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Day 19 (Part 2): Pitch Wars Query & First Page Workshop with mentors, Rebecca Schaeffer & Sharon Johnston

Friday, 2 June 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 Rebecca Schaeffer


Twitter | tumblr | Goodreads

Rebecca Schaeffer is a Canadian expat and compulsive nomad who has lived in Peru, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Her debut novel, Not Even Bones (HMH Fall 2018) is a Young Adult contemporary fantasy about a girl who dissects monsters and sells their bodies on the internet. Rebecca can generally be found in a cafe on the other side of the world, writing about villains, antiheroes, and morally ambiguous characters.


Rebecca’s Query Critique…

GENRE: Fantasy

Dear (Insert Name),

According to your agency’s website you’re actively seeking young adult and new adult fiction, so I’m pleased to introduce my novel, Heart—Book One of the Broken Realms. [ I know a lot of query sites will tell you to open with an introduction like this, but unless you are very very skilled, it just ends up looking a touch awkward. I highly recommend just jumping right into the query because they’re going to skim this first bit anyways. I’ve always got more requests without this first bit. If you do decide to keep this in here, then I definitely recommend stating your novels word count upfront there, as well as genre — based on that first line, I don’t know if this is YA or NA, nor do I know if it’s contemporary, fantasy, romance, a contemporary fantasy with romance or something else entirely. Tl;dr: I recommend cutting this, but if you keep it, add a bit more contextual information]

The story follows two royals forced into an arranged marriage in the hopes that it will garner friendly relations between the two kingdoms. They discover that with time and actively making the decision to open up to one another that love can happen even with the odds stacked against them. [I recommend just cutting this. It tells your story, and you show it below far better. You want to start on a strong hook, something snazzy to grab attention, ideally with your main character.]

Kiira adores her family, delights in her military responsibilities , and secretly courts a man that she wants to marry [I like how active she is in this. She’s not being courted, she’s doing the courting. Excellent. Also, some good intrigue established, and I love that she’s in the military. That’s super cool! I’d recommend starting your query off here, it reads much stronger to me. :)]. When she learns of the arrangement [wait, what arrangement? Oh, okay, I just went back to that paragraph at the top. Say arranged marriage specifically here, I think] she fights the inevitable for as long as possible. [This is very vague and non specific. I recommend giving an example of how she fights it. Does she send an assassin after her betrothed? Does she write a different treaty and try and get it signed in instead?] Upon meeting her betrothed she holds nothing but bitterness toward him for being heartless and callous toward her [this is a run on sentence. Also, again, I highly recommend specificity. What does he do that’s so callous? Kill her cat? Beat her lover? Show us why she hates him so we can hate him too], until she is humbled after a confrontation with the goddess. [Again, this is very vague. I’m craving details]

Years of traveling has taught Terren the value of being slow to speak and quick to listen. [good opening to paint his character. Well done.] The only exception is interactions with his best friend Kamaria, an enormous Shade Bear who is fiercely protective of him as her Bond Partner and has poor opinions of the people in his life. [this is a bit clunky. Maybe rephrase? I really love the bond-pair bear though. That sounds awesome] The arranged marriage is an inescapable roadblock to Terren’s plans [which are?], but despite his frustration, he remains respectful of the situation and honors the agreement between the kings. [I think this whole second half of the sentence could be cut down to “but he honours the agreement despite reservations.”]

Zerrec, a once highly respected magician and adviser in the kingdom of Lorea, is not the man he used to be [this is super intriguing, and I really want you to dish the goods here. You want to show an agent all the cool things in your story and this sounds like something cool], that is [cut the ‘that is’] until he learns of the arranged marriage of his beloved through a dream [you don’t need to tell us its through a dream. We just need to know that he knows], rekindling a spark long buried. Determined to rescue his love from the foreseen arrangement, he goes out of his way to make sure that nothing will hinder his ultimate goal, to marry Kiira, [I think you can cut the ’hinder his ultimate goal ‘ because you state what it is directly after saying that. You don’t need to tell and then show. Just show.] even with unexpected circumstances. [‘Unexpected circumstances’ is very vague. I would recommend specifying]

This story is a fantasy set in the Broken Realms [I would cut the name of the kingdom unless you’re going to specify more about it. For example ‘set in the Broken Realms, a fantasy world modelled after ancient Egypt/Nigeria/India/Germany/wherever] and runs about 150,000 words [ Sad truth here: this is too long. If this is YA, you’ll need to keep it under 100k. I know, there have been exceptions, where debuts like Eragon were longer — awesome comp by the way! You definitely did your research on debuts with similar word counts — but unfortunately, a lot of agents will turn you away when they see the word count. It’s annoying and unfortunate, but it’s true. Often, a long word count is a sign that the writer hasn’t edited. Definitely not saying that’s the case with yours, but the agent doesn’t know that, and they often don’t bother to see. I recommend looking into cutting the manuscript either into 2 books, or trimming it down a bit. You’d be amazed what some trimming can do! Even on a sentence level.]  and is similar in tone to Christopher Paolini’s Eragon and will market well to those that read epic adventures with relatable characters. [good comp!! Maybe add one more if you can think of one.  Perhaps Truthwitch?  I rarely see three PoV stories in YA, maybe it’s a good idea for your second comp to have multiple PoVs.]

I am a graduate of Western State Colorado University and currently working full-time. This is my first novel. [don’t say this is your first novel, it doesn’t usually help in a query. Also, not sure this paragraph is needed. I’d consider cutting it]

Thank you very much for your time. I have included the first ten pages and look forward to hearing from you. [solid :)]

[All right! So, here are some summary thoughts, feel free to take them or leave them as you see fit.

