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 Mentors, Kelli Newby and Mary Ann Marlowe
By day, Kelli works as a part-time English Professor, teaching composition, dramatic lit, fantasy lit, and fantasy writing. By night, she writes novels, though she’s occasionally waylaid by bouts of theatre.
She has an MFA in fiction from Bennington and have been published in The Mind’s Eye (Spring 2006 and 2015). Her short plays have been produced by Main Street Stage in North Adams, Massachusetts; Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Late Night Story Time; and WAM/MOPCO’s 24 Hour Theatre Project. She also works as a playwright for Barrington Stage’s Playwright Mentoring Project.
Her novel EX, EX, OH (recently retitled to THE GOOD GIRL’S GUIDE TO FANTASY AND ADVENTURE) is a finalist in the Joyce Henderson RWA Contest and was chosen for #PitchWars 2016. Other 2016 accomplishments include her contemporary romance MOUNTING THE MARQUIS winning Fire and Ice and finaling for The Molly.
Mary Ann lives in central Virginia where she works as a computer programmer/DBA. She spent ten years as a university-level French professor, and her resume includes stints as an au pair in Calais, a hotel intern in Paris, a German tutor, a college radio disc jockey, and a webmaster for several online musician fandoms. She has lived in twelve states and three countries and loves to travel.
Mary Ann’s recent release …
In this sparkling debut novel, Mary Ann Marlowe introduces a hapless scientist who’s swept off her feet by a rock star—but is it love or just a chemical reaction?…Biochemist Eden Sinclair has no idea that the scent she spritzed on herself before leaving the lab is designed to enhance pheromones. Or that the cute, grungy-looking guy she meets at a gig that evening is Adam Copeland. As in the Adam Copeland international rock god and object of lust for a million women. Make that a million and one. By the time she learns the truth, she s already spent the (amazing, incredible) night in his bed
Suddenly Eden, who’s more accustomed to being set up on disastrous dates by her mom, is going out with a gorgeous celebrity who loves how down-to-earth and honest she is. But for once, Eden isn’t being honest. She can’t bear to reveal that this overpowering attraction could be nothing more than seduction by science. And the only way to know how Adam truly feels is to ditch the perfume—and risk being ditched in turn
Smart, witty, and sexy, Some Kind of Magic is an irresistibly engaging look at modern relationships why we fall, how we connect, and the courage it takes to trust in something as mysterious and unpredictable as love.
Mary Ann and Kelli’s Query Critique . . .
AGE CATEGORY: New Adult
GENRE: Urban Fantasy Gay Romance
First, we have an overall note for you: we’d love more specifics. The query is the place to show off what makes your book stand out from the crowd. You’re going to want to avoid holding your cards too close to the vest and spell out what makes your book uniquely yours. Give us the awesome, juicy (and magical!) details that make your book burn bright (see what we did there?). We’re going to put a series of questions below to give you a sense of where we wanted more.
Desmond is bored. A college student, star on the basketball team and a complete player. He’s looking for something to add interest to his life [What, specifically is at stake for Desmond? What does he want? “Interest” feels too general. So does boredom. What motivates him? What about him will lay the groundwork for an eventual conflict in your story?] and that’s when he meets a guy whose fiery eyes stir up buried memories. Tristan Kautz. [Are the firey eyes and buried memories a metaphor for attraction or actual magic power? Could that be more clear? Showing us the magic is a great place to give a glimpse into what makes this story unique.]
