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Day 19 (Part 3) of the Pitch Wars Mentor Workshops with Erin Foster Hartley

Thursday, 16 September 2021  |  Posted by Erin Hardee

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 …

Erin Foster Hartley

Erin Foster Hartley is a Pitch Wars mentee (’14 & ’15) turned mentor (’17 & 18). She has also mentored for Teen Pit and led teen writing camps for the Iowa Youth Writing Project. She is represented by Philippa Sitters at David Godwin Associates.





Erin’s critique . . .


Young Adult Contemporary


Sixteen-year-old Olive Sonnenschien is perfectly happy being the disgraced daughter of a disgraced actress. [This first sentence is very intriguing! I love fictional pop culture tabloid drama! But why is her mother disgraced, and why would that make Olive happy? Elaborate in the next sentence or two to fully hook me.] Olive learned early on that people expect the worst from her no matter what she does, so she’s stopped trying to impress anyone. Her ill-fitting reputation as a violent slacker lets her keep her distance from her judgmental peers. She feeds into whatever they say and enjoys the sardonic fun her last name brings her. [These three sentences are unnecessary. If she’s happy being disgraced, as your first sentence says very succinctly, that implies all this other stuff. (Except the violence aspect—more on this later.) Cut and get right to the main conflict.]

Unfortunately, Olive’s older sister, Emma, sees the family name as a curse. [Again, you need specifics here. Why is it a curse? What happened, exactly, that would impact the reputation of the actress’s children? It must be huge.] Blaming her recent breakup on their family reputation, Emma vows to change her last name on her upcoming 18th birthday. Olive knows if her sister goes through with it, their family might never be whole again. [A name change on its own doesn’t sound that dire. How would this break up the family? Is Emma planning on cutting them out of her life completely, or moving away and taking on a new identity? Clarify what Olive will be losing here.] Desperate, she signs up for the school talent show. The audience picks the winner, so if Olive can win, she’ll prove to Emma their last name can be overcome. [I don’t quite understand why winning a school talent show would be the key to keeping her family together. Elaborate on what power this show may have that it can both change her sister’s mind and restore her family’s reputation.]

When rumors fly Olive is entering with her mom’s most infamous monologue, she embraces them. After all, Olive is named after the main character from that movie. [Why is the monologue infamous? What movie? Again, be specific! I want to know all the scandalous details.] But entering the talent show means Olive can’t hide behind her reputation anymore. In fact, her negative reputation means everyone thinks she has no shot to win. If Olive can’t defy the expectations she’s spent years creating, she risks losing the talent show and fracturing her family beyond repair. [What IS Olive’s reputation? You mentioned that she was wrongly perceived as violent—which carries much more serious weight than just being a slacker or a rebel. Why would she spend so much energy creating this false perception? Without more detail, I don’t really have a good understanding of who this character is, or what has motivated her to make these life choices.]  

TITLE is a young adult contemporary novel complete at 71,000 words.


First page:

No one in the family had owned luggage before. We lived in a near-mansion up on a hill. We had brand name blackout curtains, a security system that cost more than a car, and four cars.  [By breaking this into two paragraphs, it makes it sound like all the stuff they own is justification for not owning luggage, which doesn’t make much sense.]

But no luggage. Having a once famous mom meant luxury. Having a now paranoid mom meant privacy. And that meant no vacations. Ever. [But wouldn’t a once-famous mom have owned luggage at some point? I’m confused by this and your opening line, which seems unnecessarily hyperbolic.]

Until now.

“They went with the matching ones?” [my sister] Emma asked. The two of us stood at the top of the stairs, watching our mom and Nikki, our new stepmom, pat down [?] their polka dot luggage. “Since when does Mom pick something other than the basic option?” [Matching suitcases is pretty basic. I thought they lived in luxury? These little contradictions are distractions that make it hard to get into the story.]

“Since she booked her first vacation in two decades,” Andy said, walking up from behind us. He rubbed one of his eyes. “Or…almost two decades.” [Who is Andy? A family member? Child or adult?] 

Our mom and Nikki stopped checking their luggage. They stood close together, hands intertwined and heads low. [This action is confusing, especially as setting details are very sparse so far. Are they in the foyer of their home poking at their bags for some reason, or are they at the airport literally checking them in? Where is this scene set, and what exactly are Mom and Nikki doing?] Marriage was a big deal, but as far as I was concerned, Nikki had been my stepmom for years. Seeing her and my mom with wedding bands felt like nothing. [I’m confused by the use of “stepmom.” At first I assumed it was referring to the new spouse of the narrator’s other parent, and I was wondering why the mom and the stepmom would be sharing luggage. If Nikki has been in their life for a long time and this marriage doesn’t matter to the narrator, wouldn’t they refer to them as something less formal?]

But seeing them with suitcases? Felt like everything. [Why?]

“I bet they sold a family option,” I said. [What is a family option?]

Emma started to roll her eyes, but it turned into a yawn. [Is Emma an older sister? Younger? What’s their age difference?] “You can’t crash their honeymoon.”

“I didn’t say I would. I’m not a monster. Unless you believe the kids at school.”

“Of course you’re not a monster, Olive.” Andy gave me a reassuring pat on the back. “Last I heard, you were a criminal.” 

[I’m having a hard time orienting myself in this scene, partly because of the minor confusing details I’ve pointed out above which are distracting me from getting into the story, but mainly because there’s little physical description of setting or characters so far. I need much more of that to fully understand the significance of what’s happening here. Also, be sure to clarify who Andy is so that his last line packs more of a punch.] 

Thank you, Erin, for the critique! We are showcasing three mentor critiques each day leading up to the Pitch Wars 2021 submission window, so make sure to read the other two critiques for today and come back tomorrow for more. 

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