If you know me, you already know that I’ve been quietly writing novels in my spare time for the past few years.
You probably also already know that I’m a cacophony of mental health diagnoses.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Anxiety. Depression. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). As a friend said recently, “I have so many diagnoses, I could write a book just using the letters from them.”
And all those letters? They impact way I approach just about everything – from work to planning my days to big life opportunities like Pitch Wars.
So, in case you, too, have a collection of letters, are going through a difficult time, or just want to know how to protect your mental health during something like Pitch Wars, I thought I’d share what worked (and did not work) for me.
But first, for long-time readers going what the hell is Pitch Wars?…
Pitch Wars is essentially The Voice (or Project Runway or Master Chef…) but for authors. If you have a completed novel manuscript and you don’t have an agent or a book deal, you can enter for a chance to be mentored by a published author or publishing professional. You then spend three months in intense edits, at the end of which you usually (though not always) have your work put into a showcase for agents to request.
(There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the basic idea. Here’s more info if you’re intrigued and not in the loop.)
Now, who am I to give advice about Pitch Wars?
I’m one of the lucky authors who got chosen for Pitch Wars 2019.
My adult historical novel based on the true story of France’s most notorious female pirate was chosen by incredible editing goddess Gladys Qin, and we spent three intense months doing about four rounds of revisions. Within a month of the end of Pitch Wars, I signed with an incredible agent, and now we’re working on selling my novel (and I’ve written another one, oh my).
In other words, I’m a Pitch Wars success story.
I’m also a collection of the aforementioned letters and someone who has to take great care with my mental health along the way.
So consider me that old wise witch living at the edge of the forest, here to answer your questions and give you some advice before you embark on your quest.
So, now, advice…
Turn down the pressure on yourself.
I applied to Pitch Wars twice. And the first time was, by far, the hardest on my mental health. There are several reasons for this, but one is that I was so damn excited, I told everybody I was applying.
For me, this was a terrible idea, because when I didn’t get in, suddenly instead of simply dealing with my own disappointment, I had a constant influx of people asking hey, what happened with that contest? And so I found myself, over and over again, having to explain that I didn’t get in. Having to relive my disappointment day by day by day.
Not making it in was okay. Having to relive it over and over and feeling like I’d disappointed so many other people was not.
Which is why the next time I applied, I did so very quietly.
I told just a few select people, all of them close to me, and I told them I was keeping it quiet to protect my mental health. I even specifically told them not to ask about the contest after the announcement – that if they didn’t hear me cheering from space, they could assume I didn’t get in.
I also didn’t talk about it on social media. When I had questions for the mentors about their wish-lists, I asked them privately by DM or had a good friend ask a mentor publicly on Twitter for me. I kept myself well and truly out of any public discussions.
Now, I did get in this time, so how I would have reacted to rejection is speculation. But even if I hadn’t, I think it would have been easier on me. Because the only set of expectations I had to deal with were my own. I’d have told and shared my disappointment with a couple good friends. And then I’d have been allowed to move on, without people asking every few days what happened.
In this same vein, remember: this is not your last chance to fix your book. It’s not the only way to get an agent. It’s not the only path to a book deal. And it’s not a measure of whether you’re a good writer or your book is a great book. I quite literally have sticky notes I put on things like windows and computer screens that say “it’s not all or nothing” because my brain really likes to treat every opportunity as if it’s the only opportunity. And in publishing, it never is.
Mental illness is a strange thing. Everyone I know who has it (even those with eerily similar diagnoses to mine) experiences it a little differently. Our triggers are different. The things that can lay us low are different. So this isn’t me saying that everyone should stealth-apply to contests and that will make it magically easier to be rejected. This just happens to be what worked for me. Taking off the pressure in the specific way that pressure pushed up against my triggers.
Only apply if you’re willing to make big changes.
If you get picked for Pitch Wars, it’s because someone saw big potential in your book – and that person also felt that it needed big changes to reach that potential.
I asked my fellow mentees about some of their biggest changes, and here are some examples:
:: Cutting a point-of-view
:: Aging up a protagonist and re-writing them with more maturity
:: Changing the major plot points (to the point where it’s a different book now)
:: Re-writing the book in a different point-of-view
Now, this isn’t to say you can’t push back against changes that feel wrong to you. (I will happily die on the hill that not every book needs a romance, for example.) But the point is that if you’re going to do Pitch Wars, you can’t die on every hill. You can’t keep your book exactly the way it is today (and if you want to, why enter? The mentorship is the point of this – not the showcase or the hype).
