What’s All This, Then?
Pitch Wars is a mentoring program where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each to spend three months revising their manuscript. It ends in February with an Agent Showcase, where agents can read a pitch/first page and can request to read more.
As I’m sure you can tell by my deeply unimpressive website, I’m neither a coder nor a graphic designer. My day job–and evenings and weekends job, as is standard throughout the publishing industry–is as an agents’ assistant at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, a literary agency normally based in Manhattan and currently based from all of our respective apartments in various other parts of NYC. The punctuation is correct: I assist two agents, plural, who between them represent clients working in both the adult and children’s markets. But you’re not here for them; you’re here for me, and this year I’m thrilled to be a Pitch Wars mentor in the Adult category.
My resume and cover letter would tell you that I graduated from Allegheny College as an English/Psychology double major, then went on to graduate study at the University of York (in England, not in Canada) in Modern & Contemporary Literature and Culture. I fled the halls of academia and, ironically, began to tutor high schoolers for their SAT/ACT college entrance exams while spending my mornings and afternoon in a pink apron selling cupcakes at a bakery that has closed down since the cupcake trend made way for macarons. I eventually sneaked in past the gates of publishing, and now in my spare time I just make cookies for myself and my roommates while my roommate’s cat wonders when I’ll get around to feeding her treats. I spend too much time on Twitter, where frankly, you’ll be able to learn more about me than you will here–280 characters might be my sweet spot. I accept that some of you may Google my name, too, and I can’t blame you for that; whatever impression you form of me as a result is my own fault and I take full responsibility.
I’ve committed to a GIF-free wishlist here, but if I hadn’t, this would be a good place to put a GIF of John Mulaney from his New in Town comedy special where he asks, “What are three other things about [her]?” So here are 3+ other things about me:
-I was in marching band and on the fencing team in high school. I was very good at marching band and very okay at fencing.
-I phone-banked for Obama in 2008 when I was too young to vote, and I’m still proud of that. However, my politics have shifted, as Beyonce would say, to the left since then.
-My ideal sleep schedule is probably from 2:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.
-Whether or not I can accurately claim that I “speak” French probably relies on whether you yourself speak French. If you can’t, I definitely can! If you can, I probably can’t.
-I once had a drawing teacher give me a 97 out of 100 on every single assignment, because no matter how much effort I put in, “art is never perfect.” He will forever be my enemy.
Disclaimer: As an agents’ assistant, I cannot stress enough that I am unable to offer you representation or any back doors to representation, other than my sincere efforts to mentor you throughout Pitch Wars in preparation for the agent showcase, like anyone else.
What I Want
Let’s start with some sweeping categories: please DO send me literary fiction, speculative fiction, women’s fiction, fantasy, historical, mystery, sci-fi, and memoir. If your book hits multiple genres, great! Send, please. In this house, we love a cross-genre wonder.
Across all genres, I’m looking for distinct voice and vivid characters. It’s a joke among publishing people that when we’re at a loss for how to describe a book, we default to, “The writing is just so good!” It’s a joke among fanfiction readers (no shame about it) that sometimes you can’t help but incoherently gush to your politely uninterested friends, “I just love this character so much!” And if there’s anything that speaks to what I cherish about literature, it’s those two things: who I’m reading about, and how their story is told to me.
As many readers, agents, editors, and general book people know, it’s often easier to talk about what you don’t like in a book than what you do, so we’re going to start with the hard part. I’m happy to answer questions about specifics, but for the most part, I like what I like simply because I like it, and a non-exhaustive list is as follows:
–Campus novels: College/university, but boarding school counts too (as long as the characters have some class awareness). I may have left academia, but academia has never really left me, and I find the structure of a school year, the setting of a tree-lined campus, the heightened emotional pressures of student life, etc. endlessly rich fodder for fiction.
–Coming of age stories (or Bildungsromans, if you’re also heavily in debt from your liberal arts college degree): these are often sweeping in scope, but I’m particularly impressed by narratives that depict character growth within smaller social bubbles, where the growth itself is the point, rather than its implications on society at large.
–Cults and cliques: I use the term loosely to connote not just religious extremists and devotees of doomsday prophets, but all kinds of groups with a shared obsession, whether that be a person, place, activity, event, belief system, etc.
–Found family: In fiction as in life, I find the most satisfying relationships are those that are earned. I love ensemble casts of friends, reluctant allies, teammates, band members, people who sit at adjacent desks, etc.
–Wit beyond measure: I don’t think “funny” and “serious” are opposite ends of any spectrum, and I do think that all writing should have an underlying sense of humor or at least of irony, however that sense manifests itself.
–Unconventional structure: The novel is dead; long live the novel. Show me new ways of seeing fiction, whether that’s multiple narrators, shifting tenses, time jumps, or something I haven’t even imagined yet myself.
