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Day 3 (Part 1) of the Pitch Wars Mentor Workshops with Lyssa Mia Smith

Tuesday, 31 August 2021  |  Posted by Stephanie Scott

Welcome to the Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2021 mentors. From a lottery drawing, we selected writers to receive a query and first page critique from one of our mentors. We’ll be posting some of the critiques leading up to the Pitch Wars submission window. Our hope is that these samples will help you in shining up your query and first page.

We appreciate our mentors for generously dedicating 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 Lyssa Mia Smith

Lyssa Mia SmithLyssa Mia Smith writes speculative fiction with romantic twists. A two-time Pitch Wars mentee, she is thrilled to be giving back to the organization that helped turn many of her dreams into reality. Her 2018 manuscript won YARWA’s Rosemary Award for Excellence in Speculative Fiction (2019) and her 2020 manuscript, REVELLE! REVELLE!, connected her with her agent, Lauren Spieller at TriadaUS. When she’s not writing (or staying up far too late reading), she’s eating all the best bagels in New York with her partner and two young children.

 

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Lyssa’s critique

Category: Young Adult: Historical Mystery

Query:

Dear AGENT:

Thank you for considering my debut YA medieval mystery, [TITLE REDACTED]. Complete at 80,000 words, the story is about a clever but uneducated misfit with the pugnacious will of the heroine of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, and the swashbuckling style and LGBTQ-romance of The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy [Way to use your comps effectively! You snuck in a lot of compelling elements of your story in this one sentence]. It reads as a stand-alone book but is part of a planned duology. [I’m sure opinions on this vary, but I’d delete this sentence. Standalone vs duology is often a decision made much later than the querying phase. These are also easy words to cut so you can keep your query short and sweet. More words = more of a burden on agents’ attention spans!]

In 1273, a 17-year-old pickpocket flees her home into a brutally cold night. Freezing to death in the Flemish countryside is better than enduring the forced marriage her father just brokered with a bony, old farmer [Compelling stakes right up front! Excellent job! To dig in deeper, are there more powerful adjectives you can use to make this outstanding sentence even snappier? “Bony” and “old” both hint at age, which is important to know, but because each word counts so much, perhaps you can change “bony” for another unappealing trait, like “miserly,” “cruel,” etc. ].

[Why not add this paragraph to the previous paragraph?] She makes it to the international port city of Bruges [do we need to know the name of a city? You can save words and lessen the cognitive load on the agent by removing as many names of people and places as possible] where[insert comma here] half-frozen, she’s taken in by a semi-monastic community of women dedicated to education and charitable service. Intrigued by this way of life, and especially by a quick-witted girl her age called Isabeau [oooh now you have my FULL attention], she reinvents herself as poor Katerine, orphaned in a fire [I am loving your fiery main character so far. You’ve demonstrated so much agency in her decisions. Also, you didn’t name her earlier, but I think that’s okay, as 2 names could be confusing]. She decides to eat her fill and steal what she can until she outstays her welcome [Part of me is surprised she’s stealing from them when she is intrigued by their way of life, but also, you’ve told me she’s a pickpocket. “She decides” is also a little less grabby than some of your previous word choices, because “she decides” filters me from her direct experience. If you tell me her decision, I’ll know she decided it! An example of a similar sentence withou the filter:  “Might as well eat her fill until she outstays her welcome.”]

She has barely assumed her new identity when the discovery of a dead man with a pig’s snout smashed onto his face complicates everything [well this took a turn I didn’t see coming!]. Noting Katerine’s cleverness, and how she’s not squeamish around the [mutilated?] corpse, a community elder asks Katerine to help investigate the murder.

[Once again, I’d add this to the previous paragraph. The fewer paragraphs, the better]. As her feelings for Isabeau grow, Katerine reasons that if she makes herself useful, maybe she can stay [She’s already staying, so—stay for longer? Stay forever? Find a home here? Finally have the home she never dreamed possible? See how I’m upping the stakes? It matters because, in the next sentence, that’s all being threatened, so we want to emphasize that she’s gaining something she may lose]. A second murder leading to the arrest of a new friend means Katerine must find the real killer before the community is shut down, along a chance for a future she had never dreamed possible [So this is perhaps your most important sentence—your final stakes—and it’s very good! To make it pop even more, I’d delete “the arrest of a new friend” and try to highlight the fact that you have multiple murders, yikes! That’s super intriguing in a query, especially if they’re all mutilated with pig snouts (do I detect a medieval serial killer?). I’d try to delete any subplot that’s not crucial in this query, like an unknown friend being arrested (unless that friend is Isabeau, and then I’d name her, even though it’s a spoiler—because what a TWIST!), and focus more on the bodies piling up.]

