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 …
Emily Grey & Rosiee Thor
Emily Grey is an author of queer YA fantasy with a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. A cooking and enamel pin enthusiast, she lives in New York with her wife and dog, and is represented by Kiana Nguyen at Donald Maass Literary Agency.
Rosiee Thor began her career as a storyteller by demanding to tell her mother bedtime stories instead of the other way around. She spent her childhood reading by flashlight in the closet until she came out as queer. She lives in Oregon with a dog, a cat, and an abundance of plants. She is the author of Young Adult novels Tarnished Are The Stars and Fire Becomes Her, and the picture book The Meaning of Pride.
Rosiee’s recent release, Tarnished are the Stars
The Lunar Chronicles meets Rook in this queer #OwnVoices science-fantasy novel, perfect for fans of Marissa Meyer and Sharon Cameron.
A secret beats inside Anna Thatcher’s chest: an illegal clockwork heart. Anna works cog by cog — donning the moniker Technician — to supply black market medical technology to the sick and injured, against the Commissioner’s tyrannical laws. Nathaniel Fremont, the Commissioner’s son, has never had to fear the law. Determined to earn his father’s respect, Nathaniel sets out to capture the Technician. But the more he learns about the outlaw, the more he questions whether his father’s elusive affection is worth chasing at all. Their game of cat and mouse takes an abrupt turn when Eliza, a skilled assassin and spy, arrives. Her mission is to learn the Commissioner’s secrets at any cost — even if it means betraying her own heart. When these uneasy allies discover the most dangerous secret of all, they must work together despite their differences and put an end to a deadly epidemic — before the Commissioner ends them first.
Emily and Rosiee’s critique . . .
R: Well, this is right up my alley! You had me at ocean lesbians. Color me intrigued! Conceptually, you definitely have a vibe going for you here, but I do think the query letter leaves something to be desired. A lot of the time, I see queries that give way too much, but in this case I think you’re airing on the side of not enough. Though the query letter has a traditional structure with the three body paragraphs, I don’t feel that we as readers get enough out of those three paragraphs to justify the length. Essentially, take stock of what information you are actually imparting to us in each paragraph. I wanted more in terms of character motivations, conflict, stakes, etc. to really wrap things up neatly and make the connections that will make readers excited to read on.
E: There’s so much I love about this concept! I think you have a lot going on here, but I want more connective tissue–where the characters start and their goals, how the inciting incident changes up their world, as well as how the conflict and stakes tie into the information you’ve given us. I also think an expansion on the magical elements here are crucial, as they seem to tie into the plot so strongly but I don’t have a sense of what that magic means for your characters. You have so much interesting material here, but I think it would be helpful to boil your query down into the essentials.
Young Adult: Fantasy
Combining elements of fantasy and romance, [TITLE], an #ownvoices young adult fantasy, is complete at 77,000 words.
The ocean has always protected Stella.
[R: because this first sentence uses a pronoun referring to the previous paragraph, I actually would recommend combining these paragraphs. It doesn’t really make sense for that first sentence to dangle.] It saved her from the shipwreck that killed her parents and placed her in the arms of the sea nymphs who raised her [E: I wonder about the necessity of including the sea nymphs in the query, as they don’t seem to be relevant to later conflict/stakes]. The sea shares her lifeline, tying itself to her energy and feeding off her emotions.[R: This is interesting, but I’m not really sure what it means. I think we need more about how this impacts Stella and her life. E: I agree with Rosiee here.] But Stella’s spent her life sheltered in her small cove, and she’s never known the darker side of her connection to the sea, not until Noa. [R: What we’re missing in this paragraph is a concrete understanding of what Stella’s goals are. What does she want before she meets Noa? What is her status quo? We need to know more about her motivations so that we can see how Noa either changes her goals or complicates them. Does Stella want to find out why she has a connection to the sea? Does she want to find her human roots? What’s driving her? It should be something that is impacted by Noa’s arrival. E: Piggybacking off Rosiee’s comment here, it would be helpful to know about how Stella feels in general about her life–is she glad for these changes or resentful? Just something more specific to think about!]
