Welcome to the Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2019 mentors. From a lottery drawing, we selected writers to receive a query or first page critique from one of our mentors. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a query or first page from our lucky winners. We’ll be posting some of the critiques leading up to the submission window. Our hope is that these samples will help you all get an idea on how to shine up your query and first page.
We appreciate our mentors for giving 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, Ayana Gray …
Ayana (eye · YAWN · uh) Gray is a young adult writer who has visited many places around the world, but always finds her true home in books—particularly the ones with a sprinkle (or more) of magic between the pages. She is proud to be many things: a Southpaw, Vegetarian, “Slytherclaw,” ENFJ-A, and Wildlife Warrior, but what Ayana most fiercely advocates is positive representation in Kidlit—the chance for every kind of kid from every kind of neighborhood to have the chance to see themselves in the stories they love.
Ayana is represented by Pete Knapp of Park & Fine Literary and Media.
Ayana’s query critique . . .
Young Adult: Multicultural Contemporary
[Always begin your query letter with the agent’s correctly-spelled name and pronouns. If you’re ever unsure, check their agency website or social media for guidance.]
[Dear Mr. / Ms. Agent:]
Jacqueline “Jac” Riley at 13-years-old jokingly tells her strict Samoan and devout Catholic mom that she’ll wait until marriage to lose her virginity. She explains that this is what’s expected of a good Fa’a Samoa daughter, but secretly she just wanted [wants] to end their conversation about her virginity, hoping she could avoid any details her mom might share about her own sex life.
[You should treat your query letter like a tweet—every word and character counts! This opening paragraph provides Jac’s backstory, but doesn’t present us with a tangible problem, motivation or set up for the story.]
A year later, she [Jac Riley] enters [is a freshman] at Charming Heights Academy as a freshman and the leader of the V Squad – a group of 6 of her bests’ [best] friends [girls] vowing to stay virgins [celibacy] until marriage. Unintentionally, she guides them in how to survive high school as a virgin, while becoming an expert on the subject of sex [How is she becoming an expert?] – an adult act she barely understands herself.
[As soon as I read ‘a year later,’ in Paragraph #2, my thought was that Paragraph #1 could be cut because that’s not where the true story seems to start. I’m still looking for Jac’s main goal/problem/conflict here as opposed to more information about her.]
With the pressure of being part of the popular crowd, Jac sucks at navigating the other aspects of her high school life[,] like dealing with her archnemesis Dael Kelsey and trying desperately to fall out of love with her boyfriend Draven Madison.
[Paragraph #3 is usually where I’m looking for the story’s stakes. They don’t have to be “or else the world will end” high stakes, we just need to know what will happen if Jac does or doesn’t face her conflict. I’m also beginning to form some questions, like: “Why is she trying to fall out of love with her boyfriend? Can’t she just break up with him?” As the story’s author, these answers will seem obvious to you, but remember the agent/reader has no idea, so it’s important to leave as few unanswered questions as possible.]
In turn, she struggles to fall in love with her brother’s best friend, Cary Shane, who adores her, but she only agrees to date him, after one of her best friend’s questions her inability to stop obsessing over Draven. Haphazardly, at Cary’s annual Halloween party she accidentally kisses Draven an innocent act that changes the course of her relationships with both boys.
[Here, as a reader, I’m a little bit confused! There are a lot of boy characters’ names to keep up with, and an agent skimming may not be able to. A lot of characters also means I’m not sure where to focus. I can’t really tell which boy might be the main love interest at the moment.]
Jac just wants to fly through high school unknown, but her vow of chastity has put her on everyone’s radar…
[Once again, as you economize your space, make every word count. This line feels like a “tag line,” but doesn’t add much to the letter, so I’d suggest maybe removing it.]
TITLE (68,300 words) is a Multicultural Contemporary Young Adult novel based on a recent statistic of teen sex rates, showing those rates are at their lowest since the 80s.
[Great job including meta-data in your letter to let agents know what kind of story they’re getting. My thought is that a few comparable book or movie titles would more strongly compliment this than the teen sex rate statistic, which feels a bit out of place when discussing a novel for young adults.]
Title has a secret love letter like Lana Covey sent to Peter Kavinsky in, To All the Boys I Loved Before, a strong coven of sisters like Carmen, Lena, Bridget, and Tibby in the Sisterhood of Traveling Pants, with a bit of the spirit of Mean Girls, plus a plot twist like Survivor.
[You’ve done something here that I don’t see often: you’ve specified your comps – great job! I love that you speak to how exactly about each book or movie relates to your story. I do think four comps might be a bit overwhelming (Mean Girls and SOTP are very different kinds of stories), so perhaps think about using the strongest two of the four. To All the Boys I Loved Before seems like a great comp, Survivor seems the most out of place for a YA contemporary story.
If and whenever possible, I’d try to personalize your query letter for the agent you’re addressing it to, and indicating why you’re querying them. You DON’T always have to do this, but if there’s an opportunity, it doesn’t hurt. Try to be specific if you choose to do this.
My suggestion would actually be to combine the last two stanzas into one meta-data paragraph that reads something like:
TITLE is a 68,000-word multicultural young adult novel that appeals to readers who loved the honest, heartfelt narrative of To All the Boys I Loved Before and the sense of found family in books like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I’m querying you because of your interest in…]
Currently, I’m a contributing writer for [Legend Magazine,] an online business publication [, and have] titled Legend Magazine. Also, I’ve ghostwritten articles that have appeared in Forbes Magazine, Fortune, and The Huffington Post. I’ve earned a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts with concentrations in History, Women’s Studies, and a minor in Professional Writing from San Diego State University.
[This is a GREAT bio! – it is concise and includes relevant information about your writing career.]
[Thank you so much for sharing your query letter – the premise of this story sounds poignant, endearing, and I believe it has the potential to connect with many YA readers traversing complicated journeys through first love and sexual experiences, particularly those of a multicultural background!
One thing that caught my attention was the word count of this query letter; it is 398 words, well above the suggested 150-200 words. Remember agents often skim hundreds of these queries per week, so the more concisely you can summarize your work, the better!
Make sure to identity your character’s main: 1) goal, 2) conflict, and 3) stakes in the story. These 3 internal factors are what make us as readers care about your story—without them, it’s just a series of things happening to someone we’re not invested in.
Lastly, some formatting tips! Although this is a query ‘letter,’ you don’t need to indent the first lines of the paragraph. Many agents accept submissions electronically through an e-form or email, and indenting doesn’t transfer over very well anyway. You also don’t need to embolden or italicize character names in a query letter. The only thing you might embolden is the manuscript’s title, which should also be in ALL CAPS.