Priscilla Mizell was my Pitch Wars mentee, and she is completely awesome. Visit her web site at priscillamizell.com and follow her on Twitter @PriscillaMizell.
Rebecca: Tell us about yourself and your manuscript.
Priscilla: Thank you for hosting me, Rebecca! I’m delighted to be a 2015 Pitch Wars mentee on Team Zeph!
I graduated from Kansas State University with an M.A. in Children’s Literature. By day, I’m a product manager for a professional development publisher. By night, I write picture books and middle-grade novels and illustrate in gouache and cut paper collage.
My husband, Aaron (a.k.a. C.R. Guardian), is a fellow writer. I like him for many reasons; one being he suggested we transform our tenth anniversary trip—scheduled months ago for mid-October—into a writing retreat. So, I worked on Pitch Wars assignments with a view of the Caribbean Sea!
We live in Kansas City, a magical place that is currently reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland through a citywide initiative of our libraries and will soon be home to The Rabbit Hole, a center for the children’s book founded by Deb Pettid and Pete Cowdin of the Reading Reptile.
My Pitch Wars manuscript is a middle-grade contemporary titled ZEPHYR in which twelve-year-old Betz serves at Barnet’s Family Diner where all meals include a side of tall tale. When her storyteller Granddad shows signs of dementia, Betz cooks up a plan to craft crop circles and one last tall tale before his stories fade away.
Rebecca: This was a first Pitch Wars for both of us! What did you hope to get out of your experience, and what did you actually get?
Priscilla: ZEPHYR made the rounds at publishing houses before my agent—whom I will always think the world of—decided to leave agenting. I sensed the manuscript needed another revision based on the editorial notes we’d received. I also knew it would be an uphill battle to query a somewhat shopped manuscript.
My hope in entering Pitch Wars was twofold:
That a middle-grade mentor would help me see what I could not and guide me through a robust revision to a stronger, more emotionally resonant manuscript that is also marketable.
That agents might be willing to consider the project if they saw it was significantly reworked within Pitch Wars.
I wasn’t sure whether a mentor would take on a manuscript that had been represented before, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to apply. I was astonished to receive four full requests and delighted when you and other middle-grade mentors said nice things about my pages. It made me believe that ZEPHYR could find a home.
I’ve learned so much these previous two months, especially with regard to uncovering character motivations, outlining a satisfying plot, and using dialogue more effectively. (Up ‘til now, I used dialogue as a crutch. Who knew?) We resurrected a main character, invented a couple more, replotted the story, and are in the process of rewriting the entire manuscript. I’m thrilled about how ZEPHYR is taking shape under your tutelage.
I’ve also made lasting writer friends and found beta readers, too. You, the other mentors, Brenda Drake, and the rest of the Pitch Wars community are encouraging, generous, and super savvy—not to mention fun! Pitch Wars has exceeded my highest expectations.
How about you?
Rebecca: I joined Pitch Wars because one of my critique partners, Jocelyn Rish, was an alternate two years in a row, and another friend, Jaye Robin Brown, has been a mentor for three years now. Their excitement and positivity about the experience made me want to get involved, too. I love to mentor writers, and I wanted to give back to a writing community that has helped me so much.
I was hoping to find a manuscript that both clicked with me and that I could see a clear path to improving. I also hoped to find a writer that was willing to listen, process suggestions, and run with new ideas.
I staked a claim on ZEPHYR early. The writing was lovely, especially when focused on Place, and I loved the idea of crop circles to help the family business. I also immediately had thoughts about how to draw out both the writing and the story. But I was nervous because my main suggestion involved a huge change—bringing a character back from the dead.
I was thrilled when you agreed with the idea of resurrecting Granddad. We both knew it was unlikely we’d have a manuscript ready for the Agent Round, but I am passionate about this story and honored to be part of its path to publication no matter how long it takes. I’m with you all the way.
Plus, you are wonderful to work with. Not only are you incredibly organized, you are also a hard worker and fast learner. Watching your writing and the story develop was like watching a flower bloom before my eyes. I can’t express enough how proud I am of the work you’ve done and how excited I am to see what comes next for you.
Priscilla: It's been wonderful to learn from you. What was the application and vetting process like on the mentor side?
Rebecca: I received 53 submissions, and made ten requests. I had a loose scoring system based on quality of writing/storytelling and my personal interest in the story. I also kept an eye on who else was interested in the manuscript. Mentors had a Pitch Wars “green room” where we discussed submissions and shared pages with each other. We all wanted to see manuscripts find the right home, and sometimes that meant passing pages to a mentor the writer hadn’t submitted to. We had spreadsheets to monitor who was interested in what and who was most passionate about a project. We really didn’t want a good manuscript to be missed because we thought someone else had it. I wish you could have seen how hard the mentors worked and how positive and excited we were about all the Pitch Wars entrants.
What is one of the most helpful things you learned as part of your experience? Most frustrating?
Priscilla: Most helpful? The value of plotting before drafting with an emphasis on internal and external conflicts. I’d made basic outlines before but I’d never completed a beat sheet or outlined within a three- or four-act structure. Your approach to plotting will forever be my go-to tool.
Most frustrating? That narrative exercise where you made me write four pages without ANY dialogue whatsoever. It was by far the most difficult exercise you assigned. But it made me realize exactly how much I depended on inconsequential dialogue to get from scene to scene.
