Pitch Wars 2018 - Bring on the characters

In briefest brief: I'm looking for historical fiction or fantasy, in the Adult category.


Hi! Welcome to my 2018 Pitch Wars wishlist. This is my third year mentoring, and I'm so excited to see what beautiful novels you creative people have in store for me.

A little bit about me: My debut novel, A Light of Her Own, is forthcoming from Amberjack this November. It's historical fiction about Judith Leyster, a painter at the time of Rembrandt, and there's lots of female ambition, difficult friendships, and sacrifice. I'm represented by Shannon Hassan of Marsal Lyon, and she's pretty much my hero. I was a two-time Pitch Wars hopeful, and I never got picked. But I fell in love with the community, and by paying attention to the hashtag and some CPs that I met through Pitch Wars, I learned a lot and was able to seriously up my writing game. I hope you can too.

My dad made me pose in front of Judith Leyster's self-portrait. But yeah, she's pretty awesome.

My dad made me pose in front of Judith Leyster's self-portrait. But yeah, she's pretty awesome.

My mentoring style:  I am deeply committed to the learning journey. For myself and my mentees. I view writing as a practice and a way of life, and I love talking about how words create the alchemy of story in our minds. My focus on working with my mentees is usually on making the manuscript more vivid, both at the word level and at the structural level. We'll talk character arcs, showing vs. telling, point-of-view choices, sentence structure, and more. You should know I am not particularly motivated by getting writers big publishing deals. Don't get me wrong -- that would be awesome, and I'm a cheerleader for my mentees every step of the way. It's just that signing an agent and getting a deal are the bonus round, in my view. I'm here for the relationships and the craft.  (Here's a post I wrote about the mental health for ambitious writers: http://www.carriecallaghan.com/blog/2016/6/10/ambition-versus-contentment)

What am I looking for in a mentee?

Here comes the fun part! I can't wait to open my Pitch Wars mailbox and see your beautiful stories. I want you to transport me to different times and worlds. I want you to show me characters struggling with painful but realistic choices, and I want stories with a sense of maturity and sensitivity.

Tombstones in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We all die -- so let's read stories that reckon with those difficult issues of life.

Tombstones in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We all die -- so let's read stories that reckon with those difficult issues of life.

I'm looking for adult fantasy and/or historical fiction. Let's break that down.

  • Adult. Written for adult readers. Who "adults" are is subjective, so I'll leave it at that. This does mean, though, that the story should focus on topics that are of interest to adults, not children. (Some examples of adult topics: how to balance friendship and ambition, how to gain power in a small town, how to allocate scarce resources during a time of hardship, etc. In other words, decisions that affect more than just oneself.) 
  • Fantasy. I don't write fantasy (yet ...), but I love reading it. See some of my favorite books below. Three of my four mentees over the past years have been fantasy writers. I'm also nine years deep in a rich Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I'm mostly into epic fantasy, but would also consider low fantasy if the world-building was rich and the characters sympathetic. I'm also into steampunk and gaslamp.
  • Historical fiction. It's probably (hopefully) obvious that this is my wheelhouse. I write historical fiction, I review it, I read it for fun. (You can see some of my writing here.) I'm open to almost any time period up to the 1950s except biblical. (I am not a religious person. You don't want me for your biblical stories.) I want closely-researched, smart historicals. That doesn't mean you can't manipulate the facts -- but you have to know them first. I would particularly love to see stories not set in the United States or England. My professional background outside of writing is in Latin America, so a historical set there would be a dream. But really, I'm curious and enthusiastic about so many places. And yes, historical fantasy would also be wonderful.
A monster from a medieval illustration.

A monster from a medieval illustration.

General things I'm looking for in a manuscript:

  • Point of view. In the past, I've said that I was wary of first person point of view. That's still true, because I think that first person provides writers the illusion of closeness while actually being more distancing. (If you're interested in learning more on that, let me know on Twitter. Maybe I'll write another blog post.) But this year, I'm open to any POV. If you're not getting close enough to the characters, we'll work on that.
  • Characters. I want to fall in love with your characters and their challenges. I have struggled with plot over the years, so we can work on that. I'm particularly interested in female characters, though that's not a requirement. What is a requirement is a manuscript that passes the Bechdel test. I'm so totally here for your so-called ugly women, your female friendships, your men failed by patriarchy, your misfits and your dreamers.
  • War and politics. I love stories that show the human element of our power struggles. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, or From Unseen Fire by Cass Morris. Again, this isn't a requirement, but stories that at least touch on that sort of conflict will catch my attention. 
  • Art. Obviously, right? I love stories about art and artists. (But this is not a requirement!)
  • Prose. I tend to prefer books that fall on the more literary side of the spectrum, so I'd love to see some nicely polished prose. If you need help, that's ok too. But I want to work with someone who has put care into the words on the page.
  • Diversity. Bring me the stories that haven't been told, particularly if you're a writer from a marginalized background. I want to be surprised and delighted by what I read. I'm very open to any LGBTQ+ stories.  If you're writing about a background that's not your own, I'd like to hear about your research and relevant sensitivity readers. In the query is fine. (Exception to the no-DM policy below: If there's something about your identity you'd like to share privately, I completely respect that.)
  • Plot. I don't need a heavily-plotted story, but I would like to see things move along. This is probably especially the case for fantasy.
  • Ending. I want to see how your characters have changed, and I want some resolution. It doesn't have to be a happy ending, but if the antagonists win and the protagonists go from bad to worse, I'm not going to be the person for your story. Also, please don't have an ending that's just an obvious jumping off for Book Two. I want a book that can stand alone, even if it has series potential.
  • Format. I'm really flexible here, and am open to anything from graphic novels to pick-your-own adventure stories to straightforward chronological narratives, as long as it meets my other criteria.
I also love maps! Old maps, fantasy maps, map-makers ...