Before you enter, ask yourself some hard questions about what you’re willing to change. Would you re-write this book in another tense to see if it’s better that way? Could you bear to part with a point-of-view (or more than one)? Which hills are you willing to die on and which ones are you willing to take a chance on?
There are two things I did that I’m really glad for here.
The first is that I sat with some big changes before I got into Pitch Wars. About a week before the announcement, an agent (who would later refer me to the agent I signed with!) was kind enough to give me some feedback on my manuscript. She thought it would be better with a single point-of-view instead of dual narrators. And so for a whole week, I sat with that idea. Was I willing to do it? What would it look like? By the time I got into Pitch Wars and a similar conversation came up with my mentor, I was ready to try that very big change.
The second thing I’m really glad I did is this: I prepared myself to try almost anything. Unless the change was something that made me personally uncomfortable (such as adding a lot of gore or whitewashing history), I wasn’t going to push back against changes without trying them first. If my mentor wanted me to try first-person, I would have re-written a chapter or two in first person and evaluated from there. If we needed to slow down the action scenes (which we did), I’d tuck away the fear that we were making things too slow and try it before expressing concern.
At the end of the day, I could always go back to the previous version if I hated first-person or slower fight scenes. But rather than wrestling with that tension on every change, I decided to trust the process and give myself permission to dial it back later if need be.
It’s a delicate balance. Because you don’t want to turn your book into something you wouldn’t read. The best mentor-mentee relationships make your book more of itself – not something so far away from your vision that you couldn’t find it with a map. So do push back if there’s something you feel strongly about. You have to love and fight for your book at the end of this process. But perhaps before that push-back, sit with the changes, give them a go. What if you did try them? What if they worked?
Finally, this is not me saying that you aren’t allowed to feel hurt or frustrated or bad about the changes. The vast majority of writers I know feel terrible when they get an edit letter, be it from a mentor, agent, or editor. It’s normal and valid to have to take a little time and let yourself feel whatever you need to feel. Because damn it, we all want our books to be perfect as they are – no changes needed – but you wouldn’t have gotten into Pitch Wars if your mentor didn’t have ideas.
Clear your schedule in whatever way you can.
People say Pitch Wars is a lot of work. But what does that really mean? It’s hard to know if you have time when you don’t know what your revisions will look like.
While I can’t tell you what your specific revisions would look like, I can tell you this:
I asked my Pitch Wars class what percentage of their book they re-wrote for Pitch Wars. Not everyone answered the question, but about half of us did. Of that half:
:: 50% said they re-wrote 25 – 50% of their book
:: 17% re-wrote 50 – 75%
:: 26% re-wrote 75 – 90% of their book
:: Only about 7% said their re-writes were less than 25%
So, when you imagine getting into Pitch Wars, imagine re-writing 25 – 90% of your book. Imagine that you’ll have 6 – 8 weeks to do those edits (and then a second and possibly third round of edits from your mentors in the last 4 – 6 weeks).
A self-described slow writer in my Pitch Wars class said she worked 16-hour days to meet her deadlines. I’m a fast writer and I still touched my manuscript almost every day during that three months, putting in anywhere from 1 – 5 hours per day.
As one of my fellow mentees (and a dear friend) said, imagine taking all the work you spread over months or years to get this manuscript to where it is today and doing that all over again over the course of three months.
So, what do REALLY BIG changes look like? Here’s a bird’s eye view of my manuscript. Red means changes. Green means a section was moved.
All this to say: If you get in, do whatever you can to make space in your life. Revisions are going to take up a lot of time.
Making space will look different for different people, but here are some of the things I did (and am glad for):
:: Asked my partner to shoulder most of our shared responsibilities for these three months (travel planning, visa applications, day trip plans for days off, errands)
:: Hired a cleaner to handle my cleaning weeks (my partner and I alternated weeks)
:: Cut my normally twice-weekly blog posts down to once-weekly and feverishly pre-scheduled two months’ worth before I started my Pitch Wars work
:: Made a lot of simple meals (sandwiches, soup, smoothies) instead of my usual time-consuming cooking routine
:: Embraced a slow period with my clients (a big client ran low on budget at the end of the year, but instead of trying to replace the hours they no longer needed, I gave those hours to Pitch Wars – obviously something I can only do because I’m in a secure place in my business, so this wouldn’t apply to everyone)
I also happen to already work part-time, which was very helpful. And I know at least two of the other mentees were on some sort of work sabbatical, while several others took at least a little vacation time to get through edits.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how much time you’ll need, but the more time you can give yourself, the better your mental health is likely to be through this process.