–Twists, turns, and detours: I love a book (and a writer!) smarter than I am. Bring it.
–Complicated female and non-male characters: Give me strength or give me weakness, but above all, give me complexity and depth.
–Underrepresented voices: I’m reluctant to use the d-word, but if you understand why, there’s a good chance we have similar ideas about what “diversity” means for books. I want reflections of the world, its people, and their experiences that push beyond binaries of white and not-white. However, I believe firmly that identity is not a personality, and I want to see characters who exist beyond their adjectives, whose actions are informed by who they are but not determined by them. That said, show me queerness, broadly defined (trans! asexual! questioning!), neurodivergence, class struggles, flyover country; show me what I and most readers don’t already know. If your writing is NOT own voices, I’ll want to discuss ways for us both to be sensitive to creating art outside our collective experiences.
What I’ve Loved
It’s a dangerous proposition to judge someone based on their taste in literature, but in the case of Pitch Wars, it’s kind of what we’re here for. I truly dread being asked about my favorite book, because as with best friendship (“Best friend isn’t a person; it’s a tier”), either a book is my “favorite” or it isn’t, but no one title holds the crown. The following list is entirely off the top of my head, which ensures that these are the books that truly never leave my mind:
-THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt
-SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl
-THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern
-STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
-FRANNY AND ZOOEY by J. D. Salinger
-SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky
-A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving
-RED, WHITE, & ROYAL BLUE by Casey McQuiston
-A SEPARATE PEACE by John Knowles
-I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith
-A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles
-THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak
-THE WESTING GAME by Ellen Raskin
-NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro
-ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith
And some more recent favorites:
-NINTH HOUSE by Leigh Bardugo
-NOTHING TO SEE HERE by Kevin Wilson
-THE ENSEMBLE by Aja Gabel
-PICTURE US IN THE LIGHT by Kelly Loy Gilbert
-SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan
-THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater
-THE HOUSE OF IMPOSSIBLE BEAUTIES by Joseph Cassara
-SOMEONE WHO WILL LOVE YOU IN ALL YOUR DAMAGED GLORY by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
-SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid
-THE WANDERERS by Meg Howrey
-CHECK, PLEASE! by Ngozi Ukazu
-YALE NEEDS WOMEN by Anne Perkins Gardiner
-BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou
What I Don’t Want
No tea, no shade, but the following categories are generally not for me: romance (trust me, there are so many more qualified mentors to submit your meet-cutes and torrid affairs to!), crime, horror (one of the few things I’m not afraid of is admitting that I am a scaredy baby), suspense, thriller, high fantasy, hard sci-fi.
Like most people, I have a number of idiosyncratic and occasionally unreasonable dislikes, but it’s my MSWL and I’ll cry if I want to. Feel free to ask for clarification on any of the below, but in general, we won’t have a great time together if your manuscript features any of the following:
-A protagonist who is 1) extremely sad for unexplained and perhaps inexplicable reasons, 2) a writer, or 3) a writer who is extremely sad for unexplained and perhaps inexplicable reasons. There’s a cheap, harsh joke to be made here about contemporary literary fiction, but as a lover of contemporary literary fiction, I will not be making it–just know that my reserves of sympathy for this particular sub-subgenre are low at this current moment due to overexposure.
-SPORTS, in all caps. The Art of Fielding is one of my all-time favorite novels, but let’s be honest: it’s not really about baseball. Of course it’s about baseball, but if you’ve read it, you know that Henry Skrimshander’s career record for consecutive errorless games isn’t actually the point.
-New York City as a “character” in its own right. I live in New York now and I lived in North Jersey most of my life before that, and I have the kind of relationship with this city that one might with their favorite sibling: I love New York, and I’ll fight anyone to defend New York, but sometimes I’m sick of hearing about New York, you know? Please tell me about Chicago, or Edinburgh, or Lagos, or Quezon City, or one of the many Springfields scattered across the United States.
-Epic family sagas or any combination of mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons growing to understand each other over time or through adversity. Whether heartwarming or tear-jerking, these stories sometimes leave me unmoved, which makes me feel bad, so please don’t make me feel bad.
-Men agonizing over the prison of masculinity. I feel you, guys, I really do. But this is one area outside my experience that I am not currently interested in exploring through fiction, and Matthew Weiner already did a great job writing Don Draper.
-A devastating ending. Times are hard, and I just don’t want to see anyone die or even be terribly disappointed in fiction when real life has that more than covered. Happy endings are great, and ambiguous endings are good too; after all, a great story doesn’t end when the book does. But if I need to chase your novel with an ice cream sundae to get my mood stabilized after the last page, sorry to say it’s a pass from me.
