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Day 8 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Query and First Page Workshop with mentors Kip Wilson, Amanda Rawson Hill, and Cindy Baldwin

Thursday, 18 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 Mentor Kip Wilson …

kip_avatarTwitter  |  Website

Kip is a YA writer represented by Roseanne Wells at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. She has a Ph.D. in German Literature and is the Poetry Editor at YARN. Her work has been published in the TIMELESS and SPAIN FROM A BACKPACK anthologies as well as BLACK FOX LITERARY, COBBLESTONE, and FACES magazines. Her work has won several awards, including the 2017 PEN New England Discovery Award. You can find her on twitter and on her website.


Kip’s Query  Critique . . .


GENRE: Fantasy

A millennium ago, Meridian Island, sank underground. Everyone blames its last ruler, the nefarious [This is a tricky word for a POV character because it seems like a judgment from others. However! If she is in fact proudly nefarious, that is unexpected and super-interesting, so you could definitely quantify it by adding ‘proudly’ to show that aspect of her personality.] Prime Princess [It would be helpful for us to know both her name and age as a POV character in a YA novel] – after all, she did commit parricide. Little do they know, the princess was avenging her husband’s brutal murder. Everyone suspects she was associated with the Void (an entity who seeks the five elements to destroy humanity). [There is a lot going on here—parricide, husband’s murder, the Void—and I’m struggling to see how they’re all related. You might want to consider dropping one of these elements from the query to focus it more.] Little do they know how much she sacrificed to protect humanity from the Void. With her kingdom, her true story’s lost, and her fate unknown.

[I like how this query is structured into the two millennia and what happens in each. Another option that could work with a dual POV novel is a brief introduction to each POV character and then a third paragraph that brings them together. In either case, in the princess’s paragraph, I’d recommend focusing on her, her conflict, and her stakes rather than on the situation of the world and the opinion of others in the kingdom of her, which all reads more like backstory. I’m going to give you a terrible example because I don’t know the details of the story, but I’m hoping it will help show what I mean: “A millennium ago, XX-year-old Prime Princess XYZ (placeholder for her name) is the misunderstood ruler of Meridian Island. Everyone thinks she’s nefarious—after all, she did commit parricide—but it was the only way she could avenge her husband’s murder. When she discovers a plot by members of the Void to harness the power of the five elements to destroy her people, XYZ is determined to thwart them, but time is running out. She must find a way to keep her beloved Meridian Island from sinking underground before the Void sweeps it—and her—away.”]

A millennium later, Quince Shakran, [Again, I want to know his age here.] a day laborer, [This might be a good place to give us a Bronze Age detail.] who is blamed for his brother’s impending death [“Impending death” made me think he was on Death Row. “Fatal illness” instead, perhaps?] Only the High Priest of the Autumn Plateau can heal his brother, but the priest only obeys the Plateau’s king. To win the king’s favor, Quince accepts the scholarship to the Plateau he was offered instead of his brother. However, his relationship with an enigmatic royal prisoner jeopardizes his goals, and thrusts him into the hibernated battle against the Void the Prime Princess had incited a millennium ago. [This part here might be something to reorganize into a third paragraph if you want to go that route.] With the existence of humanity at stake, [This is a bit vague—how does this matter to him specifically? It might help to tie the stakes in to his brother.] Quince must join the battle alongside the royal prisoner over the guardianship of the elements.

[Overall, I’d say Quince’s paragraph is more successful at showing us who he is, what matters to him, and what’s at stake. But you can probably take it a step further and make it even more personal. Again, a terrible example, but something that might give you an idea: “A millennium later, XX-year-old Quince Shakran slogs through his days in the copper mine, but when his brother contracts a fatal illness, Quince is determined to save him. The High Priest of the Autumn Plateau can heal him, but he’ll only do so with the Plateau’s king’s authorization. To attempt to win the king’s favor, Quince accepts his brother’s scholarship to the Plateau, where an enigmatic royal prisoner thrusts him into the hibernated battle against the Void. Quince must not only find a way to save his brother, but the Plateau itself—including the Prime Princess.” (I’m not at all sure if that last bit is true, but it would be good to find a way to tie the two stories together.)]

