Welcome to our Query and 1st Page Workshop with some of our amazing Pitch Wars mentors. From a Rafflecopter lottery drawing, we selected writers to participate in our query and first page workshops. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a query or 500 word opening from our lucky winners. We’ll be posting four critiques per day (except weekends) through July 7. Our hope is that these samples will help shine up your query and first page and that you’ll get to know some of our wonderful Pitch Wars mentors. We appreciate our mentors for giving up their time to do the critiques. If you have something encouraging to add, feel free to comment below. Please keep all comments tasteful. We will delete any inappropriate or hurtful ones.
First up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentor C.M. McCoy …
Author CM McCoy (aka Colleen Oefelein) has one pointed ear, an 90-pound “puppy” from Hell, and a very active imagination. She’s well aware nobody can say or spell her real last name, hence the pen name. You can call her Colleen.
She’s a retired Air Force officer, a mom, an author, a blogger, and the PR manager and an associate agent for Inklings Literary Agency. When she’s not chatting with her imaginary friends, she’s either stuck in a book or interviewing with PEOPLE Magazine, ABC’s 20/20, the local morning news show, or INSIDE EDITION, where she promotes writing for mental and emotional health. She also mentors pre-published authors through workshops and contests and runs Totem Head’s Annual Free Writing Contest for Kids, now in its ninth year.
Though she holds 2 Bachelor of Science degrees (Chemical Engineering and German — Penn State), she’s far happier writing near misses and awkward kisses. Some of her off-the-wall talents include speaking in 10-codes (which she learned working 911-dispatch for Alaska State Troopers), flying helicopters, and Irish dance. Her debut, EERIE, a teen paranormal adventure with romance, released in Dec 2015 by Simon & Schuster/Omnific. She has a memoir out on submission to production companies and a picture book out on submission to publishers. She’s represented by the magnificent Michelle Johnson.
Hailey Hartley has just enrolled in the world’s premier supernatural university. It’s a school she’s never heard of, located in a town called The Middle of Nowhere, and run by a creature that’s not supposed to exist. But at least she got a scholarship…
Hailey’s dreams have always been, well…vivid. As in monsters from her nightmares follow her into her waking life vivid. When her big sister goes missing, eighteen-year-old Hailey finds only one place offers her answers–a paranormal university in Alaska. There, she studies the science of the supernatural and must learn to live with a roommate from Hell, survive her otherworldly classes, and hope the only creature who can save her from an evil monster doesn’t decide to kill her himself.
Colleen’s Query Critique . . .
I am currently seeking representation of my second novel, Gold Death, a medical thriller which is complete at 58,000 words. [58,000 words for an adult thriller feels a little on the thin side to me. This genre usually runs 70-90k words. But this low word count in a thriller (since I love them) wouldn’t stop me from reading more of this query and ultimately the first page.)]
A get rich quick scheme for two Senegalese boys sparks an Ebola epidemic [This immediately piques my interest. The scene is set and the problem succinctly defined. Not only do I love biotech thrillers in the vein of Michael Crichton, but the Ebola virus has always been of interest to me, so much so that I wrote a paper on it during my undergrad years as a Biotech Chemical Engineering major 😉 Senegal is indeed a country in West Africa that’s seen Ebola, and I’m inclined to think this author did some research, which makes me excited to read more]. Across the globe, junior CDC epidemiologist Dr. Karina Skye is the victim of a nude pics scandal. [Already I like how this query lays out the main character, who’s got a personal problem that’s about to be overshadowed by something much bigger.] Distrusted by her co-workers [though….I don’t know why she’s distrusted by her coworkers. Maybe she’s ridiculed or shamed by them, but I’m not sure “distrust” is the correct attitude that follows a nude photo scandal], facing job termination and the risk of infection, Karina goes to Senegal with a CDC task force. Can Karina track down patient zero before the virus becomes a worldwide pandemic? [It’s a personal preference, but I don’t like rhetorical questions. Maybe consider editing this into a declarative sentence that defines why she must track down this patent. Also for Ebola, finding patient zero won’t stop a worldwide pandemic as everyone infected must be quarantined, so the logic leap here didn’t work for me. I’m missing the why part. Why is it important to find patient zero here?], For this virus doesn’t discriminate; you can get it from a handshake. [I’m thinking now there may be a problem with the premise that finding patient zero will immediately stop the spread of the virus. If that’s the premise, maybe choose a fictional virus — one which lab rats can concoct a treatment or vaccine from, like in the blockbuster film OUTBREAK]
