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Day 40 (Part 2): Pitch Wars Query & 1st Page Workshop with mentors, Susan Gray Foster and RuthAnne Snow

Wednesday, 5 July 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 Mentor Susan Gray Foster …


Website | Twitter

Susan Gray Foster was born into a family of avid readers and has been hoping to impress them with her writing ever since. When she’s not struggling in her quest to spin words into magic, she helps her high school students find the magic in classic literature, and helps other writers discover the magic in their own writing, both as a freelance editor and as a book coach at Author Accelerator. Susan believes in creativity and empathy, and enjoys tea, songwriting, reading, and hanging out with her dogs. She lives with her ever-patient Aussie husband in Arizona’s beautiful Sonoran Desert, and she’s her kids’ number one fan. Her YA fiction is represented by Caitlin Blasdell, Liza Dawson Associates.

Susan’s Query Critique…

GENRE: Dark Fantasy

Dear [Agent]:

Desperate to leave behind her life as an assassin, eighteen-year old Jennica makes a bargain with a powerful immortal. [I love the way you jump right into the story. This is intriguing!] In return for protecting a child who holds a corrupt magic in check, [I’m not quite sure what this means. Does the child have the corrupt magic but they’re holding it in check? Or the child holds others’ corrupt magic in check? Also, what is this corrupt magic? Obviously, you can’t include a lot of detail in a query, but I’d like some hint of what this means. Is it dangerous?] Jennica is offered a way to atone for the crimes she’s committed. [Does protecting the child allow her to atone? Or protecting the child just allows her the chance to atone by doing something else?] More than redemption, Jennica wants to vanquish the darkness within her that revels in the cruelty and suffering she inflicts on others. [Oooh! This is dark and intriguing! I wonder if you could condense and combine this line, about wanting to vanquish the darkness, with the opening line, since it makes clear why she wants to give up being an assassin?] Utilizing her deadly skills, along with her developing knowledge of how to manipulate blood magic, Jennica and her Familiar struggle to find the child before she falls into the wrong hands. [Pronoun confusion: Does “she” refer to Jennica or the child? I think it’s the child, but not 100% sure.] [Also, I didn’t get, above, that the child needed to be found, so I suggest mentioning that in the first line about the child. Lastly, I suggest revising that last line, so that the stakes are stronger, and putting it at the end of the query blurb. What does “the wrong hands” mean? What will happen to Jennica if she fails?]

Wesley, a newly coronated king of a peaceful country, is at odds with everything Jennica represents. [I suggest being specific about in what way he is at odds and what Jennica represents.] Striving to find his place within the politics of the four kingdoms, [I suggest cutting the first part of this sentence. Without knowing the specifics, it doesn’t hold meaning or contribute to the query.] Wesley knows failing to find and protect the child will bring war and chaos. [I wonder if you can give readers a little more hint of who this child is and why he/she’s so important.] He allies himself with Jennica, disregarding the advice of those he trusts. [ I suggest stating why he allies himself with her.] Despite Jennica’s surreptitious nature [Maybe a stronger description here? She’s a violent killer, right?] and volatile temper, Wesley finds himself drawn to her boldness and tenacity. He begins to strip away the layers of her damaged past, determined to help her find forgiveness. [Love these lines and the hint of romance, but suggest condensing.]

Jennica’s quest is further complicated by past associates who seek to drag her back into her life of brutality and bloodshed. Resolved to prove she’s more than the summation of her sins, Jennica grapples with the darkness that festers in her heart. As they draw closer to locating the child, Jennica fights the temptation to claim the corrupt magic for herself and reveals a terrible truth about her violent nature that threatens to destroy the trust Wesley has placed in her. [I suggest cutting the above paragraph. It’s getting into too much detail in some places, repeating in others, and getting too far into the story/giving too much away. Instead I suggest finishing off the blurb with a sentence that powerfully states what your protagonist must do and what is at stake (what will happen if she fails). In fact, I also suggest condensing the paragraph about Wesley, and then perhaps ending the query blurb with something along the lines of, Together, Jennica and Wesley must find and protect the child from ________, before war and chaos overtake their world, and __________ (whatever will happen to Jennica if she doesn’t redeem herself.)]

WARMAKER is a standalone young adult dark fantasy complete at 95,000 words and has series potential. Told in alternating points of view, it has worldbuilding elements similar to THE GOLDEN COMPASS and the betrayal and political intrigue of THE WINNER’S CURSE. [Well done!]  

I am a high school Language Arts teacher and have taught eighth through twelfth grade students. When I’m not writing, I’m either at the barn riding my horse or geeking out with my friends over the latest book, movie or video game.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.



This query has so many strong elements. I’ve made a lot of suggestions, but most have to do with condensing, clarifying, and making the stakes more apparent. I think if you can do that, you’ll have a very strong query. And I think the violent protagonist seeking redemption could appeal to many.

Best of luck with this!

🙂 Susan


Next up we have . . .

