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.
Next up we have …
Natalie Crown and Angelica Monai
Natalie Crown has been writing fantastical tales since floppy discs were still a thing (she still owns one with Nat’s Story scrawled over it in purple gel pen). Growing up in the English countryside meant she had a lot of free time to spend devouring books, playing video games, and scribbling her way through countless notebooks.
After two years in the south of Italy, Natalie has moved back to said English countryside with her dog, Banjo, and works as a freelance editor while writing her latest books (and still playing lots of video games). Having lived with a chronic illness her whole life, and being clinically blind in one eye, she’s excitedly filling her tales with disabled protagonists that are more than their afflictions.
You can learn more about her editing services on her website here.
When it comes down to it, Angelica Monai is just a girl turning daydreams (and nightmares) into manuscripts. She’s a lover of all things steeped in mystery, magic, and myth, and her stories are often inspired by the characters in her life, blended with her own experience as a Black woman. If she’s not writing or designing, you can find her nose deep in a book or playing video games with her husband and two kids.
Her YA mystery debut, Hunt A Killer: Perfect Score, comes out Spring 2022 with Scholastic.
Natalie and Angelica’s critique . . .
Young Adult Fantasy
[NC+AM: At a glance, we feel this query is too long. Perhaps there are too many details where the query should be lean and punchy for maximum impact? Many of our suggestions will be to trim this down which will allow your query to be more focused]
When 17-year-old Rhea [Suggestion > Rhea – a seventeen-year-old with a <insert personality trait/character voice>] reaches toward a butterfly and accidentally stops it in midair[.] [Stunned/Shocked/Surprised,] she discovers she can control nature, which has been withering away in the former United States for more than a century. Warned that leaving home is the only way to keep her secret and loved ones safe, the normally indifferent Rhea agrees to travels to a compound to master her powers and hide from the Betrayers, a group of men obsessed with killing her kind. [Suggestion, to trim words and for more clarity > After being warned that the Betrayers – a group of men determined to kill people with powers like hers – will hunt her, Rhea travels to a hidden compound to learn more about her power. Instead, she learns the Betrayers have kidnapped her mother.] Once there, Rhea learns the Betrayers have kidnapped her mother. Unsure of how to save her, Rhea finds support from an unexpected ally: an enemy. [Suggestion > Realising she’s being targeted for her power/unsure why she’s being targeted, Rhea is about to lose hope when a] Betrayer appears in her dreams, offering to help Rhea find her mother if she [she’ll] works to unmask his parents’ killer — who he claims is one of her new teachers.
With only a week before the Betrayers can locate the compound [What prompts this timeline? Suggestion > Meanwhile, the Betrayers have discovered the compound, and time is limited before they come after her.], She must figure out who killed the boy’s parents, what happened to her mother and why she can control more than plants, unlike the other students [Need a more condensed focus on Rhea’s immediate goal]. Rhea discovers the compound’s ties to other disappearances on her search for the truth, pushing her closer to the Betrayer she now wants to see each night.
Not only will her mother be killed if she fails but the fate of the hundreds who have vanished also rests on Rhea’s investigation. Saving them all might bring her face to face with the boy in her dreams, the one goal she never thought she would fight so hard to achieve. [This piece feels as though it outweighs Rhea’s need to save her mother.]
[These previous two paragraphs are where we think there is a bit too much detail, and a few too many threads flying around, so we are suggesting an alternative below. If the words/chosen themes don’t resonate (we only have a snapshot of your story, after all), we hope at least that we’ve given you a sense of how long the query should be. For the most part, agents skim read queries. It’s best to present them with something clean, and smooth.]
[Suggestion, to merge the last two paragraphs and give the query stronger coherency > ‘Unsure who to trust, Rhea focuses on saving her mother the only way she knows how—working with her enemy. Soon she discovers her growing feelings for the Betrayer in her dreams aren’t her only problem. Her power draws too much attention once it becomes clear she can control more than just nature, and she soon learns that people have disappeared from the compound – hundreds of people – for much less. Perhaps the Betrayer isn’t her enemy after all.]
