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 …
Kes Trester is a former feature film development executive and television commercial producer. Her (hopefully) soon-to-be published YA thriller 7 DAYS is currently under option for a television series. She is represented by Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary.
Kes’s critiques …
Critique #29 – Query:
Thank you for your insightful blogpost regarding the one-hour offer of representation scam. Sadly, it seems this is becoming an epidemic. I promise I will be completely truthful about all offers of representation. I’ll save the lies about a successful writing career for my high school reunion. As you have expressed an interest in humorous middle grade novels, I believe you may be interested in my latest project. As a fan of personalized openings, this is working for me, though it is perhaps a sentence too long.
Laser vision isn’t so hot when you’re cross-eyed. Supersonic flight’s a downer when motion sickness keeps you grounded. Marshall Preston’s a Defective, a person with superhuman abilities that are counteracted by some very human setbacks. I don’t think the first 2 sentences are necessary when you can open with a terrific high-concept pitch. I would also make that opening line even punchier and not just allude to his challenges (i.e. Marshall Preston is a 12yo superhero. Too bad leaping tall buildings makes him want to barf.)
While other kids are recruited into superhero teams, Marshall’s stuck in seventh grade with a kid who can run at super speed but can’t stop, another with a radioactive peanut allergy that turns him into a swollen Hulk, and a slow-witted telepath who reads everyone’s thoughts out loud. This is good, but it could go farther in setting the scene. Here’s your chance to emotionally hook us with a fun band of misfits known as The Defectives. Defectives aren’t exactly superhero material but when Marshall uncovers a plot to destroy one of the greatest superhero teams of all time, he and his band of less-than-perfect super humans set out to prove that just because you’re defective, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a hero. The stakes are spelled out loud and clear.
Completed at 20,000 words,
Superfail SUPERFAIL (your book title and those of others are traditionally all in caps in query letters) is the graphic novel-esque (Is this different from a graphic novel? I’ve seen agents tweet unfavorably about people creating their own genres) middle grade book that emerged after I tossed a copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and some Marvel comics into a vat of radioactive goo. It is aimed at a superhero-loving audience (from 7 and up) (good that you’re thinking ahead about market positioning) and has the potential to be the first of a series. I also personally like the title THE DEFECTIVES.
I have prior experience working with Disney Imagineer Brian Crosby as a lead comic writer (Barbiespawn webcomic 2001), have placed in several writing competitions (anything worth noting?), and in a recent review, was told by S.P. Sipal, author of A Writer’s Guide to Harry Potter, “Your writing is so strong that I have little to add.” No offense to the reviewer, but I don’t know how meaningful this will be to an agent. I suggest you focus more on selling you. An agent will be the judge of your writing.
This is on a multiple submission. If you are interested in reading the full manuscript, however, I will be happy to give you exclusivity for six weeks. Unless the agent has something in his/her submission guidelines that addresses these issues, I would cut this paragraph.
As the story relies on visual irony, illustration notes have been included. Per your submission guidelines, I have pasted the first 10 pages below.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you shortly. Most agent guidelines state response times of between 3 weeks to 6 months. I would lose the “shortly” – picky, I know.
Critique #30 – First Page:
“I can kill the kafir in numbers that will take your breath away.”
“Masha’Allah, brother, tell me more.”
Intriguing dialogue. I, too, want to know more.
We met under a cyan sky. The forest spread around us in fractals. Tree branches hung heavy with snow. The scene occasionally broke into pixelated blocks when the bandwidth dipped.
Ah, we’re in a game. Cool. Now let’s get back to the action….or not.
The orc breathed in and out with the regularity of a subroutine. Behind him, a lone goblin lurched out of the trees and whacked him with a club. The orc took it on the shoulder with equanimity. Follower_of_Light_97 was not an avatar who cared about dispatching Rockjaw Invaders. After months of wary circling, he wanted to talk to me at last. And it had to be here, in this massive multi-player online game universe, because he was keen to avoid keywords like “waging Jihad” and “weapons of mass destruction” in his gmail inbox.
With a ctrl-shift-S, my own avatar let loose a spell at the goblin and felled it. We needed no interruptions, and I did not want to waste time teaching Follower_of_Light_97 the basics of self-defense. I turned my attention back to the chat window on the left of the screen, where Follower_of_Light_97 had been busy, typing away.
