About ten years ago, I wrote my first YA novel. It was dumb.
The main character was this kid named Miles who wrote a fantasy story about a vampire named Raphael Vedemicci who rode a dragon named Sylph. The kid’s actual life sucked, so he made awesome things happen in his story to compensate for the disappointment.
I called it “The Vampire Diary.” I was inconsolable when “The Vampire Diaries” debuted on TV like a year later, but I don’t know why. My book was a G-darned disaster. I’m embarrassed to have said so much about it here, frankly. Readers deserve better.
Knowing how bad that first book was, I shamed myself into stopping fiction writing for years. And years and years. I’m an English teacher, so I buried my nose in grading papers and lesson planning and The Great Gatsby. I also tripped and fell into an opportunity covering the NBA for a website called HOOPSWORLD (later Basketball Insiders), so I poured my heart and soul into that for the better part of 12 years.
Somewhere along the line, I also discovered the great heaps of supplemental income I could make writing SEO blogs for small businesses, so I spent more of my precious daily writing time doing paid freelance work. I also got my Master’s Degree in Teaching and Learning somewhere in there, so for a long time, my life looked like one of those glasses filled with so much water the liquid rises above the rim with surface tension. I was too busy to even consider writing fiction.
That changed when I attended the National Conference for Teachers of English in the fall of 2017. There’s a marketplace there where publishers give away ARCs and authors sign books, and I was given the opportunity to meet some truly amazing writers. Lois Lowry signed a copy of “The Giver” for me, Angie Thomas, deliriously happy over the recent success of “The Hate U Give,” signed a copy of her book for me, too, so happy to visit with the educators who had been enthusiastically recommending the novel to every teen they came across.
There were so many others. Katherine Applegate. Neal Shusterman. Laurie Halse Anderson. David Levithan. It was overwhelming.
I walked away from that conference with two huge totes full of great YA ARCs like “American Panda” and “Children of Blood and Bone” (written by awesome PitchWars ladies Gloria Chao and Tomi Adeyemi). I also walked away with a fire in my belly to be the person on the other side of those autograph tables.
I don’t care about fame or money. That’s not what I mean. What I want more than anything is to know that high schoolers are reading my books and learning and feeling and discovering important ideas while they do. I want to have conversations with other teachers about the literary value of what I write. I want to travel and speak about my books. I want to reach young people outside of my tiny, rural school district.
When I got home from that conference, I could feel the stories dammed up in my soul, pressing on my chest to get out. I chewed on the idea of writing a semi-autobiographical novel about a couple of teenage rappers in a predominantly white farm school district in the late ’90s, and that spiraled into the concept for a book I wrote in 2018.
When I got toward the end of the book, writing the climactic penultimate chapter at 1:00 in the morning, I cried. It was weird. My body convulsed and shook while I laughed and tears poured down my face in streams. Maybe I was proud of myself for finishing the book. Maybe I was proud of my characters for doing the thing they wanted so badly to do throughout the book. Maybe I saw a piece of the 17-year-old version of myself in those characters, and their catharsis was a DeLorean trip back to 1999, fixing parts of my past I guess I didn’t realize needed fixing.
It felt great to finish that book, to prove to myself that I could do it, but I filed it away as a practice run. One agent read it, and that was it. I’m proud of the book, but I know it’s not the best I can do.
My new book, a YA contemporary entitled, “Between Me and the Sun,” feels like a better representation of what I can do and who I want to be as an author. I pitched the concept to three agents at a writer’s conference in Chicago this past summer, and I was thrilled have all three of them request the full manuscript that day. None of them has offered representation (yet), and I haven’t queried the book widely beyond those people, largely because I’m scared to death the concept is good, but the book might not be quite ready. I can’t put my finger on what exactly is wrong, which is why I need help. I believe in the book (and the query letter caught fire the minute I started sending it out), but I’m to the point where I need help moving the writing to the next level. Hence, PitchWars.
I don’t want to drop the full query letter in the bio, but the book I’m subbing to PitchWars this year includes teenagers working with senior citizens. It includes a nursing home breakout, and an overnight road trip to Colorado and a treasure hunt in the mountains. There are lies, love, and family secrets, and it’s told from the perspective of a vulnerable and sensitive young man from a rural community. Outside of Jeff Zentner, I don’t think we have enough of that in YA.
If you’re a potential mentor reading this to get a sense of who I am, please know that I’m a very hard and efficient worker. I’ve never waited for a deadline to pass to finish a project because I’m always (ALWAYS) finished early. I also take criticism well because more than anything else, I want to get better. While I’d love for this book to be The Book, I accept that it can take years and years to write the thing that finally deserves publication. In the meantime, I want to cultivate professional relationships that can help me make the baby steps necessary to get there. PitchWars, as I’ve seen over and over again, is about as good an opportunity as a writer can get.
In short (if it’s not too late for that), I may not be ready for publication, but I really do believe I’m ready for PitchWars.
I’ve come a long way from “The Vampire Diary.” I’ve learned so much about craft. I’ve read so many books by so many amazing YA authors. I’ve gotten to know so many great high school kids. I’m ready, and PitchWars can help me clear the hurdles I’m unable to clear on my own.
No more G-darned disasters. It’s time to prove I can be a G-darned success.