My 75,000-word YA fantasy is a stand-alone with series potential. It is Tracy Deonn’s LEGENDBORN [How so? Is it character goals, plot, setting, etc? Any details you can add with your comps will help. So much happens in Legendborn to where comping it can mean different things to various agents. An example – ‘the worldbuilding of LEGENDBORN meets the character dynamics of…’] meets Rachel Griffin’s THE NATURE OF WITCHES with hints of Greek mythology.
Nominated for the Hearst Journalism Awards Program by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg, I’m an award-winning writer with a communications degree from the University of Alabama [Roll tide!]. After a decade writing for publications in the green industry, I was drawn to a book that revolved around nature.
Thank you for your consideration.
[AM+NC: We loved reading your query. Is that enemies to lovers we spy? Spectacular! Thank you for letting us give you feedback.
Above you’ll see we had quite a few suggestions throughout. You want to make sure you’re hooking the agent with intrigue and being as specific and concise as possible. Evidently, your book is FULL of nuance and intriguing story arcs, so we understand the temptation to show that off. When it comes to deciding what to focus on, try to think why you included certain details and whether they will leave the reader with more questions than interest. Take your two comps as examples and read the book cover flap copy (this is essentially their query). Both have one clear line of thought, are concise, and pull you in wanting to know what’s next.
Some things to think on that need clarity: what is the importance of Rhea mastering her powers, why do the Betrayers want to kill her kind, and how does nature withering away play into the rest of the query? Next, her mother is kidnapped and it’s a little unclear why. Is her mother leverage for something? What do the kidnappers want? A timeline is given before the compound is discovered—what sets off that ticking clock? Last, what is the main plot line? The kidnapping, the missing people, or the romance?
Of course, you can’t answer all these questions in your query, which is why it’s often better to focus on a few key elements rather than trying to overload your query with information.]
The movers didn’t know they were carrying away a piece of Rhea,
a part of her life she never wanted back. [AM: okay, okay—I’m interested. Who hurt my Rhea?]
[NC: I’m a big fan of a punchy first line, and I think the second half can be shifted down to…]
Scowling, she folded her arms. At least they were carrying away a part of her that she never wanted back. [NC: My reason for suggesting this is to pull in a bit of character from the off. Agents are always looking to be hooked by voice/character – especially in YA – so the more you can bring Rhea’s personality to the fore, the better.]
Each box held more than the creased shirts and carefully labeled papers inside. [NC + AM: The transitions from sentence to sentence here are a bit off to us. The boxes hold more, as in the painting of a statue and the steel desk? Or are those simply other things being carried out by the movers? We’re also not sure about the transition to the line about her father’s thoroughness (though we like the line itself!), as surely the movers are simply taking what they’ve been told to take? We think this paragraph could do with a little more clarity or we recommend a paragraph break here. The first sentence isn’t connecting to the rest of the as far as train of thought.] The painting of a statue, the steel desk she hid under as a child and any trace of the man they belonged to disappeared out the front door. Her father would have approved of their thoroughness if he’d stuck around.
The cardboard stacks and half of the furniture would be gone by the time she got back from school. She hadn’t asked where the rusted transport [waiting on their dirt road AM: would recommend moving this to the end of the sentence.] would take his things [after leaving their dirt road]. No reason to dwell on the past, she reminded herself, [gripping her elbows and clenching her jaw.] [NC: You might not want to go for these words specifically, but I do think you can drip more character into your prose. I tend to find lacing my narrative with active and internal beats help boost character voice and make my writing more active/immersive] That was all he’d soon be. [AM: We only have your first page, but I would recommend reading through your first few pages with and without this paragraph. If the purpose of this paragraph is to mark that she’s on her way to school and they live on a dirt road—it can be done later. Let us see the dirt road once she leaves out to it. Show her on the way to school as she grabs her backpack, etc. Natalie makes a good point about dripping in more character. Without a character voice, this paragraph comes across as not needed, hence my recommendation to cut it if you don’t feel it’s needed for character.]
