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 Susan Bishop Crispell …
Susan Bishop Crispell earned a BFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Born and raised in the mountains of Tennessee, she now lives twenty minutes from the beach in North Carolina with her husband and their literary-named cat. She is very fond of pie and is always on the lookout for hints of magic in the real world. She is the author of The Secret Ingredient of Wishes (Thomas Dunne Books, Sep 2016) and Dreaming in Chocolate (St. Martin’s Griffin, Feb 2018), which was selected as a SIBA Okra pick Winter 2018.
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Susan’s latest release
With an endless supply of magical gifts and recipes from the hot chocolate café Penelope Dalton runs alongside her mother, she is able to give her daughter almost everything she wants. The one sticking point is Ella’s latest request: get a dad. And not just any dad. Ella has her sights set on Noah Gregory, her biological father who’s back in town for a few months – and as charming as ever.
Noah broke Penelope’s heart years ago, but now part of her wonders if she made the right decision to keep the truth of their daughter from him. The other, more practical part, is determined to protect Ella from the same heartbreak. Now Penelope must give in to her fate or face a future of regrets.
Dreaming in Chocolate by Susan Bishop Crispell is a heartwarming story of love, hot chocolate, and one little girl’s wish for her mother.
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Susan’s critique . . .
Category: Young Adult
19-year-old Eliot Astaire has one plan for his last summer at home in Rapid City, SD [Not sure you need the city/state here. It might be stronger to say what kind of town it is or why he wants to leave rather than naming the specific town.]: leave as soon as possible. [I like this opening line but the next sentence contradicts it a little as it lists three plans instead of one.] His plan is to avoid his dysfunctional family, spend every waking moment studying for the LSAT, and survive the last class needed to finish his associate degree. If he somehow manages to get through all that, he’ll be on the first flight out. [I would recommend cutting these last two sentences and get to the inciting incident in the next paragraph sooner. You could say something like “19-year-old Eliot Astaire is a summer away from everything he’s ever wanted: a one-way ticket to a better life. A life that involves law school instead of mediating fights between his dysfunctional family (or whatever it is that makes him want to get away from his family/life—see note about his past and fears below).]
Everything comes to a screeching halt when, on the evening of his 19th birthday [Is it important that it happens on his birthday? It not, cut that detail and focus on what’s important instead.], he decides to throw a middle finger to fate [What exactly does this mean? What does he do that leads to the accident? It almost sounds like he crashes his car on purpose, which I don’t think is the case. To be more concise and get right into the action, I would recommend something like “His plan comes to a screeching halt not two weeks in (or however quickly it happens) when he crashes his car into Charlotte Kamenda’s.”] and ends up crashing into Charlotte Kamenda’s (18) [Don’t need her age in parenthesis here.] car. There’s no way he can afford to pay for the damages, so [You could be more concise here by saying “Unable to pay for the damages, he’s…”] he’s forced to work off the debt [Does he not have car insurance?] at Kamenda Meadows, the second-largest commercial sunflower farm in South Dakota and pride of Charlotte’s fathers. [Is it important that it’s the second largest farm and her fathers’ pride? I would focus on why this is important to Eliot and the story goal. You could just say “…forced to work off his debt at the Kamenda’s sunflower farm in between cramming for the LSAT and completing the last class he needs to earn his associate’s degree.”] It doesn’t sound so bad until Eliot realizes [Instead of telling what Eliot realizes, try to show it in his voice by just saying “Too bad it’s nearly…”] it’s nearly impossible to balance being a student, working at the farm, and these dangerous burgeoning feelings [What feelings? When/how did they start? And why are they dangerous?].
Over a long and busy summer and despite their best efforts [Why are they trying to stay away from each other?], Eliot and Charlotte continue to grow closer [Can you show this instead of tell? What do they do that brings them closer? Show some of the specific action/plot. You don’t need a long list of tings but one or two specific actions would help show what’s happening.]. The farm and her family, college, and personal relationships broaden his horizon [Because there are no details of what happens in the story related to these things, listing them here doesn’t actually say anything about why they’re important or how they affect him], and he wonders if law school is the right plan for him. [Again, can you show this instead of tell it? What actually happens in the story to make him question law school?] As his and Charlotte’s relationship blossoms, he begins to heal from his past and face his fears head-on [What is he healing from? And what is he afraid of? Since the reader doesn’t know these things from the information shared above, this sentence is more confusing than the driving force you want it to be. Maybe you can add this detail in a concise way into the intro paragraph so the reader understands what he’s trying to leave behind and why.] but when his estranged father’s health takes a nose-dive [Be specific here. Is he dying? And how does this news affect Eliot since they are estranged? Why does he care if his plan is to leave anyway?] and things become serious with Charlotte just as summer is ending, he’s forced to evaluate what truly matters to him and if his life-long plan is actually worth it all. [This is one very long sentence. I would cut it up into a few shorter sentences to give the important details a little punch.]
