8 on Eight: August Contest 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.

If your name wasn’t drawn from the Triwizard cup this time around, keep an eye out for when our next contest window opens at 8 PM on August 31st. 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.


ZACH BEACON STRIKES OUT: Contemporary middle-grade novel

I knocked the dirt from my cleats and glared at the pitcher. “Gimme a fast one, Joey, if you’ve still got it in you.”

“Whatever, man. It’ll be midnight before my arm gets tired.” Joey went into a windup—and fell over laughing.

I’d done my signature bat-waggle butt-wiggle. It gets them every time.

“All right, Zach, knock it off,” said Coach Clark from the dugout.

I rested the bat on my shoulder. “Aw, Coach, we’re just messing around.”

“Zachary!” yelled a voice from the stands. “This is the last day of spring tryouts. Pay attention!”

Jessica: This opening does a good job of pulling me in to a concrete scene. That said, I can’t quite put a finger on Zachary. In the first line, he issues an ultimatum to the pitcher and glares at him, which makes him seem quite intense. But then the butt-wiggle (which I love) tells me he’s a total goofball. My sense is that he’s baiting the pitcher with the first line, but I’m not sure why he would glare, rather than grin or something more consistent with him being a clown. In addition, I wonder about the voice yelling from the stands. It feels as though the voice knows Zachary quite well, which makes me think Zachary would immediately recognize it (Mom or Dad, perhaps?) rather than think of it as “the voice,” which feels unfamiliar. Overall, though, this is a solid opening that would make me want to read on. Nice work!

Michelle: Love your opening! A lot of first-person POV middle-grade opens with the MC telling you a bunch of stuff, but you smartly skipped all of that and pulled us into the scene. You do a great job of giving us glimpses into the MC and his relationship with Joey, which is no easy task within 8 lines. I agree with Jessica that the word glare threw me off, because at first I thought Zachary and Joey were adversaries. But I’m pretty sure they’re buds.

Just a couple of things I want to point out. The sequencing here threw me off.

“Whatever, man. It’ll be midnight before my arm gets tired.” Joey went into a windup—and fell over laughing.

I’d done my signature bat-waggle butt-wiggle. It gets them every time.

I think you need at minimum a paragraph break between Joey’s dialogue and his action since the bat-waggle butt wiggle happens before he falls over. Even better, I think having Joey do something else before the windup would help- like wipe the sweat of his face, adjust his cap, nod with a focussed gaze on Zachary. Also, should the last sentence here say, “It gets him every time?” Or is this a move he always uses on the pitcher?

It would also be nice if we know how the coach reacts to what Zachary says to him before you break to the voice (is this someone he knows?) in the bleachers.

Have you considered writing this in close third POV? I’ve been playing with your words in my head, and I think it would work really well with your story.

I would definitely want to read more! Keep in touch with us about how things go!

Richelle: You have a lot of zing in this opening — I love how it moves. I agree with Jessica that there’s a bit of a disconnect between the glaring, smack-talk Zachary and the butt-wiggle Zachary. While I love both moments, it does feel like two different kids. When we later learn that this is spring try-outs, it made me wonder: Does Zachary take try-outs seriously? Or is he assured a place on the team and so feels comfortable joking around? What about Joey? Is he nervous about making the team? How do their respective attitudes about try-outs color this interaction?

I also agree with Michelle that the sequencing of the pitcher falling over and the butt-wiggle — it threw me off, and I had to read twice to figure out what was happening. And since I love character motivation, I really wanted to know why Zachary was joking around. Is he trying to mess Joey up? Trying to lighten the mood for everyone? Is that his way of shaking off his own tension?

Generally, I would love to see Zachary interacting more within the scene. How  does he respond to Joey’s trash-talk? How does the coach’s gentle rebuke made him feel? What does he want out of this moment — to make the team? To get attention? To get under Joey’s skin? To get try-outs over with?

Thank you for sharing. I love the title, and as a baseball fan, this seems like a very fun read! Can’t wait to hear how it goes!

Halli: Thank you for sharing your work! I am a huge baseball fan and the title grabbed me right away. You have a great opening here, getting us right into the action. Reading this, I felt like I was in the stands watching the kids play. You did a great job of setting the scene with just a few words – I knocked the dirt from my cleats and glared at the pitcher. Even those not familiar with baseball would be able to identify with that.

My comments are pretty much the same as the others. At the beginning, I though Zach was taunting Joey by glaring at him, but come to find later, they are friends or at least friendly acquaintances. Just changing that word will make all the difference.

My other comment is about the order of the sentences involving the butt-wiggle and Joey falling down laughing. They seem out of order so I’m current, then thrown back. As a reader, I prefer to keep moving forward. I am also in agreement about identifying the “voice” from the stands. Unless you have a reason to be mysterious, which we may not know in these eight lines, I would identify that person.

