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Day 3 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Query and First Page Workshop with mentors Helene Dunbar, Beth Hull, and Stephanie Scott

Thursday, 11 May 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 Co-Mentors Helene Dunbar and Beth Hull …

helene1_Helene Dunbar is the author of THESE GENTLE WOUNDS (Flux, 2014), WHAT REMAINS (Flux, 2015) and BOOMERANG (coming from Sky Pony in 2018). Over the years, she’s worked as a drama critic, journalist, and marketing manager, and has written on topics as diverse as Irish music, court cases, theater, and Native American Indian tribes. She lives in Nashville with her husband and daughter and exists on a steady diet of readers’ tears.

Represented by Lauren MacLeod at The Strothman Agency.

Twitter Website | Amazon Author Page

In less than a second…
… two of the things Cal Ryan cares most about–a promising baseball career and Lizzie, one of his best friends–are gone forever.

In the hours that follow…
…Cal’s damaged heart is replaced. But his life will never be the same.

Everyone expects him to pick up the pieces and move on.

But Lizzie is gone, and all that remains for Cal is an overwhelming sense that her death was his fault. And a voice in his head that just…won’t…stop.

Cal thought he and his friends could overcome any obstacle. But grief might be the one exception.

And that might take a lifetime to accept…




Beth hull lives in northern California with her husband, two kids, and cat. She overuses parentheses and ampersands. She writes short stories and young adult novels.






Helene and Beth’s Query Critique . . .


GENRE: Fantasy

Dear [Agent]:

[How I found agent and why I thought they would be interested in my project]. At 99,000 words THE EXILES combines contemporary and fantasy settings in the vein of a modern day CHRONICLES OF NARNIA meets THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS.  [I would move this 2nd sentence to the end. Most agents want to dive into the story as fast as they can. ] [I sometimes had a sentence saying why I’d chosen to query this specific agent, but I saved the book-specific details for after the pitch]

Ending her Junior year of high school, [Unnecessary since you say that she’s about to enter her senior year] aAll Louisiana teen [also, doesn’t add anything unless Louisiana plays a huge part as the setting] Nicky Gallardo wants is to hunker down in her quiet suburban neighborhood and forget the impending upheaval [This asks the question – WHY is she expecting an upheaval] [agreed!] of her senior year. The last thing she expects is to meet two teen vagabonds who see things no one else does [It seems like knowing HOW she meeting them might be important. Also the word “vagabond” is odd as a description of teens. Not sure exactly what you’re trying to say]: Julian, the charming new ward of Nicky’s elderly neighbors who is entirely uncomfortable with the strangeness that always seems to surround him; and Lyzzi, Julian’s beautiful and intimidating best friend determined to discover the truth about her mysterious childhood.  [These character descriptions intrigue me, but I think this opening paragraph needs to be streamlined and maybe more about her.] [I definitely want to know more about Nicky and what makes her unique—is there something she really strives for?]

Together, the The teens stumble into Taborra, a dream-like world that is both beautiful and deadly world, [wait, back up! How do they “stumble” into this place? This sounds like a portal fantasy, which is fine, but it would be awesome if there’s more intent behind this] where There, Nicky’s new friends are revealed turn out to be the exiled heirs of the Tarborra’s (check the spelling here!) overthrown monarchy. Separated from her friends and mistaken for the a lost princess, Nicky finds herself caught in a magical rebellion. To make matters worse, her younger brother and cousin have tagged along for all the danger. [You already have a lot of characters in here; I’d either skip this or totally reframe the opening paragraphs so that we understand who these two are and what they mean to her. Also, how they join this group? Do Julian and Lyzzi know who they are? Do they intentionally return?]