Too much dense description before I’m invested in the characters. The emotional connection forged with the opening dialogue is wearing thin, and if this is indicative of the pacing, I hope it’s not an action story.
“Indeed, esteemed Brother in Arms. I speak of the State Fair. You are aware of this corrupt American tradition?”
I typed back: “Vaguely, brother. It has been many years since I have left the caves.”
I chewed my lip. Had I laid it on too thick just now? I imagined Follower_of_Light_97 sitting in some cheap apartment, fertilizer and hydrogen peroxide piled high in the kitchen, picking out the letters on his keyboard with two fingers.
Now we’re getting somewhere. With a few lines of well-chosen dialogue and a handful of descriptive sentences, I know who these characters are (or at least pretending to be through the veil of internet chatter), and the stage is set for something dramatic to happen. I don’t need to know up front that the protagonist has been reeling in the mark for months, or that the game is the best way for them to communicate (read it again without the middle two paragraphs and see how it flies). Background information can be woven in along the way if it’s relevant, and valuable page one real estate will be freed up for far more interesting twists and turns. This writer has obviously worked hard on his or her craft, but now it’s time for the ruthless editor inside to take over.
Stephanie is a YA writer with a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction. When she isn’t writing about pirates in outer space, she’s teaching creative writing at a private college in northern California, where she tries to convince her students to write books set in exciting places. She’s represented by the amazing Jessica Negrón of Talcott Notch Literary Services.
Stephanie’s critiques …
Critique #31 – Query:
Before I jump into my line by line critique, I just want to say there are a lot of really fun elements in the query below—time weaving, kidnapping, a super-genetic cyborg race, a tattoo artist who can weave magic into his artistry, cyborg dragons, a clockwork guild, a Time Builders Lab. I am intrigued by so many of the things you mention! Unfortunately, I feel as if you have a little too much going here.
I’d love to see you pare this down, cut any unnecessary names, details, sub-plots, and focus on your main conflict. I know it’s tempting to show everything that makes your book unique, but when you show too much, it gets confusing and gives the impression your story will be confusing as well.
Sixteen-year-old Sterling Bridges knows nothing about being a time weaver until she moves to Area 43. I was intrigued by this line—I’m totally curious about area 43, but then you never mention it again. As part of the super-genetic cyborg race, her powers are limited. When her sister is kidnapped, she learns just how helpless she really is: her sister holds the key that will unlock Sterling’s full power. Her only goal is to find her sister, but in order to do so, she must harness the terrifying techniques of time weaving. I feel as if these last two sentences show your main conflict, but they also seem to conflict with each other. If Sterling needs to find her sister in order to harness her full powers, how can she harness the terrifying techniques of time weaving before that happens? You also mention that as a super-genetic cyborg she’s not very powerful, which makes it seem less important the she have access to her full powers. So, what does she need these powers for?
Zavait is a tattoo artist who can infuse magic with his artistry. Cool! I like this. He takes Sterling to the mysterious Time Builders Lab, where she learns the truth about her time travel powers. Frightened by her ability to weave time, she seeks guidance from Zavati (Is it Zavait or Zavati?), whose job in the Clockwork Guild is to keep their world safe from those who want to control it: humans. So, he’s a magical tattoo artist and he also helps time weavers for the Clockwork Guild? Does the reader need to know both these things? In your query you just want to show the important facts. They despise cyborgs and want them all enslaved or destroyed. What happened to the plot about her sister? I think you can simplify this paragraph quite a bit.
Sterling is the first female cyborg to be apprenticed by the Order of Engineers in the Clockwork Guild. Has everyone else been male? Or non-cyborg? And is it really necessary to mention this? But when she’s sent into the human world on her first assignment, with only her cyborg dragon as her companion, she fails miserably. I really like dragons, but when I read this it seemed to come out of nowhere. Is it really necessary to mention her dragon? And again, what happened to the necessity of finding her sister? Her dragon malfunctions and Sterling barely escapes with her life. Her new mission? This question is awkward. Avoid capture while she searches for the truth about her past, hunts for her sister, and avoids falling in love with Zavati. This last line has too much going on. And none you never make your stakes completely clear. All of the final things you mention are things she needs to do, not stakes, and mentioning so many things at once makes each set of stakes seem less valuable.
