We’re back with another Pitch Wars Success Story! Please join us in congratulating Kelis Rowe and her mentor, J.Elle! Kelis signed with Chelsea Eberly at Greenhouse Literary. We’re so excited for them!
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Kelis, what’s your favorite tip you learned from your mentor/s?
Actually, I have two favorite tricks. One is, figure out a different way to say ‘smile’. In YA romance (fictional and literal), there’s a LOT of smiling. In fiction, it helps to not say it one million times. The second one is, with teen dialogue, make sure it sounds like a teen said it.
Tell us about the revision process during Pitch Wars.
Full disclosure– Pitch Wars was the first time I’d let anyone read my manuscript. I know now that writing is not a solitary art form, but I’m shy in all the ways and one of those artists who is sensitive about my ish, so entering Pitch Wars in the first place (although this was my second time) was solidly in the part of the Venn diagram that’s totally outside of my comfort zone.
When Jess selected me, and I’d come back down to earth, she’d said the most glowing, beautiful things about my manuscript all over twitter. When I got my edit letter, it was full of (what I would come to understand) brilliant suggestions and amazing questions that got to the core of what I was trying to accomplish with this story. But after reading it the first time, I questioned whether this was the same person who had “cried real tears” while reading it. When we had our first phone call, I even asked her point-blank, did you love it or naw? lol She’d suggested that the first chapter shouldn’t be where the story starts, and that the epilogue shouldn’t be where the story ends, and I envisioned my manuscript being shredded by Edward Scissorhands.
We talked through every one of her suggestions and she explained the whys and asked questions that got us to some very important answers. In every single scene, her first question was what’s the goal of this scene? That question, asked over the course of 73 (?) scenes, is what made my manuscript shine. I didn’t agree with all of her suggestions, and she constantly reminded me that it was my book and that she was only making suggestions. Every single one of her suggestions was laser-focused on making the story better, and I had to keep reminding myself of that.
Ultimately I think I only stuck to my guns on two aspects of the story that we both managed to compromise our positions on and it ended up being gold. In the end, my baby had grown up and I’m so proud of what Jess and I accomplished together.
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)!
Okay. So. I had three amazing offers from agents at any writer’s dream agencies by the time I heard back from Chelsea. After the first offer, I’d given considering agents the heads up and two weeks to let me know if they wanted to make an offer as well. About five days before the deadline, just as all of NYC was being forced inside due to the spread of Covid-19, Jess had suggested giving the agents a few more days to get back to me. I’d gotten so many enthusiastic responses, that I wanted everyone who wanted to read my MS, to have time, so I extended the deadline three days.
After talking to clients of the three offering agents and googling, and asking the agents follow-up questions, and even talking to the rock star owner of one of the agencies, I’d made my decision. Then, two days before my deadline, I got an email from Chelsea. Per usual, I texted Jess, and there were squeals in all caps and emojis. Once I calmed down, I responded to Chelsea’s email and scheduled a call for later that afternoon. While I waited, I went back to her MSWL (Manuscript Wishlist) page, and it was like the Universe was pointing flashing neon arrows at her name, like THIS IS YOUR AGENT. Her wishlist was my manuscript. Marginalized voices, unique love story, JOURNAL PAGES! Neon arrows.
Then the call came, and about five minutes into the call, neon arrows. Talking with her was as easy as talking with Jess. I learned that during her decade acquiring and editing books at Penguin Random House, she’d been asking agents for a black love story that didn’t center black struggle or pain. Neon arrows. When she said she’d finally found her wishlist in my manuscript, I legit went all verklempt and the neon arrows stopped flashing and were like, our work is done here, you know what you need to do.
After we hung up. per usual, I called Jess and spilled all the details of the call. Jess was like, “Kel, I haven’t heard you talk about any other agent calls the way you’re talking about this one.” Then I realized I’d been talking in all caps. lol I went back and forth with two of Chelsea’s clients via email and Jess even had the great idea to reach out to an author whose debut Chelsea had acquired and edited at Penguin Random House. Every call or chat just confirmed what I knew. I can’t lie, the shiny client lists and sparkly movie deals at the other offering agencies literally challenged my ego to a duel. It was straight up, fisticuffs. A street battle.
There was a moment where I had to ask Jess, and my best friend Summer, and my husband, and Toni Morrison (my angel muse) and the LordT on high, what to do– flex on em and sign with the big agency, or flex on my life and sign with a powerhouse agent who has the passion and talent to guide me through the writing career of my dreams. Neon arrows aside, everyone I asked basically told me they trusted me to make the best decision for myself, which was very annoying. Ultimately, I had to look myself in the mirror, literally, and ask myself aloud, “Are you dumb?” And here we are.
