When my editor emailed me asking for an author photo, I sighed a little. Like many people, I don’t feel photogenic and cringe at most pictures I’m tagged in on social media. Added to the usual photo insecurity was the pressure of getting a picture that not only looked good but also communicated who I am as a writer. So I went into the whole process expecting terrible results. Of course, on the day of the photo shoot a ton of things went wrong—hair product and lipstick catastrophes galore.
Luckily, however, I chose a great photographer, who made the whole process easy and, unbelievably enough, fun. We did part of the shoot in front of a rustic-looking building and part in an old cemetery, which really helped ensure I didn’t end up with head shots that looked like they belonged to a real estate agent. The light was beautiful, the settings were well-chosen, and my photographer figured out all the best ways to bring out the look I was aiming for.
So in the end, I was really pleased with the results and feel good about the photo I sent along to my publisher. I’ve seen lots of authors stressing about their author photo lately, so I thought I’d share some lessons I learned from the experience.
PHOTO SHOOT PREP
AFTER THE SHOOT
Here are a few of my favorites from the photo shoot, courtesy of Amelia J. Moore Photography.
Option 3 is the one I chose for my official photo as it’s friendly, focuses on my face, and still communicates my personality, without being overly dramatic.
If you’ve found yourself here, it’s probably because you’re considering applying to Pitch Wars. Welcome!
I am so thrilled to be a YA mentor in Pitch Wars this year. I was a mentee in 2017, and PitchWars brought so much goodness to my life: a new writing community, an amazing mentor, stronger writing skills, and a lot of industry know-how. After Pitch Wars, I received five offers of representation and went on to sign a two-book deal with HarperTeen.
So I’ve got a lot of love for Pitch Wars, and I am eager to pass along what I’ve learned and help another writer navigate the choppy waters of publishing.
I write YA contemporary fantasy with a Southern Gothic feel. My stories often feature f/f romances, complex family relationships, and atmospheric settings. I have a weakness for old forests, Southern voices, and beautiful sentences. I’m originally from the pine woods of rural Florida but have made my home in Nashville, Tennessee, where I’ve learned to love bluegrass and have even started learning to play the banjo. I spend most of my time writing, reading, and hanging out with my scruffy little rescue dogs, Nutmeg and Luna.
I have a Master’s degree in English and have taught academic writing at the college level. I’ve also worked as a content editor and writing tutor. I am represented by Lauren Spieller of Triada US Literary Agency. My debut YA contemporary fantasy, GHOST WOOD SONG, will be published by HarperTeen in summer 2020.
I believe writing is an extremely vulnerable, personal act, so I always strive to be kind and constructive in my feedback. That said, I’m also going to be honest and direct and will spend most of my time in problem-solving mode.
My strengths as a writer are character development, world-building, atmosphere, voice, dialogue, and style. I am strongest at the sentence/paragraph level, so if you need help with crafting sentences and cutting fluff, I’m definitely the mentor for you.
I am looking for a mentee who is able to accept criticism and work hard, even if it means making significant changes. But I also want a mentee who will to keep true to their vision for the book and say no to changes that don’t fit with that vision. In other words, I want my mentor-mentee relationship to be a cooperative partnership—give and take.
I tend to be a bit reserved, so you probably won’t see me posting quite as many gifs and heart-eyes emojis as other mentors, but I promise to be an enthusiastic, dedicated mentor and to provide every bit of insight and help I can.
Books I Love
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
What I’m Looking For
Give me magic, friends. I love both low and high fantasy, magical realism, and speculative fiction. I am a sucker for atmospheric settings, beautiful sentences, and inventive magic. I want characters I can care about—ones with personal stakes and a sense of agency. And I want careful, thoughtful, lyrical writing. Don’t just entertain me; make me feel something. My ideal book has a commercial, high-concept hook paired with gorgeous prose.
I strongly welcome submissions from writers from marginalized communities. LGBTQ stories are my jam, especially those with a f/f romance.
As someone from a low-income background, I’m very interested in stories with characters who aren’t economically privileged—who don’t live in palaces or even middle-class suburbs. I would especially like to see these stories from writers with similar backgrounds.
Give me intersectional feminist narratives and all your “unlikable” female protagonists. I want badass girls (with or without violence), tough cookies with gooey centers, and smart girls with cool hobbies.
Miscellaneous longings: witches, pretty bugs, creepy mansions, ghosts (no horror), small seaside towns, Southern families, pirates, goddesses, sirens, forests and gardens, and dark fae.
