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 Mentors MK England and Jamie Pacton
Megan K. England is an author and YA librarian living in the mountainy parts of Virginia. When she’s not writing or librarianing, Megan can be found drowning in fandom, rolling dice at the gaming table, going to conventions, or climbing on things in the woods. She loves Star Wars with a desperate, heedless passion. It’s best if you never speak of Sherlock Holmes in her presence. You’ll regret it. Her debut YA space opera, THE DISASTERS, will be out in Fall 2018 from HarperCollins Children’s. Twitter | Website | The Disasters on Goodreads
Jamie Pacton writes dark and twisty feminist YA novels and funny Middle Grade books. For her day jobs, she teaches college-level writing online and homeschools her kids. Meaning her days are full of legos, playing outside, and trips to the library while her nights are consumed by grading student work and drafting new books. She’s an occasional blogger for parents.com (with a focus on autism acceptance) and when she gets a moment alone, you’ll find her drinking coffee, reading, or walking by Lake Michigan. www.jamiepacton.com @jamiepacton.
MK and Jamie’s Query Critique…
AGE CATEGORY: YA
As a reporter for the school paper, all senior Pierce Padgett wants is the truth. [Can you make this a stronger statement? Can she demand the truth? Relentlessly pursue it? Or perhaps bring the central conflict up earlier. Something like, “Pierce Padgett is determined to find out why her school administration is covering up sexual assaults”] But ever since the day football player Kade Bigsby showed up [Use more concise language whenever possible: “But when football player Kade Bigsby shows up…”] at school with his face smashed to a pulp, the truth has been playing hard to get. [Use cliches/puns sparingly or eliminate all together in a query letter.] Rumor has it that Kade’s ex-girlfriend is responsible, and at first Pierce dismisses the incident as petty high school drama. [The second half of this sentence weakens the intensity. Keep the tension high, and end this paragraph in a bit punchier way. You could get straight to the point and end on a more concise version of the next sentence below.]
But then Pierce overhears a conversation implying [Overhearing, implying… this is all rather indirect. Does she do something active to deliberately overhear this? Is she investigating?] that Kade has a violent history and that the school has covered for his assaults before, and she begins to wonder if his injuries were the result of self-defense. And this isn’t the first time the administration has been involved in a coverup. [This is a good spot to break. Think of the ends of your query paragraphs as tiny cliffhangers. What will make someone want to read on to the next paragraph?]
Pierce herself was suspended junior year when she broke a story about the affair between the girls’ volleyball coach and one of the players, and soon afterward the article disappeared from the paper’s online archives. [A lot of this paragraph sounds like backstory. What is critical to the story? Stay tightly focused on the main character, the central conflict, and what’s at stake.]
With the help of her girlfriend [With her girlfriend’s help], Pierce begins to investigate three separate cases with eerie similarities, determined to help bring the victims’ stories to light and prove the school failed [expose the school’s failure?] to protect its students. However, it soon becomes apparent [stronger language; consider using the ‘But when’ formula] that the three cases are linked by more than just their nature and the administration’s hush-hush attitude [giving us a bit more information on these cases could illustrate the dark nature of this book that inspired the FEMALE OF THE SPECIES comp and also up the stakes in this query], and Pierce realizes she might have uncovered secrets that aren’t hers to tell. [reword this to be more active and direct! “Pierce uncovers secrets that aren’t hers to tell”] When Pierce starts receiving messages [threats] demanding she drop the story or she’ll be silenced permanently, the race to the truth becomes a race for her own safety [or her own life? Is her girlfriend threatened, too?].
A bisexual Veronica Mars meets The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, TRUTH PIERCES THROUGH [We’re not sure this punny title is really doing the tone and heavy subject matter of your story justice. Revisit?] is a 64,000-word YA mystery novel. [Maybe consider turning this into a proper logline and moving this whole section to the top. This allows agents to get a handle on the novel’s genre and length and immediately sets up their expectations, and some prefer it that way. Check guidelines before submitting! Also, many query letters end with a short bio section, including one or two sentences about who you are, your platform, and any other relevant details can help catch an agent’s eye. Keep it tight, though, and only include what’s truly relevant to an agent: Writing-related degrees, education or experience that impacts your authority to tell this story, etc.]
