Pitch Wars Mentor Spotlight: Michael Mammy
Michael Mammy is co-mentoring for the second year in a row alongside Dan Koboldt. Michael is a teacher and former soldier. He writes Science Fiction, and sometimes fantasy, usually revolving around military characters. His blog at michaelmammy.com is both funny and insightful. A must read for any writer!
In addition to being the author of The Rogue Retrieval, and The Island Deception, Dan Koboldt is the founder of #SFFpit, and he's a research scientist working in the field of genetics. He's co-authored over 70 publications in Nature, JAMA, and The New England Journal of Medicine, and other journals. Dan also maintains a blog at MassGenomics, where he writes about his work and next-generation DNA sequencing’s impact on biomedical research.
And now for the Q&A!
Hi, Michael! This is your second time mentoring Pitch Wars. Publishing is subjective, but what (in your opinion) do the stand-out entries have in common?
I think the one thing all the entries we requested last year had in common was strong writing. We’re open to a really wide variety of stories, and we got them. The ten or eleven that we requested more of spanned the range from epic fantasy to near-future sci-fi to space opera. So what really matters initially is if the writing is at a level where if we spend two months working together we can bring it to a place where it’s got the potential to find a home with an agent. Once we narrow ourselves down to those, then we start looking for a story that Dan and I both think we can help.
What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it?
For me the hardest part is sitting down and doing it. I’m the type of writer who might not write anything for weeks, or even months. I’ll be thinking about my story, but outwardly it will look like I’m not making any progress. Then I’ll sit down and write it in eight weeks. So the hardest part I guess is making that commitment to do it, because once I get started, it goes pretty fast. I’m a pantser. I think I always will be. With that said, I have spent a lot of time learning structure and when I revise, I definitely look at that part of it. It’s really my second draft where the story starts to look like a real book. The first draft, for me, is a lot of figuring out what’s going to happen.
To grow as a writer, it’s crucial to connect with the right critique partners, but what’s the best way to find them?
Best is such a tough concept. I can tell you how I found mine – my first three. Back in 2014 during Pitch Wars there was this thing for YA writers called Writeoncon. And some of us adult writers were kind of jealous, so Michelle Hauck and MaryAnn Marlowe built a forum where adult writers could meet and critique each other’s first page and query. From that, I ended up trading first chapters with maybe six or seven people, and three of them are still my CPs today. But I’m also a guy who uses a lot of readers, and I’ve picked up a lot more along the way. I love doing critique for people, so a lot of people kind of owe me, you know? But the secret is, I’d do it anyway, even if they weren’t reading for me. Because I get a lot out of doing critique. I really think I’ve learned more about writing from critiquing other people than I have from them critiquing me.
I didn’t really answer the question. How would I find them? Say yes a lot. When somebody is looking for eyes on something, volunteer. You get back what you put in. I’d trade first chapters with as many people as I could find and figure out which partnerships worked. It’s hard. You’re rarely going to be at exactly the same level. But the thing is, if you stick together for a time, everybody develops. Of those original three CPs I mentioned, only one of us (me) ever got into Pitch Wars. But now one is published, another will be published next year, and the third is amazing and just waiting for the right break.
What are you reading, or otherwise currently obsessed with?
I read quite a bit. Goodreads tells me I’ve read 30 books so far in 2017. Some of those are for my new job, where I’m teaching literature. A few of them have been out of genre because my friends wrote them. But I try to read new stuff coming out in sci-fi and fantasy. The book I’m going to set everything aside for when it comes out in August is The Stone Sky, by NK Jemisin, which is the third book in a trilogy which I think is the best fantasy written in the last five or ten years. Books I’ve read in the last six months…I’ve made a point to read the Hugo Nominated best novels. But I think my favorites this year have been out of genre. I loved The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and I loved The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka. In genre I’m currently reading Soul of the World by David Mealing, and I’m really looking forward to The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli, which comes out in October. On the Sci-Fi side I’ve read all the recent releases you would expect…Scalzi and Hurley and Corey and stuff like that. For military SF I’ve got Jack Campbell’s newest waiting, and I’ll pick up Jay Posey’s recent release soon too. I also have the sequel to We Are Legion (We Are Bob), which I really enjoyed, on my near term TBR. Oh, and the most recent book I finished was Hollywood Homicide, by Kellye Garrett, which is just a super fun (and funny) mystery. I think that comes out in a couple weeks (I had an ARC).
You were a 2015 Pitch Wars mentee and now you’re a two-time mentor! Having participated in both capacities, what advice would you give the mentee hopefuls for 2017?
Control what you can control, and then understand a lot of it is outside of that. You’re going to send your pages off to a handful of mentors and they’re going to read them, and it’s easy to think that they’re judging you, and it’s easy to read too much into things. Like this person didn’t request but they did request from somebody else. They must think I suck. The reality is that we’re looking through more than a hundred first chapters in a couple of weeks. There are all kinds of reasons why we might not request. And it doesn’t always have to do with whether something is good or not. Sometimes I know it’s good, and I’m just waiting to see what happens with other mentors who I think might fit it better. For example Michelle Hauck mentored an entry last year that I didn’t even request. When I read it, I absolutely knew it was good. I also knew Michelle was a better fit than Dan and I. So when she requested it, we put it on the back burner. If she had passed on it, we’d have very likely gone back and taken another look. But it became pretty clear it was her favorite, and we weren’t going to fight about it when we had other good options. The adult SFF mentors are pretty close, and we all have a pretty good idea of what the other folks want.
The other thing I’d offer is don’t be afraid to talk to mentors. That includes your own, but it extends beyond that. Talk to Brenda Drake. She’s literally the nicest person I’ve ever met, and she’ll do anything she can to help you. If you’ve got a problem, don’t stay silent. You’ll be amazed how fast we will work to fix your issue, both before the mentees are selected and after.
