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 …
Renée has written for Condé Nast Traveler and Seen Magazine, and is an honors graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her spare time, she likes to dance salsa and collect shoes. She is passionate about all kinds of curry, rescue dogs, and college basketball. The first few years of her life were spent in a highrise in South Korea; consequently, Renée enjoys having her head in the clouds.
She lives in Charlotte, NC with her husband and their tiny overlord of a dog. Her YA fantasy THE WRATH AND THE DAWN will be published by Penguin/Putnam in 2015.
Renée’s critiques …
Critique #57 – Query:
Dear Illustrious & Beneficent Agent (sounds legit):
I am seeking representation for DOWN FOR THE COUNT, an 87,000 word
work of New Adult Mythic Fantasy, based on that takes the classic al tale of Persephone , then adds enough detail to explain her transformation from minor agricultural goddess to powerful, feared deity. Other modern retellings, like the original sources, have left out this part of the story. So, let me begin with the caveat that my opinion is my opinion alone, so grain-of-salt-it however you will, but the first sentence is a bit long for a query. Stick to the straight and narrow. As far as the reasoning for why you wrote the book/why it’s unique, I think it’s better to presume rather than assume, when it comes to agents. Presume he/she knows about the tale of Persephone, rather than run the risk of irritating an agent by implying ignorance, however indirectly. Or, perhaps, having an agent go, “Well, actually, there is THIS retelling . . . ”
Persephone’s name means “bringer of death,” but the only thing she kills are the flowers she picks. She prefers to be called Persie, more suitable for a virgin goddess Greeks call “the Maiden.” The prior set of sentences is coming off as too “telling.” The subsequent set of sentences is much more voicey and fun. Unfortunately, I’m worried an agent might stop reading before she/he got to the good part. If you’re stuck on keeping the first two sentences, I would pare them down into something like this: “Persie might be named after a harbinger of death, but the only things she kills are the flowers she picks.” Then I’d start into the sentence here: While other gods are off smiting, ravishing, or generally making a difference, there’s not much for her to do. So when Hades, an easy-on-the-eyes god she’s long admired, interrupts yet another scintillating bout of flower-picking by carrying her off to the not-so-sweet hereafter, she’s face-slapping mad—but also a little thrilled. The high point of her life thus far was inventing the corn dog. These last sentences are terrific. Really voicey and fun. I get a great sense of Persie as a character and the first real glimpse of your writing style. Unfortunately, this is coming too late in your query.
Once down under, Persie finally has power. As the supposed consort of its smitten ruler, she manages to improve the “lives” of the shades of the dead (this last bit reads somewhat awkward—I might recast it to simply read “the lives of the dead,” for the sake of cadence and clarity), pardons the unjustly defamed Pandora, and befriends a misunderstood three-headed hellhound. She might accomplish even more were she to move beyond the whole chastity bit,
with which she’s been saddled with for a century.
Unfortunately, without Persie, the upper world has gone to Hades
(the place) in a Grecian urn. Her worried mother Demeter, Goddess of Agriculture, stops work, then is assaulted by Poseidon and disappears. Famine looms. Persie wants to find her mother and seek revenge on Poseidon. But being the first, dead or alive, to slip out of the underworld without discovery will take more skills than those needed to invent a tasty dish. She’ll have to become the goddess she tells the shades she now is: Dread Persephone, the Bringer of Death. (“Pass it on.”) Again, all of this is terrific and voicey, but this is starting to become what I like to call Character Soup. You have way too much going on for what’s supposed to be a 250-300 word query. Too many characters. Too much plot. You need to boil it down to the essentials. The last two paragraphs need to be heavily truncated.
I am a debut author, lacking in personal experience as a goddess unless one counts pretending to be one on Absolute Write. Cute, but unnecessary, in my opinion. I’d cut it.
