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July Workshop with Pitch Wars Mentors … Gail Nall & J.C. Nelson!

Friday, 18 July 2014  |  Posted by Brenda Drake

B workshop

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 …


Gail Nall

Gail Nall

Website | Twitter | Goodreads

Gail Nall lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her family and more cats than necessary. When she’s not writing books, she manages grants for a homeless shelter and chases her toddler. She once drove a Zamboni, has camped in the snow in June, and almost got trampled in Paris. Gail’s middle grade debut, BREAKING THE ICE, will be out from Aladdin/S&S on January 13, 2015. She is also the co-author of the upcoming RSVP books with Jen Malone (Aladdin/S&S, May 2015 and Spring 2016). She blogs at Writing and Stuff, Tweets as @gailecn, and is on Goodreads.

BREAKING THE ICE is available for preorder now!

Breaking the Ice cover

Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Kaitlin has always dreamed of being a champion figure skater, and she’s given up a lot to pursue her passion. But after having a totally uncharacteristic and decidedly NOT figure-skating-approved tantrum after getting her scores at a major competition she’s dropped by her coach and prestigious skating club.

When no other club in town will have her, she’s forced to join the ridiculed and rundown Fallton Club, jokingly referred to as the Fall Down Club. At first Kaitlin thinks this is a complete disaster, but after meeting some of the other skaters, including a boy (who happens to have the most perfect hair she’s ever seen) Kaitlin thinks it might actually not be so bad.

But when she’s tasked with learning a whole new program right before Regionals and figures out that almost all the other skaters target Fallton, she thinks joining the Fall Down Club may just be the second biggest mistake she’s ever made.

In this figure skating themed debut, Kaitlin learns that when you fall down, you have to pick yourself up – even if it’s in front of judges and a crowd.


Gail’s critiques …


Critique # 37 – First Page:

Cash crept up to Mrs. Donnelly’s porch and dropped the paper bag on the doorstep. He pulled a lighter from his pocket and looked over his shoulder.

“The coast is clear,” Aaron whispered from the bushes. “Do it!”

Cash ignited the edge of bag. Fire engulfed it. The flame was mesmerizing. The smell was not. I’d suggest combining a couple of these shorter sentences. When you have so many short sentences in a row, it dilutes their effect.

“What are you waiting for?” Aaron said. “Ring it. Let’s get out of here!”

Cash snapped back to the urgency of the moment. He rang the doorbell. The curtains split faster than expected. A pale face appeared in the window. Mrs. Donnelly’s eyes met Cash’s. At least he thought they did. He couldn’t be sure in the dark. This is a great paragraph, especially the sentence in which Mrs. Donnelly may or may not see Cash. Again, I’d combine two of the shorter sentences into a longer one, just to vary the sentence structure in the paragraph.

“Come on!” Aaron said.

Cash dove behind the bushes, panting. “That was close,” Cash he said, turning to Aaron. But Aaron was gone. “Of course.”

Cash crouched behind the bush to enjoy the show. The front door swung open. Mrs. Donnelly’s mouth gaped. “Help!” She she finally yelled. “Fire! Somebody help me!”

The old widow stood there, helpless and yelling, until a neighbor’s porch light flipped on. A man came out and grabbed Mrs. Donnelly’s hose. Instead of stating that Mrs. Donnelly is “helpless”, can you show why Cash thinks she’s helpless? This goes to the point I make in the longer note at the end of the query.

“Crap, he’s not going to stomp out the crap,” Cash said to himself from the bushes. He chuckled at his own stupid joke, wishing Aaron was around to hear it. When the fire was extinguished, Cash watched for his chance to slip around the back of the houses. Police lights flashed. Cash froze. “Profanity,” he said. “How did they get here so fast?” I’m guessing you culled the cuss word for the sake of the blog. 🙂 But I’ll add my two cents from my own publishing experience—cussing does not fly in MG, especially when it’s coming from the main character. Depending on the imprint, you might be able to get away with a “He swore” or an almost-cuss-word (like “crap”). I’d suggest using one of these options when querying agents, because you don’t want to give them any reason to think your manuscript won’t sell.

