8 on Eight: December Feedback

eight on eight 2Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s 8 on Eight contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest*.

Below, we’ve posted the first 8 lines from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least eight of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

*Reminder: there is no 8 on Eight next month. Enjoy your holidays!


My story starts in the same place that it ends: Dad died almost a year ago, and I killed him. I didn’t use a gun – I wasn’t even there when it happened – and I didn’t hire anyone, either. It’s just that I’m responsible, and if I ever explained my role in his death to Mom and Jeffrey, they would never forgive me. So this is my secret, one I’ll carry with me until my last day.

If I’m right, that’s exactly eleven days from now.

I’ve closed my door so I can think in peace, but that doesn’t stop Jeffrey from barging in unannounced wearing his Thor helmet. He’s just gotten home from trick-or-treating, and as usual, he’s the superhero of bad timing.

Richelle: This is a very strong opening! I like the mystery, the shocking nature of her confessions, the details about the narrator’s brother — it’s all really working for me. Although the opening phrase is evocative, I am not sure you need it. I got a little hung up on “My story starts in the same place it ends” trying to figure out what that meant and how that would work. It wouldn’t keep me from reading on at all, but I think the statement about the father is enough of a grabber. I also think you can make the transition from the macro (I have this huge secret) to the micro (I’m sitting in my room when my be-costumed brother bursts in) a little snappier, too. Why is the narrator thinking about all this now? Is this the first chance in a while to be alone? Or is this routine? Is the eleven-days-until-I’m-dead information new? What is it about this particular moment of brooding that makes it special enough to start your story? I don’t have much more to say — you’ve hooked me in just a few lines! Great job — and good luck!

Michelle: Whoa! I’m intrigued and dying to read more. I only have two small suggestions. 1) I agree with Richelle. Kill the first part of the sentence. It makes the opening even stronger! 2) IMO, the third sentence is clunky compared to the rest of what you’ve shared with us: “It’s just that I’m responsible, and if I ever explained my role in his death to Mom and Jeffrey, they would never forgive me.” Play around with it a bit. Maybe two separate sentences. Or maybe (and this is what I truly believe), we don’t need you to tell this. We’ll figure it out soon enough when you show us in the story. Good luck! And keep in touch to let us know how it goes!

Jessica: This is fantastic; I’m definitely hooked! By way of suggestions, I’d agree with Richelle and Michelle; I think you can easily drop that first sentence and it will better capture our attention. Michelle’s suggestion that you might be able to drop the sentence about telling Mom and Jeffrey also resonated with me; I think you could play with the wording such that you could move right from the opening to the secret. Finally, I’d encourage you to double check your use of em dashes; these look to me like en dashes (or even hyphens?) and em dashes don’t typically have spaces before or after. But overall, this is a great opening. Nicely done!

Gabrielle: I think this is a great opening, and you have tension and conflict right where it belongs. I don’t disagree with any of the other Pennies that have commented, but I’ll add that I think you can tighten up the prose a little. Play with using some shorter sentences. They have more inherent tension. So, for example, “I didn’t use a gun. I wasn’t there when it happened. Before you ask, I didn’t hire anyone, either.”  I agree you can lose the “I’m responsible” line. It’s redundant here, and less powerful that what you’ve already said.  I love the introduction of the brother. You could work in a little more setting detail in the last paragraph, I think, so we can see the space she’s in.  Great, compelling beginning.

Kristi: Wowza! I’m jumping on the “I’m hooked” wagon with everyone else. Definitely very compelling. One of the my favorite lines is when you give us the 11 days the MC has to live. This definitely sets off the ticking time bomb right away. There really isn’t anything for me to add except that I totally agree with what has already been said. You can definitely shorten and cut some of the above to tighten the tension. My only suggestion would be to have your MC doing something other than sitting and thinking. Yes, you can probably get away with this because of how you’ve set up your first line, but why waste space. If he was doing chin-ups or bouncing a ball or even just on his computer, anything to give him a bit of action.

