Blog, Writing

In the belly of the contest trenches

I’ve been seeing the announcements in Twitter for upcoming pitch contests. These can be rewarding opportunities for writers, and if you have a finished, polished manuscript, I’d say, give them a try!

Late 2013,  I decided to give pitch contests a try. The previous year I’d attempted one with my first manuscript, without any luck. And there’s a reason that happened. It had major flaws and though I love the story and will return to it, I wasn’t ready for it (and it wasn’t ready for prime time). My new manuscript, however, was stronger, the concept more unique. So I  dove head-first into the experience, deciding to see where these contests took me. Let me tell you, it gave me some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in this crazy journey.

I started with PitchMadness, coordinated by Brenda Drake, and was thrilled with beginner’s luck. I made it through to the agent’s round, where a bidding war took place and I had two full and one partial request. I might’ve squeed a little (okay, a lot).

Then came Halloween and with it, two really awesome pitch contests. Still reeling from the adrenaline rush of PitchMadness, I submitted to Trick or Treat with Agents (coordinated by Brenda Drake, Kimberly P. Chase, and Dannie Morin) and Nightmare on Query Street (coordinated by Michelle Hauck, Mike Anthony, and SC.) Unfortunately, this time, I didn’t get in, but I watched from the side lines, cheering those who were in and who received agent interest.

I considered taking a break from contests. NaNo was approaching and I wanted to devote time to this shiny new idea that was brewing. But then I saw that the 2013 Baker’s Dozen Pitch Contest (hosted by Authoress Anon) was approaching and with it a cool opportunity for feedback on the pitch and first 250 words along with the agent round. So I entered and made it to the final round again. Let me say that I received valuable feedback here, not just by readers/other contest entrants, but by editors working with the contest.

Then came PitchWars, which really felt like a long shot. For one, it was like querying. We had to apply to mentors using the tried and true query and sample pages method, and I was worried about my query letter. Two, each mentor (agented and/or published author) could only pick one mentee and two alternates, and there were TONS of writers who entered. The chances were slim. I researched my picks, asked questions, bonded with other hopefuls, and when the submission period came, I sent mine in and prayed. And waited. And I was thrilled when the results were in and I found out that Dannie Morin had chosen me as her first alternate.  This contest was different because it wasn’t simply getting your work out there for agents to see. It’s part of it. But the best part–the most important one–is that you get to work with a mentor for 3-4 weeks. They read your manuscript, give you valuable feedback and encouragement. They help you whip up your query into tip top shape. They answer all questions related to the business. And they cheer you on. Dannie was especially awesome, and I will always say that she’s a serious kick-butt editor. Her feedback and comments helped me revise my ms further. It turns out, I had to pull out my entry from the agent round for a fantastic reason: I received an offer of representation. But I’m positive that my work wouldn’t have been as polished as it was had Dannie not chosen me as her alternate.

So here’s a quick list of why I think pitch contests are great opportunities:

  1. They’re a lesson in patience, as is much of the querying process. Not only do you have to wait until the submissions windows open, but then you have to wait to find out if you got in, and then you have to wait for the agent rounds to see if your entry had any bites. The whole experience is nerve-wracking and nail-biting, but it’s fun if you let yourself have fun with it. It also helps you work on your patience during the querying process.
  2. They’re a great avenue for networking. Think about it: during the entire process, from announcement until agent round, everyone in the contest is Tweeting about it. You get to meet agented and published authors, as well as other writers who are navigating the same trenches as you. I’ve made some wonderful friends this way, and I don’t know if I would’ve met them otherwise.
  3. You might just find awesome beta readers and critique partners through them.
  4. They allow you to hone your pitches and/or first pages. Many have critique opportunities that allow you to get feedback on your pitches and trust me, this is fabulous. Being able to concisely articulate the premise of your story in 1-2 sentences is an art. All the contests (and subsequent Twitter pitch parties) helped me craft a pitch that I was able to use at conferences or whenever someone asked me: What’s your book about?
  5. They get your work, and your name, out there. At a recent conference, I approached an editor after a workshop, and she knew who I was because of Baker’s Dozen pitch contest. It doesn’t always happen, but it can.
  6. They give you practice: in revision, in pitching, in networking, in craft, in the business. You learn not just from the feedback you get, but by reading other pitches/first pages and by seeing what agents are responding to.
  7. They introduce you to agents you might not have initially known and who you could add to your “to query” list.
  8. And sometimes, you might get a chance to catch the eye of an agent who is closed to queries, but who through the contest is making requests!

