Welcome to our Mini Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2018 mentors. From a lottery drawing, we selected writers to receive a query or first page critique from one of our mentors. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a query or first page from our lucky winners. We’ll be posting some of the critiques leading up to the submission window. Our hope is that these samples will help you all get an idea on how to shine up your query and first page.
We appreciate our mentors for giving their time to do the critiques. If you have something encouraging to add, feel free to comment below. Please keep all comments tasteful. Our comments are set to moderate, and we will delete any inappropriate or hurtful ones before approving them.
First up we have …
Pitch Wars former 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. Her second novel, The Dream Keeper’s Daughter, released from Ballantine Books in July 2017. She loves chocolate, is addicted to tiramisu, and dislikes anything containing beans.
Emily’s First Page Critique . . .
Middle Grade Contemporary
Part 1: 1936
Every morning before sunrise, Eva Rivera tuned the family’s second-hand radio to the only American station she could find. Good first line—gets me curious about Eva and her perhaps-secret desires. Plus, the use of ‘second-hand’ gives us a hint as to their financial situation. Together she and her mother, Lorena, and she hummed along to Bing Crosby, singing the occasional chorus if their English was up to par while they tended to the morning’s laundry. Do they particularly love Bing Crosby? Bring the viewpoint in closer here so we begin to feel a connection to them—every sentence is an opportunity to give us clues as to who these two people are and why they make the choices they do. Careful not to wake her older sisters, Eva left the coziness of their single-room apartment and walked the still-sleepy streets of Colonia de los Doctores in Mexico City OK, nice, now we have a sense of place to the local paneria for a few day-old conchas for breakfast. The baker’s wife sometimes sneaked a pumpkin or cherry empanada into the paper sack just for her, but Eva always carefully pulled it apart into four equal parts to share with her family later at home.
Back at When she returned home, the pungent smell of hot laundry starch on their paper-thin dresses mixed with the dust from the streets, making Eva’s nose tingle. and She fought back a sneeze, so as not to wake her sisters. These precious morning moments ‘Precious moments’ feels clichéd to me—maybe replace with ‘early-morning hours’? while Flora and Ximena slept were the only times during the day when Eva and her mother could just be together Instead of ‘just be together,’ clarify—be together without pressure or expectations? Or rephrase to reflect what these times do not include: ‘During these stolen early-morning hours, Eva could pretend that when the sun found its way through the bed sheet curtains, she wouldn’t have to tie an apron around her waist and start taking orders for the makeshift restaurant that Lorena manned from their apartment.’ Alternatively, include more details about what Eva loves about these times with her mother: ‘During these stolen early-morning hours, Eva would beg her mother to tell stories—how Lorena had (insert brief story here that gives a glimpse into Lorena’s pre-Eva life; something that casts her in a good light and gives us a contrast with why/how she lives now). as mother and daughter. If the sun had yet to find its way through the bed sheet curtains, it meant that Eva could still be a kid How old is she? Old enough to do laundry and go to the store by herself…I don’t have a good sense of age here from her voice. Sneak in some details to clarify. Also, would Eva think of herself as a kid? Better to communicate this idea through the details above rather than a server in the makeshift restaurant that Lorena manned from the inside of their apartment. If Lorena was still humming along to Pennies from Heaven, it meant she wasn’t terribly hungover from the night before. Furthermore, —and she hadn’t drunk any alcohol Make this more personal by naming a type of alcohol or, better yet, a brand yet, which meant she was still in a good mood. What does the good mood look like? When she starts drinking, does she cry? Yell? Become silent? Show us rather than generalizing.
You do a nice job here of showing us the ways in which Eva is surrounded by family, and how much her relationship with her mother means to her—even though it’s complicated. Right away, we can see that the family struggles financially, that Eva bears responsibility for chores and helping with the restaurant, and that she craves time with her mother, separate from her sisters. This is all good stuff. What I’d suggest is bringing the lens in closer. Instead of starting with ‘every morning,’ why not show us a particular morning, and then allude to the fact that this morning is like all the others (except, perhaps, until it is not)? If you start the story with a specific day, showing us Eva’s interaction with her mother, her purchase of the empanadas, etc., we’ll feel more connected to her. I’m curious as to whether all this discussion of what is typical is leading up to an atypical moment—is this the morning when everything changes?
Other thoughts: is this a prologue? If Eva is your main character, starting with her as a child—in a story that’s written for an adult audience—could be tricky, unless you make the transition soon . . . or, again, unless this is the critical morning when Eva’s life changes forever. I’m also not sure how old Eva is meant to be here—give us some details to clarify!
You can bring in the five senses more, too: What does Eva see when she walks the still-sleepy streets of Mexico City? Are the sidewalks clean or dirty? Does trash grit beneath her feet? Does the sweet-and-spicy scent of empanadas lure her to the paneria? Are the streets beginning to wake up—what does she hear? What do Eva and her mother look like? You can sneak descriptions in—i.e., ‘Lorena’s careworn face broke into a smile when Eva handed her the biggest piece of pumpkin empanada.’ Overall, I’d love to see more details that will focus a zoom lens on Eva’s world. I’ve indicated specifics in the text.
You’ve created a world with intricate family dynamics and a culturally rich setting, in which there is a lot to explore. I’m curious to see where Eva’s story goes. Thanks for sharing your first page with me and with Pitch Wars—that takes a tremendous amount of courage!
Thank you, Emily, for your critique!
Next up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentor Gabrielle K Byrne …
Gabrielle Kirouac Byrne lives in the rainy wilds of the Pacific Northwest, where she writes fantasy for kids of all ages. Gabby studied opera in Philadelphia, medieval studies in New York, literature in Scotland, and marine biology in the Pacific Northwest, but stories are the common thread that tie all her interests together. When she’s not writing, you can find her fishing spineless zooplankton out of the sea with her family.