All Nicky wants is to get her family home safely, but to do that, she must it seems the only way is to help her friends reclaim their crowns. How does a teen too anxious to take a driving course manage to survive an otherworldly war? In [This detail about the driving course—that maybe Nicky’s afraid of things—could maybe be used in the first paragraph as we’re introduced to her. Does she want to be brave? Is this part of her character arc?] Nicky‘s case, she makes an alliance with the enemy’s [Who is the enemy? What is standing in her way and the way of her friends? I don’t sense the stakes and obstacles in this query] estranged brother, but Mytch seems almost as forbidding as everything else she has faced. [What is his REAL issue? “Seems” doesn’t really say anything] She has to question whether he really renounces the regime his sister commands or if this alliance is his way of saving her. [But you can’t say that this is an issue because we haven’t heard about this before] His sister may not be the monster Lyzzi and Julian think she is, but is trapped in a position she didn’t ask for. Nicky will have to face her friends when they inevitably find out she was deceiving them about Mytch’s identity. [Remember that you’re writing a query and not a summary. Make sure you’re intriguing the agent and not telling them your story]. [There are many intriguing things happening in this paragraph, and I think the trick is going to be giving just enough worldbuilding and plot detail so that it makes sense, without going overboard. We need more about the enemies up front, and I think you’d have room to do this if, like Helene suggests, you skip most of that second paragraph about when they stumble into Taborra.]

Thank you for your time.

This is an exciting early glimpse of your novel! Keep in mind, fantasy queries are TOUGH! Providing enough setting details to make sense, without bogging down the query, isn’t easy. And it’s so hard to put yourself in the place of someone who’s coming at it cold, with absolutely no idea who the principle characters are or their motivations or anything. For your revision, I’d suggest focusing on what Nicky wants (to get safely home from Taborra), and who is preventing her from getting that thing (Mytch’s sister? The resistance who think she’s a lost princess?), and why. And if she fails, what happens then?

Also, once I noticed the part about Nicky being afraid to take a driver’s ed course, I got a lot more interested, because this was a hint of her character arc. How does that play into the overall story? I’d like to hear more about how she must overcome her fear or misbelief about herself in order to win (or lose) in the end. Keep going with this!

Thank you, Helene and Beth for your critique!


Next up we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor Stephanie Scott …

View More: http://simonekphoto.pass.us/stephanie

Stephanie Scott writes Young Adult stories about characters who put their passions first. She’s a member of Romance Writers of America and its online YA chapter YARWA, and a current writing mentor in online pitch contests. She enjoys dance fitness and cat memes, and Pinterest is driving her broke. Her debut ALTERATIONS about a fashion-obsessed loner who reinvents herself is a 2017 finalist for the Romance Writers of America Best First Book RITA® award.

WebsiteTwitter: @StephScottYAInstagramFacebookGoodreads


ALTERATIONS released 12/6/2016 from Bloomsbury Spark!

AmazonBarnes & Noble | ibooks | Kobo | Google Play | Goodreads

If anyone saw the prom boards Amelia Blanco makes on her favorite fashion app, they’d think Ethan Laurenti was her boyfriend. They wouldn’t know that all the plans she’s made for them are just dreams, and that she’s the girl who watches him from the kitchen while her parents cook for his famous family.

When Amelia’s abuelita enrolls her in a month-long fashion internship in NYC, Amelia can’t imagine leaving Miami–and Ethan–for that long. As soon as she gets to New York, however, she finds a bigger world and new possibilities. She meets people her own age who can actually carry on a conversation about stitching and design. Her pin boards become less about prom with Ethan and more about creating her own style. By the time she returns to Miami, Amelia feels like she can accomplish anything, and surprises herself by agreeing to help Ethan’s awkward, Steve-Jobs-wannabe brother, Liam, create his own fashion app.

As Liam and Amelia grow closer, Ethan realizes that this newly confident, stylish girl may be the one for him after all . . . even though he has a reality TV star girlfriend he conveniently keeps forgetting about. The “new and improved” Amelia soon finds herself in between two brothers, a whole lot of drama, and choice she never dreamed she’d have to make.

Stephanie‘s First Page Critique . . .


GENRE: Realistic Fiction

My name is Aubrey McLean. No middle name. My mother named me after a 70’s song by Bread.  I looked it up on YouTube when I was twelve and decided it was the most god-awful depressing thing I had ever heard. I told her I wanted to legally change my name to Bree for my thirteenth birthday present, not Brey, too close that damn song; and not Brie after cheese either.

