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, Hannah Karena Jones …
Hannah Karena Jones has dual degrees in creative writing and history from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and a certificate in publishing from New York University. Serving as managing editor at Running Press by day and merrily scribbling middle grade novels on nights and weekends, Hannah has a combined passion for both the craft of writing and the publishing industry. Arcadia Publishing released her non-fiction pictorial history book, BYBERRY STATE HOSPITAL, in May 2013. She is represented by Kira Watson at the Emma Sweeney Agency.
Hannah’s Query Critique . . .
AGE CATEGORY: MG
Dear [insert name],
Desperate to ditch the family biz, Jimmy [consider adding his age? Just so we get a sense of what middle grade audience you’re going for (upper, lower)] planned a summer that had nothing to do with the research of creepy creatures. [Wait, what’s the family business? This is hinting that it has something to do with research of creepy creatures but…what does that mean? Are they professors or exterminators? What sort of creepy creatures? Bugs? Snakes? Magical beasts?] But when his parents are called off on an urgent mission, [what sort of urgent mission could a professor or exterminator have? More specificity and details please!] he’s forced to ditch his plans [could simplify so it just reads “he’s forced to attend summer camp…”] and attend summer camp with his kid sister.
Despite his desire to distance himself, he’s lured back in [distance himself from what, exactly? The family business? His family in general?] when he learns of an elusive beast, Batsquatch[,] rumored to lurk in the woods surrounding camp. [What sort of woods are these? Since this is nature/creature based, I think it’s important to clarify the setting and where we are in the world geographically.] He enlists the help of his sister[if she’s a main character, consider a name drop. She’s been mentioned twice at this point] and new found friend [who’s that? If this friend is a lead character in the plot, they should get a name drop or at least a character detail] to find it, [why? What are the stakes? Why does he want/need to find this creature? What triggered the sudden change of heart? If it’s just curiosity, he could give up this dangerous pursuit any time he just loses interest. What skin does he and the other characters have in this game? What’s driving them to find the Batsquatch?] which leads to a death-defying fall, a night lost in the woods, and an encounter that would have them all fighting for their lives. [I’m a little confused about the sense of time. Does this series of events take place in one twenty-four hour period? Over the course of the whole summer?]
THE BATSQUATCH GANG is a 35,000 word middle grade fiction adventure that would appeal to fans of The Cryptid Hunter series [per CMS, series titles are not italicized] by Roland Smith [I’m concerned about word count—and also am confused about your intended audience. The three books in this series are 71k, 71k, 68k, and 81k, respectively. According to School Library Journal, the series is intended for grades 5-8. Based on the description above, I thought BATSQUATCH skews a little younger. Maybe this is not the best comp? I’m not sure there’s reader crossover here.] and The Imaginary Veterinary series [see note re: italics above] by Suzanne Selfors. [The word counts for the books in this series are 25k, 23k, 23k, and 21k respectively. This seems more on target, but now in comparison your book seems a little long. This series is intended for grades 3-5, which seems more fitting from my impression of your story.]
I won second place in the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference Literary Contest for my picture book, HOW TO MAKE YOUR MOM A NINJA. [Sidenote: Congrats! This is cool. Could you provide the year, though? If it’s recent, that’s exciting you star-on-the-rise you. If it’s a few years back, it shows your long-term dedication and passion to pursuing writing! Either way, win-win, but gives a better sense of you and your writing career thus far.] I’m a graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature, a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, [a particular chapter? Some agents frequent SCBWI events, so they might like to know this. Maybe they even rep a writer in that chapter!] and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. I would like you to know this is a simultaneous submission. [Simultaneous submission line isn’t necessary. Aside from a handful of agents who explicitly require exclusive submissions—in those cases, of course follow instructions—agents will assume it’s simultaneous.]
Thank you for your time,
**I have a question regarding querying. I have an agent on a per project agreement for one of my picture books. How should I state that? should I include who and what agency it’s with? Thanks. [Definitely! This is a big detail that would clue in what your working relationship would be like and agents will want to know up front. I think you should state it just like that. Something along the lines of “Please note, my picture book “X” is represented by “X” at “agency” in an individual-project contract.” Also, definitely mention if it’s on sub!]
Next up we have . . .
Pitch Wars Mentor, Rhiannon Hart …
Rhiannon Hart remembers writing before she could read, puzzling over the strange squiggles in Jeremiah and the Dark Woods by Janet and Alan Ahlberg and putting her own words in their places. Her first love was Jareth the Goblin King at the tender age of eight. She wrote fan fiction in high school but she’d never admit to it out loud, so don’t ask. When she’s not reading or writing she is belly dancing, chasing after other people’s cats, or putting the pedal to the floor at her sewing machine. She grew up in north-western Australia and Melbourne and currently resides in London.
