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Day 24 (Part 2): Pitch Wars Query & First Page Workshop with Mentors Jenna Lehne, Tara Creel, Kate Karyus Quinn & Mindy McGinnis

Friday, 9 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 Mentors Jenna Lehne & Tara Creel

Jenna Lehne Website | Twitter

Jenna Lehne writes spooky MG/YA words and blogs for . She is represented by Gina Panettieri with Talcott Notch Literary.




Tara Creel Website | Twitter

Tara Creel write books for children. Particularly picture books and middle grade.  She also offers editorial services for writers.   She review books for The Deseret News. She is also an editor for Month9Books, Tantrum Division. All of that means that she gets to read and write for work and for fun.




Jenna and Tara’s Query Critique…

Age category: 10 and up

Genre: Middle Grade

Dear Brenda Drake,

I’d like to offer my MG novel ‘ARMORED’ for your consideration.

The Dark Ages look even gloomier from outer space. [We like this opening line, but it’s a bit clunky. How about taking out the word ‘even’?]

Thirteen-orbits-old Odd is an armored, war-loving royal from a dismal part of the Universe where the stars don’t shine. The only problem is he’s never actually tasted war and his Overlord father won’t let him forget it. [We love this idea but it’s confusing like this. What about rearranging it into something like:  At thirteen orbits old, Odd is an armored, war-loving royal from a dismal part of the Universe where stars don’t shine. Too bad he’s never actually tasted war and his Overlord Father won’t let him forget it. ((We don’t like saying the only problem because it limits the stakes and also this way has more voice. )] When his dad loses patience with him and threatens to send him away, Odd sneaks off to conquer a world single-handedly to prove his worth. [ We don’t think you need that much info re: his dad] Crash landing on Earth however, and losing his armor to a human girl were never part of the plan… [To incorporate a bit more of your previous info, what about this arrangement: To prove his worth, Odd sneaks off in the family’s (name of a ship?) to single-handedly conquer a distant world. Crash landing on Earth and losing his armor to a human girl were definitely not part of his plan.]

Thirteen-year-old Fiona dreams of being a knight, but her reality is anything but noble. Stubborn and hot-tempered, Fiona is a magnet for trouble, which makes life in medieval Scotland difficult by morning and downright dangerous by afternoon. When the largest tournament in centuries comes to town she isn’t about to miss it, only she encounters a knight far earlier than expected, floating face down in Loch Ness. The knight’s armor is incredible, otherworldly, and since he’s knocking on deaths [You just need to add an apostrophe to ‘death’] door, she doesn’t see any harm in borrowing it to fulfill her dream…[We love this! Very strong and full of voice. Bonus – we love butt-kicking girls in MG!]

In Odd’s armor Fiona enters the Tournament of Champions, only to find herself pitted against history’s greatest warriors and a conspiring English Lord crazed for the Scottish crown. [This is awkward wording and ‘History’s greatest warriors’ is vague and it’s not something Fiona would know as a historical figure, make sense?] Odd is barely breathing, armor-less, a stranger in a strange world. [We think you can cut the previous sentence about Odd barely breathing. We already know he’s in rough shape] The last thing he wants to do is to help her, but he and Fiona are going to have to come together to thwart the evil English Lord, and stop Odd’s father before he can erase Earth from the Universe.  [What are the stakes for Fiona? If she loses, does she just lose out on accomplishing her dream? Even though Fiona isn’t a royal, does she feel some burning desire to save the nobles? We need more information on what’s making Fiona risk her life for the crown. And why does Odd’s father care about earth? What about something like: 

Fiona enters the Tournament of Champions dressed in Odd’s armor. When she finds herself pitted against an English Lord crazed for the Scottish crown, she must convince Odd to help her protect the Royal Family [or something – what is the stake for Fiona here?] The last thing Odd wants to do is work with a human, but with his father’s lingering threat of erasing Earth from the Universe, he has no choice.

ARMORED is a MG novel complete at 48,000 words. It is fast-paced, funny [We’d let the agent decide for themselves whether it’s funny or not], and jam-packed with adventure combining elements of actual medieval history with fantastical fiction.

Thank you for putting your work out there, Ryan! We really enjoyed the voice in the query and your book sounds like a super fun read. Always remember to use your MG voice in your query to grab attention. It’s also helpful to include both characters current state, the inciting incident, stakes for both characters, and what will happen if they don’t succeed. All extra detail can be saved for a synopsis. 

Especially for fantasy queries, you need to be careful to only include the details which make someone want to read on, not confuse them. Again, details on world-building can come in synopsis or first pages. 

Hopefully our notes help!

Good luck in Pitch Wars!

Tara & Jenna

Next up we have . . .