Wildest dreams: If you can write a YA fantasy with the atmosphere and tension of a Daphne du Maurier novel, I’m the mentor for you!
YA Categories I Want Most
YA Categories I’ll Consider (but I’m VERY picky with these)
I’m Not a Great Fit For/ Don’t Want
Thanks so much for considering me as a mentor. I can’t wait to read your submission! Have questions? Ask below in the comments.
P.S. Meet Nutmeg & Luna!
You can see wish lists for all Pitch Wars mentors here: https://pitchwars.org/pitch-wars-2018-mentor-blog-hop/
Be sure to check out all the other amazing YA mentors!
Over the three years I spent querying agents, I pored over a lot of sample queries, especially those of published books, looking for that magic pitch formula that would get me requests. I wrote and rewrote my queries, got lots of feedback, fine-tuned and despaired. Eventually, I wrote one that did the trick. In case it will be helpful to other writers, I’m sharing my successful query for GHOST WOOD SONG.
Dear Amazing Agent,
When her daddy died in a car crash, sixteen-year-old Shady Grove Crawford thought he took his ghost-raising fiddle with him. Now, with the pine woods outside her trailer filling with eerie bluegrass music and restless spirits, Shady is certain Daddy’s fiddle is calling to her from beyond the grave.
Then her brother is arrested for murder, and Shady knows she must find the fiddle to prove his innocence and discover the real killer. She forms a bluegrass band with her secret crush Sarah and a rodeo boy who’s trying to swagger his way into her heart. Together, they set out to raise the dead. But instead of finding the truth, Shady conjures up the shadow man, the vengeful spirit that destroyed Daddy’s life and has now laid claim to hers.
To free herself from its deadly grip, Shady must unearth the fiddle’s dark origins and uproot the shameful past Daddy tried so hard to hide. If she doesn’t, her brother will go to prison and Shady will follow her daddy to an early grave.
GHOST WOOD SONG is a YA Contemporary Fantasy, complete at 71,000 words. Jeff Zentner’s THE SERPENT KING meets Maggie Stiefvater’s THE RAVEN BOYS. The novel was showcased in the 2017 Pitch Wars contest.
Like Shady, I grew up in the pine woods of rural Florida but now reside in Nashville, TN, where I’ve learned to love bluegrass music and have even started learning banjo. I have a Master’s degree in English and teach writing courses at a small liberal arts college. Previously, I worked as a content editor for an educational company.
The first ten pages are included below. The full manuscript and a synopsis are available upon request. Thank you so much for your time and consideration.
From the moment I sent my first query letter to a literary agent in February 2016, I starting looking forward to writing one of those “How I Got My Agent” posts—the ones that show aspiring authors there is light at the end of the querying tunnel. This one is about six months overdue, which is a good reminder to me that even though publishing life seems to move at a snail’s pace, it’s often going by quicker than we think.
I’m going to try not to tell you my whole life story, but these posts are inevitably a little self-indulgent, right? So like most writers, I knew in elementary school that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. My first story was called “James Pond, Frog Detective.” In middle school I started writing bad poetry, and in college I wrote a lot of mediocre poetry and some short stories.
So I had always dreamed of being a writer, thought of myself as a writer, but I could never seem to settle down, put my ass in the chair, and write. Then, in December 2013, a few weeks after I finished grad school, my dad passed away. He was only in his sixties, had worked his whole life at a job he didn’t particularly relish, and was about to retire so that he could travel the U.S. in an RV. Finally see the world. And then he got stage-4 lung cancer and died.
Well, that’s the sort of devastating event that makes a person realize our dreams aren’t just waiting around for us, and if we have the means to do something about them . . . Well, as Mary Oliver wisely asked, “What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I didn’t want to see the world so much as write one. So I penned my first novel, which was a middle-grade high fantasy. It wasn’t terrible, but it was the sort of book you write to learn how to write a book. Of course, I didn’t know that then. So I dutifully started sending out queries to literary agents. Surprisingly, I got a dozen manuscript requests . . . followed by an avalanche of rejections.
But I learned from my mistakes, put my ass in the chair again, and wrote a second book, a young adult high fantasy. This one was much more original, tougher, more mature. I loved this book. I said to myself that this was The Book, the one that would get me an agent.
Cue the inevitable rejections.
Well, I thought, third time’s the charm, right?
