Sunday, December 7, 2014

On the Play of My Heart and its Journey to Production

I was supposed to be at Live Girls! Theater’s annual fundraiser tonight, talking about what their work on new plays by women has meant to me. I’m stuck at home w/this crud I can’t shake, but here’s what I was planning to say.

 Artistic Director Meghan Arnette probably doesn’t remember this, but my first encounter with Live Girls was an audition. It was my first audition in Seattle, in fact. I was twenty-five, newly transplanted, and I remember arriving at the Pioneer Square building and climbing stairs of dubious structural integrity, thrilled by the fringe-iness of it all. I auditioned for Quickies and was not cast – but now this theater that did all new plays by women was on my radar.

But let me back up even a few more years to my sophomore year at Northwestern University, where I had a brilliant playwriting professor. I ended up winning the school’s playwriting award and getting a full production of the first full length play I ever wrote. I knew it would be hard work, but life as a widely known, frequently produced playwright seemed spread out before me.

A few years out of college and just before I moved to Seattle, I wrote a play about Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, which I called Blood/Water/Paint. I sent it to my professor, who had remained my mentor, and he raved. This play was going to be my break-out and make me a name, he said.

This was 2001.

But getting full productions of Blood/Water/Paint or any of my other full-length plays proved much harder than getting that first production had. Still, I kept sending things out. And after that Live Girls audition, I sent Blood/Water/Paint to Meghan at Live Girls.

She wasn’t ready to fully produce it yet, but something in the play spoke to her and she asked if Live Girls could use excerpts from the play in Notorious Women—LG’s collection of vignettes about, well, notorious women. That was the first of many times Live Girls put my work on their stage. My work was in countless Quickies, reading series, Notorious Women, and Holiday XXX. In 2007, Meghan said she wanted to do one of my full lengths plays in a season slot and I was thrilled.

I had continued sending my plays out all over the country and trying to connect with other Seattle area theaters. I had around 400 rejections to my name.  Blood/Water/Paint had had a workshop in FringeACT, many other plays had had readings and workshops around town and other places, but I had not had another full length production since the one in college in 1997.

I was kind of surprised that Meghan wanted to produce my play Mud Angel, and not Blood/Water/Paint, which I thought was stronger, but I was still thrilled. Live Girls had moved to Ballard, and while the space did not give me the near-death thrill of stairs that could collapse at any moment, it was absolutely overwhelming to see all the artists coming together in service of my play.

Any hopes I had that the Mud Angel production would lead to more Seattle area full productions were unfounded, though. While I continued to get readings and workshops and pieces in short play festivals, those rejections for productions kept rolling in.

Over the last five years, I’ve basically stopped writing plays. I didn’t stop writing – my focus is largely children’s fiction now – but for as much as I love theater, fifteen years is a long time to bang one’s head on the stage door. And yet, though I wasn’t writing new plays anymore, on a regular basis, Meghan would come to me and say, “Hey…what are you working on? Do you have something for Quickies? Do you have something for a reading series?” She refused to let me stop being a playwright completely.

So when I got an email from Meghan about a year ago, I wasn’t surprised – until I read it. She said she wanted to do a reading of Blood/Water/Paint. At first I was a little annoyed. Readings can be really useful at certain stages, but they almost never lead to production. And though I had pulled Blood/Water/Paint out several times since FringeAct and overhauled it, each time it had been met with scores of rejections. It is the play of my heart, and I honestly didn’t want to dredge it up if it was just going to get another reading.

But Meghan said no, she really wanted to consider it for a full production. And then she connected me with director Amy Poisson. Amy, if you guys don’t know, is a FORCE. She is going to completely take over Seattle theater, if not the entire world, and she is putting that energy behind my play right now. The play of my heart, which I was completely convinced would never find an audience. This play is my self-portrait; it says the most important things I have to say in the world, and for more than a dozen years, people have been telling me, “No. We don’t want it on our stage.”

But no longer. Because Live Girls is producing my play, opening February 20th at Theater Off Jackson. I cannot believe my good luck in having been partnered with Amy, except I have to remind myself that it wasn’t luck at all. It was Meghan and Live Girls remembering my play, remembering me, dragging me out of my hermit cave, giving me a place, and being the only company anywhere willing to put my heart on stage.

Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Meghan. Thank you, Live Girls. And thank you, everyone who supports new plays by women.

You can donate to support LG Theater HERE.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

My Pitchwars Inbox - By the Numbers

I thought I’d do a bit of a breakdown of my Pitchwars inbox, for those who like numbers and stuff. (I’m generally allergic to numbers, though I’ve always found query stats interesting, so I thought this might interest a few.)

