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.
Next up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentor Michella Domenici
Michella Domenici was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She studies English and History at Fordham University. When she’s not reading, she’s drinking tea and searching for mermaids. She works at the Brooklyn Public Library, and is represented by Heather Flaherty of The Bent Agency.
Michella’s Query Critique…
AGE CATEGORY: Young Adult
Dear Ms./Mr. Agent,
[I recommend adding the MC’s age and even an adjective that relates to the plot if you want, like ‘Sixteen-year-old troubled Carson’] Carson Thompson has a passion for protecting people. This passion is [Passive voice. You can rephrase to make it snappier, like, ‘Carson dreams of being like his father, a…’] fueled by the legacy of his father, a war hero who sacrificed his life to save his comrades [When? How old was Carson when this happened? What’s the emotional tie?]. A year after witnessing the murder of his fiancé [Fiancé? In a YA contemporary?], Carson still wrestles with guilt and a sense of incapability that prevents him from moving forward in his life [Vague. Add something specific, like is Carson staying in bed all day instead of going to school, isolating himself and not hanging out with his friends, etc]. That is, until a world-class singer known as Vocemi is attacked by terrorists at the arena where Carson works [A teenage boy works at an arena? It’s starting to seem like your manuscript might not be YA. Additionally, the voice is passive again. You can fix it easily (‘Until world-class singer Vocemi…’), but this query is lacking in voice, in general. It’s very flat. Would Carson say ‘world-class singer,’ or ‘his favorite singer?’ Voice is also sentence variation, a rhythm to the words. Right now, you have three long sentences in a row. Switch it up a bit.].
Carson’s intervention with the attempted abduction of Vocemi earns himself a spot on her team of personal bodyguards [What intervention? When? What did he do? Was this during the initial terrorist attack? Also, I have a hard time believing a teenage boy with no security guard experience or military training becomes a super famous singer’s bodyguard. I don’t think this is a YA project.]. As he works to gain the trust and respect of his colleagues, the dictator of Vocemi’s native country [What country This is a contemporary, so mentioning another name won’t confuse readers since we’ll know what country you’re speaking of.] plots a more elaborate plan to kidnap her for purposes that can cause a global shift in power [Another vague sentence. Let your story really shine by highlighting what makes it unique.]. Carson soon realizes that he must overcome the demons of his past to become the protector he always wanted to be.
[This second paragraph doesn’t tell me what Carson is doing to achieve his goal, what stands in his way, and what will happen if he doesn’t achieve it. That’s what a query should do. The standard is 250 words and 3 paragraphs to sum up your book. You’ve got space—right now the pitch is about 150 words. I think you should follow the usual structure, because the second paragraph is very vague and focuses too much on the villain instead of what Carson does as Vocemi’s bodyguard and what his obstacles are. It also doesn’t tell us what the relationship between Carson and Vocemi is. Is it a romantic subplot? Do they not get along? What is Carson’s ultimate character arc and how does Vocemi factor into it? Then you can introduce the villain in the third paragraph, drop in an obstacle, and end on very specific stakes. What will Carson lose if he can’t protect Vocemi?]
SAFEGUARD is a contemporary [I think calling it a thriller might be more apt?], young-adult novel that is complete at 68,000 words [You are in the YA contemporary word range, but I worry it’s too short for an action/adventure. This is also a good place to add in comparative titles, like “SAFEGUARD is perfect for fans of *insert author name*” or “TAKEN meets *insert book title* (Ha, sorry, I can’t think of any!). It shows agents that you know your book’s market and can help them get a better feel for the manuscript. Good comp titles always get me excited.].
Thank you for your time and consideration,
I think you have all the pieces here for a tight and sparkly query. You’ve got the basic premise and conflict of the story on the page. Now you can flesh it out by being specific, adding in your character’s voice, and narrowing in on the stakes. I do recommend taking a hard look at the age category and making sure this is a YA project. The query really doesn’t communicate that. But, like I said, you’ve got a great set-up here.
Next up we have…
Pitch Wars Mentors Tomi Adeyemi and Kit Grant
Tomi Adeyemi is a Nigerian-American writer and creative writing coach based in San Diego, California. Her debut West African YA Fantasy novel is titled CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE* (working title) and will be out in early 2018.
