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Day 32 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Query & 1st Page Workshop with mentors, Heather Cashman and Mae Respicio

Wednesday, 21 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 Heather Cashman (that’s me ;))

heather-cashman Website | Twitter | Editorial Services

With a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry, the lab reports always lacked the fantastical element Heather’s imagination demands. Hypotheses turned into taglines and novels that range from Epic Fantasy to Contemporary Speculative Fiction. Agent Intern. Managing Director of Pitch Wars, #PitMad, and Pitch Madness. Previously an editor for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, Heather now freelance edits queries, synopses, pages, and full novels for middle grade, young adult, and select adult fiction. Member, SCBWI.


Heather’s Query Critique…

Age Category: Adult

Genre: Fiction

The Legislature says women must breed and produce a viable fetus.

The Legislature says parents must relinquish their children.

The Legislature says violators will be executed.

[This is a personal preference, as you will also find with agents. I’d put your hook and title paragraph up front. Not all agents want it that way, so this should really be personalized. But I like a strong hook, the logline, the one-line pitch about the heart of your novel, and then the specifics of the TITLE, wordcount, age category, genre, etc.

That said, beginning a SF/F query with something unique about the world is an excellent idea. I’d dial it back a bit.

In a world where the Legislature says women must breed and then relinquish their children or be executed, Julianna has promised to avenge her girlfriend’s brutal murder.]

Allegiant on the surface, LGBTQ Julianna has done an almost perfect job of fooling the Legislature into thinking she’s loyal, even though they brutally murdered her girlfriend in front of her.   But she made a promise to her dead lover: she’d remain alive, stoic and tormented by her loss, and find some way to avenge her death.

[Death is redundant. I’d remove.

Also, the phrase, “Allegiant on the surface” tripped me up. I kept thinking it meant she was an Allegiant when she was on the surface of her planet. Hah! I know that’s not what you meant. Which is why simplicity and clarity in a query are best.]

Finding temporary escape in a brothel, she sleeps only with men to remain faithful in heart.  She falls pregnant with a stillborn child and flees to survive, eventually finding a home underground with Helio and Genevieve, citizens genotyped to rebel.  Lost in her grief for her dead child, her hatred towards the Legislature grows as she becomes desperate to live free above ground.

[In this paragraph, you say she is finding escape. But we don’t know what from. I’m assuming that she’s escaping from the Legislature, but she’s not wanted at this point. She’s fooled them by pretending allegiance. And escaping to a brothel where she has sex with men–this seems exactly like what the Legislature is doing. So it’s not an escape, is it? It feels inconsistent.

Reword the second sentence. She was pregnant and then delivered a stillborn child.

She flees after having a child, but it’s not clear why. If she is pregnant, it would seem she’s doing what she’s supposed to for the Legislature. Do they punish you for losing your own child as well?

I have no idea what you mean by “genotyped to rebel.” Again, simplicity is best, because this is the first we’ve seen of your world. It could mean a myriad of things, like they are programmed to rebel so that they draw out the malcontents for the Legislature. It could mean that they are anomalies in the genotype and thus, rebels of a sort.]

But when she finally gets her chance, she is pregnant again.  Torn between her desire to be a mother and her fear of what attachment can do, she makes one last attempt to escape the oppressive city.  Though Julianna may be killed by the Legislature for having this child, she realizes sometimes it takes a lifetime to do what’s right.

[Okay. She’s living underground, so it seems she isn’t under the Legislature’s forced-breeding thumb. So who is making her have sex with men now? Has she betrayed her dead lover? Because if so, it undermines her character. Then, we understand that maybe she’s doing this just to get pregnant again, to replace the stillborn child. But any moment of confusion is going to make us stop reading.

In the last sentence of this paragraph, you contradict yourself. The Legislature (that requires them to breed and have children) is now going to kill her for getting pregnant.

Last, stakes. Her life is the stakes. But her life seems to have been in danger from sentence 1. How have the stakes increased? Are any other people going to have consequences if she doesn’t get out? What will happen to society as a whole if she doesn’t act heroically? In this last bit, the stakes must be increased.]

