Welcome to the Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2021 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 S. 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 ten-year-old for not including unicorns. Carrie is retired from sports medicine, and extra-tired from chasing after two kids and two T.Rexes masquerading as puppies. Hobbies include books, dogs, dessert, and anything outdoors on a gorgeous Colorado day. This is her fourth year mentoring, aka kicking butt on Team Girl Power with the other half of her writer’s brain, Sabrina Lotfi.
Carrie’s recent release, Michigan Vs. the Boys
When a determined girl is confronted with the culture of toxic masculinity, it’s time to even the score. Michigan Manning lives for hockey, and this is her year to shine. That is, until she gets some crushing news: budget cuts will keep the girls’ hockey team off the ice this year. If she wants colleges to notice her, Michigan has to find a way to play. Luckily, there’s still one team left in town …The boys’ team isn’t exactly welcoming, but Michigan’s prepared to prove herself. She plays some of the best hockey of her life, in fact, all while putting up with changing in the broom closet, constant trash talk and “harmless” pranks that always seem to target her. But once hazing crosses the line into assault, Michigan must weigh the consequences of speaking up — even if it means putting her future on the line.
Category: Middle Grade Magical Realism
Dear Pitch Wars Team,
A story of adventure and figuring out the importance of family, TITLE is middle-grade magical realism complete at just over 22,000 words. [My number one piece of advice in any query is to TIGHTEN. You can cut “figuring out” and “just over” without losing anything.]
Harvest Hollow is an idyllic place for garden sprites to grow up and learn all there is to know about living off the land in a close-knit community. [Lots of good information in this first sentence! It is long, but you can condense and clarify. For example, “to grow up and learn” happens simultaneously and it’s assumed that, in middle grade, the characters are growing up. If you put “young” or even intro’d your MC with “for an 11-year-old garden sprite to learn…” you could delete “grow up” and zoom the reader in to your character and world all in the same line.] But eleven-year-old, orphaned, Pumpkin Lou is restless and feeling underappreciated. [Common feels for an 11-year-old, but if Harvest Hollow really is idyllic, then specifically what about it makes Pumpkin Lou restless and underappreciated? I would also suggest changing to “11 yo orphan, Pumpkin Lou,…”] When his over-protective Auntie Maizie gives him a new set of responsibilities that he does not want, he decides it’s time [“it’s time” is a good example of extra words that aren’t pulling any weight. Axe ‘em!] to run away and find the parents who left him six years earlier. [Technically, he’s abandoned, but not an orphan. Also, if they left him, why does he want to find them? This inciting incident is important for both character and world building. Why does Auntie Maizie give him a new set of responsibilities? What is it about them that he doesn’t want? Get more specific with your inciting incident and give your character super strong motivations to leave this idyllic place and search for parents who left him.]
[Somewhere in this first paragraph, I would like to know what a garden sprite is! And, as this is magical realism, are there humans? If so, how does a sprite/sprite’s world relate to humans? (If there are no humans, that’s cool, too! But if there are, introduce their role in the world early on so it’s not jarring later.)]
A series of (mostly) accidental events unfold, starting with Lou and his best friend Tate stealing a squirrel and escaping the Hollow before anyone realizes they are gone. [1. Make this wording super strong! Avoid words like “starting” and keep your verbs active== they STEAL a squirrel! 2. One does not accidentally steal a squirrel (I know this because my dog has been actively trying for years), so when you deep-dive into this sentence, the accidental events don’t actually start with stealing a squirrel. 3. Give these characters agency—when accidental events unfold, it takes the characters out of the action. It all happens TO them and not BECAUSE of them.][Also, this stealing-a-squirrel bit: more description really would help, because I’m picturing two kid sprites sticking a squirrel in their backpack. But then I read your first page, and found that squirrels are for riding.] They soon find themselves lost [Here’s another spot to keep your wording strong and your characters active. They get lost—it doesn’t happen TO them, it’s BECAUSE of them] and alone in the Forbidden Fields – the land outside of the Hollow that they’ve only seen in their nightmares. [What makes these Fields nightmares? Are they being hunted by predators? Is the environment dangerous?] It’s not long before [Get straight to your point, and really pull at the reader’s emotions. You don’t need the first half of this sentence.] they are tired, wet, hungry, and alone without a plan [All the reader knows of their plan is that they want to find Lou’s parents, which I’m assuming is still the plan.] Lou and Tate break into a treehouse and end up [“end up” is another phrase that doesn’t pull its weight. I promise you won’t miss it!] befriending a kind, smelly ally [What/who is this ally? Why/how are they smelly? At this stage, the reader doesn’t know many characters, so the secret to keep from them isn’t the surprise of who this ally is; it’s what they know.] who reveals what actually happened to Lou’s parents and other stories about his family’s past. [It’s actually stronger to take out the “other stories” part of this sentence. Lou’s goal—his biggest motivation—is to find his parents, and here’s an ally with that answer! Don’t dilute this with more stories, keep the focus on this one goal.]