Rebecca: What advice would you give to next year’s Pitch Wars hopefuls or anyone participating in a mentoring experience?
Priscilla: Go in with a thankful heart and an open mind. And be prepared to WORK.
Rebecca: We are a special circumstance because we decided not to enter the agent round. Will you share why and your feelings about that?
Priscilla: Certainly! While most mentees were busy rewriting and revising, we spent our two months studying plot structure, working through craft exercises, brainstorming ideas via Skype and Fuze, and replotting the book. Because of that, we were behind most Pitch Wars teams. Brenda was kind enough to offer a “ready in two months” option for the Agent Round but we couldn’t say with certainty the manuscript would be polished by then.
We wanted to give ZEPHYR its very best shot. We felt the best way to do this was to take more time to rewrite, share the manuscript with beta readers, revise accordingly, and place it before agents only once it was ready.
The decision was surprisingly easy to make. We agreed the most valuable part of Pitch Wars was the mentorship itself. Plus you’d made it clear from the beginning that you were in this for the long haul, which truly set my mind at ease.
While we sat out the Agent Round, I cheered on my fellow Pitch Wars mentees from the sidelines and lived vicariously through them. They worked so hard on their projects, pitches, and excerpts and they’re an incredibly talented group. It’s been thrilling to follow along on Brenda’s blog and on Facebook, especially when entries received requests and offers of representation.
The draft I submitted to Pitch Wars opened with Granddad’s funeral and followed a grieving Betz as she carried around his journal and filled up the empty pages. What made you suggest we resurrect Granddad?
Rebecca: To me, ZEPHYR felt like it wanted to be a story about family and crop circles. But the recent death of the grandfather weighed down those elements and made the manuscript more about grief. Granddad seemed like a great character with personality to spare, and after reading the journal entries, I felt like you secretly wanted Granddad in the book, too.
Priscilla: You're right. Granddad belongs on the page. You called yourself “tricksy” because you assigned our craft exercises for secret reasons. Tell me a little about how you chose the writing assignments and the order in which they were assigned.
Rebecca: Agreeing to a complete rewrite of your manuscript was a huge decision, and I know how overwhelming that can feel. I didn’t want to push you over the edge, but also felt we needed to do some writing work before we dug in. Your writing of Place was gorgeous, so I knew you could be brilliant at writing Narrative text, but the manuscript leaned on dialogue that didn’t necessarily let me into the characters’ heads. I wanted to strengthen your Narrative writing muscle and nudge you in the direction of stronger character development without stressing you out. I tried to scale the exercises, beginning work with short scenes and encouraging quick and ugly writing as we practiced more narrative-focused writing, got to know new characters, and explored possible plot elements.
But I also wanted to get you going on the manuscript. I planned pretty far ahead when I chose what scenes I wanted you to work on, beginning with the short “throwaways” and soon shifting to scenes I thought likely to be of use later in the manuscript, not only because they would be in the manuscript, but also because how the characters behaved in those moments would teach you a lot about how they would be in more ordinary moments.
I think it worked. You came up with so many awesome character and plot elements, and your latest pages read like they’re from a finished book. This is me after all the work you’ve done:
Rebecca: What helped you to keep going during this intense time as both a Pitch Wars hopeful and mentee?
Priscilla: When you suggested resurrecting Granddad, my immediate reaction was hesitation and fear. Heck, it would change the whole book. There would be SO. MUCH. WORK. And I was already on my tenth revision! But the more I wrestled with the idea, the more excited I got about the possibilities. I’ve found that if an editorial note intimidates me, that’s often the path that will lead to growth.
I gave your suggestion careful thought, jotted down a “Schrödinger’s Granddad” list (as Rebecca Wells so cleverly put it) with reasons for keeping Granddad dead or making him alive, and talked things over with Aaron. I knew I had to be all in.
That was my mindset when the Pitch Wars announcements were made. I went in with trust in your guidance and expertise, a willingness to try anything you suggested, and a stubbornness to not give up on the project before I’d given it everything I had.
You asked me not to list you as a reason so I didn’t open with you. Honestly, though, I couldn’t have wished for a better mentor. Whenever I began to feel down or overwhelmed, you’d send an email with words of encouragement and perfectly placed smiley faces or pipe up on Twitter with a well-timed GIF. That made a huge difference. So you’re included. Tough bananas.
ET or Alf? ET
Cheese Fries or Gravy? Cheese Fries
Pie or Cake? Pie
Pepsi or Coke? Coke
Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall? Spring
Favorite crop? Sunflowers
The 5th Wave or The True Meaning of Smekday? SMEKDAY, all the way!
Do aliens live among us? No, only because I hope not! While I love the idea of aliens, I wouldn’t want to meet one in real life.
Favorite writing fuel? Twizzlers and Mountain Dew
Your Novel in Three Words, Go! Covert Crop Circles
ET or Alf? ET
Cheese Fries or Gravy? Gravy Fries
Pie or Cake? ALWAYS CAKE
Pepsi or Coke? Neither. (My brown sugar water is sweet tea.)
Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall? Spring
Favorite crop? Sweet peas because they’re fun to shell.
The 5th Wave or The True Meaning of Smekday? The 5th Wave. I like the dark side.
Do aliens live among us? No, but only because they haven’t found us yet.
Favorite writing fuel? Irish Breakfast tea with cream and sugar and scones.
Your Novel in Three Words, Go! Boy Eats Bugs