Struck by lightning and left to die on the seaside cliffs, Noa wakes in Stella’s care, unable to remember the strange forces that led her from her home in the middle of the night [E: It would be helpful to have one or two adjectives to describe Noa, just so readers get more of a “flavor” about who she is]. The sky has claimed her in the same way the sea claimed Stella, but Noa’s plagued with painful aftershocks, and a seizure-like attack strikes her the moment she attempts to leave the beach. [R: I’m getting from the structure of the query that this book might be told in dual POV? I get the inclination to swap POVs in the query letter when that’s the case, but I wonder what does this paragraph bring us about Noa that we couldn’t learn if this paragraph was still focused on Stella? Try showing us what Noa brings to Stella’s life and how this change alters her perceptions and goals. Since Noa doesn’t remember what brought her to Stella, I don’t think it really helps us understand either of them more deeply to get this paragraph from Noa’s POV. E: I would add that the phrase “the sky has claimed her in the same way the sea claimed Stella” likely deserves some words in the query, just because it seems too important to your characters’ development and lives, so readers need a clearer sense of what that magic is and what it means for your characters.]
When Noa’s found by a search party and taken back home, another violent storm nearly drains her altogether, and she fights the urge to return to the beach, [R: I wonder if this would make more sense to the reader if we understood more about how these strange connections to sea/sky are impacting them and their goals around it? E: Agreed with Rosiee.] struggling with her growing feelings for Stella. And Stella, heartbroken, has to choose between venturing into the terrifying human world, or remaining in the safety of the home she’s always known, giving up Noa in the process. [R: I like this as a romantic stake, but I’m struggling to find the bigger picture in terms of the magic and how it is connected to the larger theme. With some added details about Stella’s (and maybe Noa’s) motivations and feelings about their magic, I think you can tie this in nicely at the end to show us that it’s all more connected. Without that main motivation, readers can’t really make those connections on our own.]
I’m a lesbian author with a BA in English from Goucher College, and I recently earned my Master’s in Creative Writing from Hollins University, where I was awarded the Andrew James Purdy Prize for Short Fiction and was the school’s finalist for the AWP Intro Journals Project.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
[R: My overall impression of the pages here is that you’re holding the reader at arm’s length. There’s a distance to the prose that kept me from really feeling engrossed all the way. I have a couple of techniques I think you could use to help with this, but it all depends on how you want to execute the scene and if you even want the prose to be distanced/close.]
[E: Again, I like this concept so much! I agree with Rosiee about distancing being an issue in this scene, but I would also add to make sure your character has agency, especially in the opening. I find it most helpful when my character moves the plot forward, not the inverse!
Stella has never felt [R: Something that can help to make the writing feel more active is finding and editing out filter words like this. Filter words are usually things like “she saw” “she heard” she felt” etc. Because the book is written from the character’s POV, we don’t need to know that she saw/heard/felt something, you can just tell us about that thing. So for example here, instead of “Stella has never felt like the land was on her side” you could simply say “The land was never on Stella’s side.” Because we are close to Stella in the POV, we can assume this is how Stella feels and not objective fact.] like the land was on her side.
It’s never been like the gentle guiding hand of the ocean, with the water always lapping at her ankles, calling her back to comfort. Land is scary, cold, all sharp edges and harsh. It makes her motion sick, as if she can feel the earth turning like the tides beneath her feet. But still, here she is, standing at the edge of the cliff in the stirring purple morning, staring down at the sea, and wondering if she’s supposed to jump.
Something inexplicable has led her up here. She’d risen from her bed of water, long before her family awoke, and walked. Rarely, if ever, does Stella venture past the grassy dunes that surround their beach. She prefers the shelter of the ocean, the quiet lull of its waves, the inevitability of its song. But now, she’s driven by a feeling outside herself, a pressing notion that she’s searching for something, tethered to an invisible string that’s pulled her up the grassy hillside on the backs of the cliffs, leaving her peering down at the ocean [E: Instead of having a feeling lead Stella, consider having Stella following the feeling of her own choice to give her back her agency–it’s helpful to have your character’s decisions driving plot.].
Below, the dark, foamy waters throw themselves against the sharp rocks. Last night’s storm lingers heavy in the air, and something’s settled [R: I’ve noticed a tendency toward complex past tense in your overall present tense writing. This might be part of what’s creating distance. “Something’s settled” instead of “Something settles” and “It’s never been the guiding” instead of “It is not the guiding” etc. I know you’re indicating that something has been going on for more than just this single moment, but I do think readers can infer that sometimes without the tense shift. Try simplifying some of your tenses here. I don’t think it will change the meaning much, but it will create more immediacy.] over Stella like a half-sleep, coaxed by the gentle persuasion of the land. The wind flickers through her dark hair, stirring the skirt of her worn white dress against her shins, and Stella feels like it’s tugging at the fabric like an impatient child.