Welcome to the Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2020 mentors. From a lottery drawing, we selected writers to receive a query and first page critique from one of our mentors. We’ll be posting some of the critiques leading up to the Pitch Wars submission window. Our hope is that these samples will help you in shining up your query and first page.
We appreciate our mentors for generously dedicating 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.
Next up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentor Rochelle Hassan …
Rochelle Hassan is the author of THE PRINCE OF NOWHERE (Harper Children’s, Summer 2022), a debut middle grade fantasy. When she’s not writing, she spends her days watching animated films, ordering too much take-out, and haunting the used paperback section of her favorite bookstore.
Rochelle’s upcoming release, THE PRINCE OF NOWHERE…
Rochelle’s critique . . .
Category: Middle Grade
Thank you so much for sending in your query and first page! I hope you find my notes helpful. Remember that this is subjective, and someone else might have a completely different take. If my advice doesn’t resonate with you, feel free to throw it out.
Dear, [Agent], [delete that extra comma after “dear”]
Good afternoon, I’m hoping to interest you in my [m]iddle [g]rade fantasy[,] THE BATTLE OF OHIRA. (here would be the part where, depending on their MSWL & etc, I’d explain why I think it’d be a good fit)
Twelve-year-old River Diaz-Hernandez has always believed one thing: family is everything. And for River that meant [means] Rose Lovelace and Roguefalls. They’d given River a home, a roof to sleep under every night – ever since they were a baby. [Love those names! But I’d recommend saying upfront who Rose & Roguefalls are. I initially thought Roguefalls was a place. Then I thought they were a person. It took a couple of rereads before I realized that Roguefalls might be an organization/group.] And so, they [River] vowed to stick by Roguefalls and fight in the Battle of Ohira when the time came. [The last line is a little jarring because I don’t have the context to understand what Ohira is, why there’s going to be a battle, and how Roguefalls is involved. Is there a way to weave that info into this paragraph?]
However, after a fight with their mentor [I assumed the mentor was a new character until I read your first page – since it’s Rose, I’d recommend using her name to avoid confusing the reader, or leaving her name out of the query entirely & just referring to her as “mentor” throughout] pushes them over the edge, River runs away and is hurt to find that Roguefalls isn’t at all what they portrayed themselves to be. River learns Roguefalls plans to take over Ohira and is willing to do whatever it takes to do it — including killing. [Why did they fight, why did that cause River to run away, and how exactly did they learn the truth about Roguefalls? You don’t need to answer all those questions, but whenever possible, be specific. Try to avoid vague language such as “pushes them over the edge” and “isn’t what they portrayed themselves to be.” Here’s an example of how you might reword this: “But after a fight with Rose about (say why they fought), River runs away and learns that Roguefalls is planning to take over Ohira.” If the fight isn’t actually that important for the reader to know about right now, you can cut that detail and get straight to the point: “But when River discovers that Roguefalls is planning….” Cutting some of those filler words will free up space for you to add relevant details about the conflict; for example, you could talk about Faehaven here, which would help you set up the next paragraph.]
Torn between leaving their family — especially their best friend, Kaiya — behind and doing the right thing [“leaving their family” and “doing the right thing” are the same thing in this scenario, right? So I would reword to something like: “Torn between staying loyal to their family and doing the right thing…” to show that it’s two different choices. If you can say something more specific than “doing the right thing,” that would be even better], River must align [aligns] themselves with Faehaven in order to stop Roguefalls’ destruction. Little did they know that [cliche phrasing] in doing so, River found themselves a new enemy, as Kaiya is filled with [“found themselves” and “is filled with” are a little too passive – is there a way to reword this sentence so that you can use stronger, more active language?] betrayal and anger. [You’re on the right track with this paragraph – you’re emphasizing River’s emotional conflict and hinting at how the stakes will escalate. But you also introduce two brand-new things at the last minute: Faehaven and Kaiya. I’d suggest you either cut Kaiya from the query and just focus on the conflict with Rose & Roguefalls – or introduce Kaiya earlier. If you keep Kaiya in, make sure you’ve given the reader enough info to understand why Kaiya feels so betrayed and angry, to really drive the emotion home. As for Faehaven, same deal: provide a little context for what it is, even if it’s just a few words.]
TITLE is a [m]iddle [g]rade [f]antasy novel complete at 50.600 words. It might appeal to fans of SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER and AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER. [Comps can be lowercase + italics. Also, I’d strongly recommend having at least one recently published MG fantasy book comp.]
