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 …
Elizabeth Briggs is the author of MORE THAN MUSIC, a New Adult romance. She’s a full-time geek who plays the guitar, mentors at-risk teens, and volunteers with a dog rescue group. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and a pack of small, fluffy dogs. She’s represented by Kate Schafer Testerman of KT Literary and is a member of SCBWI and RWA. She previously worked as an intern for literary agent Jill Corcoran of Jill Corcoran Literary Agency, an intern for Entangled Publishing, and an editor for Curiosity Quills Press.
MORE THAN MUSIC
Music major Maddie Taylor just finished her junior year of college and has a summer internship lined up with the LA Philharmonic, yet every night she practices guitar and secretly dreams of a louder life. But geeky girls like her don’t get to be rock stars. That is, until tattooed singer Jared Cross catches her playing guitar and invites her to join his band on The Sound, a reality TV show competition.
Once on the show, Maddie discovers there’s more to Jared than his flirty smile and bad boy reputation – and that he’s just as big a geek as she is. With each performance their attraction becomes impossible to ignore, but when the show pressures them to stay single they’re forced to keep their relationship secret.
As the competition heats up, Jared will do whatever it takes for his band to win, and Maddie must decide if following her dream is worth losing her heart.
Elizabeth’s critiques …
Critique #21 – First Page:
Lacy curtains swaying with the warm breeze caused moonlight to dance an eerie waltz around the room. A lone cricket chirping its serenade outside the open window broke the tension of the night. Sarah Nance’s taut shoulders relax as she listened to its rhythmic tune keep time to her racing heart. Sitting on the bed in a silent battle of fight or flight, the thirty-two-year-old tucked her bent knees up under her faded baseball shirt and hugged them to her chest. The snug cocoon she created offered little to calm her rattled nerves. A shimmy rolled across her shoulders. Needle stiff hairs pricked the back of her neck. She sensed the time was near. With bated breath she waited. She knew her husband could do nothing to stop what was about to happen, and for a moment watched him sleep. Swallowing the knot of fear lodged in her throat, a sigh of resignation slipped past her dry lips.
My overall suggestion here is to try to get closer with your point of view. Even though it’s in third person we’re still experiencing the story through Sarah’s mind. For example, it takes the reader out to be told her last name or her age, because Sarah would never think of herself as “the thirty-two-year-old.”
As part of getting deeper in her head, try to show more of her thoughts and emotions instead of telling us about them. For example, you tell us she is scared (“knot of fear lodged in her throat”) and resigned (“a sigh of resignation”) but it would be much more powerful if you showed us these emotions through her thoughts. Something like: “She wanted to run screaming from the room and never look back, but she couldn’t. There was nothing she could do to escape this—she’d already tried everything.” (Don’t use my exact lines or anything, I’m just trying to show you what I mean.)
Also, watch your tenses. You shift from past to present tense a few times (ie. “Sarah Nance’s taut shoulders relax as she listened”) , so make sure to stay consistent throughout the book.
The instant the cricket ceased its beckoning song Sarah swung her head to peer into a shadowy corner. She detected a familiar shift in the energy surrounding her, and heaviness filled the air. Adrenaline surged through her veins, turning fright to raging fury, as she glared with narrowed eyes at the spine-tingling apparition floating out of the shadows directly toward her.
Instead of telling us her fright turned to fury, show us why she is angry through her thoughts. Also, I’d like more description here – you say the apparition is spine-tingling, but you could show us by describing it. Is it dripping blood? Wearing tattered clothes? Etc.
Sarah didn’t have a chance to make a sound before the ghost rendered her speechless and unable to move. Her urge to pull the blankets over her head went unheeded.
Above this, you said she wasn’t scared anymore but was angry now. So I’d expect a more angry reaction instead of her trying to pull the blankets under her head (which is a good way of showing us her fear – so maybe move it up to when she is scared?).
Overall, I already know a lot about your character, your setting, and her problem, so good job setting everything up. I think if you go a little deeper with your POV this opening will be even stronger!
Critique #22 – Query:
Dear Lovely Mentor:
When teenage brothers, Jack and Bryce, backpack to Grandpa’s cabin in the Northern Colorado mountains, the dangers of the wilderness and a near-death experience (NDE) set up the boys’ diverging paths which lead them to the discovery of a devastating family secret. THE LEDGE is a 34,000 word MG survival adventure written in dual POV. It is set apart from other outdoor adventure books, such as PEAK by Roland Smith or WILD RIVER by P. J. Petersen, by the realistic and heartwarming look at a NDE.
