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.
Next up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentor Isabel Ibañez Davis
Isabel studied Creative Writing and History at UCF, finished in 2006 and thought that was the end of pencils, books and teacher’s dirty looks. Not so. She rejoined the academic world some five years later and picked up graphic design in order to become a children’s book writer + illustrator. Except somewhere in the beginning of her scholastic pursuit, she bumped into the letterpress world and hasn’t left yet. Now she gets to come up with cute + charming greeting cards, wedding invitation suites and many other things she’s been secretly dreaming about. All of this has been a sweet surprise and she’s loved every minute of it. She’s thankful to be lucky enough to do what she loves—writing books and designing greeting cards. If you’d like to learn a little bit more about her company, 9th Letter Press, visit here.
Isabel’s Query Critique…
“Where are you from?” It’s the one question Katja Wickham dreads answering [this might be a personal preference but in general, starting off with a question reads weaker. Your first sentence should hook the agent and compel them to keep reading. I’d try an active, succinct sentence: Katja Wickham didn’t have a place to call home.] Moving to a different country every two years with her archaeologist father has left her no place to call home [Your sentences, though informative, run long. In a query, shorter, punchier sentences stand out. I’d rework the sentence so it reads more evocative/active. Like: Every two years, she packs her bags and follows her archaeologist dad around the globe.]She’s bilingual and well-travelled [I LOVE the bilingual aspect, and because it’s so cool, try and have fun here! Show that she’s bilingual in her own voice. Maybe something like: She wants to belong somewhere but the students at the elite school in Mexico make it clear she doesn’t fit in faster than she can say piñata.] but still feels like an outsider at her elite international school in Mexico. While [repeat word] trying to fit in on her senior class trip to Aztec ruins, Katja experiences fleeting glimpses of an ancient village. Her preoccupation with the visions results in a car accident. While [repeat word] unconscious, Katja is immersed in the ancient Aztec city. [The last few sentences do a fair amount of telling. It’s a super interesting concept but gets buried with the extra words and clunky sentence structure. I’d tighten these up, and strive for shorter sentences that show the character’s voice. Something like: A trip to the Aztec ruins with her senior class lands her in ICU, and in her unconscious state she’s immersed in the ancient city.
As a side note, your first paragraph should accomplish three things: the name and age of your character, what she WANTS, and what stands in her way. Following this format will create natural tension and conflict. Both will keep the agent reading. So far, the paragraph tells us what happens—not what Katja wants (though I think it’s inferred). State it clearly and pull in the opposition.
[New paragraph here.]
When she awakens [When she wakes], Katja becomes obsessed with her dream [I’d rework this: But when she wakes, all she can think about is going back into her dream. Her days blur together as she spends more and more of her time in the Aztec world]. She skips school to sleep, spending increased hours in the Aztec world. The longer she stays, the more she’s convinced that it’s real—and that her modern life is the dream [This is a harrowing turn of events! Rework to really highlight the tension. Use voice-y, short sentences]. But when eerie parallels between the two worlds predict danger for her friends on both sides of her consciousness, she awakens to the possibility [If one word works, use that instead. For example: She realizes both worlds might be real] that both worlds are real. [This last sentence reads a bit clunky, but also, are there no other characters in this story? Who is the antagonist? This paragraph should introduce at least one other character. Is there a love interest? That would also go here! Below you have two more characters, I’d bring that up to this paragraph. Introduce both as either the “modern friend” or the “ancient friend”.]
Katja can prevent her modern friend [take out modern friend and insert name] from incurring a fatal head injury in a fútbol match or save her ancient friend [take out ancient friend and insert name] from becoming the sacrificial victim in an Aztec ball game—but she can’t be in two places at once. Torn between worlds, she must sacrifice herself—in all her realities—to save her friends and find her true home. If she chooses wrong, she’ll eliminate her very [cut very] existence and risk the loss of a civilization untouched by the conquest. [work in the details from below: …untouched by Cortez’s conquest.]
