Kelly and Lauren, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview and congratulations on your partnership! To start, Kelly, I’d love to know more about your book and why you wrote it.
KELLY: Thank you for interviewing me! And thank you for creating #DVpit and continuing to host it every year. I'm so grateful for the opportunities it has opened up for me and for other writers.
The Spies of Northstar House, set on Long Island's Gold Coast in 1915, is a middle-grade novel about two kids who join forces to fight a ring of German spies who are trying to steal inventor Nikola Tesla's secret weapon—a death ray.
I live on Long Island, and this book grew from two pieces of local history as well as a story from my family history. In the early 1900s the inventor Nikola Tesla, who was far ahead of his time, had a laboratory on Long Island. He built a massive tower, with a mysterious system of tunnels under it, that was intended to broadcast wireless energy and communications all over the Earth. He also invented a remote-controlled boat and a particle-beam weapon, or "death ray." In 1917, the U.S. government dynamited his tower, claiming it was being used by German spies. Another piece of local history was the story of a mansion in Huntington, Long Island, where the rooms were paved with gravestones of dead children from lonely graveyards all over Europe. The owner of the house, Julianna Ferguson, loved children, and it was said that she didn't want those dead children to be lost and forgotten, so she collected their headstones and had them built into her house. The third thread was a story my mother, a nurse, used to tell about a girl under her care who died of polio when her chest became paralyzed and she couldn't breathe. The story of this girl has haunted me ever since.
All of these stories simmered and bubbled and eventually turned into the tale of Cathy Truenorth, who grew up in that ghost-filled mansion, whose twin sister died of polio, and who joins with her new friend, mechanical genius Neeley Keenan, to battle a ring of German spies who are trying to steal Nikola Tesla's death ray. Cathy, like her sister, had polio, and she uses a cane when she walks. She's an active, curious, inventive person, a good match for the evildoers in the book.
Lauren, what was it about this manuscript that sealed the deal for you?
LAUREN: I was hooked at Tesla, but I think what really put it over the top for me were all the finer details of Cathy’s world. The Truenorth home is a series of secret passageways and wonky time-saving inventions that don’t quite work, inhabited by genius children and a ghost cat, among others. That couldn’t be more up my alley.
I really appreciated also that this is a story about grief but also adventure, full of heart and interesting science, where fully embracing the person you are is a core value. It feels timely to me and also classic. It’s absolutely the kind of book I would have loved as a kid and also one I know my nephews will adore. That’s really the sweet spot for me in middle grade.
Kelly, how did you prepare this manuscript for submission? Do you work with outlines, schedules, or deadlines? Do you have critique partners and beta readers?
KELLY: When I heard about #DVpit, the manuscript was almost finished, so I knew I'd be done with it in time to enter. The timing was really right for me—I was lucky. In general, though, I'm a very intuitive writer. The story is like a movie to me—I never know what's going to happen when I sit down to write a scene, and often characters will just show up and lead me to interesting places. I only start shaping the story after I have a huge mass of material. I go through it over and over, cutting and moving things around. Sometimes something just doesn't feel right, and I let it rest and then come back to it later when I have the answer. For the final revision, I show it to my wife, who is a brutally honest beta reader.
And how was the #DVpit experience for you, overall? Expectations? Doubts? Disappointments?
KELLY: I had no idea what to expect from #DVpit, but I loved the idea of it—promoting marginalized writers. Publishing has come a long way in the last couple of decades, and #DVpit is helping it to go farther in reflecting the experiences of all people. Even if I didn't find an agent through #DVpit, it would be good practice in pitching my book, and it would also be a fun way to find other diverse writers and make connections with them. I was happily surprised when I received positive responses from agents and editors.
How was the experience for you, Lauren?
LAUREN: I always love #DVpit. Pitch contests can be time consuming in an industry where there’s never enough time, but this is the one I never miss. There are some amazing projects, and I get excited about so many of them, even ones that aren’t right for me. I also love watching the run up to the pitching day, because the collaborative support from the author community for people who are preparing to pitch is always very wonderful to see.
And thank you, Beth, for creating this space within publishing. We all owe you so much for your generosity.
Kelly, did you receive pitch help or tips? Any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to future participants?
