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Pitch Wars Success Story with Lisa Leoni and her mentor, Jennifer Blackwood

Wednesday, 17 January 2018  |  Posted by Heather Cashman


We’re so excited whenever one of our mentees gets an agent offer or a publishing deal. Celebrating these successes is one of our favorite parts of the Pitch Wars process. We hope you can join us in congratulating Lisa Leoni and her mentor, Jennifer Blackwood. Lisa signed with Michelle Richter of Fuse Literary, and we couldn’t be happier for them!

Lisa, what was it about Jennifer that made you choose to send them a Pitch Wars application?

Right off the bat I knew our personalities would click. Her humor, generosity and kindness were evident through her wishlist and social media posts. When the time came to narrow my list of potential mentors, Jen remained at the top because I knew her skills and strengths would help me get my book to where it needed to be.

Jennifer, what was it about Lisa’s PLAID PACKAGE that hooked you?

I was hooked from the very first line of the book! I love Lisa’s descriptions, her use of humor, and all of her characters are so relatable. I wanted them to be my friends IRL. Plus, how can you pass up a Scottish man in a kilt? I’d never been into them prior to reading her book, but she definitely changed my mind! I’m #teamsexyscot forever.

Lisa, tell us about the revision process for Pitch Wars?

Jen was AMAZING! She put so much of herself in this process. The day of the announcement I left for a much-needed getaway with my family. She sent me an edit letter after I returned and we had a video call a couple of days later to talk through the edits and do some brainstorming. As I struggled to think through how to implement the big change, she was always there to talk and bounce ideas off of.

I revised over the month of September. I took it from about 92,000 words to about 65,000, then wrote back up to about 82,000. PLAID PACKAGE is a contemporary romance and the main edit Jen suggested was changing the conflict between the hero and heroine by having their goals in more direct opposition. It was hard to step back from a book I’d been tinkering with for so long and think of fresh possibilities. It was invaluable to have Jen right there with me through that process and it’s helped how I think about starting new books. I slaughtered a few darlings like Patrick Batemen in American Psycho. I also cut a few characters and expanded the use of a couple others.

Jen read the book a couple more times in October as we fine-tuned and did line edits. I think she’s read it almost as many times as me this point! J

Ultimately, what made this revision process so wonderful is there was someone in my corner who believed in my book and loved it like I do. Being able to brainstorm with someone who loves your story, understands what you’re trying to do, and can see things you can’t is invaluable!

Jennifer, tell us about your experience mentoring Lisa.

It was SO MUCH FUN. It’s always great going into Pitch Wars and loving a book, but it’s even better when the author is amazing. As a bonus, we actually live only a couple hours from each other. She is the president of my local RWA chapter, so we got to meet up a few times throughout the Pitch Wars process. Lisa was so easy to work with, open to feedback, and was really thoughtful about what she wanted to implement into her book. We had some great conversations and she grew leaps and bounds during the contest. I’m super proud of her <3 Plus, I got a good friend out of the deal, so I’d say my experience was pretty stellar.

Lisa, after Pitch Wars, you signed with Michelle Richter of Fuse Literary. Please, tell us about “The Call.” We love all the details about the offer, how they contacted you, how you responded, celebrations, emotions . . . How long did you have to wait and how did you distract yourself? Anything! We love hearing about all of it.

Whirlwind. That’s what it was. A wonderful, exciting, nail-biting, whirlwind. Michelle was my first Pitch Wars request. When the gates opened for the mentees to begin querying, I sent the 50 pages she requested just after 2 p.m. PST. The next morning, Michelle emailed asking for the full manuscript. About five hours later she emailed to say she was offering representation and wanted to have a phone call in two days. Twenty-four hours after querying, I had an offer. !!!!!!! I thought I’d stepped into a parallel universe or something.

