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July Workshop with Pitch Wars Mentors … Naomi Hughes & Lauren Spieller

Tuesday, 8 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 …

Naomi Hughes

Naomi Hughes

Naomi writes quirky middle-grade books (mostly about unicorn riders) and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. She lives in rural Oklahoma with her family, a hyperactive Border Collie, and a gaggle of obnoxious tree frogs (all named Sherlock). She loves coaching writers through the revision process and offers freelance editing at www.naomiedits.com.



Naomi’s critiques …

Critique #5 – Query:

Dear Agent:

Dr. Evelyn Adams can prevent death. Nice hooky opener! I am immediately intrigued.

Sure, the distance grows between Evelyn and her lab assistant/lover after he becomes a test subject. He resurrects normally—except for his memory of days spent neither dead nor alive. I thought she could only prevent death. “Resurrection” implies that she’s bringing him back from the dead. But those are just nightmares. I’m not sure this paragraph is the best follow-up to your hook. You start off with the very interesting premise of preventing death, and I was expecting you to explain/develop that a bit further here. As it is I’m left with a bit of whiplash, because I have no idea how Dr. Adams can prevent death or whether preventing death is a normal thing in your world. Perhaps something like But just when she’s about to go public with her revolutionary [specific death-preventing ability/product/procedure], one test subject—her own lab assistant/lover—has an abnormal resurrection might be a smoother transition.

When the probiotic Whoa, wait. What probiotic? Is that what Dr. Adams uses to prevent death? This needs to be mentioned sooner, as in the example sentence above. goes public, a desperate wife breaks the rules to save her already dead husband. Enter an apocalypse. This is really vague, and since it sounds like a pretty huge event in your plot, I think you need to be much more specific as to its cause and effect. Why is it against the rules to resurrect someone who’s already dead, and how does that cause an apocalypse? And exactly what sort of apocalypse does it cause—wars? General rioting? A zombie plague? People can be so stupid. I know you’re going for voice here, but I’m not sure People can be so stupid is helping your query. To me it feels a bit too bitter and flippant, which makes me worry that your book will have the same tone, and that can be a turn-off for agents (and readers).

It’s back to the lab for Evelyn. She could save lives after all, if the survivors trust her solution. What exactly is her solution, and what obstacles will she face (other than a general sense of distrust) while trying to implement it? Maybe they’ll just enjoy watching her fail. Who is they? If you mean the survivors, why would they enjoy watching her fail, since it’s their lives she’s trying to save? I’m sensing more of the bitter/flippant tone here.

SEED OF BODY (75,000 words) is a paranormal thriller. Reviewers included Dr. ***, a medicinal chemist at ***. Nice detail!

I teach secondary English and hold a Bachelor’s Degree in English specializing in creative writing from ***. I am a member of the International Thriller Writers and the Horror Writers Association.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


A probiotic that can prevent death sounds so cool, and I’d be enticed to read because of that—except I have no idea what your actual story is about. Right now you’re only giving me a premise (a probiotic that can prevent death) and a sequence of events. We need to know Evelyn’s specific, personal goal, and we need to know the big story conflict—the thing standing in the way of that goal, which all the story’s smaller obstacles feed into. And what are the stakes, the “or else,” the Big Bad Thing that will happen if she fails to achieve her goal? Also, you’re leaving a few elements hanging: what does her lover and his nightmares have to do with anything?

Right now the “meat” of your query is super short at just 92 words. You could easily go to 150 or 200 and still have plenty of room left for your writer credits, and we’d get a much better idea of what to expect from your story. A good exercise might be to write a one-sentence explanation each of the conflict, Evelyn’s goal, and the stakes, and then you can expand on those elements to create a sharper query.

Critique #6 – First Page:

Exhaustion clung to me like wet clothes. A brilliant way to start the day. I dragged my butt to school anyway, wanting to return home before I’d even left the house. This feels more like telling than showing—instead of letting us see the actual scene where she leaves the house and goes to school, you just inform us that it has happened. In any case, this “scene” doesn’t seem important enough to belong in the prime real estate of your first paragraph. Why not just start with her already at school, being exhausted? A pillow, a blanket, and a freaking clear mind…that’s all I wanted.

“You look like shit,” Tara proclaimed, shoving her mirror in my face.

“I know what I look like.” With a flick of my wrist, I pushed the unwanted Unwanted feels repetitive here—we can already tell she doesn’t want it, because she’s flicking away something that’s been shoved in her face. glass away. But to halt a possible rant, I combed my fingers through the mop on my head. This could be subjective, but mop on my head gave me an odd visual. Perhaps through my mop of hair might be clearer? “Can’t sleep.”