How do you feel Pitch Wars helped with your success?
I would not be here, three years after starting my first novel if it were not for PitchWars. Period. The first time I entered, my manuscript wasn’t ready. I jumped the gun and bombed. Then I participated in Twitter pitch events, PitMad and DivPit, and got interest from agents and editors. Full disclosure, it was during the pitch events that I discovered Jess on Twitter. She’d done so well and seemed so friendly, and was so generous with helping others and giving advice in the writing community, that when I saw that she was going to be a mentor in Pitch Wars 2019, I saw it as a sign.
I knew that my quiet love story about black teens would need to get some buzz to even have a fighting chance, because I hadn’t seen a black teen romance like the one I’d written. I knew how much the industry respects Pitch Wars and had followed some of the success stories. I knew Pitch Wars buzz would get industry eyes on my quiet little sweeping love story, with no magic and no social justice or issues, so I entered again with my fingers crossed. Working with Jess, I learned so much about writing and the industry and really got a crash course in working with a top-notch editor. Jess prepared me for life as a professional writer. I have Pitch Wars to thank for that.
Do you have advice for people thinking about entering Pitch Wars?
Please do it. The first year that I entered, I learned so much about writing query letters and synopses and met so many other writers in the Twitter writing community. When I didn’ get selected that first time, yes, I was bummed, but by then, I was part of the writing community on Twitter, which constantly reminded me that Pitch Wars is a destination, yes, but for most people who enter, it is a valuable part of your journey as a writer. The generosity of the writing community on Twitter is astounding. After I became a Pitch Wars mentee, I kept telling my best friend, “I can’t believe my mentor is doing all this work for s stranger for free!” lol Pitch Wars mentors really are a special kind of human-folk. I encourage any writer who is passionate about their manuscript, to keep working on it, and keep entering, and be present in the process, because the journey and the relationships and the community is what really sustains you and keeps you writing.
J.Elle, tell us about working with your mentee.
From the moment Pitchwars picks went live, I could tell Kel was an incredibly humble soul and would be a gift to work with. I asked a lot of her in my initial edit letter and the months that unfolded afterward. I had a lot of lofty ideas and some were things she hadn’t considered before. But, she received every suggestion with thoughtfulness. She really sat with the ideas and let them ruminate. I appreciated that because I had spent considerable time putting notes together. That said, I always wanted her to know it was ultimately her story and her choice of how to address the problems I’d found. I only asked that she be open to ideas and she was.
We had the best communication which helped dialed down the stress level quite a bit. Even from the first phone call, Kel was very forthright with me, letting me know that she tends to be a slower writer but would do her best to meet the tentative deadlines we’d set. That helped me better understand how to support her throughout this process–with bite-sized goals and frequent check-ins. She also was able to articulate her working style to me and her strengths: honing in on tedious details, focusing intensely, weaving in creative poetry. She liked the idea of accountability so I made a point to check in with her. I just really wanted to be sure she felt supported. Revising on a timeline for the first time ever is a lot of stress, so I wanted to be really sure she and I were in sync about the priority of mental health.
Kel has a literary style to her voice and it just melts me. I didn’t want to rush her creative process at the risk of sacrificing what makes her work so unique. I made her understand from the very beginning, I had 2 goals: 1) help her strengthen her grasp of the craft; and 2) help her make her story the best it can be within the time constraints we have. But, if we do not finish the revisions in enough time to make the showcase, I am confident we can cold query and her manuscript will have a fighting chance. I’d hoped that would take the pressure off her a bit. Funny enough, it turned her up. She wanted to make sure she met the deadline to be in the showcase so she really pushed out some serious words those last two weeks.
I asked Kel to revise in acts. I read through each act to see how the notes were working, we combed through and even line-edited the act before she moved on. She really rose to the occasion and delivered. She took feedback super well and ultimately was committed to learning. I think that’s what felt so amazing at the end of all this, she walked away with an agent, sure. But, she walked away even more prepared to write another book and I love that! Watch out world, this is only the beginning for Ms. Kelis Rowe!
We’d love to hear about something amazing your mentee did during Pitch Wars.
My mentee wove in original found poetry into the pages of her manuscript. I had the idea of elevating the art part of her character and actually showing the art on the page. Kel took that idea and ran with it. What she created is something truly beautiful, heart stirring, and frankly very fresh for the YA space.
How can mentee hopefuls prepare themselves for Pitch Wars?
