We’re back with another Pitch Wars Success Story! Please join us in congratulating and celebrating Hailey Sutton and her mentor, Layne Fargo! Halley signed with Sharon Pelletier at Dystel, Goderich, and Bourret, LLC. We’re so excited for them!
Halley, what’s your favorite writing tip or trick you learned from your mentor?
SAVE THE CAT! WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody legitimately changed the game for me in terms of how I think about and structure plotting. One of Layne’s biggest notes about my manuscript was that my midpoint was in the wrong place, which made a lot of sense to me, except I wasn’t really sure what a midpoint was, or what it was supposed to do for my plot, or where it was supposed to go (…the…middle?). She advised reading SAVE THE CAT and I won’t write another book without it.
Tell us about the revision process during Pitch Wars.
I’m a natural “”pantser”” in terms of plot and hadn’t spent a huge amount of time charting out my novel before Pitch Wars. The first step in revision with Layne was plotting out my novel according to the SAVE THE CAT beats, breaking the plot down into three acts.
A lot of what I’d already written could be applied to the new outline, but there was a lot of generating new material involved that was harder than I’d expected—it’s one thing to be tinkering for years with words that look pretty good, and a whole different ballgame to be adding new scenes to something that feels fairly polished. I would send Layne the different acts as I completed them and then use her notes to revise, going back and forth.
I was so lucky to work with Layne. She took so much time and care on my novel that not only is my book better because of her, but I am a much better writer because of her attentive editorial eye.
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 got the email from my now-agent Sharon Pelletier (dream agent, feminist extraordinaire) on Valentine’s Day that she was loving the book and wanted to set up a call. I burst into dramatic (happy) tears, then texted Layne in all caps like I was shrieking at her.
Sharon and I found a time to speak the next day—I was actually in the middle of a conference for my day job (weirdly one that featured speakers who had been on the TV show THE BACHELOR? Sometimes life is really strange) and was trying to keep it together while talking to Sharon on the phone and also trying not to stare at Ben H. She was so sharp and had such good feedback for the book—I knew I was excited to work with her immediately, but also wanted to give everyone else who had the book the customary two weeks to respond.
Getting that email from Sharon was one of the most amazing feelings—it felt like getting a Valentine from both her and also past-me, who had started working on the book three years ago. I can’t wait to work with her.
How do you feel Pitch Wars helped with your success?
I have no doubt in my mind I would still be driving myself crazy in the query trenches right now if not for Pitch Wars. Layne’s feedback was the push I needed to really reshape my book—I had sort of figured out that I needed to revise my book but I didn’t really know how to do it. Layne’s super-helpful feedback, along with the compressed time period of Pitch Wars, was actually a great combination for me—it was a three-month-long sprint to see how I could transform my book. It’s amazing to look back on it and see how much we changed in that time.
And the agent showcase was really helpful to get a boost on querying—it can be so lonely, sending your query letter out into the world and hoping you hear back, that having a set number of people to send to who are already excited about your project feels like such a huge step up.
Do you have advice for people thinking about entering Pitch Wars?
Be sure you are ready to commit that amount of time to your book. It’s not a small commitment. It’s possible to make huge progress and changes in your manuscript but it takes a lot of time and energy and maybe a few meltdowns. It’s also really helpful to know what you want to get out of the experience (although I think when Layne asked me that, I said pretty much, “”I know it’s not working, and I want it to work”” and that was about it).
Also, I think if you’re really not willing to make some serious, potentially drastic changes to your book, maybe Pitch Wars isn’t for you. Go in with an open mind and realize that you can always go back to an earlier version. I promise you are not making the book worse by trying something new.
Layne, tell us about your experience mentoring your mentee.
Halley was an absolute dream mentee! So smart and delightful and easy to work with—every edit I suggested, she executed perfectly, and with an upbeat attitude and total professionalism to boot. I’m so proud of her and beyond thrilled that she’s now not only my Pitch Wars mentee, but also my agent sister and a dear friend!
We’d love to hear about something amazing your mentee did during Pitch Wars.
I was extremely impressed by how fast Halley adapted to using SAVE THE CAT for plotting—I thought we’d have a lot of back and forth at the beginning, trying to figure out the plot beats, but she read Jessica Brody’s book and then sent me a revised outline that addressed the structural issues I’d identified in her original draft almost perfectly. I was like, wow, she is *so ready* for this!
How can mentee hopefuls prepare themselves for Pitch Wars?
