Pen friends, if you’ve spent much time around here, you know how much we love the writing community! One of our favorite ways of learning and growing within that community is by participating in contests and mentoring opportunities, and today we are thrilled to chat with one of the founders of Author Mentor Match, the lovely YA author Alexa Donne!
*The current round of submissions for AMM is open now through October 24th, so if you’ve been looking for a mentor, now is the perfect chance to apply!
SP: Welcome, Alexa! We’re so excited to have you join us. Can you please tell us a little about who you are and what you write?
Hi! Thank you so much for having me! I am Alexa Donne, a YA science fiction & fantasy writer whose debut novel, BRIGHTLY BURNING, will be coming out from HMH Teen on May 1, 2018. It’s a retelling of Jane Eyre, set in space.
SP: What has your writing journey been like? How did you find your agent?
Oh gosh. My writing journey has been somewhat long? I’ve actually had two agents. To “long story short” the first part of my career: I finished my first novel in early 2013, entered some contests, got an agent from one of them, was on submission for over a year with no sale, then amicably parted ways with said first agent when my second manuscript/writing direction just wasn’t gelling for both of us. I queried that second book to little success, so I shelved it.
I started Jane Eyre in Space (BRIGHTLY BURNING) as a NaNoWriMo project in 2015 and wrote every day for three months straight until it was done–the fastest I’ve ever written anything! I started querying in February 2016, and found my wonder-agent Elana Roth Parker via a #MSWL tweet. I went on submission Fall 2016, didn’t sell in the first round, revised the book, went back out, and sold to HMH Teen in April 2017. It’s so funny because it feels like I’ve been on this journey forever, but now my book is being “crashed” and everything is happening so fast! I feel so, so lucky to be where I am, and I think everything happens for a reason!
SP: First of all, we are obsessed with the premise of BRIGHTLY BURNING! Will you give us a teaser?
Of course! Set approximately 200 years in the future, Stella Ainsley is 17 and stuck as an engineering apprentice on the Stalwart, a floundering spaceship that offers few prospects, little food, and a very good chance of dying from disease. Earth’s population fled an ice age and has been living in space ever since. The planet doesn’t seem to be thawing, and resources are running out.
Stella finds a position as a governess on the Rochester, a mysterious private ship with a mercurial, young and annoyingly handsome captain, Hugo Fairfax.
If you’re a Jane Eyre fan, you can guess where it goes from there! There are accidents, moody lighting, flirting, a beautiful rival named Bianca Ingram… and my own personal touches, including LOTS OF BOOKS, Maine Coons IN SPACE, sassy AIs, and a creepy conspiracy that goes far beyond “who is that laughing in the corridor”…
SP: That sounds AMAZING. We can’t wait to read it! Okay, so here at the Spinning Pen, we are huge fans of writers helping other writers, which is exactly the purpose of your program, Author Mentor Match. How did that get started, and what is it all about?
So AMM all circles back to my long-time relationship with my Critique Partner & friend Heather Kaczynski. We found each other in 2013 on Miss Snark’s First Victim blog and have been each other’s support systems ever since. I’m the research & networking obsessed one of us two, so I brought a lot of industry knowledge to our relationship and helped Heather with her query and pushing her to give Kristin Nelson a try when she was too scared to query her. It was like mentorship, but not exactly because we’re friends & peers. Then, when Heather got her book deal in 2015, it was her turn to help me! She’s provided such amazing insight on the next steps in the process, and she was such a fantastic support for me when I finally reached that point, too.
Heather came to me last fall (2016), expressing how she wished more writers had a relationship like ours–mentors and friends to help them through this weird industry and process. So AMM was Heather’s brainchild and we partnered on it to bring it to life! I adore organizing things, and Heather brought in some amazing 2017 debut authors for our first round.
We believe that the writing community should support promising up & coming writers, offering not just editorial guidance, but also industry information, advice & support. We’re in it for the long haul, because things can get really weird and rough in publishing, and few of us are “overnight successes.” The right mentor–or friend!–can change everything.
SP: What have been your favorite moments from running the last two rounds of AMM?
Oh gosh, we’ve had some amazing ones so far, despite barely being a year old. Several mentees have signed with incredible agents, and behind-the-scenes it was thrilling to not just hear about their getting an offer… but almost all of them had multiple offers! I love that we’re helping writers get out there, and not just have options but really *great* options.
I have another big favorite moment, and I can’t talk about it! It’s a secret (bwahahaha). But, trust me, when it’s public, you’ll see why I am SO EXCITED, and proud.
I have to get a bit personal: I’ve loved every second of working with my mentees. I adore them all, and can honestly say that we are friends. Two of my mentees are deep in the query trenches, and I’ve been helping each of them with querying strategy, some revising, and long-term plans. And then I was so so proud when my mentee India Hill signed with Holly Root in the Spring. I’m still mentoring India as things come her way, and she’s got some fantastic stuff coming up that I can’t wait for the world to read.
Beyond this, seeing the AMM community blossom on Twitter (search #AskAMM, #AuthorMentorMatch, #AMMFam, & #AMMParty) and Facebook has been my favorite thing. The mentee community is incredible and I love their positivity, generosity and can-do spirit. It’s cheesy but I’m just SO PROUD of everyone!
SP: How about an interesting “learning moment” where you had to reevaluate the way you were doing things with the contest?