This is a very well-written opening scene. The only thing I felt I missed was a reason to like your main character. With only this much to go on (and this might be all an agent or editor reads to form an opinion of your book), Cash comes across as an awfully mean kid. All of my sympathy goes toward Mrs. Donnelly. I almost felt something for Cash when he discovered Aaron gone, but I think you need something more than that. If Cash showed a twinge of guilt for what he’s doing, for how he’s making Mrs. Donnelly feel—even while he’s waiting to enjoy the “show”—that would go a long way toward making him more likeable. (He describes Mrs. D as “helpless” – you might be able to expand upon that a little.) Otherwise, this is an engaging opening, and without knowing the rest of the plot, it feels as if you’re starting right before the main character’s life changes, which is exactly where you want to start! Your dialogue is effortless, and the writing feels MG. Great work!


Critique #38 – Query:

Dear Agent Name,

I am seeking representation and would love for you to consider my [add word count here] MG (spell this out) [add genre here] novel, RETURN TO SPENDER, which recently won the award for the best unpublished novel from The Great Midwest Book Festival. This is a pretty long sentence. I’d suggest breaking off the award as a separate sentence. It has elements found in both Bigger than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder and Seven Wild Sisters by Charles de Lint. This sentence is a bit clunky. You have two options: 1) reword to: “It will appeal to fans of BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX…”, or 2) be specific about what these elements are so the agent will have a vivid image of how your book fits into the market. Example (and I’m making this up completely, hence the different titles): THE WOOLLY MAMMOTH is the magic of HARRY POTTER meets the voice of THE PRINCESS DIARIES. (Also, a minor detail: if you’re going to capitalize one book/manuscript title, do it for all the titles in your query.)

The elements of this paragraph above (when you add in the word count and genre) are spot-on. You’ve got (or you’ll have): title of the ms, category, genre, word count, an award, and comp titles. Nice job! There is no right or wrong answer about whether you should start with this paragraph or with your hook paragraph. Either way is perfectly acceptable.

When his grandfather dies, eleven-year-old William Jeffrey discovers he shares two things with his ancestors; an elusive a leap year birthday that comes only once every four years, and money that‘s been enchanted by Irish fairy magic which returns every time he spends it. This is a great hook! My suggested changes simplify it and make it a little easier to read. If it’s only the one $20 bill mentioned below that’s magic, I’d change “money” to “a twenty-dollar bill” so that the next paragraph makes more sense.

On its way back to William, the envelope carrying his magical twenty-dollar bill travels to the hereafter, enabling him to correspond with his dead relatives. This is a little confusing, mostly because I’m not sure how the $20 got away from William in the first place. I don’t know that you need to explain how the bill ended up letting him talk to deceased ancestors—just focus on the fact that it does let him do this. For example: “Not only can he buy endless packs of gum, the magic money also lets William talk to dead relatives.” While forced to live within the confines of their four rules, the choices William makes when dealing with Emma, his former best friend, and Bogan, his fairy guide, catapults him on a path that break the most sacred rule: You must never reveal anything, absolutely anything, about the gift to anyone. Before you mention any rules or the choice William has to make, you might briefly talk about what the relatives want from William, or why he wants to talk to the relatives. That would show why it’s so important, later in the query, that he not lose the connection. Then, I’d go on to simplify the sentence you have above. Since you only discuss one rule in the query, stick with that. You can talk about all four rules in the synopsis. So, something as simple as: “The most important rule for this fairy-enchanted magic? You must never reveal…” (And see how I worked in the fairy-enchantment fact deleted from the hook paragraph?) And then be specific about the choice William has to make. For example: “William must decide whether to [fill in the choice] with Emma, his former best friend, and Bogan, his fairy guide.” The punishment is swift, but when things escalate between the trio, William must learn to stand up for himself and embrace the limitations or risk losing the bill and his connection to his ancestors. Even worse, he could destroy the family’s inheritance forever. I always think the hardest parts of a query are the hook paragraph and the very end. It’s far too easy to get generic with the end, because you don’t want to give too much away. One of the best ways to deal with this is to lay the repercussions of the choice the main character has to make. So you’ve stated the choice in the previous sentence. Now, you can say: If William chooses to [fill in whatever one option is], then [fill in what will happen] will happen, but if he doesn’t, then [fill in what will happen].

