A Pitch Wars Success Story with Kara McDowell and her mentors, Brenda Drake and Heather Cashman
Brenda and I have extra cause to celebrate this success story! Kara McDowell was our very own mentee! And we love her bunches and bunches. Kara signed with Kristy Hunter of The Knight Agency after Pitch Wars 2016, and we couldn’t be happier for her! Please, help Brenda and I to celebrate Kara’s Pitch Wars Success!
Kara, what was it about Brenda and Heather that made you choose to send them a Pitch Wars application?
Because I was the scavenger hunt winner, I didn’t get to choose my mentors. That said, I couldn’t have asked for anyone better. I consider myself so lucky to be mentored by the people who make Pitch Wars possible. Brenda is so sweet and supportive, and Heather’s edits were amazing.
Brenda and Heather (yep, that’s me), what was it about Kara’s NOT HER STORY that hooked you?
She won the scavenger hunt drawing! And we are so happy she did.
Kara, tell us about the revision process for Pitch Wars?
I never told Brenda this, but when I first read her edit letter, I cried. I’d never received an edit letter before, so it was a very new experience for me. I’d also been hearing stories about mentors sending 15 page letters with instructions to cut characters or rewrite entire sections of the manuscript. Brenda’s letter was not like that, and it threw me for a loop. She focused a lot on the characters, and suggested that I find ways to help them connect better with each other and the reader. At first, I thought her minimal changes meant that my book was beyond saving. Over time, I realized that she was letting me take ownership of my revisions so I could keep my story and my voice intact.
We planned that I would spend the month of September working on those big picture revisions, and October would be dedicated to line edits. I finished my first round of edits a few days early, and sent my final pages to Heather with a note telling her I was going to try to give birth to my baby that weekend. That kind of thing rarely goes according to plan, but my baby did end up coming that Friday! I took a week or so off while Heather worked on line edits, and then jumped back in as soon as she got the pages to me. (I’m honesty not sure how I did this. I was so tired the entire month of October.)
Line edits were a lot more work than I was expecting, but it was so encouraging to see my manuscript transforming before my eyes. I still had days where I questioned myself, but I knew NOT HER STORY got stronger with each pass we did. After I finished line edits, we still had a few days until the agent round and Heather read my manuscript again! I still can’t believe how many times she read my story over the course of a few short months.
Brenda and Heather, tell us about your experience mentoring Kara.
Brenda: Kara was such a delight during the stress of Pitch Wars and giving birth to her beautiful baby in the middle of it. I’m still amazed she was able to finish and nail our suggested edits. I feel bad for making her cry, though. Sometimes revisions need to be done in layers. Her plot was great, the characters just needed more depth. Even after our revisions, Kara did more when she received feed back from agents. We went over the notes and came up with a great change that took her story to the next level. I’m so thrilled at how her manuscript turned out and can’t wait to see it in book form one day! I just love and adore Kara!!
Heather: That answer made me cry, because if Brenda made Kara cry, I might’ve made her wail! I’m a pretty tough editor and my line edits are everything from plot holes to internalization. But Kara handled them beautifully. And her manuscript did transform from that solid framework to something incredible. She was always humble and willing to listen, and in the end, it was what made everything fall into place. I admire her so much for everything she accomplished with her manuscript and her new baby! She’s one of the most dedicated and sweet people I’ve ever met.
Kara, after Pitch Wars, you signed with Kristy Hunter of The Knight Agency. Please, tell us about “The Call.” We love all the details about the offer, how they contacted you, how you responded, celebrations, emotions . . . How long did you have to wait and how did you distract yourself? Anything! We love hearing about all of it.
I queried Kristy after the agent round. She requested the full, but ultimately felt it needed some revision. I knew something about my manuscript still wasn’t working, and her insightful comments were the push I needed to revise again. I actually finished my revision a week before I sent it to her, but I held on to it those extra days because I knew I would be crushed if it turned into a rejection. Once I worked up the courage to send my revised manuscript, she quickly responded that she was excited to take a look at it. A few hours later, she emailed again. When I saw her name in my inbox my first reaction was “No! Fastest rejection ever!” But then I opened the email and realized was asking to set up a call for the next day! I was floored by the speed with which she got back to me, and so excited that I ran around the house silent-screaming (I didn’t want to wake the baby)!
