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Pitch Wars Success Stories with M. J. Soni and Her Mentors, Kellye Garrett and Mia P. Manansala

Tuesday, 19 May 2020  |  Posted by Rochelle Karina

Illustration of PItch Wars owl mascot saying "mentee graduate"

We’re back with another Pitch Wars Success Story! Please join us in congratulating M.J. Soni (Manju) and her mentors, Kellye Garrett and Mia P. Manansala! Manju signed with Jessica Craig at Craig Literary. We’re so excited for them!

Category: New Adult/Adult

Genre: Mystery/Suspense

Manju, what’s your favorite tip you learned from your mentor/s?

Oh so many. I think my favorite tip from my mentors was to make my characters work for an outcome. This helped me scatter clues and actions throughout the story and it brought a lot more continuity to my story. And it totally changed my writing in the best of ways.

Tell us about the revision process during Pitch Wars.

Before diving into edits, Kellye and Mia had me break down each of my existing chapters into one or two sentence summaries. This was an amazing exercise because it clearly showed me where all the gaps in plot and character development were, and also where the story was slowing down to a crawl. Then we worked on this outline for almost two weeks.

Funny story—this outline process was exhausting, and one day I was a bit annoyed with all the comments. I took a break and had dinner and that’s when we realized no critique session when I’m hangry!

After the outline, I got to work! I re-wrote almost the entire manuscript twice over the next 10 weeks. I began by sending a quarter at a time to Kellye for review. Of course I made sure I only opened her comments when I wasn’t hungry 🙂 While Kellye was reviewing newer sections, I addressed her comments from previous sections. Once I had addressed most of Kellye’s comments, I began to send sections to Mia. Once I got the last of my notes from her in the third week of January, I went through my story a fourth time, polishing it as much as I could before working on the agent showcase.

The whole process was grueling and mentally exhausting.

But I would not change it for anything.

My two amazing mentors went through my manuscript line by line and gave me invaluable developmental, structural and copyediting feedback. And, in doing so, they taught me so much, not just about writing in general but about my own writing style and quirks. I am so grateful to them, and to be honest I’m not sure I can manage without them anymore 🙁

Please tell us about The Call. We’d love as many juicy details as you’d like to share (e.g. how they contacted you, how you responded, celebrations, emotions, how long you had to wait, anything you’d like to share)!

My brain was mush after Pitch Wars. Luckily my husband always books us a beach vacation in February, it’s his way of speeding spring along. I was in Mexico with very poor wifi when a few days into my vacation I decided to log into my laptop. It was when I was cleaning out my spam folder that I saw Jessica Craig’s email! She had emailed me almost 24hours before. I think it went to spam because the subject line had “OFFER” in caps. I, of course, emailed Kellye and Mia immediately! They advised me to take a deep breath and then set up a meeting with Jessica when I was back home. Mia helped me with a list of questions to ask. The next week when I chatted with Jessica over Skype I loved that she loved my story. She totally got what I was trying to do with it. We had so much in common we spoke for more than an hour. Of course I had to wait for other agents to get back to me so I couldn’t commit to her straight away.

How do you feel Pitch Wars helped with your success?

Pitch Wars is amazing. My mentors gave so much of themselves and their time to help polish my manuscript. And then having agents’ eyes on my manuscript during the showcase really helps. It’s also inspiring to know there are so many people all volunteering their time to help authors like me succeed. And my Pitch Wars community on social media is awesome.

With the world in turmoil due to COVID-19 I don’t know what’s going to happen with my book, but what I do know is that I have the most amazing friends in my mentors and a community that is warm and supportive. That’s all I can ask for. I’m already tearing up 🙂

Do you have advice for people thinking about entering Pitch Wars?

Do it! Do it to have a wonderful community, to learn how to craft a great story, and train yourself on how to accept critique without having an existential crisis. It will be the worst and best thing you’ve done (probably). But it will be worth it!

Kellye and Mia, tell us about working with your mentee.

Kellye: This was my fifth year mentoring and my sixth mentee and I continue to hit the mentee jackpot. I’m a notoriously tough mentor and Manju handled my nitpicky edits like a dream. As Manju mentioned, the Pitch Wars process can be mentally exhausting. But Manju never complained to us once (even when she was hangry!). She simply put in the work and wasn’t afraid to push back when needed.

Mia: I’ve been a Pitch Wars mentor for two years now, and I don’t know if it’s because of Kellye’s juju, but both times we’ve had wonderful mentees. Manju handled everything we threw at her like a champ. She was good about taking the time to think through the feedback we gave her and responded thoughtfully, asked great questions, pushed back on the issues she really cared about (as any writer should), and was flexible on just about everything.

We’d love to hear about something amazing your mentee did during Pitch Wars.

Kellye: One of the things I loved about Manju’s manuscript was that she works in two POVs. We have the main first person POV of her main character, an amazing Indian-American doctor reeling from the hit and run death of her husband. But we also get occasional glimpses into the mind of this mysterious male killer. I was so impressed at how she was able to capture these very different characters and make me equally invested in both. They both felt like real people.

