I’m reflecting on what I read this year and what I’m excited about for next year over at Thinking Through our Fingers. You can read it here.
I had the privilege of guest posting over at The MG Book Village about how the three rules from my debut novel, THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC, are the same rules that make the holidays magical. You can read it here!
The decision period of Pitch Wars may be over, but that doesn’t mean the revisions are! If you’re hopping back into your WIP, I’ll be continuing on with my blog series about problems I see in books after the first chapter. You can read my other posts about direction, active characters, and show vs. tell.
Today I’m going to talk to you about something I’m working with my mentees on. Motivation. In previous posts we talked about how in every scene, your MC needs a goal, an obstacle, and a reaction. And those are all the “What’s” of writing and plot. But today we’re going to talk about the “Why.”
Motivation is the “why” behind the goal. If there isn’t a good enough reason for your character to pursue the plot or scene goal, then there isn’t any tension because the reader doesn’t care whether or not they achieve their goal. Characters can’t just do things for the heck of it. They have to have a reason. We have to understand why they are the way they are. Even if you are having a character act on impulse, even if the character doesn’t know why they did something, the reader has to be able to see why…eventually at least.
There needs to be a why for everything. Having your character do something and simply say, “I don’t know why I did it. I just did.” Isn’t very satisfying for the reader (unless you’ve actually shown us why the character did that and the character just doesn’t see it in themselves.) And it isn’t just the MC that needs motivation for everything. All you characters need motivation. Every character in your story thinks they are the main character. They all need to have reasons (good reasons) for what they do. Without good motivations, you get cliché, stereotypical characters.
The bully can’t be a bully just because they like to be mean. Go deeper. Mom can’t say no just because you need an obstacle and mom’s say no. Go deeper. The villain can’t just want to take over the world because they think it would be fun. Go deeper. There’s more there for all of your characters. And until you plumb and then show those deeper motivations, your story is going to feel shallow.
But motivation is a little bit trickier than people realize. Because your story actually needs two layers of motivation. See, in every story there is an external goal and an internal goal.
In Harry Potter the EXTERNAL GOAL is to defeat Voldemort. But the INTERNAL GOAL is to gain a family and love Harry’s always been missing.
Likewise, your MC needs an external motivation and an internal motivation.
In Harry Potter the EXTERNAL MOTIVATION is essentially that Voldemort is evil and Harry is good. But the INTERNAL MOTIVATION is that Voldemort is a threat to the people Harry has gained as family. He’s already killed Harry’s original family, he’ll get rid of mudbloods like Hermione and muggle sympathizers like the Weasleys.
And this is what makes for a powerful book. The external goal and the internal, over the course of the story, become tightly woven together. The MC can not achieve their external goal without also achieving their internal goal and vice versa. (Unless you are writing a bittersweet ending, in which case by the end the MC lays aside the external goal because they’ve achieved the internal goal and realize the external goal isn’t necessary.)
In your story, the internal goal and internal motivation are there all along. They inform the way your character acts and reacts in the story. But they aren’t always revealed right away. If you are waiting to reveal the true internal motivation for your character until later in the story for dramatic effect (which I’m totally a sucker for) then you need to make the external motivation strong enough to make the reader care AND you need to give us hints that there is more to the story. Perhaps your character is motivated by guilt because of something in the past. If you want to save the reveal about what exactly happened for the climax or midpoint, that’s fine. But you need to make sure we know that your character is feeling guilty about something and pull us along. Make us want to find out why they are feeling guilty.
So let’s go through a few examples and talk about external and internal motivation and when the internal motivation is revealed in the story.
In Harry Potter, it’s pretty easy to guess what Harry’s internal motivation is from the very start. His parents are murdered, the Dursleys are terrible. Of course he wants a family! But when do we know that’s what he wants for sure? When he looks in the mirror of Erised, right? Isn’t that when we truly feel his longing? When he does there every night and watches for hours?
In Hunger Games, both the external and internal motivation is presented pretty early in the story. But the midpoint shift kind of changes the goal and motivation, (which it’s supposed to do.) The external goal is to stay alive. At the midpoint that shifts to keeping herself AND Peeta alive. The internal motivation before that point is to protect her sister, but we are also given backstory that informs the external goal that will come later. When we are shown the story of how Peeta saved her family from starvation, we get the internal motivation for the rest of the story.