Note: I’m happy to read submissions that might be considered New Adult, but please know in advance that as an Adult mentor, I will only be a good fit for your manuscript if it would be suitable for the general adult market. In my non-exhaustive experience in the industry, “New Adult” is not a category that has gotten much traction with publishers, so please keep that caveat in mind when submitting.
(I ask myself this nearly every day.)
I’ve worked with all types of writers over the years, from college freshmen grappling with the conventions of academic writing to prize-winning novelists and New Yorker essayists, so I’m conversant in an array of styles and skill levels. I’m literally near-sighted but metaphorically sharp-eyed, and it’s rare that I’ve discussed an author’s work without hearing, “Wow, I didn’t even of think that!” in response. I’m a generally nice young woman who can deliver harsh truth with a light touch; in fact, I’ve recently had an author ask that I take the gloves off and really let him have it, and because part of being “nice” is accommodating someone’s needs and wants, I promised to just straight-up tell him the next time he needed to cut three whole paragraphs of exposition. I got in trouble as a child for incessantly asking, “Why?”, but it’s an unshakable habit that luckily works out well for me as a reader and editor, and for the writers I work with, because I’ll never let you get away with leaving a question unanswered.
My party trick, if you can call it that (and it does go over surprisingly well at the kind of parties I usually find myself at), is being able to tell you what that word you’re thinking of but can’t quite spit out is. That’s a useful illustration of two key elements of my critiquing/editing/mentoring: my ability to intuit what it is that you really mean to say and then to help you say it exactly as you intended–and my uncompromising insistence on getting every word exactly right at a sentence and phrase level. I’m a line editor because, to be completely honest, I can’t help it, but also because I believe that a great story exists in every single word you choose. Maybe that sounds too intense for you! But if it lights a spark instead, I’m eager to see where we can take your book together.
Not Why, But How?
As a child of the early-2000s internet, I’m most comfortable communicating at length online, usually over an instant messaging app. (Thank you, AIM, for my 115+ wpm typing speed.) As an adult in 2020, I can concede that when in person isn’t an option, sometimes conversations are best and most efficiently had over the phone; as an adult with an office job in 2020, I’ll go further and say that sometimes video calls are even a slight improvement over audio only. All of that is to say that I’m open to whatever mode of communication you prefer, but that my own resources are better allocated in some ways than others. I’m always on Twitter, but I prefer not to be encouraged, so for any major communication, best to avoid the DMs.
If this post raised any questions I failed to answer, feel free to leave a comment below, or to catch me on Twitter during either of two upcoming #AskMentor sessions: Saturday, September 12 or Saturday, September 26, both at 4:00 p.m. ET.
Enough from me. You can check out all the other Adult mentors’ wish lists below:
Pitch Wars 2020 Adult Mentors’ Wish Lists
- Mia P. Manansala and Kellye Garrett (Accepts NA)
- Rochelle Karina (Accepts NA)
- Ren Hutchings (Accepts NA)
- Mary Ann Marlowe
- Rachel Lynn Solomon
- Anna Kaling
- Gwynne Jackson (Accepts NA)
- Kristen Lepionka and Ernie Chiara
- Rachel Howzell Hall
- Lyn Liao Butler
- Michael Mammay and AR Lucas
- Paris Wynters (Accepts NA)
- K A Black (Accepts NA)
- Heather Van Fleet and Jessica Calla (Accepts NA)
- Hudson Lin (Accepts NA)
- Sonia Hartl and Annette Christie (Accepts NA)
- Taj McCoy (Accepts NA)
- Ian Barnes (Accepts NA)
- Keena Roberts (Accepts NA)
- N.E. Davenport (Accepts NA)
- Elizabeth Little
- Anne Raven and Janet Walden-West (Accepts NA)
- Charish Reid and Denise Williams
- Kalyn Josephson and Kat Enright (Accepts NA)
- Gladys Qin (Accepts NA)
- Tanen Jones (Accepts NA)
- Clay Harmon (Accepts NA)
- Jake Nicholls (Accepts NA)
- Layne Fargo and Halley Sutton
- Denny S. Bryce and L. Penelope
- Roselle Lim and Farah Heron (Accepts NA)
- Morgan Rogers (Accepts NA)
- Samantha Rajaram
- Rob Hart
- Damyanti Biswas (Accepts NA)
- Maria Heater
- Cynthia Pelayo (Accepts NA)
- Gia de Cadenet
- Nicole Glover (Accepts NA)
- Rosie Danan and Ruby Barrett (Accepts NA)
- Cole Nagamatsu and Sequoia Nagamatsu
- Carly Bloom and Sam Tschida
- P.J. Vernon and Kelly J. Ford (Accepts NA)
- Matthew Quinn Martin (Accepts NA)
- Stephen Morgan (Accepts NA)
- Alex Segura and M. J. Soni
- Roma Panganiban (Accepts NA)
- Tricia Lynne (Accepts NA)