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Day 15 (Part 1) of the Pitch Wars Query & 1st Page Workshop with mentors, Sharon M. Johnston & Summer Spence

Monday, 29 May 2017  |  Posted by Brenda Drake


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.

First up we have …

Pitch Wars mentor, Sharon M. Johnston . . .

Sharon Johnston


Sharon writes weird fiction and soulful contemporaries. She has short stories in anthologies: WORDS WITH HEART, NEVER BE YOUNGER, THE BASICS OF LIFE and THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CHESTER LEWIS. Her short story Karma was also runner-up in The Australian Literary Review’s short story competition. She regularly co-hosts Pitch Madness and is also a regular Pitch Wars mentor.

As well as blogging on her own site, she also blogs with YAtopia and Aussie Owned & Read, where she contributes to discussions on the love of literature and the publishing industry in general.

Sharon’s recent release …


Available to purchase  in paperback and ebook.

Find Divided on Goodreads

Read a free excerpt here.

A new heart should mean new life, instead it’s a living nightmare.

Mishca Richardson’s life is at an all-time high after her heart transplant. With new boyfriend, Ryder, she has the perfect summer romance. Even the nightmares plaguing her sleep since her operation can’t dull her new dream world.

Yet, life starts to unravel when Mishca develops superhuman abilities. She does her best to hide them so as not to end up a science experiment in a lab, but she can’t ignore the strange instant attraction she experiences when she meets her university professor, Colin Read.

Torn between love and obsession, Mishca must unite her divided heart and decide between the two men. But when the truth about her weird powers comes to light, she’ll have a lot more to worry about than romance.

Sharon’s Query  Critique . . .

Category: YA
Genre: Contemporary

Gwen’s Comic Con customers believe her essential oil products are magic. Whether it’s her lip balms crafted with your favorite geeky hero in mind or her misting spray to keep your cosplay fresh and fabulous, Gwen’s company has a product for everything. [I found the query to be too long and this is a good paragraph to cut. It’s really just some background info and not essential to the story, you can add some wording to the beginning of the next sentence to give readers this info concisely]

[Here you could add: Comic Con make-up wiz] Gwen [, is] gearing up for her biggest weekend of the year when her cautious best friend, Elle, begs for a chance to get away from her family to have a little fun. Gwen dons her fairy wings and transform[s] Elle out of her comfort zone and into the Con’s speed dating event. [transforms doesn’t quite fit here. Teleports would be better. Or you need to say what Elle is transformed from and to: plain geek to Wonder Woman chic, and then add in that she’s in the enters her friend into the speed dating event.]

Instead of being turned off by the prospect of meeting strange boys in costume, Elle seems to blossom[s] as she catches the eye of [what about instead of catches the eye: makes a big bang, to add in a pop culture reference] a mysterious cosplayer. But when she realizes her disguised date is the TV star every girl at the Con came to see, Elle makes a mad dash for the exit, leaving her celebrity date without her name.

In a last-ditch effort, Elle’s dream man makes a social media plea for the whereabouts of his vanishing “Cinderella” in exchange for a job with his production company.

Torn between helping Elle keep her identity a secret [here’s a great opportunity to add more voice to the story: keep her secret identity. Such a small change and yet now you’re using geek lingo.] or the dream of taking her own business to the next level, Gwen, must navigate the crowded Con and try to grant a happily ever after dream without risking her friendship.

CONventional Fairy Tale, a YA contemporary novel, is complete at 90,000 words. I would be happy to provide a completed manuscript upon request.

Thank you so much for your consideration!

I am a geeky girl, and have helped organize cons in the past, so I was excited to get my hands on this query letter. Dual POV queries can be hard to pull off, but in this instance I think it’s important to have the two as the besties have their arcs to intertwined, and the stakes definitely lay with Gwen. I found the query was too long. Cutting the first paragraph is your best option to tighten this up. Also, I feel like the query needs some more voice. For a query about a con, I found there was a lack of geeky and pop culture references. For me, this query should be littered with them (as should the manuscript). However, I think the concept is so adorkable and I wish you all the best with it.

Next up we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor Summer Spence . . .

Summer Spence

Twitter | Website

Summer Spence is a YA author living in scenic Utah (and always pining for California, her true home), with degrees in English Literature and Theatre. She began her storytelling career on stage as an actor, where she fell in love with words and the beautiful challenge of creating human beings out of them. Then she figured out she could do that without getting out of her pajamas, and she became a writer.

Summer’s First Page Critique . . .

GENRE: Scifi Thriller

Without the tiny silver star around my neck, I felt naked. It had been a comfortable weight. Reassurance that no matter how far apart we were, there was some small part of my mother still with me. I coiled the chain around the dainty Star of David and closed the lid. [The lid of… you haven’t introduced a container yet.] Such a small box shouldn’t have echoed quite so much as it closed, and my heart clenched tight in my chest as I snapped the lock into place. [This is lovely and I can feel the emotional attachment to the necklace and all it represents. And I like the question this creates – why must she take it off? But a tiny part of me is adrift – I don’t know where we are/time period/who she is yet, and as this is a Sci-Fi Thriller, this is a pretty quiet opening. Is there something that can ground us in the world and help us understand why she has to take the necklace off NOW/why the story starts here?]

