Welcome to the Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2019 mentors. From a lottery drawing, we selected writers to receive a query or first page critique from one of our mentors. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a query or first page from our lucky winners. We’ll be posting some of the critiques leading up to the submission window. Our hope is that these samples will help you all get an idea on how to shine up your query and first page.
We appreciate our mentors for giving 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, Nancy Werlin …
I’m the author of 10 young adult novels, all published by Penguin, with an 11th under contract with Candlewick. I write contemporary realistic fiction (including the National Book Award finalist The Rules of Survival), fantasy (including the New York Times bestseller Impossible), and suspense (including the Edgar award winner The Killer’s Cousin). I’ve been a judge for the Edgar awards and for the National Book Awards. I’ve mentored for 7 years at the Highlights Whole Novel workshop, which is how I know how much I love working with a writer on what their completed novel might need to make it shine the brighter.
Nancy’s first page critique . . .
I watched as he spun and spun and spun. Ted, my brother’s charge, danced his truth while a daunting tune poured from his lips. Smoke emerged from his jacket as the friction made his body heat up. I knew it wouldn’t be long until the flames fully engulfed him. His green eyes radiated with the fear I had come to love over the last eighteen years of my life. The fear of knowing you were going to burn. His limbs trembled as he begged them to stop moving. The smell of burnt hair filled the room as his head lit up like the torches hanging along the walls.
[You have a lovely talent for description. I think you would benefit by thinking about when and how to curb it back for clarity. Clarity is especially necessary on the first page of a fantasy. It’s tempting to say too much there, because so much needs doing (establish character, setting, mood, tone, type of book, etc.). Look to (1) trim repetitive information, and (2) clarify what’s happening physically and (3) emotionally. There are many ways to do this with any text; you will find your own way and this is just an example of my way. That said, note that trimming/clarifying depends on your knowledge of the full text—which I don’t have! For example, as reader, I currently have this question: Is Ted a very important character in the book? I can’t tell. He’s treated like a major charter (he’s named before anyone else, he’s the focus of the first page, his name is mentioned 3 times in the first page, and we even learn his eye color and his emotions). But then, he burns up! I assume he’s dead? If so, he’s a throwaway character being used here as a way to let the reader get to know the MC and her brother and the milieu. Only you know for sure. When you trim, use your craft to emphasize and signal to the reader precisely which elements are important. In this sample trim from me (below), I’m assuming Ted doesn’t matter as a character. (Although hey, this is hell, so maybe he heals to burn again another day?) For contrast, note that your use of the word “truth” is also confusing in this paragraph, but for that, I’m willing to wait for more information—it’s a tease that works very well to draw the reader in with a question. One more point—the MC’s age is here in this first paragraph, but to my mind, that’s a bit of information that you can afford to wait to deliver so I’d postpone mentioning it.]
[Here comes my sample rewrite of the first paragraph:]
[“I watched my brother Laith’s terrified charge spin to the tune my brother was forcing him to sing. The charge’s eyes radiated fear and his jacket smoked as he danced his Truth. When his head lit up like a torch, filling the room with the delicious scent of burnt hair, I exchanged a smile with my brother.”]
[My version is 56 words versus your 108 words; it signals that Ted (who I keep unnamed) isn’t important, that Laith IS important, and I hope it clearly communicates the MC’s delight . . . and teases with the mystery of dancing the Truth (I capitalized to telegraph to the reader that Truth is not just the dictionary definition here). Did I miss something that you wanted to accomplish? Very likely, as you know more than I do about how this story unfolds. But I hope you can see the methodology of trimming for clarity.]
“Please.” He begged one last time. No one answered his plea.
[I’d trim to “Please,” he begged. No one answered.]
[Great idea of yours, to have a very short second paragraph. It’s effective pacing to draw the reader rapidly onward.]
A smile tugged at my lips as I watched Ted fall to the ground, flames covering his body. I breathed in deeply, letting his truth envelop my being. Power radiated through me, my red skin glowed as his truth moved along my arms and legs. I rubbed my hand across my shoulder where the strap to my green silk dress had slipped. Smooth skin greeted my touch, leaving no traces of the leather that had been there moments before. I brushed down my dress, smoothing out the edges to conform to my curved body. I could feel my black hair grow longer, settling like ribbons on my lap. My nails shot out; small daggers now replaced the stubs I had chewed the week before.
