A.J. & Nicole’s PW Wishlist!

We are 2019 PitchWars Middle Grade Mentors!

Nicole Melleby and I are excited to be co-mentoring a middle grade writer for PitchWars 2019. What’s PitchWars, you might be wondering? Here’s a short description:

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 agents.

Check out this super helpful FAQ and browse around the official PitchWars site for more info.

Together, Nicole and I make up #TeamQUILTBAG. We’re both active on Twitter (Nicole | A.J.) and will be using that hashtag to sort through prospective mentee questions. We’ll also be available (along with other MG mentors) on Monday, September 16 at 8ET/5PT during the scheduled PitchWars #AskMentor chat.

What follows is a veritable boatload of information (and Schitt’s Creek gifs tbh) on who we are, what we’re looking for in a mentee, and what’s on our wishlists. Note that we’ve looked over one another’s lists to ensure we’re both open to subs with items the other mentor wants. So while there’s a lot of overlap between lists, if there’s something that’s on only one of our wishlists, we’re both definitely okay with it.

A.J. Sass bio

[Image description: GIF of 2018 Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon twirling in his Team USA jacket, glitter he just threw falling around him. Pink background, via GIPHY]

I am a figure skating fiction writer, focused on queer narratives primarily in the kidlit space. My MG debut, ANA ON THE EDGE, is out from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in Fall 2020. You can add it on Goodreads here! My writing is represented by Jordan Hamessley at New Leaf Literary.

After graduating from law school and realizing practicing law was about the last thing on Earth I wanted to do, I worked as a tech journalist and content marketer for a Barcelona-based software download portal, then as an editor at a legal marketing and web development firm that also focused on making online legal resources freely accessible to the public. I now work as a freelance business writer and editor while writing as many queer MG and YA stories as I can come up with (and cramming in time to skate and travel whenever possible).

I received mentorship in 2018 via the #WriteMentor program. It not only improved my writing but offered me the support I needed to dive into querying last fall. Without the encouragement and advice of more experienced writers, I would not be as far along in the process as I am today. Now I want to give back. I mentored a high school senior in #TeenPit last spring and returned to #WriteMentor this past summer, mentoring a MG speculative/contemporary writer and co-mentoring a MG horror writer. This will be my first year with PitchWars, and I can’t wait to fall in love with a story and dig deep into revisions with another talented writer this winter.

Feel free to direct any questions you might have to me on Twitter.

Nicole Melleby bio

[Image description: GIF of actress Catherine O'Hara playing Moira Rose on SCHITT'S CREEK. She's sliding her oversized black sunglasses off. Text: "Well." via GIPHY]

I write LGBTQ contemporary MG, and my debut, HURRICANE SEASON, was recently released from Algonquin Young Readers! It received three starred reviews, and was awarded the Skipping Stones Honor Award for exceptional contribution to multicultural and ecological awareness in children's literature (You can add it on Goodreads here.) My second book, IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS will be out Spring 2020, followed by HOW TO BECOME A PLANET in spring 2021. My work is represented by the wonderful Jim McCarthy at Dystel, Goderich, & Bourret.

I teach literature and creative writing at Kean University, and I received my MFA in Writing for Children from Fairleigh Dickinson University--where I found mentors and a community that I wouldn't trade for the world. Having people by my side throughout the process has made it feel a little less lonely, which is exactly why I decided to apply to be a mentor for Pitchwars in the first place. This is my second year mentoring, and I'd love to help someone the same way my mentors and friends supported me throughout my journey, because I would have been oh so very lost without them.

I'm happy to answer any of your questions on Twitter.

Our mentoring style

[Image description: GIF of actress Jennifer Robertson playing Jocelyn Schitt on SCHITT'S CREEK. She's sitting on a school teacher's desk, a chalkboard behind her as she lifts a red apple in one hand and breaks into laughter. Text: "Time to get schooled!" via GIPHY]

This will depend on everyone's comfort level, to an extent, but we're open to texting, a Twitter group DM, emails, and even the occasional phone call. Whatever works best for everyone involved.

In terms of editorial guidance, we will provide you with an editorial letter that covers any big picture developmental items first (plot, pacing, worldbuilding, etc.). This will likely take up a good portion of your time during the first part of the mentorship, but we’ll be around to clarify or hash out points with you, answer questions, and cheer you on throughout the revision process. Once the structure of your novel seems sound, we can dig deeper into aspects of character development and voice, plus point out inconsistencies or areas in need of clarification, with a more line-level focus.

