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Day Three of the June Query Workshop with Pitch Wars Mentors … Jessica Vitalis & Kim Graff

Sunday, 7 June 2015  |  Posted by Brenda Drake

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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 …



Jessica Vitalis



Jessica lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she writes novels for middle grade readers. Her debut, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and can be found online at www.jessicavitalis.com. Connect with her on Twitter at @jessicavitalis.




Jessica’s query critique …

Query #6:

Dear ______,

Eleven-year-old twins Seamus and Grady Great names! lead a life most boys can only dream of. The second part of the first sentence doesn’t pull the reader in because it’s too vague (telling, not showing). I suggest combining the first and second sentences. They have rich, doting parents who never scold them, chuckle when they play hooky from school Consider deleting “from school”; since they are 11, it’s assumed, and ply them Is there a way to reword so you don’t use “them” twice in the sentence? with presents. They The boys find out why when they accidentally turn the whole house, including the housekeeper, green. This is a great inciting incident, but the logic is a bit off; turning everything green reveals that they are leprechauns, but not why their parents shower them with gifts. See if you can smooth this out so the logic flows Turns out, they’re not Americans – heck, they’re not even human. Love the voice here, but double check the grammar; wondering if this should be an em-dash? They are twenty-first century, ex-pat leprechauns on the brink of awesome powers … if they can each acquire a pot of gold each.

Yes! Love this opening paragraph! You pull us in with tangible, specific details that reveal a fun, unique story.

Unfortunately, pots of gold don’t come easy in their hometown of Implied Boston, so they have to look elsewhere Not necessary. Since there’s no gold in Boston and they end up in Africa, we get that they have to go elsewhere. Thethe twins end up in “end up in” sounds a little passive; can you make them more proactive in getting to Africa? Africa with an ancient map and a plan to find the lost treasure of Prester John, a mighty king who stashed his loot somewhere in Ethiopia. No quest comes without peril  Telling, not showing! and sStanding in their way is the undead spirit Not sure about the phrase “undead spirit”; by definition, if something is a spirit, doesn’t that imply that it’s undead? of an ancient African chief who guards the hoard and believes that by sacrificing the boys, he can return to the world of the living Why would he need to return to the world of the living if he’s undead? I think I’d cut the word “undead” from above to eliminate this confusion. … and rule it. Can the twins outsmart the ghost chief, bypass sundry Consider another word. “Sundry” doesn’t feel right for middle grade. obstacles, acquire their pots (they each need a pot, right?) of gold and live to ride the rainbow back home?

Another strong paragraph. The one question I’m left with is this: how does “loot” from a mighty king equate to a pot of gold? When I think of loot from kings, I think of coins, jewelry, and statues. Since the boys are leprechauns, it feels like their search for a “pot of gold” has to be very literal. What makes them think this king will have what they are looking for?

THE SHAMROCK TWINS is my debut novel No need to highlight that this is your first novel; this will be assumed since you don’t mention any previous books.. It is a 45,000-word adventure aimed at children aged 8-12. It will appeal to readers who enjoy myth-based, imaginative and fast-paced I’d consider cutting “imaginative and fast paced” because we get this from the query and actual pages. action books like P.B. Kerr’s Children of the Lamp series.

I have a BA in Journalism from Concordia University in Montreal. I am a freelance writer as well as a part-time Customer Experience Rep at Chapters/Indigo (Canada’s largest bookstore) in the Children’s Department. As per your submission guidelines, I am attaching a synopsis of my story and the first chapter.

Thank you for your time and consideration and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

This is on track to be a strong query letter; the voice is there, the details pull me in, and the story sounds fun. Best of luck!


11392946_10153335349669518_1638370114238603556_nKim Graff

Kim Graff is a literary agent intern for Bree Ogden at Red Sofa Literary. She is the founding freelance editor of Wild Things Editing, where she critiques manuscripts full-time. In the past, she has also interned at D4EO Literary and P.S. Literary. She is a YA author represented by Carrie Pestritto of Prospect Agency.

You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, or find her blogging about publishing and writing on her website.




Kim’s query critique …

Query #7:

Notes: Reworded sentences are in bolded, nixed wording is crossed out in purple, and notes are added [like this] in purple.

Greetings (agent whose name I doubled-checked for spelling),

Joey and her twin brother scored a ticket to a terraformed Mars, but to make it they have to survive the psychopath hidden onboard their Spacebus.

[I like this! It’s a great opening pitch—sums up what the book is about, and who the main players are. My only concern—and this is true throughout the query—is Spacebus. It just seems so weird to me and literally makes me think of a bus that is in space, which is so tiny, and I can’t wrap my head around how a whole novel like this could happen on a bus. So wouldn’t spaceship work better?]