IN WE WERE LIARS, which is a story with a huge twist. We don’t get the true internal motivation until almost the very end of the story. That’s part of the twist. But there are soooo many hints about the true motivation. We know something happened. We know there is guilt and sadness around it. It draws the reader in and makes us want to read more and find out what the heck happened. And the character acts and reacts throughout the entire story according to this internal motivation. But we don’t know what it is until the end.
Now as far as external motivation goes, you should have that by the 25% mark. And before the 25% mark, there should be smaller external motivators at the very least that inform your MC’s actions. Remember, your MC needs to be active and have a goal, but they also need a good reason for that goal. Both an external and internal reason. Or the reader won’t care about the goal. Around the 50% mark, you need to raise the stakes and another way to think about raising the stakes is to think of it as deepening the motivation. If the MC needs it MORE than it’s going to hurt MORE if they don’t accomplish the goal. When people talk about stakes, they are talking about motivation. The “why” of your story.
The best way to nail down motivation in your story is to nail down your characters. Really get to know them and their backstory. Go through those character questionnaires but do more than just answer the questions. With every question, make your character tell you “why” that’s their answer. If you keep doing that, you’re going to really start understanding your character’s motivation for everything, but especially your story.
Here is a really good post about pre-writing to discover your characters’ secrets and backstory. http://writerunboxed.com/2014/10/10/pre-writing-discovering-your-characters-secrets/
And here is a bit more from the same author about internal and external goals and motivation. http://www.robinlafevers.com/2012/10/28/growing-plot-from-character/
I also highly recommend K.M. Weiland’s entire series on character arc which really lays out how to set up external and internal motivation for your characters.
Show don’t tell is probably the most common advice of the writing world. But it’s really hard to get it just right. That’s because showing vs. telling is more like a balancing act than a rule. More a spectrum than a dichotomy. So I’m going to try and lay out spots on that spectrum and tell you a bit about when they work and when they don’t and the risks involved. Okay? Okay.
1. Flat out telling. This is the easiest to spot. It’s when you just flat out name an emotion. I felt sad. She was happy. Except, as writers, we always try to disguise it, right? So we say, “his eyes were sad.” (Sorry, still telling.) Or, “Her hands twitched nervously.” (That’s telling too. Basically, almost all adverbs are flat out telling.) When you name the emotion, even when you try to hide it in physical reactions (My blood pulsed with anger.) It’s STILL telling.
Doing this OCCASIONALLY is okay. It’s not a deal breaker. Especially if you can do it lyrically. For example, something like, “She felt as if all the happiness in the world could shine out of her hair and her fingertips at theat very moment.” (Okay, that’s nor super lyrical, I’m flying by the seat of my pants here. But you get the picture.) It can work, very occasionally, in small doses, with the right voice. Also, a third person narrator who is almost their own character in the story can get away with a lot more telling than any other kind of narrator. You still have to watch it, of course, but they can bend the show don’t tell rule a bit more than others.
2. Info-Dump Dialogue. This is when characters spill all the beans about exactly what they are feeling and thinking just because another character asks. Unless this is the climax of your story and your MC is getting their secret shame off their chests, DON’T DO THIS EVER! How often do people ever say exactly what they mean and exactly what they are thinking and everything they are thinking. We will learn a lot more about your character by what they choose to divulge and what they choose to hold on to and not tell anyone, than by you simply having them tell everything and then follow it up with, “It was embarrassing.” Or, “I’m so pissed.”
3. Cliché physical reactions. There are good physical reactions that are showing and then there are cliché ones that are so obvious or overused that they feel almost like flat out telling. The racing heart, the sick stomach, the crossed arms, the tapping foot, the bully smashing his fist into his other hand. You get the picture. Always try to avoid the cliché physical response, if possible. If you can’t, try to find a new way to say it. In my debut, I have a scene where the MC is feeling upset and she says that her stomach feels like a whole swarm of fruitflies are buzzing in it waiting to come up and swarm on the big watermelon-colored bow her ex-best friend is wearing. Am I still talking about an upset stomach? Yes. But is it different enough that it doesn’t feel totally cliché? I hope so…
4. Internalization. You have to let the reader into your MC’s thoughts. You have to. But not every single one. If we hear every single thought, then that is another form of telling. Your MC can tell us just as much (if not more) about how she’s feeling about things by what she doesn’t say or doesn’t comment on. You can show that something hurts her by having her REFUSE to comment on it. You can show us she’s hiding something without having her think, “I can’t tell her that.” Perhaps instead you can show her purposely redirect the conversation.
