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Day 1 (Part 1) of the Pitch Wars Mentor Workshops with Susan Crispell

Sunday, 29 August 2021  |  Posted by Stephanie Scott

Welcome to the Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2021 mentors. From a lottery drawing, we selected writers to receive a query and first page critique from one of our mentors. We’ll be posting some of the critiques leading up to the Pitch Wars submission window. Our hope is that these samples will help you in shining up your query and first page.

We appreciate our mentors for generously dedicating their time to do the critiques. If you have something encouraging to add, feel free to comment below. Please keep all comments tasteful. Our comments are set to moderate, and we will delete any inappropriate or hurtful ones before approving them.

First up we have:

Pitch Wars Mentor Susan Crispell

Susan Bishop CrispellSusan Bishop Crispell earned a BFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Born and raised in the mountains of Tennessee, she now lives twenty minutes from the beach in North Carolina with her husband and their two cats. She is very fond of baked goods and is always on the lookout for hints of magic in the real world. She is the author of The Secret Ingredient of Wishes (Sep 2016, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press) and Dreaming in Chocolate (Feb 2018, St. Martin’s Griffin), which was selected as a SIBA Okra pick Winter 2018, and the upcoming young adult novel The Holloway Girls (Spring 2022, Sourcebooks Fire).

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Susan’s recent release, Dreaming in Chocolate

Dreaming in Chocolate book cover

Dreaming in Chocolate by Susan Bishop Crispell is a heartwarming story of love, hot chocolate, and one little girl’s wish for her mother.

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Susan’s critique

Category: Adult fantasy


Dear [agent/mentor],

TITLE (complete at 92,000 words) is a darkly comedic second world fantasy for adults. I queried you because [personalized reasons]. I hope TITLE will be a good fit for your list. [I think you could cut this last line, as it’s implied by you querying them.]

Adea has no plans of stealing [Maybe say “to steal”.] an enchanted human head—especially one belonging to the body of an arrogant noble heir. [This is an attention-grabbing first line, but when the next sentence(s) don’t immediately connect to it and deliver on that promise, it falls a bit flat. I recommend that the very next sentence continues to tell how she ends up stealing the head to keep the plot moving and the reader’s interest piqued or even move this below the next character description.] An indentured servant at her village’s only inn, Adea has given up her dreams of an expensive education as an enchanter. Her future is an endless sea of chamber pots—magical objects have no place in her life. [The voice in these descriptions is good and sets the tone for who she is and what her life is like. As much as I like that first sentence, it may be stronger if you started with this and cut the first sentence altogether.]

But when a traveling enchanter lodges at the inn, Adea discovers a peculiar item among the guest’s possessions: [I like that you’re going for the element of surprise here, but since you’ve already mentioned the head in the first paragraph it doesn’t hold as much weight. If you cut the sentence above this would be stronger. You could even cut “a peculiar item among the guest’s possessions:” and roll right into the next bit.] a severed Head cursed to speak the truth. Despite the Head of Truth’s [If she knows who he is (that he’s an arrogant noble heir), why not use his name instead of just referring to him as the head? Does she not know his name? Does he not tell her?] infuriating personality [How is it infuriating? Just that is it always truthful even when no one asked it anything? Or because he’s arrogant? Either be specific here about what he’s doing to irritate her, or you could even just cut this initial qualifying phrase altogether and start with what comes after to be more concise.], Adea strikes a bargain with him: she will help the Head get reattached to his body, and he will reward her with the money she needs [The reward is implied since it’s a bargain. You could make this more concise by saying “…body, and he will pay off her indenture so she can train…”] to pay off her indenture and train as an enchanter. With time running short [Instead of the generality of time running short, be specific on what that time frame is to sell the urgency.] to undo the Head’s curse, Adea promptly [You don’t need “promptly” here if you set the urgency right in the first part of the sentence.] embarks on a headlong flight with her insufferable new companion. [This last sentence doesn’t really say much to drive the plot forward. Try to be specific about the plot here to show the stakes and conflict. Ex: With only two days to undo the curse, Adea must smuggle the head across warring kingdoms, which is even harder than it sounds thanks to the Head’s compulsive need to fight her on every decision she makes. (Or whatever the actual plot is!)]

But the Head may have held back just [You don’t need “just” here.] a few crucial details—like the group of heavily armed mercenaries hunting him for undisclosed purposes. [I like the voice here. The “for undisclosed purposes” is vague and doesn’t help engage the reader, but the rest is fun!] Even worse, as she and the Head evade ruthless spice merchants [Love “ruthless spice merchants”! The image that pops into my head at this is so fun.] and fail to evade wily pirates [Does failing to evade mean they get captured? If so what does that mean plot-wise? What is the conflict this causes?], Adea realizes the Head is more than an enchanted object. He’s a man she might not hate after all—even worse, a man she might actually care for. [Not sure you need the “even worse…” as it’s implied by the first half of the sentence. Also, if there’s a romance aspect to this story, you need to weave in a detail or two before now so this revelation feels natural to the story. Since we haven’t seen anything redeeming about the head yet, this doesn’t quite work as well as you want.] And when the enemies who want the Head to remain severed close in, Adea must choose between fulfilling her own dreams and losing her Head forever. [What does losing the head mean to her though? How is that worse than missing out on her opportunity to become an enchanter? Those stakes aren’t clear so the potential loss doesn’t feel as dire. This might work better once you’ve added in a bit more of the romance throughout though.]

