We’re back with another Pitch Wars Success Story! Please join us in congratulating Briana Johnson and her mentor, Laurie Dennison! Briana signed with Sam Farkas at Jill Grinberg Literary Management. We’re so excited for them!
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary w/ Light Spec Elements
Briana, what’s your favorite tip you learned from your mentor?
Laurie taught me so much! With her guidance, I learned how to create a beat sheet that worked for me, which is something I’ll be using to combat how chaotic my nonexistent writing process is. She also taught me how to be more concise while still pulling out those important emotional moments. My Pitch Wars manuscript is so much better because of Laurie and I’ll definitely be using everything she taught me.
Tell us about the revision process during Pitch Wars.
Boy, was it tough. Laurie sent me the first edit letter about a day after the mentee announcements went live. I sent Laurie my own ideas about changing my entire story because I’m messy, and she helped me turn it from a sci-fi to a contemporary with light spec elements.
I sent the new first act to Laurie around Thanksgiving, so she could read while I started working on the rest of the book. Laurie gave me about a month to finish the other acts, but I revised pretty quickly and managed to apply the notes she’d given me on the new version of my first act too.
I’d say that the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas was the hardest part for me. I had a lot to change with basically no time and cut about 20K out of the book, going from 94K down to 77K. Those last two weeks were some of the toughest because I wasn’t sure if I’d even finish the edits, but I ended up getting it to a good place in time for Laurie to do a final read-through. Since my manuscript was mostly where it needed to be, I just worked on pitches and my submission materials throughout most of January. I was afraid what I’d done wouldn’t be good enough, but Laurie had my back during the entire process. I honestly don’t think I could’ve done it without her in my corner and I’m forever grateful to her.
Please tell us about The Call. We’d love as many juicy details as you’d like to share (e.g. how they contacted you, how you responded, celebrations, emotions, how long you had to wait, anything you’d like to share)!
I actually read the email from Sam while I was in class because I suck at paying attention to anything for longer than a minute. After I read Sam’s email asking if I was available to talk on the phone, I stopped pretending to listen to my teacher and immediately messaged my mentor on Twitter. I wasn’t sure if Sam was offering representation, so I decided to just ask outright and when she confirmed that it would be a potential offer call, I did this weird air punch thing once I got home. We set up the call on Thursday for the following Monday and I think I astral projected out of my body because I barely remember anything that happened that weekend.
I was super nervous before the call, but Sam did most of the talking at the beginning, which gave me time to settle in. It was clear from the jump that she had a lot of love for my book and the characters in it, as well as a strong editorial vision that really resonated with me. I knew when I ended the call that I wanted to work with Sam and that anyone else who offered would have a tough time matching the energy she had. Not to be Disney Channel corny, but it was like the stars aligned and everything kind of fell into place after that.
The first person I called after I talked with Sam was my granny because she used to always buy books for me to read when I was a kid. She was the one who bought me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when it came out and that’s the book that got me into reading, so of course, I had to tell her everything. To be honest, I’m doing all of this for her. It’ll be a special moment when I can hand her a copy of my own book the way she did with other people’s books when I was younger.
Then I proceeded to tell everyone else about Sam and how amazing I thought she was. When I announced my decision, no one in my life was surprised that I chose Sam. It just felt right.
How do you feel Pitch Wars helped with your success?
I think Pitch Wars definitely expedited the process of getting an agent. But it’s the friends I’ve made and the connection I have with Laurie that mean the most to me. Because of that, I can’t thank Brenda Drake enough for creating Pitch Wars.
Do you have advice for people thinking about entering Pitch Wars?
Be prepared to revise heavily! It doesn’t happen to everyone, but some stories do need the extra attention and it’s better to be prepared than to go in without that possibility in the back of your mind. Also, make sure you take advantage of the wonderful community. My fellow Pitch Wars mentees have been incredible and it’s always fun to pop into the chat to talk with them.
Laurie, tell us about working with your mentee.
Mentoring Briana was an absolute dream! We were on the same page with our ideas for revision right from the beginning, and I felt like our strengths really complemented each other. I always looked forward to getting emails and updates from her. She met every deadline, ahead of schedule, actually, and she was so great at getting to the heart of the characters and scenes during her revision process.
We’d love to hear about something amazing your mentee did during Pitch Wars.
I have two! There was this scene that I really loved, and I knew that it needed something to push it to where it needed to be. We discussed it, and I wasn’t sure what Briana would decide to do. When I read that revised scene, I cried, both because she’d hit the mark so perfectly and because the scene hit so many emotions for me! Also, there was a character who I dearly loved but who I thought might need to be cut from the story. After we discussed it, Briana agreed, and she masterfully managed to cut this character without losing her spirit throughout the story.