The mystery of Tristan’s ability only adds to the romance of it all for Desmond [The romance of Desmond? The romance of his magic? Since this is a romance, I would assume that there will be romance, but can you find a way to tell us more about this mystery and show us how it entices Desmond?] Tristan is everything Desmond wants- excitement, intrigue and elements of danger. The high stakes of being around Tristan make Desmond have to put everything on the line. Desmond and Tristan are forced to fight for their relationship and their lives. [What danger? What intrigue? What are these high stakes? “Put everything on the line”–what’s everything? “Fight for their relationship and their lives”–what are they threatened by? You’re not going to put all of these details in the final version; find the things that will distinguish your book from other similar novels. ]
On Fire blends action and fantasy, similar to Grimm, with contemporary gay romance. On Fire [“It” would be fine here since we just got the title] is complete at 51,000 [For an NA novel, this word count is low.] words and is a new adult, urban fantasy romance. Set on the picturesque University of Washington campus in Seattle, the place I call my home [The sentence starting with “set” was a fragment. Perhaps combine it with the one before it?]. I bring together places and experiences from my own college life and my vivid imagination to intertwine the fantasy of Tristan’s ability with the reality of being in college. [Nice bio. Short and sweet and tells me why you’re the person to write this story. Great job!]
Next up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentor Heather Ezell and Rachel Griffin . . .
“A Southern California native, Heather Ezell’s first novel – NOTHING LEFT TO BURN – will release March 2018 with Razorbill Penguin. Though by many definitions a high school dropout, Heather ultimately graduated from Colorado College with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. After a brief spell of graduate school in Interior Alaska, she now lives in Washington State. She is a freelance editor, a forever teacher, and a girl who will always claim to practice amateur ballet. Heather is represented by Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency.”
Rachel Griffin graduated from Seattle University with a bachelor of science in diagnostic ultrasound, but could never outrun her love for words. She wrote her first novel in the evenings and weekends while working full-time, and eventually traded in her ultrasound transducer for a keyboard. Writing full-time has been an absolute dream come true.
She lives with her very supportive husband and schnoodle outside of Seattle, where she reads, hikes, and drinks a lot of tea. She’s also a flutist and avid macaroni-and-cheese connoisseur. She sits on the board of Seattle Arts and Lectures, a non-profit organization dedicated to championing the literary arts, because words matter.
Rachel is represented by Melissa Sarver White of Folio Literary Management.
Heather and Rachel’s First Page Critique . . .
Age Category: 14-19
Genre: YA contemporary
Millie knew she should be home in bed drinking ginger ale and watching excessive stretches of the Travel Channel [HE: I love the details here that convey that Millie is sick — right away I’m eager to know why she didn’t take the opportunity of a sick day!] [RG: I love your inclusion of the Travel Channel here – it gives the reader some insight into who Millie is right away!]. Her throat was scratchy, her body sluggish, as if she moved through mud. But instead she trudged along the corridors of Cannon High School, doped out on cold medicine, her tongue purple from sucking too many lozenges. [H&R: getting antsy to know why she isn’t home! What info can you give us here that propels the story forward?]
Nearly visible electrical currents, zapped and crackled between hundreds of amped bodies [H&R: while this sentence is enticing and we adore it, we initially weren’t sure what to make of it–despite knowing this is a contemporary novel, for a moment, we wondered if this was a symptom of a supernatural origin. Ask yourself what you want the reader to gain from the description and refine it from there]. The smells of floor polish, pencil shavings, and teen agony swirled [RG: I like the use of the phrase “teen agony” because it shows a bit of Millie’s voice, but I’m unsure of what that smells like. ;)]. It was Tuesday – her craziest day of the week. Even though she’d scribbled her schedule in her planner months earlier, she knew it by heart now and it was packed – sixteen hours of speed living.
Millie normally loved the full schedule with every activity neatly filed into its time slot. Her mom had always called her “busy girl”. And it was true. Frenetic schedules helped fill certain hollows in her life left by her alcoholic father who had long ago gone AWOL from the family [H&R: We really appreciate how you convey this info quickly and seamlessly!].
Besides, she had dreams, big dreams: College in an idyllic little town with a leafy, bustling campus, an awesome job somehow helping people, and satisfying her wanderlust (first up was a Spanish Club trip to Barcelona). Basically, she wanted to outrun the legacy left by her dad and under-educated (but hardworking) mom. She needed an impressive high school resume to nail it all. [H&R: this would be a really wonderful place to show what’s at stake–what will happen if Millie *doesn’t* outrun their legacy? We need a bit more ASAP to connect with her and need to capture her dreams.]
