Sean's 2019 Pitch Wars Wishlist
Okay y'all, here we go! It’s time for my Pitch Wars 2019 wishlist! All the things I want to see in my inbox, all the people I want to work with, it’s all going to be right here for you. I'll be mentoring middle grade again this year, mainly looking for adventure and genre fiction, but since last year I got way more submissions than I bargained for I'm going to be narrowing my scope just a bit, so there are lots of caveats.
But first, a little about me, so you know what you’re getting into.
WHO I AM
I’ve always been a kid. I’m still a kid. I will always be a kid. (And people wonder why I’m mentoring middle grade, haha!).
I've planted my flag in the middle grade market because it’s a place where young people can make mistakes and that’s okay, where they can take risks and learn from their mistakes, and where there’s honesty and awkwardness that speaks to the heart of everyone, regardless of their “cool” factor (or, in my case, the lack thereof). I love adventure, I love heart, and I love getting to see a kid realize the big things of life, because honestly, I think they’re more equipped to handle it than a lot of adults are.
Writing books--and all the myriad responsibilities that entails--is my full time job. Before I did this, I worked with teens in various capacities for over a decade. I have an education-focused Masters degree, and both my parents were teachers, so I know a lot of random, maybe-useful things about schools and kids and education.
MY PUBLISHING EXPERIENCE
As for my publishing chops: my middle grade fantasy adventure The Hotel Between was published last year from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Book two in the series--The Key of Lost Things--released this September (so they're both available now, if you like world-traveling middle grade books full of magic and heart). As for how I got to that point, the short version:
While I’ve always written to get all my thoughts organized and to express my creativity, I didn’t begin writing in earnest until 2013. I wrote one novel, then trunked it without querying agents. I wrote another, and that one got a lot of agent interest, but never got me representation. I wrote yet another—a YA sci-fi—and that one got me into Pitch Wars 2015 as a mentee (so I know that experience well).
Still, that book wasn’t quite what the agents were looking for. HOWEVER, that was also around the time I discovered my love for middle grade and realized that part of the reason my earlier books weren’t quite working the way I wanted them to was because I was writing YA stories with a middle grade sensibility. The market wasn't quite right for what I wanted to do.
I spent some time learning where upper-MG books fit in the hierarchy of all things publishing, and what makes them different from both MG and YA. My middle grade fantasy adventure The Hotel Between--about a boy who uses a magic hotel with enchanted doors all over the world to search for the father he never knew--netted me my first agent, and was acquired by Krista Vitola at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers shortly thereafter. S&S subsequently bought the sequel, The Key of Lost Things, which continues the story of Cam and his friends as they travel the world and search for a lost friend.
I'm currently represented by Jim McCarthy at DG&B Literary. The Key of Lost Things is my second published book, and is out now!! (Can you tell I'm still super excited by this?)
When it comes to the mentoring relationships, you should know that I’ve spent over a decade mentoring, teaching, and counseling in various contexts. My personal writing process is heavily critique-oriented, and my editor at S&S is quite simply the best. I've mentored writers and been mentored by writers in return. One of my previous mentees is actually a Pitch Wars mentor this year after her AMAZING series got picked up for publication starting in 2020, and my most recent mentee just signed with an agent a couple months ago!
I’m a firm believer that the success of others is a huge boon to the community as a whole, and since I’ve had so many people share their time for my benefit, I want to do the same for others. Also, with upper-MG books seeing a strong period of growth lately--and having been through that “where does this fit and how do I make it work?” process--I want to help others find their place in the market, too. Kids need books that meet them where they are, and whatever I can do to help a kidlit writer find their audience will be good for everyone.
Also, I’m one of the weird ones that kinda likes working on queries…
Do I sound naive? I’m probably a little naive. I love seeing the potential in people, and in a manuscript, and doing what’s best for those around me. What can I say; I’m a Hufflepuff.
WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR
Just to be clear up front, this list is all about what I like to read and what I feel equipped to help out with. Middle grade is a HUGE age category with many, many facets, so if it's not represented here odds are good you'll find another mentor or five who are looking for what you've got.
The most important thing to note here is that I'm mainly looking for upper-MG this year. That's not to say I don't LOVE lower-MG... I'm just narrowing my focus for now. Upper-MG is a weird desert between the younger readers and YA right now, and we need more of it--books where kids are experiencing autonomy from their parents for the first time, but are also utterly ill-equipped to handle the wider world they're becoming a part of.
That said, I love adventure stories, and kids overcoming incredible odds. High stakes, friendship, discovery... if you show me an experience full of wonder, and kids coming to understand how they fit into a world that’s so much bigger than they expected, we’ll be great friends.
Send me your fantasy, adventure, sci-fi, horror--all the genre stuff! Anything that takes someone from our world and shoves them into somewhere new… yes, please.
I’m an absolute sucker for stories about kids who overcome some great challenge by learning something about themselves. Give me your Serafinas, your Unwanteds, your Story Thieves and your Blackthorn Keys and The Real Boys and Fablehaven and Keepers of the Lost Cities. I haven’t read anything I’ve not liked by Kenneth Oppel or Neal Shusterman, either. And don’t get me started on The Girl Who Drank the Moon. I love Hayao Miyazaki movies, and Diana Wynne Jones books, and Doctor Who, and browncoats, and I love, love, LOVE weird.
I’ll fall for anything that involves kids having secret knowledge, too. Something that takes our world and adds a layer that encourages readers to imagine that there’s more to our world than meets the eye. Latch onto my imagination, make me see the world in a new way, and we’ll do fine.