“Right,” she disputed, Disputed feels like an odd word choice here. Usually it means that someone is openly arguing, which Tara isn’t. knowing I lied. Shifting her weight, she looked past me and batted her lashes toward Anath standing at his gray locker. “Somebody’s crushing.”

I peeked over my shoulder at his model physique. Strong arms swooped through the straps of his backpack. Dark curls caressed high cheek bones and his brown eyes locked onto mine. Caught, I looked away.

“Stop ogling,” I barked at Tara, smearing gloss across my chapped lips. He watched.

“Talk to him, but not about your stupid nightmares,” she whispered.


“Socialize.” Tara’s mouth went crooked. “Still can’t believe you quit cheerleading.” This feels like a clunky change of subject. I’m confused by what cheerleading has to do with what they’re talking about, and what it has to do with your story so far.

“Believe it,” I sighed. Anath’s glare pierced my personal space. “Why is he always looking at me? It’s creepy.”

“Shush! He’ll hear you.”

Anath sauntered toward me with his lips parted. After two months of transferring to Elverado High, he was finally going to speak to me. I’m confused by your character dynamics here. From the description of Anath and Tara’s ogling of him and your MC putting on lip gloss in front of him (which can be a flirting technique), I thought your main character might be enjoying his attention. Then the MC says he’s creepy. Now she’s saying he’s “finally going to speak to me,” which to me implies that she’s been waiting/hoping for him to talk to her, like she has a crush on him. You may want to clarify her feelings toward him.

I tucked my long hair behind my ear, pretending not to notice.

Your opening feels a bit cliché to me right now. Nothing important or unique has really happened yet—a tired girl goes to school, meets her friend, and a guy walks up to her. I’m not drawn on to read more, because this feels like it could be any other YA book; there’s no hook, no unusual situations or hints of the story question, and the voice just feels sarcastic/snarky (which is very common in YA manuscripts). Because of that, I think you may be starting in the wrong place. As to where you should start, I’d say to think about what makes your story unique and include some of those elements in your opening. There’s also some clunky-feeling writing—several word choices feel odd/unpolished. A good critique partner or beta reader can go a long way in helping you spot and fix both of these issues.



Lauren Spieller

Lauren  is a California girl living in Brooklyn. When she isn’t longingly gazing at interior design blogs, searching for Brooklyn’s best latte, unintentionally collecting owls, or complaining about the weather, she spends her time writing young adult and middle grade novels, as well as short stories for adults. She also works as a freelance editor, specializing in query and manuscript critiques. Lauren welcomes you to contact her about any and all of these things! Lauren is represented by Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management.



Lauren’s critiques…

Critique #7 – Query:

Dear XXX,

I am submitting for your consideration Life Set Sail, a 49,000-word YA LIFE SET SAIL, my YA mystical realism [do you mean ‘magical’ realism? I’ve never heard of ‘mystical realism’] about a girl who is banished to the Titanic after a Wiccan seance goes awry.

Seventeen year old Seventeen-year-old Mae Westaway is almost done with high school, has been accepted to Florida State University’s School of Journalism, and dreams of becoming the next Barbara Walters. [<-I’m not seeing the connection between these two sentences ->] On the eve of the day the Titanic sank, Mae’s best friend Brooke, the worst Wiccan in Orlando (who couldn’t successfully cast a spell if her life depended on it) holds a séance in a sad attempt to try and contact her dead relative who perished on the ship [I’m confused about the timelines. Is this séance being held the night it sinks, or years later on the anniversary?]. But after Mae and Brooke drink too much tequila, and have an impromptu rock out session to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ Brooke’s Wiccan powers become uncontrollable as she chants [avoid Passive Voice: instead, “Brook loses control of her Wiccan powers and chants”] her way through the [adjective] spell and accidentally sends Mae aboard the “Ship of Dreams.” [so she sends her back in time? Unclear.]

Mae blacks out before the séance is over and is shocked to wake the next morning in a the servants’ quarters on the Titanic. Once she discovers that today is April 14th she realizes that she has She discovers that the date is April 14th, granting her the remarkable opportunity to rewrite the past and prevent the ship from sinking. [isn’t she also kind of freaked out? She’s been sent into the past to a ship that’s supposed to sink! I’m not sure my first thought would be “what a remarkable opportunity!”] However, fate has bigger plans for her [bigger than saving the Titanic and the 1,500 people aboard?! Maybe fate has different plans, not bigger ones?] when she meets Danny O’Sullivan, a young Priest-in-training. He opens her eyes to a whole new world [how does he do this in a single day? I just want a hint of the sort of shenanigans I’d get to experience by reading this book] that makes her question her adamant decision to change what’s written in the history books that forces Mae to question her decision to change what’s written in the history books. [What’s missing from the end is the question of how she’s going to get back to her time, and how her decisions will affect her own safety. Don’t tell me the answer…just hint at the problem.]