I also love maps! Old maps, fantasy maps, map-makers ...

Some things I don't love.

First, let me emphasize how deeply personal these preferences are. My tastes are no more than that: my tastes. I'm picking a manuscript that I'm going to devote probably fifty hours to, maybe more. I need to love it. I think it's wonderful that we all have different loves and creative inclinations, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Multiple manuscripts that I've passed on over the years have gone on to be agented or published -- and I'm here cheering for them, big time. I just couldn't have mentored them, and those writers wouldn't have wanted an unenthusiastic mentor. Seriously. That's a waste of everyone's time.

Right. Disclaimer (very earnest, serious disclaimer) over. Here are the things I don't want to see:

  • Child protagonists. Though I've read some amazing stories with children protagonists (see Room by Emma Donoghue), I've found that most stories told from a child's point of view tend to be focused on things that are of interest to a child. Which, because I'm a grumpy adult, are not of interest to me. 
  • Retellings. Part of the delight of reading, for me, is discovering something new. Yes, there's nothing new under the sun... Except there is. And if I feel, even wrongly, that I know where a story is going, I lose interest. (Possible exception: If your story is a retelling of something I won't recognize, then sure, go for it. I loved Mr. Iyer Goes to War because it wore its Don Quixote trappings very lightly, and diverged from the original text with intention.) Also, I'm not into alternative history, unless it's something pretty obscure.
  • Romance. Sorry, I'm not your gal for plotlines that are primarily romantic. If romance is a sub-plot? Sure, that'd be fantastic. (And any heat level is fine; I love some sexy scenes!) But there are better mentors than me for stories about characters whose primary struggle is pairing off with someone else.
  • Mysteries. Likewise, there are much better mentors than me for books that are primarily mysteries, even if they are set in the past. Mysteries have some conventions that I am not familiar with, as a writer, and couldn't be helpful with. Of course, a novel with an aspect of mystery is just fine (great, even). But not if the primary plot or storyline is about resolving a crime.
  • Vengeance. Angry, vengeful characters are hard for me to connect with, unless they have some obvious soft spots (like in Trail of Lightning). Not that those can't be great books! They're just not for me.
  • Extreme violence. I don't have any real trigger areas, but I don't like lots of detailed descriptions of violence. Also, if there's a sexual assault that happens to one character which simply serves as development for a second character (gives Second Character motivation or mission or lesson), that's not for me. Violence or sexual assault that are dealt with sensitively are no problem. Hey, I said I like war stories, so it comes with the turf.
  • Submissions I've seen before. Like with retellings, if I can recognize it from previous years, it's probably not going to be for me. In most cases, you're going to be better off submitting to a new mentor. The very rare exception will be if the story is so different (new title, new pitch, new first chapter) that I don't recognize it at all. (If you aren't sure how yours falls, and you really think I'd be a good fit otherwise, please reach out on Twitter. But generally, you'll be better with a fresh mentor.)

How to interact with me: I love talking to writers on Twitter, so please reach out to ask for clarifications (though I can't say specifically if your 17th century cooking fantasy about pirates and sculpture will be for me, I can answer general questions). (Please do not DM me though. If you have a question, I'd rather everyone be able to see the answer, so as to be fair.) Also, please feel free to engage on craft questions. I started this post talking about my passion for learning, and I really mean that. I want to help you and myself grow to be a better writer and person. So let's chat about show-vs-tell or how to use time or concision in dialogue or ...

When I pick my mentee, I'll write an edit letter (probably 2-3 pages) and send a manuscript filled with comments and edits. I do a lot of note-taking in manuscripts as I go. Sometimes, since I'm pressed for time, this might come off as a bit curt. But I do try to flag all the things I love too (and there will be many), and I am always willing to reassure my mentee when necessary. I care about the writer and the story. But note, you do need to be willing to accept and work with criticism -- both with me and, I'm guessing, with the other mentors. Then I'll be in touch via email during the revision period, and am always happy to answer questions. I do expect mentees to be independent workers with a strong vision for the novel.

Books I've loved: This is always the hardest part of writing a wish list since there are so many! I hope you're reading widely and deeply in your chosen genre. Writers are my favorite people! However, writers who don't read are my least favorite people, and we won't be a good match if that's you. But I'm sure it's not. :)

  • The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
  • From Unseen Fire by Cass Morris
  • The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
  • How to be Both by Ali Smith
  • Song Yet Sung by James McBride
  • Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
  • Side by Side by Jenni Walsh
  • City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Grudging by Michelle Hauck
  • The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
One of the bookshelves in my house

One of the bookshelves in my house

Thanks for visiting! Here are the rest of the lovely adult mentors, or head back to the Pitch Wars blog at the mothership.

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