Rhiannon’s First Page Critique . . .
AGE CATEGORY: YA
GENRE: Science Fiction
Twilight set as August climbed the fire escape to the roof above Maurice’s Diner, his exit bag slung over his shoulder. He and his best friend Natalie would go up there to stargaze at night. Maurice never minded. He said they were good kids. But August didn’t feel particularly good tonight. He just felt empty.
Natalie made the space festive. A bonfire in the oil drum, a tent with sleeping bags, balloons in a kaleidoscope of colors. A virtual banner projected from the center of the roof, a holo that read “Bon Voyage” with an itinerary underneath. As he slogged his bag over the metal rail the time slots on the holo-screen adjusted to his late arrival.
Most seventeen-year-olds would have thrown an exit party. Their parents would pay for it too. Pay for them to get drunk with their friends. Pay to watch them act like undignified fools. Pay the triple fee to have their child’s body picked up, bloated with alcohol. But not August. That’s not how he wanted to end his life. He wanted to embrace the great nothing with a shred of honor, whatever that meant. This was better. No fair-weather friends or absentee fathers to complicate his apathy.
Just Natalie and the stars to see him off.
Natalie sat by the fire, roasting marshmallows. She waved him over.
“Ahoy there.” August dropped the bag down next to her.
She tucked a lock of chestnut hair behind her ear. “You’re late.”
He thought about breakfast with his mom. How she’d insisted on projecting pictures of him and June over the kitchenette while they ate. How she got choked up when he sent the code to unlock his posthume. How she showed a sad mix of relief and sadness when he insisted she didn’t have to call him before his exit.
How his dad sent him a two-word message. Goodbye, son.
“I’m sorry. Today was just… weird.”
She nodded, passing him a bent hanger with two marshmallows stuck on it.
“I like what you’ve done with the place.” He placed the hanger over the flames.
“Oh, thanks. I thought it would be fun.”
August looked down at the graham crackers and chocolate bars at her feet. “Dessert first?”
“You didn’t read the menu I sent you.”
“Oh, that.” He slid his finger across his wristlet and swiped his hand until the message displayed across his arm.
Natalie shifted in her seat. “It’s gonna be dumb now.”
“I seriously doubt that.” He flicked his index finger and cast the file onto the projector, reading it to himself. “You wrote this?”
Natalie pulled her scarf up over her face. “I told you it was dumb.”
“Are you kidding me?” He read it again. “This is brilliant.”
“It’s not that clever.” She pulled her sweater tighter around her, the prelude to a smile tugging at her lips.
“Yes — yes it is.” He pointed to the title. “ Dinner Danse Macabre.”
Your writing is very competent and well-paced. You’ve slipped in hints that this is a sc-fi (exit bag, holo-screen) in subtle ways, and it feels like you’ve thought a lot about the world-building and how the plot will unfold. Once the characters start talking they’re lively and interesting.
My main feedback would be to look at your opening hook. A hook draws readers into the story from the get-go, and you can do this in various ways – a dramatic piece of dialogue, a bold observation, a meeting with an antagonist. A good hook shows the reader that they’re in the hands of an experienced storyteller and that they’re going to see new places and meet unexpected people. An excellent hook plunges the reader right into the story and has them dying to know what happens next. It’s often a high-stakes moment or a turning point in a character’s life. At the moment, your story opens with a low-stakes scene and we don’t get a sense of drama or tension, or that the plot is about to develop in an exciting or interesting way.
Because you seem to be telling a story in which seventeen-year-olds are killed (or is it transported off-world?) the big question in the reader’s mind is going to be ‘Why?’ Is there a way you can hint at the reasons in the opening paragraphs? Having August and Natalie toasting marshmallows and trading banter will take on a new meaning if there’s an undercurrent of threat or the sense that they’re masking their true feelings from each other.
Remember also that the reader will feel what your main character is feeling, so starting off with August feeling apathetic and resigned may have people feeling the same way about your writing. Is there a more revealing way you can introduce Natalie? The first thing she does is tuck a lock of hair behind her ear, which doesn’t tell us much about her character.
In all, it seems like you’ve got an interesting story to tell, and that with some structural and emotional changes you could really bring it to life.
Thank you, Hannah and Rhiannon, 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.