KELLY: I didn't have help in writing my pitch, but I did read many blogs and articles filled with advice about pitching your novel, and I tried to incorporate what I learned from them into my pitch. My advice—if you're a diverse writer, participate in #DVpit! It's a great opportunity, and even if you don't find an agent, you'll learn from it and connect with other writers. Also, if you do receive manuscript requests, don't worry if the process takes a while—in my case, it was several months before I heard back from agents who had the full manuscript.
And Lauren, do you have any advice for querying authors and/or for anyone planning to participate in a future #DVpit?
LAUREN: My best advice would be to follow the #DVpit Twitter account (@DVpit_) and take advantage of all the great things that happen before the actual pitching days. Pitch help, Q&As, blog hops—so much great info. Even if you’re not ready for DVpit this time around or not eligible to participate, there are invaluable resources attached to it.
Also: make note of every one that boosts your Tweet, especially editors. Twitter makes it really hard to look back at quote tweets, faves, and retweets after the fact if you get more than a handful. Keep an eye on it on the day (or see if you can find someone else who will if you can’t for some reason) and screenshot or make a list. The agents, of course, you need to know for your queries. But even if the editors aren’t requesting, you want to be able to give the editor list to your agent for when they submit. And if an author who boosted your DVpit pitch ends up on a possible blurb outreach list later on, it probably wouldn’t help to know if your book had already caught their eye once before.
Also: remember you don’t have to submit to everyone who faves your tweet. (Even if it’s me.) If you feel they’re not the right agent for you, don’t submit. It’s what’s best for you and the agents! Likewise your agent may not submit to every editor who boosted or faved your tweet, if they’re not the right person for the project.
Tell us about The Call, Kelly!
KELLY: I was in a tiny town in a mountainous area of Vermont and didn't have access to internet or cell service, so I hadn't checked my mail for a few days. By chance, I stopped at the town library, where they had WiFi, and downloaded my mail. When I saw the email from Lauren saying, "Are you free for a phone call anytime in the next couple days?" I was incredibly excited, and arranged for her to call me that night. Then I sat down, frantically trying to remember all those questions you're supposed to ask an agent during "The Call," and scribbled them in my journal. My handwriting was barely legible because I was so nervous!
As soon as we talked, though, I felt at ease with Lauren. She answered all of my questions thoroughly and honestly. I loved her dedication to promoting marginalized writers, her flexibility in working with each writer's different needs, and most of all, her clarity, integrity, and professionalism. I felt that I could trust her and rely on her, and I would never be afraid to call her or ask her questions. Lauren is also an editorial agent, which I was looking for, and she had incredibly helpful and inspiring suggestions for revising the book. It was clear that she saw the true heart and soul of the book, and her unswerving mission was to help me make it the best it could be. I knew right away that I wanted to work with her.
As a result of #DVpit, though, there were several other agents who also had the full manuscript, so as soon as I was done talking with Lauren, I notified them all that I would be making my decision in a week. I had great conversations with some of them, but in the end, it was no contest—Lauren is definitely the right agent for me, and I feel very fortunate that #DVpit brought us together.
Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!
KELLY: “In 1915 New York, disabled girl and Brooklyn orphan team up to save Nikola Tesla's secret weapon from a ring of German spies. #MG #MR #DVpit”
Lauren, what was it about this pitch that caught your attention?
LAUREN: Tesla. I’m absolutely fascinated by him and have been looking for a great Tesla novel for about as long as I’ve been an agent.
What else are you looking for these days? Is there anything specific on your wishlist that you’re hoping to find, maybe at the next #DVpit?
LAUREN: I’m eager for a feminist thriller that feels fresh and new. And books where the most vital (or even only) relationships in the story are between friends, not family members or romantic/sexual interests. I’m always particularly on the lookout for middle grade, contemporary YA, and adult fiction with an autistic protagonist written by an autistic author. I’m also hoping to find some more contemporary romance with characters underrepresented in the traditional romance market.
Warm congratulations to Kelly and Lauren for finding each other! I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next. Follow them on Twitter so you can do the same!
Kelly Winters (@KWintersWrites) was born in upstate New York, grew up in Wisconsin, and now lives on Long Island. When she's not writing, she spends time with her family building things, making things, exploring nature, and tinkering with machines.
Lauren E. Abramo (@LaurenAbramo) is Vice President and Subsidiary Rights Director at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, where she maintains a carefully cultivated client list with a heavy emphasis on middle grade, young adult, and adult fiction, and interdisciplinary, accessible adult nonfiction approaches to important issues in contemporary culture. In all categories she is especially interested in underrepresented voices.