Yes, you might not always make it into the contests. Yes, the competition is fierce (as it is in the real world). Yes, you might not get any requests (this happened to me, too). But those aren’t the only benefits. Try them out. A new Pitch Madness is coming up this month (very soon, too).

Happy writing!

Blog, Writing

Motivational Monday

I’m in the midst of mid-semester craziness, swallowed by seemingly endless papers to grade and getting my footing back on my WIP. It’s not easy, but I know the only way I’ll reach “the end” of that story is by writing. It might be slow, with only a few minutes here and there, but it’s somewhat steady and eventually, I’ll get there. So for all of us struggling through first (or second…or eighteenth) drafts, here are some bits of inspiration.

Write

Writers Write

DontQuit

DontStop

Blog, Writing

2014 SCBWI Florida Conference

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love writing conferences. I’ve been attending them for about five years and SCBWI ones for the last three, when I decided to focus on writing for kids. Writing conferences offer a unique opportunity that’s equal parts inspiration, craft, and networking. And there’s something special about those that specialize in kid-lit. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s a collective embracing of everyone who’s new, an inclusion into this fabulous clique. Kid-lit writers are some of warmest, nicest people I’ve ever met.

(NOTE: I’ve met wonderful writers in all the conferences I’ve attended. And I know some pretty amazing writers who don’t write for kids, writers who’ve been instrumental in guiding my writing career. It’s just that when strictly speaking about conferences, I seem to find more camaraderie at SCBWI conferences. Maybe it’s because I’m more “seasoned” now and more comfortable in my own writing skin. Maybe it’s because I know more people. There are many variables, of course.)

This past January 17-19, I went to the 2014 SCBWI Florida Conference in Miami. Third year in a row. Fifth SCBWI Florida conference. And it didn’t disappoint. In fact, if you read my I Have An Agent post, it rocked! But that’s not why I loved it (well, okay, it was part of it, but the truth is, I’ve loved every single SCBWI FL conference I’ve been to, even those where my work didn’t elicit such positive feedback–and yes, I’ve had many of those moments.) I loved this conference because of the people I met and because the workshops offered some great talks on craft and the business.

I attended the Friday Novel Intensive with agent Jen Rofe of Andrea Brown Literary, editor Stacy Abrams of Entangled Publishing, and author Chris Crutcher. It was intense (pun intended), and the topics ranged from the market, to germinating ideas, to execution and beginnings. Then the trio tackled first page critiques, and for the first time since I’ve been attending, everyone who submitted an anonymous first page received feedback. Mine offered an “aha!” lightbulb moment, which I executed right away–and it was that missing link I couldn’t figure out. During the course of the day, we learned that right now, editors are looking for:

  • Commercial and fun picture books
  • Character-based chapter books
  • Fun middle grade, especially for boys
  • Well-written, high concept YA
  • NO paranormal or dystopian
  • Nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction (autobiographies/biographies)

There were some awesome gems during this intensive, too.

  • “Write that thing that scares you.”–Jen Rofe
  • “When you’re sitting down, writing your story, tell it in the most raw, intimate way you can tell it.”–Chris Crutcher
  • “Now is an awesome time to be a writer because there are so many ways to market.”–Stacy Abrams

I didn’t get to attend the Picture Book Intensive, but all the talk I heard said the same: Deborah Warren, Laura Whitaker, Andrea Pinkney, and Toni Buzzeo were fantabulous. If I could’ve cloned myself, I would’ve!