Push your manuscript as far as you can possibly get it on your own, so if you get into Pitch Wars you and your mentor can jump right into the hard stuff. Also think about scheduling and self-care ahead of time. Once you’re caught up in the Pitch Wars whirlwind it can be difficult to keep that stuff in mind, but taking care of yourself and guarding your time is what will enable you to ultimately get the work done.
Let’s find out what drew agent Sharon Pelletier to this manuscript. Sharon?
Halley’s sample pages grabbed me from line one with a sharp, stylish voice that I didn’t want to stop reading and couldn’t forget. As the story unfolded it offered me such a delicious blend of wild suspense and fresh feminism, and I loved her characters—these intense, imperfect women who are so ambitious and resilient even when they’re making new problems for themselves almost as quickly as they’re solving them. But it’s the voice that made this a project I couldn’t walk away from, because voice gets me excited about the writer, not just the project, and that’s key in a biz as roller-coastery as publishing.
How about some fun questions for Hailey and Layne.
You only have two hours to finish some edits. Where do you go for quiet time?
Halley: So this is a very not-cool answer but there’s a tiki bar in the Downtown Disney complex that is my Happy Writing Place. There’s enough atmosphere that I’m always engaged, and I need people around me to get some of my best thinking/work done. Plus, boozy Dole Whips.
Layne: Into my home office, with the door shut and earplugs in if I’m not home alone (or my old lady cat is being extra annoying). I write in coffee shops sometimes, but for hardcore editing, I like to be in my own space.
What author would you like to spend the day with? What would you do with them?
Halley: This feels like The Dating Show! I’m going to say Layne Fargo and I would love to take her on a murder bus tour of LA. I think that would be really, really fun.
Layne: I have so many online author friends I’d love to spend some IRL time with, but for this I’ll pick an author I don’t know personally: Leigh Bardugo. She’s just so cool, and I admire her writing tremendously. We’d go out for waffles and talk craft, and then I’d want her to take me shopping—she always wears the coolest witchy clothes and jewelry!
What fictional character would you most like to meet? Why?
Halley: I’ve got some real questions for Sherri from Vicki Hendricks’ (amazing, unputdownable) MIAMI PURITY.
Layne: Speaking of Leigh Bardugo: I’d love to meet Zoya from the SHADOW AND BONE trilogy. I’d propose marriage just so I could enjoy the merciless way she’d turn me down.
If you could only be in one fandom, which would you choose?
Halley: Harry Potter 4va.
Layne: I’m a big nerd and consider myself a member of way too many fandoms, but STAR WARS is my #1 obsession.
What inspired you to start writing?
Halley: I traveled a lot with my family growing up, which could be lonely, and I read a lot. I remember feeling so connected to characters, particularly Sally Lockhart from Phillip Pullman’s THE RUBY IN THE SMOKE series that I would write her letters because I wanted her to know about my life (and the current state of 20th century feminism, as seen by an 8 year old girl). I think I wanted to create stories that meant as much to other people as some stories meant to me—writing still feels like my best mode of connection with others.
Layne: I’ve always loved books and started dabbling in writing as a small child. What inspired me to start writing novels seriously as an adult was my friend Anna, who’s an incredibly talented and tenacious writer. I saw her pursuing her writing dream and it inspired me to go after mine.
Share with us your writing process (e.g., routines, tools you use, time of day you write, go to inspiration, etc.).
Halley: I’m still trying to nail down a consistent process to be honest, but I like to write early in the day when I can. If I can get some writing done first thing, I tend to be more productive in every area of my life for the rest of the day. I draft in Scrivener, and I like to “script” my scenes first, then flesh them out once I’ve got all the dialogue and physical action figured out in a quasi-screenplay format. And my biggest source of inspiration is music—I make a playlist for every project, often months (or even years) before I actually start writing it.
Halley Sutton is the editor of the social good section for Make Change Magazine. She received her MFA in Writing from Otis College of Art and Design. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime. Too many books and lipsticks spark joy in her life. Halley lives in Playa del Rey, CA.
Be on the lookout for Halley’s debut, THE LADY UPSTAIRS, coming out 2020, with Putnam!
Layne Fargo has Master’s degrees in theater and library science, which seem slightly less useless now that she writes very dramatic books. A proud Class of 2017 Pitch Wars alum, she’s repped by Sharon Pelletier at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, and her debut novel TEMPER will be published by Gallery Books in 2019. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.
Layne’s book, TEMPER, a razor-sharp page turner about female ambition and what happens when fake violence draws real blood, is available on Amazon.