Welcome to the July Query & 1st Page Workshop with some of our PitchWars mentors. We selected many wonderful writers from a drawing held in June to participate in the workshop. Each mentor has graciously critiqued either a query or first page for two writers. The writers are anonymous and the titles/genres are hidden. Follow along all month to view the critiques. We welcome comments and further suggestions, but please keep them kind and respectful.
Here are the next two mentors and their critiques …
Catherine Scully is a strange creature, part writer and part illustrator, based out of Atlanta, Georgia. She writes and illustrates creepy Middle Grade and Young Adult stories and loves horror that focuses on history, ghosts, and strange books one should never open (but one opens anyway). She loves curling up with a good Neil Gaiman book and a cup of tea after banging the heck out of some drums. Don’t ask her about the way The Neverending Story really ends. You’ll end up talking with her for a good hour.
Catherine’s critiques …
Critique #33 – Query:
Some people call him an outlaw, and others call him a cowboy—but Seph only wants to be left alone. Every year he spends on the road, the farther his mind likes to wander (Why is this significant?), but the Wild is the only place Seph calls home. It’s the land that stretches between towns, filled with gangs who will sooner kill you than wave hello, where miles can turn into days. (Beautiful narrative, but it needs to get to the meat of the story found in the second paragraph or: “Some people call him an outlaw, others a cowboy – but Seph only wants to be left alone. But one morning, Seph wakes to find himself a prisoner and stared down by the most organized and clean-smelling gang he’s ever crossed called the Legion. Seph knows he won’t be able to escape this so-called army of soldiers who control the southern states, but….)
But one morning, Seph wakes up and finds himself a prisoner. Chained to the ground and stared down by the most organized and clean smelling gang he’s ever crossed, he knows it won’t be easy to escape this time. They call themselves the Legion and they’re an army of so-called soldiers who control the southern states. (This is your real attention-grabber here. The agents can find the narrative in the work, but they want to know you can pitch in the query letter. The pitch focuses on setting up character of who and where then getting right to the problem, particularly if you’re trying to pitch dual POV in a query and need to hop right into the next person’s story.)
Avery rides with the Legion for a totally different reason (Where did you set up that Seph rides with the Legion? This implies character A rides for this reason, but character B rides for another, which is not what was pitched in the first two paragraphs)—they’ve taken her brother and she wants to find out where he’s being held. With a common interest of escaping the Legion (Where was it listed that they were both captured? Avery riding with them implies she is a member, not a prisoner), Seph and Avery ride into the Wild with an enemy (Who? Who is tracking them? Being vague to avoid spoilers as to who the enemy is may not help here, particularly since it’s a pitching plot point) tracking them, intent on killing (Why? What are the stakes? Why does the “enemy” want them dead?). The only thing that matters in the Wild is how fast your trigger hand is, but he doesn’t know if his will be fast enough. (Love the exiting line!)
RIDE ON is a YA western novel complete at 73,000 words, told in duel (should be dual) point of views. Thank you for your time and consideration. (Anything else about the author? Organization memberships? Or even a “Gwen is an author from _”)
Critique #34 – First Page:
Patsy slunk into the kitchen and flopped onto a chair with a dramatic sigh (telling). Sun motes danced in the heavy (dusty, cloudy – more specific than heavy) air. Window screens could keep out the flies but not the sweltering August heat. Patsy drummed her fingers on the yellow-checked, plastic tablecloth. (no comma)
Mother looked (always choose something stronger than “looked” – Mother stopped snapping the beans into the basket) up from her task of snapping beans for tonight’s supper. “If you’re joining me for supper, you can help string these beans.” Mother mopped perspiration from her forehead with the kitchen towel in her lap. “Could it be more humid?” (Watch how many times you mention how hot it is. For example, you could totally eliminate how hot August is above and just SHOW it with “Mother mopped perspiration… “ Always pick an opportunity to show it’s hot over telling us it’s hot.)
