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 Jenn Brisendine
Jenn Brisendine, a secondary English/Language Arts teacher, writes middle grade and is repped by Alyssa Eisner Henkin at Trident Media. She currently enjoys writing historicals with elements of magic, but loves reading a variety of genres in middle grade. She was a Pitchwars ’15 mentee and can be found at @jennbrisendine on Twitter and @jennbrisendinewrites on Instagram. She’s happy to have recently joined the ranks at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors – http://www.fromthemixedupfiles.com/2017/03/umbrella-raining-overarching-conflict-mg/ . Check out her site https://jennbrisendine.com/ for free teacher printables on great MG novels and for reviews of great books on writing.
Jenn’s Query Critique…
The Ambassador of Attalon [You can use all caps for the ms title] is a standalone MG high fantasy of 50, 000 [no space in your number, or use “50K”] words with series potential.
Already at 12 years old, it seems that all Clarine Hearthsgaard’s dreams have come true. She wins a coveted spot in Attalon’s prestigious Knight Academy to eventually [don’t need “eventually”; gives a long, drawn-out feel to the process] become a Knight of the Realm. But it doesn’t take long for Clarine to discover that attending a school for Knights is not quite what she thought it would be. Sore muscles from Weapons Training and headaches caused by mind-numbing Diplomatic Solutions [This is pretty minor, but maybe use a different example than a boring headache-inducing class; something equally as dynamic as Weapons Training might be better for the sake of querying.] are the least of her worries when she discovers a hidden grove with a single apple tree, and accidentally wakes King Arthur’s ghost. [Maybe just another hint or two to tie things together—what’s the connection between apple tree and King Arthur? How does she wake him, especially if it’s as a result of some personal flaw or talent of hers?]
King Arthur charges Clarine with an important mission and a dire warning. [“Dire” is a great word, but it might connote a hopelessness you don’t intend here; maybe “urgent” or “insistent” –something to indicate how quickly she’s spurred on by his words. Also, maybe explain why he’s charging her with the task – what does Arthur see/learn about Clarine that makes him trust her?] A spy hides in the school, working to sabotage the reign of King Percivale, and they [“he or she”] must be stopped. Soon Clarine is poking her nose where some don’t think it belongs and painting a target on her back. [Both parts here—poking her nose and painting a target—are clichés, and while they do the job of explaining the conflict, a query is so brief that you want to use every line to showcase your original writing.] If she can’t figure out who to trust, [I’m pretty sure you want “whom” there, but the construction reads awkwardly either way and someone might think you got it wrong even if it’s right. J Can you reword to avoid the whole who/whom conundrum?] there will be more on the line than avoiding the boy determined to see her fail or staying awake in her Battles Strategies lesson. [Nice conflict summary statement—maybe pick just one thing to follow “more on the line,” not two. The boy problem might be better mentioned above along with Weapons Training. “On the line” is another cliché.]
With the help of her best friends, Igraine and Gareth, [I’m a little torn here – I love the mention of besties helping Clarine to firmly seat this as MG, but maybe work in a line introducing them before now? New names at this point might take attention away from the MC’s plight] Clarine must find the traitor and save the realm. Once she shines her armour and finishes her homework, that is. [Love it!]
[Bio info? Let the agent know a little about your background in a few sentences.]
Thank you for your consideration,
[Awesome MG idea and great, brief query that gets across plot, flavor, and voice in a few spare paragraphs—no easy task, done very well! Once you add a brief mention of your background and interests to personalize it a bit, this will be a great, professionally-crafted query. Good luck!]
Next up we have . . .
Pitch Wars Mentor Emily Colin
Emily Colin’s debut novel, The Memory Thief, has been a New York Times bestseller and a Target Emerging Authors Pick. Her diverse life experience includes organizing a Coney Island tattoo and piercing show, hauling fish at the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys, roaming New York City as an itinerant teenage violinist, helping launch two small publishing companies, and serving as the associate director of DREAMS of Wilmington, a nonprofit dedicated to immersing youth in need in the arts. Originally from Brooklyn, she lives in Wilmington, NC with her family.
Emily is excited to share that she has a second novel upcoming from Ballantine Books (summer 2017). She loves chocolate, is addicted to tiramisu, and dislikes anything containing beans.
Emily’s First Page Critique…
With a metallic click, Raelin locked herself inside the eagle enclosure and steeled [deliberate pun re: metallic?] herself against her task: feeding Thera.
She squeezed the dead mouse in her fist [not too hard, I hope? Seems like it could end poorly] and took a step forward. Thera’s eagle eyes snapped across [revisit ‘snapped across’ … awkward verbiage] the enclosure, watching Raelin as if she were a field hare. “Please don’t bite me again,” she pleaded.
