July Workshop with PitchWars Mentors … Brooks Benjamin & Rae Chang

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Welcome to the July Query & 1st Page Workshop with some of our PitchWars mentors. We selected many wonderful writers from a drawing held in June to participate in the workshop. Each mentor has graciously critiqued either a query or first page for two writers. The writers are anonymous and the titles/genres are hidden. Follow along all month to view the critiques. We welcome comments and further suggestions, but please keep them kind and respectful.

Here are are first two mentors and their critiques …

 

Brooks Benjamin

Brooks is a filmmaker, teacher, husband, SCBWI member, and father to a 75-pound demented German Shepherd mix named LeeLoo. He is represented by the fantabulous Uwe Stender of TriadaUS Literary. His debut MG novel, MY 7TH GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS, will be published by Delacorte/Random House in the Spring of 2016.

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Add MY 7TH GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS on Goodreads!

Brooks’ critiques …

Critique #1 – First Page:

Chapter One

Avery

There was a new song on the radio. Or maybe it wasn’t new—spending thirteen hours a day either in school or rehearsal made it hard to keep up. I texted my best friend, Megan, to ask if she’d heard it just as my mom pulled off the freeway and into downtown traffic. It was a game between Megan and me—who could discover the next song or video that would go viral. She usually won, though.I like this setup! I’m already getting a solid glimpse of the main character here. Just from this I’m guessing the rehearsal is dance-related. If so—YAY!

Song on Mix 96 right now. Next viral.

She texted me back. Walking home. What’s it called? This is probably just personal preference, but I’d italicize the message she texts so it stands out against the narration.

I turned up the volume but couldn’t make out the lyrics. Not sure.

House party tomorrow. Call in Sick. Sneak Out.

A small flurry turned in my stomach. I’d give anything to party with Megan. Maybe I’d finally be able to. Quitting ballet tonight. Using Plan B. YAY! And very nice getting to the inciting incident this fast. *** The good thing about this is that it doesn’t sacrifice character development. In fact, it’s because of the character that this is happening. Which creates a very active role for your main character. Avery’s making decisions early on that are going to send her spiraling into some sort of trouble later on.

However, I’d still italicize or at least create some little “text tag” so we know who’s sending what message. (Megan: House party tomorrow…)

OMG! Go Avery!

My mom turned off the music. “I have a meeting that will go late tonight. Call the cab company to take you home and charge it to our account.”

“Okay.”

I texted Megan back. Nervous as hell. I’m so grounded. Do you think they’ll arrest me? This line threw me a little. I’m assuming she’s just being a bit over-dramatic, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Megan and Avery have planned something that’s arrest-worthy? If so, you may want to hint to that a little. If not maybe you should add in something so we know she’s being a little sarcastic. I was the one to come up with the plan, but I had been joking. Megan convinced me to actually consider it. This might be a good place for the clarification. We don’t have to know exactly what the plan is (if it’s something other than a party) but we should probably know if it’s something bigger than a plan. If anything that will be very enticing to the reader if these two have something pretty epic(ly horrible) planned.

My mom frowned at me. “Will you put that thing down when I’m talking to you?”

I put the phone in my lap. “What?”

Overall thoughts: I really like this and I’d totally read on. Especially since the first page gives us the idea of some sort of impending doom. Nicely done.

The only real critique I could give you is the moment where I marked ***. Right now I’m getting the sense that in the Megan/Avery duo, Avery’s probably the more reserved one. However, she gives in pretty quickly to quitting ballet that evening (and makes the “arrested” comment later) which makes me wonder if she’s not.

Having the reader ask questions like that is great. It gives a little mystery to the character. However, I say all that to say this: if you’re wanting to set her up as more of a timid friend who’s never partied with Megan even though she’s been invited to numerous times, maybe think about giving her a little more pause before she accepts the invitation this time. Let us really feel the conflict turning her inside out. It happens to quickly now, so I’m assuming she’s cool with ditching ballet for the party. But if she’s not supposed to be that blasé about it, make us feel that hesitation.

Good luck with this and thanks for submitting to the contest! 🙂

Critique #2 – Query:

Eve – curator of antiquities by day, sleuthing by night discovers alien relics and clues to her missing grandfather. This sentence is definitely action-packed, but it reads a little clunky. Not because it’s badly written, but because as a first sentence, there’s too much to process. Remember, you just need to hook your agents here. Reveal all of the delicious goodies further down the page to reel them in a little at a time. Eve must discover the power behind these ancient artifacts before the Hashishin assassins do, and she has to survive a train explosion, an evil uncle, heartless bastards and treachery to do so. This reads more like a closing sentence to the query (which may not actually be a bad place to put it!)

