Have questions about submitting to Pitch Wars or just want to know what it is? Start here!


Day 23 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Query & First Page Workshop with mentors Kelly deVos and Jessica Bayliss

Thursday, 8 June 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 Kelly deVos

Kelly deVos

Website | Twitter

A third generation native Arizonan, Kelly deVos can tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about cactus, cattle and climate. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. Her debut novel, FAT GIRL ON A PLANE, will be published in 2018 by Harlequin Teen and her work has been featured in Normal Noise and 202 Magazine.



Kelly’s Query Critique…


GENRE: Thriller

PASTE QUERY (here in the body of the email):

A sinister killer stole her and held her captive for three days…  and she was one of the lucky ones. [KD: I think it’s a great idea to open with this kind of hook BUT use of the world “stole” tripped me up and the term Beacon Hill Strangler is way more interesting than “sinister killer”]

Fifteen years later, still tortured by the memories of that lost time, Simone Chase is asked to investigate a recent murder.  A recent murder that holds some disturbing similarities to those events of her past. [KD: This is a really intriguing concept. But why would Simone specifically be asked to investigate? We’re not given much to go on in terms of figuring out wat makes this character unique. How old is she? What’s her occupation? Where does she live?]

Her abductor is safely locked away, but someone is picking up where he left off, and as more victims emerge, it appears Simone is firmly in the killer’s crosshairs.  Desperate to uncover the truth, she is pulled headlong into a decade long cover up that may just turn her whole world upside down. [KD: I don’t think this is nearly enough information about the plot of the book. I think you need to work the information in the synopsis below and combine the two things as one query.]

THE FIFTEENTH VICTIM is a psychological thriller in the spirit of the work of Gillian Flynn and Fiona Barton and currently stands complete at 81,000 words. [KD: Personally, I’d word this a bit more conventionally. “Complete at 81,000 words, THE FIFTEENTH VICTIM is a psychological thriller perfect for fans of Gillian Flynn and Fiona Barton.]

My name is Justin Bell and you can reach me via email at XXXXX or by phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX.  I have been independent publishing for several years and have several novels and novellas already published through various retailers and Amazon’s Kindle Worlds platform. [KD: It’s kind of odd to have this contact info at this point in the query. Maybe add this to your signature? Also, I’d think carefully about how you word your publishing experiencing. If you’re already a published author, I’d mention the titles in the more traditional format, for example, “I am the author of THE MEMORY JAR (Flux, 2016).” If this is self-publishing or fandom experience and your readership is strong, I’d mention it. Otherwise, I would wait until the agent call to discuss.]

Thank you for your time and consideration.

SYNOPSIS [KD: To me, this portion, reads more like another version of your query. A synopsis would typically be 1-3 pages and would include the major plot points of the book, including the ending. Consider working the info below into your query.]

Simone Chase is damaged goods.  At the tail end of a two year [two-year] reign of terror across Boston, the Beacon Hill Strangler captured his fifteen victim…but instead of killing her, he set her free, letting her live with the trauma that was inflicted upon her during her three day captivity. [KD: I personally think this is a stronger opening than the one above.]

Fifteen years have passed, but in Simone’s mind, the pain is still raw and fresh, especially when new victims begin appearing in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston with familiar trademarks.

There’s only one problem… the Beacon Hill Strangler was identified by Simone and put in prison fourteen years ago.  Are these new victims a result of some elaborate copycat?  As the Strangler reached out from behind bars and recruited some fresh faced [fresh-faced] killers?  Why don’t the police seem to want to solve the case and what sinister truth will Simone Chase uncover as she takes the law into her own hands? [KD: This paragraph is a much better summary of your plot than above. I’d start with this. If you can refine to eliminate the rhetorical questions, you’d be in good shape.]

No longer believing her own memories and one step closer to insanity every day, Simone must comb through the open wounds of her past and see if she can solve this case, with or without the police’s help. [KD: What I would say is that I think your query really needs to add in or emphasize the psychological component because this issue with the memories and with Simone doubting her own sanity is the difference between a thriller and a psychological thriller.]

KD: I always LOVE a good psychological thriller and it seems like you’ve got so many intriguing elements here! I think if you work on combining these two pieces, you’ll have one strong query. Good luck and happy querying!

Next up we have . . .

Pitch Wars Mentor Jessica Bayliss

Jessica Bayliss Website | Twitter

Jessica Bayliss is a fiction author with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology who loves all things reading and writing. Her work crosses genres including romance, urban fantasy, and horror. Although it’s typically advisable to focus on one audience, Jessica just can’t seem to settle down; she writes Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult and (eh hem) regular adult fiction. She is a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Because one cannot live on writing alone, Jessica also spends a great deal of time with friends and family. She is a lover of all animals especially one very special Havanese and one extremely ornery cockatiel. She also loves to cook, eat, and exercise (it’s all about balance, right?) and is a firm believer that coffee makes the world a better place.

