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Day 30 (Part 2): Pitch Wars Query & 1st Page Workshop with mentors, Ashley Hearn and Heidi Stallman

Monday, 19 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 Ashley Hearn

Ashley Hearn

Ashley Hearn is a Young Adult author and an Associate YA Editor at Page Street Publishing. In a previous life, she was a sports producer for The Badger Sports Report, the football and basketball coaches’ show for the University of Wisconsin. She is an addictive coffee drinker, a Gilmore Girls fanatic, and a proud Gryffindor. When she ferrets away enough gas money, she can be found scouring the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands for ruined plantations, folk magic, and a fresh story.



Ashley’s Query Critique…


GENRE: Fantasy

Dear (Agent’s name):

I noticed on your Manuscript Wish List that you are looking for an Adult Fantasy with diverse characters and a strong female protagonist. I would like to present my novel, SCION OF THE RING, for your consideration. [Excellent clear and succinct intro paragraph!]

We Persevere.

It was [Stay in present tense here—it is the family motto] Catina Greymist’s family motto, carved into every sword and shield [I’d end the sentence here. It packs more of a punch.] to remind her father’s men. [But] After she is mistaken for a thief and whisked [away] to a slave-fighting ring in the desert, we persevere becomes the mantra by which she survives. [This feels pretty coincidental, to me. The less random you can make this inciting incident seem, the less contrived your plot will feel. Does she do anything to insinuate she is a thief, or does she bare a resemblance to a wanted criminal? Are the people who capture her enemies of her family? I wouldn’t mind a little more detail here to smooth over the coincidence. Right now, it feels like her father’s men mistook her for a thief and sold her off. You don’t need much, just something like: “But after a rival family mistakes her for a thief, she’s whisked away to a slave-fighting ring…”] Seven years pass, years of killing with a sword and [use a verb here to keep that parallel structure. “…years of killing with a sword and fighting a magic she can’t yet control.”] and a magic that she can’t yet control. Gone is the young woman with a taste for adventure, replaced by a hardened warrior who no longer believes that [delete that] her father or the gods will come and save her. When an opportunity presents itself, she doesn’t hesitate to save herself by executing anyone in her way.

Finally free, [I missed the jump here. How did she free herself? What was this opportunity that presented itself? Need a few more details here to understand how Catina managed to free herself.] Catina escapes into a world that has changed since slavers took her from the capitol. The nine Great Nations lie in terror of an unstoppable conqueror and his dark magi. They say the honorable princess of Azaria is amassing an army in the mountains to fight them…only that couldn’t be. Because Catina is the princess of Azaria. [Love the upped stakes here! This is a great hook.] Faced with a harrowing quest that involves taking back her name, learning to control her magic, and hiding from a prince who believes he owns her, Catina is wracked with self-doubt over her worthiness to lead her people to war. [This last sentence could pack more of a punch. “Faced with a harrowing quest” and listing all the things she must face feels cliche. Instead, show me how Catina feels about this imposter princess, and how she resolves to take back her name. Then end with the big obstacle or twist standing in her way—perhaps this prince?]

SCION OF THE RING is a 122,000 word standalone novel with strong [delete strong] series potential. A full manuscript is available upon request.

[Author Name] is a writer, mother, and former educator who lives in the Northeast with her husband, two non-conformist teens, and a tyrannical preschooler. Her poetry can be found in the upcoming Pact Press anthology, Speak and Speak Again, and she has been a National Novel Writing Month winner for two years in a row. She is a regular contributor to The Good Men Project online, and has been featured on Huffington Post and BlogHer.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

[Wow! This is already a good query. Just tighten up a few sentences and smooth over a few jumps, and I know this can be a great query! I love the twist with the imposter princess and Catina’s quest to take back her identity—these are some really personal stakes! Best of luck, and thank you so much for giving me the chance to read!]


Next up we have . . .

Pitch Wars Mentor Heidi Stallman

heidi stallman

Twitter | Facebook | Website

Heidi Stallman lives in Columbia, Missouri, where she writes and lives for middle school readers. Her heart got stuck in those awkward years, so she’s trying to spread a little magic through the power of a good book. Heidi coaches little league baseball; rescues kittens and German shepherds; loves hiking, bird watching and all things outdoors; and is still a faster swimmer than her twin 8 year-old boys (barely). She spent the summer of 2006 in Uganda building houses with Habitat for Humanity, and has a Ph.D. in agricultural economics with an emphasis in sustainable agriculture. She is represented by Lisa Rogers of JABberwocky Literary Agency.


