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 Mentor Carrie Allen …
Carrie S. Allen writes contemporary YA fiction where girls smash the sports patriarchy. Her debut, MICHIGAN VS. THE BOYS, was included on the YALSA Best Fiction of 2020 list, but received harsh criticism from her nine-year-old daughter for not including unicorns. Carrie is retired from sports medicine, and extra-tired from chasing around two kids and a T.Rex masquerading as a puppy. Hobbies include books, dogs, dessert, and anything outdoors on a gorgeous Colorado day. This is her third year mentoring, aka kicking butt on Team Girl Power with the other half of her writer’s brain, Sabrina Lotfi.
Carrie’s critique . . .
Category: Young Adult Fantasy
Thank you so much for providing this opportunity for upcoming writers. I think you might enjoy my 90.000 word YA contemporary fantasy novel, TITLE.
When 17-year-old Oscar suddenly starts transforming [look for passive words like “starts” and strengthen those phrases; “starts transforming” becomes “transforms”] into a mouse at random, all he wants is for things to go back to normal. [This is a big event– really use it to hook the reader, get us closer to the action and the feels and the stakes. When/where/how does this happen? How does he react to this sudden event—does his world normally contain magic, which would make this slightly less shocking? And we can assume he wants to get back to normal—but get us closer to the stakes. WHY does he want his normal life back? What does he want to return to?] His search for answers leads him straight into Berlin´s magical underworld, where he gets caught up in the heist of a legendary artifact that could start a war. [We don’t need to know this yet. It’s confusing to read this and find out in the next sentence that he hasn’t made this connection yet or set on this journey yet.]
Hiding out in an abandoned building, [This is a long query, so delete information that the reader doesn’t need. We don’t need to know he was hiding in an abandoned building, we just need to know what he discovers.] Oscar soon discovers there´s more to the city´s numerous night clubs than first meets the eye. Closely guarded by the so-called gate keepers [If this is actually what they’re called, you don’t need “so-called”], many of them [Clarify: the clubs act as portals, not the gate-keepers] act as secret portals into the magical realm.
Outside of these clubs, magic cannot exist in the human world – yet Oscar can change into a mouse anywhere. When his unique ability is discovered by one of the gate keepers, Oscar is offered a job – [Why is he offered this job? Why does he take it?] help steal the witch bone, a magical artifact of legendary powers.
Together with a group of other magically gifted thieves, [I was not aware that Oscar is a thief. I wouldn’t mind a brief mention of Oscar Before Mouse at the beginning of your query.] most notably the bold and enigmatic Fia, Oscar prepares for the heist of a lifetime. [The biggest hooks to me for this book are:
1. Heist: The reader doesn’t know this is a heist until now. I assumed the artifact had been lost to history, which would make it more of a quest. If this is indeed a heist, I would like to know what/who they’re stealing from. The “who” is important here, as we lack a true antagonist.
2. Teammates/friends/allies: Hook us with this crew. Give us a direction to go with the Fia ship. She’s bold and enigmatic, but what really makes Oscar try to find her—have they become friends? Is he falling for her? Is he simply a morally good human-mouse?] But it all goes horribly wrong, and Oscar is left with the gate keeper murdered, [This is a detail that the reader doesn’t need in the query. Keep it streamlined—the goal is obtaining the witch bone; the stakes are that a teammate is missing.] while Fia and the witch bone are missing.
Distrustful of the new gate keeper, and resolved to clear Fia´s name, Oscar discovers a conspiracy to use the witch bone for a magic-based invasion on the human world. If he wants to find Fia and the witch bone in time to prevent war, Oscar must let his mouse side take over and go on a mad [“mad” could be replaced with an adjective that reflects the tone of your book: is this a dangerous hunt, or a wild chase or a fun romp? Is your book dark and serious, or fun-heist?]
hunt all over Berlin – at the risk of losing his humanity forever. [This is a good illustration of my most common query feedback: Query real estate is expensive! You can condense these two long sentences into one shorter one. We don’t need to know anything of the new gatekeeper (I’m still not entirely sure of the role of the previous one and I don’t need to know it in the query.) We don’t need to know that he’s both trying to find Fia and clear her name. We also learn about the goal to use the bone against humans, and that Oscar must prevent war. Merge these concepts into the very essence of your book. Oscar’s goal… his obstacle…his stakes.]