I am a member of SCBWI and three critique groups. I’ve spent the past four years studying my craft through the University WI Eau Claire, University WI Madison and several Writer’s Workshops. This is great! Minor suggestions: spell out Wisconsin, and be specific about who hosted the workshops (because for all the agent knows, they could be hosted by Joe Bob Bubba down the street).

Please let me know if you would be interested in reading part or all of RETURN TO SPENDER. Thank you for your time and attention, and I look forward to hearing from you. The crossed out part is a given (and I totally stole that advice from Janet Reid, the Query Shark herself!).


JC Nelson

J.C. Nelson

Website | Twitter

This month, J.C. Nelson is celebrating the release of “Free Agent,” the first novel in the Grimm Agency series.  It’s available July 29th from Ace books and you can preorder it now.



Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes

When it comes to crafting happily-ever-afters, the Agency is the best in the land of Kingdom. The Fairy Godfather Grimm can solve any problem—from eliminating imps to finding prince charming—as long as you can pay the price…

Working for Grimm isn’t Marissa Locks’s dream job. But when your parents trade you to a Fairy Godfather for a miracle, you don’t have many career options. To pay off her parents’ debt and earn her freedom, Marissa must do whatever Grimm asks, no matter what fairy-tale fiasco she’s called on to deal with.

Setting up a second-rate princess with a first-class prince is just another day at the office. But when the matchmaking goes wrong, Marissa and Grimm find themselves in a bigger magical muddle than ever before. Not only has the prince gone missing, but the Fae are gearing up to attack Kingdom, and a new Fairy Godmother is sniffing around Grimm’s turf, threatening Marissa with the one thing she can’t resist: her heart’s wishes.

Now Marissa will have to take on Fairies, Fae, dragons, and princesses to save the realm—or give up any hope of ever getting her happy ending…


J.C. critiques …


Critique #39 – First Page:

Chapter 1

From a distance, the Bank of Detroipia looks like a bank should at midnight: closed and dark. Still, the Holy Head’s never wrong. And this is the first time he’s ever given me a tip. Me. Not Iron Curtain or the others.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about your first sentence, but I’m still reading, so I guess it’s doing its job.

I’m not gonna screw it up.

That’s right. Mega Girl, super strong teen, is going stop that bank from—
I’m going to stop right here and say that I LOVE superhero fiction.
“Watch it, stupid!”

A cab tears around the corner and splashes muddy water on me.
I’d suggest just “mud” on me. Or a “mud puddle.” And you might be able to do better. “Drenches me with muddy water”?
I stumble into the curb. The concrete crumbles under my red combat boots. “Crap.”
This is a great image, but I’m trying to reconcile “stumble” with concrete crumbling. The vision I came up with keeps being that the concrete was bad to begin with, but the image I bet you are after is like when Mr. Incredible accidentally squeezes his car.
Destruction of city property. Again.

I kick the rubble together.
(I broke this off from the paragraph to comment – Again, if she stumbled into a curb, there’s a boot sized break in the curb. What is there to kick together? Perhaps she stumbles into a mailbox? Or a streetlight? Something that would leave some wreckage?)
I don’t have time for shattered sidewalks and muddy tights. Dad’s going to be on my case if I miss this. He’s freaked enough as it is without me ruining yet another uniform. Goes with the territory of having a daughter who can crush cars like polymer clay. I know, pretty hardcore for this five-foot-nothing body, but it makes the whole secret identity thing work.

I have this strength under control. I just need to relax and concentrate. I close my eyes.

I’m in my happy place. A mountain. Breathe in. Cool breeze. Fluffy clouds. Breathe out. Someone hands me a waffle cone. Butter brickle ice cream. My favorite.

Wait. Who handed me that? I’m not alone. It’s him.
You confused me here – I asked “Did she get the ice cream in real life, or her imagination?” After rereading, I think it means she’s imagining HIM handing her her favorite ice cream. But you don’t want me to say “huh?”
I ball my fists and force in another deep breath. I’m the epitome of calm, dang it.

