Welcome to our Mini Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2018 mentors. From a lottery drawing, we selected writers to receive a query or first page critique from one of our mentors. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a query or first page from our lucky winners. We’ll be posting some of the critiques leading up to the submission window. Our hope is that these samples will help you all get an idea on how to shine up your query and first page.
We appreciate our mentors for giving 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 Layne Fargo …
Layne Fargo has Master’s degrees in theater and library science, which seem slightly less useless now that she writes very dramatic books. A proud Class of 2017 Pitch Wars alum, she’s repped by Sharon Pelletier at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, and her debut novel TEMPER will be published by Gallery Books in 2019. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.
Layne’s First Page Critique . . .
Adult Women’s Fiction/Suspense
8 DECEMBER 2018
What makes people fall in love? Truly in love? What makes them stop and say, ‘I found the one. My soulmate. I’ve never been more certain of anything’?
And what is it that makes us feel so certain, what draws us in and never lets us go? Is it their eyes, their smile, their voice? The way they fit into our world? Is it because our parents like them and our friends think we’d make a great couple? Or maybe they are kind, make us laugh, and share our taste in books and music?
What if it has nothing to do with that? What if it is something else entirely? If you want to open your novel with a question, that’s fine, but I don’t think you need this whole list—just “What makes people fall in love?”, and then jump right into the next paragraph, where we meet your main character. The questions are perhaps interesting philosophically, but they don’t pull me in and make me want to read more, since I don’t have any idea who’s speaking or why they’re wondering about these things.
I was fifteen the first time I asked myself this question. It was then that I had my first dream that didn’t feel quite like a dream. My mother said women in our family are special. Our dreams are special. They are part of the connection. She said I should listen to my dreams, but I was young, and I didn’t believe her. Or maybe I didn’t understand. This part is a little vague, but I am intrigued! If this were the opening paragraph I would definitely read on, because I want to know more about these dreams and what “the connection” means.
I am eighty years old now. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I might have one though. The most important one. But I’ve lived through enough to know people don’t believe you until you show them. And they shouldn’t. They should make up their own mind, they should listen to their own heart. And follow their own dreams. I really like the mysteriousness of this opening page, but it’s all very abstract and doesn’t tell me much about the main character or the world of the novel. I know she’s an eighty year-old woman with some sort of psychic(?) abilities, but there’s no sense of where we are in place or time, so it’s tough to get my bearings. Obviously you don’t want to bog the reader down with details on the first page, but anything concrete you can incorporate to ground us in the scene and/or the POV character’s head will really help this opening shine.
Thank you, Layne, for your critique!
Next up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentor Rajani LaRocca …
Rajani LaRocca writes middle grade novels and picture books. She’s also a practicing internal medicine doctor. A proud member of the Pitch Wars 2017 mentee class, she is represented by Brent Taylor of Triada US. Her debut middle grade, MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, a foodie Indian-American story inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the hours she’s spent watching TV baking competitions, will be published by Yellow Jacket/Bonnier USA in summer 2019.
Rajani lives in the Boston area with her wonderful husband, two brilliant kids, and an impossibly cute dog.
She is co-mentoring in Middle Grade with Remy Lai.
Rajani’s Query Critique . . .
Dear (Agent Name),
Four years ago, the arrival of an old family heirloom sent Camilla Waters’ grandfather to the hospital and her into the foster system. Now all eleven-year-old Cam wants is a normal home life. That is, until she meets the mysterious poisonous plant aficionado Mr. Smith across the street who just happens to know all about her and her real family. While trying to sneak into Mr. Smith’s house to learn more, Cam unwittingly opens a rift in time, launching her into a medieval realm where Cam finds out not only does magic exist, but also a ring with the power to cure her grandfather and fulfill her most desired wish.
The first line is great! But “normal home life” is vague. Can you be more specific? Does she wish her grandfather were well enough for her to live with him again? And oh, boy! A rift in time to a medieval realm with magic! I love the idea of a ring of power that can cure her grandfather. Don’t know if you need “fulfill her most desired wish” if you explain what that is above.
But the magical world Cam has entered is no fairytale. Magic is outlawed and anyone found possessing hints of the gift is put to the death. In order to survive, Cam must fight her way through bandits, man-eating trees, and a queen with a thirst for power that threatens the stability of all the known realms. As new friends go missing and Cam herself becomes an outlaw, Cam discovers she may just be the only one who can keep this new world from plunging into darkness. The Door of Shadows is about to be opened, and with it the reign of the Shadow Lord will begin again. As this ancient force reawakens, Cam must choose between curing her grandfather or saving her new friends before all is destroyed.
Again, great first line. Great second line, too, although I want to know how it applies to Cam. What hints of magical ability does she show? Then there is some vagueness again — not sure how the queen threatens the stability of all known realms. Who are the “new friends?” Name one or two so we care about their being saved. What is the link between the power-hungry queen and the Shadow Lord? Otherwise this seems to come out of nowhere. I like the choice at the end; some specifics about the new friends might make it more compelling. “All is destroyed” is a little vague and cliché.
THE DOOR OF SHADOWS (90,000 words) is the first in a series following the tale of Camilla Waters, the next incarnation of the Shadow Lord foretold to bring the apocalypse. Set within both our world and a realm of knights and dragons, THE SEVEN SEALS is a series of both sword and gun-slinging faeries that questions the origins of our most pervasive myths. Alice in Wonderland meets the Hobbit, the first book will appeal to fans of Garth Nix’s The Seventh Tower and Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s The Spiderwick Chronicles alike. A dark fantasy with both urban and high qualities, it is aimed at an upper middle grade audience or adults still young at heart.
90K is on the long end for MG fantasy, but not a deal breaker. It’s cool to call it “a stand-alone with series potential,” but be wary of talking about the whole series in your query—just talk about this book. I’m not so sure about using Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit as comps since they are such classics. But I like your other two comps. I might leave “or adults…” out of this section, too.
I have a BA in Psychology and Art History from the University of Maryland College Park and will soon be starting my MA in the History of Art at the University College London to study monster symbolism and folklore in art and literature. My adult psychoanalytic novella [removed for mentee hopeful’s privacy], and has catapulted me into the realm of horror and dark fantasy writing. THE DOOR OF SHADOWS is my first novel and uses my background in myth and lore to thrust the apocalypse into the postmodern era.
Great bio! Truly fascinating!
Thank you in advance for your time and consideration!
Overall this is a strong query that could be made even stronger with more specificity. Great job — I hope my comments help.
Thank you, Rajani, for your critique!
Interested in more critiques? We’ll be posting them until the Pitch Wars submission window opens on August 27. Hope you’ll come back and read some more.