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Day 33 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Query & First Page Workshop with Mentors Shari Schwarz & Alexandra Ott

Thursday, 22 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 Shari Schwarz

Shari Schwarz Website | Twitter

Shari Schwarz lives in Ft. Collins, Colorado near the Rocky Mountains with her husband and their four boys. TREASURE AT LURE LAKE (Cedar Fort Publishing, April 12, 2016) is her debut which reflects her love for a good survival adventure story. When she’s not reading or writing, Shari can be found freelance editing, weight-lifting, gardening or watching her boys play football, basketball, cup-stacking, or wrestling. She frequently dreams of exploring Oregon Coast beaches or plotting out her next children’s book.




Shari’s Query Critique…

Dear Agent:

 The Cunning is a Young Adult [YA] Fantasy novel complete at [No need to say, “complete at” which is implied/expected] 96,000 words. [I would reword to something like this: “THE CUNNING, a 96,000 word, YA Fantasy, is the first novel in a planned trilogy.” Even better is if you can say that this is a stand-alone book with series potential—if that’s true.] It is the first book in a planned trilogy, and is an origin story involving the faerie characters from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as most recently interpreted in Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fae series. The Cunning will appeal to fans [Saying that a book “will appeal” is presumptuous. I’d reword to say, “THE CUNNING is similar in tone and theme to Leigh Bardugo’s…] of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy in both tone and themes. [Make sure you’re using the same font/size throughout. The titles are in a different font.]

Seventeen-year-old Ania hoped [hopes] that fixing machines at the mill for a living and dressing like a spinster would [will] help her escape the notice of the Fae that long ago conquered her world. But when she is caught in the middle of a village uprising against Fae King Oberon, Ania’s dangerous secret is exposed: although human, she inexplicably can’t be cut by mortal blades. [I’m not totally taken in by this premise. I’m not really feeling the tension. Or maybe it seems too much like others I’ve heard/read about (in a general way). After reading through the whole query, I wish you could get to the last paragraph sooner. Most agents agree that queries are much too long. According to some agents, you might have 5-10 seconds to hook them. Is there a way to get the real hook of the book into the opening? A 17yo fixing machines and dressing oddly isn’t super enticing, although this is written well. Make us fall in love with Ania, or care for her in that opening line. Is there some kind of foreshadowing in the very beginning that points to the last paragraph that you could get into your query? I don’t know…just trying to brainstorm a bit for you.]

Intent to use her for their own purposes, the frayed [I’m not sure what “frayed” here means.] leaders of humanity smuggle Ania [Why her?] to the Fae capital city, where most humans are enslaved and desperate, and where the Fae’s flesh-consuming monsters keep order. [The whole last part of this sentence, starting with “where most humans…” is where you lost me.] There, King Oberon hosts his impossible annual competition, dangling as the prize the essence of magic that could be used to expel the Fae from the human world forever. [This sentence could be reworded for clarity: “dangling as the prize the essence of magic…” is worded a bit awkwardly.] Although the human leaders think that Ania could be their secret weapon to finally winning [Winning what?] after a century of spectacular failures, [This is vague.] Ania has no desire to test whether her mysterious ability can save her from a creatively painful and public death in the competition. [This paragraph gets a bit bogged down and feels murky/vague and a bit Hunger Games-ish, and you don’t want to risk sounding derivative.]

That is, until she realizes that the captivating young man that has been helping her survive the dangerous capital [Consider deleting “the dangerous capital”] is none other than King Oberon himself, [THIS, right here is where my interest peaked. I would suggest cutting the above paragraph down considerably and getting to this paragraph. You wouldn’t want someone to stop reading above and never see this part. J Can we get a hint that the King is young and/or captivating right in the beginning of the query, to hint that this is to come?] and that for some reason he desperately [Watch out for adverbs. I’d strive not to have any adverbs in your query. It makes me think your manuscript has too many of them as well??] wants her to win. Ania begins to suspects that the competition may be more than it seems, and that she and her heart are is too far ensnared in King Oberon’s thrall to ever escape. Now, Ania faces a difficult choice on which her life and the lives of all humans [Is there a way to condense, “on which her life and the lives of all humans”] may depend – who to trust, who to betray, and how to outwit the cunning Fae.

I am a lawyer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota and The Cunning is my first novel. I am an avid reader of Young Adult Fantasy novels [I wouldn’t say this. Most writers are avid readers (or should be!) in their genres. Just skip to the writing classes.], and I have taken writing classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

Nice job on this. Your writing in this query is well done and when I got to the heart of the story, it is very intriguing. If you’re able to make it more concise and compelling, it will help spark interest. I think it sounds great! Best of luck to you!

Next up we have . . .

Pitch Wars Mentor Alexandra Ott

Alexandra-Ott-author-photo Website | Twitter

Alexandra Ott writes middle grade and young adult fiction. Her debut middle grade fantasy novel Rules for Thieves was published by Aladdin/Simon and Schuster in June 2017. A sequel will follow in 2018.

Alex graduated from the University of Tulsa, where she studied English. She is currently an editorial intern at Entangled Publishing. In her spare time, she plays the flute, eats a lot of chocolate, and reads just about everything. She lives in Oklahoma with her tiny canine overlord.