Patsy scowled and crossed her long legs (What is she wearing? Trying to picture her.) One boot tapped while the other jiggled (What does this reveal about character?) Reaching for the nearby can of Charles Chips on the counter, Patsy snapped it open the nearby bag of Charles Chips and pulled out a handful. The salty coating spread into the corners of her mouth as she chewed.
“Geez, Louise. Where is Olivia?” she whined said. “She knows I’ve been waiting here all morning to hear about her dad’s interview trip and his decision. For a best friend, she sure is slow.” (Let your dialogue do the talking instead of “she whined, she groaned, etc.”)
Crunch. Patsy crammed a mound of chips into her mouth. The salty coating spread into the corners of her mouth as she chewed.
“It’s not going to do you any good to stew over this.” Mother spread out the already-read crinkled Charlotte Observer between herself and Patsy them and piled beans onto it. “Help me and get your mind off Olivia.”
“What did Mrs. Nelson say to you on the phone last night? You were crying after. I saw.” Patsy searched her mother’s face for a clue.
But it was a mask, as always. (What is being said here? Why always? Why is it being said? Up the suspense.)
The theme song to Howdy Doody traveled down the hall from the den. “I swear, don’t you think Angela would get tired of that show?” Patsy snorted. Why did she suddenly change the subject? Does it make sense in character? (Why she changed the subject could be revealed in why she supposes her mother’s face is always stone. We need to get more into Patsy’s head, her perspective on the life around her, and reflections on it.)
Veronica Bartles grew up in Wyoming and currently lives in New Mexico with her husband and four children. As the second of eight children and the mother of four, Veronica Bartles is no stranger to the ups and downs of sibling relationships. She uses this insight to write stories about siblings who mostly love each other, even while they’re driving one another crazy. When Veronica’s not writing or lost in the pages of her newest favorite book, she enjoys creating delicious desserts, exploring new places, and knitting with recycled materials.
TWELVE STEPS is Veronica’s first novel.
Sixteen-year-old Andi is tired of being a second-class sibling to perfect sister Laina. The only thing Andi’s sure she has going for her is her awesome hair. And even that is eclipsed by Laina’s perfect everything else.
When Andi’s crush asks her to fix him up with Laina, Andi decides enough is enough, and devises a twelve-step program to wrangle the spotlight away from Laina and get the guy.
Step 1: Admit she’s powerless to change her perfect sister, and accept that her life really, really sucks.
Step 4: Make a list of her good qualities. She MUST have more than just great hair, right?
Step 7: Demand attention for more than just the way she screws things up.
When a stolen kiss from her crush ends in disaster, Andi realizes that her twelve-step program isn’t working. Her prince isn’t as charming as she’d hoped, and the spotlight she’s been trying to steal isn’t the one she wants.
As Laina’s flawless façade begins to crumble, the sisters work together to find a spotlight big enough for both to shine.
Veronique’s critiques …
Critique #35 – First Page:
I could disappear into the water. (This first line is a bit too vague to catch my attention. I can’t tell if the main character is contemplating suicide or telling me about his/her underwater invisibility superpower. And I don’t know him/her well enough yet to really care. An ideal first line will tell the reader something about the main character and draw the reader in. This one isn’t specific enough. It could literally be about anyone at this point.) Just one step, and I’d be gone. I’d slip away into the waves. I stand at the edge of the canal, my toes curled over the edge of the marble rim. It’s cold and smooth under my bare feet. Inches below, water laps gently at the stone, calling to me. The early morning rays play off the surface, reflecting the light back up in shimmering patterns. (I like this section better as an opening. The imagery is so much stronger. I can picture this canal and its lure. I almost want to slip into it and disappear myself. And even though I still don’t know who is talking and what is actually going on, I want to read on to find out.) I am entranced. (Don’t tell me you’re entranced. Show me. And give me a glimpse as to why you’re so fascinated by this water. [I still don’t know, at this point, if the character is contemplating suicide or if he/she is secretly a merperson longing for his/her home under the sea.])
