Welcome to the Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2020 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 …
Pitch Wars Mentor Sabrina Lotfi
Sabrina Lotfi is a nationally published makeup artist with over a decade of experience in fashion and film. She writes contemporary and fantasy YA and has a deep love for history, horses, and Happily Ever Afters. She is a former content editor at Owl Hollow Press, has taught classes at writing conferences, and has been a #TeamGirlPower Pitch Wars mentor with the incomparable Carrie S. Allen for the past two years.
Sabrina lives in Texas with her vampire kitty and bat pup. When she isn’t writing, reading, or watching way too much TV, you can find her playing catch with the pup, nerding out on a puzzle, or trying to make another perfect batch of macarons.
Category: Young Adult Fantasy
[Hi Rachel! Thank you so much for trusting me with your query and first page! Before you dive into notes, deep breaths—this probably looks scary. I’ve got a ton of questions and comments coming at you, but that’s mainly because I haven’t read your book to know the answers. And you don’t need to answer everything in your query—that would get LONG! But hopefully they’ll show you where I’m experiencing confusion and help you figure out exactly which details and plot points to focus on in your query to best showcase your book. Good luck!]
Dear Pitch Wars Blog Team,
As the youngest player in the Fire Games, sixteen-year-old Lucrezia Langdon knows how to deal with heat. In the games, warriors – or as Lucrezia calls herself, performers [This may work better as a book detail vs. a query detail. Instead, give readers a better look at who Lucrezia is. If you do keep this in query, it needs a minor tweak one direction or another: either “calls THEM, performers” or “calls herself, A performer.”]– battle it out in the arena for the entertainment of the masses. [The Fire Games are clearly important, so it’d help to explain them—what takes place in them and their results, or…their stakes and rewards. I’m guessing fire is involved, but your only mentions are your Avatar comp (fire bending) and that her enemies do it (fire magic, third paragraph), so make that clear. Because technically Fire Games could just be a name, just as the Hunger Games isn’t really a competition to see who can go without food the longest. For stakes and rewards, what happens when warriors lose? Do they die? Get hurt? Are winners revered? Feared? Handsomely rewarded?] With her one thousandth victory [!!!!] on the horizon, she hopes to finally gain the approval of her mentor, Viktor. [I already don’t like this dude—good job! That said, this goal feels weak. I suggest either telling us a bit more about Viktor and why his approval is so important to her, or shaping this part of your query around the frustrations of working with a mentor she can never please.] However, when her family home burns down under mysterious circumstances with her parents and younger sister trapped inside, Lucrezia has bigger things to worry about [This is too casual: no family, no home, and a fresh enemy seems more intense than having bigger things to worry about.]—especially when she learns that Viktor may be responsible. [How? What’s the plot point in your book that leads to this jaw dropper?]
While trying to find answers [Delete “trying to find answers.” She uncovers things at the end of this sentence.] and get justice for her familyTrying to get justice is commendable, but be as specific to her response and your plot as possible. Is she grief-ridden? Cold? Raging? Does her plan for justice involve open destruction or quiet scheming?], Lucrezia uncovers a lifetime worth of lies [Can you give us a few more details—the lies she uncovers, or something that sets a more concrete plot point or character intro in the form of an important ally into your query that is more than “uncovering lies”?] and a child army that she has unwittingly founded. [Is this because she’s the youngest ever in the games? Or is this founded after she leaves the games? This isn’t a group getting together to play kickball or something forced on them by society. It’s an active choice to stand up for something and behind someone—Lucrezia—and that’s a big deal. Life or death stuff! So what makes Lucrezia so special and worthy of this following? Because I’m assuming it’s more than just being younger than her competition or quitting something.] It turns out that when she joined the Fire Games, she may have accidentally joined a cult. [Eep! Forgive me. I am not a cult expert! But to my knowledge cults are based around a religion. You use a comp below, Set Fire to the Gods—are there god(s) or religion of any kind at play in your story? There’s no mention anywhere else in your query, so until I got to “cults” and your comp, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. If not, I’m wondering about the use of the term “cult” here, and if you may mean a corrupt government? I honestly can’t tell!] In getting out of it, she accidentally joins a revolution. [Because of the way you’ve tied both of these (the child army and the revolution) to the Fire Games, it feels like the revolution is against the Fire Games (aka: the cult). I’ve been wracking my brain for other examples, but revolutions are for overthrowing governments/rulers, not cults. So what are your world’s revolutionaries against? The Fire Games/cult? The government? Something else? What is their focus, the specific change they’re trying to bring about? – That’s a super important detail to have in your query in the big pic sense, but also to help us personalize this to Lucrezia, because we need to know what she’s fighting for! And if it isn’t something government related, you may want to consider a different noun.]
