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Day 35 (Part 2): Pitch Wars Query & 1st Page Workshop with mentors, Helene Dunbar, Beth Hull, & Heather Cashman

Monday, 26 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 Co-Mentors Helene Dunbar and Beth Hull …

helene1_Helene Dunbar is the author of THESE GENTLE WOUNDS (Flux, 2014), WHAT REMAINS (Flux, 2015) and BOOMERANG (coming from Sky Pony in 2018). Over the years, she’s worked as a drama critic, journalist, and marketing manager, and has written on topics as diverse as Irish music, court cases, theater, and Native American Indian tribes. She lives in Nashville with her husband and daughter and exists on a steady diet of readers’ tears.

Represented by Lauren MacLeod at The Strothman Agency.

Twitter Website | Amazon Author Page

In less than a second…
… two of the things Cal Ryan cares most about–a promising baseball career and Lizzie, one of his best friends–are gone forever.

In the hours that follow…
…Cal’s damaged heart is replaced. But his life will never be the same.

Everyone expects him to pick up the pieces and move on.

But Lizzie is gone, and all that remains for Cal is an overwhelming sense that her death was his fault. And a voice in his head that just…won’t…stop.

Cal thought he and his friends could overcome any obstacle. But grief might be the one exception.

And that might take a lifetime to accept…




Beth hull lives in northern California with her husband, two kids, and cat. She overuses parentheses and ampersands. She writes short stories and young adult novels.






Helene and Beth’s Query Critique . . .


GENRE: Fantasy

Amazing thatTthe first time I seeBrie saw New York, she wasn’t I am notamazed by the ciaos [chaos?] , but by the fact that she wasI am basically in at a buffet and I haved no desire to feed on anyone. [Just demonstrating, in this first sentence, the third person tone this should take throughoutWe [who is “we?”] walked [switch to past tense from present] down into the subway to meet up with The Chain to protect and guide us unseen by any other kind. As we sat down on a urine stained bench La’kota became silent. The rat feeding in the corn beside the homeless man sleeping with his dog keeping him warm was freaking me out. [Okay, this sentence is problematic. It’s referring to things as if the reader has already seen them, the article “the” makes each object sound as if it has already been described. Better to say something along the lines of, “A homeless man slept against the wall, a shaggy dog at his side. Beside them, a rat fed from a pile of corn” or something along those lines. Let us see what the character sees, before she reacts to it.] [Also, the purpose of a query is to set up the important elements of the story and hook the reader and intrigue them. This almost reads like a short story] Everything in the world that should terrify me doesn’t [switch back to present tense] and yet the rodent does how ironic [try reading this sentence aloud. There’s no punctuation to indicate pauses, and I think it might need some]. I tried to focus on something else, so I gazed upon the flies circling the trash can and the many people that walked in and out of the trains that stopped. The station got quiet and the lights flickered deem startling me a little. La’kota awoke [Who is La’kota, and also, I wasn’t aware he was asleep] as the last train of the day pulled out and motioned for me to come with him. But I was confused to why we were there if we didn’t get on a train. Were the other creatures actually coming to the station when a civilian still slept in the corner? [paragraph break needed here] “What do we now?” I asked. [another paragraph break] He smiled sweetly and walked me to the wall. He asked me to gaze upon my surroundings. [this might be better shown through dialogue] I was confused by what he asked because I had been gazing for hours now apparently. [paragraph break] He nodded for me to look once more so I did. My world was changed once again. The homeless man stood up and uncovered his head he smiled sweetly [repetition; La’kota smiled sweetly above], his dog transformed into a young girl, the flies sparkled to fairies [some clue needed about what the fairies look like; because I’m just getting introduced to the world, the fairies could be anything], and the rat was something I never saw before [we need to describe this, whatever it is. Size, color, shape—is it even an animal?]. All around us in a human world were creatures that we fear and now are my protectors, my friends. [Again, this is all written like a story and not a query letter. There are some amazing resources available on query letter writing.]