Then the bell rings, shattering my peace. (This feels cliché, and I didn’t really get a sense of real peace from the main character in the opening paragraph, so it feels out of place as well. What is he/she thinking when the bell rings? What thoughts and emotions does it evoke? What does he/she do, besides sighing heavily at the intrusion? This is a great place to bring us into the main character’s head with specific, personal details. Let us get a glimpse of the character. Let us care about him/her.) I heave a sigh.
Behind me, I hear the bustle of the other kids in the schoolyard. They call to each other, and their musical laughter echoes. Now that the bell has rung, the cozy groups dissolve and stream into the looming, red brick building behind me. (I love the imagery in this paragraph. You have a real way with words. I’d love to see this kind of imagery with a more specific focus, though. I’m getting a lot of pretty pictures in my head, but I still don’t know what’s really going on in this scene. Obviously, you don’t want to give everything away in your first page, but you have to give us enough so that we’ll care about your character and want to keep reading. So far, both examples of great imagery have been describing things that aren’t really connected to the character. I’d love to see a bit about who the character is. Let me look through his/her eyes. Let me feel his/her emotions. Let me take a peek inside his/her head. Pretty prose is wonderful, but it won’t make me keep reading if I don’t have a reason to care.)
I linger for just a moment at the edge of the canal. I wish I had the guts to act. (What does he/she want to do? I’m still not really sure.) Instead, for the fifth time this year, (I love this detail! You don’t need to spell it all out for us (too much backstory can be boring), but slipping little details like this into the narrative can give such a sense of who the main character is. I’d love to see more of this kind of thing earlier. Give me a sense, right from the first sentence – or at least the first paragraph – of the main character’s thought process. What is he/she contemplating for the fifth time this year? And why does he/she keep chickening out?) I slide my feet back into my shoes, turn, and follow the other students across the lawn. I can see the ocean stretching out to my left as I cross the school grounds, and the sky is lit up with that pale, soothing orange (What time of day is this? I was thinking it was around 8am – start of the school day – but this sounds more like sunset. Sunrises (at least around here) are usually more pink & purple than orange … but most schools that I know don’t start classes that early in the morning, unless it’s a zero hour class or something. But there aren’t usually big crowds of students at school at that time of day, in my experience.) that I can never replicate with any of my watercolors or acrylics. (I do like this detail. In just a small turn of a phrase, you’ve told me this character is an artist.) I turn my back on both and climb the side stairs. I keep my head down and don’t look anyone in the eye as we cram like sardines into the halls on our way to class. Mostly, no one bothers me. Mostly. (I like this as a last sentence to the first page, too. It’s intriguing and makes me want to read on to see who does bother him/her.)
(You’re a great writer, with a gift for painting a powerful image on the page. And I’d probably turn the page to see what’s going on. But so far, you haven’t really hooked me completely. I need to have a better sense of who this character is and what’s going on in his/her world to make me care enough to keep reading beyond page two. Is this a moment of contemplating suicide? Or is the character just a water baby, who really wants to go for a swim instead of sitting through boring homeroom? Is there some kind of supernatural element coming into play? Some stronger-than-normal connection to the water that we should be aware of? Or is it just that the canal happens to be the closest, easiest spot for committing suicide? You definitely want the reader to have lots of questions at the end of your first page, so they’ll be compelled to keep reading. But if I have too many questions with no answers, I’m more likely to get frustrated and stop reading. I’d really like to see you focus your talent with imagery toward giving us a more specific picture of who your main character is and what he/she needs more than anything else. Make us care about the character, and we’re more likely to want to keep turning pages.)
Critique #36 – Query
Dear Agent X,
Three years ago Sabina Delacruz walked away from her criminal family. (I like that you’re starting off immediately with your pitch. You want to draw the reader in right away.) Goodbye to breaking and entering, stealing, and confidence tricks. Hello to life on the right side of the law. Now Sabina’s life is filled with art history papers, roommate disputes, and preparing for her final year of college. But when an old friend from Sabina’s past shows up at her apartment, her new life is endangered before it’s barely begun. (What sets your story apart? So far, this could be the set-up for any number of “con-artist trying to turn her life around, suddenly pulled back into her old life” stories. And there are a lot of those. What makes your story unique? Why should I pick yours over all of the others in this category? Remember, personal, specific stakes are so much more powerful than general “her whole world is in danger of crumbling” stakes.)