Millie’s favorite [HE: word choice threw me out of the story–why not best? Sometimes it’s the smallest things that have impact] friend, Leah, walked next to her, flipping her shiny, minkish hair over her shoulders in a way meant to grab boys’ attention. “So, you woke up feeling like crap?” Leah asked.
“I’m sorry. Do you want me to grab you tea at lunch?” [RG: We already know that Millie is feeling bad… instead of having dialogue confirm that, can Leah introduce some tension or stakes here?]
“Aw, gracias,” Millie said, shoving a tissue into her pocket. “Estoy bien.” I’m good. She and Leah were language geeks. Specifically, they’d both taken Spanish since sixth grade and now could barely help peppering their interactions with Español. [H&R: LOVE the Spanish peppered in their dialogue (we definitely did that with our friends in high school!), but we’d love to learn this through exposure instead of directly calling it out.]
Leah occupied almost twice the stairway width as Millie. But then, anyone would occupy twice the stairway width. Millie was a slim feather of a girl with long red, tangled hair and perpetually chipped blue nail polish. Leah sometimes sulkily asked if Millie even weighed 90 pounds. Which she did. Exactly. [HE: I recommend avoiding listing character weight and emphasizing their size unless it’s prudent to the story.] [RG: people vary in their preferences here (some want a visual right away), but I think you could stick with a one-sentence description and move on to what’s driving Millie and the story forward.]
“So how’d you do on the Spanish test?” Leah asked.
Millie groaned, “I would’ve done better if my head wasn’t full of a ton of sand [RG: great visual!]. What about you?”
“I dunno,” Leah shrugged. “I’d be happy with a B minus.” Leah was a coaster, more interested in her social life than grades. With a rich, defense attorney father she didn’t have to worry about scoring a scholarship to get into college. [H&R: let us feel Millie’s feelings about this — we’re getting the vibe that she’s slightly bitter but we’re not entirely sure!]
They hit the north stairwell and were between the second and third floors, a waterfall of kids rushing past, when super hot Jace Wells brushed by and nodded at Millie. She held her breath, swooning and berating her swoon all at once [H&R: this line is wonderfully fun!]. She watched his flannel-shirted back descend into the throng. Leah, who had caught the tiny exchange, said, “You would definitely go there, wouldn’t you?”
There is so much to love about this introduction, particularly the fact that the novel opens with a question, even if it’s a small question. Why is Millie pushing herself through the school day despite being sick? We’ve all been in that situation so it’s relatable but also offers the opportunity to quickly reveal her character and her desires/stakes. And, though we think you could get there even quicker, we do learn her desire and her reason for not being home relatively fast: outrun her parents’ legacy, fill in the painful gaps of her father’s absence, and have her life take on a tangible change. This is such a fantastic, relatable desire that every reader can connect to on some level. Wonderful work!
That said, you can definitely push on these elements further. What will happen if Millie doesn’t achieve her dreams? What’s at risk? What is the absolute worst case scenario? While you certainly shouldn’t offer passages of explanation, you can reveal hints to these answers through quick interiority. By the end of the first page, we want to have a sense of urgency and anxiety for the character. We want to care and, while we do care on some level, it’s a vague concern versus a we must follow this girl to the end! On a similar note, we were really craving to get to some action and movement by the second paragraph. Why does the story open on this particular day and moment? What is different about today, aside from Millie being sick? What is about to change?
We LOVE that Millie is a girl with grit, big dreams, and a purpose. A girl who has been handed a poor set of cards and wants to beat the odds. She’s a character that so many readers can see themselves in, and we want to know both how high she can climb and (more importantly) how far she might fall. Fabulous work!
Thank you, Mary Ann, Kelli, Heather, and Rachel, 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.