My mom is Elisabeth Francine McLean. She hated her name and the length of it.  When I asked her why I didn’t have a middle name she said, “You have two syllables for your first name that’s enough AU. . .Brey,” she would exaggerate the pronunciation like I was stupid or something and didn’t know what a syllable was.

I am seventeen and pregnant. I am officially homeless and I quit school. If you just judged me in any way, even a little bit, close this book and don’t read another word. [This right here is your first paragraph. I LOVE the simplicity and the follow up challenge to the reader about not judging her.]

[Because those previous lines are so powerful, I suggest breaking the next part into a new paragraph:] I don’t want your judgment or your sympathy. This is my story and I need to write it for me. I don’t care who reads it as long as you leave your judgment somewhere else. [<This line is repetitive, so I would cut it. Your first page is prime real estate, so make sure each line NEEDS to be there.] Shit happens. It happens to good people and bad people, smart people and dumb people, rich people and poor people. It happened to me.

[This is where I would add the paragraph about her name (My name is Aubrey..) I suggest you cut the paragraph about her mother’s name. Keep the focus on Aubrey first.]

I am smart. I tell the truth unless I am forced to lie. I mean, life or death situations then it’s not lying, it’s just surviving. I am a good person. I like me. I think I am nice but most people would disagree but that’s their misunderstanding. I am not friend material. [All of this I suggest you “show” throughout the first chapter rather than explain. We want to see her survive, see how kind she is to someone perhaps undeserving without being told. We now know Aubrey is very angry, she is pregnant, and does not have a good relationship with her mom. Let’s ease readers into the story at this point.]

I have been called bitch, whore, liar – well I’ll save the list of names I’ve been called and just tell you my story, eventually you’ll know all the names I’ve been called and why people spewed them at me.  Spewed, I like that word. I like all words actually. You’ll figure that out too. I am organized, methodical, logical, A to Z and 1, 2, 3, orderly; a planner. [Again this is more you’ll want to show throughout the story. I suggest cutting this paragraph.]

[This here is great—we want this connection on page 1:] How does someone like me end up homeless and pregnant at seventeen? I hope writing this helps me figure that out too.

I grew up in Seattle. [Here it would be great to transition to a current scene. Show Audrey walking down a street where she lives and interacting with surroundings that show detail of the Pacific Northwest. What is she doing today? Is she on her way to a doctor appointment for the baby? Creating an active scene to add in your backstory will keep readers engaged.] Okay, that’s a lie I tell, kind of, just because it’s so much easier for people to understand. If I say I am from Seattle, people say, “Oh,” conversation over – no Q&A, just like I like it. Nobody knows where Tukwila is let alone a little dump like Allentown and I am not going to explain it. Besides, I just lived in Tukwila but I grew up in Seattle.

Life in the Pacific Northwest is cloudy. Yes, literally and metaphorically. The grey sky and dank air is only remotely tolerable because of all the different shades of green that create a serene landscape when the sun decides to peak out. Dank, sounds like a curse word.  I like it.  When the sun shines people get giddy. [It’s a great idea to pull out some positives for Aubrey. She can certainly be bitter an angry, but giving readers a glimpse of what she finds joy in adds character depth. Nice job!]

 Thank you, Stephanie, for your critique!

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 2.




  • Branwen says:

    These are so helpful to read. Thank you to all the authors for their willingness to share, and to all the mentors for volunteering their time and wisdom. You all rock!

  • Amy Lamb says:

    Heather, Thank you so much for facilitating these critiques! I know it was a lot of work and it is so great that it provides the mentors with an opportunity to market themselves and their books! It was so exciting to be critiqued and I can not wait to incorporate the suggestions made.

    Mentors! Thank you for giving your time and your feedback – This is such a great thing for everyone. I have enjoyed reading the other critiques and not just my own. I am very excited to get some of the books written by some of you that I otherwise may never have found out about!

    I love the Brenda Drake website and Pitch Wars!

We're thrilled at the different ways those in our Pitch Wars community are giving back—and we encourage them to do so. However, please keep in mind that Pitch Wars is not affiliated with any of these various contests, promotions, etc., including those of our mentors and mentees. Promoting any such opportunities via our social media channels doesn't imply endorsement or affiliation. We encourage you to do your research before participating.

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