WWTS Mentee Update: Justin Colón

Justin Colón won a mentorship with Pam Calvert in the Writing with the Stars contest. Here are a few words from Justin about his experience. 

It was January 31st and I was sitting at my kitchen table, eyes fixed on my computer screen. I watched in anticipation as Tara tweeted the names of the writers selected to be 2018 PBWWTS mentees. Then, my notification icon lit up blue and (I’m pretty sure) I jumped out of my chair yelling and fist-pumping into the air (before I’d even checked to see if I’d been chosen). When I finally did click, the following message greeted me: “Pam Calvert has selected Justin Colón as her mentee. Congratulations!”

But let’s backtrack before we proceed further…

I’d written for many years, but my writing was primarily research-oriented. However, I naively assured myself that I was a natural-born writer and with my talent and tenacity, plethora of quirky ideas and familiarity with picture books (from reading to the little one), I’d be a breakout author. After all, writing picture books is easy and the entryway for breaking into the publishing industry as a writer. ::CRINGES::

I exhausted Google and befriended blogs (Tara Lazar’s and Josh Funk’s blogs come to mind and every pb writer should check them out). I befriended the librarian and connected with the industry via Twitter. FYI, Twitter is a really valuable tool. Sure, you can connect with fellow writers and agents and even enter pitch contests. But most importantly, many established writers, agents, and editors tweet entire threads packed with valuable insight and information (craft and business-related) for writers. I joined SCBWI on Christmas and lived on the Blue Boards for a while, and that’s how my PBWWTS mentorship really came to fruition. A fellow member and writer, Sarah Floyd (@kidlitSarah), took an interest in me and recommended I apply to the mentorship. I dismissed the opportunity as being too good to be true, but with some pushing I caved. I researched all of the mentors and, about two hours before the deadline, submitted an application I felt proud of. I then banished all thoughts of the mentorship from my mind and resumed querying agents.

Now, let’s fast forward to about an hour or two after I’d been notified of my mentorship status…

My new mentor, Pam Calvert, emailed me, introducing herself and officially initiating the mentorship. She also provided me with a brief analysis of my writing strengths and weaknesses, and requested I send her my completed manuscripts and any ideas I was considering turning into manuscripts (for her to assess and select a few to work on with me that she found to be most marketable). Most importantly, she encouraged me to ask questions during the months to follow.

One of the first things I did, upon Pam’s suggestion, was launch my website and begin interviewing agents and editors for a blog. You can now check out those interviews, join my blog’s mailing list, and even request  specific agents and editors for future interviews by visiting the following link: www.justincolonbooks.com/blog.

I began the mentorship with three manuscripts, all of which Pam critiqued (two of which we later decided would be best shelved or heavily revised). I completed the mentorship with four fully polished manuscripts (three of which were conceived and completed during the mentorship).

Pam and I communicated via email on a near-daily basis. I often emailed her with updates and questions (and lots of ‘em), ranging from those about specific critique notes to ideas, marketability, and branding, to querying, staying motivated, and more. Pam graciously answered all of them.

With Pam as my mentor, my writing skills skyrocketed, as did my industry savvy. She encouraged me to take specific picture book classes and join critique groups (both of which I did), steered me toward specific mentor texts, and provided me with honest critiques, notes, insight, and information that pushed me immensely as a writer. She even shared bits and pieces of her own manuscripts with me as well as her own journey and the obstacles she faced, and that was both motivating and inspiring. And she wasn’t limiting; if I had questions, thoughts, or ideas about writing for other audiences (e.g. chapter books and middle grade), she was happy to shift gears for a bit.

Pam is professional, positive, and patient. And she’s brilliant when it comes to story structure and pushing and polishing ideas so that they’re fun, marketable, and up to publishing standards. She has a free resource (that I still frequent): http://wwwpamcalvert.blogspot.com/p/picture-book-university.html, and I highly recommend it to all picture book writers I work with. And for those looking to take their work to the next level, Pam offers a critique service that you can learn more about at http://wwwpamcalvert.blogspot.com/p/pb-critiques.html .

Since completing the mentorship, things have still been tough, but in a new way. Securing representation rests on many factors beyond the quality of your writing and the strength of your stories. With that said, I’ve had two agent requests for additional picture book manuscripts. I also had two manuscript requests from editors based upon pitches my mentor helped me craft. And while those requests resulted in passes, I’ve received great feedback regarding my voice, the quality of the storytelling, and the originality of the stories. And I was left with valuable advice in some cases. Two industry professionals (as well as my mentor) even suggested I expand one of my picture books into a chapter book series. Come September, I’m also planning to query with a middle-grade novel that I began working on post-mentorship (it’s an ownvoices, LatinX spooky mg fantasy adventure set in Puerto Rico). I also formed a critique group that’s been very helpful and supportive, was selected from an application process to join another critique group, and am applying to a few publishing internships at the moment.

A mentorship isn’t a magic wand, though. It’s cliché but true: you reap what you sow. To whomever is lucky enough to be mentored (by any mentor, for any mentorship), be prepared to put in the work. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes, look like a noob, or ask questions; it’s part of the process.

In short, this mentorship exceeded my expectations and set me light-years ahead as a writer, and I highly recommend it to anybody considering applying next year. Thank you Tara Luebbe for creating and organizing this opportunity, Sarah Floyd for encouraging me to apply, and Pam Calvert for selecting and guiding me as your 2018 PBWWTS mentee.

To all of next year’s applicants and selected mentees, good luck! And most of all, happy writing to all!

Justin Colón

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