Strong writing and a great voice, but too long and a bit too telling at times.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Critique #58 – Query:
Hi, J**! 🙂 I read over your query a few times, and I wanted to write you a note before I began going through it to explain what I was doing and so you wouldn’t think I was an awful person completely devoid of a soul or something.
First of all, it takes A LOT of courage to put your query out there on a blog for the whole world to see. Mad, MAD kudos for doing that. Honestly, I wish I had had the courage to do it more. I sent a query to Janet Reid/The Shark once, and it was BRUTAL. But so helpful. I’ll never forget the feedback she offered. I don’t think I’ll be nearly as helpful, but if I can offer you a measure of the help she provided, I’ll consider it a success. Also, let me tell you I have nearly 200 rejections languishing in a virtual drawer in my email inbox, from three failed manuscripts, so I am no stranger to people telling me to work harder/try harder/WHATAREYOUEVENDOING? But persist, Jessica. Always. Okay?
Leah knows David is in love with her but the risk of losing him to a breakup has her paralyzed. Until a vision of the future changes everything…
So. This is way too cryptic and reads like a Hollywood voice-over. I have no concept of stakes. We know there’s a love story (there usually is) and we know that it might end badly (of course). Nothing about this stands out. If you want your query to stand out from the pack, your first line needs to LEAP out at an agent. Like prowling-panther-in-a-lush-jungle LEAP OUT. In my humble opinion, if you don’t have one helluva hook, it’s best to start with your book’s title, its genre, and its word count. Nowhere in your query do you have any of this. Therefore, I don’t know how to categorize your book. This is dangerous and problematic for an agent, because it shows me that you haven’t done your homework.
When Leah sees David kiss another girl, she realizes her real competition is time. Leah must overcome her fear of losing David, or risk never having him.
Still too cryptic. How is this different from any other book with a romantic theme? There are no real stakes present. And it still reads like a Hollywood by-line. Without the snazzy trailer.
In a world not all that different from ours, people live with the understanding that they are born with a specific gift. Leah, a future seer, David, a gifted warrior, and Missy a healer, find themselves in a fight to save life as they know it. A nearly century old conspiracy has surfaced and it’s looking like David’s family can be traced to the root of it. Leah has willingly thrown herself into the hands of a supposed killer and guaranteed mad scientist. And Missy, a typical people pleaser, has got herself all kinds of tangled in a love triangle. Er… square. Can there be a love square? Needless to say, this is not the school year they were expecting.
Okay, this is getting even messier. Now, I see that this is perhaps fantasy. Maybe even sci-fi. Could be spec fic. And possibly even YA? The fact that you haven’t categorized it for me is highly problematic. Additionally, I adore a good love triangle. But you’ll find them a hard sell nowadays, especially in YA. As for a love square? Um. I dunno, dude. I don’t think I’d plug that in my query.
As the three navigate puberty and sort out hormones and changing feelings for each other. Dr. Blaine, a scientist in town, claims he can take the human brain from accessing one gift, to using them all. When a neighborhood woman goes missing, Leah learns that the side effects of The Doctor’s so called miracle injection are far worse than anyone had anticipated. A complete loss of memory is the price to pay.
Okay, so this is most likely YA. And we’re definitely in Character Soup territory. There are entirely too many characters in this query. Your query should include the main character’s name. Maybe one secondary character or the villain. THAT’S ALL. The query should not include every character and the grandmother and the doctor and the best friend’s dog.
If Leah and her friends can’t put their personal life’s on hold long enough to stop The Doctor the minds of those they love could be lost forever.
Again, I have a better understanding of the stakes, but they still are not abundantly clear. I’m grasping at straws. I think Leah is trying to prevent a mad scientist from wreaking havoc on her town with some weird injection (what are the consequences of this?). But I had to parse through some stuff to divine that. And having to do that is the LAST thing an agent wants to do when she/he has 948 of these to go through in one go (as my agent once said). I can’t imagine a busy agent going to the trouble of parsing through a query to get at the meat of it, when it’s so much easier to just hit “Delete” and move along. It’s sad, but true.