The story unfolds in alternating timelines between the volatile social and political atmosphere of the 1994 Mexican presidential election and the cusp of Cortez’s arrival in Veracruz in 1519 [This information is super interesting but it doesn’t belong in this paragraph. Work it into your actual query. Example: A trip to the Aztec ruins with her senior class lands her in ICU, and in her unconscious state she’s catapulted to the ancient city in 1519. This last paragraph is strictly for details of your MS.] Complete at 80,000 words [Agents know the already know the story is complete or you wouldn’t be querying 🙂 . Never waste words in a query!], NIGHT SWIMMING is a YA magical realism novel similar in concept to Lindsay Smith’s A DARKLY BEATING HEART, but [replace with and] will appeal to fans of Maggie Stiefvater’s THE RAVEN CYCLE.
I’m a graduate of Brigham Young University and a third culture kid. Although I’m a US citizen, I grew up in Mexico, Guatemala, Spain, and Bolivia. I am a member of SCBWI and active in a critique group. [Agents really only like to read pertinent information in this paragraph. Unless you majored in writing, etc., I’d take out where you graduated from as it’s not necessary. Agents don’t need to know if you’re active in a critique group, nor that you’re a member of SCBWI. All they want to know is if there’s anything that makes you that special person to tell this story. “Growing up in Mexico, Guatemala, Spain, and Bolivia” does that. Agents read up to 300 queries a day. Every word in your query letter needs to count, inform and hook the agent reading.]
First—you grew up in BOLIVIA? That’s awesome. My parents, and the rest of my family are from there. 🙂 You have a really interesting premise! I love the Spanish, the incredible historical backdrop and the tension between dueling realities.
The first thing I’d do is look at how a query is broken down. That will help figuring out what goes where.
It should read like:
First paragraph: introduce name and age of main character, along with their BIG desire and what stands in their way. It should also set up the world. This is where you’d mention that it’s 1994 in Mexico.
Second paragraph: This is where you highlight an event that launches your MC into their journey. It’s the event that kickstarts everything else. It’s a chance to show the brewing conflict in the story.
Third Paragraph: This should be all about the STAKES. The higher the stakes, the higher your tension. If the worst happens, what does your MC stand to lose? Make sure to spell it out here—it will make the agent care about your MC.
Fourth paragraph: Usually called the housekeeping paragraph, this section is strictly about your book, whether it’s a standalone or has series potential, etc.
I hope this has been helpful! Remember to use shorter, punchier sentences that highlight your character’s voice. 🙂
Next up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentor Ashley Martin
When all the other kids still wanted to be zookeepers and astronauts, Ashley dreamed of being a writer. (Okay, so she had her days of wanting to be a zookeeper/veterinarian/any job involving animals, but books were always her best friends.) When she’s not engrossed in the world of her next middle grade novel, you’ll find her drinking copious amounts of tea while hanging out with her husband, two kids, and their aggressively affectionate cats.
Ashley’s First Page Critique…
The last normal thing Jaz did for a long time was lose to Mr. Thompson in a game of chess. [Good first line. I’m intrigued!]
At twelve years of age, Jackson Alexander “Jaz” Zane had yet to best the man who had introduced him to the game. He [I would go with “Jaz” instead of “He” here, so the subject of this sentence is clear, since you reference both Jaz and Mr. Thompson in the previous sentence.] was fascinated by it, appreciating the stealth and strategies in much the same way some kids enjoy playing Army. Each chess match offered a type of adventure where he deciphered clues and solved mysteries. [I love the idea of chess being adventurous! But a slight reword would make this even stronger: “Each chess match took him on an adventure, with clues to decipher and mysteries to solve.”]
A total contrast to his own predictable life.
Jaz moved his bishop then watched helplessly as his elderly opponent moved [Different verb here will be stronger and less repetitive: dropped/planted/placed.] his queen three spaces away from his [Jaz’s] king. “Check mate.” [Great spot to describe Mr. Thompson in more detail so we can really see him and get a sense of his personality. For example: “The old man smiled slightly, just enough to deepen the wrinkles in his weathered face.”]
[I would also advise tweaking things a bit in order to swap these opening paragraphs around so you’re starting in the action, rather than the explanation. Like so:
The last normal thing Jaz did for a long time was lose to Mr. Thompson in a game of chess.
Jaz moved his bishop, then watched helplessly as his elderly opponent dropped his queen three spaces away from Jaz’s king.
At twelve years of age…
A total contrast to his own predictable life.
At that point, pick up at “Jaz stared at the board…”]
Jaz stared at the board and sighed. “I actually thought I might have a shot that time.”