The golden eagle was the largest, nearly twice the size of the others, and she sat on an eggless nest, determined to protect her nonexistent young. She’d lost her brood in early spring and her temper had flared in the months since. [Good description]
Thera let out a long, low call. A warning. This time, Raelin would heed it. She had enough scratched-up fingers already. [Scratched up? Or pecked?]
She pursed her lips and whistled the first note of her song.
Thera’s head cocked and Raelin took another step forward. Another verse. Another step. By the fifth verse, she’d crossed the enclosure and Thera hadn’t so much as blinked. Slowly, as if nearing a viper, [I don’t think you need the ‘viper’ description…the eagle is dangerous all by itself!] she lowered the mouse to the straw nest. But still Thera hadn’t moved.
Raelin finished her ancient song, so old she’d long ago forgotten the words, and stroked the soft neck feathers of her avian nemesis. “Don’t be such a grouch,” she teased even as [don’t need ‘even’ here, since she’s teasing while petting the eagle] she savored the fleecy feel. [Concerned about the ‘fleecy’ word choice given that these are feathers.]
Thera straightened, her eyes wide as if waking from a deep sleep, [when you wake from a deep sleep, are your eyes wide? Or half-shut? Maybe emphasize the suddenness of the waking] and without pause she reached out and snapped at Raelin’s hand. Only this time, Raelin was faster.
“Naughty bird,” she hissed. [No sibilance…can she hiss these words?] As she retreated, she pulled another dozen mice from her pail and slung them at the feet of the other, less-fussy eagles.
From here on out, her tasks were easy, and today, there was no one to bother her. Sure, it was work for a slave—the lowest of slaves, in fact—but no one took more pride in their position than Raelin. [Interesting…makes me wonder why.]
After the eagles, she fed the falcons, hummingbirds, and flamingos, cleaning their enclosures, changing water as needed. It was hard work, dirty work. But Raelin well knew, [comma unnecessary] there were worse things than dirty hands. [Nice intimation about what the rest of her life—or the lives of those around her—must be like.]
She turned her face into the rays of afternoon sun and savored [you’ve used this word once already; change one of the instances!] the warmth soaking into her skin. Shadows from the thin mesh of the aviary enclosure checkered her features [I like this image!], and the breeze blew her honeyed hair [description a little clichéd] over her shoulders. Atop Mount Lantor, warm sunny days were few and far between this late in the year, and Raelin intended to enjoy each and every one [watch for clichés and parallel structures. ‘Few and far between,’ ‘each and every one’] of them.
Two dozen crowned cranes honked and hooted at her feet, raising and lowering [again, watch the structure—‘honked and hooted,’ ‘raising and lowering’] their golden crests in time to [with?] their calls. As she turned to see what riled them, she spotted Erant’s broad shoulders climbing [not sure about the idea of ‘climbing shoulders’—maybe rephrase?] over the rise.
“You’re back early,” she called when he was close enough.
He shot her his best smile, the one he wore just for her. [Good way to indicate the nature of their relationship/their closeness.] “I’ve got my reasons.” It was then she noticed he carefully [try to avoid adverbs! Find a single word to capture the idea of ‘carefully held’] held one hand behind his back.
“Erant Harper, if you bought me something—”
“It’s my hauti [maybe italicize this, as a word in a different language?] to spend as I like and I won’t have you being bossy.” His dark eyes lit up and his easy smile only [don’t think you need ‘only’ here] widened. “Want to see what it is?”
Thanks for giving me the chance to read the beginning of House of Birds and Beasts! The relationship between Thera and Raelin is intriguing to me—at this point, given that we spend more time with the bird than the boy, even more intriguing than Raelin’s relationship with Erant. I want to know more—why is it Raelin’s job to care for these birds? Whose birds are they? Why is she a slave—who has enslaved her? And why does she take such pride in her work? Great job on raising all of these issues in just 500 words!
One note—make sure you involve all five senses. You do an excellent job of incorporating sight and sound, but what about smell? I imagine that avian enclosures have a distinct scent (most likely none too pleasant). Immerse us in the setting of Raelin’s world, so that we can truly experience it through her eyes.
Also, I’d like to see a little more tension in this first scene—beyond what exists between Thera and Raelin. For instance, if you hadn’t outright stated that Raelin was a slave, we wouldn’t have known. Can you give us context clues—i.e., what is she wearing? Is someone watching her to make sure that she performs her duties correctly—and what are the consequences if she does not? You mentioned that today there’s no one to bother her—is this a special day, when she is treated differently for some reason? Increase the stakes, so that we’re driven to keep reading.
Best of luck with this intriguing plotline—and thank you for sharing!
Thank you, Jenn and Emily 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.