Friday evening was kicked off with the first-book’s panel, which is always wonderful. And this year it was even better because my writing friend Vivi Barnes was up there with her debut novel, OLIVIA TWISTED. So it was great to know one of the cool kids on the panel! All four of the authors were fabulous: Nancy Cavanaugh, Steven dos Santos, Cristin Bishara, and Vivi. Check out their books!

Then, attendees gathered at Books & Books for snacks, mingling, and a mystery panel of experts: a group of kids ranging from 6 to 16 who answered questions from the moderator, Gaby Triana, about all things books. This panel elicited many awww’s, and it was wonderful to see how eloquent the experts were at verbalizing what they read, their preferences, and what they wished there was more of out there in the book world.

Saturday was full of inspiration. We had fabulous speakers: Chris Crutcher, Augusta Scattergood and Andrea Pinkney, Sarah Pennypacker,Peter Brown, and Lois Duncan. We cried. We laughed. Our heart strings were tugged and twisted. And like with Friday’s intensive, there were beautiful, inspiring gems:

  • “Go find those fundamental things (like grief) that are so human, they’re universal. We have to be willing to go there, be embarrassed, tell it all.”–Chris Crutcher
  • “Grief– you do it ’till you’re done.”–Chris Crutcher
  • “When you’re telling a story, just sit down and tell the hell out of it.”– Chris Crutcher
  • “There are readers you will never meet but whose lives you will impact. That is what matters.”–Andrea Pinkney
  • “A book connects the reader to the rest of his tribe through time and space.”–Sara Pennypacker
  • “Everyone needs their stories reflected back at them. Not just those in extraordinary circumstances.”–Sara Pennypacker
  • “Stories allow for empathy.”–Sara Pennypacker
  • “Never give up. Learn from your mistakes and keep going…Never burn your bridges…Don’t be afraid to take chances.”–Lois Duncan
  • “Every life is a story.”–Lois Duncan
  • “The only thing stronger than law enforcement is the power of the pen.”–Lois Duncan
  • “Don’t let yourself be crushed with rejections of a book today. If you really think it’s a good book, keep it.”–Lois Duncan

The agent panel featured agent extraordinaires Deborah Warren, Jen Rofe, and Ammi-Joan Paquette, while the editor panel included stellar editors Stacy Abrams, Kat Brzozowski, Laura Whitaker, Andrea Pinkney, and Aubrey Poole. Both panels were enlightening and so fun to listen to. It’s always eye-opening to hear what agents and editors are looking for in manuscripts, what entices them to keep reading. What did I learn? The time for problem novels is over. Instead, agents and editors are looking for work that contain “issues” without being about the issues,  for diverse characters whose stories aren’t (only) about being diverse. Paranormal and dystopian are out… for now. The market and editors’ lists are completely full for now. Tuck those PNR and dystopian manuscripts for a later time. Agents and editors also looking for writers to have an online presence, but as Ammi-Joan Paquette pointed out, “an awkward [online] presence is probably worse than no presence” at all. And it certainly shouldn’t come at the expense of your writing! Others wish list items mentioned: country song in a book, boy books, dirty dancing YA, book about singing, multicultural books, picture books, exotic/overseas settings, books about food/eating/bakeries, experimentation in format, LGBTQ, diversity, piercings/tattoos.

Saturday night ended with a Steampunk smash. The Clockwork Ball was a huge success and showed just how well South Floridians like to party. The costume contest was fabulous, the food was good, and the company was even better–which means there were many sleepy, groggy conference-goers the next morning!

