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Day Eleven of the June Query Workshop with Pitch Wars Mentors … Helene Dunbar & Sonia Hartl

Monday, 15 June 2015  |  Posted by Brenda Drake

B workshop2

Welcome to the June Query Workshop with some of our past and present PitchWars mentors. From a Rafflecopter lottery drawing, we selected many wonderful writers to participate in the workshop. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a query letter for one lucky writer. The writers are anonymous. Follow along all month to view the query critiques. We welcome comments and further suggestions, but please keep them kind and respectful.

Here are the next two mentors and their critiques …


helene1_Helene Dunbar

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Tumblr

Helene is the author of THESE GENTLE WOUNDS (Flux, 2014) was named one of BuzzFeed’s “Top YA Novels of 2014” as well as Epic Read’s “30 Books that Will Change Your View of the World”and WHAT REMAINS (Flux, 2015). Over the years, she’s worked as a drama critic, journalist, and marketing manager, and has written on topics as diverse as Irish music, court cases, theater, and Native American Indian tribes. She lives in Nashville with her husband and daughter and exists on a steady diet of readers’ tears.

Helene’s recent releases …

What Remains New FinalAvailable now:

Barnes and Noble

In less than a second…
… two of the things Cal Ryan cares most about–a promising baseball career and Lizzie, one of his best friends–are gone forever.

In the hours that follow…
…Cal’s damaged heart is replaced. But his life will never be the same.

Everyone expects him to pick up the pieces and move on.

But Lizzie is gone, and all that remains for Cal is an overwhelming sense that her death was his fault. And a voice in his head that just…won’t…stop.

Cal thought he and his friends could overcome any obstacle. But grief might be the one exception.

And that might take a lifetime to accept…


These Gentle Wounds finalAvailable now:

Barnes and Noble

Sometimes I wish I’d lost a leg or something. Everyone can understand that. They never get it when what’s been broken is inside your head.

Five years after an unspeakable tragedy that changed him forever, Gordie Allen has made a new home with his half-brother Kevin. Their arrangement works since Kevin is the only person who can protect Gordie at school and keep him focused on getting his life back on track.

But just when it seems like things are becoming normal, Gordie’s biological father comes back into the picture, demanding a place in his life. Now there’s nothing to stop Gordie from falling into a tailspin that could cost him everything—including his relationship with Sarah, the first girl he’s trusted with the truth. With his world spinning out of control, the only one who can help Gordie is himself . . . if he can find the strength to confront the past and take back his future.

Helene’s query critique …

Query #22:

Dear Ms. Drake and PitMad Mentors,

My 50,000 word YA contemporary novel, FLOAT, follows fifteenyearold Summer as she navigates the pitfalls of anew high school, a partying mom, and BOYS boys (not sure you need this in caps. It doesn’t addanything and it made me stop reading and wonder about the caps, also, werethere not boys at her old school?), all while competing in the world of amateur surfing which shehopes will lead her to the dad she’s never met. (This part about her dad seems like what’s important, but it’s buried. I would move this up. Since this is a really long sentence, you can break all of this up anyhow. And then you can use the info from paragraph 3 up here as well.)

Uprooted again (“again” doesn’t mean much here because we don’t know that she’s been uprooted before. Is the REASON they move important? If so, I’d use that, otherwise you can cut it), Summer is forced to assimilate into the insular community of Turtle Cove, California, where she finds surfing is her sole refuge.  Fighting alienation, Summer breaks her mom’s one rule and goes surfing alone during a tropical storm.  Her near death experience (you haven’t told us that she’s had one) lands her in hot water with her mom and unwittingly earns her a spot on the elite local surf team. 

The one wound surfing can’t heal (we haven’t heard that there are any wounds that it can, and this information is too important to be stuck this deep in the query – I’d move all the info about her dad to the first paragraph because it seems like it’s the motivation factor to her story) is not knowing her father.  Finding a photo of a young surfer that Summer is convinced is her dad, she follows the amateur surfing circuit in hopes of competing her way to the dad whose been kept hidden half a world away. (The way this reads, there are too many issues. WHAT is really important here – It’s that she’s uprooting, joins the surf team and goes in search of her father, right? Also, is this while she’s still at Turtle Cove? Is she following the circuit physically or online or….???)

But everything changes (why? How?) when Summer starts hanging with a bad boy.  Will joining an elite surf team be the path to Summer’s dreams, or will it lead to another big wipe out? This is cute but almost too cute, if you know what I mean.

FLOAT is a blend of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park and John Stockwell’s Blue Crush. I think that comparisons are great…however…you say he’s a bad boy so I’m unconvinced about
the E&P comparison. Also “a blend of” makes it sound like you mashed the books together instead of writing your own story. I’d prefer to see “FLOAT blends the __________(whatever elements) of E&P with the _______________ of John Stockwell’s Blue Crush)

I hold a BA in English Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing (Writing for Young People), from Lesley University. 

            Thank you for your time and attention.

So what I’m recommending is something along the lines of:

After moving to the the insular community of Turtle Cove, California, where she finds surfing is her sole refuge, fifteen-year-old Summer finds a photo of a young surfer she’s convinced is of the father she never knew.

When she breaks her otherwise distracted mom’s one rule and goes surfing alone during a tropical storm, she has a near-death experience which lands her in hot water with her mom, but earns her a spot on the elite local surf team. Membership on the team allows her to follow the amateur surfing circuit in hopes of competing her way to her dad, but brings complications in the guise of _______ (boy’s name and important characteristics).

