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 …
Anna Kaling writes mostly British contemporary romances featuring lots of tea, rain, and passive-aggressive queuing. By day she writes about concrete erections for a construction firm, and by night she… well, never mind. She’s working towards being an old cat lady and is a big fan of sharks, bad horror movies, and the Loch Ness Monster.
Anna’s recent release, Not OK, Cupid
Ally Rivers has three jobs, a disastrous dating record, and her gran won’t stop talking about sex with eighty-year-old Melvin. Now her best friend Sam confesses his whole family think they’re engaged. The longest relationship she’s ever been in is fabricated, and her intended is gay.
Playing Sam’s besotted lover at a family party, Ally discovers the hot gardener she’s been flirting with is Sam’s dad, Marcus. She even sucks at fake relationships. But Marcus is on to them and embroils Ally in another scheme – encouraging Sam to come out.
Scheming is not Ally’s forte and, worse, she and Marcus are falling for each other. After years in an unhappy marriage, he’s not letting Ally go without a fight, but she’s torn between the best friend she’ll ever have and the only man she’s ever been in love with. Either choice will leave two broken hearts, and Gran will still have a more successful love life than her…
Anna’s critique . . .
Adult Commercial Fiction
Life starts at death. After eighty years of a content life, Felix Corrette awakens in the afterlife and can’t rest in peace. [Intriguing opening!]
Felix meets his afterlife handler, Asha, at the location of his death—in public at the movies. [I would remove ‘in public’ as that’s a given at the movies.] The first hurdle is set so low any newly deceased could pass: can he accept his life as lived and move on? “Of course,” thinks the former toll collector, family man, father, husband, and son—until he’s presented with the hitherto unknown perspectives of his loved ones—living and dead. [Uh oh. Love this.]
Starting with his demise and working backwards from there, [I’d consider removing this clause as it seems like an unnecessary detail.] Felix left the long-suffering Sophie, his live-in partner and caregiver, vulnerable. [In what way? Does he not leave a will that leaves her secure? Is there someone targeting her as a newly-rich widow? Details will help us understand how badly Felix has messed up, so we understand his motivation to fix things.] His financial whiz daughter, Morgan, who’s [I’d change this to “is” as the sentence isn’t quite grammatical like this.] unlucky in love, harbors long-term resentments, and punishes Sophie as soon as Felix departs. [How so? Does she throw Sophie out of the marital home? Take all her father’s money and leave Sophie penniless?] His hapless but talented artist son, Nash, remains withered in his sister’s shadow. [What does this mean for Nash? Is he jobless, friendless, loveless?]
Could Felix have played a part in their destruction? He won’t like the answer. To help Felix process reality, Asha customizes an afterlife game show. [FUN.] The deceased are invited, [Comma splice. You could change to a semi-colon or colon, or change the sentence construction: “The deceased are invited, being boundless anyway.”] they’re boundless anyway. And the living join the dead via their dreams. His trusty handler knows seeing is believing for conflict- and[-]feeling-averse Felix, so she’s got recordings to settle every dispute—even how and when Felix moved on to a new love following his first wife’s death. [Details? I assume he did something morally questionable?] There’s no longer anywhere to hide.
Asha gives Felix an all-access backstage pass to rediscover the people and events that made him. Faced with reality, Felix contends with long-buried grief over his parents and deceased wife, Dallas. [I would remove the name. You generally want to keep names to a minimum in a query, and Dallas doesn’t come up again so we don’t need to know her name.] To help him along, Felix gets one chance to alter the outcome of any event. Will he choose himself or to manipulate his family? [These both sound like selfish choices, as the word ‘manipulate’ has negative connotations. Could it be “choose himself or save a family member” or something?] If he cannot move on and let go, [I’m not clear on what Frank’s actual challenge is: is it to choose the right event to change, or to let go of his mistakes and forget about them?] Felix will reincarnate to struggle over the same issues again and again until he makes amends. [This doesn’t sound like much of a punishment, as presumably his memory will be wiped each time. Is the real punishment that he knows he’ll be dooming his loved-ones to endless cycles of misery as he messes up each time?]
With elements of The Midnight Library, Three Souls, and The Good Place, TITLE OF WORK (72,000 words) is about the connections between family, repeating patterns, and resolving the past. The novel explores the meaning of life—after death.
I completed a mentorship through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and earned a master’s in creative writing from New College of California in San Francisco. My satire is published in Wry Times, Funny-ish, and The Haven. My work is available on Twitter, Medium, and LinkedIn.Thank you for your time and consideration.
[This is a super fun concept and I especially love the afterlife gameshow. You’ve done a good job of explaining the plot, but I think the query needs a little work on the conflict and stakes side.
The query is written with a lot of narrative distance from Felix, as if we’re watching him from a corner rather than from inside his head. The writing sample shows you have a deeper narrative in the actual manuscript, so the query should reflect that. Mostly this means telling us how Felix feels as well as what he experiences; right know we know what he sees and hears, but not his emotional response. E.g.:
Could Felix have played a part in their destruction? He won’t like the answer. To help Felix process reality, Asha customizes an afterlife game show.