TITLE, a contemporary Young Adult novel complete at 82,000 words, deals with themes of purpose, growing up, first loves, personal identity, and grief. [I would leave out this detail stating the themes of the book. The theme should “show” in the query through the way you lay out the story details instead of having to “tell” what the theme is. You could also include one or two comp titles to help show the type of book it is.] I am an English and Adolescent Education major at University. Thank you for your time and consideration.
[This query does a good job of setting up the goal and conflict for Eliot from the start. It has a clear voice and gives a feel for the overall story. I would recommend being more concise throughout and cutting unimportant details so you can add in specifics that show what happens and why it matters to Eliot. Show what’s at stake if he doesn’t reach his goal (leaving town and going to law school) by including a few key details of what he wants to leave behind (and therefore will be stuck with if he can’t get out). That way when he starts to question whether or not to leave, the reader feels the push and pull of the story and has to request more to find out what happens.]
You’d think that after a while, you’d grow accustomed to visiting your crappy dad in his crappy apartment, but I’m here to let you know that over four years into it, it’s still just as crappy. [I like this opening but you could make it stronger by cutting out the direct narration of “I’m here to let you know that” so it just reads as Eliot thinking.] Sure, it’s not new anymore [What is “it”? The situation or the apartment?]; it’s not terrifying or embarrassing or threatening me with court cases [Why was it these things in the first place and why isn’t it any of these things anymore? What changed? And how do court cases fit in? I’m a little confused. Would be good to have a small detail to ground the reader in why he’s visiting his dad in these conditions.], but it’s still a pill to swallow. And when a pill is the size of Rapid City Luxury Apartments it’s hard to get down, even if you’ve got practice. All that rebar is tough on the trachea. [Strong voice in this opening.]
The parking lot is depressing. Cracks and potholes dot the graying rock like deeply entrenched pockmarks. The tired gray asphalt is marred by grass and hard-headed dandelions that sprout up in defiance of their asphalt overlords. I purposely trample over a few as I make my way towards the visitor’s entrance of the facility [It is an apartment complex as stated above or some sort of guarded building like a jail or asylum? The use of “facility” is confusing, especially knowing below that his dad kidnapped him.]. You’ve defied the asphalt, but shall you defy me? [The “shall” feels a little off here, but I like what this line and the next two reveal about Eliot’s personality.]
They will. Stubborn bastards. I leave them behind and walk into the musty, yellowing lobby, trying to prepare myself.
Something missing from the What To Do when Your Dad Both Abandoned You and Kidnapped You pamphlet [How did he do both? They seem contradictory, which is confusing without any more detail. Also, what order did he do them in and how/when did Eliot get free?] is that visiting him feels more like a cosmic prank than a friendly, face-to-face meeting. [Why is he visiting him if his dad kidnapped him when he was younger? I’m not clear on his motivation. Also, if he’s 18, no one can force him to visit, right?] Maybe if I missed him, or if my mom still seemed . . . sane, it’d be different; more sunshine and rainbows and less stilted conversations and ineptitude. [How would missing his dad or his mom being sane make the visit any brighter? Neither of those would change the fact that his dad kidnapped/abandoned him, which is what is actually making this visit so awkward, right?]
“ID?” The guard at the front desk asks. His voice is gravely and he sounds tired of me already.
“How’s it hanging, Henry?” I ask.
He grunts, pulling away my license with rough hands [Is his skin rough or is the way he pulls it away rough? Does it matter either way? Maybe just cut “with rough hands”.], which is stupid because he’s seen the card dozens of times at this point.
[This intro has a strong voice that reveals a lot about Eliot’s personality and state of mind as the story starts. Though I had a few questions about why he’s visiting his dad. You don’t want to add a lot of backstory into the opening, but a few details are needed to help ground the reader so it’s not confusing. I don’t understand Eliot’s motivation for going to see his dad when clearly he doesn’t want to. And I’m also confused on the events that led to this arrangement and how long ago it all happened. Adding a few small mentions up front will help set the scene and give some grounding to Eliot’ emotional reaction so the reader can connect to him immediately.]