I’ve always been impressed with the level to which authors, readers, and editors support each other in the crime fiction community, but the folks at #pitchwars go above and beyond. I interviewed some of the wonderful mentors and mentees of Pitch Wars to find out how their community works to help new authors break into the industry. We talked about gatekeeping, getting started, and how to gracefully take an edit, among other things. Thanks to Kellye Garrett (Hollywood Ending), Layne Fargo (They Never Learn), Mia P. Manansala (Arsenic and Adobo), Mary Keliikoa (Denied), and Dianne Freeman (A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Murder) for answering all my questions about this fantastic program. Follow #pitchwars on Twitter to keep up with all the news.
To get started, can you give us a brief overview of what Pitch Wars is?
Kellye Garrett: Pitch Wars is a mentoring program where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each to mentor. Mentors read the entire manuscript and offer suggestions on how to make the manuscript shine for the agent showcase. The mentor also helps edit their mentee’s pitch for the contest and their query letter for submitting to agent.
Since Brenda Drake started Pitch Wars in 2012, we’ve had over 250 success stories of mentees getting agents and/or publishing deals. Some notable alums include Tomi Adeyemi, Helen Hoang, Zoje Stage and others.
How can people get involved in Pitch Wars?
Kellye Garrett: They can visit the Start Here page on our website: http://pitchwars.org/new-start-here/. They can also just hang out on the #pitchwars hashtag on Twitter. Thousands of people use it and have found friends, critique partners and just an amazing community.
What is the best way to support the work that Pitch Wars is doing?
Kellye Garrett: The best way would be to share info on Pitch Wars with any emerging writers you know. For example, I found out about Pitch Wars on the Sisters in Crime Guppies board and in turn, I have shared info about it with anyone who will listen. I know at least two mentees who learned about it through me just talking it up and decided to apply.
How has mentorship helped you in your writing career?
Mia P. Manansala: I’m very lucky that my mentor, Kellye Garrett, has not only become my co-mentor, but a good friend. She is a constant cheerleader, sounding board, and go-to for questions about the publishing industry. I don’t know how I would’ve survived having to return to the query trenches and being on sub with a new agent and new novel without her. Plus I still use all the tools and techniques I learned as a mentee in my writing routine.
Layne Fargo: When Nina Laurin picked me as her Pitch Wars mentee back in 2017, I had no idea how to take my raw, messy manuscript and turn it into the polished, compelling story I saw in my head. She helped me close that gap and take my work to the next level. I truly have no idea where I’d be now without her guidance.
Kellye Garrett: My debut novel, Hollywood Homicide, was a Pitch Wars novel in 2014! You can read my pitch here: http://pitchwars.org/71-iou-adult-mystery/. My life changed when Sarah Henning selected me and my book to mentor. I met my amazing agent, Michelle Richter, through the program. I sold my Pitch Wars novel to Midnight Ink. It went on to be the most decorated debut mystery of the year when it was awarded the Anthony, Agatha, Lefty and IPPY awards for best first novel. And most important, it created a sense of community that I still depend on to this day.
Dianne Freeman: Working with my mentor, E.B. Wheeler was the first time my writing had ever been edited. I didn’t have a critique group or even a critique partner. I was just floundering on my own. Through PitchWars I gained an understanding of what it was like to work with an editor and produce results within a stated deadline. And if those results weren’t quite hitting the mark, to do it again. And again. Through this process I became a better writer and a better editor.
Mary Keliikoa: Being mentored has meant everything. When I came back from a long writing hiatus (15 years to be exact), I didn’t know anyone who was writing and I felt a bit on an island. Being mentored meant that I had an experienced voice who could help me navigate the new landscape of writing—not only what was happening in publishing, but what was happening in the mystery genre itself. Of course the feedback I received on my book helped me move in the direction of being published, but having that someone who believed in my work was equally as important to keeping me motivated.
What makes for a great pitch?
Dianne Freeman: Character, conflict, and stakes—and nothing else. I pitch a story to myself before I ever write it. If it has those three elements, I know I can write the story. Then I memorize it. I’m under contract, so I don’t have to pitch to an agent or editor, but I do speak to readers and booksellers. When they ask what I’m working on, I don’t want to go into a rambling description that keeps veering from the point—which is exactly how I talk—so I give them my pitch. Distilled to those three elements, the pitch should elicit the same reaction you want from readers when they read the book—excitement, interest, a shiver, or maybe a laugh.
Mary Keliikoa: The basics of the pitch are knowing who the main character is, what the goal is they’re striving for, and what’s at stake if that goal is not met. When you can add a layer of voice to that pitch, it turns into great.
Mia P. Manansala: Intriguing comps and specificity. Know exactly what your book’s about and who you’re trying to sell it to.
What has your experience been like with the publishing industry? Have gatekeepers helped or hindered your career?