This is where show v. tell becomes a balancing act. I am really good at telling you things by what my MC doesn’t say. My agent loves it and compliments it every time. Several editors…not so much. They felt like they couldn’t connect to the character because they didn’t know what she was feeling. And so you have to be careful with this. Like I said before, internal thoughts are VITAL. But too many, or too direct of internal thoughts, can kill tension and just feel like blah,blah, blah, and not allow the reader to put pieces together themselves. And readers love putting pieces together themselves!!! Look at all the Harry POtter discussion groups and fan theories. Readers eat that stuff up!
If you’re like me and have a hard time knowing when you need to let readers into the MC’s head more, have somebody do a special beta read for you and mark every single instance they don’t know what your character is feeling. This is now standard procedure for me. It changed my writing and took it to a whole new level.
5. Similes and the word ‘felt.’ I’ll be honest. I love using similes and comparisons in my writing. Instead of saying, “I felt happy.” I love saying, “I felt like a thousand balloons were lifting me up into the air.” Oh, you get so much more of an actual feeling out of that. Oh, she’s feeling THAT way. But it still is a form of a telling and if you do it too much, it starts getting telly and long winded. So save them for real emotional punch and don’t have too many too close together. And if possible, drop the word felt. Similies and comparisons are a TOOL that can be abused. So try to find the right balance. There’s no set rule for this. Different voices have different allowances for when it becomes too much. Just feel it out and get a really good CP to tell you when you’ve gone overboard.
6. Non-Cliché physical reaction – We’ve now come firmly over to the showing side of the spectrum. I highly recommend the emotion thesaurus for ideas on how to do this well. A physical reaction isn’t just things like upset stomachs or tingly toes or glancing eyes. It can be breaking the eraser off your pencil, biting the inside of your cheek, kicking a rock on the ground, stomping too hard on the gas pedal, leaning back against a chair, etc. I’ve found that when I’m having a hard time writing non-cliché physical reactions, it’s because I haven’t filled out the setting enough. I haven’t given my characters enough props in their surroundings to work with. Once my characters are interacting with the environment, this gets a lot easier.
But it CAN be overdone. I actually got so good at this in my first book that people read and were like, “All these physical reactions are really slowing down your dialogue and story. We don’t need a physical reaction for EVERYTHING.” So once again, we have that terrible word BALANCE. A physical reaction can only go so far. Sometimes, you have to throw in a simile or an internal thought to really fill it out and bring it home. That beta read for knowing how your MC is feeling will help with this.
7. Objective Correlative. This is like pro-level showing. It’s all about communicating how your MC feels by the way they view the world around them. So, if your MC is feeling happy, how might they describe the rain? “Rain drops tinkled on my window pane like a thousand fairy bells whispering their promises of secrets, play, and magic still alive in the world.” But what if your MC is feeling hopeless? “The rain dragged down my window pane, covering the world outside in mud and slush.” Totally different vibes, right? But do you feel what the MC is feeling? Totally!
Can you simply use Objective Correlative through out your entire story and nothing else? Heck no! We still need internal thoughts and physical reactions and some similes and dialogue. OC is a tool. But it can’t be your only tool. If it’s the only thing you use, we might always be left wondering exactly what your MC is feeling and there will be some definite disconnect.
So basically, show vs tell is hard because it is a balance. Sometimes, telling is called for. Sometimes showing can go too far and actually disconnect the reader. Good CP’s will help!
As promised, here is the second part of my blog series about what I’m seeing in the manuscripts we requested. You can find part one here.
In my last post, I talked about making the plot move forward and build to something. Giving it direction. A big way to do this is to make your character active instead of passive. Let’s talk about the difference.
And active character works to control their storyline. They affect the trajectory of the plot. They make choices.
A passive character simply has things happen to them and reacts, reacts, reacts, but doesn’t actively affect change in their surroundings.