Jessica’s First Page Critique…

The year I was born, astronomers discovered a new planet. They named it Eris. It’s the second largest dwarf planet in the solar system. It’s also the name of a Greek goddess. Jessica used to say it was funny I came into the world the same year as the discovery of a planet that shares its name with the goddess of chaos, strife, and discord. She would literally throw her head back and laugh and say it was a sign because I had a disagreeable nature as a baby. Just like the goddess. I never understood why she thought that was funny. Who would say that about their kid? Then again I never understood my mother. [I’m wondering how old your MC is. This is a very nice opening paragraph, but I’m imagining someone older than MG age. I like how I learned a lot about your MC’s life just from this paragraph. It’s clear she’s not close to her mother, who isn’t in the picture now, and I have a feel for her personality.]

“Aurora,” Grams says. Her reflection glances at me in the passenger side window as the car speeds down the interstate.

I look away, focusing instead on the moon in the pale purple sky. It’s in the waxing crescent phase. A lot of people confuse waxing crescent and waning crescent but I know the difference. I know a lot about the moon. With a name like Aurora Elizabeth Luna, how could I not?

To most people I’m Rory and to some kids at school who think they’re funny, I’m Moon Girl. Yeah Aurora has to do with lights in the sky and Luna comes from the Latin word meaning moon, but c’mon; if you’re going to make fun of somebody’s name, at least make it original. Moon Girl is downright dumb. What was Jessica thinking? She always had a thing for astronomy so maybe it was her idea of an astronomy joke. Or since our last name is Luna, that’s why she liked astronomy. Who knows? I never got the chance to ask her. [I don’t dislike this paragraph, but I’d love for you to save it for later and instead use these first paragraphs to ground me in the scene a little bit longer before giving me more backstory. Especially since I can tell from the end of this sample that Rory isn’t going to be around the kids at school for the duration of your story. That said, I’m getting the feeling that she’s someone who sees herself as an outsider, which feels like it’s going to be an important part of her character.]

“All I am asking is that you try to have an open mind, okay?” Gram asks. I catch her reflection looking at me again. [You refer to the grandmother’s reflection looking at her twice in this small sample. Can you vary the action a bit or use different phrasing so it doesn’t sound repetitive?]

I want to tell her to keep her eyes on the road. That’s how accidents happen. But then I would have to speak to her and I’m not doing that right now. I guess my disagreeable nature is showing itself.

“Aurora,” she says again, this time more firmly. But I still don’t answer. I fold my arms and shrug instead. I guess that’s good enough because she turns her attention back to driving.

After a few minutes, she sighs. “It’s not forever,” she says, trying to be reassuring. [I feel you don’t even need the phrase trying to be reassuring b/c it’s clear from WHAT gram says. In your first chapter you want to make every single word count. Remember, you get precious few words to hook a potential agent, so don’t take up room with anything that isn’t essential or super-engaging. And yeah, that’s a hard thing to do! First chapters are the hardest.] “It’s just for the summer.”

“But why North Carolina?” I blurt out. “Why Aunt Jeannie’s place?” I pinch my thigh for breaking my silent treatment. [This behavior feels older than MG to me…]

“We both know you need cheering up. All that sadness you have buried deep in you, it’s not healthy. You can’t keep going on like this.” She reaches over and pats my arm.[Where is your MC in the car? Above, your MC sees her grandmother’s reflection in the passenger side mirror, but if she’s driving, and if she can reach over to pat Rory’s arm, then that makes me think they must both be in the front seat… But then Rory would not see her grandmother’s reflection in the side mirror.]“Two months at the lake will do you wonders. Just think of all the fishing and swimming. You’ll love it and it will be a nice change of scenery for a while. Then you’ll  be back home before you know it.” [I’d love to know a bit about why Rory doesn’t want to go to the lake. It sounds great to me. So maybe throwing in a little bit of her reactions to these things could be helpful.]

Thank you for sharing this with me! Overall, you put a nice amount of characterization in this first bit. I’d love to see a little more grounding in the immediate action and less backstory, but that’s an easy fix. I’d love to see a little more sense of why Rory is unhappy with this plan right off the bat, because that’s the conflict she’s facing right now that’s going to pull your reader in. Don’t forget, you get precious few words to hook a potential agent; choose each one wisely. But I’m totally intrigued about what waits for Rory at the lake, and the astrology component is cool and adds a nice element of whimsy. All the best to you!

Thank you Kelly and Jessica 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.

  • Terri Lewis says:

    The Luna Girl story doesn’t sound MG, but the voice is great!

  • belljustin says:

    Kelly, thanks so much for the critique, I truly appreciate your time. I will work on implementing your suggestions and getting this refined for submission.

    This was terrific advice, thank you very much.

    – Justin Bell

We're thrilled at the different ways those in our Pitch Wars community are giving back—and we encourage them to do so. However, please keep in mind that Pitch Wars is not affiliated with any of these various contests, promotions, etc., including those of our mentors and mentees. Promoting any such opportunities via our social media channels doesn't imply endorsement or affiliation. We encourage you to do your research before participating.

Pitch Wars takes a stand. ANTI-BULLYING. Click here to review our policy

Pitch Wars 2021

Blog Archives

Blog Categories

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.