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Day 11 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Query & First Page Workshop with Mentors C.B. Catalano and Kelly Siskind

Tuesday, 23 May 2017  |  Posted by Heather Cashman


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 C.B. Catalano

C.B. Catalano Website | Twitter

After C. B. Catalano realized she spent more time daydreaming than living in the real world she decided to finally write those dreams down, and is now ready to share them with everyone. C.B. writes MG and YA and is represented by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary & Media. She can be found wandering around the Pacific Northwest with her 3 kids, husband, and beastly muppet puppies. After moving 21 times over the span of 7 states and 18 years she thinks she may have finally found a place to call home (for now) and aims to explore all that Washington has to offer.


C.B.’s Query Critique…

CURSE OF SILVER LAKE is a YA contemporary fantasy, complete at about 70,000 words. A mix of BEAUTIFUL CREATURES and CITY OF BONES, it’s perfect for fans of fairy tale retellings. [I love retellings so you already have my undivided attention! But I wonder, if it’s a retelling, perhaps comping the og fairy tale meets x might work better?]

16-year-old Maggie Hernandez comes from a long line of witches–but her mom never told her the family secret, hoping the magic would pass her by. [I think your first sentence could pack more of a punch than it does now. Especially when I read on to the second sentence. It raises more questions than answers. Like, does her mom ever actually tell Maggie she’s a witch after their apartment burns down? Or does she send Maggie to her grandmother’s home clueless? Also, if her mom doesn’t clue her in, does Maggie’s witchy grandmother once she’s there?] When Maggie’s uncontrolled powers burn their apartment to ashes, her mom sends her to live with her estranged, witchy grandmother to learn control of her magic. .[ ← I almost prefer this sentence as a starting point.]  Before Maggie can get started,[On what, learning control? Be more specific.] a spell gone wrong [Is the spell gone wrong part of her lessons to learn control, or is she still casting spells without knowing that’s what she’s doing?]  throws her grandmother into a coma and turns the local high school quarterback into a swan. [You’ve piqued my interest, but also left me hanging. Which can be good as you want to leave them wanting more, but I think you may have me wanting too much more. At this point more details might help add to the tension. Perhaps adding more about the spell Maggie cast, or how her new life with her grandmother and new school makes her feel might help. You want your query to be short and concise, but you don’t want to take out so much that you leave the reader unfulfilled. At this point I feel like I don’t know much about what Maggie wants or why, just that things are happening to her. Is she upset at this new ability and the chaos it’s causing around her? Does she want change? Is she enjoying the chaos?] [Also, maybe meshing together parts of the first and second sentence could open up more space to add in specific details about Maggie and her journey later in the paragraph. Perhaps starting with a line like this — Sixteen-year-old Maggie Hernandez never meant to burn her apartment down. And maybe she wouldn’t have, if her mom had informed her she comes from a long line of witches. (Here would be a good place to say if Mom finally lets her know she’s a witch, and follow with something like,) Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, Maggie’s mom sends her to her witchy grandmother in the hopes Maggie can learn to control the family gift.]

Maggie must find a way to break the curse of Silver Lake [What is the curse of Silver Lake anyway? There is no mention of it in the query at all and since it’s even the title of the manuscript a few words about what it is could be very helpful], or Ethan [ I’m assuming Ethan is the quarterback? Add his name to the above paragraph when you first introduce him.] will be stuck as a swan forever. [How does she know this? If we knew more about the spell and the reason for it, and also if we know she knows she’s a witch, it will help with this conclusion] Plus, she must do it before her mom arrives to pull the plug on her grandma. [Is Mom aware grandma’s only in a coma due to Maggie’s spell? Would she pull the plug if that was the case?] With each step Maggie takes, she becomes more and more afraid that she will never be able to go back to her normal, magic-less life with her parents again. [Ahh here are the emotional stakes I’ve been looking for for Maggie. Let’s try to add them well before the second to last sentence of the query.] Or worse, that the next time she loses control, her magic will kill someone. [Well, isn’t there already the chance that her magic is about to kill someone if her Mom is on her way to pull Grandma’s plug? I think by adding more voice and elements of Maggie throughout the first and second paragraphs you will up the tension and stakes by the end. Also, does she have any idea whatsoever in how to accomplish changing everything back?]

As a writing pair, Laura Lamoreaux & T.L. French have published a novella titled Winter Fairy Tale, and a short story titled A Harvest Homecoming, both with Roane Publishing. Laura Lamoreaux’s short story, The Faces of the Wind was published by Local Hero Press in November 2015, in the anthology CAPED.  T.L. French is a junior high English teacher, and made sure no grammar was harmed in the making of this novel. [I like your bio paragraph. I think it contains all the right info you’d want an agent to know while keeping it short enough, and the end made me smile]

I think you’ve got an intriguing premise, but overall the query is a bit vague. With the addition of adding Maggie’s voice, along with stakes that mean something to HER, you’ll get a meatier query. Right now, I only know what Mom wanted, and didn’t end up getting in the long run in the beginning paragraph.

I also wonder, who or what is the antagonist in this story, as well as, is Ethan a love interest of Maggie or just a rando turned into a swan? If the former, let us know, weave this information into the query. If the latter, why does Maggie even care about turning him back?