Sunday’s workshops were varied and timely. They included topics from voice in YA, to picture books, to romance, character development, and nonfiction–and everything in between. I wanted to split myself up so I could attend them all! I sat in Kat Brzozowski’s workshop on voice in YA and Laura Whitaker’s editor/writer relationships, and both were enlightening. Kat brought in some very cool acting exercises to illustrate how important it is to know our characters’ voices, and she had us dissecting published pages to do the same. Laura’s talk on what editors want in their writers, along with the current state of publishing, was enlightening and hilarious.

We said our final good-byes after the workshops. It was bittersweet. This was perhaps one of the best–if not the best–writing conferences I’ve attended. I’m looking forward to see what our Mid-Year Workshops (June 6-7 in Orlando) will bring. SCBWI Florida Regional Advisors Linda Rodriguez-Bernfeld and Gaby Triana, along with the rest of the SCBWI Florida crew put together some pretty awesome conferences! And check out this lovely slide show, put together by our Assistant Regional Advisor Curtis Sponsler.

Happy writing, everyone!

Blog, Writing

I HAVE AN AGENT!!!!!

This is an all-caps and exclamation marks kind of post because HOLY WOW–I HAVE AN AGENT!!!!! And she’s none other than the FABULOUS, AMAZING Deborah Warren of East West Literary!!!!!

In case the all-caps and extra exclamation marks aren’t an indication of how excited I am, here are some examples to drive that sentiment home:

excited-baby

giphy

Tangled excited

So how did happen? Sit back. Grab some popcorn (or raisinets or circus peanuts). Pull up your feet and relax.

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel. And I revised it. And I took it to conferences, workshopped it in UCLA classes, brought it to my critique group, shared it with beta readers and critique partners. I did everything I was supposed to, and even though in my gut I knew something was missing and that the market was not right for it, I decided to query it. I did my research, thought I knew what I was doing (HINT: I didn’t. Not really, but I did learn), and workshopped that query to death.

Around query #18, I stopped sending more out because my gut was telling me something wasn’t working and I needed to figure it out. But more than that, there was this fabulous shiny new idea that was more enticing, more personal. And it might even be “the one.” I took everything I learned writing my first ms and poured my energies into this project. I plotted some, I researched lots, and I pantsied some, and before I knew it, I had a first draft. Then I revised and brought it to my critique group, online critique partners, and beta readers.

When I thought it was ready, I started the querying process. I researched agents based on their wish lists, their current books, interviews and, if applicable, Twitter presence. I wanted someone who would love my work but also someone I connected with. Some of the agents on my list weren’t open to submissions, and I heed and hawed and waited because I was pretty certain at least one of them would be at our regional SCBWI Conference in January. I only sent out a handful of queries, mostly because I was swamped at work–and I was okay with it. I entered and was chosen in Pitch Madness (another post coming soon about the benefits of online pitch contests!). I got some full and partial requests. I received rejections.

I wasn’t in a rush like I was with my first ms. Part of it was, again, because I was swamped at work. In October, I got a shiny new idea and decided to try my luck at NaNo. I plotted extensively this time and when Nov 1 rolled around, I started writing. Then I entered and was selected for Baker’s Dozen. I got half-way through ms #3 (through a series of personal set-backs), when PitchWars was announced and I decided–why not? This was going to be my last contest entry. I entered and was ecstatic when I was selected by the awesome Dannie Morin to be an alternate on her team. (And in her blog post, she wrote she couldn’t put my first three chapters down and omg was that so freaking awesome to hear!)

Then I received confirmation that one of the top agents on my list who was closed to queries was, in fact, going to be at our regional SCBWI Florida conference. I was thrilled! Some pretty awesome agents also had my full, so when I got into PitchWars, I decided not to send any more queries out. Dannie sliced and diced my ms and I spent the next five weeks adding and strengthening and polishing my ms until it blinded me. My wonderful teammates became fabulous critique partners as we worked hard to make our stories shine.

