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Day 1 (Part 1) of the Pitch Wars Mentor Workshops with Keena Roberts

Saturday, 29 August 2020  |  Posted by Brenda Drake

Welcome to the Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2020 mentors. From a lottery drawing, we selected writers to receive a query and first page critique from one of our mentors. We’ll be posting some of the critiques leading up to the Pitch Wars submission window. Our hope is that these samples will help you in shining up your query and first page.

We appreciate our mentors for generously dedicating their time to do the critiques. If you have something encouraging to add, feel free to comment below. Please keep all comments tasteful. Our comments are set to moderate, and we will delete any inappropriate or hurtful ones before approving them.

First up we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor Keena Roberts  … 

Keena Roberts is a 2020 Pitch Wars mentor for the Adult category. She is the author of Wild Life (Grand Central, 2019), about her childhood growing up in her primatologist parents’ research camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. She lives outside New York in the mountains with her wife, daughter, and several pets and enjoys reading by campfires, wherever she can find them.

Website | Twitter


Keena’s recent release, WILD LIFE: Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs …


Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight meets Mean Girls in this funny, insightful fish-out-of-water memoir about a young girl coming of age half in a “baboon camp” in Botswana, half in a ritzy Philadelphia suburb.

Keena Roberts split her adolescence between the wilds of an island camp in Botswana and the even more treacherous halls of an elite Philadelphia private school. In Africa, she slept in a tent, cooked over a campfire, and lived each day alongside the baboon colony her parents were studying. She could wield a spear as easily as a pencil, and it wasn’t unusual to be chased by lions or elephants on any given day. But for the months of the year when her family lived in the United States, this brave kid from the bush was cowed by the far more treacherous landscape of the preppy, private school social hierarchy.

Most girls Keena’s age didn’t spend their days changing truck tires, baking their own bread, or running from elephants as they tried to do their schoolwork. They also didn’t carve bird whistles from palm nuts or nearly knock themselves unconscious trying to make homemade palm wine. But Keena’s parents were famous primatologists who shuttled her and her sister between Philadelphia and Botswana every six months. Dreamer, reader, and adventurer, she was always far more comfortable avoiding lions and hippopotamuses than she was dealing with spoiled middle-school field hockey players.

In Keena’s funny, tender memoir, Wild Life, Africa bleeds into America and vice versa, each culture amplifying the other. By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Wild Life is ultimately the story of a daring but sensitive young girl desperately trying to figure out if there’s any place where she truly fits in.

Keena’s critique . . .


Category: Young Adult

Dear NAME,

TITLE is a 71,000-word, dual-POV sexy adult rom-com with crossover appeal. [Good beginning! It’s clear you’ve done your research on query letters.]

Eva covets her privacy and avoids the media attention surrounding her supermodel mom and the rock stars in her family. She’s almost twenty and keeps most people at arm’s length to preserve her anonymity. But then, she moves in with her brother who, despite injuries from a drunken stunt, still finds creative and sometimes hilarious says [watch for typos!] to get his hands on a bottle. Through one of his schemes, Eva meets a college guy named Alex. Eva can’t get the hot cowboy off her mind, and she takes a chance at letting him into her unconventional life. [First, “college guy” sounds like you just didn’t know what to call him. Suggest rephrasing. Second, if Eva is 20 she should also be in college. She isn’t? Third, it feels weird to just have a hot cowboy thrown in there without knowing more on setting: from the beginning it sounds like they’re in Los Angeles or NYC since that’s where a reader would expect to find supermodels and rockstars so a cowboy feels super out of place. Clarifying the setting would fix this issue.]

Irresistibly drawn to Eva [can you phrase this differently? “Irresistibly drawn” is kind of cliché. Can you have him be mesmerized by her or captivated, or something similar? When pitching romances, it’s always helpful to find every way possible to make your book sound different than the usual “boy meets girl, they find each other hot” kind of thing. In the limited space of a query letter, word choice can do a lot to help you with this!], Alex promises to protect her secret and has one of his own—the fling he had with an older woman who turned out to be a politician’s wife. [Again I have to come back to setting: now I think they’re in DC? Obviously politicians can be anywhere but I’m confused about where they can be that has supermodels, rockstars, cowboys, and politicians]. Alex scraped his boots clean of that mistake months ago, or so he thought. As things with Eva heat up, the woman pops back on the scene and won’t leave him alone. Alex is afraid if word gets out about them, it’ll humiliate his conservative, small-town family and jeopardize Eva’s perception of him. [Same comment on setting].

