We’re back with another Pitch Wars Success Story! Please join us in congratulating Stacie Murphy and her mentor, Carolyne Topdjian! Stacie signed with Jill Marr at Sandra Djikstra Literary Agency. We’re so excited for them!
Stacie, what’s your favorite tip you learned from your mentors?
I have a tendency to be too easy on my characters–to let them resolve smaller problems rather than using those problems to add to the tension of the central plot. Carolyne called me on it every time and reminded me that creating tension in a story is like blowing up a balloon: every bit of air you let out ahead of time leaves less for the ultimate climax.
Tell us about the revision process during Pitch Wars.
It was intense! Carolyne reached out with some questions about my willingness to tackle possible changes during the mentee submission period, so I had an idea what she was thinking even before she picked me. Most of it I was immediately on board with, but there was one big potential change that would require completely tossing a major plot point in the middle of the story and restructuring the entire second half of the book as a result.
I spent the first few days after the mentee announcements in a state of complete anxiety, wondering how on earth I was going to manage it–and if I even wanted to try. Carolyne was clear in my (first) edit letter that it was totally my call–she already thought the book was good, and if I wasn’t up for diving into such a big edit, she’d help me polish what I already had. But her argument for why the change would make the book better was persuasive, and after I spent a few days mulling it over and came up with a solution I thought would work, we had a call to talk it over, and I jumped in.
The first round of edits felt like taking my book and smashing it to pieces on the floor. I did a partial re-draft and sent it to her at the end of November. She got me a second (less terrifying!) edit letter a few days later, and I got to work again. All through December and the first part of January, I sent her revised scenes as I finished them, and she line-edited as we went. Because we’d been polishing along the way, the final line edit was pretty much painless, and the whole thing was done well before the deadline. We spent the last week working on the pitch and query, and then it was time for the showcase. Carolyne cheered and sent me celebratory emojis all day long.
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 had a gratifying number of requests during the showcase, but none of them ended in an offer. I queried for right at four months before the first offer came, and I was fortunate enough to wind up with several. During the two week “nudge” period, Jill Marr emailed to let me know she was loving the story, and a few days later I got a phone call with a San Diego area code. I knew it was her and did a happy dance in my bedroom before I even answered the phone. Jill said she loved the book and would be thrilled to represent it. I did my due diligence–I talked to client references and waited out the rest of the two week window, but there wasn’t really any question. I knew I was going to say yes as soon as she offered.
How do you feel Pitch Wars helped with your success?
I know my book came out better than it went in. And I know now that I don’t have to be afraid of big revisions. I also can’t overstate the value of being part of a group of people who are all going through same experience together. The Pitch Wars ’18 class is awesome. I cannot imagine being out there querying or on submission without that wall of support (and commiseration–querying sucks!).
Do you have advice for people thinking about entering Pitch Wars?
Do it, do it, do it. Also be ready to check your ego and get to work. Your book might be so great it only needs minor tweaks, but if that’s the case you probably won’t get picked to start with. (Confession time: I kind of daydreamed about that maybe happening. I know I can’t be the only one, right?)
If you do get picked, lean in and trust the revision process. Make the changes. Rewrite the ending (or the beginning, or the middle). You have absolutely nothing to lose–if, at the end, you don’t like the changes, the original version is still there. Either way, you’ll gain some editing skills and a bunch of writer friends to go with you on this journey.
Carolyne, tell us about working with your mentee.
I had a wonderful experience helping Stacie revise her novel. From the outset, she was open to big changes (no matter how scary they initially seemed), and was dedicated to putting in the work. Her gripping end result speaks for itself. I can’t wait for the world to read her historical mysteries!
We’d love to hear about something amazing your mentee did during Pitch Wars.
Overall, I think the quality and quantity of Stacie’s revisions were amazing. She completely restructured her plot with brand new content. It was a major revision that required her to take a machete to her darlings, chapters, and characters. Not only did she do it, she excelled
How can mentee hopefuls prepare themselves for Pitch Wars?
Write. Keep writing. Write some more. Then once you get a solid draft, have one or two critique partners provide feedback. Same applies for your query letter. It’s always a good idea to get a few eyes on your pitch before you hit submit.
Let’s find out what drew agent Jill Marr to this manuscript. Jill?
I’m a sucker for orphans and Gilded Age New York City–so I was pulled in immediately to Stacie’s story. It’s atmospheric and Amelia’s “gift” adds just the right amount of mystery, as it lands her in the asylum on Blackwell’s Island and the reader begins to form an idea about the terrible things are happening there. Amelia’s tight relationship with her brother Jonas is one that will help guide readers through what promises to be a very fresh and compelling new series.
How about some fun questions for Stacie and Carolyne.
You only have two hours to finish some edits. Where do you go for quiet time?
Stacie: Anywhere my three-year old is not, truly.
What author would you like to spend the day with? What would you do with them?
Stacie: Deanna Raybourn, just to hang out and chat. She’s probably my biggest inspiration in terms of identifying the sort of thing I want to write. I love her voice. I did meet her in person not long ago and I kind of fangirled. I would definitely be much cooler if I got another shot. (Haha no I would not). Also Jane Austin, because I’d love to show her Tinder!
Carolyne: There are way too many cool authors to choose from! I’d like to go on a picnic with Toni Morrison; visit a planetarium with Neil Gaiman; and share a birthday brunch with Stephen King, (we’re born on the same day, decades apart)
What fictional character would you most like to meet? Why?
Stacie: Harry Dresden. He’s part of such a cool, secret world, and over the course of the series he’s endured so much. Also he seems like he could use someone to give him a hug and tell him they’re rooting for him.
Carolyne: Either Hannibal Lecter or Dracula. Villains are fascinating. They have a lot to say about humanity—these two intelligent and diabolical monsters in particular.
If you could only be in one fandom, which would you choose?
Stacie: Ooh, easy one: Browncoats forever!
Stacie Murphy has a BA in English from Middle Tennessee State University and a Master of Public Policy with a concentration in Gender and Social Policy from The George Washington University. She works as the Director of Congressional Relations for a national non-profit and writes to take her mind off politics. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, daughter, and the worst cat in the world.
I’m a writer, essayist, and novelist with a background in visual arts, art history, and philosophy. My creative endeavours gravitate toward fusions of gothic mystery, noir suspense, and surrealist fantasy. From a young age, I’ve been interested in creepy stories that blend the beautiful with the broken, (think The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux; my obsession when I was twelve). As an Armenian-Canadian of the diaspora born in Lebanon, I’m invested in themes of displacement and belonging. My writing often explores existential questions—moments when people are caught in dark states of transition, contradiction, and flux.
I studied creative writing at the Humber School for Writers and obtained an interdisciplinary PhD from York University. My publications include short fiction in literary magazines such as PRISM and Firewords. I’ve also published scholarly essays on posthumanism and surrealism, both topics that influence my storytelling. When not reading and writing, I teach in the Faculty of Media & Creative Arts at Humber College in Toronto. I’m currently a mentor for Pitch Wars.