Exploring Rome’s underground catacombs, attending grand parties of the rich, and riding the gondolas in Venice isn’t the only excitement that comes with her new adventure. I’d try to keep away from too many “this, this, and this” moments in the query. When the symbol on an ancient tablet matches the medallion given to her thirteen years ago, on the day her beloved grandfather disappeared, she begins to unravel a truth older than time. Obviously I’m not an agent, but I’ve read that phrases like this are too vague and don’t give the agent a clear sense of what’s driving your story forward.

Eve is drawn to the energy in the artifacts be more specific—is Eve literally drawn to them (like the energy is pulling her to them) or is she enticed/seduced by the artifacts’ power? she’s delivering to buyers, and discovers that not only are these energy infused artifacts a hot commodity, so is she. The flirty men that desire her want something from her and it’s not what she anticipated.

Exposing the truth behind the energy infused artifacts, and piecing together the family connection, might unleash a weapon of mass destruction. Eve is the key for detonation. I like that last sentence—maybe you can incorporate that into the closing sentence you used before?

LOGOS Is this an acronym? If it is, it may be a good idea to somehow incorporate the phrase or organization name into the query so we can make the connection. is an 80,000 words Science Fiction Thriller. The real life disappearance of my husband’s uncle after he got on a plane thirty years ago and featured on Unsolved Mysteries was the inspiration for my novel. Oh wow—nice way to connect that here.

I have short stories that have been featured in Go Read Your Lunch and The Idaho Magazine. Congrats on getting those published!  🙂

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Overall thoughts: The story you have seems awesome, but the query isn’t doing it justice. I can’t tell what launches Eve into her journey and how it gradually gets more and more dangerous. So here are my suggestions:

After you establish your awesome hook, think of that the first plot point is in your story. What happens around the 25% mark to make Eve decide she needs to really dive into this conspiracy? Whatever that is, turn it into a solid sentence and lead off the 2nd paragraph with it. Then fill that paragraph with a couple of moments that drive the story and make the agent drool.

Something in your story happens around the 50% mark to cause Eve to make her decision to continue down the path, even though things are getting crazier. Lead off your 3rd and final paragraph with that. Then hit us with a couple of OMG moments and then end it with that awesome closer you already wrote near the top of the query.

Naturally, the 3 paragraph query isn’t a rule and you don’t have to use that format. However, it’s a good place to start and once you have your query, you can begin to play with voice, structure, and anything else to really set it apart.

Good luck with this and thanks for submitting to the contest! 🙂

 

 

1K8A4661-Edit

Rae Chang

Rae is a YA/NA author and freelance editor who loves sci-fi/fantasy everything, food, mentoring youth, and helping the awesome people in the writing community. She’s also hangs out here assisting me with all my craziness.

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Rae’s critiques …

Critique #3 – Query:

Dear Agent Awesome,

I read in your interview on Name of Blog that you’re looking for young adult manuscripts that blend romance with high-stakes thrills. Because of this, I think you’ll enjoy my young adult romantic thriller, NOW YOU SEE HER. (Some kind of personalization in the opening paragraph.) (Ok, this personalization is a really smart thing to do. Opinions differ on where to put this paragraph, but I would put this at the end – after you’ve already hooked them with your story. Again, different agents want this in different places, so do your homework.)

After finding the body of a murdered classmate at homecoming, seventeen-year-old Gray James doesn’t think her life can get any more terrifying. (Woosh! What an opening!)

It can.

Since the police have no leads, Gray sleeps with one eye open. For so long, she feared her life would never be anything but predictable. She grew tired of dating the boyfriend her parents chose and planning for college when she’d rather travel after graduation. Now she would give anything to return to that simpler time when illegal joyrides on her dad’s Harley and trips to a psychic were her most scandalous experiences. (This is a very smart paragraph that sets up contrast nicely. I would just trim it down a little; it has an awful lot of examples.)

Then Gray falls for Jackson, a sexy loner with a less-than-stellar reputation, and her life suddenly doesn’t feel so stifling. (This is a little vague. Also, how is Jackson any different from the ten million other sexy loner bad boys in books? What sets him apart? You don’t want someone to think he is a sexy loner just because teenage girls are supposed to like sexy loners.) But her layover on cloud nine (love this) is obliterated (Layovers getting obliterated seems like a weird way to phrase it. Maybe pick a different word?) when other girls at her school are brutally attacked—girls with olive skin and dark hair, just like Gray’s. Gray ignores her older brother’s warning to steer clear of the secretive Jackson. She doesn’t see the danger in following her heart for once. (Cut the previous sentence. It’s unnecessary) But when Gray escapes abduction (by who?), she must dig deeper into the lives of her parents, her brother, and even Jackson. (“And even Jackson” seems unnecessary. Of course she’s going to dig into his life. He’s the sexy loner. Maybe just shorten to “She must dig deeper into her family’s and Jackson’s (or just “everyone’s”) lives to find the truth before she’s the next victim.” Either way, I would like something more concrete than “dig deeper to find the truth”. It sounds cliché and doesn’t give me any details. Tell me how this is different.) She’s got to find the truth, no matter how ugly, before she’s the next victim. (More detail, please. This just sounds cliché.)

