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What We Keep

Three years ago, I was just starting my journey as a Pitch Wars mentee.

For those unfamiliar, Pitch Wars is a mentoring program where published or agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose a lucky writer and then spend the next two (now three) months helping the writer revise their manuscript.

It was my second year of applying, and when mentee names were announced that crisp, fall evening, I danced around the living room for hours. All I could think of was how fortunate I was, and how far I had come in a year. I hadn’t yet internalized the gigantic workload unrolling in front of me as I would go about spending the next two months revising my middle grade manuscript.

Before Pitch Wars, I was a full time middle school teacher. My days were crammed with listening to 8th graders discuss The Book Thief in my English classes, leading 6th graders through improvisation games in my theatre classes, and grading papers and recorded performances in the evenings. Writing was my liberation found in pockets of late night quiet and weekend mornings over a cup of tea. Writing was slow and meditative. My story and I walked hand in hand on romantic strolls whenever we could find time to be together. There was never a rush to sprint into the distance.

Oh, how that soon changed.

My first assignment as a Pitch Wars mentee was to address a lengthy edit letter that asked me, in no uncertain terms, to rewrite my manuscript in a month.

Um, well obviously I can’t do that, I thought. It’s impossible.

I almost laughed. Almost.

But I could see the earnestness of my mentors. They were not joking, not slinging around ridiculously high demands paired with ridiculously short deadlines. We had two months to revise my book, and that meant rewriting all the major events in one month, and then editing from there. It simply had to be done.

“We know it sounds hard,” they said. “But you can do it.”

I wasn’t so sure, but it didn’t seem up to me to decide what the laws of physics were in that moment. So I got to work rewriting my story from scratch. In four weeks, I had a new manuscript. Four weeks after that, I had edited my book three additional times. The impossible became possible.

Flash forward to three years, minus two months, later.

On the last day of this past June, my spouse and I were lounging in the hallway decked in multi-colored leggings and rain boots. We wore bicycle helmets and clutched our hobby horses, waiting to leave for our friend’s Kentucky Derby themed party. We had looked for fancy clothes, but had decided any good derby needed some jockeys, so our outfits were decided.

An email pinged on my phone. It was from my editor about a draft I had turned into her in May. This was the second book in my debut series, THE DERBY DAREDEVILS—the series that was supposed to mean as a published author, I did everything right now and never had to rewrite from the ground up.

“Thanks for sending your draft of Derby Book 2 over,” the email said. “Your edit letter is attached.”

You can probably guess where this is going…

Thanks to impending deadlines and book schedules, the manuscript had to be in line-editing shape by September. And at the end of June it was… far from line-editing level. Most of the events focused on things that would work better in another book, which meant I needed to rewrite the entire plot. Also, the rewrite needed to happen in three weeks to allow time for a second edit letter and a second round of revisions.

The word IMPOSSIBLE scrolled through my head like a “does not compute” error message. It lasted the rest of the day, even as I clutched my unicorn hobby horse and got in the car for the party. I lost the derby race that afternoon, despite winning second place for best outfit. But even my gift card to Starbucks couldn’t undo the searing pain of that edit letter.

I had three weeks to rewrite Book 2 in my series.

As any writer knows, the first step in the rewriting process is to bathe in abject self-loathing. Usually I like to take a week for this, but thanks to the compressed THREE WEEK DEADLINE, I managed a day instead. I curled up in a throw blanket on the floor and stared blankly at the ceiling, looking for animal shapes in the textured plaster. I thought about becoming a zookeeper. I wondered if zookeepers ever felt like failures and had to rewrite manuscripts in three weeks. Of course they didn’t—they were zookeepers.

But then my day was up and I had to give up zookeeping dreams and actually rewrite the book.

And yet—even with that voice yelling “IMPOSSIBLE” over and over again in my head—another voice began to chime in. The second voice started as a tinny echo, but got louder and louder each day until finally, it overtook the first voice. This one said: “You can do it anyway.”

In three weeks, I turned in the rewrite to my editor. Two weeks later, she wrote back to say she loved it and gave me a much smaller edit letter. Edits got implemented within the next two weeks, and I tagged my editor again with the revised manuscript, crossing every set of fingers and toes that this time I got it right.

On the first business day of September, my inbox pinged with a new email from my editor on Book 2. She loved it. No more revisions—we were ready for line edits.

“We know it sounds hard,” my mentors had said. “But you can do it.”

Soon, I’ll be releasing my Pitch Wars wish list for submissions. This is the first year I’m mentoring in the program. I can’t wait to read the submissions and find a writer to work with—a writer who might come into this program with a very conservative understanding of their abilities, as I did years ago.

As a mentor, I’ll be giving feedback on plot, character arc, stakes, pacing, tension, and prose cadence specific to one manuscript. But I’ll also be asking for tight deadlines and cheering from the sidelines, chanting “you can do it” as my mentee hurdles forward through the dense jungle of revision.

Because even after the manuscript is done and either goes on to agent hands or publisher hands or even back in a drawer, those words are the ones that will stay. The ones I kept long after my year in Pitch Wars was over.

You can do it. You can do it.

I can do it, and so can you.

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