After the First Chapter: Active Characters

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.


After the First Chapter: Direction

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.

  1. 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!

Pitch Wars Wish List for #TeamMascaraTracks

Welcome to the wish list for #TeamMascaraTracks! (That’s Amanda Rawson Hill and Cindy Baldwin.)IMG_2927

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.

Random Facts:

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?


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! GIPHY

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:

  • Diversity
  • Characters influenced by faith but not in a faith-based story
  • Homeschooling!
  • 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
  • Verse!
  • 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! GIPHY

Anything by Kate Dicamillo, Sharon Draper, Lynda Mulally Hunt, or Sharon CreechTHE THING ABOUT JELLYFISHPAPER WISHESA SNICKER OF MAGIC














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. GIPHY

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.

Why You Should Sub to #TeamMascaraTracks: A recommendation from Kit Rosewater





Kit was one of our Pitch Wars mentees last year. Her entry got the most agent requests in the MG category last year and she received her first agent offer within 48 hours of the agent round ending. We asked for a “blurb” to recommend us to Pitch Wars hopefuls and this is what she said.


“You could not ask for more supportive mentors in Amanda and Cindy. From the second I read their wish list in the summer of 2016 I knew we would make a perfect match, and I still hold that belief true. Though in retrospect, I realize the match with these two mentors was not paved due to a particular style or element they were seeking in narrative. I felt a connection to these two because at their core, they want to aid and champion sensitive and sincere middle grade fiction.

Though I was asked to rewrite the manuscript, I knew from the beginning that they “got” my story. 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.

One might believe that the agent round brings goodbyes and finalities of the mentor/mentee relationship in Pitch Wars. Not so with Amanda and Cindy. I would argue that our bond as friends truly flourished in this time, and has continued to flourish since the contest’s end. Throughout the months after Pitch Wars, we have traded manuscripts, advice, support, tears, and happy dances. These are people who stick to you for a lifetime. These people are, in essence, like the stories they most want to see. They continue to support and inspire their mentees long after the chapter of Pitch Wars has ended.”



Why You Should Submit to #TeamMascaraTracks: A Recommendation from Cory Leonardo


Cory Leonardo is the author of CALL ME ALASTAIR, which will be published by Aladdin in Summer 2019. She was also one of our Pitch Wars mentees last year. We asked her if she’d give us a “blurb” to convince you all of our awesomeness and she basically sent the best letter ever. We hope it gives you some insight into what you can expect from us.

Dear MG Pitch Wars hopeful,
When Amanda and Cindy asked me to write a testimonial for their mentor page this year, I jumped at the chance to tout the impressive list of gosh-darn, superhuman everythings they offer their potential mentee. It’s how I’ve come to write you this letter. The next step, of course, is to name every one and try to rightly convince you that the buck stops here at #teammascaratracks. I assure you: I will fail miserably. There are too many things to count and not enough words in my trusty thesaurus to describe them.
For those pressed for time or a wee bit antsy, let me leave you with the one sentence you need to come away from this letter with:

giphy-downsized (1)
Okay, so that was two sentences. But, thank you. You may now go back to your regularly scheduled program.
Now, for those of you willing to hang in a little longer, I’d be honored if you’d lend me your eyeballs for a few minutes more. I’ll try to do this justice.
I stumbled upon Pitch Wars the last week of July last year. I’d recently finished a first draft of my MG novel, CALL ME ALASTAIR, and was planning on revising and submitting to agents in the fall. But after reading up on Pitch Wars and seeing the astronomical success rates (and after, I’ll admit, some hemming and hawing, for I’m woefully indecisive), I decided I would submit. The next question was to whom. Not many—okay, no one—wanted a novel about an anthropomorphic parrot. In fact, most of the mentor wish lists included the dreaded phrase, “no talking animals,” and it seemed my fate was sealed. I selected a few maybes to put on my list, and then came across Amanda’s and Cindy’s wish list. I remember it distinctly. I remember the heart-hammering feeling of knowing that this, this! would be a dream come true. I fell in love with their voices, their wit, their camaraderie, their passion for children’s literature and this wild, wonderful thing called writing. I shared so many of their favorite books and authors and knew we loved the same heart-felt tear-jerker. I knew my book fit what they were looking for.
There it was. I think the exact terminology was, “We’re not fans of books with talking animals.” Part of me wanted to cry. I was already convinced ALASTAIR needed them, that if anyone could fall in love with a talking parrot and his story, it was these two. I took a risk and submitted anyway. In fact, just in case there was an order to these things and the first-selected mentors got first dibs, I stacked my list. #Teammascaratracks was at the tippy top.
It was 9 p.m. the night before I was leaving for a 5 a.m. 15-hour drive. I snapped my laptop shut and resumed packing, thankful the submission was done and nervous about how it would all turn out.
It would come as a bit of a surprise (note the sarcasm) that less than two hours later I got an email from Amanda saying she’d like the synopsis. Approximately 3.5 seconds of rejoicing was quickly snuffed out when I realized I had no synopsis. No problem. I thanked my lucky stars I was an English major once-upon-a-time and had spent many the all-nighter writing papers. Admittedly, there was some Googling involved and a lot of mad-hatter typing, but sometime after 3 a.m. that bad boy was submitted.