NOW YOU SEE HER is complete at 69,000 words. I graduated summa cum laude from Minnesota State University, where I earned a BA in English with an emphasis in creative writing. I work as a freelance editor and writer and am the author of several nonfiction books for children. (I think the freelance stuff is cool, but since you’re writing fiction, how does your nonfiction experience come into play? I like the award mention in the next sentence, but I would cut the nonfiction part of the previous sentence.) My book How to Build Hair-Raising Haunted Houses (the title should be all-caps) (Capstone Press, 2011) was selected as a Book of Note by the TriState Young Adult Review Committee.

Thank you for your consideration. I would be delighted to send the full manuscript for your review. (This is very nitpicky, but I would say “I would be delighted to send any material you require” or something of that nature since not all agents want fulls right off the bat. Again, very nitpicky and probably not going to make or break you.)

(The other thing I’ve noticed right off the bat is that this is a very long query. Most agents want queries to be closer to 250-300 words. This query is easily 350 without even the personalization written in. Trim, trim, trim!)

Best wishes,

 

Critique #4 – First Page:

—CHAPTER 1—

 

There is a risk to love. That nothing this beautiful can be held,

that the lover’s heart exists to be beautifully, perfectly, gone.

—Josephine Nightingale

 

(For Nikolai)

(Do you need all of this stuff above? This feels a lot like a dedication page that shouldn’t be here.)

 

£

1933, Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S.A

 

The train roars like a metal monster trying to outrun us. I chase it as my past chases me. (I’m not sure what that means or why this sentence is here. It feels a little Rococo – pretty and overornamental without really adding anything of substance. If your MC’s past is chasing them, weave that in subtly.) Nikolai grips my hand so tight his heart beats inside of my palm. I shout over the chugging metal wheels, “Everything in exchange for each other, right?” (Huh? This is my confused face.) The whistle blows, echoing freedom through the clear prairie sky. The native scent of wild sage rides the wind at our backs like a love-letter pleading don’t go. (You obviously like descriptive writing quite a bit, but too much of it will bog your narrative down. You have a lot of similes and metaphors just in this first paragraph, so I would cut it down.)

Nikolai replies in what remains of his Russian accent, “Everything in exchange for each other!” His blond hair weaves a golden web over his face. (More metaphor – decide which ones you want to keep and which ones are just decorative.) I squeeze his hand tighter and push my legs faster, propelled by his answer and the hope in his ice-blue eyes.

Tears threaten, but I will not let them come. I convince myself I am warm and safe, that there is only Nikolai Genokovitch and me, raising dust from the parched earth. (“I convince myself” is an example of filtering. We’re in the character’s head, so just tell me “I’m warm and safe. Right now there is only Nikolai” etc.)

Hands still clasped, I am closest to the half-open boxcar rattling like a million chains. (“Hands” and “I” don’t agree here. Reword. Also, it’s another simile already. Trim.) “It’s too fast, Nikki. I don’t know if I can catch it.” I stumble over a rock. For a moment, I think I see a tattooed face peering out of the train car. Nikolai yanks me up before I fall. When I search again for the face, it is gone.

 

Thank you, Brooks and Rae, for your critiques. Everyone, come back tomorrow for the next round of critiques!

 

10 comments to July Workshop with PitchWars Mentors … Brooks Benjamin & Rae Chang

  • Mel

    Great feedback, so helpful. Can’t wait to read more. Thank you mentors and Brenda.

  • I agree with Mel, GREAT feedback! I especially like that Rae Chang marked something in the query critique for deletion and gave examples of possible fixes for specific content.

    Thank you, mentors, for your time and such detailed critiques! Thank you, Brenda, for allowing this to happen for so many of us!

    Good luck to all four of you wonderful writers!

  • Chris

    This is great! Still, it’s a little frustrating (and I’m not even one of the authors being critiqued.) The query critiques request a lot more detail and answers to a lot of questions, but then later on it’s specified that they should be even shorter than they already are! That sounds like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. How is an author suppose to achieve so much detail and give so much information in such little space? What’s the magic trick here?

    • Chris, I would say economy of words is very important in a query. If one brilliant word could do the job of two or three, use it. Cut out all “flowery” words and rearrange sentences to cut words and make them more punchy.

      I know how frustrating it can be to give the right information, but not too much. To be vague, but not too vague. WTH, right? So I’m a proponent of the “tease” — give them just enough to make them ask for more. But when it comes to an element or something that is unusual, it needs a little more explanation.

  • This is great insight on queries and first pages!!

  • Such great feedback! I’m learning a lot already! Thanks to the mentors and to you, Brenda!

  • This is so helpful! Thanks tons Brenda, mentors, and brave critiqued authors. Best to all of you!

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