Halli: Well you had me at the title! And kept me going the more I read. Unlike the comments above, I don’t mind the first sentence. For me, the sticking point was after “I wasn’t even there when it happened.” A suggestion would be to take out the line of not hiring someone because that is just one of hundreds of possibilities of someone dying outside your presence. And I do agree with tightening up the sentence starting with I’m responsible. Fantastic job! I will be keeping my eye out for this 🙂

Julie: You’ve gotten some great advice (man, it’s always hard to go last!). I agree with Kristi that the “eleven days from now” line is the most evocative for me and if you can rework this a bit to put that in the spotlight, while using some shorter, more tension-filled sentences, I think you’ll have a must-read opener, especially since your premise and title are so intriguing. I’d say spend some time thinking about what makes the story start right in this moment–what triggered her to think about her father’s death while she sat there in her room on Halloween–and that might help you punch up what is already a solid beginning. Best of luck!

Rebecca:  Your topic is compelling. We know from the first sentence that something big is going to happen in this story and that the timeline is tight. That’s great! I also like your YA voice and the “superhero of bad timing.”

But you’re start has a telly feel. No action, dialogue or setting. I would break up the internals. A natural place to do this would be to have the little brother barge into the room with some dialogue. I think that also giving your MC an action, a nervous tick, or movement around his room so we know that’s where he is, would break this up and allow the reader to picture the scene while we’re hearing the heavy concerns on the MC’s mind through the internals.

All the best with your story!


PitchWars: A Behind-the-Scenes Peek with Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo and Kit Rosewater

We are joined today by middle grade authors Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo and Kit Rosewater. They were both 2016 PitchWars mentees and each received about a zillion requests during the agent round (27 each, to be exact––which is pretty darn close to a zillion in the writing world).


Jeanne and Kit, welcome to The Winged Pen and congratulations on your PitchWars successes! Our readers are eager to hear about your experiences, so lets get started.

Please tell us about the process you went through to get your manuscript ready for the agent round.

Jeanne: I was so lucky to have two incredible author-mentors, Laura Shovan and Tricia Clasen, who brought so much expertise to the process. They read my manuscript and provided both big picture and detailed line edit suggestions. But it was our personal conversations via skype that made the hugest impact. They helped me find the real heart of Ruby’s story and that made all the difference.

KitDuring Pitch Wars, I went through five rounds of revision. In the first round I rewrote the MS completely, for the next two rounds I revised, then I went on to line notes, and then polishing. It was a lot of hard work, and for a good portion of the time I was convinced I would never finish PitchWars and that I was a terrible writer. Luckily, I pushed through those feelings and kept on writing.

What is the most important thing you learned from participating in PitchWars?

Jeanne: The most important thing I’ve learned from PitchWars is the meaning of community. The writing process is so difficult. First, you pour your heart onto a page, then you ask people to critique it. Having been through the process, Laura and Tricia provided such thoughtful feedback. Even beyond the agent round they have been there for me. I also got to know other wonderful mentees. I felt like we were all on this roller coaster ride together!

KitOoh, it’s tough to pick one thing, because I learned so much. How to trust and listen, how to properly outline based on theme, how to persevere in writing, how important community is… Can I say all four of those things tied?

Jeanne, you are now represented by the illustrious Stacey Glick, VP of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. Tell us more about receiving “the call.” 

Jeanne: I first saw Stacey speak at the Rutgers One-on-one plus conference last year. I was so impressed with the passion she showed for her work and her clients. When we spoke on the phone, I felt like all the stars in the universe had lined up. I am so thrilled to be working with her!

Kit, you received a slew of agent offers (12!); tell us how you made your final pick.

KitThe week of offers and decisions was ridiculously hectic. Every offering agent was amazing. I would have been happy with any of them. When I talked to Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency on the phone, I felt a strong initial connection to her. That connection grew from further conversation and emails, and by the time I was ready to announce, I was more than confident with my decision!