It can be very easy to have a passive character in both adventure books and quiet stories. In an adventure book, your character may just be consistently reacting to one monster showing up after another, without ever working toward a goal. In a quiet book, the same thing can happen but without monsters. Here’s an example.
I wrote a verse novel about a girl who finds out she might have the same cancer gene as her father. He has cancer in the book. And had to do several rounds of revision with my agent because, in her words, Cancer felt more like the main character than the main character did. Because Cancer was controlling the story. Which, in real life, cancer does control the story. But I had to find ways for my MC to exert control in a situation where she had so little control. So how do we do this?
1. Reaction You’re going to need to go back to that scene map you made for my last post (you did that right? That’s totally homework.) See, there’s one more thing every scene needs that I didn’t talk about. IN ever scene your MC needs a goal and an obstacle, but after that obstacle? They need a reaction. They need to actively try to overcome that obstacle.
Think of Harry trying to read those letters. Uncle Vernon keeps stopping him by sleeping by the mail slot, then nailing up the mail slot, then taking them to that tiny island. But except for that trip to the island when Harry couldn’t do much but sit back (which was okay because the sheer ridiculousness and tension of that moment was enough to keep the story moving) Harry kept trying to find ways around Uncle Vernon. That’s what your MC needs to do. They can’t give up on their goal until they either achieve it, or get a new goal because of new information.
2. It’s not just your MC who needs a goal. Of course, reacting to an obstacle only makes your MC active if they have a goal. They need a goal! Every scene! Go back to my last post and review story goals and scene goals. You need both to make your character active. Percy Jackson fights a lot of monsters. But he’s fighting them on a quest to do something important and often these monsters hold some information or item he needs or are gatekeepers of some kind and he has to get past them. Basically, your MC needs to have a goal, but if your obstacles are monsters or some kind of antagonist, they need a goal, too! The best kind of conflict is when your MC has a goal and your antagonist has a goal and that goal is an obstacle to your MC’s goal. That way, it’s not just your MC fighting one monster after another because he’s just stumbling onto them. They are attacking because he is moving towards his goal. He is being active and they are reacting to him. Not just the other way around. Does this make sense?
3. Have your MC set their own goals. Not the parents or teachers. It’s very easy in MG to have adults control the story. Find ways around that. Yes, a teach may give the assignment that your story is centered around, but how does your MC exert control over that storyline? Do they decide to make the most epic project ever? Do they decide to put it off until the last minute? Do they think they’ll do one thing and then decide to change it? Perhaps a parent sets a goal for your MC. That can work, but you have to find ways for the MC to do it on their own terms. Maybe they will try to do it as terrible as possible as a form of rebellion. Maybe they will decide to be as good as possible because they are trying really hard to make things as easy for their parent as possible. Whatever it is, you can’t just have the goal or assignment from an adult be the only goal. Have your MC set their own goal within that goal. Have your MC make the plan of how it will be accomplished. Put them squarely in charge.
4. In situations where your MC has little control, have them find ways to exert control over SOMETHING. Often in quiet MG stories, the MC doesn’t have much control over the situation. A parent has died, or is sick, or they’ve moved, etc. You don’t want that big thing to control the story (like Cancer did in mine) so you have to go back to the idea of goals and have your MC set seemingly small and quiet goals where they can exert control. Perhaps they exert control by maintaining some ritual or by trying to dull the pain through actively distracting themselves. Perhaps, you just need to show them doing and pursuing something outside of that big situation they have no control over. This is what I had to do in my verse novel. I had to show my MC actively trying to enjoy her life and do things that had absolutely nothing to do with Cancer and weren’t about her thinking about Cancer. They were about her just trying to be a kid and have fun. It’s a small, quiet goal. But it did the trick. So, if this is something you are struggling with, try to give your MC something totally outside of that big hard thing and really shine the light on that. This sort of feels like babbling, so I’ll stop now.
Basically, making your character active comes down to giving them goals and things they can control.
As I’ve been reading partials this week, I’ve noticed some common missteps that I’d like to talk about. If you are one of those people who has a good request rate from agents that keep turning into rejections, then follow my blog as I do this series about things you can do to make your manuscript awesome (even without a Pitch Wars mentor.)