Sabina discovers her twin sister, Serafina, (The twins’ names are so similar that it might be difficult to keep them separate in the reader’s mind. You might consider changing one of them.) has gone missing. Complicating matters is the fact that she vanished while on a job. Not just any job either but the con of a lifetime: infiltrate a crew of thieves set on stealing a priceless artifact and then when the heist is complete, steal the score from underneath their noses. It would make sense to declare the con a bust except Serafina’s employer does not like being disappointed and there are bodies to prove it. (This paragraph is kind of convoluted, and there are a lot of words here, not giving me a whole lot of non-essential information. You don’t really need to tell us all of the details of Serafina’s con job. I’d probably cut the last sentence from the previous paragraph and condense this entire paragraph into a single sentence or two for a bigger punch. Something like, “When Sabina discovers that her twin sister has gone missing in the middle of a major con, she’s compelled to assume her twin’s identity to figure out what went wrong.”)
To protect both her family (If she cut all ties with her family three years ago, why is it her responsibility to protect her family now? And what makes me believe that she will care enough to do so?) and the life she’s built, Sabina assumes her twin’s identity and rejoins the thieves. Not only does she hope to complete Serafina’s job and deliver the artifact, she also intends to locate her missing sister. But fooling her new partners is the easy part. As Sabina slips further back into the life she left, she finds it harder to face the prospect of saying goodbye a second time — especially when she finds herself dangerously attracted to one of her fellow thieves, who believes she’s someone else. (You could probably cut most, if not all, of this paragraph as well. There are so many stories (in books, as well as in movies & television) that deal with criminals who try to walk away from their shady pasts, only to be pulled back in again. And because the tropes are so common, it’s difficult to set your story apart with a plot-driven query letter. Turn the focus to your characters. Focus on the WHY behind it all to really draw us in. WHY did Sabina walk away from her criminal family? WHY is she so determined to turn her life around? WHAT is so compelling about her old life that she’s drawn back in so easily?)
(Ask yourself: What does Sabina want more than anything else in the world? What does she need? (This may or may not be the same thing.) What is she willing to sacrifice to achieve her goals? What stands in her way? What horrible catastrophe will occur if she doesn’t succeed? Remember to make the stakes as specific and personal as possible. In a genre where life and death situations are common, “Someone will die” isn’t as compelling as “she might never get to experience a typical spring break with her sorority sisters.” (Or, you know, whatever it is that’s driving Sabina’s individual story.))
BAD GIRLS LIVE FAST is a 75,000-word contemporary NA. I like to think of it as (This phrase automatically makes me think “You might like to think of it as such, but does it deliver?” Try to avoid phrases like “I think” in a query letter. Make your language more concrete here.) an older, multicultural HEIST SOCIETY with the contentious family dynamics of THE CURSE WORKERS. (I’ve only read one of these comp titles, but this still works for me, because you’ve given me a sense of why these titles work in comparison with your manuscript. The titles you’ve given are popular enough to be easily googleable, in case the agent hasn’t read them, and the chances are high that the agent will have read at least one, if not both. Yet, they’re not huge blockbuster titles that will make it sound like you’re too full of yourself. (Anyone who claims to have written “the next Harry Potter” is just setting himself up for a lot of eye-rolling.) This is an effective, well-balanced comparison, I think.)
Thank you for your time and consideration. Great way to close. Professional and to-the-point.
The structure of this query is great, and it’s a good length. I might suggest adding a few sentences to personalize the query, explaining why you think this particular agent would be a good match, and of course, narrowing the focus in your pitch to really make it pop, but you have a good grasp of the basics. Just a bit of polishing, and you’ll be golden.
Thank you, Catherine and Veronica, for your critiques. Everyone, come back tomorrow for the next round of critiques!