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Day 44 (Part 2): Pitch Wars Query and First Page Workshop with Mentors Amelinda Berube, Alicia Clancy, and Juliana Brandt

Tuesday, 11 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 Amelinda Berube


Twitter | Instagram | Website

Amelinda Bérubé is the author of UNDER THE ICY LAKE, a YA ghost story coming from Sourcebooks Fire in 2018. She’s spent the last ten years as a writer and editor with the Canadian public service, prior to which her career path meandered through academics, carpentry, and administrivia. Amelinda is a passionate fan of YA, SFF, and all things spooky and is delighted to be on the other side of the contest curtain for the first time!


UNDER THE ICY LAKE by Amelinda Berube

APicture former dancer’s grip on sanity starts to slip when she begins to think a dark entity is stalking her and craves her life.

Coming 2018 from Sourcebooks Fire.




Amelinda’s Query Critique . . .

GENRE: Romance

Thanks to Brenda, Heather and the PitchWars team for a chance to share some thoughts on a query! My suggestions are in [square brackets] below. To the courageous author: As with any critique, my comments and ideas are yours to take or leave or adapt as you see fit. Query writing can be exhausting and horrible (I lost count of my own query swaps somewhere past 20) but try to keep an open mind and a willingness to play with it. You got this!

Dear Agent,

(One personalized sentence) [I’d recommend adding any personalization with the “housekeeping” at the bottom. I’ve seen multiple agents saying personalization isn’t actually that important to them, so I’d get right to the part that they’re most interested in, namely the story, and include this less critical info further down. The one exception might be if you’re responding to a specific MSWL tweet or a contest request, but you can often flag that in the subject line anyway. It can feel really weird and counterintuitive to just jump into your pitch this way, but it really is a thing!]

Helen, an aspiring philanthropist who recently acquired magic from a shaman ceremony [I wondered about this term – there are a lot of shamanic traditions in various cultures and I’d be wary of using them in this context. Would “occult” work here instead, maybe? You could use a synonym like “supernatural” below if you keep this phrasing], casts a spell to stop the epic dating fails and make the universe manifest her soul mate—but her choice unleashes occult forces that could break her heart or strike her dead. [I don’t think the “log line” approach is quite working here; it’s too vague to be effective and doesn’t allow you much room for voice. I kind of love the epic dating fails, though! I wonder if you could pick a particularly outrageous one to set the scene? E.g. “After [incident] crowns a string of epic dating fails, Helen is ready to try desperate measures. So when she finds herself with magic powers in the wake of an occult ceremony at [where does she come across it? As entertainment at a fundraiser or gala? Interrupting something strange in a museum?], she knows just how to use them: make the universe manifest her soulmate.”]

Brian, a mega-famous English rocker, [Ha, nice] makes a mixed first impression on Helen. [I feel like I’ve missed something here. Is this a *poof* and he’s teleported sort of deal? Or does the spell mean you get to force fate to put someone in your path? And in the latter case, how do you identify who’s there by fate? Can you give us a line of context? ] He’s arrogant and his pick-up lines are spawns from hell [I’m not sure what this means in the context of pick-up lines – corny? Sexist? Raunchy? I’m almost curious to hear an example! (“And anyway, who comes on to you with a line like ‘…?’”)], but his insights on fame and music intrigue her. [I’m not following why this is intriguing to Helen. Is she famous herself, and that’s the source of the money she’s trying to use for charity? Or does he maybe offer her some sense of direction in the wake of a sudden inheritance? Identifying what sparks their connection could give us a nice glimpse into Helen’s vulnerabilities.] Brian wins Helen over [ooooh details please! Even just one or two? A rakish smile? A self-assurance she craves?], but the problems don’t end. A dangerous secret [what?] makes him distrust all things occult, so he withdraws when he learns of her mystical abilities. [what makes Helen reveal them? Does she feel guilty about ensorceling him into her life? I feel like I want more insight here into what personal conflict or “wound” is driving Helen’s arc beyond the search for love. If you can identify that it might really tie things together with emotional beats.] When a spell to save her faltering philanthropy organization nearly turns deadly and the lovers’ troubled pasts threaten a delicate bond [not sure you need the last part of this sentence; it’s pretty vague. Think you can amp up the emotional tension in the previous sentence or two instead], Helen must figure out how to contain the menacing energies she’s unwittingly summoned—and decide whether her and Brian’s love is worth fighting for. [I’m finding the interpersonal conflict here a lot more interesting than the supernatural one – which is fine to a point, since the personal arc is where we’ll connect to the characters, but they’re feeling a little out of balance. You might need to emphasize how the magic threatens their relationship with more details, or give some sort of concrete hint about Brian’s connection to it.]

