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Day 4 (Part 2): Pitch Wars Query and First Page Workshop with mentors, Monica M. Hoffman and Caela Carter

Friday, 12 May 2017  |  Posted by Brenda Drake


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 Monica M. Hoffman …

Me Wendy Erica Ashley (3)

Monica M. Hoffman is a Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy author represented by Laurie McLean and Tricia Skinner of Fuse Literary. She is an active member of SCBWI, RWA, and the writing community. She dislikes getting up early, but a good cup of coffee can usually motivate her. She enjoys any movie/book (particularly fantasy and Sci-fi) that can make her cry, laugh, or gets her blood pumping from an adrenaline rush. She’s a Trekkie, Dr. Who, and Star Wars fanatic, and a PC gamer when she’s not writing or reading. You can find her tweets about all things YA lit & entertaining GIFs on Twitter (@mmhoffman14) and Facebook.

Twitter | Website

Monica’s Query Critique . . .


GENRE: Fantasy

Dear Agent,

Seventeen-year-old Ariel lives in two worlds. One is reality. The other is a beautiful [I would cut “beautiful” because the word “fantasy” encompasses the word] fantasy world where magic is real and inspires her drawings. As a reclusive high school graduate, she is uncertain of what path in life she should take and wants to escape into the pages of her sketchbook, but her aunt pressures her to aim for a practical college-bound future. [This next sentence is good, but if you can find a way to condense, do it, because the next paragraph is where the hook really happens. You want to pull that agent in as fast as possible.]

When she accepts an art internship from a mentor named Vilfore, he reveals the truth: the world of Ariel’s dreams is a parallel realm called Aethris, and he is a sorcerer who wants to recruit her as an apprentice in his world where armies of sorcerers retain peace within the ruling empire. [This is a long sentence. I’d find a way to break it down. Maybe end the sentence after “Aethris”.] Driven to find her life’s purpose, Ariel decides to leave her home for Aethris. For the first time, Ariel has something to pursue. [These two sentences about her taking up the torch and leaving her home, you can cut it without disturbing the query. If it doesn’t have a purpose, cut it. Query letters need to be lean, engaging, and intriguing. Every sentence should have a STRONG purpose and build on the sentences before it.] Her ability to envision unseen places is rare in Aethris, and as she trains with Vilfore, he presents her with an important task—to find the Mystic Star, a lost powerful stone that will strengthen the magic that fuels the empire he serves. [I just have to say, this sounds cool! I like her ability, it’s something you don’t see often.]

But [I’d use “However” instead of “But”] Ariel struggles to summon her powers. As Vilfore’s patience wears dangerously thin, Ariel realizes she is only his puppet, for he plans to exploit her mysterious connection to the Mystic Star in order to seize control of the empire. [After reading this, my first question is how? How does she find out his plans? If there is a way to reveal this without using too much space, I’d do it.] Afraid for her life, she [instead maybe try: Afraid for her life, she escapes Vilfore’s control.] flees from him. Lost with no way of returning to her world, [instead try: Alone and lost with no way home,] Ariel must tame the growing wild magic inside her [wild magic growing inside her] before it destroys her from the inside out. As she begins to understand the Mystic Star’s role in shifting the balance of power and magic on Aethris, she uncovers a destiny that spans across the realms, [Again, this needs a very brief explanation in how she’s discovering this] and she must decide what is more worth saving: her own life or the fate of all the worlds. [Wow, powerful stakes here!]

Complete at 95,000 words, THE MYSTIC STAR is a standalone YA fantasy with series potential that will appeal to fans of Victoria Schwab’s A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC and Rae Carson’s THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS. I graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a B.A. in Language Studies. [Solid ending paragraph and I like the comps!]

Clearly you know the elements of a query letter and I think you did a smashing job overall. There are just a few places where you can trim and condense but overall great! Do think about the areas where I asked a few questions how and why. If you cut out some of the unnecessary stuff, you should have more than enough room to elaborate in a few places. Especially after she’s fled Vilfore and is out on her own. And I really like the title! Good luck!

Next up we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor Caela Carter …

headshot 1

Caela Carter writes books about kids and teens. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA program in writing for children. She has been teaching children and teenagers for ten years. Her books for middle grade readers include My Life with the Liars and Forever or a Long, Long Time. Her books for teens include Me, Him, Them and It; My Best Friend, Maybe and Tumbling.  Caela lives in Brooklyn with her family. You can visit her online at www.caelacarter.com 

Twitter | Website

Caela’s recent book …


From rising new talent Caela Carter, author of My Life with the Liars, comes an achingly beautiful and endearing story about two foster children who want desperately to believe that they’ve found their forever home. Perfect for fans of Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, Leslie Connor’s All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, and Sarah Pennypacker’s Pax.

Flora and her brother, Julian, don’t believe they were born. They’ve lived in so many foster homes, they can’t remember where they came from. And even now that they’ve been adopted, Flora still struggles to believe in forever. So along with their new mother, Flora and Julian begin a journey to go back and discover their past—for only then can they really begin to build their future.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

Caela’s First Page Critique . . .

AGE CATEGORY: Middle Grade

Prologue [A lot of readers (and publishers) are pretty strongly anti-prologue. I’d only do one if it’s absolutely necessary and I don’t think it is here. You could even have this article appear before the first chapter, in newspaper print, without calling it a prologue. But I think you’re strongest bet is to start with your main character. As it is, she doesn’t read the article and it does not seem connected to her outside of the fact that she lives in the same town that the article addresses. I’d try to get this information to us through your MC instead of this way.]


