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Another Pitch Wars alum success story… with Laura Shovan & Joy McCullough-Carranza!

Tuesday, 22 July 2014  |  Posted by Brenda Drake


The best part of the contests for us around here is when we hear about successes. Today we are so happy to have Laura Shovan and her Pitch Wars mentor, Joy McCullough-Carranza, here for a little Q and A. Laura recently signed with Stephen Barbara with Foundry Literary. So as to not make this post a novel, we’ll jump right into the interview.

Laura, what made you decide to send a Pitch Wars application to Joy?

I was on the fence about applying. High-concept novels earn a lot of attention in pitch contests. I wasn’t sure that my novel-in-verse, written in the voices of an entire fifth grade class, was a good fit for an online competition. Pitch Wars mentor Veronica Bartles, who is one of my CPs in real life, encouraged me to give it a try.

Before I applied to anyone, I queried each of the MG mentors about novels-in-verse. Were they open to working on one? Joy’s response was an enthusiastic yes, with a list of her favorite MG verse novels. I also applied to Joy because of some things we (freakishly) have in common: both of us have worked in the schools as writers-in-residence; Joy is a playwright, I have a BFA in Dramatic Writing. Add to that some Harry Potter geek-banter on Twitter, and I knew Joy and I would work well together.

You definitely seem cut from the same cloth. And Joy, what about Laura’s application made you choose her?

I knew the moment I read Laura’s query and sample pages that I really wanted to dive into this manuscript. I loved the premise, the diversity of the characters, and the sheer amazingness of the POETRY. I also knew it was a manuscript that might not shine in a contest setting – sometimes the quieter ones just don’t, and I had been there myself, futilely entering quiet manuscripts into contests. So I decided I didn’t care about that – I wanted to work with Laura, and my only concern was that I might not have that much to offer her. She’s a brilliant poet, and I know extremely little about poetry. But I knew my background as a playwright would lend itself well to the ensemble nature of her book, and I saw ways the story could be strengthened to really let her characters shine, which I hoped would make up for my lack of poetry knowledge. I’m so, so happy it worked out.

Well, it seems it definitely helped. So Laura, tell us about the revision period for Pitch Wars?

The actual revision period is a blur now! A few months before Pitch Wars, I finished an overhaul of my manuscript, reworking the entire narrative arc. By the time Joy’s notes arrived, I was ready to dive back into revisions. Once I had Joy’s suggestions, my journalism background kicked in. I had editorial feedback. I had a deadline. I got to work. Joy’s comments helped me fine tune the new plot and make adjustments to characters whose voices weren’t quite there yet. She was amazing about being available. We traded many emails during those five weeks. (And after Pitch Wars, Joy kept checking on me, pushing me to send out queries, and cheering me on. The woman deserves a tiara!)

Joy, tell us about your experience with mentoring Laura? How was mentoring your other team members?

Mentoring Laura – or, I should really just say becoming friends with Laura – was and continues to be an absolute delight. I proposed some rather big changes in terms of story and was very nervous about how she’d respond – like I said she’s an extraordinary poet and I felt a little presumptuous, but she just dove in. She didn’t get any requests in the contest, which I knew was entirely possible, but I wasn’t in it just for the contest, so we kept emailing about her querying process and where she was at. She’s also recently given me awesome feedback on my current WIP. I feel like I’ve made a close writing friend for life.

The rest of our team members were also great. I love the team aspect of this contest – it was fun to see everyone supporting each other and retweeting PitMad tweets, etc. I check in with them every now and then – no one should submit to me for Pitchwars unless they’re prepared to have me nagging them about their querying process indefinitely.

Laura, after Pitch Wars you signed with Stephen Barbara with Foundry Literary Agency tell us about “The Call.”

My first query to Stephen was in August of 2012, so…long story. The short version is all about good timing. I’d sent Stephen an email last September about my revisions. He wrote back in the middle of Pitch Wars, asking to see the full manuscript.

We finally had a chance to speak in early May. Thank goodness I took notes during our phone conversation. I was way too nervous to be in the moment. {{digs through notes}} Stephen was always at the top of my agent list. We met many years ago at a local SCBWI conference and had talked about the classic verse novel Spoon River Anthology, which was my original inspiration for THE LAST FIFTH GRADE. Stephen said he liked how the poems in my novel included a variety of techniques, forms, and voices. I may have swooned when he said my writing had a lot of integrity! The whole time, I was aware of my mind quietly intoning a mantra: “This is really happening. Try not to babble like a complete dork.”

Stephen loved the book and was happy with the revisions. So happy, in fact, that he was ready to send the book out on submission right away. My husband and I had a few friends over that night to celebrate the offer of representation. It was pink champagne and Berger cookies (a Baltimore specialty).

That is such an amazing story, and to have it ready to go on submission so fast, too! Your fabulous story, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY sold to Random House!! Here’s the deal announcement for everyone to read about the awesomeness:

“Poet and educator Laura Shovan’s debut middle-grade novel in verse, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, in which a class of fifth graders learns that their school will be torn down and replaced by a supermarket, and then takes their teacher’s 1960’s political teachings to heart as they fight to save it, to Wendy Lamb at Children’s, at auction, in a two book deal, by Stephen Barbara at Foundry (NA).”

