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Pitch Wars 2016 Success Interview with Mary Keliikoa and her mentors, Kellye Garrett & Sarah Henning

Tuesday, 31 October 2017  |  Posted by Brenda Drake

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Our favorite part of hosting pitch contests around here is hearing about successes. Today we celebrate Mary Keliikoa and her Pitch Wars mentors Kellye Garrett and Sarah Henning! Mary recently signed with Michelle Richter of Fuse Literary Agency, and we’re so over-the-moon excited for her. So please join me in congratulating Mary, Kellye, and Sarah as they share with us their awesome Pitch Wars success story.

Mary, what was it about Kellye and Sarah that made you choose to send them a Pitch Wars application?

The minute I saw their wish list and their love of mystery novels, I knew they were the team for me. With so much diversity in their backgrounds—journalism, TV writing, teaching and editing—I had no doubt, if chosen, I’d be in the master class of my life. And I was right!

Sarah, what was it about Mary’s manuscript Derailed that hooked you?

We knew exactly what Mary’s story was the second it opened. Her writing immediately announced her intention to write something dark, claustrophobic and terrifying, yet give us a wry, sarcastic look at juggling a serious job with a home life that is humorous in how out-of-control it is. Ex-husband who wants to get back together? Check! Meddling mother-in-law? Check! Sweet, but also sort of meddling daughter? Check!

Mary, tell us about the revision process for Pitch Wars?

I still remember Kellye’s email to me right after I was chosen. She said, enjoy your husband and children tonight, because you won’t be seeing them for a while. Now I look back on that as funny. At the time, I was like, what the hell did I just do?! Actually, it wasn’t that bad after I jumped my biggest hurdle of outlining. Kellye insisted that I have one before we even dug in. The adage of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger was quite true in this scenario. As a true pantser, there were a few points where I thought the task might bury me. But I did get it done and the overall line and developmental edits that followed were a welcome relief in comparison.

Kellye, tell us about your experience mentoring Mary.

Sarah and I were lucky enough to have two mentees last year. (Waves hi to our other mentee, Suzanne Park.) With such a time crunch, we decided to divide day-to-day mentoring duties up, while still making sure we were involved in both our mentees revision process. I’m a hard-core plotter so I did proudly force Mary to outline. She did it, without once kicking or screaming. We started with her beats of the draft she submitted to Pitch Wars then spent about a week reworking them. Sarah and I also wanted Mary to add about 10,000 words to her draft. Once we got to a place where we were both happy, she was off to write. She’d write an act and send it to me. While I revised that act, she’d write the next one. Then she’d send that to me and so on. Once she was done, we sent the final draft to Sarah for additional notes and copy edits.

Mary, after Pitch Wars, you signed with Michelle Richter of Fuse Literary. Please, tell us about “The Call.” We love all the details about the offer, how they contacted you, how you responded, celebrations, emotions . . . How long did you have to wait and how did you distract yourself? Anything! We love hearing about all of it.

At the end of Pitch Wars Agent Round, I had four requests. One of those was Michelle Richter. Over the next couple of months, I received rejections from three of the four agents. In the meantime, I queried. Tweaked my manuscript, took some classes, started another book, and queried some more. All in all, over 100 times. During this entire process, I had requests for my full PW manuscript, but they all came back as a rejection.

In the spring, I received Michelle’s rejection letter. But this rejection had some valuable information. Michelle pointed out the areas of my novel that worked. But she also pointed things she wished she’d seen more of, and less of. She offered to take another look if I was willing to make the changes. I had been handed an R&R—and a gift in the form of a roadmap. From there, I immediately knew which direction to go and would undertake a major revision that would take me over two months to complete.

In early August, I sent off my novel to her again, along with a few other agents that had requested to see the revised manuscript. Six weeks later, I had an offer by one of those other agents. I had to nudge everyone I had queried or had fulls, and when I did, Michelle emailed that she’d like to talk. I nearly fell over. I think IM’d Kellye immediately, although she might have been able to hear me whooping from across the USA. Michelle is actually Kellye’s agent as well.