One thing I’ve noticed is that you people really know how to write great first chapters and you’re getting to your inciting incident right on time. That’s awesome! But what comes between the inciting incident and your first turning point (somewhere around the 25% mark) is hugely important and can be very hard to get right.
What I see happening a lot is the main character just sort of wandering, rather aimlessly through the book. They’re actions are all reactions. Often, we spend the first 50 pages simply reeling from the inciting incident. You can do this for a few pages, but when it goes on too long, your reader feels restless and starts thinking, “Okay, where is this going? When is something going to happen?
You want the first quarter of your book to feel like it has direction. It needs to moving towards something. I want to feel as I’m reading, like we’re building and building and building to that first turning point.
So how do you do that AND introduce all your characters AND lay down all your foreshadowing details AND set up your subplots. There’s so much you have to do in those first pages!
The reason your book might feel directionless in the first quarter might stem from a few different things. So I’m going to talk about possible reasons and some strategies to diagnose and fix.
- Your character must always want something. Unfulfilled desire is what creates tension. Tension keeps readers reading. Your book, of course, has one big unfulfilled desire that the entire story is about. (Harry wants to defeat Voldemort. Katniss wants to survive the Hunger Games. Hamilton wants to create a legacy. Despereaux wants to be brave and noble like the knights in fairy tales.) But your character must also have smaller, micro-desires for every scene and every chapter. (Harry wants to read that mysterious letter. Katniss wants to take her mind off the games by going hunting. Hamilton wants to move up the ranks in the military. Despereaux just wants to be curious and read the fairytale book.) If your MC has goal or desire in a certain scene, then it will feel directionless. It will lag. People will get bored.
So how do you fix this? Maybe try out a scene map. It sounds intimidating but it doesn’t have to. Write down, in order each scene in your book and then identify what your character WANTS in that scene. Don’t know? Time to revise. Then, after you identify your character’s desire, make sure they are pursuing it in that scene. The goal can simply be not letting other people know how sad they are. Or not thinking about something painful. Or getting the person they’re talking to to admit something. It doesn’t have to be huge or action packed and it doesn’t even have to be what the entire scene’s action is about. Something else may be going on entirely. But your MC’s desire must thread through in internalization, in reaction, in all of it.
2. Things are coming too easy for your MC.
Okay, so you’ve made sure your character has a goal/desire in each scene but people are telling you the pacing isn’t right. It might be because your character is achieving their scene goal way too easily. There should be an obstacle to every scene goal. Don’t let your character off the hook! So go back to that scene map. Can you name what the obstacle is for every scene? (Uncle Vernon won’t let Harry read the letters. Hunting is forbidden and they could get caught. War is dangerous and Hamilton keeps getting passed over for promotions. Curiosity is frowned upon by mice and Despereaux’s sister doesn’t approve.) Remember, your character should always have a goal. So, once they accomplish the goal set for that scene, they either need a new goal or the scene needs to end pretty quickly.
3. A lot of threads but no binding.
This is so easy to do in the first quarter of the book and I have issues with it, too. You are trying to set up your subplots. That’s important. The thing is, each time you bring in a new thread to the story, I need to feel like it fits in and not like the story is going in a bunch of different directions. I need to still have a feel for the long term direction of the story. As your book continues, you will braid these story threads closer and closer together until by the end they are like a tight rope. All supporting and relying on one another for the resolution of your story. In the beginning, I just need to have a small idea that the subplots are connected. I don’t have great process advice for this, just try and think, “How does the main plot LEAD me into this subplot. Does the MC’s unfulfilled desire lead them to need to talk to someone and that someone is involved in something? Do they need help from another character and that character will only help if the main character does something for them? Could the subplot be a result of certain rules or expectations at home or work that get in the way of the story goal. Whatever it is, just make sure the reader sees up front the relationship of the story goal to the subplot. whether it’s that the subplot is a reaction to the goal, an obstacle to the goal, or helps with the goal.
If you have all these things in place, then the first quarter of your book is going to move along at a really nice clip. Yay!
Welcome to the wish list for #TeamMascaraTracks! (That’s Amanda Rawson Hill and Cindy Baldwin.)
You’re obviously here because you write middle grade, right?