Crop Shortage for Summer Market Predicted [Confused by the headline as the article seems to be about the Authority assuring there is no crop shortage]

By Janet Mattson [Is this person going to become a character?]

Record breaking temperatures continued, higher than estimated, through May. Residents in western Lilywood are asked to conserve water due to spring’s significant decrease in average rainfall. [If you choose to keep the article, I’d switch the first two sentences. The second is much stronger and would make a better opener as it directly effects the MC] Independent farms across all districts continue to report insufficient crops. The Authority details [Is details the right word here? Maybe asserts?] that government owned farms are abundant, and will provide produce for all summer farmer’s markets. [I’m confused by this. If the government farms have enough crops, why are they being asked to conserve water?]  In response to growing concern at the capital, Chancellor Nomaston has issued the following statement.

“Perceived rising temperatures and the correlation to crop shortage is circumstantial. My officials have not yet confirmed these metrics. The real issue lies in dangerous wavelengths from any unseized technology. We will be scanning districts, those who have evaded collection should be prepared to turn in your personal devices. I have given officers full permission to maintain vigilance for the safety of our citizens. The team I’ve assembled to fix the crop supply has assured me that this summer’s produce will be of superior quality.”[I like the chancellor’s voice, but I would make his message a bit more clear. He should start with the IS and then go to the ISN’T. In other words, he should say something like “Citizens who have evaded collection and are illegally harboring personal technological devices are directly responsible for the crop shortage” (or the water shortage; it’s unclear which he’s blaming technology on). He can then go on to say how blaming the claim about rising temperatures is not accurate, etc.]

Chancellor Nomaston was not available for further questions. Local independent research shows that May’s temperatures surpassed even last year’s heat wave. This is the most significant monthly change in recorded history, and according to local experts [What is the difference between local experts and the Chancellors experts? Who are these local experts working for?], undoubtedly affecting the crop supply.

Chapter One

Alexandra, don’t forget your grandmother’s birthday today, whispered a dogwood tree as Lexy jumped the middle steps to her school’s entrance. [Such an interesting concept to have the trees talking to her! It took me a few readings to realize the dogwood tree was literally talking to her and this wasn’t her imagination. Why not put this in dialogue instead of italics? Also, I want to know where the dogwood tree is in relation to Lexy and to the steps. If she’s in the middle of the steps I don’t know where the dogwood could be that she can hear it. I want to see what this dogwood looks like. Finally, is her grandmother’s birthday going to be significant to the plot? If it is, this is a good place to start with talking-trees. If not, I’d make sure the first thing a tree says really matters.]

“Oh, right!” she said, stumbling on the cracked pavement, “It’s the 12th already—”

“Hey, weirdo! Stop talking to yourself!” shouted a boy’s voice from behind. [I’m a little lost in space. Where is the boy? Where is the tree? Make this a bit more physical so we can be there with her.]

No reason to turn back and see exactly who it was. Could be any jerk from sixth grade. Or even fifth, everyone was bolder the last few days of school. Lexy moved to the side of the school doors and knelt, pretending to tie her shoe. Just let them pass. [Again, more physicality. Who is passing her and which way are they going? Is she heading into or out of the school?] The homeroom bell pierced the air, and a mob of beat-up sneakers rushed inside.[Nice image] Lexy reached out to the delicate pink blossoms. [Remind us that this is the same dogwood tree as before. Physicality will help you do that too. Has it been draped over her the whole time? Does it drape over the stairs? What does it look like?]

“Thanks for the reminder.”

A bough leaned over and patted her shoulder.

Don’t forget this year.

Lexy nodded and brushed the branch from her shoulder, just in case. She peeked over the railing to be sure no one else was out here. If anyone saw her talking to a tree, she’d never hear the end of it. [But someone did just see her talking to the tree. Is this something she worries about often? If it is, she should be more worried when the boy sees her do it before. If not, I’d cut it here.] Lexy had learned to keep some things to herself.

[Add a transition so we understand she is now in the school and it’s a regular school day.] Tick… tick… tick. The clock’s minute hand might as well have been hours. Her class sat in the dim, sweltering room watching a movie. It had to be an old one because the main character wrote his friend an email. Nobody in this grade had probably even used a computer, except Mr. Kingsley, but he was an adult. Maybe this [movie] had a cell phone in it too; Lexy had never seen one of those, aside from textbooks. [Why would she not have seen it in movies or on television before?]  An oak branch gently tapped the window pane. No one else seemed to notice.

We really need to be watered, Alexandra. [They can talk through glass? I have many questions. How do they talk? Where does she hear them—with her ears or just in her brain? Can anyone else hear them? Some of these answers are probably coming and that’s ok. It’s just good to be sure you have a sense for the rules of your world and you convey them quickly.]

Lexy nodded, it had been brutally hot this week.

You have some strong and exciting elements here! It’s clear that this story is going to be about the intersection of a lot of different issues which is excellent and tells me you are most likely on your way to a strong plot. I’d be interested to see how technology heat/lack of rain, lack of crops, The Authority and Lexy’s ability to talk to trees all weave together. It’s clear you are going somewhere. It’s also timely which is great. I’d work on anchoring each of the issues into Lexy’s story a bit more actively. How does Lexy feel about the technology/heat/crops/trees issue? Is she in agreement with the Chancellor or the “local experts”? The way she brings up technology when watching the movie at school is very passive. The biggest thing I would do is explore if there is a way to have the crux of the essential problem of the novel come through your main character rather than a newspaper article.

Thank you, Monica and Caela, 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 2.


Filed: Workshops

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