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, Natasha Neagle …
Natasha Neagle is the YA author of the upcoming YA Fantasy, THE BODY PARADOX (’18 Entangled Teen) who runs on Starbucks and believes the best way to hear music is live. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, two kids, and zoo of animals.
Natasha’s Query Critique . . .
AGE CATEGORY: Young Adult
Ziva Kritikos wants to grow up. [Interesting, but how old is she? Letting the reader know your main character’s age will help solidify your novel as YA. Knowing this will help us figure out her voice.] Her best friends, Sophie and Abigail already have goals in mind for their lives. [The way you say Ziva doesn’t want to grow up makes me think of her as a younger kid/middle schooler. Why does it matter what Sophie and Abigail want to do?] Kyle, a boy hooked on messing with her is headed towards his dreams while Ziva doesn’t even have any. [In the first paragraph, you’ve named four characters instead of hooking the reader on Ziva. The information you’ve shared about Ziva is minimal compared to the others.] She doesn’t want to be left behind, [okay, this is interesting – why would she be left behind? Where are they going?] and her library’s books won’t help her find a path. [Does she always have her nose in a book and that’s why you mentioned this? How does this relate to the the hook and inciting incident?] Desperate for a change, Ziva relies on a shooting star. [Why would she rely on a shooting star? Wouldn’t she just desperately just cast a wish on one? Be sure to include an introduction to the world, the main character (who they are and what they want), and inciting incident. Convey the voice of your main character so we aren’t left guessing.]
When her wish is granted however, she gets a limitless supply of information at the tip of her tongue instead. [This is interesting and where you should start your query! Maybe something like: When XX-year-old Ziva Kritikos wishes on a shooting star in a moment of desperation, she never dreams her wish to know everything <<or insert the wish here>> will be granted. Or something similar. This way we know right away we’re going to be reading YA, more than likely a fantasy, and find out the character is desperate enough to wish on a shooting star for change.] Now holding the power to devour her written words, her hunger doesn’t allow them to stay on paper. In turn, no one else can see them, leaving her once perfect grades at the mercy of blank tests and notebooks. [Okay, I’m a little confused. Does she write words and then literally eat them? Do people physically see her gobbling up the words—chewing and such—or is it like she writes something down and then thinks about eating it and the words disappear? Clarify here because otherwise you’re going to lose your reader. Maybe try: Having that much power, might sound awesome, but it’s not. There’s a catch—she only craves written words, eating them right off the page to gain their knowledge, leaving her to wonder if she’s becoming something less than human.]
To make matters worse, the fourteen-year-old’s [We need to know this in the first paragraph. Food for thought: have you considered aging this down to 12 to make it MG?? This sounds like a wonderful MG. Otherwise, what about aging her up to 16? I could be totally wrong, and if I’m incorrect, I apologize, but I’ve heard it’s harder to sell novels when the MC is at the in between age of 14 and could be upper MG or lower YA.] body now only craves words, rejecting anything else. The more ink she eats, the more she begins to doubt if she’s human. However, the only thing beastly about Ziva is her appetite. [This paragraph can be combined with the one above.]
As she indulges in her greed, the girl comes to a realization―her meals are memories stolen from humanity. She becomes terrified of what her loved ones would do if they knew, so she keeps the grim truth to herself. Seeing as how the stars won’t listen to her pleas, Ziva decides to starve. She can prevent herself from stealing anything else while fading away in silence. [This can be condensed with the paragraph below.]
After telling Sophie and Abigail about her powers only to recieve fear-strucken faces in response, Ziva confides in Kyle. He learns of her ‘solution’, but won’t let her die so easily. After seeing her pass out from anemia, he brings her to the nurse’s office. There, he makes her write his name in her sleep as a way of apologizing. However, he’s ignorant of the consequences. [What are the consequences? Try condensing the two previous paragraphs with this one. When Ziva realizes the words are people’s stolen memories, she pleads for the stars to undo her wish. Having lost her friends after they found out her ability, and no apparent cure in sight, she vows to starve to save humanity. Ziva shares her plan to sacrifice herself with her only remaining friend, Kyle, forcing him to take matters into his own hands to keep her alive.]
Ziva, now conscious and frustrated, has to make up for her reckless choices with one last decision: erase any trace of her existence or indulge in her greed without regrets? [Here’s where we need to see the stakes. From what this paragraph looks like, she can either allow the power of her wish to consume her and she loses her own humanity or she can sacrifice herself. If the question is does she survive or does the rest of humanity, it doesn’t seem as if that’s really a choice—the reader won’t want to read a book if the main character is going to sacrifice the world. Where would she go if she succumbed to this new power? Are there others like her? Is she the only one? Now conscious, Ziva once again is faced with the decision to indulge in the power of knowledge or erase any trace of her existence from history.]