Alexandra’s First Page Critique…

“We’re losing her!”

My heartbeat quickens and the rest of my body struggles to keep up. [Nice! I like this line.] Shaking in place, [I’d cut “in place”] I peer around the room in a panic. [“Peer” and “in a panic” seem contradictory to me. Peering suggests looking at something carefully, not in a panic.] Dr. Skidwell stands over me. His face wrinkles, a trickle of sweat running down his forehead. [I like the details here, but it’s hard to picture without knowing more about what Dr. Skidwell looks like. What are his physical features? Is he old or young? Etc.] Several nurses rush into the room. I take deep breaths, but they feel like a hammer striking my chest. [Taking deep breaths also seems to contradict the “in a panic” description. Someone who’s panicking is likely taking rapid, shallow breaths. Are these deep breaths an attempt to calm down?] One nurse takes my hand as if that would help. Another shoves the scalpel and equipment to the doctor’s side. [I’m not quite sure what this last sentence means.] The machine attached to my body emits an earsplitting ring and my body descends into numbness.

“Hang on, Gaia!” The nurse lets go of me and places a device over my face, cupping my nose and mouth. I breathe in the chemicals as a calming sensation sweeps through [Sweeps through what? Her? Her body? Only part of her body?]. “Doctor, what should we do?”

“We have no choice but to operate,” says Dr. Skidwell, [This line feels overly dramatic to me. Something like “Get ready to operate” or even “We need to operate” might sound more natural] eyeing a nurse and pointing a shaking finger [Does he routinely perform operations? Shaking fingers seem unlikely in a surgeon] toward the door. “Get me the rest of the equipment.”

The nurse’s eyes widen. [It seems unlikely that Gaia would be able to see or notice such a small movement right now, given her condition and the mask over her face. In first person, it’s important to describe only what your narrator can personally observe.]  “Right now, sir? We don’t know if it—”

“I don’t have time for this, Jackie. Go!” [He isn’t a very good doctor if he doesn’t listen to his nurses!]

She nods and heads out of the room just as another nurse wheels in a large cart. [Again, Gaia is observing a lot of things she probably wouldn’t be able to see while she’s lying down with a mask over her face.] What does he mean by “operate”? If my heart is failing, aren’t I dead either way? This is it. The end of my stupid teenage life. I wish Dad were here. I want to tell him I love him, that I didn’t want to leave him like this. Not after what happened to Mom. [I like this! A nice little hint at backstory without giving too much away yet.]

The rush of footsteps and shouts begin to die out and my eyes become heavy. A part of me fights the anesthetic, wanting to hang on for just a bit longer. I’m too weak. It’s already running its course. My eyes shutting, I see [How can she see if her eyes are shut?] Dr. Skidwell raising several gleaming medical instruments, one of them a scalpel. Sleep tugs at me. I try to squirm, fighting to get away, but my body lays [Grammatically it should be “lies,” but this could fit Gaia’s voice] still. I wish I could think good thoughts, yet only anger rises to the surface. It shouldn’t end like this. I’ll never get to go to college, eat pancakes at Sally’s, never realize I’m wasting my life on meaningless work. If only I just had a life to waste. [I’m not sure what this means. Is she saying she doesn’t have a life to waste? Or that she’s wasting more than just her life?] I’m not good at dying, but it’s not like it makes a difference. [I like this line!]

Goodbye, Dad.


(Beginning of Chapter Two)

When I wake, everything is a bright blinding white.

A figure sits beside me, a man with chestnut skin leaning beside my bed. Dad? [Why the question mark? Because she isn’t sure if it’s him? Or because she’s confused about why he’s there?] Face in his thick, callused hands, his tears wetting the side of my bed. The news channel plays a documentary on Supers. A dying group of heroes and villains that live in Holiday City, possessing various unnatural abilities. [This is the first real hint of any science fiction elements so far. The first chapter reads like a contemporary. I’d suggest adding more sci-fi references in chapter one, to establish the genre right away.] I hover a shaking finger and press [Grammatically, this should be “My shaking finger hovers over the remote and presses”] the off button.

My breathing is heavy, [I’d add “my” right here, to make this flow] chest tight. The thumping is so loud that someone standing outside the room might be able to hear my heart beating. [It’s not clear until the end of the sentence what “thumping” she’s referring to. I’d suggest rephrasing this slightly, to something like, “The thumping of my heart is so loud that someone standing outside the room might be able to hear it beating.”]

That means I have a heartbeat.

I’m alive.

[This is really intriguing! I’m curious to know more about Gaia and what happened to her. Overall, I think these scenes could be fleshed out with more detail. All readers really know about the protagonist so far is that she’s a teenage girl named Gaia. I’d love to see more characterization to get a better sense of who she is; showcase what makes Gaia compelling. Also, I’d suggest adding some sci-fi elements or references in that first scene, to clue readers in to the genre a little earlier.

I’m definitely curious about where this story goes! I hope my suggestions are helpful. Good luck, and keep writing!]

Thank you, Shari and Alexandra 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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