What’s next for each of you?

Jeanne: A project I love! In 1991, just a year after the fall of Communism, I taught English in Nitra, Czechoslovakia. I am now poring through letters, journals, and photographs to write the story of American-raised Petra (13) who returns to her homeland to reunite with her father. When, he suddenly goes missing, Petra finds herself travelling the Bohemian countryside with a Romani boy in search of family.

KitI’m taking a break from my PW manuscript this month to work some extra hours at my bookselling job and get some distance and insight on the project, then I dive into revisions in January. With any luck, we’ll go out on submission in February or March!

Finally, a fun question: What was your guilty pleasure during PitchWars?

Jeanne: Each morning, my writing pal, Meadow and I hike the Sunset Trail. When I have a million things waiting for my attention, stepping into that forest as it breathes silently around us, feels like a guilty pleasure!

KitOh man, for a lot of the PitchWars process, I didn’t really engage with anything except for writing. However, I would sometimes sneak away to watch ten minutes of Gilmore Girls, then crawl back to my computer. I’d like to think those breaks gave me some inspiration for the witty banter between my middle school characters

Readers, if you’d like to stay in touch with Jeanne and Kit, you can reach them here:



Jeanne: TwitterWebsite







Kit: TwitterWebsite






Posted By: Jessica Vitalis

img_5993-e1262576912668A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.


Another Magic Formula

Recently, we talked about how critique partners are a magical element in writing success. I know what some of you are thinking: Thanks, Jessica. That’s nice, but I tried working with a critique partner, and it didn’t work out.


I’ve been in your shoes. More than once. Critique partner relationships can explode, implode, or fizzle out for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s because the writers aren’t a good fit for each other. Sometimes, it’s because one partner or the other moves, or their lives go in different directions. But often, it’s because they didn’t take the time to set up expectations for the relationship, which leads to unnecessary tension and/or unmet expectations. With that in mind, I’ve put together a set of guidelines that I think are useful in establishing a relationship with a new critique partner (these same rules could just as easily apply to a critique group):

Jessica’s Magic* Formula for Critique Partner Success

  1. Establish a regular (mutually convenient) meeting place and time. Will you meet once a week, or once a month? At a coffee shop, or in your homes? (If you plan to exchange work virtually, establish a schedule—one that all parties can commit to.)
  2. Determine how much work you’ll exchange. Five pages? Twenty? Entire manuscripts?
  3. How will the sharing occur? Some CPs like to meet and read their submissions out loud (or have them read out loud so they can hear how it flows). Others like to exchange work in advance so that they have time to think carefully about their feedback before sharing.
  4. Establish what type of feedback will be offered. Line edits? Big picture thoughts about plot, character development, etc.? Establish how it will be offered. Verbally? In writing? Directly on the manuscript, or as summary? Will it be offered as a compliment sandwich? (The oreo method is my favorite: offer a strength (the cookie), talk about weaknesses (the creamy filling) and wrap up with more about the strengths (the other cookie).
  5. Set expectations. This, to me, is the most important part of establishing a successful long-term relationship. Talk about what your goals are for this relationship. For example, one of my critique partners was very clear up-front about her goals—she let me know that she wasn’t looking for a friendship and didn’t have the time to sit in a coffee shop chatting about the weather. When we met, she wanted to get straight to business. (A friendship has grown over time, but I don’t know that that would have happened if we hadn’t started out with a mutual respect for each other’s time.) Other critique partners I have are at least as much about the camaraderie and support as they are the technical aspects of writing. (There is no one-size-fits-all—find what works for you.) You may also want to work out in advance how to handle cancellations (because at some point, life will get in the way of your meetings).
  6. Finally, I highly recommend establishing a trial period for the relationship. Agree to exchange a set of sample pages and afterward, discuss whether or not to move forward.

So there you have it—my recipe for critique partner success.