As a non-binary lesbian[,] I’ve always had trouble seeing myself on [in the] media. So, as an #OwnVoices author, that’s what I hope to do: give queer kids something to see themselves in and hopefully show them it’s okay to just be.
Thank you for your consideration,
[phone number] [No need to include your phone number! Twitter handle is fine, but not required.]
This query has a solid foundation! You’ve got the structure down: start with the world/status quo, introduce the main conflict, show what’s at stake. But I felt like it would be easier to follow if it was more focused. We need to know certain things about the world in order to understand the basics of the story (what Roguefalls, Ohira, and Faehaven are, and why there’s going to be a battle). Then, decide what the most important relationship is: River and Rose, River and Roguefalls, or River and Kaiya? Prioritize that relationship, rather than beginning with an emphasis on Rose & Roguefalls, shifting to just Roguefalls in the second paragraph, and then bringing Kaiya in last. Do both Rose and Kaiya need to be in the query? It’s a lot of names/characters, so you might be better off keeping one and removing the other. Also, watch out for vague language that takes up space but doesn’t deliver useful information.
River Diaz-Hernandez didn’t think they would find themselves running through the middle of the woods after a day of training. They also didn’t expect Rose Lovelace, their mentor and parental figure, to blow up on them. It was a perfectly normal day. [Rather than opening with an overview of the day, pick one of these significant moments – either River running through the woods, or the fight with Rose – and open the scene there. Put the reader right into River’s experience and show how that scene unfolds through their eyes.]
River woke up, had breakfast with Kaiya — leftover cake from Avery’s birthday party, even though they weren’t supposed to, — went to a training session with the rest of the cadets and then went to lunch.
After lunch, Rose liked to have one-on-one training sessions with everyone. River was meant to go first. Kaiya after. [The last couple of paragraphs can be cut, or woven into the narrative later on if the information is important – I don’t think this background info is needed yet.]
Rose decided that River needed to work on their agility. [That line gets us closer to the immediate action, but it still feels like summarizing/telling rather than showing.] She used to say, “You can’t fight someone if that person kills you before you even see them.” River wasn’t sure what that meant, but they didn’t want to let Rose down. [I really like those last two lines – that’s a great snapshot of what Rose and River’s relationship is like.] Apparently, that had gone out the window. [The wording of that line is a little awkward, though I like that it gives me a hint of what’s going on in River’s mind right now.]
Today, Rose was irritable, snappy, and harsh. Every single word that came out of her mouth felt as sharp as a blade. And River was the victim of every jab — metaphorically and literally, because as of right now, River was lying on the floor. [This is where I feel like the scene really begins – with River lying on the floor after getting their butt kicked. I’m now experiencing the story with your protagonist. This might be a good place to start the chapter.]
“Again,” Rose urged with a sigh. Urged wasn’t the right word. It felt more like an order. [Good! I’m starting to get a better sense of River’s voice.]
River didn’t respond. They just [No need to say they didn’t respond; there’s no dialogue, so we already know they didn’t say anything + since this is an action scene, you want this sequence to feel fast-paced, not weighed down with extra words] grabbed their knives and sprung right back into action. They could feel Rose pushing them harder each time they had to start again. And with each time, she seemed to grow more impatient. [Instead of saying they sprang “back into action,” describe that action in a way that I can visualize. Do they slash at Rose, throw their knives, try to kick her legs out from under her? Same thing with the next line: instead of saying that Rose “seemed to grow more impatient,” show me what signs River is picking up in Rose’s voice and body language. You started to do this earlier when you said that her words were sharp as a blade; that detail could maybe be moved here. For example: “Each time they had to start over, the frown lines around Rose’s mouth deepened, and her words grew sharper than her blade.” Instead of saying “they could feel Rose pushing them harder,” tell me how they can feel it – are their muscles burning? Are they dripping sweat? Then you can start to seed in some of the information from before, the stuff that’s relevant to the immediate moment, like how they’re training to improve River’s agility and how Kaiya is waiting to go next. Ground the reader in the present scene before you work on filling in the background info.
I recommend looking up resources on writing deep third person POV. “Deep POV” basically means that you’re eliminating distance in the narrative and helping the reader feel like they’re in the protagonist’s head. This is really important for kidlit. Too much distance in the narrative is something that will often stop an agent from reading on or requesting more pages.]
Again, this is all subjective, but I hope it gives you some ideas for how to move forward. Thank you for sharing your work, and good luck with your submission!