Mia: She basically did a page one rewrite…twice. Not only that, she eventually nailed the voice of two very different POVs and brought an amazing sense of pathos, not just to her protagonist but also the villain.

How can mentee hopefuls prepare themselves for Pitch Wars?

Kellye: Finish their manuscript and get it to a place where they really can’t figure out how to make it even better so they need an outside perspective. Another important thing is to manage expectations of what Pitch Wars is. If you come in wanting to meet fellow writers, put in the work to improve your WIP and learn some skills that you’ll be able to use for the rest of your career, you’ll have a good experience. If you come in expecting a magic carpet ride to the top of the bestseller lists, you’re going to be unhappy. Think of your mentor as a critique partner who’s just a little bit further in their career.

Mia: 1. Finish your manuscript! Not only that, make it as good as you can. You wouldn’t send a first draft to an agent (I hope) and you shouldn’t send a first draft to us.

2. Manage your expectations. The goal of Pitch Wars is to come out with a stronger manuscript, a supportive community, and better understanding of the traditional publishing process. The agent showcase is just a benefit of Pitch Wars, it is in no way the point.

Let’s find out what drew agent Jessica Craig to this manuscript. Jessica?

I was first drawn by the unusual, intriguing and literary title and then the first page shared on Pitch Wars immediately made me feel the tormented emotions of the protagonist, Raeya, in the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death – the intense combination of love, longing and sharp sense of guilt. I kept wanting to know more about Raeya Patel, and how she as a medical doctor turning novice investigator would handle her vulnerable emotional state, her demanding work, and her responsibilities as a suddenly single-mother, while determined to find the answers in an increasingly difficult and personal case. And as I read I never stopped caring about Raeya, her two young children, and dear mother-in-law as their grief struck lives become entangled with the desperate aims of a terrifying killer. Every twist is gripping and often truly frightening, and the small-town, middle-class characters and setting remind me of my favorite, most-chilling Hitchcock film: Shadow of a Doubt as well as masterful crime writing of Ruth Rendell. However from page one it also felt refreshingly new and long overdue to read psychological suspense set in contemporary USA that authentically features a Gujarati immigrant heroine and her family.

How about some fun questions for Manju, Kellye, and Mia.

You only have two hours to finish some edits. Where do you go for quiet time?

Manju: My desk. It’s a mess, and faces a wall with pictures of my kids and random Mother’s Day gifts over the years. It has no window and therefore no nature or people to distract me. But it’s where I get things done.

Kellye: First, I would use about an hour and a half of that time to “mentally prepare” myself to work on them. Then I’d just write in my bed after lighting my favorite scented candle.

Mia: My local coffee shop for an iced coconut milk latte and scone. Slip on my giant headphones, cue up some lo-fi hip hop or an anime/video game soundtrack, and get to work.

What author would you like to spend the day with? What would you do with them?

Manju: Hmmm… my fellow South African Trevor Noah. I’d take him for a drink and a great meal in our town and we’d just talk about life, writing and home (both SA and USA). Of course I’d ask him to say everything in different accents because he’s so funny and brilliant at them.

Kellye: Great question. Barbara Neely, one of the pioneers of black woman mysteries recently passed away. Although we traded emails a few times, I didn’t get a chance to meet her in person. So I would have loved to spend a boozy brunch with her just listening to her stories. She seemed to have a similar biting sense of humor as me so I know we’d just be cutting up while we sipped mimosas and ate french toast.

Mia: Neil Gaiman. We’d talk books and magic and writing and comics, then he’d read to me from various works.

What fictional character would you most like to meet? Why?

Manju: Without a doubt Jane Eyre. I read her first as a teenager and then again at least four more times. I was always in awe of her honesty and inner strength.

Kellye: I’d love to spend a day–literally just a day–hanging out with the characters from Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. It’s about a Jersey girl who is completely out of her depths as a bounty hunter so she gets into some hysterical situations while also still managing to (barely) get her man. The characters are all so quirky that I know I’d enjoy laughing with them as much as I enjoy laughing at them while reading. We’d hit Cluck in a Bucket for lunch and hope Stephanie’s car doesn’t blow up like it usually does each book.

Mia: Charlotte Holmes from Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series. We’d eat cake and drink tea together, and she’d observe me and tell me everything she gleaned from our interactions. I consider myself fairly self-aware, so it’d be fascinating to see what such a brilliant, impartial observer could tell me.

Or for someone less intimidating, Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel). She’s just a geeky brown girl from Jersey trying to do what’s best and I really vibe with that.

If you could only be in one fandom, which would you choose?

Manju: Game of Thrones of course. I’d want to be from House Martell and my weapon of choice would be Arya’s Needle.

Kellye: I’m going to say Harry Potter because if you know me, you know I’m not a fandom person. I’ve never seen or read Games of Thrones. I only saw one Hunger Games movie. (I’m dodging the virtual tomatoes you’re throwing at me, people!) However, I have read most of the Harry Potter books. And I’m happy to tell you I’m a Hufflepuff. Fun Fact: I’m a couple years older than Harry Potter so we definitely would have been at Hogwarts together.

