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Day 25 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Query & 1st Page Workshop with mentors, Fiona McLaren, Jenna Lehne & Tara Creel

Monday, 12 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, Fiona McLaren …

Fiona McLaren - author

Website | Twitter

Fiona lives on the sun-soaked island of Cyprus, and is a full-time scriptwriter for an independent animation company. Their first production is due to release soon. She also works as an editor for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, and edits on a selective freelance basis. Her experience as an intern at two separate literary agencies, and selling articles and web content, means that if something has words, she’ll try it.

She is represented by Maura Kye-Casella at Don Congdon Associates for her Young Adult works.


Fiona’s Query  Critique . . .


GENRE: Urban Fantasy

Evryn would do anything to protect her best friend and college roommate [From what?], from accompanying her to a freakish Goth club downtown to employing not-so-deadly ninja skills on a Slim Shady wannabe vampire [While this sets the tone of your novel nicely, it feels a little stilted. I would consider rewording. I’m also left wondering about why Evryn’s best friend can’t protect herself? Is she naïve to the dangers around them? Reckless? Or is there something about Evryn that makes her more able to protect someone than anyone else?] So when her friend goes missing once again [The “once again” is great. I’d consider moving this right to the top of your query letter. It also has some great humor in it], Evryn laces up her combat boots and sets off for a little harmless breaking and entering. First stop: the Austen-esque manor of a suspicious yet sexy musician whose guitar case holds a charm from her friend’s bracelet. [Nice to see a mystery!]

Dalamar, a 200-year-old vampire and bass guitarist, can’t consume human blood. His aging body rejects it, forcing him to hunt witches as a source of magical blood instead. As the local coven shrinks, Dalamar is running out of time to survive. When he senses the unidentifiable magic running through Evryn’s veins [This all comes out of the blue a little. You haven’t hinted at Evryn having any magical powers. Or does she not know? I think you need to address this earlier in your query], he pursues her as his new potential cure. Luckily, he holds her best friend as leverage. [You have a great conflict going on here, with some good stakes for Evryn and Dalamar.]

After she discovers her friend dying at Dalamar’s hand, Evryn bargains her blood in exchange for her friend’s life. However, the danger of her supernatural gifts [Why are her gifts dangerous? Did she know this already? Has it just happened?] and the threat of his affliction quickly turn their strained bargain into a necessary alliance [What exactly is this danger – will her powers kill her if she uses them? If her blood drains she’ll lose them? Be a little more specific.]. Dalamar must teach Evryn how to control her magic for both of them to stay alive. [Why has she been able to control it until now? What changed? Or was it latent power?] Unbeknownst to Evryn, it’s the kind of magical training that drove Dalamar’s first and only love insane. [Nice. I like the depth you give Dalamar here, and the stakes it raises for Evryn.]

As his past ghosts [Literal or figurative ghosts?] and her newfound powers awaken [Oh so they are new powers. When did they awaken – when her friend went missing? When she saw Dalamar? Why? Why haven’t they been apparent before this?] their arrangement attracts unwanted attention from the deadly vampire court. Evryn must use her magic to fight alongside Dalamar in a deadly game of hunters versus hunted [Watch out for clichés. This sentence falls into that category. Also, I think you need to be specific here. “Hunters versus hunted” sounds a bit generic. Tell us what exactly is going to happen – will the vampire court kill them both? Strip Evryn of her powers? Keep both her and Dalamar prisoners? Show us the true stakes] – but if she can’t control her power, it might consume them both.

SHADOW’S EMBRACE is an NA Urban Fantasy novel [You can omit “novel”] of 68,892 words [round up to your nearest whole number – which is 69,000 for your book] told in alternating first person POV. It’s Veronica Mars meets Mercy Thompson in a darker, modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast.

[You have a lot of potential in this query. Your voice is evident, the humor is a nice touch, and you have a good conflict going on. It sounds like it’d be a really good read. Be careful that your query doesn’t run on a little too long, though. I’d consider trimming your word count down in order to streamline this. You seem to know your genre well and the elements that fit within it. Evryn sounds like a very likeable MC, and you show Dalamar has some depth, and isn’t just your typical “bad guy”. If you can fix up the clarity of the plot in the query, and make it a little more specific, this will really start to shine. Good luck! And thanks for letting me read!]


Next 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 First Page Critique . . .

AGE CATEGORY: Middle Grade

GENRE: Fantasy


It was the perfect day to die—if one had to. [This sentence feels short and choppy to me. Especially because it’s middle grade, a simple re-write would add more voice and make it flow more. Ex: It was a perfect day to die – I mean, if one had to anyway. It’s a great first sentence, we love it!] The kind of day where the sun filled [delete “all”] the sky, [ (brought this in from later “no clouds obscuring its path”], reach[ing]ed down to hug the Earth. [Suggested deletion to vary sentence structure and not have it read so choppy] Not a cloud obscured its path. The only grievance [Since dying is also a grievance, you can probably delete the first part of this sentence and just start with ‘The heat was intense….] was the intense heat, but that was easily remedied by wrapping oneself in the cool waters of the Monongahela River [‘Wrapping oneself’ feels stiff and formal. Since it’s MG, a kid would be jumping or splashing in the river]. Picnic blankets adorned the river’s bank with checkered blues and paisley reds. The fortunate ones [Bring this into the character. Instead of saying the fortunate ones, relate it to whether or not the character is one of those or not. Ex: Jude Penhurst wasn’t one of the fortunate ones who snagged a spot sheltered by the tall pines, so she had to wade in the water for relief from the blistering sun. If you go with something like this example, you could probably delete the previous sentence about the intense heat since you’re addressing it again here] arrived early enough to snag those spots sheltered by the tall pines keeping guard of their cobalt friend.