I couldn’t take it with me. I couldn’t take anything with me that would betray my motivations. Betray my heritage. Not until I was in the middle of the protest anyway. I stripped off my uniform and slipped into civvies. It was probably the last time I’d ever see it. [This is a bit confusing – I didn’t know if you were talking about the uniform or the necklace still. Watch pronoun confusion when multiple objects are named previously.] I couldn’t help stroking the silver wings at the shoulders. They had seemed so important when I got them. Wing Scout Pilot. The seven legacy badges on the breast. The black trefoil emblem of the Girl Scouts. But I was serving them by doing this. [Serving the Girl Scouts? How? This is a bit too general for an opening and also confuses the feeling that we expect from the genre. I don’t generally think of Girl Scouts when I think of Sci-Fi Thriller. It pulls me out of the world. Maybe include that information later on, when the world is more established.] More than that, I was saving Mom. [Ahhh – we have a goal! Save Mom! Yay! Good job getting her objective in there. Think about spending time reminiscing about two separate objects that I’m gathering will now belong to her past. Are these two instances doing different things? The uniform gives us a little bit more story information and the necklace gives us info on her personal heritage, but right now they feel equally weighted, and so they almost steal impact from each other.]

The only thing that mattered now was Mom. [Why? Where is she? I’m worried about her! I would love a few details to help ground me in the situation.] Papa might forgive me for that. He certainly wasn’t going to be happy about me smuggling myself into the US just to get myself arrested. If there’d been a better way to get myself into the US penitentiary database, I would have taken it. But there wasn’t. All the computer engineering badges in the Scout repertoire weren’t enough to crack a closed system from the outside. I know, I’d tried. [Oooohhhh this is a very cool set-up! Something I’m noticing though is that we’re getting a lot of telling here. The MC is telling us about herself and her plan. Is there a way that you can reveal these things through action? Think about if you’re starting the story in the right place. We don’t really need this much set-up. As it’s a thriller, we expect a quick start. I’d even love to jump right into her getting arrested. You can weave in the bits about her necklace/uniform as she takes action… she’d probably notice their absence/the security they gave her in the middle of enacting this dangerous plan. Maybe her hand might go to her throat, where the necklace usually hangs, or maybe she’s used to being treated a certain way/given respect in uniform, and she is vulnerable without it. Something to think on!]

I sat down at my desk [still don’t quite know where/when she is] and started braiding my hair as tight to my scalp as possible. I lifted the wig from its stand, [ooohhh! Intriguing!] tugging into place, adjusting the scalp line and pressing the edge against my skin until it blended in precisely. I couldn’t quite help wrinkling my nose at the blonde—it just wasn’t my color, but the less-than-natural shade of lavender my hair was typically would be a dead giveaway I had bio-enhancements. [Oh! Nice details revealed through action! And now I want to know more about her bio-enhancements!]

I picked up my makeup brush, tinting my eyebrows and eyelashes. By the time I was done, I looked like any other All-American Girl. [All-American Girl may be problematic. What exactly is an All-American Girl? The U.S. is a pretty diverse country. Try to be more specific.] Last, I opened the contact case and slipped the micro camera lenses into my eyes. [Be careful with listing things in a “this happened, then this, then this” way. It deflates tension. Is there any rush here? Any obstacle? Also, I’ve lost my connection with how she’s feeling about doing all of this… is she excited, afraid, determined? Right now we’re just getting a play-by-play. Help us understand that this is building to something.] The heads up display [what is this? I don’t have a good image of it.] activated moments later as the camera synced to my internal computer. [Does this internal computer have something to do with her bio-enhancements? Is she human?] It would stream back to HQ and send to a few hundred journalists before the riot police could stop us. [Stop us… from what? Is this a part of the plan to get arrested and sent to the US? The connection is hazy. Also…where is she?]

I swallowed a wave of nausea. You’re doing the right thing. 

I’m doing the right thing. 

I took a deep breath and took one last look at my mom’s photo, stuck under the mirror frame. “I’m coming, Mom. I’m coming.” [Nice moment of impact to carry us to the next page… I wish we’d known her mom’s picture was there earlier… that we could maybe see her glance at it as she got ready, react to it and let it help create a sense of urgency.]

You have some GREAT elements at play here! Bio-enhanced girl on a mission, about to throw herself into danger to save her mom. LOVE IT! You definitely have a lovely grasp on creating emotion and your sentence-level writing is fabulous. My main critique would be that I don’t think you’re starting in the right place. I want to see her in action – doing something that sets the plot rolling and interacting with the outside world. Be careful of too much time spent alone reflecting. Get her up and moving as soon as possible. A great example of a start like this is Tricia Levenseller’s YA Fantasy DAUGHTER OF THE PIRATE KING. It starts with a ‘girl-on-a-mission’ scene that is EPIC. Good luck and happy writing!

Thank you, Sharon and Summer, 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.


Filed: Workshops

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