Then came the conference. And it was amazing. (I need to write another post about it!) There was such a magical energy in the air. The faculty was excited and energetic. When the agent’s panel was up, and I heard Deborah speak about what she was looking for, I knew she’d be perfect. So did Gaby Triana, one of my critique partners and Deborah’s client. Gaby encouraged me to query Deborah. I did Sunday, after the conference ended, and within a few hours, I had a request to see the full.

I was floored!

Wed afternoon–the day PitchWars entries went live–I was starting class when my phone rang. I’d forgotten to silence it. As I hastily shut it off, I registered it was a California number. And I froze, doing a mental check-off of who I knew in CA. Deborah was in CA. So were some of my online critique partners, but they didn’t have my phone number. As I was in the middle of class and had to focus on teaching, I forced myself to not think until the end, even though all I wanted was to run into my office and check my voicemail. When class was over, I checked my email and almost face-planted when I saw I had an email from Deborah. She loved my work and wanted to talk! SHE LOVED MY WORK!!!! I might’ve stomped. And squeed. And possibly scared a few random people in the halls. Seriously. This was me:

Happy Shocked

But I was at work and had to run out of the office, and calling from the car seemed like a bad idea all around. I listened to her voicemail a few times while I waited to get home. I spoke with Dannie, who gave me a pep talk. I spoke with Gaby. As soon as I walked through the door, I put on TV for my son and called.

And got voicemail.

After a series of phone tags, we finally connected Thursday afternoon. When we hung up, I was over-the-moon and through-the-clouds excited. She was so sweet and so excited about my work and had a clear vision for my career!!! I took the next few days to process all the information and contact the agents who had my full and partials. My entry from PitchWars was pulled when I received Deborah’s message. And on Monday, 1/27, I officially accepted her offer.

I’ve been walking on cotton-candy clouds ever since.

Blog, Writing

Connecting to the past, one family tree at a time

There are many times, too many to mention, where I wish I could sit with my father and ask him about his family, about the stories he heard growing up, and about the “whore” that made him stop in his research (there’s a note from an uncle that says my father told him so). But I can’t because he’s not here anymore. And I didn’t get the urge to research my family tree until after he’d passed, when I realized the delicate tether between myself and him was becoming much too thin.

And about a year after he died, his brother died.

And earlier this year, in July, my other uncle–the one who was helping me make sense of the nebulous territory of genealogy–passed away. That thread is snapping. Three aunts remain, and I can feel the precarious situation for those memories, teetering between recognition and oblivion.

This found its way somehow into my novel, THROUGH THE WALLED CITY. As I labored through the research, I realized that some of what I was finding–Colombia’s history, old photographs from the late 1800’s to the mid-1900’s–correlated to what my late uncle had been able to tell me about our family’s history. With his help, I had mapped out my family tree on my father’s side to circa 1850’s, when the last known entry is of a woman with a son “out-of-wedlock.” That’s where the trail ends, and if I could go back and ask my father, I’d want to know if that was the “whore” he was referring to.

But it was fascinating, pitching the research against Mica’s story. Seeing the past and the present dance, come to life. Someday, I want to breathe life into that family history. Not only for my son’s sake, so he knows his heritage, but for me, because I didn’t pay attention when I had the chance.

Mama Adela with Children This picture is of my paternal grandmother with four of her six children. My father sits in the bottom, nestled between his older brothers. The three are now gone. I have it tucked in the corner of my dry-erase board (which hangs over my writing desk at home) as a reminder that he’s watching over me. I can’t ask him now all the questions that flood my consciousness, but writing THROUGH THE WALLED CITY gave me a better idea of the Colombia he grew up in, of the stories he heard and the climate of his land. He loved his country, which is why when he died, we took his ashes to Manizales, his hometown, to be buried with his parents. He would’ve wanted that.

THROUGH THE WALLED CITY has been a special story for me for many reasons. This is one of them.