Gold Death was inspired by the Ebola outbreaks of 2014. This book shows how the virus affected the lives of people around the world [this makes GOLD DEATH sound more like a biographical story than a thriller, which makes me less excited]. From frenzied airplane passengers to quarantined nurses, it follows Karina’s search for patient zero [this is a repeat of what was written in the paragraph prior, and you could safely cut this “search for patient zero”] and shows the potential consequences of putting dedication to the cause before survival. [Okay now we’re back to feeling a bit more like a thriller, but slightly like a literary fiction piece. Maybe add “personal” in front of survival, or change to personal protection, as I assume this means she’s chosen to do something hasty without her prescribed personal protective equipment/gear installed, (a moment of great courage and great stupidity), which (being a biotechnology gal myself) makes me want to immediately slap this character. And fire her before she dies.) What I’m missing is the personal connection to her goal of saving the world. the question in my head is, “why does she care?” Is she motivated to stop this pandemic to reclaim her honor and some respect in a male-dominated career field? Or maybe her new love interest is infected? Whatever her motivation to save the world from pandemic is, include it. And what’s working against her–is there a bad guy or a corrupt government here, or is this more of a memoir-type following of different Ebola patients? Bottom line: I need to know who the bad guy is in a thriller. What’s dogging her? ]
Personally I have a website and a twitter account dedicated to writing. I handle the social media accounts for my local writers’ circle and run a busy book club in London. A number of my short stories have been published in anthologies in print and online, and my debut novel is due to come out this autumn, published by Sands Press. [It’s always good to know an author has a social media platform, and so I think this is all fine info for your bio. But I wonder if you have any biotech background or if you’ve done any interviews with CDC folks or anyone who’s had experience with Ebola, either in the lab or in Africa, in creating this book. If so, I’d definitely mention that here.]
Make this stand out: This premise bears many similarities to stories already in the marketplace, and I wonder what would make this one stand out. I recommend thinking about your story compared to say…THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and the both the film OUTBREAK and the book OUTBREAK by Robin Cook (which isn’t connected to the film, though the two are similar in plot). Figure out what makes your story stand out from the herd and get that into your query.
Mention who the bad guy is. “Thriller” tells me there’s a bad guy. If this truly is a thriller, there has to be action, and someone or some organization should be “out to get” or “out to stop” the main character. If there isn’t a bad guy, this could be more of a mystery, where the main character isn’t really in any extraordinary danger, or if she is, it’s moderate. ie, nobody’s chasing her from the outset. Or if she’s simply racing the clock before the proverbial bomb explodes (pandemic), then this might be better described as a suspense. In any case, mention who the bad guy is (who’s trying to stop your main character) or reset my expectations by calling this a mystery or a suspense.
I’m excited by the urgency in this synopsis, and I’d hope that I’d find the same urgency in the prose. So in effect, while this query makes me wonder about how this book might stand out in the market and whether it’s truly a thriller and whether it’s too short and therefore lacking in story-telling, it’s done its job of making me want to read the pages. Things on my mind as I’d go into the pages of this submission would be world-building, potential logic leaps, and hoping for prose that knocks my socks off to make up for that “already done” feeling of the premise. I’d already be brainstorming some way to tweak this story line to include something fresh or new. Overall, I’d say this is an intriguing query, that would be made even more so with just a few tweaks.
Next up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentor Kate Foster …
Kate is an award-winning middle grade author, a freelance editor, and the editorial director of Lakewater Press. Although originally from the UK, she now lives with her clan on the stunning Gold Coast in Australia. She has Monica Geller tendencies.Tom Hardy, dogs, and tea.
Kate’s recent release …
Living on Winell Road is hardly fun, not when your neighbors are weirder than your own parents.
But the road has a secret that few people know.
And Jack’s about to uncover it.
Mystery, action and adventure. This award-winning sci-fi series is “highly recommended” for middle grade readers.
For fans of Men in Black and Zac Power, Winell Road is jam-packed with “loads of twists and turns” that will keep you guessing to the end.
Kate’s First Page Critique . . .