How can mentee hopefuls prepare themselves for Pitch Wars?
I think reaching out and finding critique partners who fit your writing and revision style can be a huge help in preparing for Pitch Wars. If you’re writing YA, it helps to have critique partners who are familiar with the category and genre you write. Learning to give and take real constructive critique prepares you not just for Pitch Wars, but everything you’re working toward—revising with an agent and ultimately an editor. I think we all need a cheerleader to help us keep going sometimes, too. The Pitch Wars forums can be a great way to connect with like-minded writers if you’re looking for a critique partner.
Let’s find out what drew agent Sam Farkas to this manuscript. Sam?
The first thing that drew me to THE LAWLESS was the high-concept premise. I love books about competitions, and this one is unique and incisive — a gripping page-turner that highlights the many flaws of the criminal justice system. It also has a voice that sings and a protagonist I’d follow anywhere. Dani is relentlessly loving, and her relationships with her friends, her parents and sister, and her fellow competitors shine. Plus, she has an amazing sense of humor! By the end of the first chapter, I knew I wanted to work with Briana. THE LAWLESS is powerful, inspiring, razor-sharp — a truly remarkable manuscript that I am honored to represent.
How about some fun questions for Laurie and Briana.
You only have two hours to finish some edits. Where do you go for quiet time?
Laurie: My home office.
Briana: There’s a library about five minutes away from my house and it’s where I did a major bulk of my edits. It’s closed because of everything happening with COVID-19, but once it reopens I’ll have to go talk to the librarians to thank them. A few of them have worked there since I moved here about fifteen years ago and when I was younger, I would go to the library multiple times a week to check out books. We didn’t have a ton of money to spend on stuff like books when I was a kid so that particular library was the main reason why I got to read as many books as I did. Even now as an adult, I’m still checking out books from there.
What author would you like to spend the day with? What would you do with them?
Laurie: Holly Black. I think maybe lunch and lots of chatting!
Briana: Jason Reynolds seems like the coolest dude on Earth. I’d really just want to sit somewhere quiet and pick his brain for the day because he always has the most insightful things to say.
What fictional character would you most like to meet? Why?
Laurie: Eliot and Margo from The Magicians. (Cheating with two, I know.) The banter, the magic, and the fashion, but mostly the fierce loyalty and determination.
Briana: Basically anyone from the US version of Shameless? But if I had to choose just one character from the show, it’d probably be Fiona. I just feel like we’d have a weirdly strong connection.
If you could only be in one fandom, which would you choose?
Laurie: Andrew McMahon’s fans. A little niche, but like we all say, the music has gotten me through some tough times!
Briana: Is there a Christopher Nolan fandom? Because I’m in that one. Actually, I’m the president.
What inspired you to start writing?
Laurie: My mom.
Briana: *Biggie voice* It was all a dream! Seriously. I had a vivid dream about a scene in the first book I ever wrote and told someone very close to me about it. She was the reason why I started writing, so shout out to Jamee. I wouldn’t have done any of this without you.
Share with us your writing process (e.g., routines, tools you use, time of day you write, go to inspiration, etc.).
Laurie: Oh, that one has changed so much. I used to be a pantser who wrote chronologically, mostly at night. Now I’m more of a plantser, I’ve started writing scenes out of order, and I write whenever I can. I kind of embrace doing whatever works for you. Susan Dennard’s guide to a one-page synopsis is probably my favorite writing tool of all time, and I still use it every time.
Briana: I’m chaotic, so I don’t have a writing process and like four out of the six books I’ve written have been created on my phone. Knowing that, I don’t think it’s wise to ask me about anything writing related. I’m a mess. But I do use Scrivener when I’m drafting and revising, which is a more normal option because I could’ve done it all in the Notes app.
About the Team…
Briana Johnson writes about teenagers trying to figure out this crazy thing called life. She studies Network and Computer Technology at South Suburban College and still doesn’t rock climb as much as she should. Or at all for that matter. Born and raised in Chicago, she now lives in the south suburbs with her family but hopes to move to the west coast one day.
Laurie Dennison grew up in Florida, but she spent more time reading than soaking up the sun. A former English teacher, she now works as an editor, consultant, and web designer at The Editor Garden, embracing the motto of cultivating craft through community. Laurie writes character-driven young adult fiction filled with complicated relationships, and she loves traveling, alternative music, and stories that grab her by the heart and don’t let go. After a few years on the west coast in California, she returned to Florida, where she lives with her family and their many pets.