My love for medieval poetry written by lay religious women called Beguines led me down a research rabbit hole about a remarkable time in the 13th – 15th  centuries when communities of women flourished independently from church authority. They ran hospitals, schools, and businesses across what is now Western Europe. I am passionate about highlighting the true diversity and accomplishments of women in the Middle Ages that are far from the still popular revisionist history first promoted during Victorian times. [I’m torn about this paragraph. On one hand, the information is interesting, especially because I wouldn’t have known about the Beguines otherwise. On the other hand, it takes up a lot of prime real estate in your query. Is there a way to concise this to one sentence? “This manuscript was inspired by the Beguines, lay religious women in the Middle Ages who…” Then you’d go right into your next paragraph. This also reduces a paragraph and keeps this neat and organized].

I co-authored Prepare for the GPC Exam: Earn Your Grant Professional Certified Credential, published in 2016 by the Charity Channel Press [People’s opinions probably vary on this, but I’m not sure whether or not it helps to include this, as you’re querying fiction. On the other hand, I can’t imagine it hurts], and am a member of the Atlanta Writers Club and the Georgia Writers Association. I consult for nonprofits when I’m not writing, reading, podcasting, and drinking ridiculous amounts of tea [you and me both!].

First page:

Flanders, 1273

The familiar stink of tallow candles wreathed the kitchen, but I couldn’t risk any light. Even the door was my enemy in the cold darkness, too noisy to drag across the frosty cobblestones [You have a knack for weaving sensory details into the action. Skillfully done!]. Short and skinny as a young boy [love this], I could still squeeze through the narrow side window, though at 17, I was long past old enough to marry and birth boys of my own [and now you’ve reminded me of the time period and the expectations on your main character, all without pulling me from the action. Nice work!].

I wriggled through the window and dropped onto the frozen muck. A frigid blade of wind sliced at my cheeks and hands [love the imagery, and once again, you’re telling me it’s cold in the most interesting way possible: hinting at how your mc thinks (in terms of weapons) while setting the stage and keeping me in the moment]. With my sister’s cloak pulled close around my neck, I sniffed her familiar scent of freshly dug potatoes in the coarse wool.

Had I not taken Gerda’s cloak I would have frozen with the patched rags I called my own [I tripped on this sentence a bit. There’s compelling info here—her cloak is not warm, so she doesn’t have much to call her own, but I might rephrase for clarity].

Had I waited until morning,  I would have been yoked to Herr Ulbricht and off the market to sell a fine pig [why would she be selling a fine pig and why is it important that we know this on the first page? I particularly love the first half of this sentence—these are your character’s stakes, her reason for sneaking through windows in the frigid cold. If the second half of the sentence isn’t absolutely necessary, you may want to try the sentence without it to make those stakes stand out.]

The half-frozen mud crunched underfoot no matter how lightly I stepped. [Great world-building within the action, yet again!] Keeping to the lips of the ditches offered the best but noisiest protection. The narrow lane was mine alone.

Herr Ulbricht had left only a few hours ago after buying his new wife—me. He sat in our best chair right in front of the fire, his spotted hands rested on the round hill of his belly. [I hate him already. Also, the round belly contradicts “bony” in the query, which may give you more of a reason to switch out “bony.”] I shivered in my hiding spot on the creaky wooden stairs leading to the loft.

“She is quiet, pious, and obedient,” my father said.

I was none of those things.

[MIC DROP!  BEST. ENDING. POSSIBLE!]

Thank you, Lyssa, for the critique! We are showcasing three mentor critiques each day leading up to the Pitch Wars 2021 submission window, so make sure to read the other two critiques for today and come back tomorrow for more. 

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