A wobbling lamp drew Rhea’s attention away. “Mom, don’t lift that,” Rhea said, grabbing the fixture. “That’s what the movers are getting paid for.” [NC + AM: For us, this sentence lacks clarity because the order of events is a little passive and confusing. Our suggestion also adds an active beat (rolling her eyes) and more immersive verbs (stomped) which all add up to convey character and voice) > A soft grunt came behind her and Rhea glanced back to find her tiny mom wobbling beneath the weight of an ornate lamp. Rolling her eyes, Rhea stomped over. Snatching the lamp before her mother crumbled, she muttered, “Stop it. That’s what the movers are being paid for.”]
“I know, I know,” her mother said, steadying herself on Rhea. “One day, I’ll be nearly as strong as you.”
“Then you won’t need me anymore either,” Rhea said, turning away. [AM: well, dang. Also, I echo Natalie’s note on character voice. The exchange is coming off a bit stiff.] [NC: Her mom’s following dialogue implies that Rhea is upset, but I’d like to be immersed in deep POV and shown this through Rhea’s actions/voice etc. Suggestion > Her stomach clenched, and she turned away. “Then you won’t need me anymore either.”
Her mom grabbed her hand.] “Now, you know none of this is about you,” her mother said.
[Rhea resisted the urge to snatch her hand away.] [NC: Just a suggestion, but it’s another way to bring Rhea’s character to the forefront of this first page] A dozen memories and emotions pointed to that being a lie, but Rhea didn’t feel like arguing. Anyway, having her father leave was for the best. It had to be.
His departure meant no more hiding under pillows that never drowned out his screaming. No more asking for his forgiveness with counterfeit apologies to delay his temper. And no more of him.
[NC: Those last lines were powerful. Wow. I’m so intrigued by this opening page and how the story will develop from here. There are clearly some complicated feelings and dynamics going on!
Most of my suggestions for your first page involve making your writing more active and bringing Rhea’s voice to the fore. This will help immerse the reader, which is how we ultimately hook the reader. Another trick for immersion would be to use more sensory beats. For example, I’m getting the vibe that Rhea is using anger to paper over some emotional cracks regarding her father. If it’s swelteringly hot, you could really ramp up that tension as it might make her more irritable. Or, maybe the light is so bright outside that the movers disappear into golden light every time they step outside, as if the memories of her father are literally disappearing into thin air. Of course, you don’t want to overburden your writing with these beats, but it’s still something to think about.
Narratively, I’m curious as to why you’ve chosen to start your MS here. This is very hard for me to judge seeing as I’ve only got such a small sample, but Rhea’s father wasn’t a part of the query, so it’s interesting to me that we kick off with him as the main emotional hook.]
[AM: So curious as to what was up with daddy! Unfortunately, we only get to critique one page, but I’m interested as to why your story has started here and where the next few pages will take us. After reading the query, it makes me wonder how the complicated relationship Rhea has with her dad/parents will play into the overall story.
For a first page, I’ve learned a bit on the family dynamic and it does make me want to keep going. If you can get more of Rhea’s personality in here as well, that would really make this opening shine. Without character voice, the scene falls a bit flat, though there are hints of something emotional and strong peeking through. Also, at the moment, there’s no sense as to what anything looks like. You don’t need a full-on detailed description in the first page, but anything you can add to help this play as a movie in your reader’s mind would be great. You can also insert other sensory details, Natalie gave great suggestions with possibly it being hot, too bright, etc.]
[NC+AM: There’s a lot of feedback here, and we know it might be a little overwhelming, but with double the mentors, you get to have two set of eyes on everything. This is a great start and hopefully we gave you a few things to think about. Please remember with any edit, stay true to your story, your writing style, and your voice. —#TeamSaltHalo]