I know this isn’t what anyone wants to hear. But I want you to rewrite this query from scratch. Focus on the plot. What is Leah’s greatest conflict? Who/what is her biggest problem? How is she going to overcome it? Put that together in a few sentences. Begin your query with the book’s genre, title, and word count. Tell me a little bit about who Leah is. Then her conflict. Try to be voicey. SHOW me why I should want to get to know Leah more.
Then send it to me again. You can message me via my website. Put your name in the subject line. I will absolutely take another look at your query.
Rebecca is a hopeless romantic and lover of all things chocolate, coffee, and Paleo. When she’s not chasing her six kids, or moving around the world with her army-aviator husband of 12 years, she’s writing both Young Adult and New Adult fiction. She also writes the#1 Top Military Mom Blog, The Only Girl Among Boys, when her Hogwarts time-turner cooperates. Her Amazon Bestselling debut novel, FULL MEASURES released in February 2014 and she is currently under contract for three more New Adult novels with Entangled-Embrace, to include the upcoming EYES TURNED SKYWARD. She’s represented by Jamie Bodnar Drowley of Inklings Literary, whom she loves more than brownies.
FULL MEASURES is available to buy now (on sale for a limited time for $.99)!
Rebecca’s critiques …
Critique #59 – Query:
(This would be a great place to include a snippet on why you’ve chosen this exact agent to query. Personalization lets agents know that you 1. Did your research so they should rep the genre you’re querying, and 2. Feel they might be a good match for you)
At fifteen, Aydra watched her parents executed for teaching children. That day, she made a promise. The governor won’t eliminate education. Not while she’s still alive. (I love that you immediately set the tone and her dedication. You might want to take a peek at the flow, since you have four relatively short sentences here, it can appear choppy. Also, at this point, saying the title of your book, the word count and genre would be super beneficial! Given the context of the first sentence, I was kind of wondering if we were set present-day war-torn countries, and I immediately skipped through the rest of your query to see the genre.)
Two years later, (Ooooh, this really looks like it should be your first sentence, especially if you combine it with a shortened backstory on her parents – something like : After her parents are executed for the crime of teaching , seventeen year-old Aydra is responsible for the lives of nine children, all orphaned because they can read.) she’s responsible for the lives of nine children, all orphaned because they can read. Aydra is determined to give them a loving home and family, despite (despite might not be the best word choice here, since it assumes that loving homes cannot naturally exist in a ramshackle. Maybe “even in”) their current ramshackle living conditions. Except now, the governor has given an ultimatum. (you could em dash this for better flow) If she doesn’t repair her home or he’ll remove the children. (I don’t think you mean that extra ‘or’ in there.) He claims it’s for their protection, but she knows better. She’s proof he can’t stop education by force. (Is this because they are the same children her parents were executed for? If so, that tiny tidbit would be good up top.) There’s only one way to keep her from teaching the children — by legally separating them. (The end of this paragraph throws me a wee bit. I think I understand – because she taught them after her parents were executed, she’s kind of a one-woman rebellion, yes? If so, then the argument may be that he can’t use violence to stop teaching, he has to use the law? At this point in the query, it seems to me like your major issue is the state of the house, and the stakes are the togetherness of the family. If that’s wrong, then we might want to peek).
When he sends his men to attack, (Wait, why is he sending men to attack? I thought he was only using the fix-your-house or separate? If there’s violence too, maybe foreshadow with a line that says that he’s willing to take it further?) a panther jumps to her aid, allowing her to escape. (Can’t lie – the panther kinda caught me off guard. Are we in the jungle?) That same day, a stranger arrives in town. His name is Larzo, a shape-shifter who monitors the outlying providences for the king. He claims to be the beast that saved her, and offers to help with the repairs. (This could be really, super smooth if you were to include that information at the top of the paragraph, something like, “when she’s attacked by the Governor’s men, Larzo, a shape-shifter, appears, and not only saves her, but offers to help with the repairs to her home.” Unless of course, the panther wasn’t really Larzo, and he’s just pretending? The “claim” word makes me suspicious.)