I was incredibly nervous about the call, but Kristy put me at ease right away. Our conversation was great, and her enthusiasm was infectious. As as soon as we hung up, I knew I wanted Kristy to be my agent. Her insightful comments had steered my revision, and it was clear that she was as excited about NOT HER STORY as I am. But because several other agents were reading my manuscript, I had to email them and let them know I had an offer.
I gave everyone a one week deadline, and thank goodness it wasn’t any longer. That week was almost as stressful as the agent round of Pitch Wars! I couldn’t wait for it to end so I could officially accept Kristy’s offer and celebrate!
Kara, how do you feel Pitch Wars helped with your success?
Prior to Pitch Wars, I had sent a few dozen queries and received a lot of requests and a couple R&Rs. I knew my query was working and my hook was fresh, but I had no idea how to revise a manuscript. I thought revising meant fixing plot holes, typos, and awkward sounding sentences. Brenda and Heather both taught me a lot about how to revise from top to bottom. I worked on everything from character motivations to deleting word echos. Not to mention the fact that Brenda is a wizard with romantic tension, and really helped me up the romance and chemistry between my main character and her love interest.
I mentioned before that I had to revise again after Pitch Wars. Brenda and Heather stuck with me through that and encouraged me every step of the way. If not for them and for Pitch Wars, I would probably still be querying with no idea how to fix my manuscript. Or I would have given up on NOT HER STORY altogether.
Now for some fun! The following questions are for you both to answer.
If you could live in any fictional world and take everything you love with you, where would you choose to live? What would you do there? And why this world?
Kara: I mostly read contemporary, but there’s still a small part of me hoping for my Hogwarts letter, to be honest. Who doesn’t want to live in a place where the nurses use chocolate as medicine?
Brenda: I’m waiting for my owl from Hogwarts, too. I’d totally live there (as long as I have a wand).
Heather: I would selfishly live in one of my own manuscripts that now sits in a file on my computer and might never see the printer’s ink. But that’s why I wrote it, so I can go live there whenever I want. I would play with tigers and run through forests and defeat evil madmen!
Somewhere in the (known or unknown) universe, you’re in a high-speed chase and have to escape the bad guys. Who are you running from and what fictional character is your side-kick?
Kara: If I’m running from bad guys, I’m going to need someone who’s not afraid to get dirty, but who will make me laugh, so I’d choose Elizabeth Bennett. Even if we got caught, she’d probably confuse and distract our captors with her witty remarks.
Brenda: Can I use Heather’s answer? No? Drat. Okay, then, I’d be running from Voldemort and my side-kick would be Hermione.
Heather: Right now (in the middle of Pitch Madness Candyland Edition) I am running from the evil Lord Licorice, hand in hand with Queen Frostine (that’s Brenda, btw)!
What do you think is the most fascinating invention from fiction and what book is it from?
Kara: I’ll go back to Harry Potter for this one. I admit this isn’t the most fascinating object, but I’d give anything for the giant bathtub in the prefects bathroom from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It’s big enough to swim laps, and has dozens of jets to add bubbles and scents to the water. I’d never get out.
Brenda: Everlasting Gobstopper. (Remember, I have deadline mush-brain.)
Heather: I really want the transporter from Star Trek.
Share with us your writing process. Do you write everyday, in sprints, early in the morning, in the bath, pen and paper? What works for you?
Kara: When I’m drafting, or revising, I take advantage of every spare second I have. It’s not always easy to find large chunks of dedicated writing time because I have three little boys who rule my schedule, but I squeeze in words whenever I can, whether that’s in bed when I first wake up, on the couch while I’m nursing my baby, or standing at the counter while dinner cooks on the stove. When I finish a draft or revision, I usually take a few weeks off before diving in again.