Awake is an 80,000 word count young adult novelmanuscript that will send your imagination to new worlds [This is a HUGE assumption and I’d cut it] told through the eyes of a living[The whole thing about vampires is that they’re dead J]  vampire. Bri [typo? It’s Brie in the other instances]Brie opens your mind to the possibilities of what is real and what is mythical. Brie takes us on a journey of murder, fear and battle for a new life where she still holds to her humanity. We fall in love along with Brie as her assassin desperately saves her time and time again [wait—her assassin is saving her, not attempting to kill her? This is a fascinating twist] ultimately revealing that she was born part human and part vampire. Having to choose death or life she flees her home town to complete her transition from human to vampire. Brie learns that her serine [serene, I think] human life was just a mirage set in place to protect all humans from the battle between worlds. The Chain keeps her safe only long enough until she could meet her true fate as the prophecy unfolds. [The Chain needs some brief explanation—is it a person? a group? an object or talisman?]     [This paragraph should sum up the theme and not the story. “Awake is….vampire. It focuses on the themes of _________ and _________ and would appeal to readers of ______________.]

I found my passion for writing while attending Marshall University as a Biology Major. [I would stop here and skip to the sentence about your studies of the human body and mention that science plays a key role in the manuscript. I wouldn’t say anything about a series, unless it is to say that this book stands alone but is part of a planned series.]The creative process is a skill that comes easily to me. Creative writing was a way to escape a world of rules and obligations when I was younger. As I grew older my writing matured. I no longer had a reason for escape but a desire to watch the lives of my characters unfold. Applying the many skills I have gained along with my working knowledge of the human body has given this manuscript has a different focus. This manuscript is just the beginning of what I hope to be a series, as I have already started preparations for book two.

In conclusion I would like to thank you for your time and consideration of my manuscript. [Stop here; the next two sentences aren’t necessary. Agents assume that if you are querying them, you have a completed manuscript, and it is a given that you would look forward to communicating with them.]A completed manuscript is available upon request. I look forward to speaking with you regarding our future.


[Overall comments from Beth:

The first part of the query, I was at first reading as a sample paragraph. The problem is, it shows up in the wrong place. Samples should be pasted in after the query letter, so right up front we’re not following standard format and unfortunately this is more likely to annoy agents than intrigue them. On the bright side, as a sample this sets up an intriguing situation, so once we get it in the right place (after the query letter) and it’s been proofed, there are some positive aspects. For instance, I like how we get so quickly to the point where her world and her view of the world is being disturbed. The reader will be curious right away about where the story is going and what’s causing the upset. I think this opening would benefit from being read aloud to help with punctuation and sentence and paragraph breaks. Also look at tense—we go from present tense to past tense, to present, and back to past.

For the query itself, I’m getting a sense of the story here, but I think it needs to be told in a slightly different way, and with more specifics and fewer generalities. We need to start with who Brie is and what her goals are. Then move in to the obstacles to those goals. Finally, I do see some hints of the stakes—the human life is a mirage to protect humans from the battle between worlds, and The Chain that keeps Brie safe—what happens if she doesn’t reach her goals? Do the humans fall into the middle of the battle? Does Brie die? It sounds like you have a super intriguing world and story premise, so all we need to do is present it in a way that has an agent interested in Brie and the problems she faces. I recommend finding successful sample queries to read and study—QueryTracker.net has quite a few on file and you could begin there.

There are some really intriguing story elements presented here, and I think with some work, you can set them up in a way to really help them shine!]

[Overall Comments from Helene:

The overall format of this needs to fit that of a standard query letter. Only in VERY rare instances would a query be written in first person. Try this in third and try to answer the questions that Beth poses, above. Keep in mind that a query isn’t a story or a snip of the story. It exists to draw the reader in and make them curious enough to want to read your pages. Share your query with reader friends – if punctuation isn’t your thing, find a friend who can review. Ask readers if they get a clear picture of your story after reading your query. Ask them if your query makes them want to read the manuscript. If not, keep working!]


Next up we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor Heather Cashman (yes, I’m the fill in when things go awry . . .)

heather-cashmanWebsite | 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.


And here’s my first page edit . . .

GENRE: Urban Fantasy/Science Fiction

Fun Fact from the author: This is actually about 700 words in, but I have a strong suspicion that the story should start here. I’ll let you guys be the judge. =) Thank you!

On Monday I dress in my most professional business suit, pull my hair back into a bun and leave thirty minutes early for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I’m driving down the highway, jamming out to some old Elvis tunes when my phone rings. The caller ID, which I’m already annoyed at for interrupting Elvis, says ‘Sarah Stone’ and I groan out loud.

“Hello?” I say, half hoping she’s already hung up.

“Hey, Kar,” she says. “How was your weekend?”