In Gabby’s debut MG fantasy, RISE OF THE DRAGON MOON, Toli Strongarm, Princess of Ire, must face her guilt over her father’s death in order to save her mother, and her ice locked queendom, from the dragons who killed him. Coming August 6, 2019 from Imprint/Macmillan.
Gabrielle’s Query Critique . . .
Dear (Insert agent’s preferred name),
Thirteen-year-old Oriel’s village celebrates the Festival of Wings each year. She hopes to bring home a ribbon for her sketching, but fears her sister will beat her out for the prize, yet again. The day before the celebration, a Fire Salamander surfaces, incinerates the village, and enslaves the survivors- including Oriel’s little sister. Desperately searching for her sister, Oriel stumbles on a Fire Opal, unaware the rock gives its bearer the power to create fire out of thin air.
Okay, in this first paragraph you want to introduce Oriel, and set the scene. We also need to know right away that this is a fantasy—and to get a sense of the magic/creatures there. The first two sentences had me convinced this was a contemporary story. The fire salamander needs to be front and center. I’d combine the setting with the turning point that sets the story in motion, and include some unique parts of Oriel’s character, or desires (this helps the voice of the story shine through). So…here’s an example of what I mean:
Thirteen-year-old Oriel is convinced that this is the year she’ll finally beat her sister at the annual Festival of Wings art contest. When a Fire Salamander—a magical creature bent on destruction and enslavement—breaks through the ground and torches the village, Oriel manages to escape. Her sister isn’t so lucky.
In a query you want to focus on a streamlined, clean arc for the story. The stakes and the voice (uniqueness of your character) are really the key.
In fact, to amplify the voice in the first paragraph, you could include more of what makes Oriel special. Something like…Thirteen-year-old Oriel isn’t the kind of girl who gives up. Sure, she’s lost the art contest to her sister every year, but this year, she’ll win for sure. Or so she thinks, until a Fire Salamander bursts from the festival grounds, burns it all to the ground, and takes her sister.
Basically the goal of that first paragraph is to make us like and care about the mc, and to set up the first round of stakes. Ideally, the second paragraph will amp the stakes even higher and force Oriel to overcome something really difficult, or else.
She is caught spying by a boy named Ansel, who is investigating the ruins of her village with his friends. He offers to take Oriel to safety in his city. But instead of safety, Oriel finds Ansel’s father, the leader, is a power-hungry sociopath. He sees Oriel’s report of the Fire Salamanders as a threat to his power. The crush his son has on Oriel only makes things worse. As accusations fly, Oriel discovers she has the power to create fire. Afraid if she tries to use the power she’ll hurt innocent people, Oriel must find a way to master her terrifying new skill before the Fire Salamanders l enslave the entire valley and she loses her sister forever.
You’ve got way too much going on in your second paragraph and lots of things that aren’t clear (and that you don’t have room to explore). What accusations? Why is Oriel’s report threatening? How does she discover she can create fire? Why does she think she might hurt people? Does she know it’s the opal that gives her the powers? In a synopsis, you would include all of this, and more detail besides, but in a query you want to streamline and amplify the main character and the stakes (which includes the antagonist to some extent). The main points here are 1) She’s trying to find and save her sister 2) she has enormous powers she can’t control, and 3) Oriel must find a way to master her terrifying new skill before the Fire Salamanders enslave the entire valley and she loses her sister forever. Pow! Pow! Stakes! I think some big cuts here will really make it more powerful.
e.g.; Though Oriel searches the village for any sign of her sister, the only things she finds are a strange stone and a new friend—Ansel. When the stone grants her the power to create fire and use it as a weapon, Oriel comes to the attention of Ansel’s father, a power hungry tyrant. Now, Oriel must find a way to escape his clutches, and find her sister before it’s too late. If she doesn’t figure out how to control her new powers in time, the Fire Salamander will enslave the whole valley, and they’ll all go up in flames.
Definitely play around with it—but keep it a nice, clean, primary story arc. Any details should be focused on bringing voice to your MC and/or world. Overarching focus should be on the stakes.
ORIEL AND THE FIRE OPAL is a Middle-Grade fantasy complete at 72,000 words. Set in an alternate American Midwest, it offers a hint of Hansel and Gretel, with a nod to Paul Bunyan. This book mixes the quest of Aru Shah and the End of Time with the style of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter.
This is good. I love that it’s set in an alternate American Midwest. That’s really unique, and doesn’t come across in the query. It would be a great thing to incorporate into your first paragraph (forgive my creative license here—since I haven’t read the book).
e.g.: The Midwest had always been a hot spot for Fire Salamanders, but no one expected a King to be nesting under the annual Festival of Wings—least of all thirteen-year-old Oriel. All she ever wanted was to beat her sister at the festival’s art contest. But when the Fire Salamander emerges, burns the village to the ground and takes her sister, Oriel knows she’s the only one who can save her. Etc…
I think I’d cut the ‘hints of’ part—it muddies things a little. Set in an alternate American Midwest, the story is ARU SHAH AND THE END OF TIME meets THE MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER.
I worked at my local library for over a decade before transitioning to homeschool mom. I’d stop here. It’s a touch personal, and experience at a library is good to include.
I’d cut the rest: Amongst my side jobs, I have ghostwritten for several blogs, and mastered the art of packing moving trucks tighter than a Tetris master.
Thank you for your time and consideration. Nice work!
Thank you, Gabrielle, for your critique!
Interested in more critiques? We’ll be posting them until the Pitch Wars submission window opens on August 27. Hope you’ll come back and read some more.