MAGICAL THINKING is a 93,000 word contemporary romance with blended fantasy and paranormal elements in the Neil Gaiman tradition. [I’m not super familiar with romance as a genre, but this sounds like contemporary fantasy with strong romantic elements to me. My understanding is that romance would stay pretty firmly grounded in reality, but others might correct me there.] It combines Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s paranormal quirkiness [would be great if you could inject some of this quirky voice into the query, which would give a taste of the fun read that lies in store. Again, touches like “epic dating fail” and “mega famous” are a great start in that direction! Consider how Helen might narrate this, maybe – not that you’d use first person, but it might give you some vocabulary to work with. Like, if you were to introduce Brian with a statement like “Brian isn’t exactly a dream come true…” how would you end it?] with irreverent characters that could populate Judd Apatow’s critically acclaimed show Love.

I work as a literacy tutor. [Can you add another sentence or two to keep this from sounding abrupt? Education, location, something interesting about yourself?] Thank you for your time and consideration.


Overall I think my recommendations boil down to focusing on the emotional arc of your main character. Use that as the foundation of your query; the plot (and the supernatural elements) can unfold around it. What are her fears? (Is she afraid deep down that she’s unworthy of love, for example? That would probably be exacerbated by a fate-manifested solution, actually, because she might worry that she doesn’t deserve it…) Not something you need to explain straight out, but something to consider as you outline the story; it will help you put the emphasis in the right places.

Hope this is helpful, and best of luck in PitchWars! MAY THE ODDS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOR.


Next up we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor Alicia Clancy

Alicia Clancy

Twitter | Website

Alicia Clancy graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English Literature, and moved immediately to NYC, where she began her career in book publishing. She lives in Hoboken, NJ with her husband and her cattle dog puppy, Whiskey. She is the author of Be My Galentine.


BE MY GALENTINE by Alicia Clancy

Be My GalentineFrom Girl Squads to Galentine’s Day, female friendships have reached a new level of awesome. Gone are the days of competition and backstabbing (well, mostly)–female empowerment is in and it’s here to stay! This illustrated book aims to highlight the positive nature of friendship between women with a little bit of charm, and a whole lot of sass, and offers fun extras like recipes and themes that can take your girls’ dates to the next level! Celebrate your best friends, your soul sisters, your gal pals, your partners-in-crime with this humorous gift book, and make every day feel like Galentine’s Day! Because let’s face it, fabulous friendships deserve to be celebrated all year round!

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | BAM | IndieBound | Powells

Alicia’s Query Critique . . .

GENRE: Urban Fantasy

Dear Agent:

After seeing you (somewhere)[,] I did a little digging and was happy to find that you are looking for [YA fantasy].stories that express an author’s unique point of view and sensibilities. I think you would be a great fit for my new adult, urban [I hope that my fantasy novel, THE IN-BETWEEN. will be the perfect fit for your list. Complete at 110,000 words, my dual-POV fantasy novel will appeal to readers of Sabaa Thair’s AN EMBER IN THE ASHES and Becca Fitzpatrick’s HUSH, HUSH.] The Mortal Instruments Series(Cassandra Clair) will enjoy the similar elements of action and romance in my book. [FYI, best to not use books that have sold over a million copies as comp titles, and also, you have to decide if your novel is YA or new adult. You wrote new adult originally in the pitch, but it sounds YA to me. If it is, in fact, new adult, you’ll need to find new adult comp titles].
Cally’s fear can draws them to her. Michael, her protector, is training her to control her emotions by counting backward from five, imagining her worst case scenarios. The only problem is that now when she closes her eyes, Cally doesn’t have to imagine anything, [. H]her reality is more terrifying than any nightmare she could conjure up.

Five: Her father is dead.

Four: They’ve taken her mother.

Three: Monsters are real.

Two: They’re coming to get her…

One: They won’t stop until they do.

The Fallen are an extremist group of supernatural creatures bent on [wiping out humanity].human genocideare after [They know]Cally because she can be used as leverage in a war [–a war ] she doesn’t even know she’s a part of. With Michael’s abilities and Cally’s family ties, they may be the only ones who can stop the Fallen from ending humanity. So long [As long as] they don’t lose their own humanity in the process.[..]

I minored in English Literature [at] WSU and I’m [am] an active member in the[ir] writing community. I’m [also] a member of the League of Utah Writers and have been a featured author for Immortal Works. I’m on a steady diet of YA fiction and I study Martial Arts.
[Switched paragraph order here]THE IN-BETWEEN is complete at 110,000 words and is told from two points of view. It is the first book in a potential series. The first (however many) pages of my manuscript are included. [I have included the first three chapters from my manuscript for your review. Please let me know if I may send more.]

Thank you for your consideration,



Pitch Wars Mentor Juliana Brandt

Juliana BrandtWebsite | Twitter

Juliana is a Middle Grade and Young Adult writer and has mentored in PitchWars for the past two years. She’s a dog lover, outdoor enthusiast, kindergarten teacher, and loves novel-shaped things and is represented by Natalie Lakosil of the Bradford Literary Agency.


Juliana’s First Page Critique . . .