Initially, she refuses. (She refuses the help? Or the repairs in general? If we’re talking about the help, then perhaps this should be all one paragraph?) Her family has already suffered from the king’s indifference to the governor’s actions. (I’m missing why this ties in here. Is she assuming she can’t trust Larzo because he’s a Monitor? If so, that role might need to be a bit clearer in that sentence.) She knows Larzo’s royal connections could be more dangerous than the governor’s men, (So, the king really isn’t indifferent? But more dangerous?) but ultimately, she’ll do whatever it takes to protect her family. Even accept his offer. She clings to the hope that he’ll tell the king of their situation and convince him to intervene. (I can completely understand her hoping that the King will intervene, but with the word still implies that she thought he would intervene before. If so, that’s a great point to mention when she’s debating accepting his help, especially when the above implies that his connection to the King is a con and not a pro.)
As the deadline approaches, nothing changes. (Here, perhaps we need to have seen what goal she was striving for. Was she striving to repair the house? To talk to the King? Saying nothing has changed makes me feel like the events in the plot have led nowhere, which makes me think slow, which we definitely don’t want. After all, something has to have happened, right? To fix this in the query, you could say “As the deadline approaches, Aydra realizes….” And continue from there.) Aydra realizes she’s the bait in a much larger trap; one that would not only destroy her family, but send her to her own execution. (Here, I’m intrigued as to what the larger trap is – good job! – however, I kind of thought she would already be up for execution, since it was implied that she was teaching? If these are your ‘stakes,’ then you want to save that punch for the end for impact.) Now it’s up to her to force the king to act before it’s too late. (This is where you would put your stakes – or she’ll die? Her adopted siblings will die? The world will end?)
The ORPHANS OF JADOX is a young adult fantasy. Complete at 72,000 words, it’s told from three points of view: Aydra, Larzo, and the king. (Here, the three points of view completely catch me by surprise, only because the query makes it appear that the work is told from Aydra’s point of view. To successful ly demonstrate the three points of view in the query, I would suggest making the conflict and stakes known for each of the characters so the agent can see how they will tie together.)
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Hey there! I think you did a good job explaining Aydra’s motivation, and her stakes. But in a query, you want to give the agent an idea of what to expect and give them every reason to flip to your first pages. My main points of confusion are what she’s really seeking from Larzo, what his motivations are (which we should know if it’s also from his POV) and what role the King has in this (Also should come from his POV). The biggest question I have here is what happens? Yes, she wants to repair her house, yes a shape-shifter appears, but then what? Also, a brief sentence on why education is outlawed may help the agent. I think if you clear up the confusing parts, and show the wider world with the three points of view, an agent can get a much better grasp of what your story is about! Thank you so much for letting me peek at it, and feel free to DM me on Twitter if you ever want me to take a peek at your revisions! =D
Critique #60 – Query:
Dear Pitch Wars Mentor: (Well, hiya!)
(This is a really good spot to tell your agent why you chose them to receive your query. Was it a blog that spoke to you? Another novel you loved that they represent? This can immediately tip them off that you’ve done your research and your submission is within the genres they rep.)
Sixteen-year-old Zoe is washing dishes aboard the magical ocean liner she calls home when the sickness hits. It sweeps through the luxurious ship with unnatural speed, and within a day, passengers and crew alike are infected or dead. (I love how these two lines immediately set your world by saying magical, and the severity of the situation, but you still might want to throw in your next sentence to be your genre/word count.)