When I got the email there was a bit of…

Then I went around my office to share the news…


I messaged Jen right away as my heart was pounding…

And I had a perma-smile on my face the rest of the day (my two cats didn’t know what to do with me)…

I sipped (maybe chugged…) champagne as I had a celebratory video call with Jen that evening. Two days later, Michelle and I had our call. I had a lengthy list of questions prepared. I’d been dreaming of that moment for about 12 years and couldn’t believe it was happening! She told me about herself, her experience and the agency. I asked about her vision for the book, her editorial process and lots more. We also discovered we have a lot in common like a love for Scotland and British crime dramas. I asked for a couple of client references and reached out to clients (published and unpublished) in the couple of days after The Call.

Before querying, I thought a lot about what I wanted in a relationship with an agent so that when the time came, I would have an idea of what to look for so I didn’t make any decisions based purely on emotion. A key thing for me was feeling comfortable enough with an agent that I could brainstorm with them or run an idea by them without feeling like I was inconveniencing them. I want a partner. After talking with Michelle, I knew I could have that kind of relationship with her. I know we’ll make a great team. I trust Michelle with my book and my career and can’t wait to see what comes!

Lisa, how do you feel Pitch Wars helped with your success?

Pitch Wars has opened a new world to me. Through this process and Jen’s guidance, I now have a different way of approaching story development and I’m confident that will make my future stories stronger. I feel more confident in my writing and my ability to fix things in revision. I hope it will also make me a better critique partner.

I had fretted for years over whether or not I could handle revising to a deadline and from an edit letter. I am now moving forward in the next phase of my career with the confidence of knowing I can. With the help of Pitch Wars, I am better equipped to keep progressing in my career. And I am more confident about handling what is to come.

The biggest benefit of all is the community. My fellow mentees are like a second family and I’m eternally grateful to have them in my life. I can’t wait to keep cheering them on in their successes and am thrilled to know they’ll be there for mine. Also, to have a friend in Jen is such a gift. She’s a truly wonderful person and I’m so thankful for her!

And…Pitch Wars led me to my amazing agent, Michelle! OMG!

Now for some fun! The following questions are for you both to answer.

Share with us your writing process. Do you write everyday, in sprints, early in the morning, in the bath, pen and paper? What works for you?

Lisa: I used to think I had to write every day, and when I couldn’t, I’d beat myself up and tell myself I’m not a “real writer” and that it must just be a hobby. Boy was I wrong! It’s been a recent development for me, but I’m accepting that my writing may come in spurts. That the process I want to have may not actually work for me. I don’t write every day, but I think about my WIP every day. When I do write, it’s usually evenings and weekends. I tend to do it in larger time chunks over small spurts during the day.

Scrivener is my weapon of choice (with the aid of some spreadsheets in Google Docs to track beats and other info). I draft in Scrivener until it’s time to start doing heavy editing, then I export to Word for more linear revisions. I also carry a notebook with me to jot ideas in, but I tend to grab my cell phone for notes instead, then kick myself for not using my cute notebooks J

Jennifer: I usually write when my son goes to preschool. It’s a nice three-hour chunk of time that allows me to finish what I need to in order to hit writing goals. I write five days a week and usually take the weekends off except for when I’m on deadline. I use my computer, but also have sticky notes if a random idea pops into my head. I usually have a pile of sticky notes with random phrases on it by the end of a draft.

You have one day to finish the last pages of your next bestselling novel. What food/drinks do you get and where do you go hide out to meet the deadline?

Lisa: I’d like to say I would choose some super healthy brain food that would keep my energy high, but…this is a safe space for being honest, right? I’d book a room at the Quileute Oceanside Resort in La Push, Washington. Before making the six-hour drive up there, I’d make a huge batch of stroganoff and a cherry-chip cake with cherry froster (Betty Crocker is my homegirl). Armed with coffee grounds and my 40 oz. Hydroflask (for water, my one healthy choice), and a jug of unsweetened iced tea for (de)hydration. With no in-room internet and sometimes spotty cell service, it would be the perfect place to finish a story! And the views are incredible.

