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Pitch Wars Success Stories with Maria Linn and Her Mentors, Rajani LaRocca and Remy Lai

Monday, 6 April 2020  |  Posted by Rochelle Karina

Illustration of PItch Wars owl mascot saying "mentee graduate"

We’re back with another Pitch Wars Success Story! Please join us in congratulating Maria Linn and her mentors, Rajani LaRocca and Remy Lai! Maria signed with Melissa Nasson at Rubin Pfeffer Content. We’re so excited for them!

Category: Middle Grade

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy

Maria, what’s your favorite tip you learned from your mentors?

In general, my mentors got me in the good habit of asking tough questions of my manuscript. Specifically, they gave me a list of questions to ask each major character, and journaling answers helped me get to know each as distinct individuals, to imagine their backstories, and to ground the book’s plot in its characters.

Tell us about the revision process during Pitch Wars.

The revision process during Pitch Wars was intense! My initial response to reading my first edit letter was that about a third of the book would change. My mentors completed two major rounds of revision with me, where they asked questions, I proposed ways to resolve the issues they raised, and the three of us discussed solutions, then I revised and rewrote. In the final round of minor revisions, we were sometimes all in the Google Doc at the same time, and seeing my mentors’ comments a few chapters behind me gave me the car-chase burst of adrenaline I needed to push through. By the end, every chapter ended up being rewritten, to the point that my original query and elevator pitch were no longer accurate. But I’m glad my estimate of how much would change was off, because it’s a much stronger book now.

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)!

Before I opened the email requesting The Call, my heart fell. After a few decades of dreaming about writing and a couple years of actual querying, that’s my automatic response to seeing an agent email in my inbox. Besides, it was so soon after the showcase, I figured it had to be a rejection. I had to read the message twice to realize it was a request for a phone call. In that moment, my reaction wasn’t what I expected—I actually felt like I was going to either pass out or throw up!

I remembered a podcast about The Call saying how it can serve as a test of the agent to see how well you can articulate your process and your ideas, so the agent knows if you’re someone who can speak intelligently about your work with editors, or if this book was just some kind of fluke. So when the time came, I was really nervous! Would my mind go blank? Would I start rambling about my long, convoluted writer origin story and never shut up? I prepped by researching the agency and thinking about what I wanted to say and ask, but the phone call ended up being much easier and more natural than I expected.

Melissa’s vision for my book was so in line with mine, and she was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable, by the end of the call, I was floating on air. Thanks to the magic of PW, I ended up with multiple offers, which was more stressful than I anticipated.

Thankfully my mentors were in contact all the while, cheering me on and reassuring me that the agents I had to say no to would understand. (I will forever have a warm place in my heart for them and all their clients!) To celebrate the offer, my husband and I went out to a nice dinner. The night I signed my contract, we went to an axe-throwing bar with some friends, and I managed to throw a bullseye, which was oddly satisfying (and no blood was shed, yay!).

How do you feel Pitch Wars helped with your success?

Pitch Wars helped me grow as a writer in every possible way. I submitted in 2018 and didn’t get in but found wonderful critique partners, read inspiring mentor books, and took advantage of the be-your-own-mentor advice, studying craft books, articles, and blogs. And, of course, this year’s been even better! The mentoring experience was tough but amazing. I learned so much from Rajani and Remy, not only through the materials and feedback they shared, but by observing them as creative role models. They were Pitch Wars mentees in 2017 and both have been wildly successful, with multiple publications and book deals and well-deserved awards. I’ve known and been turned off by some cut-throat writing groups in my past, but the PW community is nothing like that—everyone is amazingly supportive. Going through the revision and querying process is nerve-wracking no matter how you do it, but tackling it with a hundred or so other hard-working, talented writers was so much better for me than going it alone. Sharing my ups and downs and seeing others do the same really drove home the point that no writer will connect with every agent, or with every reader. The process of finding the people who love your book takes time, patience, and courage. But having writer friends in your corner makes it easier. They’ll understand what you’re going through when no one else does, and when they succeed, you’ll be every bit as happy as when you succeed yourself.

Do you have advice for people thinking about entering Pitch Wars?

For all those reasons, I’d urge any unagented writer to submit to PW. My main advice is to keep an open mind and try to step back and look at your writing objectively. Finding flaws in your writing shouldn’t scare you. It doesn’t mean your book is doomed, unless you’re unwilling to fix them. Believe me. I’ve tied myself into some convoluted plot tangles and if I can get them straightened out, anyone can. 😉 From first draft to current draft, I’ve completed nine major rewrites of this book. My husband jokes that at this point, I could take all the versions and make it into one big choose-your-own-adventure story.

Rajani and Remi, tell us about working with your mentee.

Rajani: Maria was an absolute joy to work with! She was open to our feedback, and then took it and RAN! She rewrote almost her entire book, but the core of it — the humor and the heart — stayed constant, and was brought out even more by her revisions.

Remy: Working with Maria was absolutely delightful. She’s such a hard worker and so, so kind.

We’d love to hear about something amazing your mentee did during Pitch Wars.

Rajani: She managed to take our feedback and make her lovely story set on Myrtle Beach and make it even more hysterical and more poignant than before!

Remy: She almost completely rewrote the whole book during the revision window.

How can mentee hopefuls prepare themselves for Pitch Wars?

Rajani: Write the best book you can. Make sure it is a complete book. Practice writing query letters and synopses, and write the best ones you can. Make sure those first ten pages are as polished as possible. And spend a lot of time with critique partners, both critiquing and being critiqued, so you get used to listening to writing recommendations with an open heart. Then go for it and submit!