giphy-downsized (2)
Two hours of sleep is fine when your husband’s driving, I told myself. But then, the next morning, another email. This time: 50 pages. 50 pages I hadn’t yet edited, and the suggestion that adding POVs might be needed. I spent the rest of the car ride chewing on that little tidbit, and by the time we’d arrived at the beach, I knew there was a way I could do it. I spent most of the night editing and sending off my reply.
Again, all was well. The sun was shining, the beach was calling. Life was one glorious palm tree after another. Until…

Another email. Amanda and Cindy wanted the rest of the book. Another 140 unedited pages.
Long story short, there was a full day fixing those and sending them off. And then there was nothing left to do but chew my fingernails until the announcements were made two weeks later.
I was genuinely shocked when they picked me. I’d been Twitter-stalking them but hadn’t suspected. A year later it comes as quite the surprise that they were able to hold it in so long (here’s looking at you, Amanda). Amanda’s like a three-year-old with a secret. I’m certain that if you asked her family, there are times where they’ll find her sitting on her hands in front of her computer so as not to type those secrets away. It’s adorable, frankly. But they kept it in (there was one questionable GIF), and once all our names were plastered up there on that glorious Pitch Wars document, there was much rejoicing.

giphy-downsized (3)This is basically Amanda with a secret.

Oh, and a 6-page edit letter. Single-spaced.
Team Mascara Tracks is nothing if not prompt.
Pitch Wars hopeful, if you are ever the recipient of such a letter, let me reassure you. You will cry from joy at your mentor’s gushing—but will weep uncontrollably from fear and uncertainty at the rest. 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. But I was also a bit heartbroken. There were things wrong with my book! There were concerns! The title! The climax! My book needed work!
One thing I’ve found is that every edit letter is the same in one respect. It will crush you for a bit. But you will pick yourself back up, dust yourself off, wipe the tears from your eyes, and get to work. 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.
These two marvels spent hours upon hours upon hours, reading, sending notes, doing line edits, big picture edits, researching agents, answering a random assortment of questions, walking me through agent phone calls, the submission process… the list could go on forever. I will, always and forever, be indebted to these amazingly beautiful women who daily astound me with the scope of their imaginations, their knowledge of writing and the writing industry, their willingness to help, and their passion to teach and promote other writers. The fact that they’re phenomenal writers themselves (who somehow find the time to do it in between being awesome everywhere else) pretty much seals the deal: they’re the best ever. It’s official.
Amanda and Cindy have been my cheerleaders, my editors, my teachers. They are writer-mamas who know when to offer a virtual hug or a virtual lecture (though you never feel naughty, only that you want to rise to their expectations). They do all they do with joy, grace, enthusiasm, skill, and a whole lotta love. Today, they are more than all that, however. They’re my beloved friends. (And I’ve already informed them I’ll never be able to write another book without them.) They are a treasure to me.
I can say now that CALL ME ALASTAIR would never be the book it is without them. It would never have garnered the attention of agents like it did, gotten several offers, sold to S&S/Aladdin, and would not be cozying up to a bookstore shelf in Summer of 2019, were it not for Amanda Hill and Cindy Baldwin, #teammascaratracks, human beings extraordinaire. In a few years, when I’m holding my book in my hands, I will never look at it and not think of them. (The same is true for parrot and Jane Austen GIFs).

giphy-downsized (4)The questionable gif mentioned above.

If I can leave you, dear Pitch Wars hopeful, with one piece of advice, it is this: take a chance at these two, the very best mentors this experience can offer. Make a wish, say a prayer. Watch for falling stars, hunt for clovers, save your birthday candles, and collect as many dandelion puffs as your arms can carry. I’ll be crossing my fingers for you.
All my love,
Cory Leonardo


Practicing and Improving VOICE

This blog post is a compilation of a tweet thread I posted this morning. I’ve added a few thoughts here and there to the original thread and a few extra exercises at the end. Hope it helps!

Ok #pitchwars You’re going to hear this a lot over the next few weeks.

You need a killer voice.
Paired with…
I can’t teach voice.