Additional notes: This sounds like an intriguing mystery that has both of us wondering what’s really going on in Pierce’s school! We love lady detectives (and lgbtq characters!) and we bet Pierce would be a really fun character to get to know. In fact, we’d love to get to know her more in the query itself: Can you emphasize what makes Pierce different from Veronica Mars, besides being bi? That’s an important part of her identity, but what else can you do to give us a hint of who she is as a person? We’d also love to hear some of Pierce’s voice come through in the query and get a sense of the ways she actively digs in to investigate and make changes in the world around her.
Next up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentor Aimee L. Salter …
Aimee is the author of Every Ugly Word, (Alloy, 2014) a gripping and emotional story about a high school junior who can talk to her future self in the mirror, but is forced to deal with the devastating consequences of bullying; and Dark Touch (Alloy, 2016), an equally raw story about a young, abused woman whose feelings are communicated to anyone she touches—including the guy she’s falling in love with.
Aimee’s recent book …
Tully isn’t alone in her skin. Whenever she touches someone, they feel everything she feels. All her ugliness. All her darkness. All her pain.
The only thing she wants is to be left alone–and to finally get out of her small Oregon town.
But then she meets Chris. He’s everything she’s not. Light. Trusting. Innocent. And he wants Tully.
Tully knows she should spare him the heartache of being with her. But when he touches her, she’s not sure she’ll have the strength to push him away–until he learns about her dark past, and what really goes on in her ever-decaying home.
From the author of Every Ugly Word comes a poignant, emotionally raw story about the violence that plays out behind closed doors and the all-consuming passion of first love.
Aimee’s First Page Critique . . .
AGE CATEGORY: YA
GENRE: Contemporary Fantasy
Graduation is supposed be the beginning of the rest of my life. The moment I fly the nest and strike out on my own to succeed or fail or boomerang back into my parent’s basement. Adulthood. Freedom. Other words you find on motivational posters.
[There’s a good hint at a solid narrator voice here. Watch for extraneous words, though. Little things like changing “is supposed” to “should” sharpen your prose and make the voice even clearer. Choose one in instances like “fly the nest” and “strike out” which essentially mean the same thing.]
I throw my red dress on the quilt-covered bed, its full skirt dripping down the side like blood. The thought stops me, hands on my hips—maybe red’s too much for my interview at the US Coast Guard. The color of blood, anger, patriotism.
[Early on in a manuscript you want to minimize too many modifiers/descriptors as, because the reader hasn’t fallen into the story, they’re still aware of reading, which means words that slow the pace can create a sense of a slog (we’ve got a “red” dress, “quilt-covered” bed and “full” skirt in a single sentence). This early on, just have her throw the dress on the bed. Let the skirt dripping like blood be the way to show the dresses’ color, rather than telling it. That way you hone in on the imagery without dragging out the pace. That said, you’ve got “blood” occurring twice, so maybe change the second one to “violence” or something similar?]
Then again, maybe it’s perfect.
[Nice! Succinct, so it has power. This is the kind of brevity that opening pages need.]
I turn back to my closet and rifle through the few nice clothing items I have—a pair of slacks and a button-down. I toss them next to the dress, leaving the closet door wide open. It fell off its tracks years ago.
I roll my head around and try to stretch out my right shoulder where it bunches up. My stomach twinges, empty and anxious. If I could, if I were speaking to the class of Piper High School, I’d tell them all the cold, hard, truth:
[Your story/character flow is good, so I’m a line editing a little. In terms of sharpening your prose, watch what happens if you lose “around and try”, “out” and “up” from that first sentence:
“I roll my head to stretch my right shoulder where it bunches.” Can you see how much more active that is?
I’d also cut “if I could”. This is an internal narrative technique that I fall into too—trying to make thoughts sound like our broken dialogue when we speak as we think. Generally it’s a good idea—where it can be achieved without extra words. But your goal in these opening pages is to grab the reader and the best way to do that is to use nothing extra to slow them down.]
It’s all a lie. Adulthood sucks and freedom is relative.
[Again, nice. Says a lot about where she is mentally, and where she feels like her life is at. Well done.]
“Definitely the dress,” Lucy says behind me.
I grab my chest. “Son of a—”
She waltzes into my room like she owns the place, though I guess it’s been years since she actually knocked. Her hair cascades down her back, black as midnight, and the mid-morning sunshine filters through the blinds, slicing her tawny skin into strips of light and dark. “The pants remind me of Mrs. Treager.”
[Great character introduction, but lots of modifiers/descriptors again. I was once told by my editor there shouldn’t be more than a handful per chapter (i.e. less than one per page). That isn’t always right, but it’s a good guideline to aim for, especially with your opening chapter.