Jennifer: Peppermint tea and Hershey’s milk chocolate. I used to go through Hershey’s kisses like they were going out of style. You know it’s deadline when there’s a mountain of silver foil on my desk.

What or who keeps you motivated, inspired, or is your biggest support to keep writing?

Lisa: My parents are my biggest support. They have always encouraged me and I know they are always there to catch me if I fall and cheer on my successes. I’m incredibly thankful to have a strong network of writer friends who inspire and motivate me on a daily basis. In terms of what keeps me motivated? Frankly, the possibility of returning to Scotland to research for more books…*grin*

Jennifer: My husband is my biggest cheerleader. If he knows I’m on deadline he pushes me out of the house to go write. Also my critique partners, AJ Pine, Lia Riley, and Chanel Cleeton, who have been with me since the beginning. We cheer each other one when we’re on deadline.

To keep on task, I have a writing calendar which maps out how much I need to write each day in order to hit my deadline. It’s been a lifesaver.

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

Lisa: I’ve been on a lot of writing retreats over the years and red licorice has accompanied me on almost every one. It tastes delicious, doesn’t make your fingers icky for the keyboard, and easy to nibble on mindlessly when you’re in the zone.

Jennifer: I’m a total carb person. So I usually make myself toast with Sunbutter.

Whose work inspired you to start writing?

Lisa: I’ve been interested in writing for as long as I can remember, and I can’t pinpoint my general inspiration (though my parents always encouraged me to read and that helped a bunch!) but I can absolutely pinpoint where my inspiration to write romance came from. I was fresh out of college and tired of reading for class. I was elbow-deep in a vampire fiction binge phase. After completing Anne Rice’s vampire books, I Googled recommendations for other vampire novels. I found someone’s curated list of recommendations on Amazon. A section on that list was funny vampire fiction. I never considered such a thing existed!

Top of that subsection was A GIRL’S GUIDE TO VAMPIRES by Katie MacAlister. I ordered the book and began reading right away, kept reading, finished reading at work because I couldn’t put it down. I loved everything about it. The humor, the snark, the romance. Romance?! I hadn’t read a book like it before and when I looked up Katie’s website I was gobsmacked to learn it was a romance novel. I shamefully admit I had previously scoffed at romance based on my mega misconceptions of the genre (and all of its diversity).

As soon as I finished that book, I binged romance like my life depended on it. I also had solid book ideas for the first time. I joined the Romance Writers of America and jumped right in.

Jennifer: My students. I taught middle school language arts for seven years. During the first couple years of my teaching career, I had the opportunity to be the TAG (talented and gifted) coordinator. For one of their projects, I set up a NaNoWriMo group. They asked me to write with them, so I did—and it was so much fun! I wrote a horrible YA paranormal that will never see the light of day, but it taught me that this was something that I enjoyed doing.

A year after writing the YA novel, I read Easy by Tammara Webber. Her voice just called to me. I really loved how it was two young people in their early twenties figuring their stuff out. It was the first I’d read something about my age group. So, after reading this, I tried my hand at writing New Adult, and that is how my first book came into fruition.

Thank you for sharing your success story with us! We wish you all the best in your publishing journey and hope you’ll share your future successes with us. CONGRATULATIONS!


Lisa Leoni

Twitter | Website

Lisa lives in Oregon where she writes humorous adult contemporary romance set in Scotland. Kilts, amirite? She tries to distract you with some laughs then hit you with the feels. She’s a member of Romance Writers of America and is pleased to be serving as the Rose City Romance Writer’s president for 2017-18.


Jennifer Blackwood

Twitter | Website

Jennifer Blackwood is a USA Today bestselling author of contemporary romance. She lives in Oregon with her husband, son, and poorly behaved black lab puppy. When not chasing after her toddler, you can find her binging on episodes of Gilmore Girls and Supernatural, and locking herself in her office to write.


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