With your query as short as it is, you could probably introduce a third paragraph. That way you can spend the first Telling/Showing us who Maggie is, what she wants, and why. The second, how she goes about getting or doing these things (to herself and others. Also, a nice sentence about what Ethan may mean to Maggie to up the stakes in why she cares about what she’s done to him), and let the third paragraph be the conclusion, or what will or won’t happen if she doesn’t learn to control her magic.

Next up we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor Kelly Siskind

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Website | Twitter

Kelly is the author of CHASING CRAZY, MY PERFECT MISTACE, A FINE MESS, and HOOKED ON TROUBLE, the latter three being part of her Over the Top series, all published through Grand Central’s Forever Yours. A small-town girl at heart, she moved from the city to open a cheese shop with her husband in northern Ontario. When she’s not neck deep in cheese or out hiking, you can find her, notepad in hand, scribbling down one of the many plot bunnies bouncing around in her head. She laughs at her own jokes and has been known to eat her feelings—gummy bears heal all. She’s also an incurable romantic, devouring romance novels into the wee hours of the morning.


Kelly’s First Page Critique…

GENRE: Legal Thriller

There is something good and honest about the feel of a wooden handle rounded smooth by years of use lying across your shoulder with a chunk of some metal on one end balanced on the other by a hand or the crook of an elbow. (This opening sentence reads a bit run-on and lacks the punch of a grabbier start. I would be inclined to throw the reader into the action. Something like: It’s tough to shovel xyz when the butt of a shotgun is slammed into your back.) It brought back memories of childhood in Indiana, carrying an axe out to work on the woodpile, or a hoe to weed the tomatoes. Good memories. 

            This particular day, in the frigid Michigan pre-winter, I was carrying a shovel. 

My achy, cold right hand grasped one end of the handle, and a rusty spade with dried dirt still clinging to a corner of it hung on the other. (I’m having trouble picturing this. I think the MC only has one shovel, but the description “rusty spade hanging on the other” end makes it sound like two shovels, or one shovel and one spade. I assume you mean the blade itself is on the other end of the shaft. If so, it is generally attached, not hanging off of it, and watch your terminology. A spade is a type of shovel. If his hand grasps one end of the handle…and there is a rusty spade (shovel) at the other end…it reads awkward.) The momentary brightness of the memory dissolved quickly into the bleak reality of the present. (I would move this directly after the memory, leading into the description of the current atmosphere.) Apparently, I had slowed to reminisce, because the gun butt of a shotgun chucked me in the lower back. (LOVE this unexpected turn, but as I mentioned, I think it would be a great punch right from the start.) Reminded me to keep moving. 

            There were two of them, one with the shotgun and one with just an axe handle (Meaning he only held the wooden handle and there was no blade on the end of it? If it’s a full axe, just say axe.)  We were in a part of the Manistee National Forest somewhere near Baldwin.  We might as well have been on a deserted continent.  It was after hunting season and before snowmobile season, so even the normally sparse local population was at its lowest ebb. (Lovely description. Really sets the surroundings and mood.)

            Axe Handle (Again…not sure if he’s just holding a handle, which would seem odd if the other dude has a gun.) shoved me forward and chuckled as I stumbled.  It was clear they didn’t want to spend more time outdoors than necessary.  At least they had jackets and gloves.  I still wore the now harshly tested charcoal grey suit I preferred for motion days in Kent County Circuit. (I would make it clearer here that he’s a lawyer, for us non-lawyer types. I actually first read it thinking he was a prisoner in Kent County jail.)  They had scooped me up on the walk back to my office from court almost as easy as a taxi picking up a fare, (Great description!) with about the same amount of notice taken by the other sidewalk passengers,  their heads down against the harsh, biting wind that tunneled through the buildings of downtown Grand Rapids.

It had taken a beating for them to get the information they needed from me.   But they got it. I’m sure they would be ransacking my office as soon as they were done with me.

            Too soon we came to a treeenshrouded clearing with a crude fire pit at its center (I would cut this next part of this sentence since “crude” seems to do the job, as does the bit of dialogue that follows: that had been used for bonfires in some distant past.)  Shotgun, pointed at the fire pit and said, “All right, clear that old wood and start digging.”


            He shook his head.  “You know why.”  Then he hit me in the kidneys again with the butt of the shotgun (Conserve your words by writing “shotgun butt” instead of “butt of the shotgun”) (I would remove this part since it’s clear they are talking about the fire pit: and pointed at the fire pit.)  Sharp, hot pain took my breath.  I gasped and doubled over clutching with my free hand at my lower back. (I would swap the order of the two previous sentences.)

Axe Handle then got into the act by laying the end of the handle against the side of my head and then drawing it back into a batter’s stance and waggling it like a dead red hitter anticipating a fast ball.  He motioned with his chin toward the fire pit.  “Start digging, meat.” (Meat should be capitalized, since he’s intending it as a proper name, even though it’s an insult.)   

I love the sense of mystery you’ve created with the nefarious characters and stark scenery. It gets the mind going right away and leaves me interested to read more. I do think you need to rework your intro so it’s punchier, but otherwise, great start!

Thank you C.B. and Kelly 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.

One Comment
  • tellingyarns says:

    I’m being nit-picky here, but technically spades and shovels are different. You cut the earth and dig with a spade. A shovel is for moving a pile of earth/other material. That’s why spades have a sharp edge and shovels don’t. Sorry!

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