With the help of friends old and new, Lucrezia must dodge Viktor [What’s got Viktor and everyone all hype about Lucrezia? Because she left the games? If he wasn’t after her directly after the fire and her leaving the games (and he may not have been, that isn’t entirely clear and there’s a whole paragraph in the middle) what prompts him to come after her now? Is it because of her new ties to the revolution? If that’s the case, how does he know of her role there—is the revolution openly fighting and she’s their public face? If he’s after her now, either because of leaving the games or joining the revolution, why did he burn down her house and kill her family before either of those took place? Your first paragraph makes Lucrezia look dope as heck and she doesn’t seem to be causing anyone any problems to merit that, plus by sheer volume of victories it seems like she’s been a part of the Fire Games/cult for a while now without incident. If she’s doing well, I’d assume rewards over punishment. Something’s missing here, a few key details that can help round out all these questions.] and the authorities [The use of “authorities” is confusing to me. Who runs the Games? If Viktor and the cult are the ones after her and responsible for the deaths of her family, I’m not sure what the authorities have to do with it. The way you’ve used it, it feels like government, or police or military of some kind, but I’ve never heard of a cult being called “authorities” like they have control outside of that cult in an obvious to the population way. Do you mean “cult authorities” here?] – who have fire magic, mind control and airships on their side – as she races to get urgent intel [It may be cool to tell us the kind of intel (battle tactics, a coming attack, etc), because your next sentence makes it clear that the intel is urgent.] to the revolution. [How? If Lucrezia’s famous from her exposure and victories in the Fire Games (and possibly famous now as the face of the revolution) and the bad guys are in pursuit, are we airship-chasing it up? Tunnelling under the city? In disguise?] If she fails, the revolution will fall, and an army of children alongside them. After the death of her sister, Lucrezia doesn’t intend to let another child die.
TITLE, a young adult fantasy, is complete at 72,000 words. It stands alone but has series potential. Combining the tyrannical government and ensuring resistance of Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, and the fire bending of the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender, Incipient will appeal to fans of these works, as well as Sara Raasch and Kristen Simmons [Simmons’] Set Fire to the Gods. [I would tidy this up: TITLE combines this from this book, this from this book, and this from this book. But I like the way you showcase certain elements from each comp that relate to your book—specifics like this are so smart and helpful for agents!]
[Thank you so much for trusting me with your query and first page! Before you dive into notes, deep breaths—this probably looks scary. I’ve got a ton of questions and comments coming at you, but that’s mainly because I haven’t read your book to know the answers. And you don’t need to answer everything in your query—that would get LONG! But hopefully they’ll show you where I’m experiencing confusion and help you figure out exactly which details and plot points to focus on in your query to best showcase your book. Good luck!]
There’s a ball of fire hurtling towards my face, and it’s business as usual. [I really like this for a first line. It’s unique and intense and gives me an instant peek inside your character’s head. You’ve definitely dropped us straight into action in this scene, but as long as you still immerse us in her head so we’re not just meeting warrior-in-fight-mode Lucrezia, I think you can pull this off. She’s almost a thousand victories in: these battles ARE business as usual. That said, it is VERY in the action. So…real talk. Is this the absolute best place to start your book? It might be. It might not. Taking a deeper look at first page/chapter is the last critique I do on any book, so this one is hard for me. But I am going to caution you to look at how this opener fits with the rest of your novel when you do your next pass, and really think about if this battle is the best way to go. Would something slightly tamer but just as engaging that gives us a glimpse at Lucrezia’s relationships with her sister or Viktor work better? Something else entirely? This is our character and world intro, so what do those character and world exits look like? What’s the most important side of Lucrezia that we need to meet to see the most change in her by the end of your novel? Same question for your world—how does it look at the close of your novel vs. now? Opposites make great openers and I think when they’re done well, they can carry us all the way through the novel.]