Not so much a learning moment, but a reinforcement of values moment. As we’ve been gaining a higher profile in the community, I’ve received a LOT of inquiries about genres beyond YA and MG–adult genre, romance, non-fiction, even screenwriting! I feel for writers who desperately want mentorship, and wish I could help everyone, but I always come back to an amazing piece of wisdom I picked up from WriteGirl, a non-profit I volunteer with in Los Angeles. They pointed out that what sets apart many successful non-profit organizations and other mission-based organizations is that those who fold after a few years tend to take on too much and try to help everyone. The key to long term success (and slow, sustainable growth) is to focus on the core mission and not take on too much beyond that, even if you’d love to.
My area of expertise and where most of my relationships lie is with YA fiction, and my co-founder Heather is also a YA author. Cultivating a high quality mentoring team and ensuring the best possible experience for our mentees comes from personal relationships, networking and keeping the team small and fairly intimate. We felt able to expand (slowly!) into middle grade as both Heather and I interacted with more MG writers through our debut experiences. Our passion area and expertise lies in kidlit, so for the foreseeable future we will stay focused on those areas, and our mentoring team will remain relatively small. We focus on quality and depth of knowledge to give our mentees the best possible experience and footing in the industry. So the learning has been to stick to our core values and mission!
SP: Love that. I think that’s a great reminder for how we approach our writing as well. With the ever-expanding communities of awesome YA and MG authors to work with, we’re curious: what’s your process for finding mentors?
We find people in a variety of ways! Many of the mentors are friends of ours, or people Heather and I have met through our debut classes. Mentors also refer their friends, and we have an open application process before each round to discover new faces.
We ask a lot of questions to ensure someone is the right fit, focusing on mentors who have a wealth of experience in pursuing traditional publishing so they can best serve mentees. I’ll admit that we are picky! We want to ensure that our mentors come with a depth of both critique and industry experience so they can offer more than a typical beta or CP would to a writer. We also look for mentors who are in it for the long haul. While we don’t require a lifelong relationship, we do expect most AMM relationships to last 6 months to one year, as the mentor/mentee pairs work on the manuscript and go through the querying process together.
SP: Who do you recommend should apply to AMM?
We’re the best fit for writers who have a complete, polished manuscript that is nearly query-ready, but maybe needs one more strong round of revision–& an outsider’s fresh perspective–before it’s good-to-go. Or, if you know your book is broken and are willing to put in the work to fix it, that’s fine, too! Knowing that you’re *not* ready to query is a good perspective to have. Potential mentees should be open to feedback and willing to revise, not looking for a rubber stamp to query.
SP: The AMM Slush Pile: Can you give us a peek into the process? How have you chosen your mentees out of all the submissions?
AMM has a comprehensive, two-part submission process. Step one is to fill out our submission form, which is pretty in-depth. We want to know about your writing background, the book you are submitting, other projects, career aspirations, what you’re looking for in a mentor, etc. Then, mentees submit a query package to our email, and this round we’re asking for a query, synopsis and partial (50 pages or 3 chapters, whichever is longest). We ask for all this information in the interest of making the best possible matches.
AMM submissions populate into a Google spreadsheet, which is shared with all the mentors. We also share an email inbox, where entries are color-coded and labeled with the mentor’s names. (The spreadsheet is color-coded too!)
The beautiful thing about AMM is that every mentor is looking for something different, and thus their process can be different. We aren’t working toward a contest or specific timeline, so there’s room for mentors to choose manuscripts and authors at all stages/that require different levels of time investment. So I’ll tell you how I choose my mentees, but it isn’t how other mentors necessarily do it.
Personally, I’ve looked for mentees whose manuscripts are pretty close to being query ready, but need one big revision–usually focusing on character or romance arcs and/or tension. I read the query and if it hooks me, onto the sample pages. Voice and a compelling writing style are really important to me. I need to get a feel for the character right away, and the writing needs to flow–if I’m tripping over words and/or vague statements, I’ll be annoyed and stop. This all said: if the concept in the query was REALLY good/hook-y, I will read past problematic opening pages. I’ve done this before to discover a great book hiding behind a lacklustre first chapter.
I ask for fulls, and I look for something compulsively readable. Something that keeps me up late, where I genuinely care about the characters. I like to look at the synopsis to ensure the writer understands structure and the story is going somewhere. I also have to see a way to pitch it, and understand where the book fits into the marketplace. I can love a story but if I’m fairly confident the book just won’t move at all in the market, I won’t be able to best serve that writer in their career *right now*, and my ultimate goal is to help writers query and sell. If my advice is “I think you need to write a different book,” (which I have given), then it’s not the right fit, for the moment.
That said, I don’t pick sure-things! I pick things I love that have a shot at landing an agent (not a guarantee), written by authors I believe have what it takes to make it in the industry, long-term, and if the first book doesn’t work, we’ll work on another one. I’m with my mentees for the long haul because I know it can take a few books until everything clicks and works out.
SP: For fun–and education: What’s your personal writing process like? Answer in gif form if you can.
I’m a pantser, so…
SP: Oh, that is a perfect representation. 🙂 Thank you so much for hanging out with us, Alexa! We are so excited for this round of Author Mentor Match–and good luck to everyone who is entering!
Dana, signing off!