*Okay, I’m busted. Once again, there’s nothing very magical about this formula. But it works—I promise. Not always the first time. Maybe not even the second. But if you keep at it, you’ll eventually find exactly the right fit, and the real magic will happen.

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

jessica vitalis

A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. Her debut novel, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com


Writing Success: A Magic Formula

Pssst…over here. Yes, you. You’re the one searching for the secret to writing success, right?

Well, have I got a deal for you. I know the magic formula. And I’m willing to share.


Good. Here it is. (And no, it has nothing to do with unicorn magic, although a strong dose of that surely couldn’t hurt if you have it handy.)

Jessica’s Magic* Formula for Writing Success

  1. Read (a ton)
  2. Write (constantly)
  3. Work with critique partners (always)

That’s it. I’ll bet one and two don’t surprise you (although you’d be shocked to hear how many new writers claim they don’t read because they don’t want to take any chances on accidentally “stealing” other ideas—don’t make this mistake. Reading widely and deeply, particularly in your chosen age category/genre, is imperative.)

It’s number three that most often trips up new (or sometimes even experienced) writers. They claim that they are too nervous to share their work. Or that getting feedback is confusing—perhaps even overwhelming.

Here’s the thing—unless you are a genius and have the skill set to write a perfect manuscript, or have the ability to step back and view your work without any emotional attachment, you are likely to miss things. (On the off chance you are a genius that churns out perfection––Hi, I’m Jessica. Can we be friends?) The fact is, when most of us write, connections that exist in our heads won’t make it to the page. Plots that we think are crystal clear won’t make any sense. Metaphors (and jokes) we think are brilliant are actually duds.

That’s not to say that we have to share our work with a critique partner at every stage of the game. Some writers like to share first drafts and thrive off of the brainstorming that occurs. Others prefer to take their work as far as they can on their own before sharing. Whichever path you take, if you truly want to succeed in this industry, you’re almost certainly going to have to learn to embrace critique partners.

But you can’t find just any old critique partners. You have to find the right critique partners. What does that mean? It means you have to find individuals at more or less the same place in their writing journeys. There is certainly a place for mentorship situations, but if critique partners have significantly different levels of ability, it can make for a rocky long-term (CP) relationship.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to find critique partners at or around your skill level. You also have to find CPs you trust. Not necessarily in terms of sharing a vision for your project (because sometimes they won’t, and those honest discussions can often trigger ideas that dramatically improve your story), but individuals who will treat your work with the kindness it deserves. This is not to say your critique partner should shower you with praise—in fact, that can be less helpful than no feedback at all. What I mean is that it’s important to find CPs who offer criticism in a constructive manner—ones who point out both the manuscripts strengths, and its weaknesses.

I’m going to be honest—these partnerships are hard to find.** Social media is a good place to start, as is SCBWI. Keep in mind that you may not click with the first partner, or even the first several partners you try. But keep searching. Trust me—it’ll be worth the effort.

*Okay, so there’s really nothing so very magical about the path to writing success—it’s mostly a lot of hard work, and butt-in-chair day in and day out. But there is something magical about critique partners. When you find the right one (or ones), you’ll know what I mean. Stay tuned for tips on how to establish a successful critique partner relationship.

**Here’s a great post on searching for CPs.

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

jessica vitalis

A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. Her debut novel, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com

The 8 on Eight Contest Window is Open!

eight on eight 2Fellow writers! The 8 on Eight contest window is OPEN!


Q: I must have missed the announcement. What is 8 on Eight? 

A monthly contest that provides one lucky kidlit writer with feedback on their opening eight lines! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a PB, MG, or YA writer feedback on their work from at least 8 of The Winged Pen’s contributors.

Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?

To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 8pm (EST) on the first day of August, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening eight lines. On the eighth of the month, the winner’s eight lines, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from at least 8 of our members. Still have questions? See our 8 on Eight page for additional details.

Remember, the contest window is only open until 8pm EST on August 1st, so don’t wait––enter now!

Best of luck! (And please help spread the word!)