I have studied under Ann Hood and Xu Xi at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I received a scholarship to attend the MFA Post-Graduate Writers Conference.  I earned a BA in English from the University of Iowa where I was in the undergraduate Writers’ Workshop and a MA in Education from California State University. A recipient of the New York Mills writing residency, I have had short stories published in Cold Creek Review, The Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, and the online magazine, Mr. Judas.  I have been a full-time high school English teacher for sixteen years.  This is my first novel.

I am seeking representation for my 98,000 word work of fiction, THE WAYS.  A story about choice, THE WAYS echoes THE HANDMAID’S TALE, the loss of family in THE CHILDREN OF MEN, the social stratification of WE THE LIVING, and the stolen childhoods of NEVER LET ME GO.

[Comps are great, but too many can be overkill.]

Thank you for your time and consideration.

[There certainly is conflict and emotion. I’d focus on the heart of your story, make sure and include the unique parts of your world, but also the unique character traits of your MC so that we can connect with her and see why she’s the one we should reading about. What special trait is going to make her the best qualified to save what or whomever she’s saving?

Thank you for sharing your query with us, and I wish you all the best in your publishing journey!]

Next up we have . . .

Pitch Wars Mentor Mae Respicio


Twitter | Website | InstagramGoodreads

Mae Respicio is author of the middle grade novel THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT, debuting summer 2018 from Penguin Random House & Wendy Lamb Books. She’s the past recipient of a PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellowship and former writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook and Atlantic Center for the Arts; her non-fiction, essays, and work as a parenting writer have appeared in a variety of anthologies and publications. Mae is thrilled to be a Pitch Wars MG mentor this year!

The House That Lou Built by Mae Respicio

Random House/Wendy Lamb Books has preempted Mae Respicio’s debut middle-grade novel, The House That Lou Built. The story is about a Filipina-American girl who sets out to build her own tiny house where she can escape her intrusive family, but her summer DIY project becomes life-changing when her long-lost father suddenly reappears. Publication is planned for summer 2018.

Mae’s First Page Critique . . .


GENRE: Animal humor/action

Chapter 1 Running and Screaming

Milton ran as fast as his eight little legs would carry him. Thinking didn’t come into it; whoever you were, instinct took over after a scream like that. A loud and shrieky scream. A right ear-splitter, his dad would’ve said. [Who is screaming?  Is it Milton?  Or is it whatever/whomever is chasing him? Clarifying this from the start would help readers to stay in the story, rather than be taken out of it wondering where the scream is coming from. Clarification doesn’t need to go in depth, just the barest hint of who is screaming and/or what exactly Milton is running from. This will also establish tension from the get-go.]

He tripped over a gap in the floorboards, and for a moment, considered hiding under the rug, but quickly dismissed such madness. Home wasn’t far. He could make it. Skidding round the corner on four legs, he picked up speed into the hallway. What a way to end my holiday, he thought, puffing. With the skirting board in sight, he pushed aside the memory of his relaxing weekend break, in the downstairs loo. It’s one thing to look forward to coming home, but I fancied a leisurely stroll. Not running for my life! [What’s the reason for moving from 3rd person to 1st person POV here? If it’s all narration keep to one POV. Otherwise, you can break it up using quotation marks for “It’s one thing to look forward to… Not running for my life!” That way the last 2 lines come directly from Milton.]


Fortunately, for a little guy Milton was pretty speedy. He squeezed under a gap by the doormat and into his home, where he breathed a sigh of relief and listened.


No more screaming, no poking with sticks, and no sign of the dreaded hoover. [Confusing—is it a kid who’s poking him with sticks? Still hasn’t yet been established.] He began to relax [Can you show us? i.e. “Milton breathed a huge sigh of relief…”—might be more interesting to see than to tell], but not too much. So far, so safe, but that scream was extremely troubling. [The reader by this point still isn’t sure whom the scream is coming from. Still needs to be clarified in order to establish the scene.]