Alex thinks he has the reins on the situation with his ex and leaves town with Eva for a romantic getaway. Meanwhile, a gossip reporter bent hell-bent [typo ping!] on revealing Eva’s identity catches wind of Alex’s past affair. Eva’s worst nightmare of exposure proves different from what she thought, especially when tangled up in Alex’s publicity. Secrets push them apart until they must face the truth together or be torn apart by the media storm. [I think here you really need to amplify the stakes: at the moment it doesn’t feel believable that Eva would be worried about being exposed as her parents’ child – especially if they’re that famous, the tabloids would already know who she is. What would she risk in exposure? Or lose? Same comment for Alex. Okay, he had an affair, and it wasn’t great. But neither of these situations seem like a crisis big enough to break up a burgeoning relationship. Can you amplify the stakes here so the reader gets how big a deal this is for the two protagonists?]

I live in STATE, and I’m active as a critique group facilitator in CITY’s SCBWI chapter. I’m a 2020 recipient of the chapter’s Regional Advisor Scholarship/Mentorship. One of my YA novels was selected as a finalist for the NAME OF AWARD at the 2018 CITY SCBWI conference.

Thank you so much for your consideration.


First page:

*** EVA ***

The wigs on my dresser have kept my identity safe for years, but when I leave the house today there’s no reason to look like someone else. I’ll be on my own. No driver. No security. And none of the celebrities in my family. [Great start!]

Music suddenly blasts from my brother Lor’s room, making me jump.

But then I breathe a sigh of relief. Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” is Lor’s favorite song, a good sign his physical therapy went well [Okay, I’m intrigued]. I cross the upstairs landing to peer through his half-open door. He’s on his hospital bed, playing air guitar. My smile turns to a grimace from the memory of the last time he tried to play for real. The weakness in his hands pissed him off so much the acoustic wound up on the hard floor with its neck cracked. [Love this detail. We learn so much about Lor and his past from just a couple sentences].

“Hey,” I call out from the doorway as the song ends. “You must be feeling—”

“Fan-freakin-tastic.” He gives me the smirk I know so well. Not much else resembles his former self, though. Last year, one of his drunken pyrotechnic stunts led to a spinal injury and burns on his hands and arms. He’s thirty-nine, twenty years older than me, but looks older.

He motions for me to come into his room that’s decked out in music memorabilia. The whole house looks like a Hard Rock Café, with autographed guitars, photos, and concert posters.

“You’re still going out today, right?” He lowers the volume on the next song.

“That desperate to get rid of me, huh?” Smiling, I perch on the edge of his bed. “I’m about to leave, but I don’t wanna be chauffeured. Could I borrow a car?”

His scruffy, unshaven face lights up. “Take the Lambo. It’s a sweet ride.”

“Too recognizable.” I don’t want to be spotted in one of his poison green custom cars.

“Dammit.” He shakes his head. “Stop letting Mom’s paranoia freak you out.”

“I’m trying. See, no disguise.” I point at my wigless head.

[This is well-written and a great beginning to the story. I love the way the characters already have their own voices and I’m curious about their pasts and how they got to be where they are. I have a lot of questions, too (where are their parents? A 19 year-old and a 39 year-old with this much physical trauma surely have parents around? And why isn’t she in college? But you may answer these in the rest of the text so don’t worry about them. Overall, this is clean and tightly-paced and off to a great start!]

Thank you, Keena, for the critique! We are showcasing three mentor critiques each day leading up to the Pitch Wars 2020 submission window, so make sure to read the other two critiques for today and come back tomorrow for more. 

We're thrilled at the different ways those in our Pitch Wars community are giving back—and we encourage them to do so. However, please keep in mind that Pitch Wars is not affiliated with any of these various contests, promotions, etc., including those of our mentors and mentees. Promoting any such opportunities via our social media channels doesn't imply endorsement or affiliation. We encourage you to do your research before participating.

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