(Or maybe you’re looking for our word for the red quote. If so, here you go.)
First off, a little about us:
Amanda Rawson Hill: I grew up in Southwest Wyoming with a library right out my back gate. (Which accounts a lot for how I turned out.) After getting my bachelor’s degree in chemistry, I became a homeschool mom, a knitter, gardener, and, of course, writer. I am passionate about books, Disneyland, and refugee advocacy. (For the last year I’ve been working with several newly-arrived families from Afghanistan and it has changed my life.) I’m represented by Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown LTD and my debut MG novel, THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC, will be published in the fall of 2018 by Boyds Mills Press.
Favorite Food: Lasagna (but only my mom’s recipe)
Hogwarts House: Hufflepuff
Favorite Classical Song: New World Symphony by Antonin Dvorak
Favorite Disney Princess: Belle
Favorite Book as a Child: The Ordinary Princess and Walk Two Moons
Favorite TV Shows: Psych, Parks and Rec, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly (*shakes fist at the heavens*)
Cindy Baldwin: I’m a fiction writer, essayist, and poet. I grew up in North Carolina and still miss the sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, I used to keep a book under my bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing my hair or brushing my teeth, and I dream of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without! These days, I live in Portland, Oregon with my husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. My debut middle grade novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, is forthcoming from HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2018.Random Facts:
Favorite Food: If we’re not counting chocolate (the darker the better), then probably tamales (but I’m kinda “eh” on chocolate tamales)
Howarts House: Gryffindor
Random Dream: Living on a sailboat
Favorite TV Shows: Poldark, Grantchester, White Collar, Psych, Endeavor, Genius—basically I’m a fan of period dramas and quirky contemporary, I guess?
Books That Shaped Me: A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT, LITTLE WOMEN, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN, THE HERO AND THE CROWN
After reading and loving each other’s work, and then signing with the same agent, we decided to make the writing twin thing official and become Pitch Wars co-mentors. Destiny sealed the deal when we both got book deals with planned publication dates in the same year. Can’t beat that!
Other ways we are similar:
- Same religion
- Same feelings on makeup (almost never wear it)
- Same taste in books
- Both of our debuts are about a child dealing with the mental illness of a parent.
- Currently both drafting books about wishes and stars (totally different everything, but still. Wishes and stars. Go figure.)
- We are both extroverts who love to talk through things. We get very passionate. We feel everything deeply. We’re big on hugs (virtual and IRL). We don’t shy away from total sincerity and talking about feelings. We love big and we love hard. Cindy is Anne Shirley. Amanda is Leslie Knope.
Together, we head up Team Mascara Tracks. Last year we mentored two writers, Kit Rosewater and Cory Leonardo. Kit got the most agent requests of any MG entry in the agent round. Cory also did quite well and recently announced her book deal with S&S Aladdin. They both had agent offers within five days of Pitch Wars ending.
While we can’t promise that same level of success, we can promise the care and attention that went into the process. If you want to know what it’s like to work with us, each of our mentees wrote a blog post about it. You can read Cory’s here. And Kit’s here. But if you just want a short blurb to convince you that you TOTALLY SHOULD submit to us, then here’s a highlight from each.
I had never received such detailed notes on even a page of any manuscript I’d written, and here I’d received a comment on all of it. Comps. Concerns. Structure. Plot. Pacing. Characterization. Theme. Big picture. Small picture. Resources. Everything. I was astounded that they took the time and had thought about my book so deeply and thoroughly….Every. Single. Thing Amanda and Cindy said, every one, was right on. Over the next few months, I grew to trust their instincts more and more. They were always right, and every time I took a little while for their comments to sink in, I’d come to the same conclusion, make the necessary changes, and every time the book was better. -Cory Leonardo, Pitch Wars 2016 mentee, author of CALL ME ALASTAIR (Aladdin, 2019)
Amanda and Cindy have the unique ability in plucking key emotions, interactions, and symbols from a text, and carrying those gently forward while rearranging all the trappings around them. Though nearly every word of my manuscript was switched around and deleted and rewritten by the time the agent round arrived, it felt more like my vision than ever. Cindy and Amanda knew what I was after in my writing, and helped me to maintain the things I found most important, even through completely fresh drafts. This is a vital skill to have in the process of revising, and one I shall carry with me forever. -Kit Rosewater, 2016 Pitch Wars Mentee, MG Agent Round Winner
If that sounds like what you are looking for in a mentor, then let’s go on to what you really want to know!