I got 84 submissions. Of those, NONE were for the wrong age category. Well done, my applicants! A few were in genres I mentioned as not being my favorite, but I think I sounded fairly open minded in my wish-list, so I didn’t auto-reject for that. (That said, it wasn’t a huge surprise that I didn’t end up selecting any sci-fi or high fantasy. Next year I think I’ll sound less open-minded in my wish-list. I hate to rule out a whole genre when occasionally I love a book from it, but I also want to be honest about what I’m most drawn to.)

I asked for more pages from 17 people, and there were several I thought were quite strong but did not request pages from. (Mainly because I just didn’t feel the connection from the opening chapter, but I felt certain someone else would – which is sooo frustrating, I understand, because I heard it a lot while querying.)

I could have very happily worked with at least 8 of my submissions.

10 of the people who submitted to me were chosen as a mentee or alternate.

At least 4 that I thought were quite strong did not get chosen at all (but I cheer them on as they query, from one writer who was never chosen for contests to another!).

I’ve gotten 49 email thank you’s (and more on Twitter). This is not expected – don’t feel like you should thank me or other mentors if you haven’t already. But the graciousness of the responses was really overwhelming. Even if you’re a very evolved person, it’s difficult to not be chosen for something. It’s difficult to thank someone who didn’t choose you. But I have only one response, of those 49, that was not completely and utterly awesome.

(Though I really appreciated the gracious response, do note that you should not thank agents for their responses to queries. You can thank them if they’ve responded to requested materials, but otherwise they’ve just got enough to deal with in their inbox. And if you thank them, do not ask follow up questions. This did not happen to me – again, well done! – but some other mentors had people asking if they could give feedback on a revised query, etc. Do not do this with agents.)

I chose 2 MG contemporaries. One of the writers has been working on her book for three years. The other has written and queried four previous manuscripts. They are in this for the long haul. I will do another upcoming post introducing you to them and their marvelous manuscripts.

For now, thank you so much for gracing me with your submission. I was blown away by the quality, and feel like I understand more and more what agents mean when they say they loved something but just not enough, or that they didn’t love it but are sure someone else will, or that they didn’t quite connect though the writing was strong.

So many of you are so very close. I hope you all will stick with it. And if you haven’t gotten an agent by the time Pitchwars rolls around again next year – though I hope for your sake that you have – I hope you will share your work with me again.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Another Successful Quiet Query

Since yesterday's successful query post seemed so helpful (I feel your pain, quiet contemporary writers!) I thought I'd post another. This was a previous manuscript that did not get me my agent - but it did get me 13 requests. So it did what a query is supposed to do - got the agents to read more. 

It also shows you how I focused the query on one main character, though the manuscript is, in fact, dual POV. (That is made clear at the end of the query.) I had one version of the query that focused on both girls, and it also got requests, but ultimately I preferred this one. Let me know if you have questions!

Twelve-year-old Marisol Higgins never really thought all that much about her mother’s homeland of Guatemala. But when she discovers that her dearly departed mom might not be so departed after all, Marisol has got to find out more. Especially when all signs indicate her mom must be in Guatemala.

So when Marisol finds out her dad is about to turn down an opportunity to study Guatemalan volcanoes for a year—complete with an invitation for her to tag along—she goes ninja and makes it happen. What better way to find her mom and get some answers? (Even if Marisol’s dad keeps acting like the peanut butter jar on the mantle really is filled with her mother’s ashes.)

But finding her mom isn’t as easy as Marisol thought it would be. Once she’s in the land of the Maya, she’s confronted with language barriers, attack kissers, unpredictable downpours, and the harsh realities of the Guatemala City slums. Not to mention a father who seems determined to keep her away from her own mother—if she can ever find her, that is.

NOWHERE BIRDS is a 40,000-word contemporary novel for middle grade readers, which interweaves Marisol’s story with glimpses into the life of Luz, a girl journeying from the Guatemalan slums to Marisol’s Southern California town. Eventually, their vastly different worlds collide.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Query That Got Me My Agent

Okay, I tried to post a link to the query that got me my agent on the #pitchwars thread, but people had difficulty opening up the Absolute Write thread. So here it is - I especially wanted to share it because quieter contemporary stories can be a little tricky to query. The stakes aren't as dramatic, but they still have to be clear and compelling. This got me eleven requests and one amazing agent. Let me know if you have any questions!