Katharine: I love a MG sports story! Fantastic title, and your MC sounds like loads of fun. I also love that you start us right in the action – perfect! And the butt wiggle dance is hysterical. My son did something similar in his short-lived little league career.

I agree with the other Pennies about the disconnect between the glare aimed at the pitcher and the goofing off behavior. I think it would help if you changed the word glare to something a little more clearly silly and over-the-top, like “shot him my best [insert baseball player – sorry! don’t know baseball!] scowl.” I also found myself a little thrown when I heard it was the last day of spring tryouts, which sounds kind of important and like he wouldn’t be goofing off. Is that right? If so, I hope we get a sense quickly of how Zach is actually feeling – is he goofing off because he’s super nervous? Does he think this is all a joke? Is he trying to impress someone in the crowd? Oh, and I would agree with the others that if that yell from the stands is a parent, he’d identify the voice immediately.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing, and best of luck with it!

Kristi: I love it when a story makes me laugh in the first few lines. Zach’s spunk and goofiness make this instantly engaging. I agree with the previous comments that you can change the sequence of the butt wiggle and then the pitcher falling over. I do like having the coach comment that they need to knock it off, but then I think you need to get back to Zach and focus on him. How is he viewing the situation and the impending tryouts? You’ve drawn us in with a great start, so don’t lose us! This sounds like such a fun read. All the best with it.

Rebecca: I love your MC’s voice and the fact that you’ve started in the middle of the action! Everyone else has already talked about the glare and identifying who “the voice” is so I won’t belabor it. What I think is important here is that it sounds like you have a very strong picture of Zach in your head. Good for you! That’s tough to do, right? But so important. So now your work is to convey that clear picture to your audience, and that’s even harder. Sometimes the only way to see how a reader will react is to share your work, like this, and see where the reader reaction is not what you intended, and make adjustments. I had a best friend smirking at my MC in a first chapter for months before I realized my critique partners thought he was making fun of the MC. But I thought the best friend’s natural reaction to most things was a smirk. He was just a laid back guy that found the humor in everything, even annoying things that happened to his best friend. But figuring out that it was being read differently than I’d intended and fixing it allowed me to convey both characters more strongly.

Great job on your opening lines and best wishes for your progress with the story!

Sussu: Thank you for submitting to The Winged Pen. It takes courage to put your writing out there. Kuddos to you!

This opening, IMO, does a good job setting the mood. It reflects the title well. The opening also does a good job answering the question who? Where? I immediately know what’s going on and I can picture the game easily. The problem is this setting has been used a lot and I wonder how you could make it a little more original.

The conflict is clear though and pulls me in right away. But because the story wants to be funny, the tension I sense in the first sentences disappears completely when Joey laughs. I feel like this is not supposed to be funny because Joey and Zachary are rivals of some sort. Zachary “glares” at Joey and dares him. I feel like the beginning goes in different directions. It’s not grounded enough for me. Also I’m not sure I like that Zach explains himself “We’re messing around.” I’d like him to be more daring. I’d like to see more of his personality breaking through. For example, saying “Let it be, coach!” would make him sound more courageous and more daring. That’s definitely how he appears in the first sentence. Of course the voice has to reflect the age better.

Also, I found the switch between tenses confusing.

What I would recommend for this beginning is 1) to keep everything in one tense.2) Then the actions should appear in the order they happen. 3) I also would like to see the consequences of what Zach does, and the stakes. The beginning could work well as a mini-scene and hook the reader better as such because it would have a beginning, a middle and an end. And we would then want to read more to see what’s going to happen next. Remember that each part of a story (dialogue, scene, chapter) answers a question. What is the question here and is it answered?


I knocked the dirt from my cleats and glared at the pitcher. “Gimme a fast one, Joey, if you’ve still got it in you.”

“Whatever, man. It’ll be midnight before my arm gets tired.” Joey went into a windup.

 I did my signature bat-waggle butt-wiggle. So what? It got them every time.

Joey fell over laughing, missing the ball. Strike.

“All right, Zach, knock it off,” said Coach Clark from the dugout. “You’re done.”

I rested the bat on my shoulder. “Aw, Coach, I can’t be done.”

“Zachary!” yelled my mom from the stands. “This is the last day of spring tryouts. Pay attention!”

Joey cackles.

Seriously, mom!

Thank you for trusting us with your story and good luck in the publishing world.

Meet The Winged Pen’s Pitch Wars Mentors

Laurel joked on Twitter, “I kind of hate to tell other writers that our @WingedPen CP’s are #PitchWars mentors. I mean, they’re a trade secret!”