The Clockwork Bounty Hunter is a 62,000 word Fairy Tale Retelling of Snow White and Rose Red, with a nod toward Once Upon A Time. This closing line works. I love retellings. However, as I read your query, I had no idea this was a retelling. If you’re writing a retelling, while it doesn’t need to be completely obvious in the query, when the reader learns it is a retelling they should be able to easily see how at least part of the query reflects the story/stories it is attempting to retell.
I think this query has a lot of potential, but it definitely needs some reworking. I’d love to see you focus more on the kidnapping plot. Make this conflict clearer. Then make sure you show what is at stake for Sterling if she doesn’t find her sister. Your last sentence should close with strong stakes.
Critique #32 – First Page:
Again, before I jump into my critique, I just want to say, I like the writing in the sample below. I felt the tone of your voice matched the tone of this scene. You had some very clear visual images and descriptions, and I was really intrigued by the twelve strangers. That being said, I’m not sure you’re starting in the right place. While I thought some of your descriptions were nice, I felt as if you spent too much time focusing on the weather and the setting; I didn’t get a strong enough picture of Ange, especially not enough to care about whether she lives or dies. I also wasn’t able to clearly tell what genre this is. I’m guessing it’s possibly fantasy, maybe historical, or historical fantasy? But I’m not sure.
A northern wind brought the scent of ice and steel. While I like the scents of ice and steel I feel as if you could have a stronger opening here. It roared forth, wild and whirling. But Ange did not feel the cold; she never did. I’m three sentences in, and so far you’ve mentioned either the wind or cold in every sentence. I’m glad you also mention Ange, but I would like something that shows me a little more about her. What she felt was exhaustion. A week spent recovering in the sickroom had taken its toll. Her breaths came fast and shallow, echoing the heartbeats throbbing in her head. Her muscles ached as she moved, her bare feet sinking into the snow with a crunching sound. I am not dying, she chanted in her mind. I am not dying. I feel bad saying this, but at this point, since I don’t really know anything about Ange’s character, I don’t really care whether she lives or dies. I’m not sure this is the best place to start your story. Her nightdress tangled around her legs, but she gathered the weight of the fabric to her thighs in one fist, thus allowing her legs to push through the last bit of incline. Another push, and she made it to the top. I really like that you mention Ange’s nightdress. This detail made me curious, and I thought showing her tromp through the snow in a nightdress created a strong visual, but I’m still not sure this story starts in the right place. In order for me to care about whether she lives or dies I need to know a little more about Ange’s character. Why should I care about her? I get the sense she has an interesting story—something strong must have motivated her to make a run for it barefoot and sick in the snow, but I don’t get a strong enough sense of what that is.
Wind blew her long, tangling strands into her face, momentarily obstructing her illness brightened eyes — but she knew what she had seen. Dropping onto her knees, she crawled nearer to the heart of the ruins. She noticed her shallow breaths dissipating like puffs of steam, so thinking fast, she ate snow. Although there’s new action in this paragraph, I feel like this is paragraph gives a similar impression to the paragraph above.
Peering over a toppled stone column, she took quick appraisal. Twelve. She counted twelve strangers. The ends of bulky fur capes dragged behind their thick-strapped boots. To clear away their footprints. Whoever they are, they don’t want to be followed. This is intriguing! This part makes me want to read more!
The largest and tallest of the group moved to the absolute center of the ruins. The crumbled walls of the once fortress rounded in layers and sheltered a flat center,
known to sprout flowers and grass in the spring. I would cut this bit, I don’t know that it adds anything vital to this scene, and everything in your first 250 words should be vital. It might be more powerful to show what Ange is thinking—is she afraid of being spotted? Does she want these twelve to help her? Is she curious after observing they don’t want to be followed?
I think there is some great potential with this opening, but I think if you are going to keep this as your story’s starting point, it needs to be reworked. I’d like to see a little more about Ange—like I said above, give me a reason to care about her. And, I think it would be good to try and trim some of the description to get to the twelve a little faster—I want to see Ange’s response to them!
Good luck! I hope some of this was helpful!
Thank you, Kes and Stephanie, for your critiques. Everyone, come back tomorrow for the next round of critiques!