Could be more like:
Felix is horrified to see the train wreck he’s caused among all the people he loves. And to rub salt in the wound, Asha announces he’s the star contestant in an afterlife game show, where he’ll be forced to watch each and every mistake he’s made in glorious HD.
Obviously it needs to be in your voice (or Felix’s voice!) but you get the gist. Centre us in Felix’s mind.
As I said in in-line comments, give us details of exactly how badly Felix has messed up and the horrible consequences for his family. This will help us understand the stakes – if he can’t fix it, his family will carry on suffering in X,Y,Z ways. Right now we’re unclear as to how they’re suffering, so it’s harder for us to grasp how much is riding on Felix’s choice.
Likewise, we need to understand why Felix’s choice is hard for him – the conflict. He can only change one event, so is the challenge that he needs to find the single event that will save Sophie, Morgan, AND Nash? Or is that impossible, and the real challenge is choosing which of his relatives is most deserving of being saved? Both of those are formidable challenges so either will work, but I’d like to know what exactly Felix’s goal is and how hard it will be for him to achieve.
Finally, the stakes could be clearer. The final line of the query suggests that if he makes the wrong choice, the only consequence is that he’ll keep being reborn – which doesn’t seem like that bad of a punishment. Am I right in thinking the real consequence is that if he fails, Sophie, Morgan, and Nash will continue to suffer for decades to come, as will all his future wives and children? Those are much stronger stakes.
You have an excellent skeleton here; it just needs more flesh on the bones.]
Felix Corrette died at eighty. [Nice opening. Immediately makes me want to know who Felix is and how he died.]
Though he survived weekly trips to the cinema without his oxygen before. [This is an incomplete sentence. ‘Though’ begs for a comparison – “Though he had done X before, now Y happened instead.] Halfway through the second feature, he wheezed and panted. Another sip of the sugary soda. Just what the doctor ordered. Until the icy waxed cup slipped from his hand and dumped the drink over the theater floor. Someone’s going to fall. I’ve created quite a mess here, haven’t I? [You’re using deep third POV, where Felix’s thoughts are incorporated into the third person narrative, e.g. “Just what the doctor ordered.” Putting other thoughts into first person italics is unnecessary and may be jarring for readers. Deep third POV is very popular, so I would advise changing all your italicised thoughts to third person. “…dumped the drink over the theater floor. He’d created quite a mess here. Someone was going to fall.”] The trip from the car in the summer heat, he rationalized. [Likewise, in deep third there’s no need for tags like “he rationalized” or “he thought.” The whole narrative is Felix’s thoughts and experiences.] Calm down. Not sleeping well the night before made his chest tight. No, this was different. In through the nose. He couldn’t clear his throat so Felix drummed his chest and let out a gasp that brought his shoulders and head forward.
He grabbed the sticky armrests. [Nice detail. We’ve all felt those gross sticky, velvety armrests at the cinema. Ugh.] Sophie is going to kill me. A draft barely blowing through the crack in the door. [This is a sentence fragment. They’re okay sometimes, but as it’s the second one in the first page it may be that the manuscript has too many of them. They will be jarring for readers if used too often.] Inhaling in slow motion took all of his attention and energy. The femme fatal [fatale, with an e] on screen ceased to exist in his consciousness. In the dark, every breath contained the whole universe. No air to call out for help. Sitting by himself in his own row earlier seemed like a good idea. Slow, labored, more out than in—then the stars came. “Oh, shit.” I’m going to die today. [I think “Oh shit.” is a great ending to a first scene, so personally I’d remove the “I’m going to die today.”]
[This scene uses a lot of short sentences in a row, which can make writing sound stilted and distant. That’s a tool that can be used to good effect – for example, as Felix struggles to breathe it’s likely that his thoughts would be short and fragmented, so it makes sense that his narrative would be stilted. But this scene uses short sentences even before he begins suffocating, so I would look at mixing it up. Paragraphs flow best if they’re a mix of short (<10 wordsish) medium (11-20ish), and long (20+) sentences. Generally you don’t want more than two short or long in a row, unless you’re deliberately using them for effect.
I’d like to spend a little more time with Felix in this opening scene, and I’d like to get deeper into his experience. We’ve all experienced getting food lodged in our throat and we know how utterly terrifying that moment is when you realise you can’t inhale. Can you let us experience that terror with Felix? Right now he seems quite detached and unemotional, not scared and panicked. I understand from the query that he’s ‘feeling averse’, but I think even the coldest human panics when they can’t breathe. Making us feel his fear will help us connect with him.]
Some souls accepted their lives with peace and awareness. Felix would not. Neither did [Perhaps change ‘did’ to either ‘would’ or ‘had’, to match with the previous sentence.] Asha, hence her assignment as his handler. As she waited for Felix to pass over, Asha scanned his life’s defining moments. Last minute cramming before the test of meeting him would begin.
[I hope you aren’t overwhelmed by the number of comments I’ve made – honestly the better a query and manuscript is, the more I have to say, because that’s when we’re getting into the fine details that turn it from ‘very good’ to ‘publisher-ready.’ You have a great concept, and I am SO delighted to see an elderly protagonist. This is a small sample but I think the element that would make the most difference to the MS is it you could let us deeper inside Felix’s head to experience his emotions, as stunted as they may be!
This has massive potential and I wish you every luck.]