Welcome to the Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2020 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.
Next up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentors Janet Walden-West and Anne Raven …
Janet Walden-West lives in the southeast with a pack of show dogs, a couple of kids, and a husband who didn’t read the fine print. A Weird Dog Show Chick in her downtime, she’s also a founding member of The Million Words craft blog, a 2X PitchWars alum, and a Golden Heart® finalist. She writes intersectional sexy-times romance and boss-girl fantasy heroines.
Her debut multicultural contemporary romance, SALT+STILETTOS, is out now from City Owl Press, and her urban fantasy short stories are available in multiple anthologies.
She is represented by Eva Scalzo of Speilburg Literary Agency.
Anne Raven was born and raised along the windy coast of South Africa and can assure everyone there are no lions roaming the streets—unless you count the feral cat next door. When not reading or writing, you can find her spending time with Luna, her giant Boerboel aka South African Mastiff puppy, taking freshly baked goods from the oven, or drinking too much coffee. In 2020, she officially launched her book cover design business, Black Bird Book Covers, and loves working with amazing authors.
Anne loves writing in multiple genres, but her stories always tend toward darker themes with gritty edges. Her books often feature found families, resilient heroines, non-toxic alpha heroes, and vivid settings. Her romantic suspense IN THE NAME OF THE MOTHER was showcased in Pitch Wars 2017, and in 2019 she returned to co-mentor with Janet Walden-West.
Anne is represented by Amanda Jain at BookEnds Literary Agency.
Janet’s latest release…
Brett Fontaine learned early that appearance matters and not to count on anyone but yourself. Trading her red-dirt roots for the title of Miami’s go-to image consultant, she refuses to let anything jeopardize her new life.
Not an influential client-turned-stalker who’s up for parole.
Not post-kidnapping panic attacks.
Certainly not the stubborn, attention-phobic chef she’s challenged to transform into a celeb in ninety days.
Will Te’o can almost taste the dream he sacrificed American Samoa, culture, and cherished family ties for—opening a four star restaurant in the most cut-throat culinary location in North America. Unfortunately, that requires navigating it’s equally cut-throat social scene. When his first public performance ends in a social media spectacle, his only option is turning to the stiletto-wearing nemesis who’s invaded his kitchen.
Neither expected to share anything but barbs, yet somewhere between accidentally bonding over comfort food and office-wrecking sex, they’re named South Beach’s hottest pairing. Until Brett’s stalker engineers a reputation-shattering reveal. She may be going down, but she’s not taking Will’s dreams with her. Now Will’s pulling out all his new skills and cooking up a last-ditch event. He’ll prove to Brett that relying on the right person makes for the perfect recipe—or be left heartbroken in the spotlight.
Janet & Anne’s critique . . .
Category: Adult Historical Fiction
Life in war-torn seventeenth-century Scotland is hard enough, but for Maeve, an accused witch, every day brings fresh peril. [Remember to format your query without indentations at the start of each paragraph.] When she is betrothed to the son of a clan chieftain, [I stumbled here—accused witch conjures images of witch trials and a gruesome end, not freedom and potential marriage] she seizes the chance to escape the bad luck and visions that haunt her like a curse. On the way to her wedding, her cousin Rob is kidnapped by the invading English army, and Maeve suspects her jealous brother Bearuch is behind the plot.
[We need some more clarity here. Maeve’s goal is freedom—does this mean only escaping her village and it’s judge-y inhabitants? Escaping the betrothal and her future husband? Or will the betrothal somehow eliminate her powers, giving her freedom from visions and being burned as a witch?]
Once she is on the road, the focus shifts to rescuing her cousin. Aside from being related, why is her cousin worth kidnapping and why does she feel compelled to save him? Does she suspect her brother because of her visions? And why is her brother jealous?]
With English soldiers hot on her trail, [Why, specifically, are soldiers after her now?] Maeve joins a band of outlaws and finds shelter in the last Scottish fortress still standing. It’s also where the crown jewels, known as the Honors, have been hidden for safe-keeping. Yet the fortress soon proves to be a trap as much as a refuge. Maeve must save Rob and the Honors before the English army blasts through the gate—or before she’s burned at the stake.
[OK. Breaking this down into what Maeve wants, what is standing in the way of achieving her goal, and what is at stake if she fails.
Maeve’s goal is freedom (which we need to more clearly define). If she doesn’t succeed, she risks finally being burned at the stake.
