Confessions of a PitchWars Mentor: Five Questions with J.R. Yates

As many of you know, in 2014, I participated in PitchWars with my book, THE WHITE LEHUA, a YA mystery I have since shelved. For anyone not familiar with PitchWars, it’s a social media-based contest hosted by EntangledTEEN author, Brenda Drake, designed to help connect unpublished writers with literary agents. I talked a bit more about my experience here.


I’m fond of saying that the best part of these contest is all the friends I have made and one such amazing friend is J.R. Yates, a Canadian romance writer represented by Stacey Donaghy of Donaghy Literary Group. Last year, J.R. was a PitchWars participant and was mentored by the awesome writer and our mutual friend, Kelly Siskind. As a result of the contest, J.R. got and accepted an offer from her agent. This year, she’s back as a PitchWars mentor out to, hopefully, help a fellow writer duplicate her success.

As an entrant, PitchWars was a total roller coaster ride of every emotion in the universe. But I was really curious how the experience of being a mentor differed from being a mentee. J.R. agreed to answer questions about how the process has been going thus far.


KD: Deciding to enter PitchWars is a really emotional decision for many writers. It’s tough to put yourself and your work out there. But what’s it like on the other side? How does it feel to open yourself to submissions?

JRY: I was really excited to have my inbox flooded with all of this potential. It was like being a kid at Christmas and wondering which gift, which manuscript, is going to be the one? The one that I love and will never forget. But then as I started opening them and sorting through, the weight of the responsibility settled in. These talented writers have all trusted me with their work and are looking for the same opportunity that I had and I could only pick one. One. That was crushing. Then the worry deepened. Will I pick the right one?


KD: Any thoughts about your slush? Did you spot any trends or note any issues that a lot of the entries have in common?

JRY: As I was looking for romance, I was really surprised, as I read, that many of the manuscripts I received weren’t romance at all.

In terms of trends, I received a lot of submissions with very heavy themes (e.g., mental illness, assault, etc.).


KD: What was your process in making requests, narrowing your options and finally choosing your mentee?

JRY: I was looking for voice and a story that I enjoyed. I had three folders. Maybe, No, and Request. I’ll be honest, this was a true learning experience, and I didn’t manage it properly initially.

First, this experience was a bit of a peek into the world of literary agents. Your inbox flooding and trying to find something that captures your attention—how important a query and first pages truly are. It’s really difficult to manage that kind of volume, but luckily for the mentors, it ceases after a few days. I salute literary agents and how they manage a constant influx.

But mentors aren’t agents. I thought my first love would be easy to find, and I eliminated too quickly, either based on the queries or first pages. As I said earlier, some of the manuscripts I requested weren’t romance, I didn’t connect with the story, or they required more than two months of mentorship. I went back and reread all of the submissions in my Maybe and No folders and made more requests. I read all the pages in the submissions no matter what the query or first 5 pages were like. Mentors have to look beyond the first pages and queries; in the end, our job is to help with those things. I discovered that sometimes beneath a flawed query or first pages was some seriously amazing writing.

In the end, I requested over 20 manuscripts. Of those, I read 3 fulls, and 60-80% of five others and about 30% of the rest (I slept very little in August). Many of the manuscripts I read had great voice and a story I enjoyed, but I landed on the one I chose because I had a vision for it. That’s what it came down to for me, having a solid vision of what the story needed.


KD: While I waited for the PitchWars announcement I was almost dying with anticipation. What were your feelings as you waited for your mentee to be announced?

JRY: I followed it more closely than when I was a potential mentee! I was quite naïve last year and trusted that the announcements would come the day after the live show—my friend Kelly deVos Tweeted me that I got in while I was eating dinner, blissfully unaware that announcements had been made! This year, obviously, I knew better. I watched the show and then was stuck on Twitter. Watching. Waiting. And then, more waiting, does my mentee know yet? I was so excited for her to find out!


KD: Finally, it can be kind of heartbreaking for the writers who don’t get chosen as mentees. Any advice for those writers going forward?

JRY: Yes, there’s a ton of heartbreak in this business. A lot of Nos, but each No builds a bridge to a Yes. Keep writing. Keep learning. I’m a true believer that the path to success is being open to more learning, and pushing yourself to improve.  Find CPs, attend classes and workshops. Success comes in many forms, and the path to publishing takes many routes. Find yours by never giving up.

Have you ever participated in an online writing or Pitch Contest? If so, how did it go?