In the end, Lou better appreciates being part of a family and a community. [What inspires this change in Lou? Was it simply getting the information about his parents? Does he reach his goal of finding them? There’s no wrong answer here, but a hint that his goal does resolve would let the agent get a better idea of your story.] He also learns how resilient he can be when times get messy, and that it’s okay to speak up and tell people what’s important to you – even if they are adults. This story promotes the awesomeness of exploring and appreciating the great outdoors in a really big way! [These are good points, and definitely themes I’d like to read. It’s very telly though, and it would be great to let the reader figure these out on their own by reading, or by weaving an example of this into your query instead of telling the reader at the end. Even one sentence showing Lou appreciating the outdoors and enjoying his adventure would help. What the reader saw in the query was that they got lost and were miserable. Show us the good stuff, too!]
[Overall, it’s a delightful-sounding story, and is going to appeal to any reader with a love of the outdoors—any time you get a kid outdoors, it’s a win! You can sharpen this query by tightening at the word and line level. Get rid of any phrases that don’t work hard, and replace them with strong, specific details. Make sure your characters and their wants are driving this query, just as they should drive your manuscript!]
I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where we put healthy eating above all else. Our garden was our primary source of food, and we spent as much time in the woods as possible. I have a deep-rooted love for nature and family and would love to pass that along to future generations through my stories.
I have self-published two other books, both available on Amazon: [It’s important to note age category here, as they seem to be different. I would also take out the bullets, as this formatting turns your bio into three sections, when really it should be one short section so that you have plenty of room to show off your pitch!]
- I’m Going to be a Pilot
- Life Balance: Discover the best and get rid of the rest
I am a member of SCBWI – Wisconsin, and Lost in the Forbidden Fields is my first middle-grade book with the potential to be one of a four-book series.
[This is great information in the bio, but it is a lot of information. I would tighten—you can get the outdoors into one sentence (yes, you can!) and I would actually see how it looks ending your bio with that. Start with the pub history, then leave them on a warm-fuzzy, personal note.]
Chapter 1: Maizie the dream squasher
“Are you walnuts? This baby squirrel won’t be able to carry you on that long of a journey.” Tate is pacing [stronger: “Tate paces…”] back and forth across the stable [comma] spinning his acorn hat between his hands.
“He’ll be fine, [period]” I wave dismissively. “Besides, [Besides can be deleted. The reader doesn’t see any reason the two arguments are connected.] I haven’t seen my parents in six years and I’m starting to forget what they look like. This little guy might just be my good luck charm.” [The reader doesn’t yet know this world well enough to know why a baby squirrel would be good luck—a hint more would help.] I finish brushing my chestnut brown companion and walk to the tack wall where the bridles hang.
Tate lets out a defeated sigh. “Does Maizie know?” [A sneaky way to orient the reader to Maizie would simply be to add “Auntie”, or “your Auntie”… or for Lou to respond with “Oh, Auntie Maizie knows.”]
“Oh, she knows. And she told me I can’t go, just like every other time. But the law says we can leave Harvest Hollow when we’re ten. I turned 11 months ago.” [This information feels like it’s for the reader’s benefit, as his friend probably already knows it. It also begs the question, if he could have left any time in the last year+, why now?]
“You shouldn’t go alone. Especially not your first time out and especially when Maizie says you can’t.”
“So, come with me.” I stretch out my long tail to hook a bridal near the top of the rack. [He has a TAIL!! WHOA!! I think this will be the first time I’ve ever told a writer to “tell, don’t show!” But, as this feels like young MG, I would be more direct early on: These are sprites, here’s a good description of how they look. To be extra-sure (as I’m not a fantasy writer) I ran the concept of a garden sprite by my resident fairy expert (10 year-old) and fairy-layperson (7 year-old). 7 year-old had no concept of a sprite. 10 year-old pictured a flying pixie-type with no tail. This does not mean your characters are inaccurate! It merely means your target audience could use a solid description on the first page.] He’s not going to talk me out of this. Not this time.
“You know I can’t do that. I have to watch Mel tonight. Mom’s working late harvesting crops again and I promised. Can’t you wait until the weekend or something?”
“Festival’s on the weekend. I’ll be back by then.” I flip the bridle into my hand and stretch it out, measuring. It’s small, but is it small enough? Tate’s right. Sprout’s not ready for this kind of journey. Mr. Willow, the stable keeper, says he’s strong and loyal, but is a little [“a little” is one of those phrases to search for during revisions, as it can usually be trimmed out without missing anything] unpredictable and has a lot to learn. Honestly, I can relate. [Good first page! It feels like you’re starting in the right place plot-wise, and in a good setting for world-building. The biggest suggestions I have are: 1. Get that character description in very early on, and 2. Look for those little habits (that we all have!) that you can delete to tighten up at the line level—passive verbs, phrases that don’t work hard enough. Save your valuable first-page real estate for world-building and other exciting details!]