Give me peril, too. Put kids in danger, and equip them with the tools they need to overcome it. Give me diverse perspectives and challenges and friendship and authenticity. Give me something I haven't seen before! (Seriously, I start salivating whenever I read something that's taking me to a new, unexplored idea)
WHAT I'M NOT LOOKING FOR
I’m not the biggest fan of LOTR-style epic fantasy. If there are multiple apostrophes in a name, it’s probably not for me. Also, I’m not keen on romance-y stuff, which is part of why I’ve found such a love of MG (where there are often hints of romance, but the plot rarely hinges on it). Kids making googly eyes make me blech.
Also also, if it’s super-contemporary, takes place in the modern day and doesn’t have any kind of major twist on the norm or a high-concept hook, you’re probably better off picking another mentor. As a kid, I read to escape the normal, everyday world, so I wouldn’t trust my judgment on those kinds of stories. I might still love it--there are lots of stories like that I do love, but other folks are going to be way better equipped to help you grow.
I'm not the right target for sports books, either. They've got dynamics I just never quite "got" growing up, and so a lot of the time things in those books fly right over my head. (Despite this... I know some of you will still be tempted to send me your sports book because I'm a guy and I write middle grade, so obviously I should be on your list. No. Bad. Stop that. I mean it. If you send me a sports book, I will reject it. Unless it's quidditch, or something like it. Fantasy sports... is a maybe. Okay now the wheels are turning...)
And as much as I LOVE graphic novels, I don't have enough experience on the publishing side to offer a lot of feedback that would help (unless unrestrained awe is the thing you need).
IDEAL MENTEE I'm looking for someone who’s willing to step back, look at all the work they’ve already done, and be willing take an ax to big portions if necessary. Editors want writers who are willing to rethink everything--who hold it all loosely--so if you’re not that person, you may not be ready to move forward (at least the way I do). And that’s okay, but I don’t want to waste your time. Publishing is hard, hard work, and an unwillingness to put in the hard work is likely to stunt your potential growth. My favorite mentees are flexible, excited, and ready to persevere when faced with hard truths. It’s so important that you be willing to hear the feedback, internalize, and work through figuring out why I think what I think so you can address the manuscript in your own way, and make it do what you really want it to.
A positive attitude, patience, and a willingness to bend can go super far in this business. It will make your editor enjoy working with you, make your agent excited to please you, and get other publishing professionals to listen to you.
That said, this is your manuscript, and any feedback I give will always be up to you. The one thing I know for sure is that I don't know everything. Often, the suggestions readers make are wrong. They may point out the problem, but have the wrong solution. Hopefully together we can figure it all out.
WHY YOU SHOULD PICK ME
My strengths lie in raising the stakes, expanding and sharpening the world building, and making the world, plot, and character arcs complement one another. I like to think I've got a good eye for structure and making everything "fit." I'm generally a big picture guy, and will probably have big, global suggestions for your story that will require a hard look at your manuscript and a ton of work. Odds are you're going to get a long edit letter with lots of questions in it to think about.
If I get excited about your project (and if I choose you, that means I'm VERY excited about it), I won't hold back telling you any- and everything that might make your book as good as it can possibly be. I will want you to succeed, and I know that to that end the very best, kindest thing I can do for you is to let the feedback flow.
And like I said, I'm a Hufflepuff. Odds are if we start this mentoring relationship, I'll be around for a long time to answer whatever questions you might have, or to give you that (often much-needed) word of encouragement, or to just cheer you on.
WHY YOU SHOULDN'T PICK ME
If you're looking for someone to tell you that your plot/world/characters are all good and all you need is line edits, I'm not going to be much help. I'm an idea generator, and will likely push you to dismantle some sections of your manuscript to help it reach a wider audience (and also therefore appeal to agents and editors at the same time).
Also, if your personal self-expression is more important to you than your readers enjoyment and grasp of the story, you may not like my feedback. Part of the process of making our writing suitable to appear on store shelves includes tweaking our concepts and ideas to become more palatable to a wider audience. I would never want you to compromise your story core, nor ask you to leave your convictions, but sometimes the best way to get your point across is to change the delivery method of that point.
Writing is self-expression; publishing is a business. I'm looking to help someone do well in this business, and not everyone wants to think of it that way. That's okay, too, it just means that we might not be the best fit.
ONE OTHER THING...
If I don't pick you, it absolutely does NOT necessarily mean that I didn't love your manuscript, or that I don't support you. We Pitch Wars mentors aren't like agents or acquiring editors looking for the thing we want to publish, or the thing that's going to make us bank, or whatever. As a mentor, I'm here to mentor, and that means that as I read these manuscripts I'm going to be evaluating whether I have the knowledge and experience it will take to enhance your book. Last year there were manuscripts I passed on, not because I didn't LOVE them, but because I didn't know how to help them. It doesn't do anyone any good for me to pick a manuscript that I don't see specific areas of improvement that I could speak into. It's hard to make that decision, but it would be disingenuous and reckless of me to take on a project that I can't see a vision for and start recommending changes when I don't know what I'm talking about.
It's like the Hippocratic oath of offering feedback: "First, do no harm."
I will always do my best to avoid harming someone else's manuscript or career. I'm here to help with whatever I have to offer, but I can't draw from a well that I don't have access to. So just know that whatever manuscript I end up selecting will be flawed in a way I feel equipped to help, and that if I don't select yours it only means that I didn't have a plan for making it query-ready.
SO THAT'S THE SPIEL
You marvelous middle grade writers, you--I'm looking forward to seeing your submissions in my Pitch Wars inbox!
Want to see what the other mentors are like? It IS a blog hop, after all! So hop along, but don't forget about me!
And if that doesn't work, you can find the list on the Pitch Wars website at https://pitchwars.org/pitch-wars-2019-mentor-blog-hop/