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Day 41 (Part 2): Pitch Wars Query & 1st Page Workshop with mentors, Gail Villanueva, Isabelle Adrid, & Heather Cashman

Thursday, 6 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 Mentors Gail Villanueva and Isabelle Adrid …

Gail Villanueva is a Filipina author based in the Philippines. She runs a design studio with her husband in the outskirts of Manila, but also does freelance copywriting on the side. When not in front of her computer coding a website or writing a story, you’ll find her in the gail&isabellebackyard, playing with four dogs, five ducks, a chicken, a turtle, and a cat. Gail writes upmarket MG, both historical and contemporary, and with elements of magic. Her fiction is represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group.

Find Gail: Twitter | Website

Isabelle Adrid is a YA author who writes contemporary fiction with speculative elements. She is also an avid reader of MG books. She was born and raised in San Diego, and she currently resides in the Philippines. When she’s not writing or reading books, you’ll find her binge-watching TV shows, movies, and Korean dramas. Her work is represented by Kimberly Brower of Brower Literary and Management.

Find Isabelle: Twitter | Website

Gail and Isabelle’s Query Critique…


GENRE: Dark Epic Fantasy

Dear _____:

I am seeking representation for my YA dark epic fantasy with a Middle Eastern-inspired setting.

Seventeen-year-old resistance fighter Sidara has a wit as sharp as her sword [Sidara sounds like a cool heroine, one who isn’t your stereotypical damsel in distress. But who is Sidara apart from her sharp wit? Is she a princess? A soldier? A magic user? A commoner? A blacksmith? An assassin? Specifying what makes Sidara special will also help set the tone of your query. We will have no doubt it’s a fantasy, because right now, “resistance fighter” and “sword” alone gives us historical vibes instead of fantasy.]  and nothing left to lose [While “nothing to lose” can give the impression that Sidara has something going on that brought her into such state, it would be so much better if you can show us exactly what this is. You don’t have to reveal Sidara’s entire past. However, we need to have some grounding of who she is for us to care enough about her and decide we want to join her adventures.]. Each day, she recites her reasons to kill the Matron: [Who is the Matron? What type of being are they?]

An unnatural illness killed her family when the Matron visited. [We think this can be stronger if you rephrase it in such a way that the Matron is truly at fault. Example: “The Matron brought an unnatural illness, killing Sidara’s family and thousands of others, including all magi.” You might also want to find a better word for “visit,” because this somehow implies a pleasant trip. You are stating reasons why the Matron is worth killing, so you’ll need to convince us they really ARE worth killing. Saying the Matron just visited will make us question if the Matron is the one who brought the illness, or Sidara’s only overreacting to something that might be a mere coincidence.]

(Along with thousands of others, all magi) [Why didn’t it kill Sidara if it killed all of Sidara’s family? Is Sidara not magi? What’s magi? It would be helpful if you can define what a magi is so we can see the gravity of the situation. Example, “…all Magi, the mana-wielding paladins of the Kingdom.”]

Her kingdom was conquered. [Conquered by whom? The problem with the passive voice, it’s not very specific. Again, it implies the Matron isn’t truly at fault. “The Matron conquered the kingdom with their undead army and formidable airships. (Survivors suffered abuse from the Matron and their minions)” will make you want to go, “this Matron deserves to die, go Sidara!” instead of “are you sure it’s the Matron who sent those zombies and airships?” We don’t know if your book has zombies, but you get the idea.]

(With all the magi dead, her kingdom was defenseless against the Matron’s airships) [What kind of world does Sidara live in? What’s her kingdom like? Is there war? What is the backdrop of the story?]

A building crushed her best friend and first love. [It sounds like it’s the building’s fault Sidara’s best friend is dead, not the Matron’s. Again, it would be better if you’re clear about this.]

(When the Matron invaded, the airships destroyed half the city) [This line is repetitive of the previous paragraph]

[The style you used (the parenthetical comments) to state Sidara’s reasons to kill the Matron is interesting, but you’ll need to refine the reasons themselves so they’ll have more impact and clarity.]