When eleven-year-old Natalia is chosen as a special guide to new girl Winnie, she’s thrilled. She’s never singled out for anything, unlike her siblings, who are all prodigies at something, even if it’s just being adorable (like two-year-old Claude). But now Natalia gets to show Winnie around, and Winnie’s not just new—she’s also blind.

Winnie’s blindness is soon the least interesting thing about her. Winnie and Natalia both love show tunes, hate snobby Hayden Marcos, and Winnie doesn’t even seem to mind Natalia’s chaotic household (complete with constant bagpipe practice, a boy named Rat, and a glass bottomed boat in the backyard).

When it comes time to choose an Afterschool Annex class, Natalia’s ready. She’s been yearning to do Dance Team for years. But then awful Hayden starts closing in. If Natalia doesn’t choose an activity she can do with Winnie, Hayden will swoop in and steal her away, just like she stole Natalia’s previous best friend. If Natalia seizes the chance to shine like her siblings, she may risk the best friendship she’s ever had.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Pitch Wars 2014 - Gimme Your Middle Grade! (Also, hi, how are you, I'm Joy)

 I’m so excited to be back for my second year as a Pitchwars mentor!!! I had the best time last year and I can’t wait to dig into your awesome submissions. And why should you grace me with your middle grade submission??

First of all, because I HAVE BEEN WHERE YOU ARE. My agent search was epic. You can read about it HERE. But here’s the short version: three+ years, 5 manuscripts, 290 queries, 47 full requests, one offer from one of the absolute best agents there is: Sara Crowe.

So if you are in that place where you are SO CLOSE YOU CAN TASTE IT? I’ve been there. And gotten to the other side. And I want to help you get there too.

Making this Harry Potter quilt took almost as
long as it took me to find an agent.
(Okay, not that long.)
I’m going to pick something I love and really want to dig into, whether or not it is likely to be contest-friendly. That’s what I did when I picked Laura Shovan’s gorgeous contemporary verse novel last year, and it worked out pretty well, since she signed with Stephen Barbara and sold (at auction) a two-book deal with Wendy Lamb Books. So if you’ve got a manuscript you think might be “too quiet” for a contest, I’m interested. (Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also send me something rollicking and splashy—I’m into those, too!)

Whatever it is, I’m going to dig in. I’m not here to nitpick your grammar and word choices – though we will shine those up if they need it. But if you get as far as being chosen for Pitchwars, you’ve probably got the mechanics of writing down. Competition was TIGHT last year, you guys. My focus is going to be on story. How can we make your story the most compelling it can be, whether it’s a high fantasy or quiet contemporary? I’m likely to hone in on big story elements that need to be changed/strengthened/added. So don’t apply to me unless you’re ready to get down to some serious work.

I love helping writers. I work as a freelance editor and ghostwriter, helping people craft and hone the stories they envision, and I’ve done this for fifteen years. For ten of those years, I did classroom arts residencies in K-12 classrooms as a playwright, helping young writers find their voices and express them.

A recent library haul.
I’m a contributor to the MG group blog Project Mayhem. I am an active critique partner and beta reader to a whole host of wonderful writers, and all of my close CPs have gotten agents and deals with major publishers. I also work as an assistant to a NYT bestselling MG author.

HERE’s my post from last year on why you should pick me. And HERE’s a Project Mayhem post I wrote about the things I learned from last year’s Pitchwars slush, which may help you prepare your submission.  You can read more about me AT MY WEBSITE, and read an interview with playwright me HERE and mentor me HERE.

So what am I looking for? My tastes in middle grade are pretty broad, but my very favorite categories are contemporary and magical realism, with bonus points for diverse stories. There are exceptions to all of these, but here are the things I’m not as wild about: high fantasy, sci-fi, gross-out humor.

And here’s a list of some of my very favorite MG books (excluding the obvious, like Rowling, Cleary, Dahl, etc.):

The Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall
Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
Splendors & Glooms AND A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
The Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker
Wonder by RJ Palacio
His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
A Crooked Kind of Perfect and Hound Dog True by Linda Urban
The Tale of Despereaux, Flora & Ulysses and Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshish
Walk Two Moons and Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
The Winnie Years series by Lauren Myracle
Better Nate Than Ever and Five, Six, Seven, Nate by Tim Federle
The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
May B by Caroline Starr Rose
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams

My crazy-eyed dog Athena says you should apply to me.
Hopefully I'm a better mentor than a dog trainer.
So what’s next? Go to Brenda Drake’s website for all the details about submission. You can also check out the amazing agent list, plus all the terrific mentors waiting to dive in and support your work!