Inspired by Bronze Age civilizations [This really adds to the appeal of the query, so it would be great if you could find a way to add a detail or two to show this in the above paragraphs—I gave you one example, but I’m sure you can come up with something better.], A SERENADE FOR THE BRIGHT NIGHT is a YA fantasy complete at 120,000 words. [This is on the long side, even for fantasy. See Jennifer Laughran’s Word Count Dracula here, where she recommends not exceeding 100K for a debut: http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2011/05/wordcount-dracula.html] Written in dual POVs from Quince and the Prime Princess [I wasn’t sure until this point that the ms is dual POV], it’ll appeal to fans of AN EMBER IN THE ASHES and AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER.

[A SERENADE FOR THE BRIGHT NIGHT sounds like a compelling story with passionate characters who have plenty at stake. With some tweaking, I’m sure you can bring out what makes each character unique as well as the conflict that drives their stories here in the query. Best of luck making this shiny and finding it a wonderful home!]


Next up we have …

Pitch Wars Mentors Amanda Rawson Hill and Cindy Baldwin …

cindy baldwinWebsite | Twitter

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is now gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book.

Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin . . .

Add it to Goodreads

HarperCollins has acquired Where the Watermelons Grow, a debut by Cindy Baldwin. In this middle-grade novel, 12-year-old Della will do anything to cure her mother’s schizophrenia and keep her family together – even if it means asking for help from the eccentric Bee Lady, and making up from her worst-ever fight with her best friend. Publication is slated for summer 2018.


amanda rawson hillWebsite | Twitter

Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in Southwest Wyoming with a library right outside her back gate (which accounts a lot for how she turned out.) After graduating high school, she attended Brigham Young University where she recieved both her MRS degree and her bachelors degree in chemistry. Today, Amanda lives in the central valley of California with her husband and three children. She loves to homeschool, garden, knit, play the piano, sing, and embarrass her family when she dances.


Amanda and Cindy’s First Page Critique . . .

AGE CATEGORY: Middle grade

GENRE: Historical Fiction

Amanda’s comments | Cindy’s comments

It took me only a moment to love the darkness when we arrived to Sepúlveda. [I love the beginning of this sentence, especially as a first sentence, but the last part doesn’t flow right to me. I would begin with “It took me only a moment to love the darkness.” And then tack on the part about arriving to Sepulveda to the beginning of the next sentence.] [Yes, agreed! This opening is so arresting.] I felt invisible as we crossed town with our suitcases, almost like bandits. In the dark we stood by Tío Carlos’s door on a patio lit only by stars. [Love this detail.] At least the stars made the night friendlier and our move to Spain a little less scary. [Your sentences are starting to feel like they all have the same rhythm. I wonder if you could combine elements of these last two sentences to switch that up a little. “In the dark, we stood by Tio Carlos’ door on a patio lit only by stars, making the night feel friendlier and our move to Spain a little less scary.”]

The thick wooden door opened with a long creak, and a dark silhouette appeared inside.

“Finally,” he said and ushered us in. I barely recognized the great uncle I’d seen in pictures, only a beret on his head seemed familiar. [The comma between “pictures” and “only” needs to be replaced with a dash, a semicolon, or a period—each carries a slightly different feel.] Maybe with a proper light I’d have seen him better, but with [only] a candle lit on a kitchen table, all I could see were the long moving shadows it created. [Very nice atmosphere you’ve created here. Way to go!]

“It’s so nice to finally meet you, Uncle,” Mom said, with her best Spanish accent. “These are Jacob and Ella.” [The flow in this is a bit off—I might say “This is Jacob, and this is Ella,” instead.)