To reclaim her kingdom and defeat the Matron, Sidara teams up with a genderfluid sorcerer named Fellrin with the power to destroy the entire fleet of airships. [Why Sidara? What qualifies her to defeat the Matron? What “power” does Fellrin have? Why does Fellrin even team up with her in the first place? You might also want to mention that Fellrin is the only surviving Magi. Well, if they are, that is. This way, the next paragraph will have more impact, and it will make sense for Sidara to feel conflicted when she finds out Fellrin is the one responsible for the death of her family.] The catch? Fellrin’s powers are sealed and can only be unlocked with a magical artifact hidden in the Matron’s impenetrable floating palace. [The goal of defeating the Matron has now shifted to Fellrin. It seems as though Sidara will just be in it for the ride. You can fix this by focusing on Sidara and her goals. Example: “The catch? Sidara must break into the Matron’s impenetrable floating palace, find a magical artifact, and unlock Fellrin’s powers to banish the Matron and their army for good.”]

However, when Sidara discovers Fellrin is the one responsible for the very illness which killed her family and thousands of others [Do Sidara and Fellrin develop a close relationship?], she must choose: take revenge and doom her people to be forever ruled by the Matron [It would be better if you can specify how she plans to take revenge. Does she intend to kill Fellrin? Fellrin is a super powerful sorcerer. If she wants to kill them, she’ll have to do it when they’re vulnerable. For that to become believable, we’ll need to have some grounding of Sidara’s capacity to commit a “dishonorable” killing. You can show this by convincing us that Sidara’s so overwhelmed with the need for revenge, she’ll be willing to sacrifice her “warrior’s code.” We are assuming she’ll have a warrior’s code because we don’t really know what “kind” of swordswoman she is. If she’s a trained assassin, we don’t need to wonder about this.], or use Fellrin’s magic to free her kingdom at the cost of justice for her family. [Why couldn’t Sidara use Fellrin’s magic to free her kingdom then take revenge/kill Fellrin afterwards? At the moment, it doesn’t seem like a hard choice since she can actually do both. Maybe you can focus on what she must do to accomplish both revenge and her mission. Something like, she must use Fellrin’s magic to destroy the Matron, then kill Fellrin before either—or both—of them kill her first.]

CURSED THIEF is a standalone novel with series potential complete at 80,000 words. It features a main character with a disability. Thank you for your time and consideration.

This query is a great start. You clearly state Sidara’s goal and what she has to do to get it: Team up with Fellrin to defeat the Matron. However, you must paint a clearer picture of your fantasy world and introduce who Sidara is exactly. As a reader, we need to feel grounded in your story. What is a magi? Why does Sidara needs to be the one defeat the Matron? What is so special about her? We don’t really know much about the Matron either except for killing Sidara’s family and a whole lot of people using magic and airships. While too many details about Matron will make us lose focus on Sidara, we need to at least see that we have a three-dimensional villain who can and will add conflict to the story.

For querying purposes, being specific is always better. It’s a great way to really bring out your voice, but more importantly, it will show agents or publishers what sets your story apart in the slush. You have a great concept, and with a bit more clarity, it’ll stand out even more. Thanks for letting us take a look and best of luck with this story!


Next up we have . . .

Pitch Wars Mentor Heather Cashman . . .


Website 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.

Heather’s First Page Critique…


GENRE: Contemporary Women’s Fiction

Chapter 1

I envied her luscious, perfectly-styled, blonde hair as I watched her browse the store. It had effortless, cascading, beachy-waves that bounced like she was walking the runway at a Victoria’s Secret fashion show. I was regrettably having a particularly bad hair day myself.

[My first thought: lots of adjectives. My second thought: this lady’s obsessed–too obsessed for my comfort level. For your hook paragraph, we should get a sense of your book’s theme, tone, and the character. At this point, I’m not sure about spending several hours with her. One good thing, you have the power of visual detail behind your writing. Another note, avoid adverbs if at all possible. Your writing won’t suffer for it. It’ll focus in on what matters and help the reader feel the punch of the words that do matter.

Example using only your words: I envied her cascading, beachy waves as I watched her browse the store like she was walking the runway at a Victoria’s Secret fashion show. I was having a bad hair day.

Also, I’d like to have a name for the woman we’re looking at. If the MC doesn’t know it, we should know that too.

Last thing, replace the weak word ‘bad’ with something stronger.]

I mean…this girl, did she just come from a modeling shoot somewhere or something? It’s not fair when women are that flawlessly put together this early in the morning, it just isn’t natural.