I dodge left—tucking up as I do, turning the easy move into a complicated somersault. As I roll, I take back control of my breathing. The hot air singes my lungs. [See my note about the sun later.] I feel invincible. I feel alive. [Feel: I don’t mind these. Some people will. I only have page one so I don’t know if this is a habit, so I’d add this to your Commonly Used list and use it sparingly, so keep or rework accordingly.] The fire inside me roars. Still in the air, I picture the fire’s shape. I see it clearly [Delete: “. I see it clearly”], giving it life in my mind. The spark flares, and the fire comes bursting [“bursts” vs “comes bursting”] out of my hands.
The phoenix is huge, and hot, and feels alive. [You used this twice on the same page, so either play that symmetry up or drop one. (I vote drop.)] It swoops towards my opponent, air crackling around it, sounding like the shriek of [Replace: “sounding like the shriek of” with “shrieking like”] a predator as it attacks. I see the shock in his face. [Give a stronger visual and remove “I see.”] His name is Bam, I think. [You could get more detail in here, something that help us get to know her and your world better—a quick line about if they’ve faced each other before, or Bam’s fighting style, or a strength or weakness of his to look out for—keep it quick though, since she’s mid-jump! :)] The force of the flames knocks him to the ground.
The crowd cheers when I land. Sand and rock spit up at me as I roll across the arena floor. There’s movement to my left. I turn—splitting my focus between keeping the phoenix alive and figuring out what else has entered the arena. [You mention the phoenix acting as a shield below. That’s also where we learn the result of Bam’s fall. I suggest moving both up to before you bring the dogs in. When you do bring in the dogs, weave in a little more setting. Is the arena an open space? Any structures? Are there other warriors she has yet to face, or is this only ever one-on-one?] The sun beats down on me from above. [“Beats down” makes me think of heat, and I’m wondering if she’d even notice that. I don’t know the answer to that, she very well might! But another way to get the sun in and make it more of a hinderance vs. just existing is if it’s so bright it’s messing with her vision. Or it could glint off the bodies of your metal doggos.]
It’s a pack of clockwork dogs. Four of them. Entirely metal, teeth razor sharp. Gears and steam create a fake sense of life. The groaning of the metal sounds like a growl. [Are these dogs new or familiar to her? Is this a difficult ask, or easy peasy? Roughly how far away from her are they?]
We size each other up. The dogs make no move yet turn [This is confusing. They don’t move, or they turn? Pick one, or show the progression…OR…drop both and just have them creak and shift. That alone is a fantastic visual and all you really need here!] —they creak and shift but don’t approach. [Approach or attack? Approach feels pretty tame, given the circumstances.] They’re waiting for something. [Does she know what this something they’re waiting for is?] I position myself so that Bam is on my right—he’s still down, the phoenix creating a shield that he hasn’t dared to cross yet. [Is he just…hanging out? Attempting to go around? Can he fight fire with fire to get past? As it reads now, he doesn’t feel like much of an opponent. If the dogs weren’t in this scene, what would be happening, because I’m assuming he’s still trying to win this thing too. You’re writing first person so it’s totally the Lucrezia show, but this shouldn’t be the Lucrezia show to Bam. :)] The pack stays to my left. They shift, snarling.
The dogs charge. [Does the something they were waiting for in the last paragraph happen?]
I click both hands, sparks igniting. I form two balls, sending both towards the dogs. The balls make contact, and the large flame that follows pushes the dogs back. One dog is hit in the snout but continues forward. Another is hit in the knee, and stumbles, mechanics buckling. [Look at your blocking again in the last three sentences to make sure what’s in your head is translating to the page. I can’t tell if the second and third are backing up to more deeply describe the first, or if four fire balls were thrown. If only two balls were thrown, I’d rework this to clarify, but also for pacing: it feels a little clunky and draggy in the middle of this charge.] There we go. Everything has a weakness.