Which is true, but can be so frustrating to hear.
So, while I can’t teach you how to write a killer voice, you CAN practice.

Here are a few thoughts on how to practice voice if you’re struggling.

1. Write the same scene but change who the MC is. Perhaps in one form, they’re a dudebro, and then write it again w/the MC as a scientist. Notice what this changes in the narration. While the events of your scene may stay the same, a change in narrator should change everything else. What your character notices, how they describe it, how they react to it physically and emotionally. These are all elements of an immersive voice.

But there are other more subtle things you can practice, too.

2. Make a word/phrase list. Make two columns, in one write several different emotions or reactions. In the other column, write the go to phrases for that. In our 2016 mentee’s, CALL ME ALASTAIR, her medically obsessed MC writes “OMGAD” when exclaiming. (GAD=general anxiety disorder) My friend (and fellow mentor) Julie Artz likes to add to this list details like which of the five senses her character is most sensitive to, which part of their body reacts to things most.

It’s little details, but it makes a huge difference.

3. Try meditating as your character. I mean it! Close your eyes, take deep breaths, and try to become one with your MC. It sounds crazy, but that’s what I do. What do they see? Think about their height and literally “get on their level.” That alone should change how they describe certain things. How do they move through their world? How do they feel it? Try to make all of that a part of your body. Then bring it out and into the words you type.

Okay, hippie dippie enough for you? Let’s move on.

4. Try writing in another authors voice. Choose someone with a REALLY strong voice. Write in the voice of CATCHER IN THE RYE. Write in the voice of Douglas Adams. Or JK Rowling. Or Lemony Snicket. This is a great way to notice what makes those strong voices.

5. If you’re still struggling, or feel like you only have one voice, try an out there, totally different kind of MC. I was worried about voice for my last WIP, so I decided to try out a wise, British narrator. Because, hey. Why not? It worked. So go crazy. Give your character an awesome hobby that can leak into their wording and way they describe things. Have them be a collector or something, obsessed with some historical or pop culture thing. Whatever it is, just let it infuse into every chapter of your book somehow. I like this post from my co-mentor Cindy on letting your character’s “freak flag” fly.

6. Always remember, voice isn’t just the words you use but what your MC notices and how they react physically and emotionally.

7. Read Aloud. First do this with published books with great voice. Notice what a great written voice does to the way you read a book aloud. With the best, you will notice yourself actually falling into a cadence. A rhythm to the words. Almost like, this book can only be read one way. THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON is like this for me. Also, WOLF HOLLOW. I read that one aloud and even though I didn’t mean to, found myself taking on a light accent. Cindy’s WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW is the same way. You should be able to do this with your own writing, too. Read it aloud and notice where the cadence feels off or where you find yourself sort of stumbling or falling out of that rhythm. Then fix it. After that, give your manuscript to a really good friend or your partner to read aloud. See if THEY fall into a cadence reading it. If they can’t help bringing it to life. Notice the boring or less alive patches in their voice. Fix those!

Some additional exercises that might help.

Like the first exercise above but a little different. Think of a family story or scene from a recent outing. Imagine how your mom would narrate. Then imagine how your dad would narrate it.

This one won’t work for everyone, but it will for some people. Write for your character in free verse. I don’t know what it is, but verse helps me get to the heart of a character and their voice in five minutes flat.

Try just being yourself. How would you describe this scene to your very closest friend? Don’t clean it up. Leave in all the little asides, snide remarks, inside jokes, fragmented sentences. All of it. Be free and easy and totally yourself. What you come up with should be really voicey. After all, you are an awesome MC, right?

To finish off, I just want to let you know that the very first draft of THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC had very little voice. And what it did have was basically the voice of my last MC. I knew it needed work. But there were a few times as I was writing, that a different voice snuck in. I literally stopped writing, marked those spots and left a note for myself saying, “This is Kate’s voice!” Then after I finished drafting, I went back to those moments, read them, and kind of pondered them for a couple weeks before sitting down and rewriting the entire manuscript in the RIGHT voice this time.

Maybe nobody can teach voice. But you CAN practice it, learn it, and improve it. Good luck!


I’m so pleased to get to finally announce my book deal! THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC will be published by Boyds Mills Press in Fall 2018.

This is a dream come true. It was also a lot of work. Several big revisions, one on a crazy short timeline. But it was all worth it.

If you’re feeling like you’ll never make it and thinking about giving up, feel free to contact me. My story will give you hope. I promise.

Keep working. Keep learning. Keep writing. Keep believing and giving and trusting with all your heart. You’ll get there!

You can find the official announcement here.

And you can add my book on Goodreads here!