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 Mentors Ayana Gray and Maiya Ibrahim …
Ayana (eye · YAWN · uh) Gray is a young adult author of speculative fiction with a love for all things monsters and magic. Originally an Atlanta native, she now lives in sunny Florida, where she writes, follows Formula One racing, and worries over her adopted baby rhino, Apollo (who, incidentally, lives in Kenya).
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Maiya Ibrahim is the debut author of SPICE ROAD, the first book in an epic fantasy trilogy forthcoming from Delacorte Press/Penguin Random House in 2021. Born and raised in Sydney, she has a Bachelor of Laws but prefers studying the laws of magic systems instead. When she’s not writing or reading, she can be found playing RPGs and immersive sims, adding new plants to her garden, or enjoying Middle Eastern desserts with her family.
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Ayana and Maiya’s critique . . .
Category: Science Fiction
In 2050, Leon Turner is an eighteen-year-old boy living alone in Ithaca, New York. [The opening line of your query needs to hook an agent immediately, so try to start with a point of intrigue or conflict!] His parents back home think he’s studying artificial intelligence at Cornell University on a full scholarship. In reality, Leon was second place on the waitlist. [These sentences, for example, could provide content for that first line–Leon is lying to his parents, but he thinks he has a way to fix his troubles.] Now, he has three things: enough funds for six months of living costs, a budding new friendship with the local library night worker called Ben, and a crazy plan to prove Cornell wrong and achieve his dream. [This opening paragraph gives us a lot of background on Leon, which is great for the actual manuscript. But agents are reading hundreds of query letters a day, so yours needs to be succinct and to the point–tell us who your story’s protagonist is, what they want (goal), and what’s standing in their way (conflict).] [I agree, emphasize the conflict. We’re told Leon has enough funds for six months of living, but could you word it in a more urgent way? “Now, he only has three things: just enough funds to scrape a living for six months”, for example. Similarly, what is interesting about Ben that he warrants mentioning? We learn later in the query that he’s a talented hacker, so consider including that up here to keep the interest high, and to hint at the conflict! My next suggestion, which applies broadly for a query letter, is that the specific trumps the general. So if you write, ‘prove Cornell wrong and achieve his dream’, tell us exactly what he’s proving Cornell wrong about, and what his dream is. These are all details that will make your manuscript stand out!]
As Ben and Leon become closer friends, they realize a common goal: to make the world a place capable of following solutions [This seems to be your protagonist’s big goal in the story, so I’d love to see it in the first paragraph. I’d also love to see more of the why–why is this so important to Leon personally? What consequence will he face if he fails? (those are the stakes)]. [I agree, tell us why this is so important to Leon personally, as it’s these personal motivations that make for compelling stories. I’ll also add that their common goal could be worded in a clearer way. ‘A place capable of following solutions’ is a touch confusing.] They decide to work together on the most ambitious project they’ll ever have. Theo is an AI capable of setting the world right, with a detailed knowledge of ethics and philosophy in order to always make the best decision. [This may just be me, but it took me a moment to realize that Theo is their ambitious project. Consider using a colon between the sentences, or wording it so it’s explicit, for eg, “They decide to work together on their most ambitious project ever: Theo, an AI capable of setting the world right…” I also rephrased it to be a bit more succinct, wording-wise.] With Leon’s programming and Ben’s hacking, they might just pull it off. But Theo is growing far too quickly for the two of them to manage, and when you’re tired, mistakes are bound to happen. [So, for me, this is where things get interesting. We have the possible threat of an artificially-intelligent creation becoming too smart too fast. This sounds to me like this could be the story’s conflict and stakes. If Theo gets too smart and becomes corrupted or evil, there could be huge complications for both Ben and Leon, but also for the world at large! I would say the more specific you can be here, the better–tell us exactly what bad thing will happen instead if Theo grows too quickly.] [I agree, this part is especially intriguing, and seems to be the central conflict of the book. I’d add a suggestion to word it a little clearer so that the reader knows exactly the problem and consequences. ‘When you’re tired’ is a touch vague and not as tense as it could be. Why are Ben and Leon tired? Are outside pressures impacting their ability to keep up with the project? What happened with Leon lying to his parents? (This could be something to tie back in here so the whole query letter feels cohesive.) Is Theo evolving so rapidly that they need to watch him around the clock? And as he does evolve, is he also developing ulterior motives? Echoing what Ayana said, specify what the worst-case consequences could be if Theo becomes too smart too fast.]