Contests are about the relationships, and I can’t wait to get to know you!

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Monday, May 19, 2014


Hey! It's the My Writing Process Blog Tour, and I'm on it. Check out #MyWritingProcess on Twitter to hear from a variety of writers about how they survive - and even enjoy! -  this process.

So, first of all, many thanks to the Middle Grade Mafioso himself, Michael Gettel-Gilmartin, for tagging me in this My Writing Process blog tour. Michael has got to be the nicest mafioso in history. I’ve gotten to know him over at Project Mayhem, and if you’re not following him on Twitter, I have nothing more to say to you. (Except go follow him, and then come back here and read my blog post.)

What Am I Working On?

I am working on a YA contemporary novel that (I hope) will be comparable to HOLD STILL by Nina LaCour and BOY TOY by Barry Lyga. It’s something I’ve worked on sloooowly, in between middle grade projects over the last few years, and have now committed to buckling down and finishing, once and for all. It’s dark, and personal, and not nearly as much fun to write as my MG projects. But I’ve decided now is the time to finish or set it aside for good (but I’m committed to finishing).

Why Do I Write What I Write?

Although I am working on a YA, I consider myself a middle grade writer. I write MG because no one loves a book like a kid loves a book. Because the vast majority of avid adult readers I know can trace their love of reading back to HARRIET THE SPY or MATILDA or THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA or [INSERT YOUR CHILDHOOD BOOK OBSESSION HERE]. I love the idea of hooking in readers for life. I also love the hope inherent in middle grade. It’s a time of so much change and so much possibility and I love the idea of walking with kids through that period of their lives.

As for why I’m writing a YA, that’s a story I have to tell. It’s the story I wish I’d been able to read as a teen and I hope might be a lifeline to someone who needs it now.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmm. The only way I can think to answer this is to say that I’m the only one who can tell the stories I tell. Even when I tell stories that rely heavily on research or imagination, they still include huge parts of me—and my kids. I don’t even think I write in one genre—unless there’s a genre of books with strong influences from California, Seattle, Chicago, and Guatemala, with characters that are often some combination of biracial, dyslexic, homeschooled, and grappling with some painful childhood history, and often include elements of theater, cross-cultural experiences, and strong love of/aversion to books.

How does my writing process work?

Once I’ve got a seed of an idea, I usually do a fair bit of letting it develop in my brain before I ever write any actual words. When I’m ready, I do some prewriting work. Mostly jotting down everything that’s been simmering in my head, working on character development stuff, clarifying stakes. I like these posts on character development and plot development by the brilliant Robin LaFevers. Then I write an outline, not for the whole book, but that will get me through about 50 pages. Once I’ve written everything in the outline, I outline some more, basically just for as far ahead as I can see. I find that having some outline helps me draft quickly, and getting more writing done helps me clarify what needs to happen next in the outline.

When I’m drafting, I plow forward. I rarely go back and reread. If something happens in chapter nine that makes me realize something major has to change in chapter three, I don’t go back and make that change. I make a margin note of the necessary change and keep moving forward. When I’ve got a draft, I’ve got a whole list of things I already know need revising. So I work on revisions until I feel like it’s solid enough to show critique partners. I do a few rounds of revisions following CP feedback. Finally, I do several polishing passes, including ones where I print out a hard copy, where I read on the Kindle, and where I read aloud, which all catch different errors and flow issues.

The final step in my writing process is this: Once submissions have begun on one manuscript, I immediately start the next one.

Next Monday, I’m very excited for you to meet some awesome writer friends of mine and hear about their writing processes.

First up, Sharon Roat has been a valued critique partner of mine for several years. Sharon grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and now lives in Delaware with her husband and two children where she writes books for children and young adults. She worked in public relations for 20 years before deciding what she really wanted to be when she grew up. Her contemporary YA novel BETWEEN THE NOTES will be published by HarperTeen in 2015; she is represented by Steven Chudney. Visit her online at or on Twitter @sharonwrote.