With it’s emphasis on ______ and exploration of competitive surfing, Float, a 50,000 word contemporary YA would appeal to readers of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park and John Stockwell’s Blue Crush.

I hold a BA in English Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing (Writing for Young People), from Lesley University.

Thank you for your time and attention.

SoniaHartlPicSonia Hartl

Website | Twitter

Sonia is a writer of young adult novels and a member of SCBWI. Her work has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, The Writers Post Journal, and the anthology Bearing North. When she’s not chasing her kids around the house, trying new restaurants, or embarrassing herself in karaoke bars, she can be found relaxing on her back porch with her laptop and an Oberon. She’s represented by Rebecca Podos of Rees Literary Agency, and you can visit her website: www.soniahartl.com or follow her on Twitter @SoniaHartl1.

Sonia’s query critique …

Query #23:

To Mr/s. Agent: Dear [Agent Name],

I am currently seeking representation for my upmarket suspense
 You don’t need to let them know you’re seeking representation, they already know because you’re sending a query. The Vigilante’s Apprentice.  It is complete at  THE VIGILANTE’S APPRENTICE, title in all caps is a 83,778 84,000, round to the nearest 1000 words upmarket suspense, and is the first installment of a planned trilogy.  a stand alone with series potential. It’s a good idea to let an agent know the first can stand by itself. I understand that you are actively seeking adult fiction and I thought that my work might be a good fit for your list. The reason I suggest cutting this is because it’s so general and isn’t really adding to your query. It might be better to list comp titles such as, “It would appeal to fans of X and X” or “You mentioned on [specific interview/blog/#MSWL], and I thought my manuscript might appeal to
you.” Something to show you’ve done a little bit research beyond viewing the ‘What I’m Seeking’ page on their website. Also, and I know opinions vary on this, you’re taking up the most valuable real estate in your query by putting the housekeeping stuff first. I recommend moving this to the last paragraph and launch right into the story. 

A secret technology, stolen from a think-tank startup a decade earlier, has unexpectedly resurfaced and fallen into the hands of a bitter former executive. Not sure why you have this in italics, it’s not necessary. A secret technology is pretty vague. There is a huge difference between a weather-controlling nuclear weapon and a cuddly kitten cloning machine. The type of technology will set the tone for your story. One question I’m wondering is how this technology has unexpectedly resurfaced. You don’t need a long-winded explanation here, just a sentence about how it resurfaced (discovered in a sewer by hyper-intelligent rats, found in an old trunk at an estate sale, put up for auction in the underground market, or however it resurfaces). This first sentence also suggests the unnamed bitter former executive is your main character, but I don’t think this is the case. Considering starting with your main character. The query should show who your MC is, what they want, and what will happen if they don’t get it (stakes). Consumed by an ego-driven desire to bring his once-noble vision to capitalist reality, he plans to sell to the highest bidder – with
potentially catastrophic consequences. 
This is both wordy and vague, I’m not sure what his once-noble vision was or what the catastrophic consequences could be. If his desire is to bring his vision to capitalist reality, then why is he selling it off? And we still haven’t been ntroduced to your MC. Character drives the story, and you haven’t  mentioned a character to get invested in yet. The only man who could stop him, a controversial vigilante, lays dead in the back seat of his escape car, hastily driven in flight from a murderous ambush by his adopted son, Alex. There is way too much going on in this sentence. How did the vigilante die? Whose car is he in and how did he get there? What was the murderous ambush? Why is the car being hastily driven away by his adopted son? How did Alex get the car? Not all of these questions need to be answered, I’m just pointing out that this sentence is bringing about more confusion than clarity. Also, this is way too late to mention your MC. I’m not sure who Alex is (what makes him tick), what he wants, or what’s in it for him (what his stakes are).

Will Alex, with the help of Jack, a deeply principled but conflicted agent of the Federal Police Force, be able to ascend to his father’s illegitimate heroism in time? I’d avoid rhetorical questions. I’m not sure why Alex feels compelled to ascend to his father’s illegitimate heroism, or even what you mean by illegitimate heroism. What makes Alex the man for this job? And, more importantly, why does Alex care? What’s at stake for him in all this? I’d also consider cutting mention of Jack. Secondary characters don’t need to be mentioned in a query if they aren’t contributing to the main hook, and I’m not sure who Jack is or why he’s relevant to the story.  Or will his actions create a villain instead… Another rhetorical questions (with ellipses, that I’d also recommend cutting). This has the potential to be interesting. A sort of hero who might become a villain in trying to save the day. But this is so vague, it’s hard to become invested. What actions must he take? What will make him the villain? How is this difficult for him? Does this go against his moral fiber or is his life at stake? This is the point in the query where you really want to nail down why we should care about Alex and wonder what is going to happen to him. Make his stakes specific and compelling.

The Vigilante’s Apprentice is a story of transformation, altruism against reality, and the price that’s paid to keep the most solemnly made promises. Don’t tell this, show it in your query.

This is my first novel and I feel that it reflects my unique voice and writing style.  I hope you find it compelling. 

I would be happy to provide additional pages or the full manuscript – just send me the go-ahead.  No need to tell an agent this is your first novel. No need to tell them you hope they find it compelling (this is implied by the fact that you’re querying them). No need to say you’d be happy to provide pages or the manuscript (also implied by the fact
that you’re querying).
Thank you in advance for your consideration. I prefer, “Thank you for your time and consideration.”

You have the promise of an interesting premise here, but it’s buried in vague details and I’m not getting a sense who your main character is, what he wants, and what’s at stake for him. Best of luck!

Thank you, Helene and Sonia, for your critiques. Everyone, come back tomorrow for the next round of critiques!



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