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Day 28 (Part 1) Pitch Wars Query & First Page Workshop with Mentors Natalka Burian & Rebecca Schaeffer

Thursday, 15 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 Natalka Burian

Natalka Burian

Website | Twitter

Natalka Burian received an MA from Columbia University where she studied Eastern European literature with an emphasis on the work of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. She is the co-owner of two bars, ELSA and RAMONA, and CITY OF DAUGHTERS a line of specialty cocktail goods. She grew up on a farm in Maryland, and now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters. Welcome to the Slipstream is her first novel. She is represented by Kate Johnson at Wolf Literary Services.


Natalka’s Query Critique…


GENRE: Magical Realism, not exactly sure of this[I think your instincts are correct!]

Dear Wonderful Agent:

Fiddle playing teen [I’m wondering what her exact age is here–could be useful for an agent or editor, too, when considering submissions, etc.] Anastasia Samuels [I’d also suggest starting this paragraph off with her name. It’s a much stronger way to begin in that it immediately connects us to your protagonist–e.g. Anastasia Samuels, a 16yo musician introvert blames her albinism…] is an introvert who blames her albinism for her all insecurities. Moving over a thousand miles away rips her from her one and only friend, Clara, forcing her into a whole new world of miserable. The only bright spots in her dismal existence are her music, and meeting James, a hearing-impaired boy who is as much a curiosity at their performing arts school as she is. She falls hard for this cute redhead but can’t imagine him ever being interested in someone like her.[Consider omitting this last sentence for sharpness and efficiency.]

A strange recurring dream about an old violin has haunted Ana since her parents first announced their decision to more. She is stunned to discover this same instrument in their attic.[is this the attic in her old or new house? Maybe move us in time at the beginning of the paragraph, condensing the two sentences: After the move, Ana is haunted by a dream, discovers the violin in her attic, and then–] Her touch releases an ancient magic in a cascade of powerful electric shocks and blue flames, sensations only Ana can perceive. An ambiguous note tucked inside the violin’s case suggests [this next bit is a little murky. Would it be possible to shorten and clarify the note, giving us a more tangible sense of the stakes?]whoever can survive this magic long enough to play the violin will find what they seek.  This convinces her the magic has the capacity to ‘fix’ her life.

Instead of focusing her energy on trying to fit in at her new school and make new friends, Ana becomes obsessed with finding a way to hold violin long enough to play.[again, I’m a little confused. I thought she had already played the violin? Maybe something more capacious, like she “uses her spare time to figure out the violin’s mystery” but more specific to the story?] As the intense shocks[interesting- I didn’t get from earlier reference that these shocks were painful/prohibitive] continue to thwart each of her attempts, her friendship with Clara crumbles, her previously perfect grades take a nosedive, and her tenuous hold on reality wavers. Desperate, Ana can think of only one person to ask for help, James. But time is running out. If Ana can’t summon the courage[I’m wondering here if “courage” is the thing she needs. Maybe something more along the lines of “if ana can’t unlock the violin’s secret” or something?] to play soon, the violin’s gift will be lost to her forever.

THE DECIMATION OF ANASTASIA SAMUELS, is an 84,000 word YA story of magical realism.  THE RED VIOLIN.with a healthy dose of magic.[consider omitting this last sentence.]

My essays and short stories are published in online and print literary journals and magazines, and in Chicken Soup for the Soul, and I’ve received a 6th place and an Honorable Mention in Writer’s Digest’s Annual Competitions. [great bio!]

Thank you for your time and consideration,


What a compelling story! This query needs a bit of trimming and some clarification, but overall is very intriguing. I’m still confused about the violin and note–the secrets it holds and the power it promises are very ambiguous. If these features could be communicated, or even hinted at (since I know there isn’t much space in a letter), it wold take this query to the next level. Specificity is always a good thing. I think the genre category is spot on, and I would most definitely read on!

Next up we have . . .

Pitch Wars Mentor Rebecca Schaeffer

Rebecca Schaeffer Website | Twitter

Rebecca Schaeffer is a Canadian expat and compulsive nomad who has lived in Peru, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Her debut novel, Not Even Bones (HMH Fall 2018) is a Young Adult contemporary fantasy about a girl who dissects monsters and sells their bodies on the internet. Rebecca can generally be found in a cafe on the other side of the world, writing about villains, antiheroes, and morally ambiguous characters.

You can follow her on twitter, tumblr, and Goodreads.


Rebecca’s First Page Critique…


GENRE: Contemporary Fairy Tale Retelling

“What a waste of a summer day.”

Bree spun back to Lily, who lagged behind despite her longer strides. “Come on, this is important to me.” [I like how natural the dialogue feels here. I think it’s working well. However, I would like to see some setting descriptions — not much, but enough to give me a sense of place. For example “…who lagged behind despite her longer strides. Her sneakers scuffed the fallen autumn leaves that patterned the sidewalk of their suburban street.” That would give me a season and a setting very quickly without you needing to tell me later. Ground the reader early on. One quick line before this point so we can conjure an image of where they are will go a long way. You don’t want to leave the reader in the lurch for more than a line or two at the beginning of a book. It also grounds the reader in the genre.]