Oh, and this is probably a good time to mention that setting expectations with partners, kids, and friends up front is also helpful. You’re about to take on a massive project. Before you do, let people know that you will probably be less available and that you adore them and will be back to normal in a few months. Make sure your partner is on board for any extra work or lack of attention that’s going to come with this new commitment.
Rethink how you approach deadlines.
I’ve been a content strategist and copywriter for over 15 years now, so I’m very familiar with deadlines. And despite big shifts in my mental health over the years, I’ve only ever missed a deadline once (when I was in the hospital, so that was pretty easily forgiven by the client).
The reason I’m good with deadlines isn’t because I’m a consistent productivity machine (ha) or some kind of deadline genius. It’s because I set expectations for slow and aim for fast.
If I think I can get an article to a client by Monday, I tell them they’ll have it by Thursday. If I think a project will take three weeks, I set my client deadline at four or five. In other words, for me, deadlines are the worst case scenario. They are not the day I plan to send a thing. They are the day that if everything else in my life explodes, I still think I can send the thing.
This is how I approach my work life, and it’s how I recommend approaching Pitch Wars. If your final deadline for a draft is in eight weeks, make your personal deadline six. Don’t share that real goal number with your mentor. Just aim for it. Treat it as if it’s the real deadline. And if life happens (which it tends to) and it takes you seven weeks or eight weeks, you can go beyond your personal goal and still hit the real deadline.
This is trickier to do with Pitch Wars because deadlines here tend to run tight. But for me, this is the best (and, frankly, only) way to work. It means working hard and fast toward a tighter goal. But it also leaves room for failure, for depressive episodes, for big life stressors (like when my dog had a pancreatitis emergency twice during Pitch Wars because OF COURSE SHE DID).
Advocate for yourself.
I know I just said come in with an open mind and be ready to make big changes, but here’s the caveat: This is your book. At the end of the day, you are the one who has to love it and defend it and market it and query it. I went into this willing to try almost anything at least once. But I also went in knowing there were some hills I would die on.
For example, I didn’t want to turn my book into a romance (though there is a romantic sub plot). And I wasn’t willing to turn up the gore.
I wrote a book I wanted to read. And I wanted my revisions to make it something I wanted to read even more.
That’s not to say that the above changes are bad. Stephen King is gory and successful. Romance is a kickass genre with a loyal audience. But those changes are just not me. They’re not my book. They’re not what I’m trying to do. And so they were the things I would push back on (I didn’t have to, because my mentor and I were very much on the same page; but I came into this knowing where I’d have to push back).
Don’t put the showcase on a pedestal.
At the end of Pitch Wars, there’s a hype-filled, whirlwind few days called the Showcase. This is when mentees with finished manuscripts share their pitch, first page, genre, etc. and agents (over 100 of them typically sign up) can request to read more. Getting requests from agents during the showcase can jump-start the agent search and it’s pretty exciting.
But here’s something you probably don’t know about Pitch Wars: not every mentee makes it into the showcase.
Sometimes a book needs more time. Sometimes life happens. Sometimes mentors gently hold a mentee back because they want the manuscript to be the best it can before it goes out to agents – and being in a showcase before you’re ready is simply shooting yourself in the foot.
So, go into it planning to hit your deadlines and work hard. But focus on the work. Focus on how much better your book is going to be. And if you don’t make the showcase, you’ll still have Pitch Wars on your resume. You’ll still have a badass book to query to agents.
If you go into this thinking the showcase is the goal, you’re setting yourself up for a potential big disappointment. Because it’s not your choice if the book is ready or not. It’s your mentor’s. And in almost every case, they have your best interests at heart. Sometimes a book just needs more room to breathe.
Focus on the things you can control.
In Pitch Wars, as in the publishing industry, as in life, there are a lot of factors outside your control. You can’t control how many agents (if any) will like your pitch. You can’t control who will offer to represent you and how fast. You can’t control how much time and energy your mentor puts into your book, whether you see eye-to-eye, or even if you get a good mentor. No mentor puts in their wishlist “I frequently miss deadlines” or “I’m going to have a major crisis midway through this process.”
In general, I’ve found one of the things that can really make me spiral is setting expectations on things outside my control. And so I very purposefully did not come into Pitch Wars thinking this is my one big break and everything is going to be smooth sailing now! I did not come in expecting an agent or a book deal.
I came in telling myself I wanted to put in the work to make my book the best it could be. I wanted to give it the best shot I could. I wanted to take advantage of whatever time, energy, and ideas my mentor offered. I wanted to find more writing buddies to bounce ideas off. And I was going to focus on those things, the things I could control, as much as possible.
