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July Workshop with Pitch Wars Mentors … Sarah Guillory & Brianna Shrum!

Friday, 11 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 …



Sarah Guillory

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Sarah is an award-winning teacher and author. Her debut novel, Reclaimed, was named the 2013 Foreword Book of the Year in Young Adult Fiction and garnered the Silver 2014 IPPY Book Award, also in Young Adult Fiction. She lives in Louisiana with her husband and their bloodhound.


RECLAIMED High Res Cover final

One small town, two big secrets, three lives that will never be the same.

Get your copy today!



Sarah’s critiques …

Critique #17 – First Page:

The first time I saw a ghost, my sisters and I were playing house in the backyard. I was five. (This opening is interesting, but be careful of starting with background information.) When the fluffy white cat walked in front of our swing set, I didn’t even know it was a ghost. (For some reason, I had to read this a couple of times. I think it’s the jump between ghost and cat, though it is interesting that she first saw a cat ghost.) I just dropped my doll and ran after it. But McKenna and Tara (I don’t know who they are. Later down it says Tara is her sister. I would put that here instead.) couldn’t see the cat. McKenna said I was making it up. I didn’t care at the time. If they couldn’t see her, that meant I got to have Kitty all to myself.

When I was eleven, my family took a ghost tour of a haunted hotel. No one believed me when I said I saw the ghost of the man who’d died there. I mean, it was a ghost tour. Duh. That time, the man smiled sadly and walked away. I’d gotten used to seeing spirits by then.

Ghosts still showed up sometimes, but they passed by without noticing me, and I ignored them right back. Except Kitty. Ten years later, she was still my friend. When I saw a spirit, I didn’t bother telling people anymore. No one believed me.

I wasn’t thinking about ghosts when my younger sister, Tara, and her friends came into the basement and decided to have a séance during their slumber party. Aside from Kitty, I’d never seen a ghost in the house. But I had been trying to do my math homework, and when Tara and company sat in a circle and lit candles, it broke my concentration. (I am intrigued – good job. I do feel this is too much “telling” and not enough “showing.” And while I know she sees ghosts, I’m not sure if this is the main conflict. What sets the story in motion? Can you start there and weave the background info into the narrative? I want the first page to give me a feel for the story – tone, conflict, etc. Because this is telling me what happened before the story starts, I’m not really getting that as much as I would like. Good luck! 🙂 )

Critique #18 – First Page:

My heart sinks when Logan Spenser roars his convertible across the school parking lot and idles alongside my half-open window. (First lines are important. I wanted this one to be a bit stronger.)

He’s got an evil look on his face when he points his finger at me: “Raz Rinaldi! Thief!”

I stare at his mocha skin, perfect nose, and dark hair cut in the latest style. (This sentence fell flat for me. Can you incorporate these details a bit more organically?) He’s one of the best-looking guys at school. Not that I care. He’s got a ton of girls chasing him, walking so cool, like he owns the halls. Mr. Arrogance. (There is too much telling in this paragraph. I want to see this rather than have it spelled out so early on.)

Chelsea gawks at me from the driver’s seat as if to say answer him back. (This sentence needs a bit more polish. I had to read it a couple of times.) I’ll bet she has no more idea than I do about why he called me a thief. (Why would she? Also, if the narrator doesn’t know why he’s being called a thief, why does his heart sink when Logan drives up?) Her yellow sunglasses make her pale face look even more like vanilla pudding, while her blonde hair lies in perfect order against the shoulders of her expensive sweater. (Is this physical description important? I’m more interested in who a character is than what they look like.)

“Thief? You’re calling me a thief?” My words tumble out and I want to duck my head (Why? I would love to have more interiority here. What is he thinking? Feeling?), but force myself to pull back my shoulders and glare at him.

He doesn’t answer me, just laughs like it’s a big joke and zooms away toward a parking spot.

My face gets hotter while I tick through my actions of the last week and find the worst thing I’ve done is “forget” to do the dishes my stepmother left in the sink. “What’s he talking about?”

Chelsea, AKA Speed Demon of Ash City High, and the closest thing (Why is she the closest thing to a friend? Does he not have friends? I know you can’t answer all of this in a first page, but it gave me pause.)

I have to a friend, shrugs and laughs. “It’s destiny” (I’m not sure what this means. What is destiny?)

(I don’t really have a feel for the main character or his/her conflict yet. I know it’s only the first page, but I know more about what Logan and Chelsea look like than I do about who the main character is and what he/she wants. Try to show us who the characters are rather than tell us. Good luck! 🙂 )


Brianna Shrum




Brianna Shrum is a lover of words. Sometimes bloody ones,sometimes kiss ones. She tries not to discriminate. Also, all things nerdy. Odds are, if they talk about it on The Big Bang Theory, she likes it. She lives in Colorado with her hubs, two boys, and an awesome black and tan coonhound.

She is represented by Bree Ogden of D4EO Literary and writes YA/NA. Her debut novel, NEVER, NEVER, is set to release from Spencer Hill
Press in 2015.

Brianna’s critiques …            

Critique #19 -First Page:

It was 1917, rural Wyoming. A cold and brutal winter storm raged outside as she lay in her bed, scared and alone.  Snow continued to pile up outside her window. The streets were impassable, no way for her to get anywhere for help.