And it was. My YA Contemporary Fantasy, GHOST WOOD SONG, was The Book. It had voice, atmosphere, lyricism—plus that all-important element: a commercial hook—a ghost-raising fiddle. I had never really understood what writers meant when they talked about “the book of their heart.” But GHOST WOOD SONG was the book of mine. I poured my grief over my dad’s death into it, my longing for a home that no longer existed, the nightmares that have woken me up screaming in the dead of night—and a whole lot of bluegrass music. I didn’t hold anything back. This book was honest and creepy and very, very Southern.
Soon, it was chosen for the mentorship contest Pitch Wars, which felt like winning the lottery. My mentor ripped it to shreds and helped me sew it back together into a powerful, compelling story. Over a few months, I rewrote over half of it, killed a lot of darlings, and added in scenes I never imagined I’d write. Sometimes I looked around at the dismembered corpse of my book and wondered how it would ever be whole and beautiful again. And then it was.
I was so proud of my book, so proud of the work I’d done. I hadn’t just written a good book; I’d found my voice and my identity as a writer. But when the Pitch Wars Agent Round arrived, I watched everyone else’s posts in the showcase blow up with requests while mine languished, overlooked, barely even middling.
Hmm, I thought, maybe my voice just isn’t what they’re looking for. But I shrugged it off and started querying agents the old fashioned way, one email at a time.
A few weeks later, a lovely, lovely agent wrote back, “WOW—I could not put this novel down! Are you available to chat today?” (That’s Agent Speak for, “I’m probably going to offer you representation once I make sure you’re not a serial killer or anything.”)
I’m not a particularly demonstrative person; some might call me emotionally reserved. But when I opened that email, I was standing in my kitchen, staring at my phone, and then suddenly I was yelling. My dogs looked on in mortal terror while I laughed and whooped and screamed.
But I finally pulled myself together, emailed the agent back to set up a call, and later notified the other agents who were considering the manuscript. And then, to my shock, more offers started coming in, each one from an agent I’d be lucky to work with.
After three books and two years in the query trenches, with over 100 rejections, I had five offers of representation. I was ecstatic, but I was also stressed. Not only did this introvert have to have five phone calls with Big Important People, but I also had to choose one of them, and that decision could make or break my writing career. I talked the decision over with my Pitch Wars mentor, made a spreadsheet comparing the agents, and did a lot of research.
But in the end I went with my gut. Lauren Spieller at Triada US Literary Agency was the one. She got my book, understood its heart, loved the same things about it that I loved, and had a clear vision for how to make it stronger. (Plus, her other clients raved about her so much I thought I might be joining a cult.)
On December 12, 2017—my dad’s birthday—I woke up from a rare, beautiful dream about him. We were laughing together over a Johnny Cash song, “One Piece at a Time.”
That afternoon, I emailed Lauren to let her know I would be absolutely thrilled to accept her offer of representation.
And that’s how I got my agent.
I’m thinking today about how our pasts find their way into our fictions—both the ones we write and the ones we hold inside ourselves.
My book Ghost Wood Song was inspired by the places I grew up—a drafty, haunted house in a declining neighborhood and then a single-wide trailer on five acres of planted pine. The book’s story couldn’t be picked up and put into a different location; North Central Florida and the places where people like my family live are its home.
While my sister was reading an early draft of the book, she said, “I’m just waiting to see how many more family secrets you put in here.” Because I did—not obviously and not even intentionally, but my childhood worked its way into the book, with its fears and its hopes and its loves.
But that same past wove itself into a different kind of fiction—the beliefs about myself and the world that formed the basis of my identity as a young person. There’s a peculiar experience of growing up poor and then spending the rest of your life around people who didn’t. It starts in college—being the only one worrying about how to pay for basic needs, going without dental care, wondering if you’ll ever be able to pay off those student loans you’re racking up.
But it’s not only financial—you have a constant sense of being behind, of having gaps in your education and knowledge. For years, through college and then two graduate programs, I thought my upbringing was a weakness because it felt like I was working twice as hard as everyone else to achieve just as much. It felt like I would never learn to walk like I belonged there.
But writing Ghost Wood Song made me realize that my past—being poor, working hard, finding my own way into a world that wasn’t mine—wasn’t the story I thought it was. It wasn’t about becoming something else, something better. Like Ghost Wood Song, my own story was about realizing the strength that lies in our ties to the past, in the love that comes only from grief, the grit that comes only from struggle, the hope that comes only from not having.
Iranian author Azar Nafisi wrote that “what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.” My book is a YA fantasy novel about a girl with a ghost-raising fiddle, but it’s also a book about letting go of the fictions that harm us, about rewriting the stories that have kept us in the dark.