Heidi’s First Page Critique…


AGE CATEGORY: Middle Grade

GENRE: Realistic Fiction [Comtemporary]

It was a yellow ball with red stitches that started it all [Passive voice — “A yellow ball with red stitches started it all” is a much stronger way to start this passage. You may also want to tell us what the ball started. In general, specifics are better than being vague.] The day Emily moved to Pine Springs it was a yellow ball with red stitches that flew into Emily’s lawn on her first day in her new house on Elm Street. [Lots of redundant wording in this beginning paragraph. Is this second sentence needed?]  

That day, Emily was unpacking boxes in her room. At least that’s what her Mom thought she was doing. She didn’t want to unpack boxes. She hadn’t wanted to move to Pine Springs It was her Mom’s idea [Consider removing this sentence.]. “We need a fresh start,” she had said. A fresh start meant moving to her  Mom’s home town. How was that a fresh start? [You don’t need italics here since you’re writing in a close third person. We’ll know she’s thinking this.] Pine Springs was nothing special. It wasn’t going to change anything.  [Fabulous — In this paragraph, you’ve introduced your main character and she’s engaged in an activity that is important to her and most likely important to the story problem. You’ve also hinted at previous conflict and conflict to come. Kudos for getting to this so quickly].

Her room was freshly painted and the smell was giving her mom a migraine. Her mom had opened all the windows on the second floor. The breeze was blowing [Passive voice again -you might want to do a search for “was/were/is” and weed them from your manuscript as much as possible] through the room and with it came voices. Emily heard shouts through the open window [“heard” is an unnecessary filter word. If we are told someone is shouting, we’ll know Emily heard it]. She pretended not to care but she heard something that intrigued her.

“I’m fired up, you fired up?” the voice was yelling [passive voice] so loud that Emily could make out every word.  It reminded her of home. Her real home. Not this place. [Nice voice here]

“I can’t hear you, Lucy!” the voice screamed.

Emily peeked out the window and saw two girls about her age in the yard next door. They were facing each other, one on either side of the lawn. One girl had a long brown ponytail cascading down her back. In the ponytail was a big blue bow almost the size of the girl’s head that sparkled in the sun when she moved. [How would you revise this to remove the filter word (saw) and the passive voice (were, was, had)?].

The Ponytail girl stood with a bat in her hand and the other, smaller girl called out to her. From Emily’s distance at the window in her room [phrase is a bit awkward], she couldn’t make out what the girl said.  The smaller girl’s hair hung in messy strands around her head, breaking loose from her own ponytail. As Emily watched, the smaller girl moved suddenly and the ball snapped in the direction of the Ponytail girl. Emily gasped at the speed with which the ball came toward the Ponytail girl. Emily thought she would move out of the way of the force of the ball, but she didn’t. Ponytail girl stood firm and moved with equally quick movements. The bat that was in her hands swung towards the ball, made contact and soared over the fence separating their lawn from Emily’s [You may want to remove some redundant language in this paragraph, but I like how you’ve used this action introduce these girls and their athletic skills.]

The yellow ball with red stitches landed in the grass in Emily’s lawn. Emily heard whoops and yells.  Ponytail girl ran to the fence[, whooping and yelling]. She yelled back to the smaller girl. She quieted as they realized that their ball was [had landed] on the other side of the fence in a lawn belonging to new neighbors they hadn’t yet met. [My corrections are one possible example of how removing redundant wording, passive voice, and filter words can give more life to the passage]

Emily turned away from the window, ran out of her room, down the stairs and out the back door. She was in the grass of her new backyard in 10 seconds flat. [Either here or in the previous paragraph we need to know Emily’s reaction to the hit. Is she excited? Angry? What emotion is making her race to the ball?]

Overall thoughts: Many things are working well in this passage. The reader is immediately grounded into the scene and is introduced to a main character with a problem. Emily is engaged in an activity that is meaningful to the story. We have some hint of conflict past and conflict to come, and we have met two girls who will probably become important to Emily. In addition, the voice is appropriate for MG. Some things to consider: If this is a story about Emily joining a softball/baseball team, then the first sentence works okay, but could be stronger. If it’s not about softball, you may want to hint at the theme or the main story problem in that first line instead. Make sure that Emily’s emotional reaction/motivations are clear, and clean up the passive voice, redundant wording, and filter words. Also, consider if you can give Emily a goal while she unpacks boxes. Does she want to finish quickly so she can check out the library the next block over. Is she drawing the process out, so she doesn’t have to meet her Mom’s old friends? Goals tell us a lot about your character and what makes her tick.


Thank you, Ashley and Heidi, 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.

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