TITLE is the first volume of a two-part series. I believe it will appeal to fans of Leigh Bardugo´s Six of Crows, or Cassandra Clare´s City of Bones. [This query could be for any age category, from chapter book through adult fic. Other than the character’s age, what makes this YA? What YA themes are present? Bring those out in this query. Distinguish it from sounding young, especially.] I studied North American Studies with a focus on literature at the John F. Kennedy–Institute in Berlin and Nottingham University. I´ve also lived in Berlin for ten years, [I like knowing this, and knowing that we’ll be exploring the city of Berlin, a unique setting for YA, with someone who knows it well.] experiencing the city´s many facets first-hand.
Thank you so much for your consideration,
[This formatting is very difficult to read, which takes the reader out of your story. The more focus it takes to read your formatting, the less enjoyable it is for your reader. You also lose much of your voice and emphasis without those natural pauses and breaks. (Also, your future mentors may be old fogeys. Be kind to their eyes!) Double spacing, paragraph breaks, indentation for new paragraphs, and proper line formatting for dialogue.]
Rule number one for sneaking out of your room at night: Patience. Go too early, they´ll hear your footsteps above the living room. Go too late, they´ll hear you scrambling out the bathroom window. At seventeen, Oscar had mastered the art of sneaking out of the house without his parents knowing a thing. It was all about timing. He waited patiently until the lights in the living room downstairs went out, and then a little longer, just to be on the safe side. Tiptoe down the hallway into the dark bathroom, open the window oh so slowly, and climb out onto the windowsill. [The POV and tense changes throughout this excerpt, and while a fun concept, it can be jarring and be difficult for the reader to orient themselves to character and voice. Formatting will also help here, letting the reader know if we’re in Oscar’s head, or if the narrator is speaking to him.] Don´t knock down the little vase with the plastic flowers. Then for the difficult part, the one that had taken him the longest to master: Very quietly lowering himself out the window, until the only thing separating him from a painful landing in the rosebushes was a firm grip on the windowsill. Then a quick and powerful push with both feet, putting him on a trajectory away from the house, and finally, an elegant landing on the lawn next to the roses. OK, so it wasn´t elegant. [This is another example. Above, the narrator/Oscar’s head are in present tense, second person. This is past tense. Separate which lines belong to which character, format them correctly, and stay consistent with POV/tense.] But no one was looking, and that was kind of the point. For a moment, Oscar crouched on the lawn behind the house and waited. When he was sure his escape had gone unnoticed, he quickly made his way to the back of the garden, climbed over the wooden fence, and just like that, he was in the clear. He breathed in the sweet, fresh night air, felt the lingering warmth from a hot summer´s day. The perfect night to get extremely drunk and do something stupid. [This is a good opportunity to give us more about this character. He himself admits he wants to do something stupid—is this a regular occurrence for him? Stupid—how? Dangerous? Silly? Pranks? Give him a very specific goal.] Oscar followed a small footpath away from the house. The party was on the beach next to a small lake, a favorite hangout for generations of local teenagers. It was really more of a large pond and a glorified sandbank, but conveniently located within walking distance from town, while still secluded enough to provide some privacy for underage-drinking. Moving quickly and surefooted through the semi-darkness, it took Oscar less than ten minutes to reach the edge of the fields. A sea of rye spread out before him, the almost waist-high stalks rustling in the soft night breeze. The lake was right ahead, just behind the next hill. The dryed out soil crunched beneath his sneakers as Oscar entered the field. He could still see the stars in the clear night sky, but as he progressed further, it unexpectedly got colder, almost chilly. Oscar wished he´d thought of wearing something warmer than a t-shirt, but turning around now was out of the question. Suddenly, a thin, pale man stepped out of the darkness right in front of him. Oscar nearly jumped out of his skin. Who the hell was this? [This is a strong reaction and the reader has no context for it. Why is he angry/unfriendly toward another person out walking? This is the first the reader has seen Oscar interact with another human, which will help us determine his character. Also, this is another spot where Oscar’s thought-reaction is past-tense.]The man had a worn down, emaciated look about him. His skin looked