After graduating Harvard University with an honors degree in English literature, she received a fellowship that allowed her to study West African mythology and culture in Salvador, Brazil. When she’s not working on her novels or watching Scandal, she can be found blogging and teaching creative writing to her 4,500 subscribers at tomiadeyemi.com. Her website has been named one of the 101 best websites for writers by Writer’s Digest.
Kester Grant is a British-Mauritian writer of color, and debut author of A Court of Miracles (Fall 2018, Knopf, Random House), a Young Adult fantasy reimagining of the Jungle Book and Les Miserables, and the first of a trilogy. She was born in London, grew up between the UK, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the tropical island paradise of Mauritius. As a wanton nomad she and her husband are unsure which country they currently reside in but they can generally be found surrounded by their fiendish pack of cats and dogs. Kes lurks with intent on Twitter, Goodreads, Tumblr,
Tomi and Kit’s First Page Critique . . .
*Red = Kit
*Blue = Tomi
AGE CATEGORY: YA
Everyone likes to think they have a plan. A scheme. A way out. [Beautiful first line! It makes me feel like I’m talking to a specific character with a distinct voice!]
I find this usually holds true. About Right up until they get punched in the face. [I would start a new paragraph here, since your first two lines do a really great job of introducing us to a character with a distinct voice! Think it’s good to let that linger a split second longer before jumping into the narrative]
At the moment, it was taking all of my considerably questionable willpower to just not pull back and wreck into the deadbeat jittering about in the darkness of the decaying alleyway around me. [So this sentence reads really long and little confusing because you’re trying to describe what the character is doing and where they’re doing it. I would split the description of her action into one sentence and the description of the alley (or even the person she wants to hit in the alley) into another sentence. For example “At the moment, it was taking every bit of my questionable willpower to hold back that punch. I cracked my knuckles, eyeing the deadbeat as he jittered about in the dark and decaying alley.” Just an example of how you can break it up, which will help for the prose flow and for the reader trying to picture the cool scene you’re laying out!] [Could be just me, but my first impression is confusion as this is listed as Fantasy, yet the expression ‘wreck’ and ‘deadbeat’ seem to suggest maybe contemporary or at least urban fantasy? They sound very modern and period specific, which throws me out of my expectations of the story I got from the title and genre] [And keep in mind, we don’t have your query, so this type of language may be appropriate in your setting, but if it’s more contemporary than what your setting is going for, it’s worth finding new words!] Instead, [This is SUPER nitpicky, but because you break up the desire to punch with the description of the alley, “instead” seems a little too oppositional to use as a transition. I think you can do without it, and maybe just use a paragraph break?]
I took a step closer. Sand mixed with the sharp tang of salt corroded metal [I love this so much, but the word “tang” suggests the protagonist is tasting the metal instead of stepping on it. So I would remove “sharp tang” or insert a feel-specific description like “rusted grain” or something] , and who knew what else, [the sand and salt corroded metal is so good you don’t need to leave room for whatever else could be under her boot. The specificity is not only great prose, but its great setting building!] crunched under the heel of my boots. I smiled wide enough to show him the white blaze of my teeth. [love this teeth imagery] [Same!]
“Show me again, Neva,” Remy begged. [the word deadbeat previously suggested to me an unfortunate stranger rather than an acquaintance, so use of his name throws me a little here again] [I would agree. Also just have to say I looooooove the name Neva. #TeamNeva]
I ground my teeth, [too many teeth things happening in too short a time] [agreed!] but dutifully pulled out the glittering red stone from my pocket for the third time tonight. For the third time. [You short sentences at the beginning had such power, that I would connect “For the third time” with the previous sentence so that you can keep your short sentences more impactful]. Warm and the size of deadly a nightshade blossom [Super nitpicky again, but it’s 500 words, so why not lol – since you’re describing the nightshade blossom as a size reference, I think you should take the “deadly” description of the nightshade blossom out. Also can I say how much I love that flower name?], it sat angrily in my palm. Buzzing. [wonder if the use of angrily would be more powerful if moved to ‘Buzzing angrily’] [I think that would be cool! Also think there’s room for a bee metaphor/simile if there are bees in this world!] Evidently, the stone still remembered its previous owner. Not my problem. [Love this! Great feeding in of story and character information!] Remy leaned in and his nostrils flared. In the murky silence of the deserted alleyway, I imagined I could hear his nose hairs rub together, like greasy nasal mites. [4 stars for grossness]
“Won’t you just give it to me Neva? For old times sake?”
I narrowed my remaining eye. [ooooo, one eye?!]