My conversation with Michelle was great. She was warm and friendly, and very easy to talk with. She also had a business savvy about her that I really enjoyed, and I liked the ideas of the direction she wanted to go with the book. Still, I had to wait for the nudges to respond. At the end, I had five offers of representation on the table.

While I knew I wanted Michelle, making the final decision was not easy. Each person who I spoke with was pleasant, reputable, and I knew would do a good job for me. And because they had made me an offer, the idea of that alone made my head spin after so much rejection, I wanted to give them all the respect in truly weighing the pros and cons of each. But in the end, I did choose Michelle. In the spring, she had seen something in my writing, and took the time to shine a light on what was missing. I knew she was the kind of person I would want to have by my side to navigate not only this book, but my future ones as well. It was a dream come true kind of day when I got to call and tell her I’d love to have her as my agent.

Mary, how do you feel Pitch Wars helped with your success?

When I entered Pitch Wars, I was coming back from a long hiatus in writing. Everyone I knew in my writing life before had long disappeared. But from the moment I found Pitch Wars, I found community. Kellye, Sarah and my co-mentee Suzanne, became fast friends. And then as the edits started, I connected with more people on the Facebook site and found my CP partner. As a group, we support each other during the good, the bad, and the ugly. We share information. We urge each other to finish our projects. Finding my mentors and these incredible mentees is bar none the best part of Pitch Wars. But the added benefit was the confidence that came in as I completed different levels of the edits, the ability to be seen by the agents during the agent round, and the support to keep going when the rejections came. I have no doubt I would not be in this position at this moment had it not been for Pitch Wars.

Now for some fun! The following questions are for you all to answer.

What author would you like to spend the day with, and what would you do with him/her?

Mary: I’d actually love to spend the day running around New York City with Kellye and Sarah! But if not that—Mary Higgins Clark. She’s long been one of my favorite authors, and spending an afternoon talking all things writing, inspiration, and life would be incredible.

Kellye: I’m totally down for a Mentor/Mentee meet-up. There are so few black women who write mystery novels, that I would love to just speak with Valerie Wilson-Wesley, who writes the Tamara Hayle series set near where I live in New Jersey. I actually emailed her out the blue when I sold my book and she was so nice. I didn’t have enough balls to ask to meet with her though.

Sarah: Same! I’d love a Mentor/Mentee meet-up! But, um, if I’m not picking my friends who are authors, I’d say I’d love to spend time with Robert McCammon. I’m constantly recommending his Matthew Corbett series and I’d love to pick his brain about his writing process and how it’s been for him to jump between genres.

You just won a spot on The Amazing Race what fictional character do you team with and what makes him/her/it a good match for this adventure?

Mary: That’s easy. Kinsey Millhone. She was a police officer before becoming a P.I. She’s tough, smart, tenacious and a quick thinker. While she follows the rules, generally, I think she’ll know when to skirt them. And she runs most every day. If nothing else, she’ll drag my butt over the finish line.

Sarah: Jack Reacher! I mean, he’s a total badass, has a history of surviving adventures in the most random places, and can disarm anybody. Plus he travels light and would let me do all the talking.

Kellye: I’m totally going with the original Macgyver, for his mad problem solving skills. I could just basically sit back while he did all the work to get us $1 million.

You only have two hours to finish edits, what do you grab–coffee, tea, wine, hard liquor, or some fictional drink–to fuel you through the time crunch?

Sarah: Chocolate. There is no other answer for this question than chocolate.

Mary: Coffee—with chocolate creamer…I need my caffeine, but I’m with Sarah. Chocolate definitely has to be involved in these situations.

Kellye: Can you drink your own tears? No? Okay. Then I’ll go with Coca-Cola. I’d also probably steal Sarah and Mary’s chocolate as soon as they were distracted with their final chapter.

What fictional character would you like to spend the day with, and what would you do with him/her/it?

Sarah: Hmmmm, yet another hard one. I’d sort of like to trail Kaz Brekker around Ketterdam, even though I typically enjoy less seedy adventures. He’s such a heartbreaker that it’s worth it.