Did I want an agent? Of course. Did I hope to get a lot of interest in the showcase? Sure. But I already knew that “lots of interest” does not an agent offer make. And I knew if I focused on those things, I’d just make myself miserable.
Obviously, this is easier said than done. In my own life, I find it’s a long term practice. Whenever I start to get too focused on outcomes outside my control, I purposefully bring myself back. What can I control? What is my personal goal, all other factors aside?
It’s no silver bullet, but it helps me keep moving forward.
Feel what you need to feel
I’ve become protective of my anger. My hurt. My grief. Because the world seems to hate negative emotions, to want to shuffle them behind a smile, to force ourselves to always be paragons of self-belief and happiness and unending mental resources.
To which I say: bullshit.
Sometimes I feel terrible, and I’m allowed to feel terrible. And you are allowed to feel whatever you need to feel too.
Disappointed that you didn’t get in? Damn straight you are because that sucks. Disappointed that your book got below average requests in the showcase? Of course you are! You busted your ass making that book as good as it could be for two months – and it deserves better. Upset that your mentor ghosted you completely? (This happened to me in another mentorship program years ago.) HELL YES you are because wow, that’s shitty.
This is the part where I tell you that before I got into Pitch Wars, I took nine months off from writing fiction because I was so demoralized by the process of querying literary agents. And for all my coping mechanisms and carefully planning and the kinds of strategies I just detailed above, I couldn’t find a way to make querying feel bearable for myself.
So here’s your reminder that that is a kind of self care too: letting yourself feel your anger, your disappointment, your frustration along the way. Giving yourself space to take breaks, even long ones. Giving yourself permission to write another book if you want. Re-write this one again if you want. Do whatever it is your soul needs to do.
Since Pitch Wars ended last year, I’ve known mentees who decided to re-write their books themselves. I’ve known others who got a Revise and Resubmit (R&R) request from an agent. I’ve known people who got agents and did major revisions and people who got agents and did minor ones. I also know people who don’t want to look at their Pitch Wars books again for a long, long time because if they have to move one more damn comma they might explode.
Breaks are fine. Re-writes are fine. Screaming into the Icelandic void is fine.
This process is intense for most of us. Feel what you need to feel. Just don’t take it out on others.
Finally, it’s okay if Pitch Wars isn’t for you.
In the lead-up to Pitch Wars, you’ll see lots of people cheering “just do it!” and “what’s the worst that can happen?”
And I suppose if you’ve never experienced depression or anxiety or CPTSD, maybe that’s good advice. The worst that can happen to the typical person is a stressful waiting period and a rejection that hurts your heart. But eventually you move on. Rejection can’t hurt you. Not really. Right?
Except, if you’re mentally ill, it can. A depressed person might experience rejection as the confirmation of our great suspicion: the world would be a better place if we weren’t in it. It could make us sicker. It could trigger debilitating physical symptoms. It could be the final straw that paralyzes us from getting out of bed, taking that shower, and facing the world. Or, at worst, it could kill us.
As my support group said when I voiced frustration at all the “what’s the worst that can happen?” tweets before I got in:
I could be dead, Karen. That’s the worst that could happen.
Now, my experience of depression is that it always changes. There have been times (I’m looking at you, mid-20s) when I’ve been passively suicidal, floating through fuzzy days and hoping maybe today will be the day I don’t wake up. And there have been times (more times) when I’m okay. I can handle rejection. I have the energy to take on day-to-day life.
So my point is this: If this is a hard time, if you’re already feeling low, if you aren’t sure you can handle it, you do not have to do this. Just because the writing community gets excited about it doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. It’s a great program and an opportunity I feel very lucky to have had, but it’s not the only path to publishing – and it’s not even the only mentorship program out there. There are some less intense programs that probably come with a bit less anxiety, pressure, and potential triggers.
My experience in Pitch Wars was overwhelmingly positive. I re-wrote my book, found my agent, bonded with my fabulous mentor, and made new friends. I love this program with my whole heart. But I also understand that there have been times in my life when I had the spoons for something like this and times in my life that I truly would not have. Part of managing my mental health is knowing when to pass on an opportunity and try again another year.
So, first and foremost, take care of yourself. And if that means passing on this opportunity and pouring your heart into another or applying next year or applying in secret, every one of those choices is a valid choice. Because “the worst that can happen” isn’t the same for everyone.
Worried about something I haven’t addressed here? Tell me how I can help in the comments.