TITLE will appeal to readers who love the adventure and magic of VE Schwab’s A GATHERING OF SHADOWS, the reimagined fairytale tropes and slow-burn romance of Naomi Novik’s UPROOTED, and the political intrigue and expansive worldbuilding of Melissa Caruso’s THE OBSIDIAN TOWER. [These feel like strong comps! I’m not sure you need the last one, as I feel like VE Schwab has some of that already too. But it’s fine if you want ot keep all of them.]

My writing has been published or is forthcoming in Tiny Seed Literary Journal, The Florida Review, Poets Reading the News, and other literary outlets. I have earned awards including the Francis Mason Harris prize for best novel. I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains with an imperious cat. [This is a strong bio. Not sure you need the last sentence, but it’s okay if you want to leave it in to give a little flavor of your personality.]

[You have a lot working well in this query. The premise is hooky and feels like it would be an immersive and fun fantasy. Overall, I would suggest tightening/condensing the wordiness in places to free up a little more page space to the important details of the story (stakes and conflict) that will entice the reader to want to read more.]

First page:

Red was the color of power. Of Magia, blood, and nobles. The color of trouble. [I like this opening. It’s got a strong voice and clear focus that immediately ties to the story. It also feels like fantasy right from the start.] My mother sighed those words whenever she braided my hair, touching the strands of red threading through the black. She would have plucked them out for my own safety, but we’d learned they would only grow back. [Why couldn’t they just keep plucking them each time? Do the hairs grow back faster or in greater number if you pluck them? I know that’s a small thing, but it pulled me out of the story because it didn’t quite feel right because it implies she’s not safe but her mom can’t be bothered to do this small thing to make her safe.]

Yellow, though? Yellow was almost an innocuous color. Close enough to red to be tantalizing. Far enough from it to excuse my interest. Especially if I squinted. [I’m a little confused here. How is yellow close to red? One is pale the other is rich. Also, what interest is being excused? Since most of the first paragraph is about her own hair, I assume the sudden reference to yellow is about her hair too, but that doesn’t explain her interest or the fact that she’s squinting. Without any grounding to first set up that she’s looking at something in the distance, the color references could be about anything, like her hair since that is the initial focus.]

Against the azure backdrop of the afternoon sky, the arched yellow canopy of the Traveler’s wagon glowed like a summer apricot ripe for the picking. [Nice description.] I watched [You can cut “I watched” and just say “It rolled…” to remove the narrative distance.] it roll past the open air market, the Traveler herself sitting on the driver’s bench: a woman with a spine straight as a musketeer’s ramrod and a colorfully patterned scarf covering her hair, driving the two draft horses into Madra’s town square as if she ruled the place. As arrogant and self-possessed as a noble. [You don’t need this last line. It feels a little repetitive after the previous sentence.]

 The village clock chimed as she drove past, a single, desperate note, and then fell silent. Its ticking stuttered to a halt.

The baker sighed. [What baker? Without any grounding to know the immediate setting and characters in this scene, it’s a little confusing.] “And they just reset it, too. At least that means she’s powerful.” [I think you could add a sentence or two of narrative thought after this from the main character to show how she feels about magic. From the query I know that’s what she wants to be (and enchanter), so showing that longing from the very first page will help give the reader something to connect with the character around.]

I turned back to the woman at the stall. [What stall? It’s not clear from the reference to the open-air market earlier that that’s where the main character is. Again, we need some worldbuilding/scene setting first to help show where they are and who “they” are. It shouldn’t be an infodump of setting, but weave in a few more details to help show the immediate world around them. And is the woman at the stall the baker or another customer? It’s not clear if the “I” is a customer or someone working the stall along with the baker.] Her hands moved deftly, wrapping a half dozen sweet buns in brown paper. “What about it?” [What about what? I’m not sure what this refers to. The clock? The woman’s magic? The sweet buns? What is she really asking here?]

“I might have her read my fortune after I finish here for the day. These are for your brother and sister, yes?” [Who says this? The baker? The woman at the stall (if they’re not the same person)?]

[You have some strong images here and the writing is clear and evocative. I think you could go a bit more into setting the scene in the market for these characters to ground the reader in the immediate time and place. I also think a little more internal reaction/thought from the main character would be good to help show how she’s feeling as this magic woman comes into the town to give the reader a sense of who the MC is and what she wants.]

Thank you, Susan, for the critique! We are showcasing three mentor critiques each day leading up to the Pitch Wars 2021 submission window, so make sure to read the other two critiques for today and come back tomorrow for more. 

One Comment
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