Now, we need to she what is preventing her from achieving her goal On the surface, this has action and risk. However little of this feels like it’s about Maeve. She’s constantly working in service for other’s benefit. We aren’t seeing (yet) why she must undertake this quest and how her motivations for doing all this link back to her goal. Why does SHE feel compelled to save them? How do her powers play into this decision—can her visions help her on this quest? Has she seen a horrible outcome if the Honors aren’t reclaimed or if another out the outlaws attempt to save them instead of her? The references to her powers or sight are very inconsistent and we think that’s what is missing. What, specifically are they. If she has precognition, is it always right? Why does she assume they’re evil?]
[TITLE is an historical fiction, complete at X words.] Inspired by the true story of the women who saved the Honors, this tale races across the Highlands to the wind-swept coast of the North Sea, [the next part here should ideally be included in the blurb section of your query letter.]where Maeve will discover whether her visions—and Bearuch—are truly as evil as they seem.
For the second time in her life, Maeve MacDonnell found herself bound to a stake with kindling piled around her skirts. [This first line. ~Chef’s kiss~ It sets immediate conflict and voice.]
Oh Christ. Not again…
A searing heat near her shins hauled her fully back to consciousness. She blinked into the last rays of dying sunlight and saw the whole village encircling her. They were even angrier than last time, their faces scrunched as they glared up at her. [This tickles my curiosity and I want to keep reading]One of the villagers held a torch near her skirts, the flames licking at the rough wool.
“No, please,” she whispered, [Consider a stronger/more emotive word choice here, something that reflects her desperation as strongly as possible.] her voice hoarse.
The man froze. It was Munro, a farmer, his weathered face rigid with shock. He pulled the torch away. [Try showing a bit more instead of telling. For example, describe his eyes widening or a similar action that depicts his shock. This doesn’t have to be for every instances, but here you’ve already told us he’s frozen, and then he pulls his hand away. Try to mix it up especially on first page(s) since that’s often all an agent or reader glances at before making a decision to keep reading.]
“What are ye waitin’ for?” cried another man.
The other man scowled and strode forward. He took the torch from Munro and leaned in to light the pyre, but Munro held him back. [Here is another section where you could mix it up. Either the man’s face could scrunch together (showing the scowl), or Munro could grab his shoulder (showing he’s preventing him from lighting the pyre). Subtle changes can go a long way.]
“Maybe we should wait.”
“For what? She’s a witch.”
Maeve’s pulse stuttered against her ribs. A dull ache pounded through the back of her skull, and she knew this was no dream. [Try to avoid using words like “knew” because it creates distance between the character and the scene. Rather try something like, “A dull ache pounded through the back of her skull. This was no dream.” It’s more direct.] Her wrists ached [Perhaps a different word choice since you already used “ache” at the start of the paragraph?] Her wrists ached where the ropes held her, and she struggled against the stake at her back.
Munro wrung his hands together. “What will the MacDonnell think? Shouldn’t we at least hear her out?”
The torch-bearing man, [Who she now recognized as?]Hughes, scowled again as he turned to Maeve.
“What were ye doin’ with that raven in the forest?”
Black wings flew through her thoughts, glossy and sharp. [This is gorgous imagery and does an excellent job of establishing tone and how Maeve relates to her unwanted ability.] Her mind slipped into that dark place where she lost all sense of what was real, but she anchored her body in the here and now. She squeezed the coarse hemp ropes scraping her skin, and pried her dry tongue from the roof of her mouth. [This is something we all occasionally fall into—be careful not to tell us before showing. You do a GREAT job here of showing her actions—squeezing the ropes and prying her tongue from the roof of her mouth—gorgeous! But before you show us, you tell us by saying, “she anchored her body in the here and now”.]
The villagers muttered to one another.
[Given that the story starts with Maeve in dire trouble due to accusations of witchcraft, which is a powerful opening, and that we see she does have some kind of ability, I’m doubling down on our suggestion as to restructuring the query by clarifying goal/motivation/conflict as it pertains to Maeve’s magic. We think that is the thread that will unite the entire query and get it to where you want it to be. At first glance, these may seem like a lot of notes, but really they all point back to one fix—getting the information in the writer’s head, that they’ve probably lived with a good while, onto the page. Thank you for putting your work out there and submitting, and good luck in query-land.]