[Something to bear in mind is that science fiction novels are typically 90,000 words and up to allow space for the worldbuilding typical of the genre, so 55,000 words may be considered too short.] Complete at 55,000 words, A FIRETRUCK FOR PROMETHEUS [consider emboldening your title!] is a new adult science fiction where Victor Frankenstein, Jeremy Bentham, and Alan Turing walk into a bar to order Bosnian coffee. [This is called the “meta-data” the part of the query letter where you tell us some logistics about your manuscript. You’ve covered the important bits by telling us the word count, title, and even some comps (comparative titles). I love how voicey this is, I don’t think I’ve ever seen comps done this way! That said, it might not hurt to have at least one book/film/author as a comp. Having a recent comp shows that you’ve done your research and understand where your book will fit in the current market. It also proves that there is already a built-in audience of readers who’d love your book. Just off the cuff, I’d say this book would be perfect for fans of WESTWORLD, for example.]
I look forward to hearing your reply.
[Great job! This has a lot of promise, thank you so much for sharing it with us! –Ayana]
[Thank you! — Maiya]
I’m crouched under a bush at the edge of campus grounds, watching drones and security patrols go by. I’ve been here for hours already, waiting for that time of night [I love an opening page with a sense of place, where we immediately know where we are and what time of day it is. It helps me visualize!] where you can just barely see your fingers waving in front of your face. All my focus is halfway up the wall of the campus gate. [<< this could be a comma instead of a period.] where the red light[s] of security cameras flicker.
You know that saying, good things happen to good people? They don’t happen to me. [You know, I actually think this might be a more compelling first line. It immediately begs several questions, like “Who is the person that good things don’t happen to? Why don’t good things happen to them?] [Agreed, this would make a stellar first line!] I’m not here to leave behind an anonymous donation or save a person. I’m here because the world decided not to help me. [I like the MC’s voice, it feels distinct, and we start to get a sense of their personality and values when they say they’re not here to donate or save anyone.] It wasn’t my fault, but even I don’t believe that anymore. [Your first page is the most prime real estate in your entire story, use it very carefully. Rather than having your reader spend a lot of time thinking about what got them into their predicament, use this space to tell us exactly what they want, why they want it, and what will happen if they don’t get it. We need to connect with your character fast and one way to do that is to get us invested, make us want them to succeed!]
The spiky leaves prick at me with every movement, [what movement? I thought he was crouched and static? I only highlight this to show that specificity is key. Does he keep shifting so that he’s staying out of sight every time the leaves move in the wind? Are his feet going numb so he’s hopping from one to the other? Just examples!] the cold wind rattling the chain link fences and the crunch of combat boots as guards pass keeping me alert [GREAT sensory cues!][Agreed!]. Behind the fences, looming brick buildings mixed with smooth metal and marble mix together, towering proudly over the rest of the city. Buildings you can brag about. [Who can? Another chance here to bring in some worldbuilding.]
The guards are bundled up. I can [hear] the swish of the plastic coats and gloves rubbing together as they crunch their way through the snow. Can’t say I blame them. My own scarf is wrapped around the lower half of my face, nose frozen solid anyway.
Supposedly warm and hiding my features. [<<We need something else here, it’s a fragment otherwise!] I’m nothing [,] if not efficient.
The cameras I can [remove can, that’s actually passive language. Your goal is to be as direct as possible. Generally you can get rid of most ‘cans’ and ‘coulds.’ Instead of ‘I can see’, just say ‘I see.’] see are dupes or antiques. Nobody has hardware jutting out from the wall anymore. You hide microscopic lens [lenses] in frames and walls. Of course, not even a university like Cornell relies only [<< maybe remove] on technology [ maybe replace with ‘alone’ here].
It looked too easy. [What did? Breaking in? This is a chance for you to add even just a sentence to give the reader more of a hint of what’s happening.] Ben only needed a few days to figure the security out. A rotation of security guards on each floor, and then again for each building. [Again, be careful about how you use this space. A good bit of advice I once heard from a lit agent was to never take us backwards in the opening pages. Don’t tell us what’s happened in the past, tell us what’s happening now. We don’t necessarily need to know the backstory of Ben figuring out the security yet.] The real key is how those patrols change when the alarms get tripped; some staying right where they are, just in case, while others go rushing to the scene as backup. Ben said he wouldn’t be able to contact me if anything went wrong—too much of a risk—so he made me memorize them all. He’s probably pacing a hole through his floor now. [I want this to end in a slightly more gripping way, give us something that demands we turn the page to find out more. Post a question that demands to be answered!] [I’d add that it’s not immediately clear what’s going on in this first page. We know something possibly illegal is happening, which is exciting, but I’d suggest being just a bit more specific about the main character’s goals, just to orient the reader and keep the momentum up.]
[Thank you for sharing this! What I loved was the sense of place you evoked and the sensory cues that really bring us in. What I wanted more of were the stakes/conflict–what problem is our narrator up against and what will happen if they fail? Best of luck! –Ayana]
[And I also loved the narrator’s voice! I would’ve liked to get a bit more detail on the conflict, as Ayana said. Thank you for sharing, and best of luck! –Maiya]