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.
First up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentor Emily Colin …
Emily Colin’s debut novel, THE MEMORY THIEF, was a New York Times bestseller and a Target Emerging Authors Pick. She is also the author of THE DREAM KEEPER’S DAUGHTER (Ballantine Books), the editor of the YA fiction anthology, WICKED SOUTH: SECRETS AND LIES, and the author of SWORD OF THE SEVEN SINS, the first book in her new YA series (both from Blue Crow Publishing). Emily’s diverse life experience includes organizing a Coney Island tattoo and piercing show, hauling fish at the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys, roaming New York City as an itinerant teenage violinist, helping launch two small publishing companies, and serving as the associate director of a nonprofit dedicated to immersing youth in need in the arts. Originally from Brooklyn, she lives in Wilmington, NC with her family.
Emily’s recent release, SWORD OF THE SEVEN SINS …
From New York Times-bestselling author Emily Colin comes a story of one young woman’s battle for freedom in a future world where love is the ultimate sin.
Eva Marteinn never wanted to be a killer.
Raised in the Commonwealth, where citizens live and die by the code of the Seven Sins, Eva is sickened by the barbaric punishments the High Priests inflict. She sees the Bellators of Light, the Commonwealth’s executioners, as no more than conscienceless killers.
When she’s Chosen as the first female bellator—and can’t refuse, on threat of exile or disgrace—Eva is devastated. But she turns out to be inordinately gifted at the very role she abhors…no thanks to her mentor, Ari Westergaard, who alternates between ignoring her and challenging her to impossible tests.
Ari’s indifference conceals a dangerous secret: He’s loved Eva since they were children. When Eva falls for Ari too, she knows they should do anything to avoid each other. Love is forbidden. Lust is a death sentence. But as mentor and apprentice, they’re bound by the blood oath they swore the day of Eva’s Choosing.
Balanced on a razor’s edge of desire and betrayal, the two uncover a secret that could overturn the Commonwealth itself. Now Eva must make an impossible choice: Turn her back on Ari, and remain loyal to the only home she’s ever known—or risk everything on the slim hope of freedom, and stake her life on the boy she’s come to love.
Emily’s critique . . .
Category: Young Adult Fantasy
TITLE, 105k words, is set in a world inspired by 1900s South Africa with fantasy elements, and is best described as BLACK PANTHER meets RED QUEEN. It features an all[-]black cast and is #ownvoices. [This is a strong opening and sounds like a fantastic book! You give us the genre, comps, and the fact that it’s #ownvoices, which is excellent. Also, BLACK PANTHER meets RED QUEEN? I’m intrigued and want to know more! One question I have immediately, though—is this YA or adult? If it’s YA, the word count is a little high, but the fact that it’s fantasy gives you some leeway.]
Imani is the first female blacksmith [how old is she? The first female blacksmith … where?] and a person with rare magical ability [to do what?] (a group known as Blacksteels). [Blacksteels are blacksmiths with magical abilities? I’m a little unclear.] She resides in the secretive black nation, Noddon. [Is the nation a secret from the rest of the continent/world? Or does the world know it exists, but Noddon is secretive about something else? Do Blacksteels only exist in Noddon?]
When Imani forges a replica of the Bakantwa Sword [why is this sword important?] in order to unearth and then kill power[-]hungry D’ziko [she is unearthing D’ziko? The word choice confuses me. Also, is the original sword magical? I’m guessing she wants to replace the original with the replica & then steal the original. Why does she need this specific sword to kill him?] whose murderous conduct led to her brother’s death [this could be much stronger. Does Imani think D’ziko killed her brother? Did D’ziko kill someone else and then set a plot in motion that killed her brother? Be clear. Also, what power does he want/what are the stakes? Does the power he wants threaten her in some way?], the last thing she expected was [expects is] to find out he’s innocent and then join [replace ‘and then join’ with ‘—let alone join’] his investigation into who murdered his mother. [This comes out of nowhere. Does she know his mother was murdered? You can build a little tension here] Imani is sure they’re searching for the same man. [Maybe rephrase: ‘Imani is sure that the man who killed her brother and D’ziko’s mother’s murderer are one and the same.’ Also … why is she sure of this? Based on something D’ziko said? Evidence? Give us a little insight here.]
