• Malia Maunakea

We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Program

Updated: Feb 7

In October of 2020, I applied to the We Need Diverse Books (#WNDB) Mentorship Program. The program summarizes itself as:

The Mentorship program aims to support writers and illustrators by pairing them with an experienced professional in the field. Our mentors work one-on-one with a mentee and their completed draft of a manuscript over the course of a year, offering advice to improve craft and to better understand the publishing industry.

I was applying with my middle-grade novel tentatively titled LEI AND THE FIRE GODDESS. I decided not to choose a particular mentor as there was the option to leave it up to the mentors to decide who'd be a good fit.

One thing about me in this whole writing adventure is that I am slowly learning patience. I sent off my application in October then I waited. On December 22, I received an early gift when I opened my inbox and saw:

I was stunned! I learned that New York Time's Best Selling Author Alan Gratz had selected me and another writer to be his mentees. I was very curious about the other writer.

I shared this news with my writing group, the #MGWaves, and was completely blown away to learn that Anushi Mehta (who is in the #MGWaves with me) was the other mentee Alan selected!

photo credits: Anushi Mehta (for herself) and Russ Hermanson for Malia's

Let the celebrating begin! Because really, it is fun to have a life-changing opportunity, but it is even more incredible when you're able to share that opportunity with a friend.

The mentorship pairs us with Alan for A YEAR! Totally incredible and mind-blowing. Here's a rundown of how things have been going as we approach the halfway mark.


1/12: Alan reached out with an introductory email, explained that he was volunteering as a judge on SCBWI's Crystal Kite Awards, so he'd be getting to our manuscripts right after that wrapped up, but to go ahead and send them to him.

1/28: The Crystal Kite Awards wrapped up and Alan said he'd start reading my book soon. He suggested we read Save the Cat. Anushi and I both read the book and compared notes. We tried to figure out what plot points we were missing and how our pacing was. We also read each other's manuscripts so we had an idea of what the other was doing. This was really helpful! You'll find out why soon.

2/24: Alan sent us two emails each. One suggested we have a group zoom call to go over issues he saw in both of our books. The other contained my edit letter. This edit letter was SOOOOOO incredibly intense and thoughtful and detailed. He pointed out things in ways I definitely never considered (and threw in a bunch of Star Wars references that have me seeing that movie in a whole different light. I basically have my own Yoda guiding me on my own journey!). I dove right in. I had been looking forward to this letter since my acceptance in December and I didn't wait another day.

2/26: I proudly sent Alan over a completely reworked beginning. I had moved the inciting incident further back. Initially, in the version I applied to WNDB with, the inciting incident occured around 2500 words in (chapter 2). After studying a number of comparable mentor texts, I attempted to emulate their flow, and in doing so the inciting incident moved back to about 7100 words (chapter 4). I waited, excited to hear his praise on this wonderful improvement, sure I had fixed the pacing issue because now it conformed better to the calculated numbers on the Save the Cat beat sheet.

3/1: Alan's reaction to my reworked first act? NOPE. It didn't work for him. Too drawn out. He shared that one of the reasons he chose me as his mentor was that my inciting incident was in those first 10 pages. Okay. Deep breath and back to the drawing board. It was an awesome exercise because I was able to take what WAS working from my new pages and whittle it down to the bare bones. Basically had my story starting in a completely different place, and that was exactly where it needed to be! (Spoiler alert: I ended up re-writing the intro more than any other part of my book, but apparently that is fairly common. Or maybe it's not and my mentors were just telling me that to make me feel better.)

3/3: Alan, Anushi, and I met via zoom and IT WAS AMAZING! Seriously. Alan has been in this business for a long time and knows his stuff. He helped us look at plotting and pacing in a whole different way. I followed his lead and created two 8 Block Boards. Well, one and a half. I made the first on all official, then got hit with another book idea so I quickly started making a second board but never got around to the dividing strings or labels. It is very me.

photo credit: Malia Maunakea

3/6: I re-plotted out my story using this 8 block formula and sent it to Alan.