“Must have been you was distracted thinkin’ ‘bout headin’ off to middle school in a few weeks,” said Mr. Thompson. [Love his voice!] He began putting chess pieces back in their original squares. “It’s a pretty big change and bound to be on your mind some.”
Jaz placed his captured pieces back on the board. [Since Mr. Thompson was just putting things “back,” I would rephrase this to make it tighter and add variety to your sentences: “Jaz returned his captured pieces to the board.”] “I heard in seventh grade there’s double the homework every night, and all the kids ever talk about is hockey.” His nose wrinkled with disapproval. [I feel like this wording keeps me at a distance. “He wrinkled his nose in disapproval” feels closer to Jaz’s POV–he’s making the action happen, rather than it passively happening to him.]
The retired salesman chuckled. “You might want to keep an open mind, Jaz. You never know – it might end up better than you think.”
“Yeah, maybe,” he said, but Jaz didn’t have any particular high hopes. [His lack of hope is expressed in his response, which is already stronger than telling us his hopes are low. I would cut “but Jaz didn’t have any particular high hopes.” This is also a great spot to reinforce this feeling with a physical action. How can you show his lack of hope in his body language? Does he slump? Shrug? Hunch over the board and poke at a pawn?] For as long as he could remember, his life had been the same thing day in and day out, and he had no reason to believe it would ever change. He sighed again as he waved goodbye to Mr. Thompson, [I want to know where Mr. Thompson is going. Where does he live? Is he a neighbor from across the street? And where were they playing? On the lawn? At a picnic table?] then closed the door behind him.
[Right now, there’s not a clear picture of the setting. All we know is that it’s an apartment building from the next paragraph. Some added description would be great! Show us what you see when you’re writing this scene!]
As he climbed the twelve musty-smelling steps to the small apartment he shared with his mom, Jaz wondered for about the zillionth time why they couldn’t live somewhere else. [A tiny change will again pull us even closer to Jaz and tighten things up: “Jaz climbed the twelve musty-smelling steps to the small apartment he shared with his mom and wondered for the zillionth time why they couldn’t live somewhere else.” Also, I love the inclusion of the number of steps–a subtle reinforcement of just how many times he’s climbed those stairs and how repetitive and monotonous his life feels!] He was sure they would be able to afford a bigger place if only his mom would accept one of the many job offers she received as a baker. Maybe even a house of their own. But she always turned them down, and he could never figure out why. [Ooh! A mystery! I am curious though–if she’s turning down baking jobs, what does she do for a living?]
Whenever he complained, his mom told him to stop being a pessimist and to appreciate the things he had. And he tried – he really did. But it was hard to look at the bright side when he didn’t have what everyone else seemed to.
Jaz was a loner – more by circumstance than by choice. There were no other kids nearby to hang out with, he didn’t have the same electronic games other kids his age seemed to have, and his attempts at anything athletic were embarrassing. [Between these two paragraphs and the next, there’s a lot of thinking/telling going on in the time it’s taking him to go up those twelve steps. 🙂 At this point, I’m wanting to see more action and dialogue. Keep up the pace and weave in these details as the story continues. I don’t know where the story goes from here, but if possible, it would be great to see him enter the apartment and interact with his mom, hear her say “Don’t be so pessimistic!” while Jaz rolls his eyes, describe the apartment with sparse furnishings, no gaming system hooked up to the TV, etc. Look for ways to show, rather than tell, as much as possible–especially in your opening pages.]
Besides playing chess with the [typo “the”] Mr. Thompson after school, Jaz’s entertainment – as well as his escape – was reading. By the end of the first paragraph of a book he forgot he wanted to live somewhere else, he forgot he hated his second-hand clothes, and he forgot he didn’t have a dad. [Great emotional ending! This is a chance to tell more about Jaz by describing what he reads (particular genres? everything?). I would also tweak the sentence to cut the “he” at the start of each phrase: “Adventure, mystery, science fiction–it didn’t matter. By the end of the first paragraph, he’d forget he wanted to live somewhere else, forget he hated his second hand clothes, and forget he didn’t have a dad.”]
Overall I think this is a strong opening! I already have reasons to care about Jaz, and after that first line, I want to know what’s in store for him! I think with a little more description of your setting and characters it will really pop. Just remember to show and not tell. This is something I would definitely continue reading!
Thank you, Isabel and Ashley, 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.