Pitch Wars Mentor RuthAnne Snow . . .

ruthanne snowTwitter | Website

RuthAnne Snow was born and raised in Kaysville, Utah.  She was a sorority girl in college and social activities director in law school—which was a lot like being back in the sorority.  She has interned for the U.S. Senate, worked on policy papers for Congress and the State Department, and once spent a year sorting through emails looking for fraud.  It wasn’t nearly as fun as writing fiction.  She loves travel, dogs, horror movies, and baking.


RuthAnne’s First Page Critique…

GENRE: Historical Fiction


     When had the frost set in? Analia struggled against the memory, but it came anyway. Darkness had rushed her—a shadow, rolling its shoulder like a bear. [I love this last line, but I think you need to tweak this paragraph again. “When had the frost set in?” followed by “Analia struggled against the memory” — it sounds like she’s struggling not to remember when the frost set in as opposed to her attack.]

     Cold, but left alive.

     Forget. Forget. Oh, gods of old, who could forget?

     Iron claws. Damp fur. Crushing weight. Scratching whiskers. Soured breath. [I’m confused here–was it a real bear? Perhaps edit your “like a bear” simile above.]

     Forget to breathe. Please. Forget to live.

     But then, with Mumma gone too, who would be left to look after Ingerlise?

     Cold. Chilled by morning’s bitter dew. Night’s blanket worn thin. See-through. Patches of blood-red morning spilled unbidden into the mossy knoll, pooling around Analia.

      The soft dance of a horned lark pit-patted in the broken twigs by her ear. Singing. Softly calling to her unborn, their yolks smeared among the nettle under crushed shells. The bear’s forested den nestled against the thundering sea. [I really love your imagery.]

     Analia within.



     Numb. [This is 100% subjective opinion, so take it or leave it. I am having a really hard time with these short declarations. I’m trying to decide if I find Analia interesting enough to continue reading her story, and “Cold.” (for the fourth time) “Torn. Numb.” doesn’t help me. The line about “yolks smeared among the nettle under crushed shells” DOES make me want to find out what happened. But the combination of the two is really confusing for me. It feels like this story is going to be told from Analia’s perspective–we’re in her head–so when you contrast a lovely line like “bear’s forested den nestled against the thundering sea,” I’m confused about why Analia is so articulate in observing her surroundings despite her trauma but so inarticulate in describing anything else–what happened, how she’s feeling, etc.] 

    But covered with a fur.

     “Where…” Her eyes flit [word choice] after the horned lark, who itself had fluttered away from the footfalls and snapping branch.

     Analia bolted to sitting [awkward], holding the strange blanket firmly to her chest, ready to jump up and run. Too soon, arms beneath her, cradled her like the child she could never be again. Standing. Lifting. Folding her to himself. [Same critique as above–I get that you’re trying to show that Analia has gone through something traumatic, but I am having a hard time visualizing what is happening in this scene. It might be helpful to move from close third to a more distant third person narration, which will help you distinguish when you’re in Analia’s head and when you’re not. Then you can keep Analia’s confusion, but things become clearer for the reader. If you DO want to keep the close third, then maybe try to think of another way to introduce this character and this problem.]

     “Puppa?” her raw throat croaked. But it couldn’t be. He’d gone to Mumma’s people, the Innuk—to Mumma’s burial rite—without Analia. She’d followed him secretly in the night. That’s where the bear found her. Alone. In the dark. Easy prey.

     Damp fur brushed her cheek. The must of men’s clothes filled her nose again.


     “Nej!” she erupted into bloodcurdling protests, pounded fists wherever she could land them. Threw back her head. Bit. Clawed. “Nej!” Live. Run away. Die alone.

     But the strong arms held.

     “Analia.” A firm hand caught her jaw and held her face to look into a piercing blue gaze, constant as the Vinland hoarfrost.

     “Torliev?” she asked in disbelief. The corners of her eyes stung and her brows furrowed against it. She tried to relax into his chest, to trust the man she planned to wed, but the smell—the must of damp fur—stirred a fight in her again. How had he found her?

     “The bear,” she gasped, kicking, clawing. Pushing Torliev’s arms away. This time, Analia fell to her feet and turned to run.

     Torliev caught her wrist. “There’s no bear,” he assured her as she tried to pull away. Instead, he pulled her in close to himself and took her face in his hands. “There’s no more bear, Analia. No more bear. He’s gone.”

     How could Torliev be so sure? He couldn’t. He didn’t even know that there hadn’t really been an animal. [So it’s not really a bear? If that’s the case, the line, “That’s where the bear found her” feels very misleading.] Did he? Unless—oh gods of old, don’t let him know. [Interesting…] Suddenly aware of her torn skirts, Analia pulled away again, ashamed, yanking her hands from his.

     “You’re safe,” he called after her.

     Sobs welled up inside. A pressure threatening to burst her lungs—like she’d sank too deep, held her breath too long—threatening to collapse her into a heap on the ground.

[You are clearly a super skilled writer. My main critique would be to ask yourself if you’re making the right choices with this opening scene. None of the writing is bad, it’s just that the decision you’ve made to open with your MC character confused and scared about what just happened is a tough one for the reader. You can mitigate that in different ways, if you’re in love with the idea, but you might have to try a couple different strategies to get there. Good luck!]


Thank you, Susan and RuthAnne, 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.




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