Mia: Not really into fandom anymore. Used to be big into K-Pop, J-Pop, and anime but it gets exhausting. I don’t have the energy that it takes anymore. But if there’s one particular property that I love enough to want to write fanfic (or more accurately, stories that are heavily influenced by the style and feel), it’s the Persona video game series.

What inspired you to start writing?

Manju: I had always enjoyed making up stories. Ten years back I joined a local writing class which was run by a woman in her 70s, who had in her past life been a dancer, a choreographer, an artist, a reader, and a writer even though she has never submitted her work for publication. She was a great teacher and had a fantastic memory of almost all the books she had read. And she’d been a chain smoker since the age of fourteen, with the deep voice of James Earl Jones. Quite a character. She’s still my good friend but can no longer run classes due to her health.

Kellye: I wish I had a great answer to this. It was just something inherently in me since I was five years old.

Mia: I’ve always loved books and I can’t remember when I started writing. I always just did. But I can remember when I started writing with the goal of being published. I had been home for about a year after teaching abroad for over three years. I was working part-time at a job I liked but didn’t love and was turning 29 that year. I remember thinking, “Is this it? Is this all I really want from life?” And then I remembered writing. Found a local, one-day mystery writing workshop and that’s where it all began.

Share with us your writing process (e.g., routines, tools you use, time of day you write, go to inspiration, etc.).

Manju: I’m a morning person so I try to wake up around 5:30 am. I find writing by hand (with a fine-tipped Sharpie) helps my thoughts flow. Often the first page is just journaling. But after that I get into the story I’m working on. Walking my dog helps clear my brain too.

My creativity tends to diminish as the day progresses, so later in the day, when I have time, I type out what I wrote in the morning, and this is when I do some editing as well.

I find inspiration in so many places—real people in my life, movies, newspapers, podcasts. I also love listening to NPR’s Moth Hour and Story Corp where real people talk about their lives and events that changed them.

Kellye: Think about writing.

Think about writing.

Think about writing.

Think about writing. Think about writing.


Immediately pat self on back for writing. To quote Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.”

Mia: I’m a morning person (but not like EARLY morning) and introvert, so if it’s a writing day, I go to my writing alcove and light a candle. I listen to lo-fi hip hop or anime/video game OSTs while I write with headphones on because I want white noise to block out everything, but I don’t want other people’s words in my head. No songs in English while I write. I wish I could write longhand since I have so many pretty notebooks, but my writing is atrocious, so I usually draft in Google Docs. I’m most active and creative between 9am-2pm and am pretty useless after 5.

About the Team…

M. J. SONI practiced as an eye surgeon for many years, and has developed drugs for the eye, but now applies her surgical skills to kill people in her stories.

Her anti-apartheid activism inspired her debut nonfiction book, When Lions Roared: How Brave Young People Defied Apartheid, which was published by Amazon Kindle Singles in 2016. Her first short story, a psychological suspense, was published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 2017. In 2018, she won the Leon B. Burnstein/MWA-NY Scholarship. And, in 2019, her #ownVoices mystery/suspense was a Pitch Wars mentorship program selection.

Website | Twitter

Kellye Garrett writes the Detective by Day mysteries about a semi-famous, mega-broke black actress who takes on the deadliest role of her life: Private Detective. The first, Hollywood Homicide, won the Agatha, Anthony, Lefty and Independent Publisher “IPPY” awards for best first novel and was named one of BookBub’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. It was also a 2014 Pitch Wars selection. The second, Hollywood Ending, was featured on the TODAY show’s Best Summer Reads of 2019 and was nominated for both Anthony and Lefty awards. Prior to writing novels, Kellye spent eight years working in Hollywood, including a stint writing for Cold Case. She now works for a leading media company and serves on the Board of Directors for Sisters in Crime. She met her agent, Michelle Richter of Fuse Literary, through the 2014 Pitch Wars Agent Showcase and has served as a mentor since 2015. She was also Managing Director for the program’s 2018 class and still serves on the Pitch Wars committee.

Check out Kellye’s latest audio book releases!

Website | Twitter

Mia P. Manansala is a writer from Chicago who loves books, baking, and bad ass women. She uses humor (and murder) to explore aspects of the Filipino diaspora, queerness, and her millennial love for pop culture.

She is the winner of the 2018 Hugh Holton Award, the 2018 Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award, the 2017 William F. Deeck – Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers, and the 2016 Mystery Writers of America/Helen McCloy Scholarship. She’s also a 2017 Pitch Wars alum and 2018-2019 mentor.
Mia is quite the joiner, as she is the Secretary of the Mystery Writers of America (Midwest Chapter), and a member of Sisters in Crime, Banyan Asian American Writers Collective, the Chicago Writers Association, and the Chicago Nerd Social Club.

A lover of all things geeky, Mia spends her days procrastibaking, playing single-player video games, reading cozy mysteries, and dreaming of becoming best buds with Wonder Woman and Kamala Khan.

Her debut, ARSENIC AND ADOBO, comes out May 2021 with Berkley/Penguin Random House.

Website | Twitter


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