Kellye Garrett: As a black woman, this is such a tricky question. I think most people will agree that I’m one of the most outspoken people in crime fiction when it comes to diversity. It’s so amazing to see editors and agents seeking out crime fiction by writers of color now because it was not like that five years ago when I was looking for an agent and later was on sub. It’s so hard because as a POC, you never know why someone is rejecting you. Is it because they didn’t connect with the book or was it because they don’t think that a book where the black woman actually solves the crime will sell well? Hollywood Homicide was on submission for over a year before Terri Bischoff at Midnight Ink took a chance on it. And I will say this. I had minimal edits on my debut. So the book that won all those awards and got two starred reviews is the same book that Michelle and I were trying to sell five years ago and was getting rejected left and right.
Layne Fargo: Gatekeepers kept me out of the industry when I was querying my first manuscript—and they were right to! That book wasn’t ready, and neither was I. Since signing with my agent Sharon Pelletier post-Pitch Wars, I’ve had a wonderful experience. She’s a relentless advocate for me and my work, and I trust her judgment completely (especially since she was wise enough to form-reject that first book).
Mia P. Manansala: With my Pitch Wars novel, I received lots of positive feedback from agents and editors (including several offers) but it never went anywhere because acquisitions teams didn’t find it “marketable.” According to them, traditional mystery (my genre) skews older and white, and my queer, Filipinx millennial solving a murder at a comic book convention didn’t have an audience. I obviously disagree, but it’ll be some time before those with power in the publishing industry reflect the demographics of the world around them.
Dianne Freeman: Gatekeepers haven’t really played a part in my publishing experience. At least part of the reason for that is PitchWars, where I connected with my agent. If not for PitchWars, I wouldn’t have subbed to her since her bio stated she probably wasn’t the best match for historical fiction. Due to the nature of the Agent Showcase, she picked me, rather than the other way around. In this way, PitchWars allows a writer to bypass a few of the gatekeepers, including the one in our own brains. As it turned out, we’re a wonderful match.
Mary Keliikoa: It’s been educational for sure. I have enjoyed seeing the different stages required to bring a book together, but my experience is it moves very slow. I’ve had to develop the skill of patience, which I didn’t possess much of prior!
What are some pointers you can give for those who are interested in mentoring up-and-coming authors?
Kellye Garrett: The biggest thing is recognizing the power dynamic. Even though mentoring is really just someone a bit farther in their career giving notes and advice to someone else, it doesn’t always feel like that to the mentee. What you as the mentor says is bond. A lot of emerging writers have never had a hard critique before as well. It’s like their parents or significant other being like, “This is great.” So it’s hard to get that first real set of notes. It’s not uncommon for someone to get feedback and want to give up writing. So just be mindful of how you interact and say things, especially when giving feedback. Also, just remember this is their book and their voice. It’s not yours. So please don’t try to make them mini-mes.
Layne Fargo: Remember that you’re there to help your mentee achieve their vision for their book—not your own vision. You can give advice and suggest changes, but final decisions should always be up to the author themselves.
Mia P. Manansala: Check your ego at the door. You do not have all the answers and you are not there to stake your claim on their story. Ask questions. Guide them. Help them tell THEIR story the best way they know how. Finally, empathy and kindness go a long way. Writing is a tough gig no matter where you are in your journey, and the perceived power imbalance between mentor and mentee can make it tough for your mentee to speak up when they disagree with you. Make sure your relationship is a safe space, but also keep your boundaries very clear.
Pitch Wars provides not only mentorship, but a sense of community. How has the community of Pitch Wars made an impact on your life?
Layne Fargo: Almost all of my close friends and creative collaborators in the publishing world are people I met through Pitch Wars. As an extreme introvert, Pitch Wars was the perfect way to meet lots of people from the safety of my browser screen.
Mia P. Manansala: The community is absolutely the best part! I was part of the 2017 class and our group is still very active–cheering each other on, helping with beta readers and critique partners, giving book/media recommendations, and just providing a safe place to discuss the difficulties of publishing.
Dianne Freeman: It’s such a thrill when you find someone who gets you. When you find over 100 people who get you, it’s a community and there’s no feeling quite like that. We’re all striving for the same goal and sharing the same experience. We commiserate with each other and cheer each other on.
Mary Keliikoa: Having kindred spirits has been very impactful. We all understand the angst of editing and waiting and wondering. Having a place to land with people who do get you on that level, is incredible. And I think long lasting friendships come out of that as well. One of my best friends that I correspond almost daily with was a mentee the same year as I was, and another one of my close friends was an applicant. And if I’m ever wanting a sprint partner, or just to lament, I just hop over to my 2016 Pitchwars community and there is always someone there to sprint with or talk me down. There is a glue to the community that continues no matter where our paths have led us.
Pitch Wars is one of many organizations advocating for more diversity in publishing. What changes would you like to see in the industry?
Kellye Garrett: Diversity is trendy right now but trendy implies it’ll go away. I want diversity to be status quo, where it’s no longer a big deal to see a cozy written by a black writer or a domestic suspense written by someone who is Latinx. After the huge success of Walter Mosley and Terry McMillan in the 90s, black mystery novels were hot! But with some exceptions, most of those amazingly talented writers publishing mysteries in the 90s aren’t still writing those series today. We need to not just publish marginalized writers, we need to keep publishing them.