Remy: Coffee and snacks. And tell yourself that you’ll probably have to rewrite your whole book, so it won’t come as too much of a shock when you have to revise in a big way.

Let’s find out what drew agent Melissa Nasson to this manuscript. Melissa?

When I started reading Maria’s story, the strength of the writing and the realness of the characters immediately grabbed me. By the time I got to the end of the first chapter, with its creepy-yet-awesome cliffhanger, I was hooked. The story has so many themes that I love: quirky characters, family that’s defined by more than DNA, a ton of humor and heart, and a setting that feels like a character in itself. I’m so grateful that Pitch Wars brought me to Maria, and I can’t wait for readers to experience this book!

How about some fun questions for Maria, Rajani, and Remy.

You only have two hours to finish some edits. Where do you go for quiet time?

Rajani: I go to the room above my garage, which I’ve taken over as my office. Otherwise, there is a very special room in my local public library when I get a lot done.

Remy: Home

Maria: I tend to write at home, but my go-to spots for emergency, distraction-free editing or drafting are a very specific desk in my local library, and one in my town’s university library.

What author would you like to spend the day with? What would you do with them?

Rajani: I would love to hang out with Madeleine L’Engle over tea and cookies and tell her what her books meant to me when I was a kid.

Remy: Neil Gaiman. I’d pick his brain. Not literally.

Maria: I have several favorite authors, but I have to cheat and say if I could spend the day with any of them, it would by my grandmother, who published dozens of short stories in the 1960s and passed away when I was eleven. Given both of our interests, we’d probably spend the day thrift shopping, eating ice cream, and maybe hitting up a cat café, all while she spilled her writing secrets.

What fictional character would you most like to meet? Why?

Rajani: I’d love to meet Hermione Granger and challenge her to a game of trivia 🙂

Remy: SpongeBob SquarePants. He’s the best.

Maria: Piglet, because I’ve always loved Very Small Animals and A.A. Milne’s stories, and Piglet is not only super cute, but a wise, supportive, brave friend.

If you could only be in one fandom, which would you choose?

Rajani: Harry Potter, for sure!

Remy: Adventure Time.

Maria: Not sure this counts as “fandom,” but I’ve been obsessed with Toni Morrison since I was a college freshman (in the dark ages before her Nobel Prize) and have read and loved all her books.

What inspired you to start writing?

Rajani: I’ve loved reading books forever. I always wrote, but I also knew from a young age that I wanted to be a doctor. When I shared this with my high school creative writing teacher, he said, “who says you have to choose?” and showed me examples of doctors who were also writer. Years later, after my kids were in school and I was established in my medical practice, I thought back on what my teacher said, and the writing bug bit me again!

Remy: All the books that I read when I was a kid.

Maria: I’ve always loved words and reading, and grandmother gave me creative writing lessons in the mail when I was a kid. She encouraged and inspired me then, and I still have her letters and read them from time to time when I need a writer pick-me-up.

Share with us your writing process (e.g., routines, tools you use, time of day you write, go to inspiration, etc.).

Rajani: As a working mom, I had to learn how to write anywhere and everywhere, including in my car (not while actually driving), at my kids’ piano lessons, and at home early in the morning and late at night. I love to draft and revise electronically (Scrivener fan here!), but periodically I will print out what I have and make comments by hand. I feel like the experience of reading something on paper helps me see my ms with new eyes. I usually start a novel with a premise and then ask myself a series of questions. Then I think about my characters, and come up with a loose outline. Oddly enough, theme often comes to me quite early in the process, and that helps define the voice for me.

Remy: I write on my laptop, and I have multiple sketchbooks. I take breaks when my dogs need snacks or walks.

Maria: My other creative hobby is making collages, and it’s become an important part of my writing process. I make collages of my characters in order to get to know them, to visualize my setting, and to get ideas for quirky details about their appearance, mannerisms, and dress. I thought this was weird until I found the writing community on Twitter and learned many writers make aesthetics. What I do is similar except in a more time-consuming, analog form, with exacto blades and glue and old magazines instead of digital images. It’s still a bit weird because I like to collage my human characters as if they were animals. I try to stay flexible in terms of time of day and place I write, but as far as writing tools, I prefer to first-draft by hand, and I’m particular about the type of pen, paper, and notebooks I use.

About the Team…

Maria Linn – I’m a member of SCBWI, a Master of Liberal Arts, a survivor of cancer, celiac disease, and a copperhead bite. Also, I’m taller than you might expect. My Pitch Wars story was inspired by my experiences growing up in the tourist town of Myrtle Beach with my adopted Korean sister. Although I never had a supernatural experience there, I had plenty of surreal ones. I still live in South Carolina, where I work as a research specialist for one of the state’s largest school districts.

Website | Twitter

A proud member of the Pitch Wars 2017 mentee class, Rajani LaRocca spends her time writing novels and picture books, practicing medicine, and baking too many sweet treats. Her debut middle grade, MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books, June 2019), an Indian-American mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and competitive baking, was named an Indies Introduce/Indie Next pick for 2019 and received a starred review from Kirkus.

Rajani was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area with her wonderful family and impossibly cute dog.

Take a look at Rajani’s latest release, Midsummer’s Mayhem.

Website | Twitter

Remy Lai writes and draws stories for kids. PIE IN THE SKY (Henry Holt/ Macmillan), a prose-graphic novel hybrid, is her first middle grade novel and it garnered five starred trade reviews. Her second middle grade novel, FLY ON THE WALL (also with Henry Holt), will be released in May 2020.

Remy’s newest release, Fly on the Wall, is due out Fall 2020.

Website | Twitter

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