“And if I just gave it to you?” I asked, letting words tumble out of my lips. [first pages are about tightness to keep the story moving at a super clip, in view of that this attribution could be tighter – either I asked, or the words tumble out… I’d cut the ‘letting’.] [Agreed. Tumbling out of my lips doesn’t really tell us anything about how she says it, so I would cut] “Exactly where the hell would that leave me?”
Remy rubbed the side of his neck, averting his gaze. Not that there was much to look at around here, unless you liked scraps [you did such a beautiful job with salt and sharp tang of corroded metal, that I would use this opportunity to do the same – pick out those two really specific details that let the reader imagine a whole scene].
“Poor. Injured. Alone.” I said, pluckeding at a stray thread from his fraying coat. “Just like you.” Before I could pull back, Remy caught my hand. Hard. I flexed against him. [you flexed what?] Up this close, the smell of his unwashed body [is there a more powerful smell you can evoke? Like can you describe his body odor or something?] was overwhelming. I hissed. Mainly to keep from breathing him in. Remy’s eyes flared and I saw, for just a second, the beast of memory he kept drugged and docile within.
“I—sorry, habit. Nev [still obsessed with this name!], you know how it is.” Remy dropped my wrist. He gave a halfhearted smile as he let both hands fall to his waist, palms out.
Good to know that even after all these years, Remy’s reflexes were apparently still assassin sharp. [aha, Remy is suddenly very interesting] But hell that hurt. [How did it hurt? Unless Remy is some kind of giant or super-powered human, it’s weird that him just grabbing her hand would hurt and leave bruises. So if he’s special powered, let us know before this/now. If he’s not, then he needs to exert strength on her hand (squeezing it, crushing it) for it to hurt. But if does exert strength, then it feels more intentional than an instinct from a dormant assassin. Additionally, I feel like Neva is a badass because of her opening lines, talking about punching people, and her one eye. You do this great job of building up her prowess, and I feel like if she can be seriously bruised by just having her hand grabbed, that cuts it all down]. Like a broken chain of pale green and blue sea pearls, I was going to a have bracelet of coin sized bruises in the morning. [personal preference here, but unless the chain/pearls/coins analogy is in someway related to the world/theme/character I feel like it’s a bit convoluted way to say she’ll have a ring of bruises] [Agreed] I curled my fingers into a fist. And resisted the even stronger urge to once again punch the boy in front of me. [he’s a boy? But earlier you said ‘even after all these years’ so this makes me now think maybe they knew each other as kids? Was he an assassin as a child?] [Agreed!]
“But can’t you just, you know, give it to me?” Remy shifted on thin legs.
“Not a chance in hell,” I snapped, taking a step back.
“Trade me for it then,” he bleated out, grabbing again for my arm. This time, I made sure he missed. After all, I was the one who’d trained him. [hmmmmm, then how did he have grab your hand without you blocking?] [I can see him managing to grab her hand since she’s not expecting him to be strong and he seems weakened, but this makes me feel even more strongly that he should not be able to hurt and bruise her from just grabbing her hand] [On a separate note, this line is a great way to feed in information about their relationship and Neva so good job with that!
“Remy. You don’t have anything I need. Not even anything I want. Not anymore.” My eye locked on to the black pits that were his. [Ooo, I love this! I’m so interested!]
[This story has a lot of potential, but I do worry that for such potential, the first 500 fall a little short in terms of fully hooking me. That said there’s a lot that interests me here, an assassin gone to seed, with a past relationship to our female? MC, who trained him? He’s a boy so they were potentially young or children together? Those are some tasty story bones for sure…]
[I agree with Kit! You definitely have a lot of potential here, like come on – one-eyed assassin who likes to punch people named Neva? Yes. Give me. As you can see from our comments, we went in on thoughts and suggestions but that’s just because you have so much potential to really make these 500 words hook the reader and make them want to read the whole story!
So overall I would say just be very intentional with every word you put down and every action you describe. Remember, this early on in the story, everything you write is being used to build a world and a character and a history. You definitely have a talent for feeding in tasty bits on information and intrigue, so if you just polish around those bits I think you’ll have a super strong excerpt!
And lastly, of all the tasty bits in this excerpt, the time spent in Neva’s head was my favourite/what was hooking me the most! So I would even suggest spending more time in her head before introducing Remy’s dialogue/in between it.]
Thank you, Michella, Tomi, and Kit for your critiques!
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.