Not going to think about him right now. I have a bank to save.
And…scene. Nice hook here to go on.


Critique #40 -Query:

Dear Agent,

I am pleased to submit for your consideration, STREET KING.
Well done, but consider some personalization. “While stalking you online (NOT EXACTLY THESE WORDS), I saw that you like books about street racing drug lords with double agents.” Just a modicum of personalization that says you aren’t doing a find and replace on AGENT.

In this thrilling tale of mystery, action, and adventure, a man and his gang of criminal friends work together to bring down a drug lord responsible for murdering his sister seven years ago.
This feels wordy – Don’t tell me it’s thrilling, show me a query that makes me say “Dang! That sounds thrilling.” In fact, reading on I’d cut the entire next sentence.

This feels like the start of your query body right here->
Three lives and the landscape of the underground world of Texas were forever changed when Jenna Galvan—Street Queen and one of the most notorious underground street racers ever—was executed.

•Ricky Galvan – disappearing shortly after his sister’s death and thought to have been dead, has spent years recovering…plotting…even assembling a small group of talented criminals looking to avenge.
I’m deeply conflicted about the list format here and want to tell you to can it, but I’m going to focus instead on what you are telling me. And you can do better. The ellipses usually indicate speech trailing off. I can’t rewrite your query, but I’d suggest (if you stick with the list) “Ricky Galvan disappeared after his sisters death, doing his damnedest to make the world believe he was dead. He’s spend the years stewing in rage and preparing for vengeance. Something that describes this time-bomb of a man.

•Devin Brooks – a gifted Special Agent who retired shortly after his mentor’s death and fell in love with Ricky’s former lover, Sara, tried to find peace in living the married life, but when a group of takers hit one of Antonio Hidalgo’s banks, he is forced back into action.
I am not sure you need this at all. In fact, while Devin may be a major character in the book, the point of the query is to get me to read the sample pages. It’s a bonus if I also don’t hate you, but really, the sample pages are your goal. If you HAVE to include him, don’t tell me about his back story. Tell me about now. Tell me about how he’s ticked that he never got to write Galvan that speeding ticket and he’s back, ready to commit a few moving violations of his own.

•Antonio Hidalgo – one of the most vicious drug lords the U.S. and Mexico had ever seen, became most notorious when he executed the Street Queen. Now he must retrieve his hundreds of millions hidden in the U.S. before it is found. And the one man who has knowledge of the money’s location is a corrupted accountant who suddenly becomes public enemy number one.
Well, I didn’t think it was someone else’s hundreds of millions of dollars. And you could characterize him more sharply with simpler phrases. “A drug lord too vicious for Mexico, Antonio Hildalgo never denied executing the Street Queen. But only he knows why. Hidden in the bouncy ball pit at a local chuck-e-cheese is millions of dollars of drug money.” I may have the location wrong, but words are costing you 100,000 dollars each here. Make the most of them.

Unaware to all a double agent watches very move and apparently has plans of his own…the first to the accountant is the first to play his little game.
Love this twist. I read this and nodded and said “Yup, thriller.”

In STREET KING, the end of the race is only just the beginning. Fully complete, it is available upon request.
In this sentence, it feels like you could make a finish line/ start reference. “The finish line of the races is the start of the adventure.” Something like that. Also, if you say something is complete, it’s complete. It can’t be more complete. It also can’t be less complete and still be complete. And honestly, would you be querying at all if it weren’t available on request? No! You’re not sending this mail just to say “Do you like this? Can’t have it Nyah Nyah Nyah!” So I would say “It is complete at [hopefully reasonable word count ] words”

Thank you for time and consideration, I look forward to your speedy response.
Ok. Minor minefield in that last sentence. Speedy. It may BE speedy. It may also be weeks. Publishing is slow right up to the point where it isn’t, so I humbly suggest cutting everything after consideration.



Thank you, Gail and J.C., for your critiques. Everyone, come back tomorrow for the next round of critiques!

Filed: Workshops

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