My best advice for preparing yourself for Pitch Wars is to make your #1 goal improving your grasp of the craft to produce the strongest story you can. If that’s your goal, whether you get in or not, you’ll still be able to achieve it. (Because just preparing to enter Pitch Wars will inevitably help you sharpen your writing skills.) And that’s really important. As an author we never stop growing. Each book gets better. We learn more each time, so understand that while your goal might be to get an agent and a book deal, you gain far more in the long term, but learning to focus on your skill. This is something I’d wished I understood when I started this journey.
Applying to Pitch Wars involves polishing up your story. In my opinion that should include writing it, giving it distance, and coming back to revise it. (If you don’t know where to start revising, consider Susan Dennard’s revision guide. Just Google it. It’s a bit in-depth, but you can modify it and make a simpler version. That’s how I created a revision process that suits me.) Once you’ve revised and feel happy with it, send it to a few critique partners (ideally those with writing experience) and allow yourself time to sit with their feedback and work on it. Again let it rest, do more research on your craft, take a break and read recently published books in a similar genre to your book, research the industry to better understand the querying process, and come back to your project with fresh eyes. The running theme here is: PATIENCE. Play the long game. It’s worth it.
Let’s find out what drew agent Chelsea Eberly to this manuscript. Chelsea?
The voice drew me in immediately. Kel has a way of revealing the heart of her characters while keeping things teen-friendly and avoiding getting too saccharine, which is tough to do. I also love when authors are ambitious, and Kel was clearly swinging for the fences with this love story. The found poetry element from classic literature was such a sparkling, unique choice. I could immediately “see” how those pages would be executed in a final book, and it got me very excited. I’ve also been looking for a romantic, celebratory love story about Black teens for a long time, and this one ticked all the boxes the further I read. It’s just wonderful! I can’t wait for the world to read it.
How about some fun questions for Kelis and J.Elle.
You only have two hours to finish some edits. Where do you go for quiet time?
J.Elle – In my life there’s no such thing as quiet time. LOL. The reality of 3 kids under the age of 9 means I’ve had to learn to work with noise all around me. If I was absolutely desperate for quiet though, I’d go into my closet and lock myself in. LOL I do this for calls with my agent, editor, and interviews. My closet is the trusty place the kids rarely find me. On occasion I’ll go to the book store to write. I just plop down on the floor in the YA section and work on my laptop. HA HA. I find it inspiring!
What author would you like to spend the day with? What would you do with them?
J.Elle – OMG how do I pick just one? I think I’d love to sit down with Toni Morrison, rest her soul, and just savor every syllable she blesses me with.
Kelis – Octavia Bulter. I’d sit with her and just let the conversation (about anything whatsoever) flow. I’d even relish the awkward silences.
What fictional character would you most like to meet? Why?
J.Elle – I want to hang out with Daenerys Targaryen. Ride some dragons, chop it up, ask her why she went buck wild on Kings Landing.
Kelis – I’d like to meet Tangy Mae from The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips, ten years later. I imagine, she’d be on a journey towards healing from a devastating childhood and living a best life that Oprah would be proud of.
If you could only be in one fandom, which would you choose?
J.Elle – Harry Potter.
Kelis – Hunger Games, duh.
What inspired you to start writing?
J.Elle – I started writing at a very dark time in my life to process emotions around things that were happening. I didn’t know how else to deal with them, so I let it spill out into a story. That book is now shelved. But once i’d wet my appetite for writing, I never wanted to go back.
Rue’s (the main character in my debut novel) voice came to me one morning at 5 a.m. a short few weeks after I’d finished the prior project. I could see Rue, hear her, and feel her pain. I just started typing, getting to know her and what she wanted to tell me, tell the world. From there I knew I had to fight to tell her story.
Kelis – I could write an essay on this, and definitely will one day. But here are the bullet points in order of occurrences:
- My sister and my friend Terri kept texting and calling me basically saying blogging is cute, but b*tch when you writing a book?
- Looking for inspiration, I stumbled upon the 88 Cups of Tea Podcast and heard Nicola Yoon where she explained how she’s started her first book at 40 with a two-month-old and started to believe I could do it too.
- Same podcast, heard Tomi Adeyemi talk about her process and Pitch Wars, then googled Pitch Wars.
- Started reading Calling My Name by Liara Tamani, stopped after page 2, screenshot the pages, texted my best friend Summer, because I was forty years old and seeing myself in a book for the first time. I decided to write contemporary fiction for teen black girls that day.
- I wanted my book to be read widely and was nervous that all the characters were black, because I know how much more marketable black contemporary stories are when there’s at least one significant character who is not black, but I leaned into Toni Morrison’s example of writing passionately and unapologetically, books that feel like home to me.