I don’t think this first sentence is necessary because you can get across this information better in the actual query pitch itself (and you do). I suggest you cut it and move the rest of this paragraph to the end of your query, above your bio.
Thirteen-year-old Bryce doesn’t understand why his older brother, Jack, has such a chip on his shoulder. It’s finally summer break, and budding survivalist Bryce wants to have an adventure of a lifetime—and impress his big brother. If only Jack would cooperate instead of insisting on fishing in the flooded river.
I would start your query here, but perhaps combine the first two sentences since you basically say the say same thing twice about Jack in this paragraph. Then mention that the two of them are backpacking (alone?) to grandpa’s cabin in the Northern Colorado mountains, like you mention in your original opening sentence.
Saving Jack and overcoming other wilderness challenges is nothing for Bryce compared to the deadly climbing accident they endure.
Saving Jack from what? All we know is that he was fishing in a flooded river. Did he fall in? Did a bear attack him? It’s not clear, so we need to know more here. And then I wonder why are they going through these challenges (and what sort of challenges?), and where are their parents and their grandpa anyway? This is why I asked above if they were hiking alone. And how is the climbing accident deadly – and to whom?
While one boy journeys into the afterlife, the other brother must risk his own life to save him —and prove what he is really made of. Their separate journeys of self-discovery lead them to a long-buried family secret that lies at the root of their strained relationship.
This part is too vague. Tell me which brother is doing what, and give me more info about their separate journeys – is it a physical journey or do you mean it’s all in their heads, or…? We also don’t get much information on Jack in your query, considering the book is dual POV. You might consider doing 1 paragraph for each of the brothers, and then a 3rd paragraph tying their two storylines and journeys together. But if that doesn’t work, just try giving us a little more about his journey too in this query.
I enjoy hiking and camping where this story is set. SCBWI member, Critique Circle member, and former school librarian looking for representation for THE LEDGE.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to your reply.
I think this sounds like a really interesting MG adventure that will definitely appeal to boys. I would have requested pages if this was in the slush pile, but I think if you clarify the points I mentioned above with a few more details it will make this query stand out even more. Good luck!
K.T. is a binge writer. She doesn’t hold to the practice of writing daily, but of doing something writing related daily. Mainly because she tears through whatever she does with a maniac and compulsive focus. Binge write, reader, editor, tv series marathoner, chocolate eater… She loves to encourage other writers, because while the process is lonely – you don’t have to be alone through it. To that end, she started #writemotivation on twitter, to help cheer her friends and anyone else through the trials of writing. Her novel writing exploits are represented by Bree Ogden of D4EO Literary Agency.
K.T.’s critiques …
Critique #23 – First Page:
Angels cannot interfere with mortals. Angels cannot interfere with the circle of life. Repeat. Angels cannot interfere with mortals. Angels cannot interfere with the circle of life…
[The whole inner mantra doesn’t make me want to read further because it doesn’t feel special. I would start here instead – much more character, immediately curious why his knee is dancing in time with the clock] His knee danced with a tick, tick, tick, and Jacob gave a somber glance up at the face of the clock in the hospital room. [I don’t think we need to know he glanced up somberly. Show us he’s somber, don’t tell us. Jacob glanced up at the…] It was fastened onto a wall decorated in little brown bears drinking from tiny tea cups. Framed by small balloon bouquets of red, yellow, green and blue, the bears smiled. The clock did not. It glared back at Jacob with a message — its black hands now a perfect horizontal on the three and nine. That perfect [repetition] straight line shouted:
And that was the
very problem. There was a balance Jacob was called had to protect, and it very often disagreed with his impulse to stop people from dying.
Especially young people.
He did a quick mental inventory. Today made his fifth visit. His stare was uneasy as it fell over the little red-haired, freckled girl sleeping in the hospital bed with the covers tucked right under her chin.
Her name was Julie, and he stumbled onto her a few days ago when he’d come to the hospital on official “death” business. He was forced to take a child only a few rooms away from her. After it was over, one step at a time, he eagerly made his way to the exit, ready to shed the weight of what he’d just done, when he walked right by Julie’s room and was suddenly stopped in his tracks by the sound of a little voice singing. [Why? I see no motivation here. He has to do this. It is against his nature, because it’s his job? What makes this his job? Why is he forced to maintain a balance? Are loved ones going to die if he doesn’t?]
