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Day 2 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Query and First Page Workshop with Mentors Lyndsay Ely and C.M. McCoy

Wednesday, 10 May 2017  |  Posted by Heather Cashman


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 Lyndsay Ely …

lyndsay elyTwitter

Lyndsay Ely is a writer of speculative fiction, and that’s as specific as she’s willing to be about genre. She lives in Boston, where she works in publishing and organizes a local speculative fiction writing group.

Gunslinger Girl by Lyndsay Ely

Add to Goodreads

In GUNSLINGER GIRL, when Serendipity “Pity” Jones runs away from home, she lands in a lawless city at the edge of civilization. There, she joins the decadent Theatre Vespertine as a trick sharpshooter, but there’s a dark cost for her freedom. Need more? Of course you do! Scroll down for an exclusive excerpt of Chapter One! Once you’re addicted, and you will be, you can look forward to getting your hands on it January 2, 2018.


Lyndsay’s Query Critique . . .

GENRE: Contemporary

Dear [Agent],

[Concise sentence on why I’m querying them specifically.]

Winning the national championship is the one realistic opportunity Dustin Esposito has left to get noticed. Plagued by memories of his failure on soccer’s global stage, the college senior finds his future is filled with question marks. Wanting nothing more than a professional career, crippling anxiety convinces him there is no chance—that missing a penalty in the U-17 World Cup six years ago saw to that. Royally screwing up in front of scouts in last season’s semifinal sealed the coffin. [There’s a lot of intriguing detail in this first paragraph, but I think it could be conveyed more concisely. For example, combining the first two sentences into something like: “Plagued by memories of his failure on soccer’s global stage, winning the national championship is college senior Dustin Esposito’s last chance to get noticed.” And the specific failures may not be necessary in the query. I think what follows is more interesting.]

Off the pitch, his parents proceed through a bitter divorce. His mom stands next to a new man at Dustin’s games; his dad balances being a scorned lover and the family mediator. Thank God he still has his friends. [This is good! Concise in the way I think the first paragraph could be.]

As team captain, he wants his teammates to succeed where he’s failed. The season progresses from win to win and it’s soon clear the scouts are watching. Giving his brothers on the pitch a chance to play professionally will be Dustin’s legacy; they’re talented and deserve the world. But the rumor is they’re watching him, too. If he can conquer his internal demons with the same confidence he projects for his teammates, maybe he’s got a shot after all. [At this point, I’m a little lost. Is the plot about Dustin getting noticed or working to get his teammates noticed? Does he want a chance to play professionally, or to coach? So far you’ve done a nice job of presenting past obstacles, present obstacles, but the future goal remains a little unclear. Maybe trim down the parts on the teammates and focus on Dustin here?]

In the vein of Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, ABSOLUTION is a young adult contemporary novel focusing on a tight-knit group of young college students. At 77,000 words, the story should appeal to readers who appreciate the sport and human drama of Friday Night Lights, mixed with the vibrant friendships of New Girl. [If the students are college age, especially on the older end, this may not qualify as a young adult novel. I’d suggest reviewing categories and the age ranges for main characters. (Also, note that you repeat the word “young” twice in the same sentence. The second instance can be cut.)]

[If bio requested:] I’m a ‘12 graduate of Bryan College (Dayton, TN) with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature with minors in Writing and Creative Writing. A lifelong fan of the written word and sports—specifically tennis, soccer, and college football—I set out to combine those interests with my depression experiences in my first novel. [Overall I think this is a good start to your query. You’ve got great comps and there’s a definite heart to this that I think will appeal to agents!]

I have provided the requested [info], and a full manuscript is available upon request.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Thank you, Lyndsay, for your critique!


Next up we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor C.M. McCoy

CM_McCoy_BioAuthor CM McCoy (aka Colleen Oefelein) has one pointed ear, an 90-pound “puppy” from Hell, and a very active imagination. She’s well aware nobody can say or spell her real last name, hence the pen name. You can call her Colleen.

She’s a retired Air Force officer, a mom, an author, a blogger, and the PR manager and an associate agent for Inklings Literary Agency. When she’s not chatting with her imaginary friends, she’s either stuck in a book or interviewing with PEOPLE Magazine, ABC’s 20/20, the local morning news show, or INSIDE EDITION, where she promotes writing for mental and emotional health. She also mentors pre-published authors through workshops and contests and runs Totem Head’s Annual Free Writing Contest for Kids, now in its ninth year.

Though she holds 2 Bachelor of Science degrees (Chemical Engineering and German — Penn State), she’s far happier writing near misses and awkward kisses. Some of her off-the-wall talents include speaking in 10-codes (which she learned working 911-dispatch for Alaska State Troopers), flying helicopters, and Irish dance. Her debut, EERIE, a teen paranormal adventure with romance, released in Dec 2015 by Simon & Schuster/Omnific. She has a memoir out on submission to production companies and a picture book out on submission to publishers. She’s represented by the magnificent Michelle Johnson.

Twitter | Website

Eerie by C.M. McCoy

Amazon  |  B&N  |  iBooks  |  Kobo  |  | BAM | Google | Signed Copies | Goodreads

Hailey Hartley has just enrolled in the world’s premier supernatural university. It’s a school she’s never heard of, located in a town called The Middle of Nowhere, and run by a creature that’s not supposed to exist. But at least she got a scholarship…

Hailey’s dreams have always been, well…vivid. As in monsters from her nightmares follow her into her waking life vivid. When her big sister goes missing, eighteen-year-old Hailey finds only one place offers her answers–a paranormal university in Alaska. There, she studies the science of the supernatural and must learn to live with a roommate from Hell, survive her otherworldly classes, and hope the only creature who can save her from an evil monster doesn’t decide to kill her himself.

