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 Mentor Laura Lashley …
Laura Lashley grew up in the swamps of rural Georgia, except not really—her mother rented a house there. When Laura was a child, said mother satisfied her movie needs by selecting the cheapest rentals their small town video store had to offer. This resulted in Laura’s eager consumption of entire seasons of the original Star Trek and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which makes a lot of sense considering her goof-nerd aesthetic and shameless use of jaunty British accents. Now, Laura writes speculative fiction for kids, adults, and kids masquerading as adults, her own personal demographic. She is represented by Carrie Pestritto of the Laura Dail Literary Agency.
Laura’s critique . . .
Category: Middle Grade Magical Realism
Dear Pitch Wars Mentor,
Eleven-year-old Rae loves treasure hunts. Still, nothing could have prepared her for the biggest treasure hunt of her life: to figure out what her beloved grandfather Daddy Grand wanted to tell her right before he died. [Good intro—sets up the main character and the premise/problem of the book right off the bat.]
In her new home on the shores of Lake Michigan, Rae discovers the legend of Desiderata, a Great Lakes island where people can recover their heart’s desires. Hopeful that Daddy Grand’s lost words are there—and convinced they are the key to living without him—Rae puts her treasure-hunting skills to the test. She just needs to overcome her own doubts first. Does the island really exist? And if so, how will she get there without the guidance and wisdom of Daddy Grand? [I like this set up paragraph as well.]
With the help of an ancient text, newfound friends, and a boat that holds more water than hope,
Rae soon finds herself in unchartered waters—and while the journey is not what she anticipated, it may be just what she needs. [In this paragraph, I’d recommend adding some obstacles and stakes right here at the end. What is holding her back? What will happen if Rae does not find the island? What is at risk if she does not get the closure she needs on her grandfather’s death? While this paragraph reads nicely, queries should generally end with the emotional stakes of the novel’s quest—what is hanging in the balance if the main character does not succeed. I also think the …while the journey line… is a little too vague to serve you in a query. It reads more like jacket copy—what you’d find on the back of a book. For an agent/mentor, you want to tease with enough specifics so that they know your novel has all the key elements to make it work—MC, catchy premise, plot and big problem, obstacles/antagonist, and stakes if the MC does not succeed which drive her forward. Here, I think some obstacles and stakes would help you round out this query.]
TITLE is a 38,000-word [this is on the short side for Middle Grade. That shouldn’t be a problem for getting you Pitch Wars consideration, but it could be something that raises an agent’s eyebrows. Consider going through a beat sheet like Save the Cat to make sure all elements of the plot are represented in your book, and if they are, ask for feedback from beta readers on what elements may need some fleshing out.] magical realism [Please note: The use of “Magical Realism” as a genre historically and culturally refers to works by Latinx authors. The genre “Fabulist” is more appropriate for works that are similar to Magical Realism but are not penned by writers who identify as Latinx. This may or may not apply to you, but I’m including as an FYI.] middle grade novel that will appeal to readers who enjoyed the bittersweet tenderness of THE LONELY HEART OF MAYBELLE LANE, the emotional suspense of MY FATE ACCORDING TO THE BUTTERFLY, and the magical adventure of THE WAY TO RIO LUNA [I like when comps are done like this and think they’re very effective at setting expectations—it tells the reader exactly what elements you’re comparing your novel to from each comparator text. Good job!]
I am a Youth Services Librarian at Columbus Metropolitan Library and freelance education writer. I am also an active member of SCBWI and earned a spot in Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie’s 2019 Writing With the Stars picture book mentorship program. TITLE is my first novel. Thank you for your time and consideration. [This is a nicely done query. With the addition of some specific obstacles and stakes in the last paragraph, I think it will do the job for you very well. Good luck!]
Daddy Grand taught me a lot of things, but how to find a Petoskey stone was not one of them.
I told this to Ginny a few hours ago at breakfast, but she wasn’t deterred. She just reached for the pepper.
“Well, of course he didn’t,” she said. Black flakes dotted her eggs. “You didn’t have Petoskey stones in Alabama. They’re one of the things that make the Great Lakes so special. But give it a shot, Rae. It’s fun!”
I knew she was trying to distract me. [This section starting at “I told this…” and ending here is a little confusing following the heels of your first line. It’s a little risky to start a book and immediately skip to a flashback. Generally speaking, your job as a writer is to orient your reader in your story immediately. If you confuse them on the first page (and this is for a MG audience), they are likely to put your book down and keep looking for something else. I’d consider switching this opening scene to make this little flashback happen in scene, in the moment. You can then transition to her going down to the lake and having those observations about what it looks like in the moment, too. That’ll be a lot easier to follow than two flashbacks in a row (the breakfast one, then the Ginny’s calming statement one). I also wasn’t sure immediately what the MC was referring to when she said she knew Ginny was trying to distract her. Upon re-reading, I now get it, but that line could use some additional detail to make it clear upfront.]
I scan the water’s edge, where Ginny said I should focus my search. The shores of Lake Michigan, at least the ones near Harborville, are nothing like the shores back home. The beaches of the Gulf Coast are wide, flat [,] and white, with sand that smushes between your toes and little crabs that burrow way down deep before you can catch them. I hear Michigan has shores like that, too, but so far, I’ve only seen the kind within biking distance of Ginny’s—narrow and rocky, sand the color of cardboard. [I like the comparison of the beaches.]
The first time Ginny brought me here, she’d said, “Calming, isn’t it?” I hadn’t wanted to contradict her—not so soon after she’d upended her entire life to make sure mine stayed stable—but I can’t say I agree. [I was a little surprised here when I first read that Ginny is apparently an adult who upended her life. I guess I assumed at the breakfast table she was a cousin/kid her own age. Could you give her a quick adult-like detail when she first appears to help broadcast to your readers that Ginny isn’t a kid?] The lake doesn’t appear super menacing, but that’s the problem, I think. It’s like it’s lulling me in with that glassy surface, wanting me to concentrate so hard on finding one rock—that one “special” Petoskey stone—that I’ll walk farther and farther out until I’m so far in that my feet don’t touch and the lake just swallows me up whole.
[I think overall this is a good first page. The language is nice and vivid, the initial plot quest—finding a Petoskey stone—is introduced at the outset, and we know that we’re dealing with a main character who’s on unsure footing in her life, recently moved from AL to MI. Also, I like that she feels a sense of foreboding with the lake right upfront, that kind of hint of danger can pull a reader in. My recommendations are more to aid in its readability/clarity for your young readers’ sakes. I’d consider repackaging the same lines and information in such a way that it happens sequentially, starting with the breakfast table and Ginny’s remarks happening in the moment, then moving to the lake and letting those observations about the glassy surface lulling her in happen as she’s looking at it. I think that will flow better and be easier to understand for your middle grade audience. Also, what felt like it was missing was a brief line of description about the Petoskey stone. She’s thinking about it, but doesn’t say what it actually is or describe it at all. It felt like something was missing going from that opening line straight to Ginny and the black pepper eggs. I personally don’t know what a Petoskey stone is, so I imagine some of your MG readers won’t, either, if they’re not from the MI region. A quick line describing it to give it some immediate context could help with that—you don’t need to give the whole explanation, just a taste of one, to help situate your reader in the story and the MC’s quest. Overall, nice imagery, voice, interiority of thoughts, and set up—good luck to you!]