Laura, can you tell us the details about the offer: How long were you on submission? What did you do to distract yourself? How did Stephen contact you? How did you respond? How did you celebrate? Anything! We love knowing it all.

Everything happened very quickly. I spoke with Stephen on a Wednesday. The book went out on submission immediately. It sold exactly three weeks from the day I signed with Stephen. Instead of distracting myself, I had to do a lot of deep breathing to stay grounded. Emails and phone calls were flying during those three weeks.

I was on the way to an Orioles game with my family when Stephen called me with the initial offers. The Orioles won their game that night, so my O’s t-shirt is officially lucky. Of course, I called my parents right away. They know I’ve wanted to be a writer, and have been working toward that goal, since I was in middle school.

When the rights report was posted at PW Children’s Bookshelf, I could finally tell everyone. That was a huge celebration for me, sharing the news with friends from the Poetry Friday blogging community, our local SCBWI, and the Maryland Writers Association. And I have so much admiration for my editor, Wendy Lamb. I want to soak up every bit of writing knowledge that I can from her.

That was fast! How do you feel Pitch Wars helped in your success?

Stephen was already interested in THE LAST FIFTH GRADE, but working with Joy helped me polish and fine tune the manuscript. Joy is a big part of the reason that the book was ready to go out on submission so quickly. When my Pitch Wars entry didn’t receive any attention, Joy’s belief in my manuscript saw me through the disappointment. I couldn’t wait to tell her when the book sold!

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)?

Laura: Brenda, you’re killing me. I grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars, but I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. Since my heart is torn, I have to go Vulcan and use logic. Students at Starfleet Academy are less likely to die than the kids at Hogwarts or the Jedi Academy (but you won’t find any red shirts in my Starfleet dorm closet).

I want you for Starfleet


Joy: HOGWARTS! Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure!

Wit beyond treasure

What fictional character would be your confidante? Enemy? Idol? Kick-butt ally?

Laura: I’m limiting myself to books I’ve read this summer, otherwise I’d never be able to choose.

Confidante: Hadley Richardson (Ernest Hemingway’s first wife) from Paula McClain’s THE PARIS WIFE. She’s open-hearted, intelligent, and tells it like it is.

Enemy: The controlling, misogynistic father from Genevieve Valentine’s YA novel THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB. It’s a brilliant retelling of the 12 Dancing Princesses, set in 1920s New York.

Idol: Darius from Walter Dean Myer’s DARIUS & TWIG. I admire the way the character uses writing to cope with poverty and racism. He’s also a solid best friend to Twig.

Kick-butt Ally: Tana from THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by Holly Black. I’d want her on my side in a fight.

Joy: I’ve got to go with Hermione for all of those except enemy. And while most of my answers in this section will be heavily Harry Potter themed, I think I’ll take Mrs. Coulter on as my enemy.

Mrs. Coulter

What fictional food/beverage would you most want to try?

Laura: Until that day when Joy and I share a butterbeer toast at the Harry Potter theme park, the fictional food I most want to try is my perfect cake, as baked by Cady from Lisa Graff’s A Tangle of Knots.

Joy: Butterbeer. My husband made me a recipe he found online, and it was actually quite delicious, but I’d really like to try it as served in The Leaky Cauldron. (Laura has proposed a joint trip to the newly opened Diagon Alley, so maybe we can share a butterbeer together.)


You are faced with your nemesis! You instantly grab your trusty __________. (lightsaber, phaser, wand, mace, girly scream, katana, broadsword, etc)

Laura: Shakespearean insult, thou saucy, elf-skinned wench. (I remember someone sporting some pretty green skin for Halloween last year.)

Joy: Well, wand, if I’m choosing a weapon. But while I’d like to think I could combine booksmarts and actual battle-readiness like Hermione does, I’m more likely to figure out a more devious, less confrontational way to bring my enemy down.


What is your work fuel of choice? (food-wise)

Laura: Frozen grapes.

Joy: Chocolate – usually Trader Joe’s 72% Belgian Organic Fair Trade bar.

Whose work inspired you to start writing?

Laura: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.

Joy: Oh wow. My earliest love of story was fueled by CS Lewis and Narnia. I was a playwright for 15 years before turning to fiction, so obviously Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, plus Tom Stoppard, John Logan, Caryl Churchill, Edward Albee, Suzan Lori-Parks.

Jane Eyre

Last question: 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!

Laura: Brenda, I’ll choose you if you promise to send Veronica back to Maryland. (And thanks! Same here – I couldn’t be happier.)

Joy: Thanks so much for having us, Brenda. I am beyond thrilled for Laura and cannot wait to see what her FIFTH GRADE kids go on to do. I had a fantastic time with PitchWars last year and am so excited it’s starting up again.

Laura, I will NEVER send Veronica Bartles back (but I fear her heart is there and she’ll find her way back soon). But seriously, congratulations on the success, and we’ll just sit here and watch you blaze your way through the publishing universe. Everyone else, go say hello to them on Twitter.


Now. Why are you still here? Scram. Go show them some love!



Laura Shovan

Twitter | Author Amok



Joy McCullough-Carranza

Website | Twitter


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