Welcome to the Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2020 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 Roma Panganiban …
Roma Panganiban won an essay contest in fourth grade and used the prize money to buy some glitter gel pens and a pint of locally made cotton candy ice cream, and has been chasing those heights of excellence ever since. After majoring in English and Psychology at a picturesque liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere, she moved to England and dabbled in graduate school before finding her way back across the Atlantic to work at a cupcake bakery, a tutoring center, and a theatrical costume studio. She is now happily employed at a literary agency and lives in Brooklyn, where she stays up too late and complains about being tired.
Roma offers freelance editing services.
If you’re seeking assistance for a query critique, a manuscript critique, a full developmental edit, copy editing and/or proofreading, or any other similar service, check out this page HERE for more information.
Roma’s critique . . .
Adult: Literary Fiction
[Please note: this query was submitted as a Word doc in Garamond font, which I and many publishing professionals have a soft spot for! However, many agents accept queries only in the body of an email, and ANY kind of non-default formatting can wreak havoc on the visual experience. With no way of knowing how an email will appear before an agent, I would suggest erring on the side of caution and simply using whatever your email client’s default formatting is, which will then translate smoothly into the agent’s default formatting. But if the agent specifically requests material as Word or PDF attachments, Garamond away!]
I am seeking mentoring/representation for my novel TITLE OF NOVEL, a work of contemporary literary fiction that draws attention to questions of race and justice in a society that would prefer to ignore them. Due to [personalized reasons], I thought my novel might be of interest to you. [Excellent opening. The title is evocative and, as any good title should, sets a distinct tone for the query and the book itself. In this case, I know not to expect big laughs or an unambiguously happy ending. I also like the phrasing, “of interest to you”–it frames the work as a kind of humble gift to the agent, rather than a plea or even a commercial proposition, though of course it’s arguably both those things. After all, an agent-author relationship is mutually beneficial, so it suggests a sense of mature professionalism for you to have acknowledged that right away.]
A [college/university? high school? PhD? Or use some other descriptor here; skipping an adjective in your opening sentence feels to me like a missed opportunity to set the bar appropriately high for the drama about to unfold] student disappears during Christmas break. Shortly, a video is released online in which a pair of men [dressed] as priests chain him to scaffolding in an alley. The student is Christopher Fairchild[:] he’s the son of a billionaire, and he’s naked. [The sparse syntax is very effective here.] For three days, snow slashes the screen, wind shrieks in the microphone, and the priests watch as Christopher is brutalized, mutilated, and tattooed. [This sentence could be tightened up quite a bit. “Snow slashes the screen” is one of the rare instances in which it could be more appropriate to use the passive voice, e.g. “the screen is slashed by snow,” because the video is more salient than the unpleasant weather. That said, there’s no simple way to flip that syntax of “wind shrieks in the microphone,” and I do like that phrasing a lot. Perhaps the imbalance of this sentence is that there are two clauses that convey a similar message (harsh weather) in parallel with a third that provides new and more vital information (the “priests” are present, but are not the ones committing atrocities against Christopher). The simplest fix I might suggest would involve some tinkering with order and punctuation: “For three days, wind shrieks in the microphone and the video screen is slashed by now; the priests watch as Christopher…”]
Christopher is white, and most of [his attackers] are black, which provokes a series of heated reactions from those on both sides of the racial divide. When it comes to light that Christopher designed the entire incident and declines to press charges against any of those who participated in the violence, society desperately searches for an explanation for his actions, an explanation Christopher refuses to offer. [This is an unusually long sentence, as far as your writing thus far has gone, and I’m concerned it upsets the pace you’ve established. I think the main issue is that the bombshell reveal will inevitably invoke a kind of knee-jerk reaction in the reader–“Why?!”–but Christopher’s refusal to give any response is pushed back by the fact that “society desperately searches for an explanation for his actions,” where it makes more sense for Christopher to first refuse before society starts to desperately search for answers in the absence of a more forthcoming response from him. Soon, New York City [this is the first mention of setting: if a real university, which one? Naming it in the opening paragraph is one handy way of establishing a reader’s expectations about the nuances of this story; there’s a different sense to Christopher being, say, a CUNY student as opposed to NYU as opposed to Columbia] is near detonation: a white vigilante kills two black men on the courthouse steps; a police precinct erupts into internecine war after a white policeman assaults a black doctor, the younger brother of one of the precinct’s detectives; a killer-become-priest prepares to mete out his own justice. [There’s broken parallelism here: the first two example state the both parties’ races, but the third does not. I believe that, unfortunately, the second example might work just as well if it were to be said simply that “a policeman assaults a black doctor”–the Blackness of the victim is relevant, but it’s enough context to say that the doctor’s assailant was a policeman without making explicit that he was a white one. His race is far less relevant than his badge.] The foundations of civil society are at stake as the city teeters dangerously close to descending into chaos, riots, and violent disorder. [I have to say I’m rather disappointed with the vagueness of “The Foundations of civil society are at stake”. In general, specific stakes are more compelling than sweeping clichés. When aliens attack, people aren’t concerned about “the future of humanity”; they’re worried whether they’ll be eaten or enslaved or zapped. What is more immediately on the line here?]