Her older sister flicked her silky, blonde hair over her shoulder. “You’re always chasing rainbows and leprechauns. No one’s going to vote for higher taxes to buy lettuce and light bulbs.”  [oh, interesting! I rarely see YA that talks about taxes, voting and politics. This is cool]

Bree forced a laugh. “People just need to be educated,” she said, but her voice had lost some of its earlier conviction as she took in yet another row of run-down, bungalows ahead. [ah, a glimpse of setting 🙂 I’d like a touch more right up at the front like this]

“Aren’t you tired of having doors slammed in your face? It’s your sixteenth birthday. We could go to the mall, and I could help you spend that gift card you got.”

Her sister was right. This wasn’t exactly a Street of Dreams [I dont know this reference. I googled and apparently its a song from the ‘80s? Keep your references timely for the YA audience.] and the residents’ distrust of change was only one of a million reasons she needed to ditch Boren Valley—or Boring Valley [love it :)] as she and Madeleine [who is Madeline? This early in the story, it might be good to put a qualifier like ‘her friend Madeline’ on there] called it. “Why do I let stuff bother me so much?” She sighed. “Why can’t I just leave everything alone and be normal?”

Lily bumped her affectionately and changed her tone. “Hey, that’s what makes you, you. It’s in your DNA.”

She fiddled with her handful of pamphlets. [Ah, I want some visuals on these pamphlets, can we have a glimpse of what they’re for?] “You’re not like me. And I’m nothing like Mama-Meri.”

“Nope. You must’ve gotten your principles and determination from Mr. Banks,” Lily snickered as they climbed the crumbling steps to the next house.

Bree rolled her eyes. Mr. Banks was code for their shared sperm donor. All her differences from the rest of her family had been attributed to him from her darker coloring to her curves to her book smarts. [love how tightly and succinctly this was explained]

An elderly woman opened the door.

Lily thrust a pamphlet into her wrinkled hands. The older woman only glanced at it before saying, “I’m not buying anything.”

Bree smiled. “We’re not selling anything.”

The woman adjusted her glasses and took a closer look at them. “You’re the Smith-Harris girls, aren’t you?”

They nodded. Yes, we’re the girls with the two moms. No one actually ever said anything, but it was clear that some people didn’t quite get their family. [absolutely love how this is presented and explained. Consise, voice-y and relevant]

Bree took a deep breath and began, “We want to remind you to get out and vote in the special election on Tuesday.” Then she jumped into her spiel about how approving the school levies would provide money for fuel-efficient buses, solar panels for the buildings, and organic produce for the cafeterias. The last part was her most recent pet project. The town’s primary business, Heirloom Farms, grew organic food from seed but the Valley School District purchased their cheaper conventionally grown produce. The woman only interrupted once to explain how she’d never brought organic and was perfectly healthy.

Just then, a miniature schnauzer popped his head from beneath the woman’s long skirt. Bree leaned down to pet it when she said, “Be careful. He’s not the friendliest.”

Suddenly, the gray terrier bolted past them and bounded down the stairs.

“Fred! Get back here!” the …

[All right, wrap up comments!

There’s a lot thats really working in this sample. Your dialogue flows naturally, information is revealed smoothly and without dumping. It’s all very clean as well, with little line editing needed.

I really enjoy seeing activist characters in YA, and I also love that these girls have two moms. Awesome stuff here.

I think the second half of this excerpt is perfect. For the first half though, I think you’re expecting dialogue to do a little too much of the work. 

Any given scene will have a blend of dialogue, exposition, action (including emotional cues, such as frowning or looking away) and thought.  You’re almost exclusively using dialogue to do the heavy lifting, and I think you need to balance it out more so we can get a proper picture of the characters.

Within the first 3-4 lines you need to establish who the main character is, where they are, and the genre of this book. We don’t get mention of modern day tech until further down the page, and description too. So I’d recommend moving the description up a bit, and giving ups a hint more earlier. Not a ton, you don’t want to bog people down, but right now it’s a bit too spare and the dialogue moves too fast without context around it.

I’d also recommend using action and description to establish Bree and Lily’s characters faster. For example, setting up Bree as someone with a cause the first lines. i.e.. “Come on, you know this is important to me.” Bree pressed her pamphlets protectively against her Occupy shirt.

 A descriptor of the character like that can help clue us in on the time, place, and character we’re with. Use small things that can function as stand ins for broader ideas so we can get a more solid image right up front.

Tl;dr. You have a superb first page here, but the first half of it reads a little more like a screenplay. It needs a touch more visuals to build setting and character.]

Thank you Natalka and Rebecca 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.

One Comment
  • Rebecca – Thank you so much for the detailed critique. Your feedback feels spot on. Great suggestions to improve my writing. Now I just have to brainstorm the perfect slogan for Bree’s t-shirt. 🙂

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