GENRE: Mystery with a touch of Magical Realism

The day before Tanya Bartek’s birthday always passed at a snail’s pace, but this year, she could’ve sworn the clock on her nightstand moved backwards. It’s not like everyone looked forward to having their birthday on a Friday the thirteenth. In fact, most people pushed through this cursed day with their eyes closed. But not Tanya. Her luck on these days hadn’t been just off-the-charts great, it’d been Dorothy over-the-rainbow awesome. Dad said this happened because she was born at 13:13 military time on a Friday the thirteenth and was tripled blessed. Tanya agreed, confident her eleventh birthday would be spectacular. [I think some simple switching around of information here could do you wonders! You have a lovely voice and concept with that you’re starting us with, but essentially, you’re beginning with a small info-dump and telling paragraph. It would serve you well to ground us in the scene and character first, before you tell the background on her birthday; don’t worry, your reader will be patient and will wait for that information! How about you show us Tanya’s antsiness and how she gets ready for the day, and integrate the Friday the 13th info into it. The more you bury and/or marry emotion to info-dumps, the less they feel like info-dumps to the reader!]

She grabbed the brown-black karate belt off her bed and wrapped it around her waist. She knotted it, grateful the studio was closed on Friday’s. That meant this year Tanya didn’t have to worry about Mom insisting they squeeze in a class before going out to dinner to celebrate her birthday. [This makes me think her mom is pushy about karate, while Tanya’s not as into it, though I think you’re meaning to imply that her priority here is her birthday. Can you make this clearer what you mean?]

Tanya straightened her D & D Karate shirt and slipped on her ruby red sneakers. She pulled her scraggly brown hair up into a ponytail, and met her mom in the garage. The opera music blaring from the car’s radio threatened to make the seven mile drive to Torrance a long one. Thankfully they hit every green light, arriving at the studio early. Mom pulled into the parking lot, but instead of parking, she drove up to the front of the multi-story building. [I am a particular fan of “unpacking” details in a scene. Think of it like unpacking a suitcase after a vacation. It’s the difference between saying, “Here is a suitcase” and “Here is a pink-striped suitcase that’s loaded down with rocks I picked up from a beach…” Unexpected details can show a lot of your MC’s personality and the world they live in! So: what sort of Opera music is playing (detailing what it is can show how frequently her mother listens to it)? What kind of car do they drive (opportunity to show economics of family and/or her parent’s relationship to “things”)? How many stoplights are there in town (two; they live in a small town? twenty-eight and traffic is horrendous?)? Not that you need to answer those particular questions, but they are examples of how to better show what’s happening in the scene.]

“I need to pick something up,” Mom said, stopping at the curb. Tonight she wore jeans and a T-shirt instead of one of her trademark jogging outfits, a sign she’d had a great day at work. Her dark brown hair was twisted up and held in place by a large plastic clip. “I’ll be back before class is over.” [The detail of what Mom is wearing would have likely been noticed asap when sitting in the car, rather than after the seven mile drive, no?]

“Promise?” Tanya asked, a little more than anxious. She liked it when Mom came to karate. It gave her a chance to see how strong and confident and smart Tanya had grown after six years of lessons. Maybe, one day soon, she’d stop smothering Tanya with worry and fear. [Woah! Talk about opportunity for unpacking! I love this little sentence here, but I think you can show this in a much clearer way for the reader so that they feel and empathize with Tanya more. Mom can easily smother Tanya while on the drive over: “You wore the right shoes? You used the hair-binder that doesn’t fall out, right? Make sure you tie your karate belt correctly so it doesn’t slip off. I set out a hard-boiled egg for you; did you see it? No? You ate pop tarts–Tanya, you know your body will burn through pop tart energy too quickly!” What a lovely opportunity to show the relationship between Tanya and her mother, here!]

“Yes, I promise.”

“Okay, see you later.” Tanya hopped out of the car and closed the door.

After Mom drove off, Tanya rushed into the building and took the elevator up to the third floor. She headed down the drab hallway with its dirt-brown carpet and beige walls. Sensei Dable’s booming voice smacked her in the face the minute she pushed the glass studio door studio open. She joined the rest of the upper belts on the floor. After ten minutes of stretching, Mr. Dable worked the class hard with repetitions of spin-kicks, pad work and forms. When the class ended a half an hour later, Tanya took her first deep breath, [Small detail, but correct breathing would be an important lesson she would learn, so I would doubt that the end of class would be the first time she would have done so.] glad she wasn’t staying for sparring. Mom sat in the back of the visitors section next to Mrs. Dable. [I would think Tanya would have noticed the moment her mother came into the building, rather than at the end of class, since she was preoccupied with her mother’s presence earlier on.]

“Tanya Bartek,” Mr. Dable said, loud. A white T-shirt stamped D & D Karate Studios stretched across his chest. His black pants and looked ironed. [Again, I would assume she would have noticed his clothing at the start of the scene, rather than half way through. Think order of events.]


Thank you, Juliana, Alicia, and Amelinda, for your critiques!

This concludes our Query and First Page Workshops for Pitch Wars 2017. We hope you’ve enjoyed the critiques and have learned along with the authors. The participating agents will be announced this Friday, July 14th. And the Pitch Wars Mentor Wishlist Blog Hop starts July 19.

So get those queries and manuscripts ready, because the Pitch Wars submission window opens on August 2nd!

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