We’ll get as in-depth with our notes as time permits, helping you polish your story and make it tighter on each editorial pass. We’ll also help you with your agent showcase pitch, query letter, and a one-page synopsis so you’re fully prepared to enter the query trenches.

We also just learned how to use gifs, so the chances we'll send you tons of them with our reactions to your revision: high.

[Image description: GIF of actor Daniel Levy who plays David Rose on SCHITT'S CREEK hugging actor Noah Reid who plays Patrick. Patrick's text: "This is a really long hug now." David's text: "Just one more minute."  via GIPHY]

What we're looking for in a mentee

[Image description: GIF of actress Catherine O'Hara playing Moira Rose on SCHITT'S CREEK. Moira is seated at a cafe, emphatically speaking to a server as they slide a tea kettle onto her table. Text: "One must champion oneself and say I am ready for this." via GIPHY]

The mentorship period spans three months, from November through January. While this may seem like a good, long stretch of time, it'll go quickly, especially with the winter holidays.

Our ideal mentee is someone who can commit the time to revise their story, and is also willing to make changes to their manuscript--sometimes drastically. While this is your story and you are the ultimate decision-maker with respect to any changes made, an unwillingness to alter any aspect of your story may be an indicator that we won’t be the right mentors for you (and that PitchWars, a program grounded in a mentor-mentee relationship and manuscript revision, may not be the right program to submit to, even).

We understand having other obligations. We’re both busy with our own writing, careers, and partners. That’s why open communication is key, from both of us mentors and from our mentee. Being honest about your availability to revise throughout the mentorship months will help us be able to craft a schedule that works well for everyone involved. We want this mentorship period to be productive.

This probably goes without saying, but our mentee should also be lgbtq-friendly!

[Image description: GIF of actor Noah Reid who plays Patrick on SCHITT'S CREEK speaking to Daniel Levy who plays David Rose. Patrick's text: "It's a big deal."  via GIPHY]

A.J.'s wishlist

[Image description: GIF of actor Noah Reid who plays Patrick on SCHITT'S CREEK. Text: "If we're gonna go big, let's go big." via GIPHY]

Character-driven contemporary Middle Grade stories. I’m drawn to beautiful writing and characters grappling with issues that may not be big in the scope of the world but are huge for the characters themselves. Often called “quiet” books, these sometimes seem to translate to “boring” for some people. For me, there’s nothing dull about a character coming into themself, or advocating for change in their interpersonal circles. Same for “issues” books. Kids need to see their struggles play out on the page. So long as it’s approached in a nuanced, empathetic way, stories like these have the ability to stay with me long after I’ve finished reading.

LGBTQ+ stories are something I would absolutely love to see subbed, #ownvoices preferably (but only if the writer feels comfortable self-identifying--I do not expect someone to out themselves or feel like they need to prove any aspect of their marginalized identity). I’d love to see stories centering around queer girls (cis or trans), trans or non-binary characters, and gender-nonconforming boys. Yes, please! to POC, disabled/neurodiverse, and religious minority storylines. Coming out stories are also great, but so are stories simply featuring a queer MC who’s already out and proud. I’m gay and non-binary, so I know firsthand the importance of giving kids all types of choices to read.

I have about a billion comps here, but a handful of good ones are HURRICANE SEASON (by my awesome co-mentor, Nicole!), THE MIGHTY HEART OF SUNNY ST. JAMES, STAR-CROSSED, and HURRICANE CHILD.

[Image description: GIF of actress Emily Hampshire who plays Stevie Budd on SCHITT'S CREEK opening her mouth wide in exaggerated enthusiasm. Text: "Oh, hi!" via GIPHY]

I’d love to see stories focused on characters who are disabled, neurodiverse, mentally ill, homeless, or grieving. I’m not opposed to a darker story, since kids grapple with a lot of tough issues. I also think shielding kids from these types of narratives does a disservice both to kids experiencing them who need to see themselves represented on the page and to those who might be more fortunate but will lose the chance to empathize with someone whose experience differs from theirs. NO FIXED ADDRESS addressed homeless in a touching, sometimes humorous, way, THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH is a seminal work on how to handle tween grieving, imo, and PLANET EARTH IS BLUE beautifully captures the autistic experience (or at least I thought so, and I'm on the autism spectrum myself), in a historical setting as a bonus. I also have major grabby hands for a queer MG version of THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER.