I detect the annoyance in her voice, which I’m sure is due to the unanswered messages she sent me via text.

“It was pretty laid back, thanks. Did you need something?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asks.

“It means I’m in the car on the way to work and I wanted to know if you needed something before I let you go.”

She sighs and I can almost hear her roll her eyes. “Karley, I just want to talk to you, honey. Your father and I worry about you.”

“I’m fine, mom. Really.”

“Well, how should we know that? You never call anymore.”

A gray truck with windows tented so dark they’re almost black cuts me off.

“Hey!” I say, even though the driver of the truck cannot hear me. I blow the horn. They sure as hell hear that.

“Karley!” she says. “Are you even listening to me?”

“Sorry, mom.” I answer. “I’m almost at work. I’ll talk to you later okay?”

“Don’t forget about Grammy Sue’s birthday on Wednesday,” she says instead of saying bye.

“I won’t,” I promise. “I really have to go. I love you.”

“Okay, honey. I love you too. Have a good day.”

I disconnect and make a face at the screen as Elvis comes back on. I love my mom, I really do, but since my split with Paul our relationship has been strained to say the least.

The gray truck pulls off to the side of the road. I watch it in my rearview for a while, waiting to see if someone gets out or the hood starts smoking or something. Nothing happens and I lose sight as I inch forward in the long line of cars under the green sign for ‘W.P.A.F.B Area B.’ When it’s my turn I expect someone to ask for a blood sample or to fingerprint me, but they just check my paperwork, ask for the code from the email, make a call and send me on through. I create a mental note to give Sandy a bonus for getting all of our background clearance taken care of so quickly.

I’m directed to a rather inconspicuous looking building marked Hanger D and park in a vacant spot close to the door. Now I’m getting nervous. I shouldn’t be, but I can’t help it. Right before I meet a new client I have a momentary panic attack where that small, insecure part of my brain tries to convince the rest of me that I have no business being the head of an IT security firm. Eventually, the rest of my brain wins out and that small part retreats back into its dark hole where it will remain until the next time I do something worthwhile.

[This is a fine place to start!

While I can relate to your main character, I’m not quite sure I like her. I’d have to keep reading. And I would, so it’s not the end of the world. Everything she thinks or says in this entire sample is negative. Jamming out to Elvis is neutral. But I’d like to see her do at least one nice, positive thing. Like maybe let someone into her lane before she gets cut off. And how much worse is it when a really nice person gets the shaft than when someone who’s generally angry anyway gets the shaft? It increases how bad the gray truck is while also showing us that your character has hero potential. 

I also waited to make comments at the end of the sample so you could see the pacing clearly. We zoom through all the one line/short paragraphs and then suddenly come to a huge couple of paragraphs that really slow the pace. Instead, I’d mix up the sentence and paragraph lengths so that your writing takes on a rhythm. A marathon, not a sprint until you drop and repeat.

Comma issues throughout. As an example in the first paragraph:

On Monday, I dress in my most professional business suit, pull my hair back into a bun, and leave thirty minutes early for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I’m driving down the highway, jamming out to some old Elvis tunes, when my phone rings. The caller ID, which I’m already annoyed at for interrupting Elvis, says ‘Sarah Stone’ and I groan out loud.

Another style issue is that, whenever you have commas, the writing pauses. Vary the sentence structure so that we don’t have several commas in every sentence and constantly pause in this first, very important paragraph.

It’s a little unclear that in her split with ex-boyfriend Paul, she is now on the outs with mom. I don’t see how that follows, and maybe a touch of emotion and internalization about why would really add something here. And make the language clear. After breaking up with Paul, my mom hasn’t been too happy with me, because (and give the reason so we can further relate to how crazy mom is and why Kar doesn’t want to get into it–again. Whatever is true for Kar.)

I really like the strange gray truck that gives us a sense that something’s not quite right. I like that she’s a strong business woman. I also relate to the doubts she has about herself. Those parts are well done and are what make me want to keep reading.

Really great job, but I am curious about where you began before . . .]


Thank you, Helene and Beth, for your critique! I’m always up for more editing fun!

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.

We're thrilled at the different ways those in our Pitch Wars community are giving back—and we encourage them to do so. However, please keep in mind that Pitch Wars is not affiliated with any of these various contests, promotions, etc., including those of our mentors and mentees. Promoting any such opportunities via our social media channels doesn't imply endorsement or affiliation. We encourage you to do your research before participating.

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