Pitch Wars Mentors Kate Karyus Quinn & Mindy McGinnis

Kate K QuinnWebsite | Twitter

Kate Karyus Quinn is a chapstick addict with a love for live theater and a BFA from Niagara University to prove it.

After growing up in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY, Kate left her hometown for Southern California and film school, where she earned an MFA in Film and Television Production from Chapman University.

After finishing her degree, she moved with her husband to Knoxville, Tennessee. However, she recently made the move back home, with her husband and two children in tow. She promised them wonderful people, amazing food, and weather that would… build character.

Kate is first and foremost an avid reader and unapologetic booknerd. Although, she mostly reads YA and romance, she often samples different genres in her constant search for the next great read.

Kate is represented by Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc.  

Mindy McGinnis Website | Twitter

Mindy McGinnis is an Edgar Award-winning author and assistant teen librarian who lives in Ohio. She graduated from Otterbein University with a degree in English Literature and Religion, and sees nothing wrong with owning nine cats. Two dogs balance things out nicely.

Mindy runs a blog for aspiring writers at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire, which features interviews with agents, established authors, and debut authors.


Kate and Mindy’s First Page Critique…

Morgan knelt down on the grass, the tiny, [no comma necessary] daisy-chain flower between her fingers. She willed herself to let it live, to control the decay that could descend from her fingertips, shriveling petals into black nubs. [possibly confusing, as the daisy chain is going to die anyway as the flowers have already been plucked. If she has the power to kill with her hands, it might be better to show her decaying something that isn’t already slated for death].

A socially acceptable sacrifice, flowers died as easily as any other delicate thing. So, she practiced control with flora. When the bloom remained unmarred, a smile tugged at her lips and she stood back up. Besting the darkness felt good. [As of right now we have no idea of the age of our protagonist. Since she’s got a daisy chain she could be any age at all, but my mental image skews younger].

She hated it, this inherited gift from The Morrigan. In the 14th century, the Celtic goddess of death and war seduced an Irishman, and a baby girl was born. So began the harbinger line, a twisted and lonely female lineage that carried the coveted, fey blood of the Tuatha de Danann and the dark, unwieldy magic of the goddess. [This is definitely an info dump paragraph. Since it’s not lengthy it’s not too bad, but there’s a better way to get this information into the story without a paragraph of pure backstory.]

And Morgan Briar was just the latest lonely girl.

Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit wailed from the work van. “I’m worse at what I do best, and for this gift, I feel blessed,” she sang, tapping her fingers against her leg, the dark gray jeans smoldering in the heat. If there was a heaven, and it didn’t involve flannel, angsty lyrics, and scratchy guitar riffs, she’d just rather not. [So is this set in the 90s? It definitely sounds like it… if not this is misleading].

In the meantime, she waited for her boss, Rob Harper, at Whidbey Island’s Cornet Bay boat launch. He led a half-dozen other kayakers on a tour of the treacherous, swirling waters of Deception Pass, and it was her job to get the folding tables set up and the pre-made platters of food ready. A paid day-trip to the island for a half hour of work—not a bad gig, working for Evergreen Kayak.

A breeze blew up off the dark waters of the Puget Sound, granting reprieve from the swelter of the early October day. Round, multi-colored stones rolled under the waves, the continuous sound [in line rhyme here with “round” and “sound’] like the distant popping of packing bubbles. Seaweed, torn in ragged strips of purple, cream, and green, warped and dried on rocks, and the closer you got to the actual water’s edge, the briny, fetid scent of over-hot, cooked-in-the-sun creatures and organisms grew nearly unbearable. [good para here]

Morgan tilted her head up toward the sky. For a moment, it felt good, but then a bead of perspiration trickled down her chest, and the moment passed. She pulled at her long-sleeve thermal, and billowing, sweaty gusts rose up into her face. Tight jeans and lace-up doc martens clung to her feet and legs, and heavy, black hair swelled around her like an over-kinky brillo pad. During cold months, the necessary layers did their job. The rest of the year, they royally sucked. [so why is she wearing them? what is their job?]

She walked out onto to the dock. Just an hour and a half away from Seattle, but the island was a wilder place. Bald eagles soared on gusts of oceanic wind. Evergreen trees grew to towering heights. The frigid waters of the Sound spun in vast whirl pools [one word?] out in the channel, and foaming piles of flotsam and jetsam gathered in mountainous tufts. [this is a nice para, but it might be a little too heavy on descriptors, given the para above that already set the scene. I’d pick one or the other].


Overall you’re doing a great job with setting and scene, but in order to give the “decay” angle more punch I’d consider having her test her control on something that isn’t going to die anyway (not an already-picked daisy), and find a way to fit the explanation of her curse in elsewhere. Good writing here – keep it up!

Thank you, Jenna, Tara, Kate, and Mindy, 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.

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