Complete at 49,000 words, LIFE SET SAIL is a YA [genre] that will appeal to fans of [add comp titles here]. [<- note: I’ve added this paragraph here so that your opening isn’t quite so baggy. You have a few things you need to add. Also, you should know that 49k is very short for YA. Yes, some are that short, but I still suggest you do your best to get this manuscript up to AT LEAST 50k, or 55k if you can make it happen, before you submit to either Pitch Wars or agents/editors. To do so, focus on developing your magical world building and make sure you’ve fully explored the central conflict. Also, make sure the issues that came up in the query summary (above) are fully explored in the manuscript itself.]

I have a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, a master’s in film, and I am a member of SCBWI. I’ve been fascinated with everything Titanic since I was a child and convinced my parents to pay for me to see the James Cameron film seventeen times in theaters (I still have the ticket stubs to prove this!). Many years later I decided to take my passion to the page and write my own story about the famous liner.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Critique #8 – First Page:


The ocean is life just as easily as it is death, my mother once said. Godlike. [When you say “is” do you mean it brings life? That it means life? Since this is your first line, it’s good to be as specific and clear as you can be without being overly wordy.]

The sky was a dark blue, not yet fully black, but I didn’t need the sun to feel the presence of the Pacific Ocean. Its waves crashed nonstop, a continuous melody of howls and roars that emphasized its magnificence, its power and strength.

How breathtaking, how scary.

My hands trembled at the memories of my mom that it brought, and I gripped the balcony’s railing to keep them still. Squeezed hard to calm down when thoughts of my dad rushed in. [I see the connection to the mother, but what brings up memories of her father here? I’d like to see a clear progression: ocean reminds her of mother, mother reminds her of…father? Something else that in turn reminds her of her father?] Deep breaths, Myra, deep breaths. I couldn’t do anything to fix the past, but I had hope for a future away from this place, away from him. [It’s great that you’re introducing conflict here without giving too much away. Just make sure to clarify the previous lines, or this conflict will come off as vague instead of subtle]

Maybe the move was only temporary and I’d be able to return home once summer ended. [permanently? For a visit?] Surely he’d give me a weekend to visit my family and friends. It’s not like my own father would keep me hostage, right? No way was I going to be the beauty to this beast.

A gust of ice-cold wind rushed past me, blowing my hair all over my face and snapping me out of my thoughts. [It’s not necessary to use phrases like “snapping me out of my thoughts.” You’re writing in first person, so if she stops musing and goes back inside, you’re implying that she’s snapped out of it, especially since “I sighed” signals the end of her interiority for now. Instead, you can simply say “…blowing my hair all over my face. I sighed and went back inside.”]

I sighed and went back inside. [watch out for unnecessary paragraph breaks. Save them for when you really need to draw the reader’s attention to a given line]

My dad said his friend had arranged [delete unnecessary words: “My dad’s friend had arranged”] a welcome dinner for us [for ‘us’ or for ‘me’?], which meant I had to appear presentable.[<-There’s a logical disconnect between these two sentences.->] I hadn’t wanted to move. In fact, I tried protesting by not packing and it backfired when my dad decided to throw my dad threw my shit in boxes for me, so now. Now I had to deal with the consequences: not having a clue where my clothes were.

After a minute of staring at the scattered boxes, I rummaged through them and came up with a simple outfit that consisted of a black hippie skirt and a blue spaghetti strap shirt. I exchanged my Harry Potter slippers for ankle boots, and headed out.

[Solid first page: sets a melancholy tone and makes it clear that there’s conflict between father/daughter. However, I’d like a bit more of a hint about what that conflict is, or at least about what’s forcing her to live with her father in the first place. She seems a little pouty in the final paragraphs (especially about seeing her friends and being forced to have dinner), but I’m wondering if there’s a more pressing emotion you could draw on, especially since you’re already hinting at sadness in the first paragraphs. You’re definitely headed in the right direction. Nice work!]


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



Filed: Workshops

  • Karla says:

    Such great feedback! Thank you!!

  • These critiques are full of great tips and suggestions for writers. Thank you, mentors, for your time and willingness to help us succeed. I’ve learned a lot already!

    GREAT job writers and good luck with your revisions.

    *Ignores the popcorn and reaches straight for the chocolate while reading the critiqued submissions* and of course *pom-poms swinging in a cheer for Brenda* 🙂

  • Jennifer says:

    Thank you for taking the time to give feedback. This is so helpful to the process!

  • P.D. Pabst says:

    I’ve spent the past 5 days in the hospital, so I just seen this! The critiques are wonderful. Some great points are being made. I can’t wait to read the rest, as you never know when another’s critique can help my own writing. And a special thank you to Naomi Hughes for taking the time for my personal critique! Thank you woman!Xx

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