Jude Penhurst waded in the water to get closer to the fish. A lithe, petite girl, age seven, she had long brown hair with gold highlights that captured the sun’s rays. This day it was [While it was] pulled into an unruly ponytail, [her] with wild bangs, in crimpy disarray, fram[ed]ing her heart-shaped, [olive-skinned] face. Her skin had an olive hue and she [She] was dressed in a one-piece red bathing suit dappled with tiny white polka dots. [Instead of just describing her, I suggest using her actions to show the descriptions. Ex: The sun captured the golden highlights in her wild hair and kissed her heart-shaped, olive-skinned cheeks. Water splashed up over her petite frame, soaking her red and white polka-dotted swimsuit as she inched closer to the fish.]

Jude beamed at her mother and gave her an inventory of the various species of fish as she spotted them. Her face had a sweet, peaceful countenance, and when she smiled, she radiated joy without a care in the world. She swooshed her feet [love this imagery with the word swooshed!] along the bottom and moved deeper and deeper into the silty water in order to contribute to her count of fish, and possibly discover an uncharted species. [Love this sentence! I think we should start with this and then show the previous two sentences with dialogue, be specific with the species, etc.]
“That’s far enough, Jude,” her mother bellowed. [Bellowed seems like an odd choice of words. Perhaps ‘warned’ or ‘cautioned’. Even ‘called’ or ‘shouted’ seem more motherly than bellowing] “The current is too strong.”

“Yes, Mom.”

Jude couldn’t get over how beautiful her mother looked as she basked in the sun, evident by her shiny copper-red skin, her neck garlanded with a pearl, diamond and purple stone pendant. Her loosely bunned, auburn hair enriched the look, like a natural embossed cameo. [This isn’t a thing a kid would say. Bring it down to a seven-year old’s level: Jude hoped she could look as pretty as her mom someday. Her hair was pulled up in a loose bun, showing off the pearl, diamond and purple stone pendant around her neck.]
Jude ran to the blanket, sprayed her mother with water, [and] then plopped down beside her. [This is great! It definitely is firmly MG action. Try using more of this in the actions above. Awesome job!] “I still can’t believe you’re here. Where have you been all this time? It felt like forever.” [Again, when your seven-year-old character is speaking, say it out loud with her, feel it out and make sure it’s how a little kid would sound.]

Her mother didn’t respond but warmly smiled with her broad span of endless white teeth.

“I’ve missed you.” Jude lowered her head and welcomed the melancholy. [This is confusing. The mom isn’t showing melancholy, just being coy, really. Evasive. Jude doesn’t seem to be showing melancholy either, she’s happy her mom is back. ]

“Come on, I’ll race you to the water.” Her mother catapulted from her seated position and bolted like a greyhound toward the refreshing, rolling Monongahela. Her contagious laughter echoed between the pillars of green, the familiar full-bellied giggle resembling that of a mischievous, but good-hearted witch. It filled Jude with love and playfulness. [Does this girl know a lot of good-hearted witches to compare this laughter to? Seems an odd comparison. Unless her village/town is full of witches, both good and bad. Since it’s fantasy, it could be, but we’re only seeing the first 500 so it’s a bit unclear.]

Before she kicked into gear to challenge her mother, she stalled as the looming presence of bittersweet familiarity evoked an unwelcome eeriness. [This is really confusing. What are you trying to convey? That she has a creepy sense of deja vu? If so, make it more clear.]

“I’m going to beat you this time,” her mother taunted as she sprinted closer to the water.

Jude loved spending this time with her mother. She dismissed her intuition and thrust into speeds that made her the fastest runner in her neighborhood. [Could you use a different word other than ‘neighborhood’ so we get a better sense of the setting? Right now, we’re at the river. Is the river in a small town? Just outside a city? Running through a village?] When she was a foot from the river’s edge, she blew past her mother and belly-flopped into victory. [Cute – we love this line!]

Thank you for sharing your work with us. I know we have quite a few comments throughout, but we were both hooked by the ending. You do a great job of setting the scene. There are a few instances throughout that seem a bit too stiff for MG, but then you bust out some truly authentic bits of amazing MG voice. We suggest going through the highlighted bits and taking a look at the suggestions, and then making it your own. We’re super intrigued about how the fantasy aspect plays in.

Great job and good luck in Pitch Wars!

Tara & Jenna


Thank you, Fiona, Jenna, and Tara, 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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