“Yaco and Ella.” He repeated with a thick accent as if making sure he’d remember. I bet Mom was expecting something other than that, like a hug maybe? But instead he pointed to a plate of cheese and chorizo on the table. [Ha! The details in this paragraph—cheese and chorizo and an accent instead of a hug—are terrific and give me great insight into Tío Carlos’s character.]

“In case you’re hungry,” he mumbled. Then he took another candle from a drawer and guided us upstairs. [Do they say they’re not hungry? Why does he offer food then lead them away so quickly?]

“There is no power?” [This phrasing trips me up just a bit. Without knowing anything about this story, I’m having a hard time placing where Jacob and Ella are from; are they from a different part of Spain? From Mexico? From the US? From somewhere else entirely? If they’re from the US (as is indicated later), “There is no power?” is really formal phrasing for a young girl; American tweens and teens typically speak with lots of contractions.] Ella asked, with a hit of complaint in her voice. [You should denote earlier that the narrator is Jacob. Reading without a query or any information, I assumed Ella when the mom introduced them, and so this made me stop. Perhaps Jacob can be introduced first so we know that is who the narrator is?]

Tío turned to her slowly. “Electricity is expensive.”

Gee. [This sentence will be stronger without the ‘Gee.’] Where did Mom move us? If that was a hint of our future life, I hated it already. An hour later and three feet [I’m a bit confused here—who is three feet from Jacob’s bed? Also, the lumping together of “an hour later AND three feet from my bed” makes it sound like the thing/person in question is both an hour later and three feet away, which is somewhat confusing.] from my bed, his [I’d specify, ‘My Uncle’ here.] snores kept me awake in the dark. Mom should have told me I’d share a room with him. [I’d love to see more of the transitioning here, and more of the details. The sensory details that you provided in the beginning of the chapter were so vivid—I’d like to see a little bit of what the house and the bedroom are like. And rather than hearing Jacob’s frustration at rooming with Tío Carlos in retrospect, I’d love to see his shock at discovering this shown on the page.] I closed my eyes and pretended to be in my old bed in Atlanta. Ha. I tried again and pretended to feel welcome in that place. [pretended to feel welcome doesn’t feel as strong as I think this can be for emotional impact. Perhaps something more like, ‘pretended to feel at home’ or ‘pretended to be okay with this change.’ Something like that.]

I was never good at pretending. [Nice kick in the gut!]

The next morning, Tío Carlos left for a walk at the crack of dawn. I heard him briefly talking to Mom, and Mom telling me she’d be right back. It all sounded like in a dream. [What state is Jacob in right now: Sleeping? Half-asleep? Trying to get back to sleep? This would be another great place to ground us with some sensory details. How does the morning in Sepúlveda differ from the night?] I checked on Ella when I got up. She’d scattered her stuff on the bed, her suitcase on the floor.

“See, Jacob? It’s not heavy anymore.”

Still in her pajamas, she played with her imaginary friend as if nothing had changed, as if we hadn’t moved four thousand miles overnight, across an ocean and six time zones. [I’m just realizing now that Ella is much younger than I’d thought—I’d assumed that she and Jacob were both in the 10-13 range. I think I’d specify their rough ages earlier; if you don’t want to spell it out with a phrase like “my little sister, Ella,” you could show it by having Ella act in a more childish manner—holding on to Jacob’s or their mom’s hand, rubbing at her eyes sleepily, etc.] “Mateo is hungry and wants breakfast.” She tugged at my shirt in her demanding way.

“Mateo? I thought her name was—

“This is a new friend and his name is Mateo,” she cut me in. “He says there’re sugar cookies in the pantry.” [I love this. This is just delightful!]
Please. “Really? Go get them and bring me one.” I wished I had Mom’s patience with Ella’s imaginary friends. I sat on the bed and rested my back against the iron bars of the headboard. [This scene with Ella is very good. Nice details and lots of intrigue. I wish I could keep reading!] [Agreed! This opener did a great job of pulling me into the story. It seems like such a unique setting and storyline, too!]


Thank you, Kip, Amanda, and Cindy 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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