Colleen’s First Page Critique . . .


GENRE: Fantasy

Life is ugly and mean. I’ve seen it, life’s ugly underbelly – it isn’t pretty, or playful, or fun; it’s the monster from the closet you’re scared will come out of the dark at midnight…and then it does. [This is gritty and edgy inner thought, which is fun but much of this is redundant. Also the idea that something comes “out of the dark” at midnightsuggests it’s coming into the light, but at midnight, it’s still dark, which makes this seem like an un-fleshed-out or jumbled thought.] The only thing left are memories now. [This feels like it’s another start to the story and doesn’t flow naturally from the inner thoughts prior, which also makes this feel a bit jumbled] Memories; when things were as they should be, when life was more like the creamy custard in the middle of a Boston Crème Donut instead of the backside of a mule [the vivid and specific reference to the mule’s other half here is good] , because memories help me remember [this feels confusing, because I’m not sure how memories help someone remember. Memories = remembering to me, and so this also feels a bit jumbled] when I’m on the verge of forgetting. I don’t want to forget her voice or her smell, or the way she laughed. I miss her. I miss mom.

I miss coming home to find my mom bent over the stove in the kitchen, her grungy Christmas apron tied at her waist – the one she wore year-round – turning pasta and ground beef into a Mozechilli Casserole that smelled like a feast fit for the rich but made just for me and my brother. I miss the little things. Leaning shoulder to shoulder with her at the bay window of the old house watching the Morning Glories shimmer in the sun. I miss waking up to the smell of her Hyacinths through my bedroom window. Little things. Lost things. Without them, there isn’t anything to look forward to really. I mean, is it worth waking up every day without her? I don’t know. It’s a question I’ve asked myself every day for the last three months. I force myself to believe every day is worth something, because if it’s not, what’s the sense of waking up?

When mom was alive, I was alive, but now I mostly feel dead, and I don’t recognize life anymore. Death is more discernible. I could pick Death out of a line-up in a heartbeat; I spotted him the second he entered my mom’s eyes right before she died.  It was at that moment my mom didn’t see me anymore, her eyes were hollow and empty, and I feel just as empty and dead as her eye’s [typo here with the apostrophe] looked in that moment.

When death comes to snuff out life, he leaves things and people in his wake – the left behinds – and a reminder – in the end death wins, every time. We all die. We don’t know when or how death will come for us, but we know it will happen. One day. It’s inevitable. And every day I wake up asking myself, “Is today the day?” [This makes me wonder if the main character is sick and expecting to die. At this point, I’m also wondering about the scene and direction of this story, neither of which has been set yet.]

I have to get out of my head. [Up to this point, the prose feels like a character study rather than the start of a story]

[THIS is where this novel starts] I twist over the cold, damp dirt beneath me, my shoulder grazing a root breaching like a surfacing whale, but the thought stays with me, bouncing in my head like a bullet ricocheting around an impenetrable room. [2 similes in one sentence is too many. Similes are like cayenne pepper: use sparingly.]

Is today the day? Do I keep living, keep pretending – searching for reasons to stay alive?  Or give-in. It’s a hard choice. [<– These inner thoughts are nice and edgy, and if the first chunk of this narrative is cut, this will feel compelling and plant a question in my: why does she want to die? It would also foster the dark, brooding mood I think the author is going for.]
I shift to the left away from the root, rest my back on a blanket of dried pine…

The writing here is nice and edgy with a raw grittiness I love–so emotional! Watch overusing similes and commas, and be sure to make an editing pass looking for breaks in the natural, smooth flow of logical thought. Also, look for repeats of the same word (for example, “ugly” and “not pretty” stood out as overused).

I thought the biggest issue in this sample is what I call “engine cranking,” which means the author writes a lot of summary, exposition, and/or character study  before they get their story started. A lot of authors bury their best beginning a few pages in to their manuscript, and I feel that’s what’s happening here. The bulk of this sample feels like character study to me, and I’d feel worried about the story-telling going forward. I felt the story truly starts with this sentence:


I twist over the cold, damp dirt beneath me, my shoulder grazing a root breaching….


For me, this is the “holy shit, I need to keep reading” hook. This sentence introduces the scene and mood perfectly. The somewhat jumbled thoughts that come before that sentence can all be subtly woven into the narrative going forward. But for me, there needs to be a hook in the very beginning, and the scene has got to be set much sooner.


While I couldn’t tell the readership or genre from this sample, I did love the honesty and emotion in the writing. The vivid and unexpected image of the mule’s other half made me smile. And the hook sentence toward the end definitely left me wanting to know more. Overall, the author did a great job with clean writing and a raw voice, and with a few tweaks, I think this will be a compelling opening!

 Thank you, Colleen, for your critique!

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 2.

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  • Ali Voltmer says:

    Thank you for the helpful information. I noticed that the query that was critiqued appeared to be longer than what most agents request, which is 3 paragraphs and/or 300 words. I’d be interested in hearing the agent’s take on a longer query such as the one excerpted above.

  • Nicole Lowrey says:

    Awesome critique on the first page – I think I have similar problems in my own first page. Will revise with these comments in mind, thanks!

  • Wow, such good advice. Thank you Colleen!

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