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Day 23 (Part 3) of the Pitch Wars Mentor Workshops with Gwynne Jackson

Sunday, 20 September 2020  |  Posted by Stephanie Scott

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 Gwynne Jackson

GwynneGwynne Jackson Jackson writes across multiple genres, with a focus on romance and women’s fiction. A 2018 Golden Heart® finalist in contemporary romance, her books explore the nature of love, human interactions, and found family (and often ghosts). She loves writing complex, unapologetic characters in complex, unapologetic settings where the stakes are high and the payoff proves to be worth all the angst.

A founding member of All The Kissing, she’s the one who dreams up the Twitter #FridayKiss prompts. Besides writing, she spends her time on arts & crafts, cleaning up after the cats, and helping other writers make their work shine. She lives on an island in Puget Sound with her family, pets, and a band of local sea otters whose hijinks are endlessly amusing. Like all good Northwesterners, she knows too many ways to describe the rain.

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Gwynne’s critique

Category: Adult Historical


Dear    ,

I am seeking representation for my novel [title] a historical fiction novel of 71,000 words. [Right off the bat, this word count is definitely on the slim side for historical fiction. The industry standard for it is 100k and up. Also, this is where your comp titles—if any—belong, or “it will appeal to readers of Tracey Rees and Katherine Webb,” just to set the scene in the agent or editor’s mind for where you see it placed on the shelves.]

 The story is set between 1912 – 1914, against a backdrop of social and political change. The story opens with the suspicious death of protagonist Virginia Thraxted’s husband. It is a story about love, murder, secrets, and rebellion. The Secrets We Hide is fictional, but all historical events are real. The Irish struggle for home rule, rising tensions between England and Germany, and the suffrage movement all melt into the lives of the characters who are complicated and conflicted. As the book progresses and secrets are uncovered Virginia Penrose has to decide whether she will be the driver of her future or just a passenger. [This would make a great opening line. It’s intriguing. However, what you need to do in a query is sell your idea, not explain the history behind it. So for your first paragraph you need to hook the reader. Use the line you’ve got, or something to draw attention like “Virginia Thraxted doesn’t know who killed her husband. He’s not even dead yet, but he will be in several months’ time.” Something catchy (only appropriate to your story, of course), to hook the reader. Think of your query as a marketing tool—the type of thing you’d see in a blurb on a book jacket. “When Virginia Penrose married her husband, she never expected the [xyz type of intrigue] to follow her from her small town in [place] to his grand manor, but she can’t shake it.” Also, if you’re going to say things like “secrets are uncovered,” you need to give up the secret. “When Virginia was seventeen, she made a blood oath with her gardener’s son to meet again in three years’ time. She never expected she’d be making that meeting with their secret son” or whatever (just an example, as I haven’t read your book yet).

 A good format for a query is “the hook, the book, the cook.” Three paragraphs. In the first, you hook the reader with savory or meta details (word count, comps, and so on). In the second, you give a hint about what the book is about via what the main characters want, and what is at stake for them. You don’t give away the ending in the query—its purpose is to seduce the reader into wanting more. And the final paragraph is about you, the author, with details relevant to the book or to your publishing/writing career.]

My book most likely [ALWAYS be confident in your query. No “most likely” or “I think”.] falls into the historical fiction category with a large splash of romance and suspense. Fans of Tracey Rees or Katherine Webb would enjoy my book. [Know your genre before you query! If it’s a genre straddler, you can say “historical fiction with a central romance” or “historical suspense with a central romance.” If you’re not sure about your genre, pick one and stick to it. Industry professionals will want to be assured that you know your market. Also, all this information can go in your opening paragraph, OR the genre/word count can go into this paragraph if you prefer.]

The idea for The Secrets We Hide [title] sprang from a visit to my local bookshop. I love history and romance and wanted to read something set in or around 1912. I wondered if a book existed that detailed the changing role of women alongside the changing world landscape. My local booksellers (who are incredibly helpful and well informed) could not think of any fictional novel which touched on the points I raised. So, as they say ‘If you can’t find the book you want to read, write it’ – so I did! [This is great material for a call with an agent or editor, but it doesn’t belong in the query letter. It’s best to focus here solely on the book’s plot and characters.]

