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Day Nine of July’s First Page Workshop with Pitch Wars Mentors … Laura Heffernan & Helene Dunbar

Monday, 13 July 2015  |  Posted by Nikki Roberti

B 1st page workshop

Welcome to July’s First Page 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 first page for one lucky writer. The writers are anonymous. Follow along all month to view the first page critiques. We welcome comments and further suggestions, but please keep them kind and respectful.

Here are the next two mentors and their critiques …

LH Profile2Laura Heffernan

Website | Twitter

Laura Heffernan is a California-born women’s fiction writer, represented by Michelle Richter at Fuse Literary. One Saturday morning when she was four or five, Laura sat down at the family’s Commodore 64 and typed out her first short story. She’s written both fiction and non-fiction ever since.

In her spare time, Laura likes travel, baking, board games, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and new experiences. She lives in the northeast with her amazing husband and two furry little beasts.


Laura’s first page critique …

Margaret Whitefield faltered when she saw [Try to avoid filter words like “saw.” It may be better to say something like “Margaret faltered at the end of Without that, you’ve got an intriguing opening line, because I want to know where the hallway is going and why it’s making Margaret falter] the long hallway. The worst days of her life had begun just like this – a seemingly harmless journey down an ordinary hallway. [Try to avoid saying “hallway” at the end of two sentences in a row. It’s better to vary your word choice a bit. Also, there are no spaces on either side of an em dash.] Margaret sighed. Why should today be any different?

Addie tugged at her mother’s hand. She half-stepped, half-skipped along the corridor. Her Tinker Bell backpack swished back and forth on her thin shoulders. [I like this detail.] Addie pointed at the bright posters, decorating the walls of Coal Valley Elementary School, but Margaret noticed none of them. [If she doesn’t notice them, then how is she pointing them out to the reader? Since we’re in Margaret’s head, we shouldn’t see anything she doesn’t notice. Ignored might be a better word.] She couldn’t stop watching [other] parents say good-bye to their children.

Mother and daughter located the kindergarten classrooms at the end of the hall. A menagerie of brightly colored animals bloomed on the walls, and the entire area vibrated with childish voices. [This is good description. I can picture this moment perfectly.] Addie’s teacher stood at the classroom door. She welcomed Addie and introduced herself as Miss Hall. [I’m torn, because this is telling, but I’m also not sure if we need to see this conversation, especially on page one.] While she talked, Margaret put her hand on top of Addie’s head and smoothed her short flyaway hair. It was beginning to grow faster, but the color was lighter than the chestnut brown it had been before the chemotherapy. [Ohhhh, intriguing. I want to know more about this.]

Miss Hall assured Margaret her daughter would be fine and then said a firm good-bye. Margaret crouched down [“crouched down” is redundant] and hugged Addie.

“Let go, Mama.” Addie giggled. “You’re smushing me!”

Margaret stood and tried to plant a kiss on top of Addie’s head, but she ducked and skipped through the door with a, [Use a period after door, delete “with a” and then start a new paragraph after Mama.] “Bye, Mama.” She raised her hand to wave, but Addie didn’t look back. It was a moment of reckoning – Margaret knew life would never again be the same.

Why will life never be the same again? What is so momentous about a child’s first day of school that things will be forever changed as a result of Addie going off on her own? You’ve piqued my interest with the mention of the worst day of Margaret’s life and her daughter’s chemotherapy, but I wonder what it is about this moment that makes it the best place to start your story. (Maybe you’re about to tell me, and that’s OK – the whole point of a first page is to make me want to read page 2, and you’ve definitely accomplished that.)

 Overall, a great start. I hope I get to see more in August. Thanks for letting me read, and good luck with your manuscript!


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 first page critique …

There were at least eight kinds of chicken salad spread across Gran’s stained Formica countertop—and Gran hated chicken salad. This is a charming opening line. It was the surest sign yet that everyone else (unnecessary word, because so far you haven’t mentioned anyone who could be in the kitchen) crammed into the narrow kitchen thought she was gone for good. I stared at the back door willing Gran to walk through it, to explain how her disappearance was a big misunderstanding. (I understand what you’re trying for here, but a disappearance can’t be a misunderstanding. The “reason” for that disappearance could be, but you haven’t mentioned why they’d thought she’d gone or where). But, as usual, the door stayed closed.

Across the room, a few steps from the den,(Not necessary because nothing is happening yet in the den and it made me stop and think about the layout of the house which isn’t really important in the 2nd paragraph) Mom nodded with feigned interest as one of the neighbors stagewhispered about her own uncle’s disappearance. Since I don’t know the genre here, I’m at a disadvantage, but is this a town where people are disappearing often? If not, I’d try to find a different word. From the tightness in the corner of Mom’s slightly red eyes, I was pretty sure she’d stopped listening at “drinking problem.” Dad circulated among the guests, the condensation on a pitcher of donated iced tea leaving a damp ring where it rested against the arm of his white dress shirt. We’d been in Chapel Hill for a few hours before Gran’s neighbors descended, but the air conditioning was still days behind. (Pretty phrase, but clunky. I’d just say “still hadn’t kicked in” or something so that the reader doesn’t have to stop to think about it.)

The local minister patted his face with a handkerchief and proclaimed that I was the spitting image of Gran in her prime. The look in his eyes made me think about spitting all right. No wonder Gran always skipped church. I pushed through the creaky screen door and pounded down the rickety back steps to the garden. They could assume Gran was dead all they wanted, but I refused to believe it. Gran loved us. She loved me. She wouldn’t just disappear. (So this confused me because it’s the first time I’ve heard that people think she’s dead. If that’s truly the case, I’d say it in the first paragraph. Disappeared, makes me think “runaway”, “abduction”, “supernatural oddity” or some other sort of drama. “Dead” is a whole different ballgame.)

You have a nice way of setting a scene and I’m already getting a feel for your MC. I’d just try to be more straight-forward with the reader and what your MC actually thinks is going on. Also, there is a LOT of descriptive text in here and I think you could minimize it a lot to pick up the pacing. “stained formica counter,” “donated ice tea,””slightly red eyes,” “creaky screen door.” You’re setting the scene well, but this early on, I really just wanted to know what was going on and it felt a bit much.

Good luck with this. I’d be interested to know where this story is heading!

Thank you, Laura and Helene., for your critiques. Interested in more first page critiques? Come back tomorrow for our next two critiques by Pitch Wars mentors, and while you’re here, check out our June posts for our mentors’ query critiques.  And get ready! The Pitch Wars Mentor Wishlist Blog Hop starts August 2 with the Pitch Wars submission window opening August 17.

Want a critique or books from our Pitch Wars mentors, some awesome authors, agents, and editors? We’re putting together an auction and posting it this weekend to help one of our mentors save her home. To read more about this campaign, go here: http://www.gofundme.com/we4dv4m


  • J.R. Yates says:

    I was interested in the lottery for a critique but when I cliqued on the link it sent me to a go fund me page for a house- is that right?

    • Nikki Roberti says:

      Hi J.R.! Sorry for the confusion! The rafflecopter for this is now closed and all people who won free critiques have been chosen. However, we are doing a fundraiser for our fellow author and friend’s house where we will be auctioning off critiques if you’re interested.

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