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 Mike Grosso
Mike Grosso is a musician and a fifth-grade teacher who always keeps a guitar in his classroom. He writes books and records music at his home in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives with his wife, son, and a drum set he plays much too loud. I AM DRUMS is his first novel, and its accompanying soundtrack, Songs for Sam(antha), is available through many digital music outlets and streaming services.
I AM DRUMS by Mike Grosso . . .
Sam knows she wants to be a drummer. But she doesn’t know how to afford a drum kit, or why budget cuts end her school’s music program, or why her parents argue so much, or even how to explain her dream to other people.
But drums sound all the time in Sam’s head, and she’d do just about anything to play them out loud—even lie to her family if she has to. Will the cost of chasing her dream be too high?
An exciting new voice in contemporary middle grade, Mike Grosso creates a determined heroine readers will identify with and cheer for.
Mike’s Query Critique . . .
AGE CATEGORY: MG
GENRE: Adventure with Fantasy and Sci-Fi elements
Twelve-year-old aspiring journalist Angela Xue has only one goal for her school trip to the North Pole: to find out the secret of Santa’s magic, write and publish something about it, and launch herself to internet-journalistic stardom. So what if it’s illegal for ordinary citizens to meddle with magic, and the last kid who messed with Santa, Jamie Rayner, got caught up in a social media flame war like no other and then mysteriously disappeared? [I am loving this fresh spin on Santa! Especially that he seems a bit sinister. We also have motivation, obstacle, and mystery established in only two sentences. You are awesome!] It’s a fake persona that will be taking the flak, and Angela is sure that she’s covered her tracks well; until an off-course tour tram leads to a jaunt through the restricted area, and Angela sees her own face up on the big screen in Santa’s secret surveillance department. But before she can figure out what that means, everybody in her class mysteriously loses their memories. [We are going in a lot of directions now. I’m confused as to what the main plot thread might be.]
After what she’s seen, Angela knows it’s only a matter of time before Santa discovers her secret research and places her on the Naughty List [Ha! I want to know what happens to kids on the Naughty List! Or do I? J] –or worse–bringing instant social ruin and completely destroying her dream of becoming a journalist. But if she can beat Santa to the punch and uncover the truth behind his secret surveillance program and her classmates’ amnesia, she’ll have a bargaining chip to make him keep her secret. And more importantly, she’ll be one step closer to revenge on Santa for his role in what happened to Jamie Rayner. [But wasn’t Jamie Rayner’s disappearance a mystery? Granted, I could infer that Santa was responsible, so maybe I’m being nit-picky here, but it seems like she knows more about what happened to him than in the first few sentences of your query.] And one step closer to forgiving herself for hers. [This is what I mean. Does she know what happened to him, then? You’re introducing a ton of different plot threads that are overloading your query. I’m sure these all make sense within the context story, but this is a query letter. Grab the agent’s interest and with something that can be read and comprehended quickly.]
But when Angela discovers that Jamie is alive but in danger [In line what what I just mentioned, most agents have either decided to ask for pages or sent a form rejection at this point. I think you need to trim this query to two paragraphs at the absolute most, and even less if possible. A third paragraph of plot isn’t going to increase your odds of grabbing an agent’s attention.] and accidentally trades away her safety to ensure his, she decides that she’d rather fight to the end than end up like her classmates: (probably) safe but blissfully ignorant of Santa’s true intentions. Together with her two best friends, she hatches a plan to take Santa down. But when Santa’s elven hit squad pays her a visit on Christmas eve, Angela is caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse at the North Pole. As her deeds get darker and the line between hero and villain begin to blur, Angela must decide what she really wants–as well as how far she’ll go to get it–and face down Santa, his elves, and dark, ancient magic before this turns into her last Christmas ever.
THE CANDY CANE CONSPIRACY, complete at 85,000 words, is an upper middle-grade adventure with sci-fi and fantasy elements in the vein of RISE OF THE GUARDIANS meets ARTEMIS FOWL with an Arya Stark-like protagonist. It’s a standalone with series potential and should appeal to fans of Eoin Colfer and Chris Grabenstein. [Nice comparisons! Two optional suggestions: suggest one lesser known comparison to prove to the agent that you actively read within your genre. I also like putting the “basic ms information” first so the agent knows from the get-go what they’re looking at. Both of these suggestions are personal preferences, though.]
This sounds like a fun spin on the North Pole, with a fun take on magic and the story of Santa Claus with humorous, exciting, and scary elements.
Your query letter is jam-packed with fun, voice, and style, but it’s also way too long. There are so many details that I was unsure of the main plot thread by the end. I’m sure these make for a wonderful, rewarding book that I’ll be sure to read when it hits shelves, but they make for a bloated query letter.
I know from experience that trimming a query stinks, but I feel VERY strongly that simplifying your query to two short paragraphs (at most) by focusing on one enticing plot thread that is shorter and easier to follow will turn this query into agent bait. There is so much about this book that sounds special – agents will be happy to dig into the finer details of THE CANDY CANE CONSPIRACY when they send you a full request!
Next up we have . . .