Except for Zoe and the voyage’s VIP, the princess of the most powerful kingdom in the world. (I don’t know why, but this bugs me that it’s not a complete sentence, but it starts out this paragraph. Maybe something along the lines of, “Other than Zoe, only the voyage’s VIP, the princess of the world’s most powerful kingdom remains unaffected.”) They narrowly escaped infection with well-timed masks and a lot of luck, but staying healthy on a ship filled with bad air and desperate victims takes skills that Zoe never learned in the galley. (I love this sentence, but you slipped into past tense.) She’s desperate to save the crew she’s spent her life with, but they’re beyond aid, choking on their own vomit and wasting away in the halls. (Okay, for giggles, we’re going to take you through my emotions with this sentence… “She’s desperate to save the crew she’s spent her life with,” I’m thinking, YES! SAVE THE DAY! And then comes “but they’re beyond aid,” And I’m now thinking, AWH MAN! THE FEELS! And then “choking on their own vomit and wasting away in the halls.” And now I’m thinking, EEEW. It might be a wee bit graphic to say how they’re dying. You could simply leave it at “THOUGH (see, now my emotions don’t feel like you’ve betrayed me) she’s desperate to save the crew she’s spent her life with, they’re beyond aid.”) Her lifetime of servitude and aggressively helpful attitude are best put to use making sure that her much more important companion makes it to shore unscathed. (Why are they best put to use here? Are you saying she has the unique ability to help the Princess? Is there any other use for her abilities? Another course of action? I would think her only option is to get the only other person alive (princess or not) out alive. Also, does she think the Princess is more important than she is? That leaves me feeling like we’ve got some self-worth issues rocking here.) It turns out to be the most complicated job she’s ever had. (Ah, I’m following you now. Okay, I might combine these a wee bit smoother into something like, “Zoe may have spent her life in servitude, but getting the Princess to shore unscathed may be the most complicated job she’s ever had.” Then you can segue into WHY it’s complicated.) The princess is beautiful and kind, but full of anxieties and eccentric magical powers—and much more in need of a friend than another servant. (Hmmm, are we anxious over the magical powers? This is a great spot to say whether or not the Princess knows about her powers, or if they’re common knowledge.)
But the sickness wasn’t an accident, and the people behind the attack are still on board. (Do they discover this? If so, you might want to make that more dynamic by saying, “But as they make their way out of the ship, they discover this is no accident, but an attack, and the perpatrators are still on board.” Or even make it more punchy by saying that the attackers are the only other healthy people aboard the ship.) They’re systematically murdering the victims to harness the magic in their bones, and their most-wanted target is the one royal who managed to escape. (Good! I like how you’re saying what they’re after, and that the Princess is the target. My only question, is she the only royal on board? Or only the last surviving royal? Because that would up the severity of the situation.)
Being the princess’s friend just got much more complicated. ( I don’t think you need this sentence, unless you’re alluding to the romance, in which case, just flat-out allude to the romance. 😉 )
Here, we’re missing your stakes, which is really the most important part of the query. We have who: Zoe. What she wants: To get the Princess of the ship and to safety. We have conflict: the bad guys want to kill her to suck her bones dry of magic. We don’t have or….. So what are the stakes? What happens if the bad guys catch her? Just a dead princess? Dead Zoe? The fate of the world? The realm? Give me a reason to raise my blood pressure.
SEABOUND is a work of YA fantasy with an LGBT romance element, complete at 67,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration. (Here, I love that we have a LGBT romance element, but I hadn’t realized it until this point. That is something the agent is absolutely going to want to see, otherwise this appears to be about friendship – even the query says friendship – and here you’ve caught me off guard and made me feel like I’ve missed something. A simple sentence about developing feelings or attraction can convey this element perfectly!)
Don’t let the blue lines scare you, this is actually on its way to being great! You set your world easily, I understand the motivations of your main character. I get the danger, and what she wants. Just add those stakes in there and plump up the romance element and you’ll be a step closer! Feel free to DM me on Twitter if you’d like me to look at your revisions!
Thank you, Renée and Rebecca, for your critiques. Everyone, come back tomorrow for the next round of critiques!