A concoction of paranormal and fantasy, Words, a young adult novel is complete at 50,000 words. [WORDS is a standalone YA Fantasy complete at 50,000. Fans of <<insert comp title>> and <<insert comp title>> will enjoy WORDS. 50K for a YA Fantasy is very low. This is a red flag there may not be much world-building or underdeveloped characters/plot. However, 50K isn’t considered as low for MG Fantasy. Don’t forget your author bio and state whether you’re putting pages in the query. For example: The first ten pages are below based on your submission guidelines.]
[Thank you for your consideration. Per QueryShark this is the ONLY way to end a query.]
[I love the premise of this novel! The first time I read this, I thought it read more like a synopsis than a query because you put so many details into it. Remember, the purpose of a query is to hook the reader, tell them why they want to read, then show the stakes. If it’s not too far-fetched, I’d really consider making this MG. If you did, I really think you’d land an agent faster than you could say PitchWars and SO MANY AMAZING AGENTS want MG. If you don’t want to make this MG, then consider beefing up the word count between now and PitchWars and having your CPs read your changes. I say this because I think the concept if fabulous and low word counts can make agents weary of author’s just like high words counts can. The combined query below is much more condensed and shorter. Good luck, this sounds like a cool story.
When XX-year-old Ziva Kritikos wishes on a shooting star in a moment of desperation, she never dreams her wish to know everything <<or insert the wish here>> would be granted. Having that much power, might sound awesome, but it’s not. There’s a catch—she only craves written words, eating them right off the page to gain their knowledge, leaving her to wonder if she’s becoming something less than human.
When Ziva realizes the words are people’s stolen memories, she pleads for the stars to undo her wish. Having lost her friends after they found out her ability, and no apparent cure in sight, she vows to starve to save humanity. Ziva shares her plan to sacrifice herself with her only remaining friend, Kyle, forcing him to take matters into his own hands to keep her alive. Now conscious, Ziva once again is faced with the decision to indulge in the power of knowledge or erase any trace of her existence from history.]
WORDS is a standalone YA Fantasy complete at 50,000. Fans of <<insert comp title>> and <<insert comp title>> will enjoy WORDS.
Insert author bio. The first <<insert pages numbers>> pages are below based on your submission guidelines.
Thank you for your consideration.
Website (if have)
Twitter (if have)
Next up we have . . .
Pitch Wars Mentors, Kelli Newby and Mary Ann Marlowe …
By day, Kelli works as a part-time English Professor, teaching composition, dramatic lit, fantasy lit, and fantasy writing. By night, she writes novels, though she’s occasionally waylaid by bouts of theatre.
She has an MFA in fiction from Bennington and have been published in The Mind’s Eye (Spring 2006 and 2015). Her short plays have been produced by Main Street Stage in North Adams, Massachusetts; Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Late Night Story Time; and WAM/MOPCO’s 24 Hour Theatre Project. She also works as a playwright for Barrington Stage’s Playwright Mentoring Project.
Her novel EX, EX, OH (recently retitled to THE GOOD GIRL’S GUIDE TO FANTASY AND ADVENTURE) is a finalist in the Joyce Henderson RWA Contest and was chosen for #PitchWars 2016. Other 2016 accomplishments include her contemporary romance MOUNTING THE MARQUIS winning Fire and Ice and finaling for The Molly.
She’s the secretary of the Capital Region RWA chapter in Albany and is represented by Rena Rossner of the Deborah Harris Agency.
Mary Ann lives in central Virginia where she works as a computer programmer/DBA. She spent ten years as a university-level French professor, and her resume includes stints as an au pair in Calais, a hotel intern in Paris, a German tutor, a college radio disc jockey, and a webmaster for several online musician fandoms. She has lived in twelve states and three countries and loves to travel.
Mary Ann’s recent release …
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Audible
In this sparkling debut novel, Mary Ann Marlowe introduces a hapless scientist who’s swept off her feet by a rock star—but is it love or just a chemical reaction?…Biochemist Eden Sinclair has no idea that the scent she spritzed on herself before leaving the lab is designed to enhance pheromones. Or that the cute, grungy-looking guy she meets at a gig that evening is Adam Copeland. As in the Adam Copeland international rock god and object of lust for a million women. Make that a million and one. By the time she learns the truth, she s already spent the (amazing, incredible) night in his bed
Suddenly Eden, who’s more accustomed to being set up on disastrous dates by her mom, is going out with a gorgeous celebrity who loves how down-to-earth and honest she is. But for once, Eden isn’t being honest. She can’t bear to reveal that this overpowering attraction could be nothing more than seduction by science. And the only way to know how Adam truly feels is to ditch the perfume—and risk being ditched in turn
Smart, witty, and sexy, Some Kind of Magic is an irresistibly engaging look at modern relationships why we fall, how we connect, and the courage it takes to trust in something as mysterious and unpredictable as love.