Pitch Wars Mentor Katrina Carrasco
Katrina Carrasco is a queer Latinx writer, born and raised in Southern California and now living in Seattle. Her short fiction has appeared in Witness Magazine, Post Road Magazine, Quaint Magazine, and other journals. Her debut novel, CIPHER, will be released in Fall 2018 by MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. CIPHER follows Alma Rosales, a queer woman and ex-Pinkerton detective, as she switches between female and male disguises to investigate an opium-smuggling ring.
CIPHER by Katrina Carrasco
The debut novel centers on a detective named Alma who infiltrates a Washington Territory opium smuggling ring while disguised as a man.
Once she’s insinuated herself, Alma must create an ever-more-elaborate series of alibis while sending coded dispatches to the Pinkertons as well as managing her physical attraction to Delphine, the head of the smuggling ring, and Wheeler, the local boss.
The book is set to be published in summer 2018.
Katrina’s First Page Critique…
AGE CATEGORY: YA
GENRE: Contemporary Fantasy
In my defense, I didn’t mean to explode the car. [good opening line]
Ty had been annoying me. That’s what I told everyone – Uncle Mark, when he picked me up at the police station so furious his eyes glowed [because this is fantasy, and Uncle Mark knows about witchcraft, I wonder if his eyes were actually glowing]; Aunt Kat, when she pursed her lips and pretended she hadn’t expected something like this; my little cousin Alexis, who sat on the edge of my bed and kept asking why?The tricky part was that no one in my family knew I was a witch except Uncle Mark. [this should be in present tense: “The tricky part is that no one in my family knows I’m a witch except Uncle Mark.”] It’s not obvious. Like, I don’t own any black hats – I don’t have the right head shape for hats of any kind – and I don’t fly on a broomstick. I don’t have a wand and I don’t know any spells. What I do, apparently, is explode the crap out of nearby objects when I get a little too upset.
The cops seemed to think I’d rigged an elaborate bomb, a scheme to get back at my ex-boyfriend. They were chatting away to Uncle Mark in the living room, questioning him about whether or not I was the type to look up that stuff on YouTube after being jilted by a former lover. [would adults would talk about a teenage girl this way, having a “lover” vs having a “boyfriend” or “crush”?] One of the guys actually used the word “jilted,” like I was a southern belle left at the altar. God forbid I be permitted to burst in there with the truth: I was the one who dumped Ty. And all I ever watch on YouTube are beauty gurus and cats playing the piano.
I thought for sure that Uncle Mark would take my side. He always had, even back when Mom was alive. He was the one who’d convinced her that seven wasn’t too young to get my ears pierced. [good details, we now know she grew up with her mom before losing her] But he texted me while I was sulking upstairs in the bedroom I shared with Alexis: come down here, please. And I knew I was screwed. [can we see what happens when she speaks with the cops, so we can see why she feels Uncle Mark doesn’t support her?]
“I get that you’d want to send me away,” I told him after the cops had left and it was just me and him sitting in the living room. The windows were flung open, warm summer air ruffling the striped curtains. Outside the night was full of rustling cicada wings and fireflies flickering against the backdrop of thickly-clustered trees. “Like, to some fancy treatment facility in Philly for girls with anger management issues or something. But this…”
“It’s just a school,” Uncle Mark said calmly. “And the will states that your mom did tell you about Aradia Witchcraft Academy when…”
“When I was little!” I snapped, staring down at the will for what felt like the thousandth time. It was just a faded piece of white paper creased twice horizontally. [good detail] Whenever my uncle had mentioned Mom’s will in the past, I had visualized a giant crumbling scroll, our names traced in careful calligraphy. This looked like something she’d typed up in Microsoft Word one day. “Of course I thought it sounded cool back then! Why would I want to go there now and have to relive what she went through?” [good line, sets up her mom’s struggles with witchcraft and foreshadows her own]
[This is a strong opening page. We get a sense of the narrator’s voice, and we see that she’s on the cusp of a big change: going to witchcraft academy because her (secret) powers are getting to be too much to control — and too much to conceal. Bringing in the police on the first page is a good decision because we see there are real-world consequences attached to her actions. However, I was confused about why the police came to the house to talk to her uncle when he’d just been at the station to pick her up; why not talk to him there? Also, I’d like to get a better sense of why she feels her uncle doesn’t support her: he gets her off the hook for the car, and we don’t see him yelling or being upset (other than the eyes glowing line where the narrator tells us he’s angry, rather than showing us). Sending her to the academy appears to be stipulated in her mother’s will, so it’s not punitive on the part of her uncle. Finally, it might be good to see some concern from the narrator about her powers. This is probably something that gets explored later, but there’s no sense of “that was scary” or “I didn’t know I could blow up something so big” in the lines here about the car. A little fear about her powers being strong — and her not knowing how to control them — could create some internal emotional conflict for her. Overall, this is a crisp, efficient setup for the novel. I want to stay alongside the narrator as she learns about her powers and about her mother, two mysteries that seem very intertwined with her own story.]
Thank you, Mike and Katrina, 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.