Our Wish List
Our favorite genres are MG contemporary, Magical Realism, and historical. Within those genres we are particularly looking for stories usually labeled, quiet, character driven, heartfelt, and literary. The comedic and quirky is not really in our wheelhouse. That’s not to say that we don’t want a book that has quirky or comedic elements (we love those!), but that shouldn’t feel like the main focus or strength of the story. We want FLORA AND ULYSSES, not DIARY OF A WIMPY KID. We are particularly looking for stories the revolve around big, hard, real-world problems. If somebody has ever said, “Wow, isn’t that a little heavy for MG?” We want it. If somebody has ever said, “This is really sad.” We want it. We want to feel something. We want to bawl our eyes out. We want to see beautiful, powerful prose (or poetry). We want books that exemplify the quote “When a subject is too hard for adults, I write it for children.” We want books that tackle tough subjects in a hopeful and life-affirming way. We want big philosophical ideas handled with the grace, wisdom and innocence of this age group.
We’re accepting SFF as well, but tend to be much pickier about those genres. We love books that use a fantasy framework to tackle big, real-life issues. We love books that draw on mythology in interesting and classic ways. We love books that use their fantastic settings uniquely, to draw back the curtain on things in our own world. We’re less likely, however, to be the right mentors for adventure fantasy—think THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON or WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON rather than FABLEHAVEN or PERCY JACKSON.
We also have strong preferences when it comes to historical fiction: We’re not the right mentors for stories where the history or world-building plays a larger role than the character’s arc. We love historicals that focus on one small, character-driven story against the backdrop of larger events that really happened, without spending too much time or detail on those larger events. Basically, if you have the next THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE, well—send it our way!
Other things we’d be excited to see:
- Characters influenced by faith but not in a faith-based story
- Unique structures and formats (some examples include letters; journal entries; verse—we’ve both written verse novels and LOVE the genre!; and graphic novels—neither of us have a background in art, but it’s definitely in our wheelhouse to work with the text, story structure, character arc, and scene blocking)
- Chronic illness and/or disability
- Bittersweet endings
- Anything involving the ocean
- Strong, vibrant settings
- Science incorporated in a beautiful, meaningful way! (THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. or THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH.)
- An own voices refugee story (Please!)
- An own voices story with a Muslim main character, whether or not the plot is about being Muslim (Triple Please!)
If any of these could be a comp title…grabby hands!
Anything by Kate Dicamillo, Sharon Draper, Lynda Mulally Hunt, or Sharon CreechTHE THING ABOUT JELLYFISHPAPER WISHESA SNICKER OF MAGIC
COUNTING BY 7’S
SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL
THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE
WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON
HOUR OF THE BEES
THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON
FORGET ME NOT
ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES
HOW TO CATCH A STORY FISH
ECHOA Note On Animal Stories
Last year, we took on an “animal story”—Cory Leonardo’s CALL ME ALASTAIR, about a curmudgeonly parrot. And while we love, love, love her book, we’re going to continue to say the same thing we said last year. Animal stories are a hard sell for us. They have to be done very well, with a great voice, something unique (Cory’s had gorgeous poetry), and lots and lots of heart. Basically, you need to be able to compare it to FLORA AND ULYSSES and THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Cory did, and the comparison held up. We’re definitely NOT the mentors for animal stories that are more humor than heart.
Other Hard Sells
- Sports stories (There are other mentors LOOKING for this. We just don’t love it. Sorry.)
- Historical fiction from earlier than the 1800’s.
- Anything more plot-driven than character-driven.
What Will Really Draw Us In?
Looking at last year’s Pitch Wars, we can tell you that voice and beautiful writing are probably the number one thing that draws us to a manuscript. We can help you change everything else. But the voice reigns supreme.
We can’t wait to read your work! Putting it out there is such an act of courage and vulnerability. We promise to treat your entry with the respect and love that creativity deserves. We feel so honored by every person who decides to share their story with us. We are excited to meet all of you and your characters.