It was no ordinary scream. In spider vocabulary it would be correctly termed a super-scream [Is there some sort of spider vocabulary that could be used in place of “super-scream”—a term (perhaps made-up) that feels a more kid-like in tone and in voice? This would be a good place where you can add to the voice of this scene, making it more kid-like/friendly.] Milton didn’t usually warrant that kind of volume or intensity. [“…warrant that kind of volume or intensity.” Wording/voice feels too adult?] He wasn’t one of those big, black, hairy house spiders that humans seemed to dislike so much; in fact, he wasn’t very big at all. Mostly he scuttled about quite unnoticed. [I would like to have seen these qualities of Milton established sooner—perhaps these details about what he looks like could be woven into the first couple of paragraphs.]

Despite being small [Can you give us a sense of “small”? The size of a quarter?  Smaller?  Perhaps show us or be more descriptive, doesn’t need to go into huge detail, just something to help your reader visualize], he had a big sense of curiosity and he wondered who this super-screamer could be. Cautiously, and still panting from his dash across the floorboards, he crept out from under the gap in the skirting board and took a quick look around. At the bottom of the stairs sat his house human, Zoe, breathing heavily and looking at her trembling hands. [Suggestion: move this part about Zoe up, so that we know what’s at stake in this story from the very start.  Moving this up in your opening would give a greater push to this scene if your reader knew exactly what/who Milton is running from, and would help his emotion (fright) feel more organic.]

He couldn’t see any other potential screamers, and frowned. He liked Zoe, they seemed to have an unspoken understanding; a sort of “live and let live” policy. [I’m wondering by this point who Zoe is. Is she a kid or a grown-up? I’m picturing her perhaps as an older teen or grown-up, but not sure if this is your intention. Need a clarifying detail or a hint of description so that Zoe is established from the start and the reader isn’t taken out of the story to question.] He didn’t think of her as the screaming type, more the: pretend-it’s-not-there-and-throw-a-sock-at-it-if-it-moves type. She greeted him with the occasional “eek”, but nothing like this. Never a super-scream. Had something changed between them?

Milton knew that curiosity killed cats but it never got him into too much trouble before. Things were about to change.

As he contemplated his situation [Cut—obvious] he watched Zoe closely, in case she suddenly came at him with a rolled up newspaper, or a shoe (and yes, sometimes she was that type too). But instead she stared right at him, as if trying to turn him to stone with her gaze. Slowly, without any sudden movements, she put her hand in her jeans pocket. Still staring, she pulled out her mobile phone. Milton had two thoughts, both at the same time. They were:

Ooh goody, pizza for tea and,

maybe I should hide now.

Thanks for allowing me to read and comment on this charming story! I loved the voice of these pages. It had a sense of adventure and the potential to be a fun opening scene with great movement and energy to it. My feedback mainly has to do with clarifying the opening, which will help to:

  1. Establish your main character
  2. Give a sense from the very start of your book what’s at stake for Milton (and therefore build more tension)

These things will also help engage your reader and keep us wanting to read past the opening chapter—we’ll care for Milton and will want to know what happens next to him, and how he gets out of this predicament with Zoe. 

There’s much emphasis in the first paragraphs on the scream that Milton is hearing and running from, but we don’t find out (or figure out) until much later in the scene that the scream is coming from Zoe.

What this scream is—and who it’s coming from—should be established from the opening paragraph so that we know what’s at stake. It’s not a detail that needs to be written heavy-handed, just a simple line that would clarify who Zoe is (a human) and that the scream is coming from her.  

One thought/suggestion:

The paragraph/section that starts with, “It was no ordinary scream…” felt like that could be moved up, or (if revised) used as the first paragraph. This section had all of the establishing details that I wanted to know from the start, including details of what Milton looks like. Starting with the scream gets us right into the story and throws us directly into the thick of things, giving a sense of urgency and movement to your opening (though I think this would only work so long as you also establish Zoe up front).

There’s great action in this scene with Milton physically running from something that he’s scared of. One thing you might consider is in the pacing/tone. By varying sentence length (using short and medium-length sentences) you could revise the scene to have a little more flow to match the action that’s happening, which would make for a really fun, quick-paced, and adventurous opening.    

I love this start to your novel. Thanks so much for sharing your work—best of luck on your book!


Thank you, Mae, for your critique! I had a lot of fun doing it as well!

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.


  • Susan Paxton says:

    Heather, as usual, has offered a first-rate critique. She knows her stuff. She’s really helped my writing, and her suggestions will take your wriiting to a new level. Promise!

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