Brenda: Can I just say that I’m too tired to think about this question. Ha! I just got off an intense deadline for book three in my Library Jumpers series. I was writing nonstop 24/7. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but it sure did feel like it. I write every day, usually, and I just grab time when I can depending on what’s going on that day. I’ll do sprints with a writing buddy, but when I’m stressed and the deadline is just days away, I go into my cave and can’t sprint. It stresses me out.
Heather: My favorite time to write is early in the morning. I often wake up between 2-4 am and can’t go back to sleep, and my imagination is wild just then, fresh from my dreams. I don’t have a schedule. When the need arises to write, I scribble down everything as fast as possible and then worry about making it pretty during edits.
You have one day to finish the last pages of your next bestselling novel. What food/drinks do you get and where do you go hide out to meet the deadline?
Kara: I don’t eat while I’m writing because it slows me down. But if I’m tired and in danger of falling asleep, I’ve been known to put chocolate chip cookies in the oven as a means of forcing myself to stay awake. Plus, I get cookies as a reward for finishing my work! And I never sit down to write without a huge glass of ice water within arm’s reach.
Brenda: I hide at my desk and drink loads of coffee, a glass or two of wine at night, and eat whatever is left in the house because I didn’t have the time to run to the grocery store. And I wish I had Heather’s issue of forgetting to eat when writing.
Heather: I tend to forget to eat when I write but I always have a water bottle and a Diet Mt. Dew next to me. I sit at my desk because it has a bicycle underneath that keeps me awake late into the night.
What or who keeps you motivated, inspired, or is your biggest support to keep writing?
Kara: My biggest motivation to write is myself. I write because I love to do it, and I would keep writing even if no one else was motivating me. My biggest supporter of NOT HER STORY is my husband. Every time I told him I was going to trunk this manuscript and start on something new, he insisted that this story was too good for me to abandon it. My biggest inspiration for pressing forward in the face of rejection is the Pitch Wars mentee Facebook group. They remind me that rejection is inevitable for every writer, and that revenge queries are good for the soul.
Brenda: My biggest motivators and supporters are Heather and Pintip Dunn. I’d fall to pieces without them. The writing community and everyone involved in our contests inspire me each day. I’m so blessed.
Heather: My imagination spurs me, my community supports me, the lovely and talented agent I work for encourages me, and the amazing Brenda Drake gives me a good tongue-lashing now and then. <3
Please, share any last words you would like to add.
Kara: Everyone in the Pitch Wars community is grateful for Brenda, but I feel extra indebted to her for taking a chance on my story, and for answering my many panicky emails and texts. The same is true for Heather. I don’t know what I would do without them!
Brenda: I have had so many rejections they could fill my bathtub, or maybe even my pool. I’ve had many missteps and mistakes along the way to getting published. It’s been nine years since I started the contests. I’ve watched others realize their dreams while I struggled in the query trenches, and I know how hard it is to get rejections. If you feel discourage, push through it, reach out to a writing buddy, and never give up. Your dream could be around the next turn.
Heather: Some mentees haven’t gotten agents, and I don’t want them to give up. If we all work together, continue supporting one another, eventually, we will each find our own path to publication. Keep your chins up! We are here for you.
Thank you for being our mentee, Kara! We will always love you and be here for you, book after book after book! CONGRATULATIONS!
Kara Jean McDowell writes books for teenagers, and has a particular soft spot for all things contemporary. She lives in the Arizona desert with her husband and three little boys. When she’s not busy writing or wrangling babies, Kara loves to eat Mexican food and read any YA book with a romantic plotline.
New York Times bestselling author of Thief of Lies (Library Jumpers #1), Guardian of Secrets (Library Jumpers #2), Touching Fate (Fated Series #1), and Cursing Fate (Fated Series #2) available now, creator of #PitchWars, #PitchMadness, and #PitMad, fueled by coffee and Goldfish crackers (but not together), and represented by Peter Knapp with The Park Literary Group.
With a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry, the lab reports always lacked the fantastical element Heather’s imagination demands. Hypotheses turned into taglines and novels that range from Epic Fantasy to Contemporary Speculative Fiction. Agent Intern. Member, SCBWI.