’t already follow them, you totally should – they’re awesome!
Amanda writes middle grade novels and is represented by Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown LTD. In addition to writing, she enjoys playing the piano, knitting, reading, homeschooling her children, playing board games and eating kale.
Jessica eagerly traded her business card for a library card. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, two precocious daughters, two black cats, one adorable dog, and she writes stories for middle grade readers. Jessica is represented by Saba Sulaiman with Talcott Notch Literary.
Joy writes plays and children’s fiction. She has a degree in theater from Northwestern University. Her plays have been developed and produced in Seattle, San Diego, Chicago, and New York. In 2012 her middle grade novel FRAMED made the long list for the Times of London/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Prize. In 2013, her middle grade novel NOWHERE BIRDS made the long list for the same prize. Joy is a Pitchwars mentor and an MG/YA editor with Cornerstones Literary Consultancy. Her fiction is represented by Jim McCarthy at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management.
Rebecca holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College, and is currently at work on a novel involving blood curses, ancient forests, and characters (human and otherwise) who are not what they seem. When not writing, reading, or talking about writing or reading, Rebecca can be found blues dancing, drinking tea, singing along to musicals, or playing soccer. (Usually not all at once.) If she were a hobbit, she would undoubtedly be a Took. Rebecca is represented by Rebecca Podos at the Rees Literary Agency.
This is a wonderful success story! Thank you so much for sharing.
Such an awesome story! Congrats again, Amanda, and congrats to the awesome mentors!
I love this story! Congratulations to Amanda and the mentors. 🙂 I wonder if this is okay to ask: what exactly constituted a negative PitchWars experience for Amanda the first time around? I guess I’ve heard so many success stories that I’m not really sure what a negative one would have been like.
Something happened and Amanda’s 2014 mentor disappeared and didn’t work with her. it was very disappointing.
Fantastic interview! I’m so thrilled for Amanda and can’t wait to read her book!! It sounds like exactly my kind of book. 🙂