I agree! But they are so generous to donate their time and wisdom to helping other writers get through a major manuscript revision. So, all of us at The Winged Pen want to make sure everyone knows how awesome they are. That way they get ALL THE MANUSCRIPTS! This post is to introduce them to the Pitch Wars crowd.

gabrielle byrne2Gabrielle Byrne lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. She writes fantasy for middle grade. You can read her full bio here, but the bottom line is that her background is eclectic, as is her taste in music. Things she loves: green curry, thunderstorms, purring cats, and nudibranchs. Her agent is Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. You can find her wish list at www.gkbyrnebooks.com

Marty_MayberryMarty Mayberry lives in New England with her husband, three children and three neurotic cats. She works as an RN/Clinical Documentation Specialist during the day and writes YA/Adult fiction whenever she can find a spare minute in between. In addition to PitchWars, she mentors/judges for Michelle Hauck’s Sun vs Snow and QueryKombat. This year will be her second time mentoring for PitchWars. She’s represented by Jessica Watterson of the Dijkstra Agency. Her wish list is at www.martymayberry.com.

jessica vitalisRepresented by Saba Sulaimain of Talcott Notch, Jessica Vitalis writes middle grade fiction. In addition to mentoring Pitch Wars, Jessica volunteers with the We Need Diverse Books campaign and contributes to two blogs: Writing With The Mentors and our very own The Winged Pen. When she’s not pursuing her literary interests, Jessica can be found chasing her two precocious daughters around Atlanta, Georgia (or eating copious amounts of chocolate). You can find her Pitch Wars wish list at www.jessicavitalis.com

Rebecca: Being a Pitch Wars mentor is a huge time commitment! Why do you do it?

Gabrielle: Like so many mentors, I participated in Brenda’s contests. My book, MANTICORE, was chosen for the 2013 Pitch Wars (Steph Funk was my ninja hero). With her guidance, the book got so much better, and with a new title–GETTING RID OF LUCKY, it got me repped. I met great friends and colleagues, and remember how much the support and belief meant to me then—and still means to me now. I want to help perpetuate that in the writing community.

Marty: Many writers have helped me grow as an author. I wouldn’t be where I am without their help. PitchWars is a chance to pay some of that back. It’s a win-win for everyone, because I learn just as much from my mentees as they learn from me.

Jessica: I wrote for years before developing a solid set of writing skills and signing with my literary agent. Along the way, I was desperate for someone—anyone—who could help me understand what was “missing’” from my writing. I love sharing the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years and having the opportunity to provide the kind of guidance that I longed for earlier in my career.


Rebecca: How would you describe your critiquing style? What kind of help could a mentee expect?

Gabrielle: I’m definitely tough love. I’m very kind, so being blunt has been hard won. I’ll let you know what’s working for me, and what isn’t. I’ll offer support, and compliments, where appropriate, but I won’t sugar coat the work. You’ll get an in-depth editorial letter, as well as line edits. I’ll help you find solutions, and to understand where things are going wrong. I’ll also never push you to do anything to your story you don’t want to do. It’s yours, and taking my advice, or not, is your call. Rock on.

Marty: Last year, I gave general feedback about pacing, plot, and ways to improve the MS overall within 2 weeks of the pick announcement. My mentees and I discussed what they felt worked best regarding the issues I identified, and we brainstormed if they wanted to take the MS in a different direction. After all, this is their MS first, and I respect that. After my mentees revised, I did line edits, then a third read to polish just before the agent round. I also helped my mentees with their pitches, queries and synopses. I believe I give a kind critique, although I won’t hesitate to be plain if needed. My goal is to help another author take their writing to next level, and this only works if we’re honest with each other.

Jessica: According to one of my mentee’s from last year, my 2016 mentee should expect enough red ink on their pages to give them a heart attack! That may be true, but I’ll also provide a lengthy editorial letter talking about the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript and outlining suggestions for big-picture changes, as well as a suggestions for how to manage the Pitch Wars timeline. I’ll work closely with my mentee throughout the process, brainstorming ideas, providing feedback on revisions, and helping polish the manuscript for the Pitch Wars round.

Rebecca: Pitch Wars is a tough contest. Less than 10% of the writers who submit are chosen by a mentor. What advice did you get when you were entering writing contests and querying that you would like to pass on to the Pitch Wars crowd?

Gabrielle:  Most offers of representation do NOT come through contests. Contests are great for the feedback, the network of support, and for the feeling of quick turn-around that we all crave. They are NOT the end-all, or the be-all.  Practice. Be Patient. Persist. Getting in (or even close) is a lovely confirmation of your level-up, but not getting in, does not necessarily mean you’re not ready.

Marty: Each person gets there at their own speed and in their own way. Respect  yourself and your writing, but be open to listening to a differing opinion. And, even when you’re discouraged, never give up.

