To all you hopeful, prospective #PitchWars contestants out there: welcome! May you find all that you’re looking for—and all that you never knew you needed—through this wonderful platform. I’m excited to participate this year, to pair up with the perfect match through this process, and I’m as eager as you are to find out who that will be!
I am the author of the highly-acclaimed sci-fi eco-thriller The Islands at the End of the World and its sequel, The Girl at the Center of the World, published by the incomparable and preeminent Wendy Lamb at Random House. The Guardian recently ranked my debut novel as a top-ten read in the awakening genre of climate fiction, and Kirkus Reviews hailed the series opener as a “Best Book of 2014.” I earned a master’s degree in tropical conservation biology while living with my wife and two children on the Big Island of Hawai`i. A Northern Arizona native and long-distance backpacker, I can often be found exploring the world’s last wild places while sleeping on a punctured air mattress. Follow my globetrotting and outdoor adventures on both Facebook and Twitter at “Laustinspace,” and PLEASE CHECK OUT MY ESSAYS on the Gore-Tex® “Experience More” blog.
I’m naturally attracted to a wide variety of material. But I think my mentee will best be served if I strive to focus my mentoring in the direction of what I’ve proven to be best at writing myself, namely: YA oriented toward survival/disaster, dystopia, and/or eco-thriller. Your novel can be set in any time period: past, present day, the near future, or the far future—the key is that it feels gritty and grounded and sensual (note: that’s sensual, not sexual). The material should have a redeeming undercurrent to it, without feeling at all preachy or smelling too strongly of an agenda.
I’m going to gravitate toward material that comes with a compelling initial hook (the elevator pitch has to impress me and make me curious). Make sure you have an original idea! The genres I mentioned above all suffer from too much of the same.
I need the author to have a sense of voice. (What does that mean? I don’t know. I know it when I see it. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, you should be concerned. Voice is the DNA of your novel.)
The sample must showcase well-drawn characters who act logically and who pop out at me. I preach that plot is what gets in the way of what characters want. What is happening in a novel should primarily be a function of who your characters are and how they uniquely effect the world around them. What fingerprint does your main character indelibly leave in your world? The days of books being interesting simply on the merits of their new gimmick are far behind us (ex: (and not to bag on Clarke, but…2001: Space Odyssey, Childhood’s End), and natural disaster-y movie violators which rely only of FX to carry their weight: Transformers, Dante’s Peak, Armageddon, Twister, Day After Tomorrow etc.)
In terms of story and narrative, I’ll forgive a lot as I scan initial pages, but a generally-clean edit is elemental (I don’t have time to fix punctuation and spelling errors–if you’re proud and serious about your material, that will have been taken care of long before your ms reaches the likes of me). A really sloppy voice or little command of sentence structure will quickly earn a pass. The story has to feel anchored immediately. I need to be grounded, know where I am, what’s going on, and why I should care.
I’m an okay copy editor, but I notice trends in errors and understand how grammar is supposed to work. There will likely be repeated errors in any ms, and I’ll address these with a few examples and lessons for how to fix the problem, then expect the author to weed all similar incidents out during the next revision. I’m far more interested in troubleshooting the content of the story, the elements that are lacking or weak, of discussing how to make plot and characters stronger and more vibrant, and how to tighten, tighten, tighten. I suspect there will be room for three rounds of revision in the two months. I personally work fast. You as the author should take more time, really try on what we discuss, and create distance between revisions for the sake of clarity.
I have no favorite child, and the best books I’ve read are all unique enough to defy direct ranking against each other. But for what it’s worth, my best reads have all been somehow transcendental, somewhat epic in form, and illuminate something profound of the Human condition. 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera fit the bill. LOTR does, too. Brothers Karamozov. The Gunslinger and The Shining. Cloud Atlas, for its sheer versatility. And one of the few series I read over and over again: Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books. Simply sublime. I don’t know what these books do to my own writing, except to humble me, and ignite my love for the written word. I will be most enthusiastic about a match that does the same. Forget the fact that I got published first; I have every reason to hope that your project will humble me and teach me. I firmly believe that I’m likely to get as much out of this collaborative experience as you will!