What feels like forever ago now, in the late afternoon of a winter’s day, I was sitting beside a river. It was cold and on the verge of frosting over. [Can you show the cold rather than telling the reader? Maybe: Frost glistened atop the grass and rocks, the white sky heavily pregnant with snow. Or similar.] My mother made me a sheepskin jacket over [Watch out for close repetition of words, such as here with “over”] the summer, so I was warm. It was my early Christmas present, because, like her, I never coped well with winter, and we couldn’t afford central heating. Jedidiah, a British refugee I’d known from three years old, [Who was three? Jedidiah or the narrator?] was trying to kill time before his birthday banquet, and had taken me to fish with a spear he crafted from illegal wood. No one is allowed to cut the trees where I’m from, so we rarely had firewood through the winter either. [Why not? Is this something we find out later on? Is it relevant?] Though he was fourteen, two years older than I was, Jedidiah had the strength and stature to rival the eldest boy in our village. I watched him, amazed by his skills. He caught his first fish in minutes, and he brought it to me. [Can you show Jedidah to the reader? How me slides through the water or appears to be holding his breath as he leans over from the bank, spear poised, etc?]
He placed the fish in my hands, which were equal in size to his, but otherwise our attributes were as opposite as north and south: He had short, blonde hair, mine was long and black; he had bright eyes, mine were deep and dark; and he was built like an athlete, I was petite and frail. Our skin colour differed too, but not for the right reason. His family were unanimously pale, but he was born with a neutral tone. My relatives were all olive, so my snowy complexion was a shock to everyone. [This paragraph is filled with description and does run the risk of making for slow reading and removing the reader from the action. Can these details be blended in to the action and dialogue, so appearances are passed on gradually and subtly to the reader? Is the difference in their appearance important to the storyline? A lot of time and space is used here to emphasize how they look and their differences so a reader is likely to think this relevant.]
Naturally the fish slipped through my fingers the instant I received it, but he caught it. He looked at me with his most wonderful smile. [Can you show the reader what this smile looks like, and how it makes Allie feel?]
“What was that?” he teased, nudging my shoulder.
“Oh come off it, you’re used to it,” I beamed back at him. He brought the fish closer to me again, only this time he held onto it.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? When my dad first showed me one of these, I was speechless. Nothing like what you see on land.”
The late sun sprang from its scales and. It shimmered in his hands.
“You’re right. It’s amazing.”
Grabbing my hand, he pulled me from the grass, leading me closer to the river.
“Come on. I’ll show you how to catch your own!”
I just laughed. There was no going back; for the next hour I’d be fishing regardless of how foolish I looked, but at least he didn’t care.
“All right! All right, I’m coming over!” I squealed.
He handed me the spear and attempted to direct my hands in the correct position, [What is the correct position? Can you show the reader?] but I was useless.
“You just look down the middle right here…there you go.”
With effort, I managed to adopt the right stance, [What is the right stance? Can you show it to the reader?] but he propped up the spear from behind me because it was too heavy to hold steady.
“Aw, where are they? I think they’ve all gone to sleep.”
“Don’t be silly, Allie, here’s one now. Look.”
[There is good fluidity to the writing and a smooth tone, with the feel of darkness brewing beneath the surface, maybe hiding an upcoming tragedy or shock. I do feel there are a few things that could elevate the page as it stands to ensure it creates a more sensuous and engaging read. Maybe by adding more to engage the reader’s senses: so some smells and sounds, etc. Maybe the reader can feel the cold as they watch Allie rub together and blow on to his hands, or pull his collar up higher round his neck. Maybe by blending in some finer details as well, such as the material or color of Allie’s coat, perhaps a little more in the way of their location—are they surrounded by a forest, mountains in the distance, and so on. A little less telling and more showing will make all the difference!
I am guessing Allie and Jedidah’s relationship—and particularly this memory—is all important to the plot; however, I am concerned that a reader might not instantly connect to this opening page as they could be left wondering where this memory is taking them. We’re not given any immediate idea of what’s so important about this memory, no link to the present. We are not grounded in any action, only simply allowed to share a memory. I wonder if perhaps there is a more inciting event, or clearer links that could be included or mentioned right off the bat to offer an opening with more of a hook. This is something to think about anyway!]
Thank you, Colleeen and Kate, for your critique! I’m always up for more editing fun!
Interested in more critiques? We’ll be posting critiques through the first part of July. Hope you’ll read on. And get ready! The Pitch Wars Mentor Wishlist Blog Hop starts July 19 with the Pitch Wars submission window opening on August 2nd.