[Aha! Now we learn that the truth from a victim’s death-song (I’m guessing?} powers the demons and transforms them physically. Interesting! I really love the visual here of the MC transforming into beauty—very cinematic. (You might want to look up the fire-transformation scene in the old movie She, starring Ursula Andress—ah, I found it, it’s toward the end of this highlight reel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqD7pkVyoOw .) I am confused about the leather—is this a leather garment she was wearing, or did you mean to communicate that her skin was leathery in texture until the power hit her? I think you meant the latter. I’m going to try my clarifying trim again here, below.]
[My version of this paragraph accounts for the fact that I moved the smile up to the first paragraph. As well as trimming, I substituted the more sensual word “caressed” for “rubbed” and lingered on the hair growth for more sensual impact. My version: 86 words. Yours: 124. So the purpose is still tightening and trimming, but retaining and emphasizing the sensual element that was at the core of your original. And I’m keeping up with my capitalization on Truth.]
[“He fell to the ground, flames covering his body. I breathed in deeply, letting his Truth envelop me. Its power moved along my red skin, transforming it from leathery to smooth. I caressed my shoulder, where the strap to my green silk dress had slipped. I smoothed my dress over my curvy body as I felt my black hair grow, settling like ribbons down my back and on my lap. My nails shot out; small daggers now replaced the stubs I had chewed the week before.”]
I looked over at my father, laughing along with the other demons at Ted’s expense. We relished in the truth of mankind and we were always in business, seeing as so many humans died with lies still upon their lips. Men and women from Earth summoned us, the demons of truth, with different hopes and dreams, never reading the fine print. If lies consumed you, you would burn. My twin brother, Laith, snorted beside me. His sapphire blue eyes lit up, mirroring my own. He was my perfect match despite being a boy and having shoulder length hair. Even our high cheek bones resembled each other. We looked as identical as twin demons could being opposite genders.
[Her father shows up now! Excellent; I foresee drama. Let’s emphasize him a bit more by having him start the paragraph. Also you make here this very important point: these are the “demons of truth” and you reveal what that means. So that’s your world-building and it’s vital information. Let’s make it crystal clear. Again, I’d be tempted to make use of the capital letter in Truth, and here I’d also suggest using shorter, punchier sentences, to allow the reader to absorb this important world-building (which I may have misinterpreted a bit, possibly). Also, your original paragraph accomplishes physical description of the twin demons—hm, I’m tempted to make a separate paragraph of that. Note that I’m also taking care to avoid binary gender references, substituting for “mankind” and “men and women” as possible—it’s just another thing to think about as you write, if you wish.]
[Here we go. My version: 67 words. Yours: 68. That tells you that I believe that you gave this information the correct among of weight in your original.]
[“My father laughed alongside the other demons—even more pleased than I was, no doubt, at Laith’s performance. We demons were always in business, because so many humans died with lies still on their lips, even as they summoned us with their hopes and dreams. But they never read the fine print. If lies consumed you, you would burn, and release Truth for us demons to relish.”]
[I made a new paragraph of the twins’ description. My version: 48 words. Yours: 49 words. I got creative here as I trimmed, and added too. Why? To try to set anticipation—a hook—in the reader for what I (possibly incorrectly) suspect is coming—that the twins are not going to remain identical in their thoughts and feelings, the way they presumably are in this first scene. This change of mine is also an example of the kind of thing that every writer will do differently. That said, it’s good to set some kind of subtle hook … mine operates by nudging the reader to expect change this identicality. I hope that makes sense.]
[“Leith snorted his appreciation. I grabbed his hand and squeezed it ecstatically. At eighteen years old, we were as identical physically as two demons of different genders could be: sapphire blue eyes, black hair, and high cheek bones. More importantly, we were identical in our hearts and minds.”]
[In closing, it’s been a great pleasure to think about this first page. I’m intrigued and wish you all the luck in the world in Pitch Wars 2019.]