And now someone is kidnapping Sabonis (people with no magical abilities) too, killing them and then resurrecting them. [This feels as if it comes out of nowhere. When did this start happening? Also, is your world divided into Blacksteels and Sabonis—and no one else? Are the Blacksteels the only ones with magical abilities? Is there something special about the Sabonis, other than the fact that they’re non-magical? Is there a specific subset of them that’s being kidnapped?] They wake up as Shadows: thirsty for Blacksteel blood. [Okay, good conflict] To find the culprit, [I thought they were searching for the murderer. They’re searching for the kidnapper(s) too? Why? Do they think the two are connected?] Imani and D’ziko enlist the help of her two best [insert space] friends: an outspoken gay [gay … what/whom? i.e., warrior? Fellow blacksmith? Magician? Etc. Also, outspoken about what?] carrying a curious [curious in what way? Can you come up with a stronger word?] sword, and a princess discarded by her family. [This has me intrigued.] Each hides a secret that could get them killed. [Interesting—by whom?] Together they seek to rescue the Sabonis to form an alliance between them and the Blacksteels. [OK, this sounds a little convoluted. Is D’ziko a Blacksteel too? Also, I assume ‘them’ is the Sabonis, but it’s a bit confusing, because the earlier ‘they’ in this sentence refers to Imani, her friends, and D’ziko. Also, is there natural enmity/discord between the Sabonis and the Blacksteels? Do the Blacksteels look down on the Sabonis for being non-magical? You can clarify with a few well-placed phrases/words to heighten the tension and make the stakes clear.]
Imani and D’ziko wrestle feelings for each other as they all [delete ‘all’] prepare for a dangerous showdown with the murderer. [So there’s a connection between the kidnappers and the murderer?] But they don’t know [delete ‘they don’t know’; if they knew, it wouldn’t be much of a mystery!] the killer, someone very close to Imani, is setting a trap of his own. He wants them dead. Preferably in pieces. [Good…I like this!]
I write short stories for Drum Magazine. My stories, which deal with social issues that affect black people in South Africa [insert comma after ‘Africa’] have appeared in a number of Drum issues, including; [delete semicolon] David; Kwenza(the husband), The Park and Tomorrow’s Coming. [Are these the names of your stories or the names of issues of Drum? The way it’s phrased, it sounds like these are the names of the issues. Also, I’m not sure that it’s helpful to include the names of the stories/issues. Maybe: ‘My short fiction, inspired by social issues that affect people living in South Africa, has been published in Drum Magazine.’ Then, you can go on to give us one or two sentences about why this is important to you—why this manuscript is #ownvoices—i.e., are you from/do you live in South Africa? Etc.]
Thank you so much for taking the time [to…]. I look forward to hearing from you.
It’s finally here.
The day I never thought would come, but have always been patiently waiting for. [‘Have always been patiently waiting for’ sounds a little weak to me. ‘The day I’ve spent months waiting for’ would be stronger—although ‘waiting’ makes your MC sound passive, which doesn’t grab the reader. You might be better off with ‘the day I’ve worked so hard for/spent months preparing for.’ Or … whatever would give us insight into the story/character. Make it as strong/non-generic as possible.] It’s going to be perfect. Memorable. Today is going to be the happiest day of my life. [Make this a little more specific too—why memorable? Can you drop some clues here?]
I can’t stop smiling and nodding approvingly [‘smiling and nodding approvingly’ could be stronger. You can replace with ‘I can’t stop grinning with satisfaction’ or a similar phrase. It accomplishes the same thing and is tighter] every time I run my fingertips over it. The fake sword looks just the way the real one does behind the glass that keeps it safe [the ‘it’ here is unclear … are you referring to the real sword? Because in the previous sentence, the ‘it’ refers to the fake sword. Also, safe from whom/what? Safe from thieves, for example? Where is the real sword kept? This is a great place to drop in a clue about what the threats might be] – perfect. Being so close to getting everything I’ve worked so hard for makes my chest so tight I can barely breathe.
Dear Gods, this [What does ‘this’ refer to? The fake sword?] has got to be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. [More beautiful than the real thing? Isn’t it supposed to look exactly like the real thing? What makes it so beautiful—just the craftsmanship, or what it represents?]
