Welcome to the Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2019 mentors. From a lottery drawing, we selected writers to receive a query or first page critique from one of our mentors. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a query or first page from our lucky winners. We’ll be posting some of the critiques leading up to the submission window. Our hope is that these samples will help you all get an idea on how to shine up your query and first page.
We appreciate our mentors for giving 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 …
Pitch Wars Mentor, Sarah Kapit …
Sarah Kapit writes fiction for children. Her debut novel GET A GRIP, VIVY COHEN! will be released by Dial Books for Young Readers (Penguin Random House) in February of 2020.
In her previous life, Sarah earned a PhD in History from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is active in the neurodiversity movement, serving as chairperson of the Association for Autistic Community.
Sarah lives in Bellevue, WA with her partner and their goofy orange cat, Allie.
Sarah’s first page critique . . .
The tall, golden-furred Po stood ramrod-stiff, his back to the others, staring out into the black distance. [I count five adjectives in this sentence, which seems like too many. Is there another way for you to paint a picture of what’s going on? It’s not necessary to give complete descriptions, especially not right away. Sometimes it can be enough just to tell readers a few key details and let them fill in the rest.] “Fetch him,” he said, his voice softened by age, but still commanding. “The enemy grows closer, and our only hope of victory is to prepare, and quickly. There is no time to lose. Go!”[Although this seems like a very intense scene, without larger context it’s hard to really get into it. The reader isn’t yet invested in the battle, since we don’t know any of the characters or stakes.]
With barely a rustle they flowed away from the tower room to their assigned task, [Is they Po? What’s the assigned task?] but even that small noise displeased him. Growling, the tall Po shook his head. [It’s not necessary to repeat that he’s tall.] He gripped the gritty stone of the windowsill, searching the sky for the star Aris. His gaze fixed on the glittering speck, he offered up his hope to the god of good fortune, asking him to bless this undertaking. Without it, they would surely fail. [We don’t know what failure would mean for the characters, so this conclusion to the scene doesn’t feel impactful. Again, we need more grounding in the world so that we can care about the outcome of the battle.]
Not far away, a small Spark also looked at the stars, in a manner of speaking. [What’s a Spark? It’s okay to introduce new terms, but we need to have context to understand what they mean.] Dib lay sprawled in his nest of blankets, studying the ceiling above him. His Elder, Bec, had used dots of bright white paint to decorate it with constellations, adding new ones as he taught Dib their names and shapes.
Tonight’s lesson had been particularly exciting, but Dib fought sleep as he struggled to remember the details. A small, scuffling noise came from the main room of the house. An unfamiliar noise.
“Bec?” Dib called. No response. Dib listened closely, holding his breath, and the noise came again, along with a thump and a grunt. Dib sat up, staring toward his doorway. The main room was lit with a strange light – not a candle or lantern, but something else. Dib’s fur ruffled. [This is good description that builds tension. Just the simple description of the fur ruffling does a lot to set the mood—good job!]
Unconsciously sniffing the air, Dib quietly left his bed and took two quick steps to look into the main room. What he saw there, made no sense. [Comma isn’t necessary here.] He drew back, to peek cautiously around the doorjamb. [Another unnecessary comma.]
The front door of their home stood open. Bathed in a strange, blue-white light, Bec struggled with two Po. [Are Po a fantasy creature? Previously I thought it was the name of an individual character. Since this isn’t a well-known creature, this needs to be clarified early on.] They seemed to be trying to drag him out of their house, into the night. The rug lay disarranged, and a chair had been knocked on its side.
Dib didn’t recognize the Po that were skirmishing with Bec. One was tall and one was short, but both were muscular with broad shoulders and long limbs. In the bright light, the short, thick fur that covered their bodies was a dark, mottled color like none Dib had ever seen before. Their movements were fluid and practiced, but Bec was fighting back, kicking and punching. [What is Dib doing during all of this? I’d like to see him be more active in the scene, since he’s the protagonist.]
[I’m not sure it’s a good idea to place the reader into two different scenes within the first page and a half. As I mentioned, the first scene doesn’t really work to create tension because we know nothing about the larger context of the battle and characters. We hardly get any immersion in the world at all before jumping to an entirely new character and scene. I recommend eliminating the first scene (or moving it somewhere else) and beginning with Dib, since he appears to be the main protagonist.
Opening a fantasy story is difficult, because there’s so much work to do when it comes to introducing readers to the world and its fantasy elements. This is particularly challenging in middle grade because readers are younger and have less practice in making inferences from context. Po, Sparks, and Elders are elements that I don’t quite understand based on this sample. Can you provide more contextual clues about what they are and why they’re important? You might even want to just outright explain the terms.
It seems to me that Dib is an animal protagonist, but it’s not clear which animal. More description is necessary so that young readers can identify with him. I think reworking your first page to focus more on him will give you more opportunities to immerse the reader in his story.
In terms of writing style, I encourage you to think beyond adjectives when it comes to description. Sometimes, a vivid detail or two can do more than a list of adjectives to help readers envision the scene.]