What qualities will you and Dan be looking for in a mentee?
We want somebody who has a chance to be successful. That’s a pretty broad statement, but in the end, that’s the thing. We have two months to get a book ready for agents, and we want to work with somebody who can get there. I think there are two elements to that. One, they have to be ready to work. Two, they have to be in a place as a writer where they are ready to grow. For that one, everyone thinks they’re in that place. But not everybody is. What I mean when I say that is that I need them to be advanced enough in their development where when I point something out they can see what I’m telling them and they can fix it. For example, everybody has places in their MS where they’re telling and could probably do more showing. Everybody. Even the published writers I read for have spots like that. The difference between ready and not ready is that when I point them out, do you look at it and immediately see what I’m talking about? Because we only have two months. If we had six months it wouldn’t matter. In six months we could learn all the stuff we needed to learn and still have time to fix it. Lastly, I’m looking for somebody who isn’t going to break when they get my edit letter. Getting critique is hard. It hurts. And when you get my critique, there’s a very good chance that it’s at a level you haven’t received before. That’s not a boast, and I don’t revel in being brutal or anything like that. I’m good at critique. I’m also very thorough. You will probably learn a lot from it. But reading for the first time the things that somebody sees wrong in your book…it’s just hard. You’ve poured your life into it. You probably had readers who told you it was great, and now here comes this asshole telling you that this is wrong and that is wrong and Oh My God He’s Got Comments on Every Chapter, When Will This End?
And it’s going to take a minute to digest it. A couple days. All good critique takes a couple days to think about. What I’m looking for is the person who after a couple of days, they get up off the floor and start writing. Because that’s the only way to get better.
How do I find these qualities in a mentee? Sign them up and pray. Because a lot of it is intangible. So while this is what I’d love to see in a mentee, we really won’t know until we start working together.
And finally, what advice do you have for writers who may be attempting a major revision for the first time?
Buckle up…this is probably going to be a long answer.
First, when you get the edit letter it’s going to be overwhelming. It’s a lot. But I promise you it’s easier than you think at that moment. Take a couple days, but then just start. Start on whatever part makes the most sense to you. Soon that part will be done, and you’ll be on to the next thing, and then the next, and all of a sudden it’s half done and you can see the end. What you can’t do is stare at the whole thing and start thinking it’s impossible. Because it isn’t. You can do it.
Second, even if you disagree with an edit, don’t be afraid to try it. You can always go back. There’s this idea that ‘It’s my book, and if an edit doesn’t resonate, I don’t need to apply it.’ Sure. That’s true. But did you really give it a shot, or are you just being stubborn? Be honest with yourself. One way to do that is if you’re in doubt, write the change. By writing it, you’re forcing yourself to really think about it. And if you do that and it doesn’t work for you, then go back to how you had it before.My agent, Lisa Rodgers, is a phenomenal editor. In her first notes to me she gave me 8 things to work on. Six I immediately loved. One I didn’t care either way—I didn’t hate the edit, but I didn’t think it made much difference, so I did it. The eight I thought wouldn’t work. So I did the ones that did work, then I decided to try the last one. I’d write it, then I’d see how it turned out. If nothing else, I’d be able to go back to her and tell her I tried, right? Well it didn’t work. But as I was working on it it led me to another solution that addressed her initial concern, even though it wasn’t in the way she suggested. It *is* your book, and you *do* make the final decisions. But you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t really think about what good critique is telling you.
Third, if an editorial suggestion doesn’t work for you, think about why the person gave you the suggestion and focus on that. For example, if I tell you that your pace is slow in a chapter and you need to cut some stuff, you may look at it and think ‘hey, I can’t cut this. I need it to develop this thing later on.’ And maybe you’re right. But you know what? I’m not wrong about your pace in the chapter. I said it reads slow because it reads slow. So if you’re not going to cut, do something else to address the pace. Add tension. Tension always makes something feel faster. Increase the obstacle that’s in your character’s way. Do something that makes me want to turn the page. There are a lot of ways to increase the pace of your book, and not all of them involve cutting words. (Note: I wouldn’t really tell you to cut if there were other possible solutions that were just as good – I’d present multiple options to you. But I needed an example.)
Finally, let me talk about revising with a mentor (or an agent) as opposed to a CP. Because it’s different, right? As CPs, you’re absolute equals. With a mentor or an agent, it’s a bit of a different relationship. And because of that, I think you’ve got to give that person a little bit of the benefit of the doubt. I’m not saying you need to go against your own vision for your book. You don’t. But if you turn down everything your mentor recommends, there’s a good chance they’re going to stop working with you. I’m not saying you have to do everything. If I give you ten things to work on and you accept 5, we’re going to be fine. But if you accept zero, it’s probably going to be an issue. It’s human nature, right? Kind of like ‘huh. I spent ten hours working on edits, and they spent 30 minutes rejecting everything I said.’ At that point, how much more time do you think I’m going to want to spend on it? But if you get into a situation like that, a little bit of communication goes a long way. Talk to your mentor and tell them what’s going on. With me, if you don’t like an edit, I can probably give you four other ways to solve the same problem. And I will. But only if I know it’s a problem for you.
For those entering Pitch Wars 2017, Michael and Dan's MENTOR WISHLIST IS HERE!
If you have Pitch Wars questions for Michael, please hop on over to Twitter to tweet him at @MichaelMammy. Or tweet Dan at @DanKoboldt. And for more writerly wisdom, see their respective author websites at michaelmammy.com and dankoboldt.com. :)
And, as always,