Sixteen-year-old Joey never thought of going to Mars, sure she hoped but didn’t everyone. [Her life of painting the walls in her lead-lined home, hiding from a sun-scorched planet, was good enough for her. Until, a golden letter arrived in the post. She and her twin brother, Jesse, were selected by the Unified Nations of Earth for the next flight to utopia, and the shuttle leaves tomorrow.

I’m not a fan of the first line, it seems mundane in comparison to the opening statement. You’re backtracking now. Be more specific about what makes her situation unique here, you grabbed the agent with a solid pitch line, now keep them interested by showing them how Joey is unique.

This second line seems like world building, but it kind of confuses me more than anything. I don’t know why she’s painting the walls first off (like, is this a hint at artistic abilities? Or is this some job of hers?) and secondly I don’t know how anyone could think a life of leaving in lead-lined home and a sun-scorched planet is good enough. It makes her sound odd.

But you have a good closer for the opening paragraph, just bring Joey out more in the first sentence and clarify world-building aspects in the second.

Joey knows her life will never be the same, but what she doesn’t know is that a killer is onboard her Spacebus. A fanatic, hell-bent on stopping humankind from infecting another planet, has set his sights to sabotage [set his sights to sabotage reads really weird to me, I stopped and debated for a while whether it should be sights on sabotage. I like the word choice sabotage, I’m not a fan of the phrasing though]. Shortly after take-off, Joey and Jesse team up with notorious twin hackers Matsuda twins (notorious hackers) [I could see how maybe you want to add Matsuda in there for diversity, but it reads really odd to me, notorious twin hackers reads smoother to me, and since the name Matsuda never reappears nothing is really lost—also you have to add and afterwards, because this sentences doesn’t work as it was written without a connection] quickly realize everyone’s lives are in danger. They didn’t travel to the deepest pits of space just to die in a high-tech tin can. These two sets of siblings will throw everything in their arsenal to stop the attacks, so they can make it to their new home.

There are two vital parts to a query: the opening and the closing. Nail those two places, and it could easily make up for any small errors in-between. Your opening conveys the concept well, but your closer leaves something to be desired. The best closers are ending a query on a choice. It shows that the main character is active and also that there’s complications to the plot.

The best choice to end on is one that has bad thing A and worse thing B. In other words, Joey can do one thing or another thing—but both results might end badly for her. It makes the stakes sky rocket.

Overall, I think you have the potential for a really cool concept here. But I don’t get the space thriller vibe strong enough from this query. Focus that ending to make the stakes shine.

A YA sci-fi adventure, EMERGENCE, is complete at 66,000 words. EMERGENCE is a sci-fi YA complete at 66,000 words. This space set romp contains aspects of Kass Morgan’s, The 100, (whereas a group of children is left with the burden of ensuring the survival of their people) and packs the thrills of films such as, Interstellar, and, Star Trek Into Darkness. EMERGENCE works as a stand-alone but has series potential and promises to attract readers of all ages due to its fast pace and multiple perspectives.

First, I never like to see that “promises to attract readers of all ages” or “will appeal to readers from 16 to 60!” in queries. There are a couple reasons, but primarily you can’t actually guarantee that. Also, you’re writing YA. It’s the nature of the marketplace that both teens and adults read it. No one ever needs to add that to their query. I usually see someone say that in Adult queries in the slush piles where they think it’s a selling point to add it…but it’s really not. If you think you have a Adult or YA with crossover potential, that’s different, but I don’t see that there.

Second, your comp titles don’t really work for me. I can tell what you are getting at with it, but there are a few ways to do comp titles:

A) Straight-up comps. “Fans of Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us and Courtney Summers’ All the Rage will enjoy this novel.” (Obviously, those aren’t the right comp titles for this, just an example. You could also just say “Fans of Nova Ren Suma and Courtney Summers will enjoy this novel.”)

B) Element’s matching of comp titles. “The supernatural tension and mystery of IT FOLLOWS meets the atmosphere and writing style of Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.” (You specifically state what elements you’re taking away from the comps, which was partially what you were getting at, but make it crisp and clear like this example.)

You can totally use TV shows or movies as comp titles. However, I would probably caution away from using Star Trek as a comp. I would recommend focusing on tone and style instead of plot when it comes to comp titles. You don’t want to point out how your book is like an already published novel in plot aspects (a great post about comp titles can be found here, by Maria Vicente at P.S. Literary).

Don’t use comp titles unless you feel like it’s very perfect for your novel. It’s totally okay to have queries without comp titles. Bad comps can do a lot of harm (set the agent/editor up for unrealistic expectations, or throw them off) whereas no comp titles doesn’t hurt you at all.

Thank you for the time you took in considering my query.


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

Also, there’s still time to sign up on the Rafflecopter for the July First Page Workshop with our Pitch Wars past and present mentors. Go to this post here to sign up.


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