[Although I personally love the idea of an angel of death who doesn’t like his job, it’s been done before. A lot. Jacob feels flat and much of his emotion and actions are told to us, not shown. This genre is very overcrowded. The first page needs to draw the reader in and show them what’s special – what sets it apart, and right now it doesn’t do that. Sorry.]
Critique #24 – First Page:
“What the hell is this?” Jake asked looking at a Youtube video. “Dude is that you down on your knee?”
I leaned over and glanced at his phone, even though I knew it probably was me and yeah I was on my knee. “Yeah.”
“Dude you’re viral. You have like a gazillion hits.”
“Yeah,” I repeated.
Jake pulled himself out of the beanbag chair he lounged in when scrolling through his phone and headed for the door.
“Jake, I’d rather you didn’t show that to everyone.” I knew it wouldn’t deter him but it was worth a try. [First up – until I reached this point, I sincerely, honestly, and completely reasonably thought this book was going to be about something entirely different]
“Dude, you’re getting married.” He smiled and left before I could respond.
In the hallway I heard his voice echo off the walls. “Kelson is getting hitched.”
I let my head drop back on my pillow. Jake wasn’t a total douche. I could have gotten a worse roommate, but at the moment he ranked up there with complete dick.
We’d just got back from winter break and were hanging out in the dorms waiting for classes to start up. I wasn’t sure why I didn’t question why Jake even found the video. I guess he did say it went viral.
“Hey Kels? You getting married for reals?” Keanu, a guy I went to high school with but had never really known, stepped into my room.
“No it was a misunderstanding.”
“I watched video. How is ‘will you spend the rest of your life with me’ a misunderstanding?”
Brenda’ s note: The above is 245 words and where the excerpt should end. I left the overage that was sent because I believe the first page is starting in the wrong place (with dialogue and no narration or set up) just in case you wanted to read on to see if you feel it should start someplace else, as well.
[Secondly – I think you’re starting in the wrong place. I don’t care enough about these people talking to care to read past this point, which was the 245 word count. That’s a whole page, where I literally know nothing to cement me into the characters or their situation. Starting with dialogue is usually not advisable but can be done, if done well. If you HAVE to start with dialogue, get to the context as soon as possible. Don’t leave the reader dangling. Dialogue can lose your reader quickly. This doesn’t work for me, and I wouldn’t read any further.]
I sat up on my elbows and took a deep breath. I had tried to explain this same thing to my parents but they weren’t very receptive. I wondered if Keanu would be. “Okay. Sadie was hinting at wanting some kind of ring since we decided to get back together. Some sort of a promise ring or something. So I go to WalMart with my thirty bucks I had saved from grocery money and I get her this ring. Totally fake blue cut glass ring. But I knew she’d like it. Anyway. I head over on Christmas night and I pull one of her sisters aside and say I need help, I want to surprise her with this ring. And they total freak and tell me what to say. I was so nervous I just ramble off the words and then I find out they filmed it and uploaded it and by the next morning I am getting texts and facebooked and twittered with congratulations. I didn’t mean to ask her to marry me. But how do you go backwards from that?”
Keanu stared at me in much the same way my parents did. He didn’t buy it. I wasn’t sure I even did. Was I really that stupid? What was worse I just let it go. I figured I wouldn’t totally suck to marry her…I guess.
[However, I did read everything you sent me. My suggestion is this: Start in a place that will grab my attention. Perhaps back with the proposal. Or perhaps with Kelson watching and rewatching the viral video of himself and every time he hears her yes, yes, yes, he mutters, no, no, no – how did this get so out of control. I never meant to propose. Which would immediately make me ask: Well, why is he there and proposing, why didn’t he tell her then? Who is this girl? What are their circumstances – why did he even have a ring? Give me something like that in the first hundred words, tie me to your character and his/her story. Make me WANT to know more, HAVE to know more. Give him less of a don’t care attitude. Right now, he feels sort of flat and completely passive – and well, sort of boring. As it is right now, I just wouldn’t care to read past this. Sorry.]
Thank you, Elizabeth and K.T., for your critiques. Everyone, come back tomorrow for the next round of critiques!