Next, Laura Shovan was my pick in PitchWars last fall, because her gorgeous middle grade verse novel THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY blew me away. Apparently, it blew Stephen Barbara away too, because she just signed with him! Laura is poetry editor for Little Patuxent Review. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the Harriss Poetry Prize. Laura was a finalist for the 2012 Rita Dove Poetry Award and was a 2013 Gettysburg Review Conference scholarship recipient. Laura is a Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Residence. You can find her on Twitter @LauraShovan and online at

Finally, Darian Lindle is a fellow Seattle playwright turned novelist. She is a graduate of Indiana University with a degree in Theatre, French, and Film Studies and interned with Cahiers du Cinéma in Paris, the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Her stage adaptation of The Westing Game was published by Dramatic Publishing in 2010 and has since been performed at middle schools and high schools around the country. Next up, her sci-fi/steampunk play SILON will be produced by Live Girls Theater. Darian will soon begin her querying journey for a paranormal romance. You can find her on Twitter @dlindle and online at

Be sure to check out each of their homes on the web next Monday to hear all about their writing processes!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How I Got My (First) Agent

[UPDATE 12/14/15: This agent is not my agent anymore. I debated deleting this post entirely. But signing with her and the time I spent with her is still an important part of my journey. It's a journey, folks.]

First I wrote plays for fifteen years. In this time, I amassed over 400 rejections, but I also learned writing discipline, how to take feedback and revise, how to research and track submission opportunities, and how to handle those rejections with a modicum of grace. Usually.

So when I transitioned into writing middle grade fiction, my first manuscript was not an unpolished mess.  It was also not publishable, and I understand why now, but I’d gotten feedback, and revised and polished, and researched agents, and written a good query letter. And I got four full requests, which isn’t shabby, but they all came back rejections (or didn’t come back at all).

So I wrote Manuscript #2. I’ve always started writing the next novel (or play) as soon as I start querying one. And the second one was better. I also got terrific critique partners during the writing of this one. Again I got four full requests. Three of those turned into rejections, one was a revise & resubmit from a fantastic agent. I worked hard on that revision, but ultimately it turned into a rejection.

I wrote Manuscript #3. My critique partners went NUTS. This was going to be it. I got 14 full requests, so I went a little nuts too. And…the rejections started rolling in. Never with feedback I could use to improve the manuscript—generally with feedback like, “It’s not right for me, but someone else is going to love it.” This manuscript also made the long list for the Times of London/Chicken House International Prize for Children’s Fiction, which was super exciting. But it didn’t progress beyond that.

I wrote Manuscript #4. This was quieter. I did not expect much agent response. But again, I got 14 full requests. These almost all came back rejections too. Generally along these lines: “This is really beautiful…but it’s too quiet to debut.” I had a phone call with one agent who requested a revision, which I did. Got amazing green lights from my critique partners before sending the revision off…and it got rejected. BUT this manuscript is currently on the long list for the Chicken House prize. Hope lives for Manuscript #4!

I wrote Manuscript #5. This one was a quiet contemporary story based on a real friendship I had in elementary school. I was sure it wouldn’t make any huge splash, but I didn’t seem to be able to win no matter what I wrote, so I was going to write what I wanted to write and damn the torpedoes. (Not that I’m calling agents torpedoes. But you know.) But I got eleven requests! And…then they started coming back as rejections. Mostly sounding something like this: “I like this…but I don’t love it.” Or even, “I love this…but I don’t love it enough.” And also, “This is kind of slow.”

I wrote Manuscript #6. It was very different. And critique partners were very enthusiastic. I was trying NOT to get excited because, well, see above. I was in a final round of polishing, about a week away from starting to query AGAIN when I got an agent email.

It was an overdue rejection for Manuscript #3. Then, five minutes later, another agent email appeared and I sighed. Here we go again, two in one day, terrific. Except…it said “I loved this! I couldn’t put it down!” It was for Manuscript #5, the school friendship story other agents had said was slow.

It was also from a crazy-amazing agent. You guys, I just can’t even. An agent who had been in my very first batch of queries for every single manuscript.

BUT she hadn’t said it was an offer in her email, and because of my previous agent phone call letdown, I was NOT GOING TO GET MY HOPES UP. (Except I totally did.)

So we had a phone call almost a week later because of scheduling issues. She offered (pause for kitchen happy dance), I nudged the other agents with materials despite deep temptation to accept the offer on the spot, but ultimately signed with my first agent.

I want to encourage anyone still on the querying road. Keep writing, keep querying, you WILL find the agent who is your perfect match [for that stretch of your journey]. Eventually. In the meantime, eat chocolate and write some more.

Okay, now for the numbers:

Queries sent (for the manuscript I got the offer on): 54
Requests: 11
Rejections on fulls before the offer: 6
Time from query to full request – 1 day 
Time from full request to offer – five months

Queries sent for ALL middle grade manuscripts: 290
Full requests: 47
Total Time in the Query Trenches: 3 years