Kellye: I’d probably want to spend the day with Stephanie Plum and Lulu from the Janet Evanovich series. I’d basically hang out in the back of Lulu’s corvette while we ordered chicken and Pino’s pizza. Then I’d probably end the day by attaching myself to Ranger’s leg when he stopped by to see Stephanie. Good times.

Mary: I agree with Kellye. Cruising around with Stephanie Plum and Lulu would be a blast. But Bob the golden retriever will have to be with us (it’s usually all about the dog for me). At the end of the day, we’d head to Steph’s parents’ house for her mother’s pot roast and meet Grandma Mazur. And having a thing for tall, dark and handsome (see my husband), I’ll be hoping Ranger drops by.

Who is your biggest supporter of your writing? What fictional character would best describe this person?

Mary: My biggest supporter is my husband. He’s been with me since the first day I had an idea for a novel. He doesn’t read my work—although I often make him listen to passages, and bounce ideas off him—and I rather prefer that. And if I need to research a location, or enact a scene for authenticity (which can be interesting since I write murder mystery….) he’s right there with me. He is definitely my biggest cheerleader on a daily basis and this ride wouldn’t be as sweet if he wasn’t along for it. As far as fictional character that describes him—well, without doubt, he’s my Superman.

Sarah: Ditto to Mary—my husband. He always helps play keep away with our kids when I really need to work and will shoulder all of my homelife responsibilities plus his when I’m on deadline.

Kellye: My parents for sure. I told them when I was five that I wanted to write novels and they’ve been encouraging me ever sense. People used to say they were like Cliff and Claire Huxtable.

Please, share any last words you would like to add.

Mary: Writing is a process, a painful one at that sometimes. But it’s all made so much easier when you are supported by great people who get it. Pitch Wars peeps are my people, and it has been such a joy and an honor to be part of this group. And I’d also like to say—never give up, never stop learning, and always be open to changes if they ring true to you. If I had stopped at any point this last year, I wouldn’t be doing this success story today. Truth is, you just never know what connection or feedback will lead you to your ultimate goal. Keep your heart open. Keep working. And be ready.

Kellye: Pitch Wars has become known for the people who get agents immediately after Agent Round, but I think it’s so important that we share stories like Mary’s as well. Someone who used it as a jumping off point and continued to work hard to make her manuscript shine. I’m so excited for the next stop on her journey.

Sarah: I am THRILLED that Mary found an agent for her wonderful book! Hers is a world you can climb right in, pull on a fluffy blanket, and play “catch the killer” for hours on end. I’m so glad Pitch Wars brought us all together—I love being on this journey with Mary.

Thank you for sharing your success story with us! We wish you all the best in your publishing journey and hope you’ll share your future successes with us. CONGRATULATIONS!


Mary Keliikoa

Mary Keliikoa – Mentee

Twitter | Website

Mary grew up in Fort Stevens on the Oregon coast and spent her days exploring World War II gun batteries and bunkers, forests, and beaches with her big brother. That environment was rich with inspiration and they were always telling stories or trying to solve a mystery born out of imagination. Her love of storytelling and mystery definitely came from that period of her life.


Sarah Henning

Sarah Henning – Mentor

Twitter | Website

Sarah Henning is an author with HarperCollins’ Katherine Tegen imprint. In addition, she has worked for The Palm Beach Post, The Kansas City Star and The Associated Press, among others. When she’s not hunkered down over her computer, she’s probably running ultramarathons, chasing her two adorable rugrats or pestering her husband to give beets a chance. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @shhenning and/or contact Rachel Ekstrom of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency to know all about her writing.


Kellye Garrett – Mentor

Twitter Website | Chicks on the Case

Kellye Garrett spent eight years working in Hollywood, including a stint writing for Cold Case. A former magazine editor, she holds a BS in magazine writing from Florida A&M and an MFA in screenwriting from USC’s famed film school. She now works for a leading media company and brainstorms ways to commit murder for her novels. She writes the Detective by Day mystery series for Midnight Ink. The first book, Hollywood Homicide, was a 2014 Pitch Wars manuscript. It will be out in August 2017.


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