3/8: I got his approval on my 8 block and I got started on my big revisions. This included adding new scenes, and rewriting stories within stories to have them fit themes more. There were also clarified character arcs and a rewritten ending. So yeah, MASSIVE fixes!

3/9: (OMG, was it really just one day after I got his approval to do this massive rewrite that I hit him with this?! Alan, if you're reading this, I'm sorry I'm this way, and thank you for humoring my chaos!) Another one of my #MGWave buddies, Sabrina Vienneau let me know about a paid critique opportunity through her local SCBWI chapter. Well, I already amazingly fortunate enough to have Alan (and Andrea Wang) as mentors, so I didn't think I needed another critique (especially since I'd already written my first 10 pages a million times at this point), but I scrolled through the list of available agents and editors offering their time because at the end of this critique session most allowed participants to query them in June (and some were typically closed to cold queries), so that was semi-attractive. And then I saw it.

It seemed amazing! I had these Rick Riordan Presents books as my comps! I thought my book fit perfectly! And the note says, right there in italics at the bottom, that Ms. Kuss would be happy to consider any manuscripts for acquisitions! My heart raced and palms got sweaty like I was about to ask my boyfriend to marry me (yeah, I did that. Turns out I'm a jump-on-in kinda gal).

So, (apparently) one day after getting the go-ahead to do a massive revision of my story, I emailed Alan to let him know I bought a critique from Rebecca Kuss, Senior Editor at Rick Riordan Presents. I tried to soften the blow by saying it was only the first 10 pages I needed to get shiny by April 30 (turn in date), and then Rebecca would have until June 7 to get me back the notes (and, maybe, ask for more pages?). Alan (and Andrea) were both amazingly agreeable and cheered my impulsivity on. And we dove back into those first 10 pages. Again.

3/10: Alan got back to me on my first 11 pages (2 chapters) and challenged me to make it 5-7 (1 chapter).

3/16: I got it down to 6.5 pages, 1 chapter! Did a big happy dance.

3/20: He came back with edits and added some things back in. Eventually, this first chapter ended up being just over 7 pages long.

4/6: He went through my query and synopsis, which would also be turned into Ms. Kuss with my first 10 pages at the end of the month. Meanwhile, I was making big revision on my Blocks and sending them to him as well to check.

4/6-4/18: Work on Blocks (oh so very much work on the Blocks). I turn in Blocks 4-6 to him during this time and he gets back to me with his thoughts.

4/18: I get Alan's approval on the first 10 pages and they are ready to turn in to Ms. Kuss! Continue to revise Blocks.

4/22: Sent over Block 7 and busily worked to re-write Block 8.

4/23: We have our second zoom call and learn all about Alan's career as an author. He has close to 20 published books and has been on the NYT Best Seller's list many times. It was so fun to listen to his story, his setbacks, and his triumphs. And then I got back to work with even bigger dreams in my head and a renewed sense of purpose.

4/27: I submitted my query, synopsis, and first ten pages to Rebecca Kuss and SCBWI's Great Critique and tried to put good vibes out to the universe.

5/1: I told Alan that I really want to participate in #APIpit, a pitch contest for Asian / Pacific Islanders. I had pushed dang hard to get my manuscript ready, I felt like this was the perfect opportunity to test the waters a little and support an awesome group.

He agreed I should do it. He reviewed all of my work again. I made more revisions. My rewritten Block 8 got revamped again. It was an incredible experience and he helped me really strengthen the pacing of the story and help make sure my chapters all helped move the plot along.

#APIpit was quite the experience. I'm sure I'll be writing about that next, so stay tuned. But for now, I just want to give Alan Gratz and the entire #WNDB team a huge and hearty thank you for helping me get to this point. I can't wait to see what the rest of the year holds!

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