Blog, Writing

The first of hopefully many other firsts

I’m beyond humbled for my first interview opportunity, thanks to the fabulous Dannie Morin, who picked me out of the slush in PitchWars to be her first alternate. You can read it here. And if you’re not already following Dannie in Twitter or Facebook or her blog, well you should. Not only does she rock as a mentor with mad editing skills, but she’s one of the most supportive people I know.

(I’ll wait while you go do it. Really. I’ll wait.)

I hope you enjoy the interview. It was fun to write–and if I’m honest, a bit nerve-wracking!–but I’m beyond grateful.

Blog

New Year Reflections

In five days, 2013 will be merely a memory. In six, 2014 will come gallivanting and we’ll start over. New year, new possibilities, new hopes.

When I was a kid, I spent New Year’s Eve at family parties, where we’d blast the salsas, vallenatos, cumbias, and merengues, and dance, eat, and have fun while we counted down the remaining hours and minutes of the year. Then, right before midnight, the tias and tios would pass around 12 grapes, the suitcases would be placed by the door, and we’d get our champagne–or apple juice for the kids–ready. At the stroke of midnight, the room would burst into a frenzy of hugs and kisses, spilled champagne and “Happy New Year!” Those who wanted to travel in the coming year would take to the streets and walk with the luggage in hand. Those who wanted luck every month of the new year gobbled down the grapes. And everywhere, the air was ripe with the energy of possibility.

Now, I don’t always go out on New Year’s. Some years, like last one, we travel. Others, we stay home, watching the shows in NYC and counting down with the world. But the end of el año viejo and the anticipation of the new one continues to bring about that eagerness of all that could be. And it’s a great moment for reflecting on what was, what is, and what is to come.

This last year was a mixed bag.

Health: there were many challenges, like a flare from hell that lasted for more than half the year and an allergic reaction to a new medicine. But there were also breakthroughs, like the relief that came after getting off said medication and the ensuing period of remission. There were still some hiccups, but overall, the worst (for now) is over.

Writing: I finished a second manuscript and started a third. The second is in the query and contest trenches. I learned more about my writing process, about where my strengths and weaknesses lie. I attended three conferences, finished a Certificate in Creative Writing. I made it through final rounds for Pitch Madness and Baker’s Dozen and even snagged some requests. And I’m finishing off 2013 by working with Dannie Morin, who is my PitchWars mentor. It’s an amazing opportunity. Overall, 2013 for my writing career was successful. I am in a better place than I was at this time last year, and that is success. Sure, there have been rejections and self-doubt and “what-the-hell-am-I-doing?” moments, but I’m coming out all the much stronger for them.

Work: I got to teach some fun classes this year. Hispanic American Literature. Creative Writing. Special topics composition courses, which included The Hunger Games and creative nonfiction. I had students wow me with their work. I’ve heard “You’ve made a reader out of me” and “Because of what we read in class, I knew the answer to a question on Jeopardy.” And I came across this comment, which made my heart swell: “She completely changed the way I read & write and really helped me find my voice in writing.” There were times in the beginning of the year where I struggled–mostly because of my health–but I pushed through. The rewards far outweighed the challenges.

Home: We’ve gotten older and wiser and our faith has grown. We saw our son finish Kindergarten and begin first grade. We rejoiced when he got Principal’s Honor Roll, even though he’d struggled at the start of the year. While we didn’t travel out-of-state this year, we did get to visit Orlando and Jensen Beach a few times. We relaxed and enjoyed our times together. Summer, especially, was nice as I didn’t teach this year and got to fully disconnect. More than anything, I’m in awe of how much my son has grown in one year. It’s insane and scary.

I’m looking forward to what 2014 might bring. I’m hoping for some good news in all fronts, of course, but also excited for what is promised. Friends are having babies, stories are being written, hubby and I are celebrating our ten-year anniversary (and hopefully taking a belated trip to Europe to celebrate!). I’m looking forward to being on break, to more writing conferences, and for the magic of storytelling to continue.

What are you most looking forward to in 2014?