unnaturally white, almost grey. He seemed equally startled, and, for a moment, they simply stared at each other. The strange, pale man recovered first. In a surprisingly deep, raspy voice he said: “Abaron.” He looked at Oscar expectantly. Only Oscar had not the slightest hint of an idea how to respond. [The most likely reaction for someone who doesn’t understand would be some form of “come again?” or “sorry, I missed that.” Unless he thinks Abaron is a name, in which case his response would be “you’ve got the wrong guy.” We are still getting to know your character and your world—is it common for strangers to address people in other languages? Or is this a word he should know?] “Umm.” The man stepped closer. His nostrils flared. It took Oscar a conscious effort not to take a step back. “Abaron,” the stranger repeated. This time it sounded impatient. With a lot more bravado than he felt, Oscar shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry, I don´t know what that means.” His voice felt unnaturally loud in the quiet night air. “Are you lost?” he added. It was the wrong thing to say. Something about the man´s demeanor changed. It was very subtle. But with sudden and absolute certainty Oscar knew the pale man was going to kill him. [This is a bold statement. How does Oscar know this? Choosing a stronger word in place of “something” would help. The reader needs to SEE the subtle change in the man’s demeanor.] He felt himself become very still inside. Real and icy terror swept through him. [These two sentences are contradictory: icy terror sweeping through him is not becoming still inside. Get very deep in your character’s head here: this strange man on the road has given him a bad vibe. What reaction would this evoke in Oscar?] For the length of a breath both Oscar and the pale stranger stood motionless. Then, without any warning, [We do have warning—Oscar feels that the man is about to attack him; he is expecting it. You can delete that without losing anything.] the man lunged forward, turning into a wolf in mid-air. It couldn´t have been more than a split-second, but Oscar saw the man explode into an enormous, white wolf like in slow motion. [Here are two descriptions of the same action: “turning into a wolf in mid-air” and “explode into an enormous white wolf”. Use the strongest description and only explain the action once.] His mind couldn´t comprehend what he was seeing, the impossibility of it. Maybe I fell out the bathroom window and hit my head, Oscar thought. Maybe I´m dreaming this. [Inner monologue above was not formatted this way. Really differentiate what is said by the narrator and what is thought by Oscar. Keep those separate, consistent in their own voices and tenses, and formatted to fiction standards.] Strangely, while his mind was frozen in shock, [There are four references to stillness in these short few lines: “still inside” “stood motionless” “frozen in shock” “slow motion” This is an action-filled scene! Keep it moving forward quickly!] Oscar´s body seemed unaffected. As if watching from a distance, he felt himself dodging the attack, throwing his body to the side.
Then he was hurtling towards the ground. The world expanded around him, or maybe he was shrinking. Impossibly, he landed on all fours. This is it, [Does he mean “This is it—I can make it out!” or “This is it—I’m going to die.”] Oscar thought. And then: I don´t want to die. And with that thought, Oscar started running, running as fast as he could, faster than he had ever ran before. He bolted forward on all fours, darting over the dry, hard soil, weaving between huge stalks of rye. Nothing made sense anymore. He didn´t care. [Oscar’s inner monologue before and after this dive into his head tells us that he is not currently analyzing whether events make sense. He’s repeating “I don’t want to die.” If you set up the scene to let us know this event is terrifying and out of the ordinary, you won’t need to tell us this.] Without looking, he knew the giant wolf was right behind him. He could feel the vibration of its paws thundering on the ground right behind him. [If you switch these two sentences, the reader can first hear the paws, and then deduce that the wolf is right behind him. Let us feel the paws thundering first, before telling us what is happening. If you tell us first, we miss that visceral reaction to paws thundering.] I don´t want to die, I don´t want to die. Oscar zigzaged desperately through the field, jumping and running in turn, his heart hammering, every breath burning in his lungs. Suddenly he heard music, people. He could smell smoke. The party! [More introduction to the character and the world before or during this scene would be helpful. Your query mentions Berlin, but we seem to be in a countryside here, so grounding the reader in setting would also be helpful—if you mention the German countryside, we immediately have some context from which to imagine your world from.]