Share with us your writing process (e.g., routines, tools you use, time of day you write, go to inspiration, etc.).
J.Elle – I’m a morning writer. I usually prepare to write my scenes the night before by jotting down a summary of the scene in a brief paragraph or at least a few bullet points of all the things I want to hit in it. Then I spend that night before I go to bed daydreaming about the scene I want to write. I picture it in my head like a movie until I fall asleep. When I wake up I go straight to writing and the (very imperfect) words usually just spill out.
In terms of tools, I’m a huge believer in reading books in the genre you want to publish. I try to study works of fiction in a very analytical way to better understand how stories and readers interact. There’s a push-pull between a book and reader and I think the best authors manipulate those strings very intentionally. As an example, I examine the end of every chapter of every book I read and ask myself:
- do i want to turn the page?
- how badly?
- why? Or in other words, what did the author do in the preceding pages to make me feel the way I feel right now.
In terms of inspiration, I can’t write with music blasting if it has lyrics. I usually am very inspired by settings and aesthetics. I spend 5 or 6 hours (not all at once) creating aesthetics for my story ideas. The act of scrolling through thousands of images to help me find a few that resonate with my story idea helps me deepen my understanding of the book idea.
And food. I always write and eat. LOL Once my first draft is done I usually make scene summaries of each chapter and map out which plot threads fall off or need to be brought forward more. I take a very birds-eye view of the story. I make a master list of all the changes and execute them one by one. Once that’s done, I send it to 1-2 alpha reader friends. They are able to give me thoughts and I’ll repeat the process with their feedback. Then I’ll send it to 1-2 more readers. After that point, I send it to my agent (or editor) and await a formal edit letter.
My approach to edit letters is to first categorize all the changes and pinpoint each of the scenes they impact. Then I make a list of how I want to address each change. That list turns into my checklist for edits. Similarly to before, I make a master list of changes before doing anything. Once my list is complete I dive in to edit. Then it’s off to a reader or 2. I work in their feedback, then it’s back to my agent/editor. And the process repeats.
Kelis – Oh boy. When I grow up, I will have all those things in parenthesis. Before I begin a manuscript, I write a summary of the story, blow by blow, like I’m gossiping and spilling all the tea to a friend. Then I tell a friend so that it feels real. I told the story of my current MS to my writer friend Yolanda King, and she was riveted and asked me if it was a true story. lol That’s when I was ready to write. Most of the time I write in the quiet room at my library or at my kitchen table while my son is at school or at night after he and my husband are in bed. I usually write in silence. Anti by Rihanna is the only album I can listen to on repeat and write at the same time. I think I’ve listened to it so many times that it’s like stimulating white noise, so the lyrics don’t distract me. When I’m discouraged about my writing, I listen to interviews on 88 Cups of Tea. I find inspiration for my writing in the joy that my son and other young black people experience and express in the world. I think that there is innate gravity in the lives of all black American children, just by nature of being black in America. We consume a lot of literature that highlights the gravity of many marginalized people. When I see black children being joyful, I get curious about them, as whole people who are more than their oppression. I want to write to give them reflections of the parts of their life experiences that simply reflect their humanity, because I think they deserve those stories. I think we all deserve their stories.
About the Team…
Kelis Rowe is a Black YA author and mom from Memphis, TN living in Austin, TX with a special place in her heart for young Black love, poetry, and gentle boys. Her writing style can be described as artful, commercial with literary flavor. In her free time you’ll find her soaking in the quiet–her favorite thing–or hyper-engaged in her local Black community, supporting various social clubs, parent groups, and serving on committees. What If We Are The Stars is her first novel.
J.Elle is an African-American author and active advocate for marginalized voices in both
publishing and her community. She works as an Editorial Intern at P.S. Literary Agency, where she evaluates manuscripts for various criteria, such as characterization, pacing, plot, voice, writing style, marketability, et cetera. She has served as a R6 mentor for Author Mentor Match and is the founder of #MondayMixer, a Twitter chat to engage writers on the platform with networking opportunities, writing questions, and encouragement. She also regularly provides critiques for peer’s manuscripts in prep for submission to editors.
From growing up poor to being a 1st generation college student, Jess’ passion for tenacity and empowering others dates back to her first career in education, teaching tweens and teens from traditionally underserved areas to fight for their dreams. More recently, as the founder of the Your Story Is Your Power, a creative writing workshop for high-schoolers, she mentors students on the craft and the importance of sharing stories from their perspective.
J.Elle’s debut novel, Wings of Ebony, a YA fantasy about a fearless, magical Black girl from a poor neighborhood, is a lead title in Simon & Schuster’s Spring 2021 lineup.