A whistle-stop tour of me: [cut] I hail from London but now reside in Devon. I went to a South London girls’ comprehensive school, fell straight into the music industry for far too many years, lived in America, have three sons, and took time out to do a nursing degree.  [cut]I love writing short stories almost as much as I love writing novels and have had three published in anthologies. [I would suggest, instead of that last sentence, something more like “I have short stories published in Anthology A (year), Anthology B (year), and Anthology C (year).] My short stories have been both short and longlisted in prestigious competitions. [Go ahead and toot your own horn! Name the prestigious competitions and the years you were listed.] I have self-published two novels, both of which have been well received. [That’s wonderful, but be prepared to back this claim up with sales data if someone asks, and they will. If the sales aren’t impressive, leave out “both of which have been well received.”]

The opportunity to meet you would be fabulous if you see potential in my book; either virtually or in person if the craziness of our new dystopian world allows!  [cut—that’s a next step, and the query isn’t the place for suggesting a face-to-face meeting unless you’re planning on being at a conference or workshop with that agent or editor in the near future.

Thanks for taking the time to read my submission. I hope you enjoy it. [Of course you do, but be strong and confident. “I believe this will be a perfect fit for your list” shows that you believe in your work and that you’ve researched what this agent or editor is selling.]

First page:

February 16th, 1912

The gathering congregation hold shades of grief like badges of honour [nice!] as Thomas Perceval Thraxted is laid to rest at The Chapel of Saint Anne, Thraxted Manor, Essex. [.]Virginia finds it ironic that [T]he sky is cloudless and the day bright. His funeral is attended by the usual array of the great and the good, and the congregation reads like a who’s who of British society.

Walking in half time behind the coffin[,] Virginia [Thraxted] feels eyes turn like fallen dominos as she passes. Amongst the mourners is Major Mulkenny, and a small shiver and slight tremble of her legs catches her. She takes deep breaths in an attempt to steady herself, and keeping her head bowed she moves slowly forward[,] not looking [neither] left nor right. A half-formed thought whips through her, but before she can grasp it, it’s carried away on the weight of whispered condolences. [very nice!]

The mismatch of her marriage had contained guilt on both sides, but now in the cold light of a British winter’s day, she is regretful [this is a question of style and authorial voice, but I would prefer “she regrets” over “she is regretful.” Why? Because Virginia regretting this is action and active. Virginia being regretful is more theoretical and keeps the POV more distant.] there is to be no second chance. Taking a handful of soil, Virginia watches it scatter[s it] atop the coffin. “Goodbye, Thomas,” she whispers.

She leaves Thraxted as soon as it is seemly to do so. No false goodbyes, no empty wishes, only an overwhelming sense of relief. She will not look back, only forward. [So this is a cool, brief, ominous, and to-the-point prologue. It’s very picturesque. Without reading the rest of the book I’m unsure whether you need it, but it’s nicely written.]

January 7th 1912

The low winter sun tries its best to shine warmth, but the air is chill and remains stubbornly glacial. There’s a clean bite, a crispness to the day, and those with a mind to walk tell of a crunch and sheen underfoot. It’s a day that slips into being as effortlessly as a sixth born child. For most, it’s another day of humdrum, another day of flatness.

Only within one small corner of England does the day merit more than frost and shimmer. To the North East [northeast] of London, hidden behind tall walls and sprawling countryside, normality has been replaced with anxiety. [Only one month earlier! Now…I see why you started with the prologue. It’s so engaging! This, on the other hand, opens with a description of the weather, which is generally considered to be an overused opening {although your writing is lovely and lyrical). It’s something to consider if you decide to omit a prologue and weave that information into the book as the first chapter progresses. Thank you so much for letting me take a look at your query and opening page!]

Thank you, Gwynne, for the critique! We are showcasing three mentor critiques each day leading up to the Pitch Wars 2020 submission window, so make sure to read the other two critiques for today and come back tomorrow for more. 

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