Jessica: I rushed into querying two full manuscripts before putting the brakes on my third. The extra time and care I spent polishing paid off because I received an offer of representation from the first agent who read the work (at an online conference rather than via the traditional query process). So it’ll come as no surprise that my biggest piece of writing advice is to not rush into querying and contests. After your manuscript is “finished”, put it through a rigorous round of reviews (maybe even several rounds) with critique partners and beta readers. Set it aside and come back to it with fresh eyes. Read it out loud. Print it in a different font and read it again. Only after you are convinced it’s the very best you can make it is it time to send it out into the world and even then, I’d suggest doing so in small batches so that you can make revisions and reevaluate the manuscripts readiness based on the feedback you receive.

Rebecca: Lightening round – coffee or tea?

Gabrielle: Coffee.

Marty: Earl Grey, please. Black.

Jessica: Coffee—blegh! I’ll take a lovely cup of peppermint tea any day of the week.

Rebecca: Sweet or Salty?

Gabrielle: Salty.

Marty: How about both? Chocolate covered pretzels.

Jessica: Both! (Preferably in the form of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups).

Rebecca: Dog, cat or other?

Gabrielle: Cat.

Marty: I enjoy dogs, but kitties are my kryptonite.

Jessica: Cats all the way.

Rebecca: Plotter or pantser?

Gabrielle: Plotter, with flexibility

Marty: A mix of both. Once a plot bunny grabs hold of my mind, I take long walks and expand the idea to determine if it’ll hold up for a full-length novel. If it passes the walking test, I think up a hook, midpoint, and ending. Then, I write a query/pitch and run the idea past my agent for marketability. After that, I jump in and write, letting the characters take me on the journey they wish to tell.

Jessica: That’s a tricky question for me. I’m a pantser at heart, but find that my work benefits from plotting at some point during the process. I wrote a blog about my hybrid process here.

I’ll close with a shout-out to Brenda Drake, the Queen of Pitch Wars, a thank you to Gabrielle, Marty, and Jessica, and wishes of luck to all the potential mentees in the Pitch Wars crowd!

RA 2951Rebecca J. Allen writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.


Wisdom from the New England SCBWI Conference


Some fellow Pennies and I recently attended the New England SCBWI Conference. New England’s is the largest SCBWI regional conference; this year there were 699 attendees. Despite its size, the conference had the feel of a family reunion, punctuated with many shrieks of recognition and tackle hugs. When individual members were honored with awards, the collective joy and pride in the room was palpable.

In addition to the good feelings, the conference was filled with fantastic advice. I had many epiphanies, and found myself furiously scribbling so as not to lose these pearls of wisdom. It turns out my fellow Pennies were doing the same (as was honorary Pennie Wendy Leiserson, whose awesome sign is above). Here is what we took away.

Karin LeFranc

Rebecca Podos: Maximize every small moment in your story. Every single choice your character makes contributes to us understanding them.

Jarrett J. Korsoczka: Remember to be bored! This sparks creativity.

AC Gaughen: An antagonist is just someone opposing your main character, and in your story they cannot complete the arc of change.

Jen Malone on School Visits: Make a 3-5 minute YouTube video of you presenting to schools and make sure you have link of this on your website and on your flyers. This way teachers and administrators get to see you in action!

Rebecca Smith-Allen

Jarrett J. Krosoczka: Don’t do a $50 job like it’s a $50 job. Do it like it’s a $500 job or you’ll always get $50 jobs.

Patrick Carman: You need to be as bold with building your audience as you are with writing your book.

Aubrey Poole: If your MC could accomplish their goal without changing, then why didn’t they do it on page one?

Gita Trelease

Jo Knowles: Try filling in these blanks for your work in progress: This is a story about a girl/boy who wants _______________. But underneath that, it’s really about a girl/boy who wants _______________. Then go further: underneath that, what does s/he want? And underneath that? Keeping asking this question—quickly, without thinking too much about it—until you go five levels deep, until you get the “sad chills.” This is the emotional core. This is what will make your readers love and root for your character.

Jo Knowles on how you know when your work in progress is done: It’s when the journey the character goes through is ultimately satisfying—true, in all senses of the word, but especially emotionally.

Jarrett Krosoczka: Make magic. Preserve wonder.

And here are mine.

Anna Staniszewski: To keep your character from sounding whiny, give him a goal, something to work toward.

Tricia Leaver: Empty your character’s pockets. What a character chooses to carry at all times has meaning and significance to them. What’s covering the walls of her room? Know this, even if it doesn’t enter the story.

Patrick Carmen: Collaborate. Helping someone else’s dream come true can lead you to something you never dreamed of.

Wendy Mass: There are downsides to this career, but the roller coaster goes up when you least expect it.

Kate photo Spring 2014Katharine Manning lives in D.C., but was happy to return to her Smithie roots for this conference. She is a middle grade writer and mom of three. You can find her on Twitter or at www.katharinemanning.com. She pushes books on people at Kid Book List.