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Day 6 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Query and First Page Workshop with mentors, Susan Gray Foster and Melissa Marino

Tuesday, 16 May 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 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 . . .

Dear Agent,

Owls eat gnomes, so it’s no wonder the whole colony wants to banish Poppy Thistlebit when the first time a magic coat is wrapped around her shoulders, she spreads a pair of feathery wings and hoots at the assembly. [I love that a conflict is introduced in this opening sentence, and I love the image of her sprouting wings, but the sentence is a little convoluted, which results in losing much of its impact.] The middle grade fantasy novel Poppy Thistlebit and the Magic Coat introduces an enchanting world of gnomes within the realistic world of men and is about 64,800 words. [You’ve already said there are gnomes, so I don’t think it adds much to repeat it here. Maybe just state the genre. Also, it’s customary to round the word count to the nearest thousand.]

Poppy was expected to die young because of a deformed hand, [Is this significant enough to the story to include in the query?] but now after twelve years of hiding in the family burrow, her Coat Day has arrived.  [You’re jumping back and forth between a “blurb” describing the story, and the summary with information about genre and word count, etc. I suggest having one section for each. You want to draw the reader into the blurb and “sell” the story, and it gets a little confusing and repetitive when you’re bouncing back and forth.] She will stand on stage with the other twelvlings to receive a magic Coat that can transform her into a rodent, and she will no longer have to fear the outside world.  [Of course you can’t include lots of details in your query, but I do wonder why she had to hide and fear the outside world prior to getting the coat. Is it because of owls? I think this is important and should be clear.]

Then Poppy receives an owl Coat, the first ever predator transformation.  Believing she will be banished, Poppy embarks on a journey where she must use the hated coat to befriend a family of owls, survive in the city, and break out of a militant gnome colony’s prison.  After learning the value of her Coat and her bravery, [Although there are no hard and fast query rules, it’s generally advised to convey the central conflict that the protagonist faces and what is at stake for the protagonist—what will happen if she fails. The agent reading the query should want to read the book to find out what happens, so don’t tell how the conflict resolves.] she returns home with some new friends to save Puddleford from a froblin attack. [This seems to introduce a new story idea or subplot, and, in any case, is giving away too much of what happens in the end.]

This story is similar in genre and audience to Cynthia Voight’s novel ‘Young Fredle,’ but I believe Poppy is a more accessible hero because of her human-like qualities.  The protagonist in ‘Ella Enchanted’ by Gail Carson Levine faces similar trials: An unintentional curse leading to a series of blunders and adventures in a realistic setting with magic.  The tone is similar, and would appeal to the same readers. [I suggest making these references to comparative titles much more concise, and also avoid anything that could come across as suggesting that you think your book is better than an acclaimed author’s. Nice comps, though—I love Cynthia Voight and Gail Carson Levine!]

My professional writing accomplishments include a personal essay published in ‘The Oklahoman’ and an excerpt from one of my poems published as the opening lines of the book ‘The Unfinished Bombing’ by Edward T. Linenthal.  I am currently at different stages with three more middle grade novels, and my goal is to become a professional author.  In the meantime, I am the Park Manager of a natural resource facility in Calvert County, Maryland. [I suggest making your bio more concise, too. Your query will sound more professional if you cut the sentence about the novels at different stages and your goal.]

Thank you for taking a look at Poppy’s story.  I have submitted queries to multiple publishers and agents, and will be sure to let you know if the manuscript is signed to another agency prior to your reply. [It is usually assumed that you are querying multiple agents unless you specifically state otherwise. It is generally not wise to query agents and publishers at the same time. Agents may be reluctant to sign a project that has already been submitted to publishers, so choose which path you wish to pursue.]


Hi! This sounds like a delightful middle grade fantasy.

To summarize my points above: 1) I suggest restructuring your query so that there is one section with the “blurb,” and one with the summary information such as title, genre, word count, and comparative titles. This will read more clearly and avoid unnecessary repetition. 2) My advice for the blurb is to give an idea of the main character’s distinctive traits, clearly convey the central problem that she faces, and indicate what is at stake for her, and that is all. Don’t include subplots and don’t give away the ending; leave the reader wanting more. 3) Keep everything clear and concise. The main point of the query is to “sell” the story you are telling, to make someone want to read your book. Keep everything else to a minimum.

A middle grade fantasy with gnomes, rodents, and owls sounds like lots of fun, and I think restructuring your query will allow you to strongly convey your concept. Best of luck!

🙂 Susan


Next up we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor Melissa Marino …

melissa marino

Website | Twitter

Melissa Marino is a full-time writer and part-time Storm Trooper collector. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching Friends reruns, mastering her cupcake frosting swirl and hunting for the perfect red lipstick.

Melissa lives in Chicago with her husband, son and very opinionated dachshund.



So Wicked cover
 So Wicked by Melissa Marino . . .

Fate has a wicked sense of humor.

Alexis’s new life was made up of two things: baking and hiding the details of her old life in Chicago. The first allowed her to finally find some happiness. And the second is about to be destroyed by a man who knows all her secrets.