Following a diverse group of New Yorkers, some of whom have been entangled in the torsions of racial discourse their whole lives, and some of whom are only now discovering its power over their lives, TITLE OF NOVEL is a novel about pain, endurance, and human connection in a city of eight million people. [Great sentence. Comprehensive, but tight.] The novel draws upon the taut lyricism and bottomless anger of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, on Kevin Brockmeier’s exploration of interlocked human suffering and lush rendering of pain as beauty in The Illuminations, and on Billie Holiday’s haunting and poignant recording of “Strange Fruit.” [Excellent. Comp titles are given specific justification, and with two strong literary comps, there’s room to throw in an unconventional but entirely apt non-literary comp. I’m always a fan of seeing stories told via other cultural mediums used as unexpected bonus comp “titles.” To me, doing so indicates a writer’s broad understanding of their book’s role in the greater artistic landscape, not limited to books alone, and speaks to a depth of thought put into the comps beyond simply listing three of the Amazon bestsellers in, for example, the category of “contemporary racial justice novels.”
I am a contributing editor at Redacted, where I have written on issues of race in America through articles on James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates. [Very smart, and always appreciated, when writers say what they write about, not just where. Journalist or not, every writer has a “beat,” and it does the agent a favor to tell them what yours is rather than having them try to categorize you themselves.] My short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, most recently in The Columbia Review, and my story ‘Title of Story’ was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. [This is subjective, but I appreciate the restraint in listing only the brightest of your publication highlights. A query should be more like a résumé than a CV.] My first novel, TITLE OF NOVEL, will be released by Title of Publishing Company on August 26, 2020.
I have included the first page of my novel, as requested, and I would be happy to send you the full manuscript, complete at 67,000 words, for your review. Thank you for your time and consideration.
[The author asked the following]
One thing I am particularly struggling with re: this query is that my novel has an experimental structure. Each chapter focuses on a different character and is written in a different style, and gradually the various stories start to overlap and paint a fuller picture of what is happening. I don’t know if I should address that in my query letter or not. As of right now, I allude to the structure only by a brief reference to “diverse voices”, but I would be interested in hearing my critique guru’s thoughts as to if and how I should address my novel’s structure in the query.
Yes, particularly for literary fiction, you should absolutely make note of the novel’s experimental structure! While some agents may be turned off by it, there’s no sense in not being upfront, especially when other agents are intrigued by exactly that kind of formal novelty. This can be conveyed in a single, straightforward sentence, either before or after comps, in the paragraph where you mention the novel’s “diverse voices.” In fact, the sentence you’ve used right there is a great starting point: “Each chapter focuses on a different character and is written in a different style, and gradually the various stories start to overlap and…” A more elegant sentence might read something like, “BLOOD AT THE ROOT utilizes a nonlinear narrative structure, with each character narrating various chapters in their own distinct styles; overlap in time until a truer picture starts to emerge from the noise.” But play with the wording as you like; the short answer is yes, DO address the novel’s structure in the query itself.]
- CHAPTER TITLE
It is four-thirty in the morning, not yet day, but warming, the sky still mostly opaque, but a phthalo green, now, as opposed to the onyx of true night. [This is a strong and distinctive style choice, to start with a bundle of descriptive clauses–but I’m afraid I can’t say I’m fond of it. There is no new information beyond the time of day, and placing such lyrical visual imagery in the opening sentence is rather like taking a hydration break after the first two steps of a marathon. Not every opening has to be high octane, but there needs to be some sense of forward momentum that’s lacking here. I’d be more grabbed simply by the sentence, “It is four-thirty in the morning”–the absence of any other information forces me to consider the inherent strangeness of a story beginning 4:30 in the morning, leaving room for my curiosity to spark and keep me reading.] The boy is being led on a length of chain, handcuffed. He does not struggle. He does not speak. He is naked, shoeless; shards of glass cut into his feet as he walks, but he doesn’t seem to notice, only continues walking, bleeding. It is hard to guess his age; his testicles have descended and he has a thatch of pubic hair, but there’s no flesh beneath his epidermis, only bone reaching out through his skin, the ribs and sternum nearly free, the clavicle, skull, and vertebrae not far behind. [Now this progression from general to specific is excellent, the literary equivalent of watching an artist sketch in pencil before shading in dark and light.] The street is mostly deserted. The camera remains with the boy as he walks, so there is no way to tell where he is or who is on the other end of the chain. Two, three times, people appear behind him, their mouths open, frozen around words that won’t come, their eyes gaping, suspicious. All are wearing thick jackets, winter hats, and gloves.
The structure appears like a leviathan, a hellfire-red, Baker-style rolling steel scaffold eight feet high, six feet wide. [“Leviathan” is such a powerful word to invoke here and sets the tone so well. However, I have to admit that the meaning of “Baker-style” is lost on me.] The back of the man on the other end of the chain appears, followed by another man; both wear vestments: an alb, girdle, stole, and chasuble. One has braids that fall to his shoulders; the other man’s hair is cropped to his scalp. They undo the boy’s chain and handcuff his wrists to horizontal slats on opposite ends of the scaffolding, then his ankles, and move off camera.
The boy’s penis hangs limp. A blast of wind pushes it left; it falls back to center. [This is the second reference within a single page to the boy’s genitals. Individual reader’s personal sensibilities aside, where the first reference was a clever way of indicating the relative age of “the boy,” this is nothing more than a fanciful way of saying, “It’s cold” (which we already know from the thick jackets). I could do without it.]
The man with the short hair reappears and places a small table to one side of the structure, and the man with braids places something on it that it is still too dark to see, and this is when even those who choose to watch the uncut version of the video reach for their mouse, because the action dies for over an hour. [Love this.] The priests take up positions on either side of the boy, standing motionless, silent, and the camera doesn’t pan or track, only stares into the darkness encompassing the two men and the boy between them. Light emerges from the womb of night slowly, releasing gradient, line, and detail in dribs and drabs, the advent of color. [Gorgeous final sentence, and I appreciate way your creative use of the term “advent” bridges the pseudo-religion of this scene and its secularity.]