Historical fiction also rates high on my wishlist. Introduce me to a little-known historical figure or an event in history that’s been glossed over by the standard straight white, cis male colonial narrative. Two of my focuses in undergrad were ancient Near Eastern history and Religious Studies, so I’d love to see queer characters in the context of a historical and religious minority perspective. I know WWII stories have been done a lot, but I still reread NUMBER THE STARS, about the Danish resistance movement, decades after I first discovered it. The MG version of GENTLEMAN’S/LADY’S GUIDE would be awesome.

Mysteries are my jam. It doesn’t need to be a core part of the plot, but I love a good mystery woven into a MG narrative. Think: the locker letters in IVY ABERDEEN’S LETTER TO THE WORLD.

Invite me into a community that’s closed off from the rest of the world, whether religious, physically remote, or something else. I’m down for ghost stories and other close-knit family lore, or even magical realism/fabulism, so long as it is incorporated into a grounded real-life/contemporary narrative. The MG version of WILD BEAUTY would be A+.  I also loved EVENTOWN.

I’m also not opposed to alternate history or near-future settings, as long as it’s a character-driven story and the focus isn’t on advanced technology. I can’t think of a MG comp for this, but a YA one would be INTERNMENT, and RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE fits into the Adult category with its reimagining of the 2016 presidential election (bonus points for being diverse and queer!).

What I'm NOT the right fit for

[Image description: GIF of actor Chris Elliott who plays Roland Schitt on SCHITT'S CREEK slamming his front door on Eugene Levy who plays Johnny Rose. Roland's text: "Oh, sorry. We don't want any." via GIPHY]

  • Sci-fi
  • Fantasy
  • Paranormal
  • Novels in verse (I don’t feel like I have enough experience to mentor this)
  • Stories told solely from an animal’s POV
  • Anything pro-Trump or that glorifies white supremacist or nationalistic views
Nicole's wishlist

[Image description: GIF of actor Daniel Levy who plays David Rose on SCHITT'S CREEK talking and slightly nodding. Text: "Yes, I would like that very much."  via GIPHY]

Contemporary Middle Grade with a strong voice, and where the heart of the story lies with the characters. I'm also particularly interested in stories that are on the more quiet/literary side of things. Throughout my journey, I worried a lot that my stories weren't "high concept" enough, but the people who believed in my work and the stories I was trying to tell helped prove to me that this wasn't the case, and these are the types of stories that I would like to champion.

I'm particularly looking for stories about LGBTQ+ characters--particularly queer girls, trans/NB, and/or other marginalized voices. I would love to see the SIMON VS. THE HOMOSAPIENS AGENDA of middle grade. While I would love to champion an LGBTQ+ #ownvoices writer, I want to make it very clear that I would not try and force any of my potential mentees to disclose anything about their identity that they are not yet comfortable with. Throughout my writing journey, I learned to slowly find confidence in my writing as a queer individual, and I know how hard that process can be.

[Image description: GIF of actress Annie Murphy who plays Alexis Rose on SCHITT'S CREEK leaning forward, eyes widening as she makes the "ok" gesture with her right hand by touching the tips of her index finger and thumb together. No accompanying text. via GIPHY]

I'm also on the look out for middle grade novels that explore mental illness--such as books like SOME KIND OF HAPPINESS and THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS. I think that these topics are important--and I don't shy away from darker, more serious themes just because a book is geared towards a younger audience. I firmly believe that kids deal with tough topics in their lives, and that should be reflected in the things they read--regardless if some may think it is "too adult" for them to handle. I don't think there is much out there that kids "can't handle"--especially when they are most likely experiencing these things in real life already.

I love family stories. I'm a huge soap opera fan (take from that what you will) and my favorite things about soaps are the intricate history and woven relationships between family members.

I'm also a huge comic nerd, and while I'm really looking for contemporary middle grade, I'm not one to shy away from something comic related. I'm also interested in graphic novels.

I'm absolutely open to historical fiction--particularly diverse historical stories and LGBTQ+ characters in historical fiction.

What I'm NOT looking for

[Image description: GIF of actor Daniel Levy who plays David Rose on SCHITT'S CREEK cringing and making a disgusted expression, brows furrowed. Text: "Eww." via GIPHY]

  • Fantasy
  • Sci-fi
  • Animal POVs
  • Pro-Trump (GTF Outta here)
  • Paranormal
  • Novels in Verse

Check out the blog post on the official PitchWars site that links to all mentor wishlists here (or scroll the list below for all the MG mentors!)

Pitch Wars 2019 Middle Grade Mentors’ Wish Lists

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