Marshall Rawlins was prepared to do anything when he moved cross-country to launch an upscale cocktail bar—anything except work with Alexis, his best friend and business partner’s ex-wife. Adding Alexis’s boozy-baked goods to his menu would be a major feat for his bar. But striking a deal means getting in bed with the enemy.

Battling between distrust and desire, Alexis and Marshall give in to a passionate, forbidden affair. They know if they’re discovered the consequences would be bad—it’s just hard to remember that when being together feels so, so good.

Melissa’s First Page Critique . . .


GENRE: Psychological Thriller

It’s funny, when I woke with the birds this morning – I had a feeling, today would be the day that changed our lives forever.[You want to try and describe feelings instead of just saying the character “had a feeling.” It doesn’t have to be flowery and drawn out, but something to convey her emotions. It ties into the next sentence as well. How was she feeling that morning, that she knew her life was going to change? Was it dread? Elation?] For the good – that’s debatable, but definitely for the better, so long as you have a warped sense of humour. Perhaps I should have stayed in bed. But then, it needed to get worse before it could get better. [This confuses me. If he/she woke with a feeling the day would change her life for the better, why would she have stayed in bed?] The day itself – was as ordinarily twisted as any other day, it only became disturbing after the fall of the sun. [Isn’t it bizarre when everything you think you know suddenly changes, all best made plans – go to hell in a hand cart. When truths are held hostage by the lies. Then the moment you realise, it has never been about – what you know, but what you don’t know. The world you perceive isn’t really the world itself, it is simply – your story  of the world. This seems repetitive to me—Saying the same thing three different ways. Instead of repeating in order to get your point across, stick it to the reader with one powerful sentence.]

Simple. Yet, reality is anything but. [Like this sentence. 🙂  You got me nodding my head and saying, “Ain’t it the truth?!”]

19.22 PM

Desperate to escape, but the seat belt cuts sharply across me. Imprisoning. Suffocated by feelings of weakness and vulnerability, yet murderous primeval thoughts consume me. It’s the driving – shaking me, accelerating and braking with each perilous twist. An outlook flaunting only shades of black. The unrelenting rain mercilessly pummeling its prey.

Sodden falling leaves and earthly debris obscure my view; the leafy cloaking offers me little relief for what I fear lies ahead. The acrid stench of burning rubber and hot metal smothers my lungs.

I am afraid to breath.

My sweaty hands slither on cold leather. My words jar as a chalky dryness strangles me.  I grip my throat as my gut retches.

I taste fear.

[This is great. Wonderfully descriptive and is starting to build anticipation. I’d caution you about over-doing it though.]

The windscreen wipers hypnotise, swinging on full assault. This is not happening. This is not happening. This is not happening.


Shallow and rapid breathing thrusts my heart at my cage. Nothing hidden in my incongruously worn t-shirt. I feel myself slip further into a helpless state. Should I have just given him what he came for? Is this my fault? Pleading words prick at my conscience, but are defeated by futility. I am trapped.

[Okay. The reader gets it. He/She is trapped and scared. “Panic.” “Fear” “Afraid to breathe.” All the same, and along with the descriptions, the reader is ready for movement. You have us THERE, now take us somewhere…quickly.]

A prisoner as of old.

All my escape routes obfuscated by the lies. So many lies. What is the truth anyway? A cognitive crossfire of thoughts feed the building fog in my mind, stealing my intelligence, leaving me vulnerable with animalistic freezing. Exposed. [We are still not there yet.]

I blink hard but shadows and circumstance toy with me. I am not mistaken. We are being followed by lights. Intense white eyes pierce the dashboard and penetrate my shoulder. I reach out to the angry shards of light from the darkness behind, gaining closeness, falling distant. Should I be relieved or are we being hunted? Frantic moments flash by before the lights surrender the chase. The ghost of past, exculpation hovers above me.

This cannot be my life. Why did I walk the path? [Get us there! Lights! There is action! Don’t pull it back with internalizing.]

Suddenly we grind and skid to a halt, slapping me back to the instance. [BAM. There we go. We are there! 🙂 ]

[If I could hug you right now, I would because this is a terrifying thing to volunteer for (page critiques!) but I promise you, every time you do, you’ll come away with something new to think about! I want to remind you that I’m reading this as a reader, and my comments reflects that.

You have a beautiful, beautiful way with descriptors and setting the scene. The anticipation is there—where the reader is holding their breath, wondering where this all going. As I commented above, I do think with some tighten up, you can make this even stronger.

That said, I did feel like this read more like a prologue, than an actual first chapter/first page. It’s totally okay if that was your intent, but prologues are one of those things that have to be done just right otherwise it falls flat. So, I’d tell you to consider how you want to present this to readers. If you do decide to go with it as first page instead of a prologue, I’d love to see just a glimpse of who this character is. Male or Female? Age range? Those simple little nugget drops give the reader a better picture to match with the actions you’ve place, and draws us in.

I hope this gave you some insight, and some ideas to noodle over. Thank you for letting me tinker with your “baby.” I wish you all the best!]

Thank you, Susan and Melissa, 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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