Last week I got an order for swords, helmets [I am personally a fan of the Oxford comma] and armour for the Royal palace. [Capitalize ‘palace.’] The pay is good enough that normally, I push other pet projects [‘other’ implies that the work from the Palace is a pet project. Delete and replace with ‘my.’ But also … does she push projects from other clients out of the way too?] down the timeline to accommodate Queen Mother’s order. But I’ve been too [replace ‘too’ with ‘so’] busy working on the Bakantwa sword [you capitalize ‘sword’ in the query letter; be consistent] that I’m behind on a couple of projects. [This graf distracts from the action. If replicating the Bakantwa Sword is the focus, why mention the order she got from the Royal Palace? And why is it relevant that she’s behind? Unless the order from the Royal Palace really matters, I think you can strike this whole graf and simply name the sword when you first mention it. You’ll be able to explore her relationship with the Palace later—keep the action moving forward.]
I’m beating on omuri – metal exclusive to Noddon [what kind of metal? What makes it special?] – to make it thinner [is this omuri part of the sword she’s working on? Why does it need to be thinner?] when the red light blinks [where is this light?] indicating that someone just entered through the back door, unauthorized. [We need a stronger sense of the setting. Where is she? What does she see/smell/feel? Not an info dump—but sneak in details so we feel immersed in the scene.]
Who could be dumb enough to try and steal from me? [Okay—she’s a blacksmith; does that automatically mean that she possesses high-quality/high-value items? Clarify—why would someone be so unlikely to rob her? Is it also because of her magical powers? You can tease this here: ‘Who would rob a Blacksteel?’ Etc.] At daylight? [Do you mean ‘in’ daylight?]
It might be an unsatisfied customer at the door. [delete ‘at the door’] If so, why would he [or she? They?] not come through the front door? How did he [they] get past security? [So she’s in some kind of larger complex that requires security? Is she with other blacksmiths/Blacksteels?]
I quickly remove my protective eyeglasses and ear muffs and bury the sword I spent months constructing, a replica of the legendary sword I will steal today under my black metal cuirass. [Rephrase: ‘Removing my protective eyeglasses and earmuffs, I bury the sword I’ve spent months constructing—a replica of the legendary sword I will steal today—under my black metal cuirass.]
I feel a lump of dread building inside me. [Rephrase to tighten: ‘A lump of dread builds inside me.’ Check the phrasing—can a lump be built? Also, why is she filled with dread? Because someone’s broken in? Or because she fears she’ll get caught? Is she part of any kind of larger plot/scheme? This is a great place to drop in some hints.]
Taking off my gloves, I toss them aside, pick up a knife [add comma] and tiptoe to the storeroom. [Okay, I’m confused here. How does she know the person is in the storeroom? Does the back door open directly into the storeroom? Clarify. Also, does the red light alert anyone else that someone unauthorized has entered? If there’s security, wouldn’t they be concerned?]
I punch in my security code and the door opens to reveal a familiar face. Kaseke stands with his back to me, rummaging. My work clothes fall on the floor in a messy, black pile. [Did he dislodge them from a shelf? It sounds as if she was wearing them—unless you rephrase: ‘A spare set of my work clothes fall from a shelf to the floor…’ Is the storeroom only for her, or is other people’s stuff in there as well? Also, it seems odd to have the back door open directly into a storeroom that requires a security code for entry.]
There’s only one thing my older brother would search for in my shop: The Blacksteel, as he calls it. [There’s security—but this is only her shop, and not a larger complex of blacksmiths and artisans? Is the security for her alone?] A handwritten book that has all of the instructions blacksmiths. [All of the instructions blacksmiths …. what? Is her older brother not a blacksmith? If this book is so important, why would it just be in the storeroom—wouldn’t it be locked up or hidden somewhere safe?]
I lean against the door frame, intentionally quiet [comma] and watch him. [How did he not hear her coming when the door swung open? And how did he get in from the outside—I assume there’s a security code on that end as well?]
The boy’s got some nerve. [He’s a boy—but he’s her older brother? How old is she? In addition, in your query letter, you say she’s forging a replica of the sword to avenge her brother’s murder—but here he stands … unless it’s a different brother that was killed?]
Notes: I’m intrigued by the premise and think this story has potential! Clarify whether this is YA or adult fantasy—how old is your protagonist? Also, I’m unclear on some of the world-building and conflict/stakes. There’s a lot going on in your query letter … make sure that all of the elements of your story blend together in a way that makes sense and doesn’t confuse the reader. I look forward to seeing where you take this.