Layne Fargo: Publishing obviously needs more diverse contributors at all levels. One of the most impactful, immediate changes publishers and agencies could make would be offering more remote work opportunities, so people don’t have to scrape by for years in an expensive city like New York just to break into the industry. Everything about Pitch Wars has been remote since the beginning, and it’s working just fine!
Mia P. Manansala: Widespread representation across all aspects of publishing: agents, editors, acquisitions/marketing/publicity teams, etc.
What books get represented/acquired, the advances they receive, how they’re marketed (or even which books get a marketing push and which are left to struggle on their own) are so often reliant on the white, cishet experience, which leads to a huge imbalance and lack of nuance in representation.
Mary Keliikoa: Representation just needs to continue to happen on every level from the top down. That’s the only way there will be lasting change. Open hearts, open minds, and the willingness to know each other and have compassion for each of our journeys. I have hope that we will just continue to work down the path together and keep opening it up. There’s no other option. It has too happen and I’m encouraged by the outpouring that it will.
What’s your advice for young writers and those new to writing crime fiction?
Layne Fargo: Read a lot (not just crime fiction: every kind of fiction) and get over your perfectionism. You have to write the awful version of the book before you can even begin to figure out what the good version looks like.
Dianne Freeman: You really need to love doing this. If you don’t you should choose another career. Writing a book takes a long time and a lot of hard work (usually before and after your paying job). And there are so many ways it can break your heart. Maybe it will be after your umpteenth rejection, or maybe a one-star review, or when your editor tells you that you have to cut 100 pages from your manuscript that just isn’t working. If you write for yourself—for the joy of it, none of that will matter. You get to do what you love!
Mary Keliikoa: Join groups that are crime leaning. Sisters in Crime is great and their Guppies group focuses on the unpublished writer who wants to continue to network and build their skills. Mystery Writers of America is another great organization. In addition, just keep creating a network of people in the industry and experts outside the industry so you have a group to call upon as you write your crime novels.
What are some recent or upcoming books you’d like to recommend, either from the Pitch Wars community or the genre as a whole?
Kellye Garrett: I’m super super super excited for Mia’s book, Arsenic and Adobo, and not just because she’s one of my best friends. She has an amazing writing style and is a much needed voice in crime fiction. Her books feel like true millennials, which is rare in cozies.
I begged Halley for an early copy of The Lady Upstairs, and it was worth every annoying message I sent because the book is amazing. Halley has the type of voice that makes you never want to write again because you won’t be able to match it.
Non Pitch Wars, I loved Alyssa Cole’s debut thriller, When No One is Watching. (I also begged Alyssa for an early copy of that), S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland (begged for an early copy of this as well) and David David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts (would have begged for this one but they accepted me on Netgalley so I didn’t have to. Yay!) These are all #ownvoices thrillers that weave cultural elements/issues with an amazing story.
Layne Fargo: Well, of course I have to recommend my mentee turned co-mentor Halley Sutton’s debut novel The Lady Upstairs, out this November from Putnam. Halley’s book is a scorching, gorgeously-written feminist noir that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since the moment it appeared in my Pitch Wars inbox.
Dianne Freeman: If you enjoy historical fiction, my mentor E.B. Wheeler released Wishwood in January, and The Royalist’s Daughter in March.
PitchWars alum, Julie Clark’s thriller, Last Flight is on my TBR. I’m a big fan of Kristen Lepionka’s Roxane Weary. Once You Go This Far, book 4 in the series, released in July.
Outside of the Pitchwars community I have two historical mysteries on my radar: M.L. Huie’s Nightshade and S.M. Goodwin’s debut mystery Absence of Mercy came out last fall.
Mary Keliikoa: Anything from Kellye Garrett, Dianne Freeman, Kristen Lepionka and the others on this fine Roundtable that I’m proud to be part of! I also really enjoyed Pitch Wars alum’s Meghan Scott Molin’s book The Frame Up. And as a PI fan, I have to add Tracy Clark’s recently released What You Don’t See. It is excellent.
Mia P. Manansala: My Pitch Wars class has been KILLING it lately. YA mystery is a hugely slept-on category in the mystery community and that’s our loss since kid lit is where some of the most interesting and fresh takes are happening. Two queer YA mystery novels out last year from my class are Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos and You’re Next by Kylie Schachte. I’ve been wanting to read these books since I first saw their pitches back in 2017 and I’m so excited they’re here.
On the Adult side of crime fic, They Never Learn is Layne Fargo’s sophomore novel (her PW novel Temper came out last year and is a fast, sexy ride), which came out last fall.
As for non-crime fic recs from my class, definitely check out Rena Barron and Roseanne A. Brown for diverse YA fantasy.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in the quest for publication?
Layne Fargo: Like most writers, I have several books in the drawer. My first manuscript racked up over 100 rejections— including two consecutive failed attempts to get into Pitch Wars!
Mary Keliikoa: I think probably the hardest challenge was during the querying stages and when the rejections rolled in, trying to understand what the agent had wanted so that I could make my manuscript better. Often, and understandably so, they weren’t very specific which meant I spent a lot of time trying to decipher what different rejection wording actually meant.