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What I've Learned as a Pitch Wars Mentor

This fall, I'm a mentor in Pitch Wars, where middle grade, young adult, and adult writers apply to be mentored by established authors. If chosen, the mentees will revise their manuscripts for three months to prepare for an agent showcase in February 2021. We announce the mentee selections on Nov. 7 and I can't wait!

As a middle grade mentor, I read 185 applications, which consisted of a query, a synopsis, and the first ten pages of the manuscript. Here's the breakdown by genre:

My two big takeaways from reading these applications are (1) it's all so subjective and (2) beginnings are important: 

1. It's all so subjective. 

Authors have heard this over and over, but now I know how true it is. Aside from a small handful of manuscripts where the writing just wasn't ready (like 1%), the vast majority of pages I read had the basic writing craft down. So what made some stories stand out (to me) more than others? The top reasons I was drawn to a story:

  • The Premise was Compelling. I was drawn to the story idea. It was hooky, unique, twisty, or reminded me of my favorite middle grade stories. I read so many beautifully-written beginnings, but I didn't request more pages when the story premise or plot didn't grab me at the moment.  
  • The voice stood out. Voice is a nebulous "I know it when I see it" concept. For me, it was when the personality of the narrator and the character popped off the page, whether due to a turn of phrase, humor, word choices, or a unique world view.
  • The main character was engaging. Similar to voice, when a character felt real and well rounded and popped off the page, I wanted to read more.
  • I kept thinking about the story. Something ineffable about a story spoke to me more deeply than another and I thought about the character or the story long after reading it.

Another way to think about this is an analogy I made on Twitter to picking a favorite food:

So for those of you who may be in the query trenches, or who are Pitch Wars hopefuls, remember that every single person who reads your story or query will have a different reaction to it, depending on their interests, personalities, and life histories. Don't give up if you don't get picked this time around, because there are SO many ways to get your voice heard and your books out in the world. 

2. Beginnings are critical (tip: create a question for readers, add tension, & reveal character). 

Once you interest an agent in your story idea, how do you hook them with your writing? Agents inundated with queries will usually read sample pages until they lose interest. My tip for writers to create a compelling first page and scene is to raise questions, create tension, and reveal character right away. Do this in your first sentence, if possible. For example, the first sentence of my MG sci-fi (coming out Summer 2022) is:

Hana was late—and nowhere she was supposed to be. 

This sentence creates questions: Why is Hana late? Where is she that's she's not supposed to be? It creates tension: is she going to get in trouble? Is she in danger? It reveals character: Hana is someone who goes where she's not supposed to be.  

Do the same with your first scene. Give your main character a small quest. It should not be the main quest of your novel, but it should be something that feels important to the character at the moment and have it raise questions, create tension, and reveal character. It's also an opportunity to build the world. In my novel, Hana's immediate goal is to find the perfect scrap in a junkyard for a bird automaton she's making for her sister, who she feels is slipping away as her sister is about to have her mind connected to the multiweb. She runs into a tough scavenger girl who snatches the piece from her. This scene introduces the futuristic world and premise and gives Hana a goal that is thwarted. Hopefully, readers will want to read on to find out what happens next.

When reading Pitch Wars entries, the best entries made me want to keep reading to answer my questions or to find out more about the character or world.

Author Mentor Match Mentee News

Continuing with the mentorship theme, I'm a middle grade mentor for Author Mentor Match. In March 2020, I picked author-illustrator Annette Hashitate and her graphic novel, SELFIES BY SUMIE. Over the spring and summer, we worked on her script, and on Oct. 6, she pitched it on #KidlitGN, a new Twitter pitch party for kid lit graphic novelists.  

Within a week, she got an offer from her dream agent, Elizabeth Bennett of Transatlantic Agency and she recently announced signing with her! I'm so excited and proud of her. Annette has a wonderful story, is a talented writer and artist, and worked so hard to revise her manuscript.

I was also an AMM mentee. MG author Tae Keller (When You Trap a Tiger) mentored me in Spring 2018 for my MG sci-fi novel, which landed me my agent (Jennifer March Soloway) in 2019 and we sold the novel, Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation, to editor Julie Rosenberg at Razorbill/PRH in March 2020. 

So, fellow authors, mentorships work. Constantly learning and improving your craft works. In future newletters, I'll dig into other things I've learned as an author: plotting tools, advanced tips for researching agents, marketing and networking, and more.

Drop me a line to let me know the topics you'd most like to hear about.


To celebrate your writing journey, I'm giving away a lovely picture book, OUR WORLD IS WHOLE by Gail Bush, illustrated by Jennie Poh (Sleeping Bear Press, May 2020), a lyrical story about the many connections between people. To enter, reply and let me know your first sentence of your WIP or what other writing topics you'd like to read about. I'll pick one random winner from the replies, U.S. addresses only.
Copyright © 2020 Sylvia Liu, All rights reserved.

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