Additionally, trust your reader to trust you with a simple image/setting. Words like “Slicing” are really noticeable in such a soft image (filtered light through blinds). I know what you’re going for in terms of the overall tone, but you’ve already made it really clear through the earlier comments. You don’t need to bring it into the simple setting at this point.]
“Ew, no.” I shudder and reach for the hem of my shirt. “Is it true she’s retiring next year?”
“I don’t know, but of course she waited till after we leave.” Lucy twitches her hand across her jean-clad thigh before picking up a trophy off the top of my dresser. She studies it, then replaces it in the graveyard of all my other swimming dreams left behind for dead.
[The trophy sentences are great—they give setting as well as show the reader information about the protagonist’s world and backstory. Perfect. That’s exactly the kind of details you want to keep.
Conversely, “Twitches her hand across her jean-clad thigh” doesn’t tell the reader anything about what’s happening, so it draws attention to itself because you wonder if it means she’s hesitant, or distracted, or what. I’d cut that completely.]
She picks up and replaces two more trophies, my battered copy of The Princess Bride, and a movie ticket stub she most likely paid for.
[Another great character detail—makes both of them more real and layered. Perfect.]
“Okay, what’s up?” I slip the dress over my head and pull at the fabric so it sits just right.
“Thank god you asked.” Lucy grins with exuberance and I immediately regret asking. I know exactly what she’s about—
“A new picture of Nessie surfaced and, oh my god, it’s the realest thing I’ve ever seen.” Lucy’s brown eyes light up without a touch of sunshine. “It even converted the amateur who photographed her. And last week, this crazy looking thing washed up in California with teeth the size of—of…” She searches the room.
“Lucyyy…” I beg her to reel it in, checking the hallway for signs of my dad.
“The size of this!” She brandishes the tallest trophy from my dresser, knocking down a picture in her haste.
My lips harden into an angry line. Her face is an apologetic grimace as I stride over and pry the trophy from her hand to replace it…
[Your writing’s getting clearer and sharper as we go. I was beginning to fall right into what’s happening, which is exactly what you want. Well done. I’d cut words like “with exuberance” and “without a touch of sunshine” for the reasons outlined above, but that’s being picky. Overall, the girls are starting to feel like real people already, which is exactly what you want. I was disappointed when the sentence cut off halfway through, which means I’d have turned the page without even thinking about it!]
It’s clear to me that you know how to write. You aren’t giving page time to unnecessary backstory, but you’re dropping hints about the character(s) in the details you’ve chosen to highlight. From this little sample, I’d expect the book to be well developed.
I’ve kind of hammered your word-usage (sorry about that), but only because you and I share a tendency to over-write and use too many words to say simple things. I’ve learned from my editor not to fall into the trap of believing that modifying generic nouns is more effective than a specific noun alone. (i.e. “rhinoceros” is more effective and evocative than “horned beast”.) Adjectives don’t necessarily set a scene better than specific nouns and verbs.
It all comes down to trusting your reader to stick with you for a chapter or two—which they’ll do if you’re focusing on action and character—and figuring out the minimum number of words required to deliver your story.
On a whim I took your content (511 words) and cut just the words that I felt weren’t necessary to deliver the scene. Even without changing any sentence structure I was able to cover this exact scene in 459 words. Which might seem like a small difference. But over the course of an 80,000 word manuscript that equates to over 8,100 words that either aren’t needed (publishers would love you for the tighter prose because that equals fewer pages to print per book), or could be used to paint more scenes and more deeply layer your characters/plot.
I know it will feel daunting to work through your entire manuscript looking for these little extras. And for a while, it’ll be hard to find them. But it’s a skill worth honing for those of us who tend to use too many words (trust me, speaking from experience here).
The good news is, I had the freedom to be picky about your words because the rest was skillfully woven. You’ve communicated scene, setting, characterization, a touch of backstory, and the hint of a coming conflict/inciting incident (the interview and/or Nessie) in very few words. If the rest of your book is as well-layered, you’ll go far.
Be encouraged. I critique and beta read a lot. This scene is better developed than materials from most unpublished authors I’ve seen lately. So take the pickiness in the vein in which it’s offered—as an encouragement to start working on the detail, because you’ve got the big picture sorted!
Good luck for your future publishing endeavors. I predict you’ll go far.
Thank you, MK, Jamie, and Aimee 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.