[There is a balance between shaming someone for looking their best and feeling like you can’t compete with natural beauty. I get where you’re coming from, and that universal relation that we’ve all felt less attractive than the gorgeous blonde at the next table is real. But do you want the reader’s first impression of your MC to be negative? I would prefer seeing her doing something nice, then feeling inadequate. It would help me like her, then relate.

We’re already in her POV, so no italics necessary. They actually make us draw back and feel less connected to the MC than just being in her head already.

Eliminate weak words like just.

We all know the cliche that life isn’t fair. Try and play off that rather than stating it. Cliche phrases only make your character feel cliche rather than unique and someone interesting we should get to know.

Example: Life isn’t fair–we all know that. But beautiful and flawless at 7am? I’d feel less awkward in a Halloween mask , right now.]

Sometime during the night I had foolishly rolled off of my satin pillowcase, and my naturally-coarse hair rubbed all over my cotton sheets. The friction left me with hair that resembled one of those dang chia pets on the right side of my head, but I was still blissfully unaware of that fact.

[If we’re in her POV, you can’t tell us something that she doesn’t know.]

I‘d woken up late that morning, which was rather uncharacteristic of me, and I dihadn’t hadve time to properly tamed the beast known as my naturally-wavy hair. I‘d simply dashed out the door and threw thrown my hair into a messy bun on my rushed commute to work.

[Show us this. Don’t tell it. Start with her rushing out of the apartment, maybe talking to herself or thinking that Morley would kill her if she didn’t open the shop on time. Show her throwing her hair into a bun, trying to see her reflection in the window of the diner she passes–whatever she’s doing. Everything that can be shown needs to be shown. The next sentence as well.]

I had just opened the store seconds before her arrival, and it wasn’t often that a stale place like Morley’s had customers who were chomping at the bit to enter.

Yep, she’s a first timer. A girl like that wouldn’t step foot inside this humdrum boutique twice.

I had worked there for two infinitely long years, and I knew well-dressed women like her weren’t regulars.

[Watch the repeating phrases, beginnings of sentences, and word echos. I’d, I had]

“Hi, come on in and welcome to Morley’s! Feel free to ask me any questions you might have.” I cheerfully spoke as I opened the aged, squeaky door, cringing internally at the fact that she wouldn’t find anything appealing inside.

[Inconsistency: from the first sentence, we’ve pictured the blonde walking through the store. Now the MC is letting her inside.

I do like that she’s putting her pride aside for now and still being cheerful. It makes me like her more.]

She politely looked over the dated inventory; her forced, unnatural smile revealed that she was clearly disinterested.

“I’ve actually never been here before, I don’t know how on Earth I have missed seein’ it all this time,” she declared as she began to sift more enthusiastically through some of our more fashionable tops.

[Try and use actions to replace dialogue tags. Avoid “began” and use words that help you avoid needing adverbs. Example: rather than sift, maybe scour or dive into.

. . . all this time.” She dove into our most fashionable tops.

It’ll tighten your writing as well.]

I watched her out of the corner of my curious eye as I began counting our new shipment of jewelry pieces. As I counted, I was consumed with unlikely aspirations of owning my very own chic boutique one day.

[The word curious is redundant because we all know that feeling of watching through peripheral vision while trying to be sly or coy.]

I would create a chic boutique that fashionable people like this girl, would actually seek out and revel in.

It was my dream job, but I was way too passive, fearful, complacent, and loyal to ever leave Morley’s.

Forget it, everyone is just going to assume daddy gave it to me on a silver platter, just because they all know he’s a wealthy doctor. No one is ever going to take me seriously as a business owner.

Could I have become a spoiled little brat and lived off of my wealthy parents like many in my generation have shamelessly done? Sure, but I considerately chose not to accept help from them, and I made my own respectable living.

[This whole last section is telling. We need to see these things shown through situations, dialogue, and setting. Someone could recognize her as the daughter of that famous person right after leaving her apartment. She’s embarrassed and knows her father will be mortified if the paparazzi get a pic of her right now. She comes into the shop and hates the clothes on the rack. How would she change them? Maybe she has a talk with this woman and that tells us more about how she feels. She needs to interact with her world and the people in it so we can have a more organic way of getting to know her.

You’ve got an interesting beginning! Good luck with everything and hope to see you in Pitch Wars this year!



Thank you, Gail and Isabelle, for your critiques! I always have a good time!

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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