Kelli and Mary Ann’s First Page Critique . . .
AGE CATEGORY: Adult
When I saw his name on the list, my heart skipped a beat. [I like the mystery of this opening. Makes me want to know who he is immediately. What’s the list? Why’s it bad? Intriguing.] [I also liked the opening, but wanted a tiny bit more about the list. You don’t have to give the game away, but “list of potential clients” is very different than “list of people being investigated for embezzlement” or “list of targets.”] It’s such a cliché thing to say, but there is no other way to describe it. It was him, after all: the only man I’d ever loved—the first man to ever betray me. [Again. Interesting.]
[Right here, I’d prefer if you jumped to the present here rather than go straight to back story. You’ve got my attention, but you’re spending that curiosity by feeding me the answers right up front. I’d take all this next part out and move it until later.] [I agree. There’s so much awesome stuff in the present of this opening scene—from The Devil Wears Prada boss to the shape shifting. Trust that stuff. It will make your story stand out. There’s plenty of room for high school later.]
I hadn’t seen him in seven years. It felt like a lifetime ago. No, it was a lifetime ago—a different person’s life.
Back then, I had been Christine Andrews: high school senior, student council president, editor of the school paper, and bound for the Ivy Leagues. I had a bright future ahead of me, or so everyone said. As for me, my main concerns had been whether Dan would finally kiss me at the prom and finding the perfect shoes to complete my outfit. It all sounds so silly, in retrospect. Little had I known that I would never even make it to prom night, or that the next time I would see Dan would be seven years down the road, when I was no longer allowed to be Christine.
Now, they call me Teena—Teena the Shifty.
[I’d move the above back story till later and start here.][Agreed]
I looked up from the page with an effort and tried to keep the emotion from my voice. “This is a long list, Madam. It will take me days to get through it. Who do you want me to prioritize?”
“All of them.” Donna’s tone was as dry as her lined face and tightly pinned hair. The girls called her “the mummy”—but only behind her back. Nobody wanted to find out what she would do if she caught someone using that name. [I love evil bosses. I’ve got a great sense of her already, and I’m looking forward to more!]
I tried to sound as polite as I possibly could. “Madam Donna, there are a dozen potential clients on this list. I understand that this last-minute referral is a great opportunity for us, but I cannot possibly do background research on each of them by tomorrow. I would have to stay up all night, and I probably still wouldn’t be done.” [I don’t know if there’s a reason why you’re using very formal speech here. It doesn’t sound right to my ear. “I would have to” sounds more natural as “I’d have to.”] [I thought perhaps her version of excessive politeness was speaking without contractions—so I see what you’re going for—but there’s enough business-speak here to show she’s putting on a performance. You have room to make the rest of it more natural sounding without losing the idea that this is not how she usually speaks. Also, with a first-person narrator, we have a clear sense of voice already, so even a slight shift will be noticeable.]
But Donna was walking away, as if the matter was already settled. As far as she was concerned, it probably was. [I’m confused here. She’s walking away, but then she’s talking. I realize people can walk and talk, but it might help to add a little more explicit choreography, like have Donna stop and turn back to say this.] “Then you will stay up all night, Teena, and you will be done by tomorrow. And if we lose a single contract because of you, I’ll add it to your tab. Now stop complaining and get to work. You’re wasting time.”
The library door clicked shut behind her and I sat back in my chair with a sigh. Great. Another sleepless night. I could feel my eyes prickling in anticipation. I reached for the large touchscreen on my desk and turned it on, then Morphed my hair into a serviceable close-cropped cut. As I did so, I also instinctively made my skin lighter and I grew taller by a couple of inches. [Whoa. That’s a cool surprise.] [I’d love to have some hint of why she morphs when the boss leaves. Is it more comfortable? Does the boss prefer her to look a particular way?] I could have changed only my hair, but it was much easier to Morph entirely to match one of the faces in my repertoire. [I really love this premise.][Me too!]
Thank you, Natasha, Kelli, and Mary Ann, 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.
Thank you for this! I actually decided to make it MG after sending this in, especially with some of the themes and details in the book. Loving the critique and will take your advice! This is my second time writing a query for this and I remember someone saying it had to be everything except the climax. Back to the blueprints!
Also, I have a question about genre choice: since Words isn’t set in a completely new world but moreso a parallel one that grants wishes to the desperate, would that make it paranormal, since Ziva only gains a power based on it or fantasy because of the world she’s in?
Genres are really up to you, and if you get an agent they might just repackage it anyway. But if it was me, I would call it fantasy.
I see! Thank you for the help. Would Ms. Nieagle mind if I used the query letter she offered after touching it up a bit?
It’s yours now. 😉