Firstly, You’ve got a solid grasp of the format here. You have one paragraph for each PoV character, and I like the pattern you’re using. One sentence to describe them, one sentence of conflict, and then one sentence of their goal and the action they’re taking. Quite frankly, it’s an EXCELLENT format, it keeps things simple, and its working really well for you here.

I think your major issue for revision will be lack of specificity. Right now, I struggle to recall unique details from the query. I am positive your book is chock full of unique plots, details and character attributes. I want to see them on the query though. I’ll give an example of what I mean. Here’s a vague pitch “In a post apocalyptic world, David’s father is murdered, and he must take down the man who did it.” This is a pretty flat pitch. I have nothing to imagine for the post apocalyptic world except vague hunger-games-ish images. And vengeance, which is cool, but not enough. Now look at this pitch “In David’s world, the apocalypse was the creation of thousands of supervillains — and no superheroes. After his father is murdered by an immortal super villain who can turn anything to steel, David vows to kill the unkillable.” See how specific that is — the post apocalyptic world is now very cleary a super villain world, which is very vivid and different from the hunger-games-ish thing I was thinking of with the first pitch. David’s goal is the same, but the stakes are higher — not only is he getting vengeance, he’s getting it on an unkillable steel-creating supervillain. That’s much more memorable. Even though both those pitches are for the same book, Steelheart, the second one has a much clearer and more compelling image. I feel like your query only gives me that first, sort of vague feeling of the first pitch, when the reality of the story is far more likely the cool-ness of the second pitch. 

Whew. Okay, I talked a lot. I think you have a lot of potential here. I see the bones of a solid query, and I’m getting inklings that this is a really awesome story. Mostly, I just want more on the page so I know more :)]

Next up we have …

Pitch Wars 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 First Page  Critique . . .

GENRE: Speculative Fiction

Caleb knew he shouldn’t peek[,] but the knot in his stomach urged him to open his eyes.  He closed his eyes tighter, trying especially hard this time to bury his growing curiosity.  He couldn’t break the Moment of Thoughtlessness [remember, your reader doesn’t know the world building like you do. You need to explain what terms specific to your world mean].  Instead, Caleb concentrated on the sun’s warmth glowing orange through his eyelids.  He tried to emulate the adults around him who stood at the base of the hill, tilting blank faces to the sun.  Too soon, however, his curiosity won and his eyelids cracked open to peer through thick lashes up to the top of the hill. [This opening is too much like the MC waking up, which is a big no-no for agents and publishers. It doesn’t draw the reader in as an opening should.]

The Arbiter [I’d like to have a better understanding of who this is] loomed atop the hill with The Machine [I’d like to have a better understanding of what this is] towering behind him. As the Arbiter surveyed the unseeing crowd below him [I’d like to have a better understanding of who else is in the crowd – and I’m assuming they’re unseeing as they’re all in their Moment of Thoughtlessness. Your reader shouldn’t have to assume], Caleb’s gaze fell to the motionless figure that lay at the Arbiter’s feet.  The figure was dressed in an adult’s white robe and a sense of calm overcame Caleb as he took in the peaceful expression on the man’s face. [I’d like to know more about who this person is on the ground]

A movement from the corner of Caleb’s eye caught his attention and he turned to see a woman separate from the front line of people to slip silently up the hill.  Caleb’s pulse quickened upon spotting the three blue bars at the woman’s temple.  It was the most knowledge he had seen someone have besides the Arbiter who had a full five [I love this world building aspect. Really fascinating].  She approached the Arbiter and bowed deeply as he murmured a few words that were lost in the breeze. When he finished speaking she knelt on the ground in front of the figure, her back hiding the top half of the man from Caleb’s view.  She twisted to the side and set a small cloth case on the ground next to her. Caleb watched in wonder as she rolled the case open to reveal a neat row of strange metal tools that glinted in the sun.  The woman selected a long, slender tool with a sharp edge before turning back to the figure.

Caleb’s eyes opened fully, forgetting the Moment of Thoughtlessness, as he began bobbing around in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the activity hidden by the woman’s body.  She made a few small movements before shifting to the side, once more giving Caleb an unobstructed view.  Caleb’s jaw dropped and eyes widened as he saw her pull a thin metal fragment, about the length of his finger, from a cut in the man’s temple. [How far away is he? Would he be able to see that details?] Metal strings flowed from the cut to the base of the object held firmly in the woman’s hand. At the other end of the fragment a single blue light blazed. [This is really cool] The light felt [felt is a filtering word. See if you can reword to eliminate.] harsh and unnatural compared to the soft glow it emitted moments before from underneath the man’s skin.  A tingle crawled up Caleb’s spine as he stood rooted in place, unable to look away from the light.  With a final tug the woman pulled the object free of the man’s head and the light went dark.  Caleb’s body went cold as metal strings dangled limply off of the dead, metal object. [Very cool]

You’ve potentially got a really good story idea here. I was fascinated by what was happening with the man on the ground and what comes out from it. However, I found I was very confused as well, as I lacked the context of what was happening in these scenes. Potentially there’s a scene missing from before this one where Caleb is going to this event, which could provide the reader with some context of what’s going on. There were a lot of terms that I didn’t understand and I also didn’t feel like I was rooted in the setting as much as I wanted to be. I’m hoping that a lot of the questions I had from this opening are answered in the subsequent pages. I understand everything can’t be fit into one page. I wish you the best of luck with this story.

Thank you, Rebecca and Sharon, 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.



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