Not sure what I think about this as an opening. Its lovely phrasing a nice imagery, but that said, Its 1917, rural Wyomingisnt like a sit upa take noticeopening line. You know what I mean? Especially since the next line is about the weather. Id consider maybe moving the weather stuff?

No one would risk coming to get her.

Aha. Now theres your sit up and take noticeline.

But there was no stopping a baby once it decided it was time to make its way into the world. Her husband, drunk, nursed a bottle of whiskey downstairs, ignoring her screams. She labored alone in the cold, dark room for hours, bone-shattering agony blocking out the world around her. Finally, finally she pushed the child from her body in a gush of blood and fluid, its tiny cry piercing the silence that enveloped her. She cut the cord herself. After wrapping the baby in an old, thinning blanket she stared at it, not a hint of maternal feeling touched her. This was a child she didnt want, who had already caused more heartache than it would ever be worth.

Great, dramatic phrasing here. Your writing is SUPER descriptive and pretty.

Her child, a child with dark, piercing green eyes.

This feelsnot relevant yet? Like, maybe its relevant later, but at this point, Im like, Green eyes. K cool.

This is the story I grew up hearing from my mother, the story of my birth. It was, she’d said, cold and dark in the house as there was no money for wood or oil. It seemed to me though, that was the state of the household the entire time I lived there. My father finally finding work did little to change that.

Ok, cool atmosphere in this paragraph.

My father. That’s really where my story begins.

This makes me think, Oh. Then the start the story here. Where it begins.

So, here are my thinks. You are obviously a good writer. Great phrasing, sentence rhythm, everything. Especially your atmosphere. Vivid and great. But I think thats a little lost, because this feels like a prologue. If her birth was super weird/bizarre, like she was born with two heads, or born in the 1800sON A SPACESHIP, Id think, Ah, ok, I get why this starts here. This is cray.But because its a normal birth, she just has green eyes, then she flat out says that her story starts with her father, dont kill me, but I think this should be cut, and start after. Just my two cents. Great, smooth, pretty writing and voice though. Good luck in Pitch Wars!!!

Critique #20 – Query:

Walt Disney’s SNOW WHITE meets John Cusack’s BETTER OFF DEAD in POISON APPLES, a 60,000 word young adult novel with magical realism.

Ok, this is a super interesting set of comp titles. Nice. I dont think I love calling it John Cusacks,because yeah, he acted in it, but it was written by Savage Steve Holland. Its kind of like saying, Edwards TWILIGHT,or Katniss Everdeens THE HUNGER GAMES.You know? So, being picky here, but maybe change that. Also, while I do think these comp titles are cool and you should keep them, Id suggest putter them *after* the meat of the query. It feels off for some reason where it is.

When Bianca Snow’s boyfriend, Lance, dumps her for the hottest dance team member at Eastern Alexandria High, she thinks her life is over. Nice, clear hook. I like it. Her stepmother insists Snow hass *has (pesky typo demons) damaged her Congressman father’s reelection campaign, and the pesky woodland creatures that spooked Lance still follow her every move. Whoa. This is a lot of info. Father’s reelection campaign? How did she damage it? Woodland creature? They spooked Lance how? They follow her everywhere? Basically, without being grounded in your world and story, these are some strange things to me, from an outside perspective, especially to get thrown out all at once. If you’re throwing out stuff that’s familiar to the reader, like,  “She has red Converse and dark glasses, and obsesses over all the shows on the CW,” I’m like, “Okay, cool, that’s a lot of info, but I understand red Converse, dark glasses, and the CW. I’m familiar with them.” If, however, you’re giving a ton of information for which I have no basis (woodland creature stalker and a mysteriously ruined Congress campaign), it feels like too much. Does that make sense? Ground us in the world first, or explain. But overly affectionate fauna are no problem  compared to the overt affections of Lance and his new girl; their perpetual, public lip-lock nearly suffocates Snow. Nice. I like this part. Great voice, establishment of a clear conflict.  Good.

Desperate to show Lance she’s more than just an animal magnet,<—-Yup. Definitely want more on the animal thing if it’s a central conflict in the story- Snow signs up to sing in the high school talent show. But when her best friend and intended accompanist takes off for the semester, Snow must rely on Will, a distractingly handsome, problematically flirtatious, new accompanist. Ooooh, I like where this is going. Kids in music and love? YES PLEASE. The more time Snow spends with Will, the more she wonders whether she’s chasing the right prince. As the talent show approaches, Snow realizes winning the show won’t win Lance. To get him back, she’ll have to make him jealous, but to make him jealous, she’ll have to use- and lose- Will. Great conflict set up at the end here, but I feel thrown for a curve ball. Mostly because this seems to imply she’s into Will now, and then not? I’m also wondering what happens to make her realize the method she’s been using for (presumably) a large portion of the book to win Lance isn’t gonna work now. I am a member of the SCBWI with an extremely average singing voice.  This is my first novel.

Ha. Cute bio with voice. I like it.

I like this query. A lot of it is very nicely written and youve managed to make the MCs voice come through, which is tough, but important. Great. I am wondering 1) Is this a retelling (Snow, prince, etc.) If to is, say so. Also 3) I wonder if the  real conflict is buried in some confusing details (woodland creatures, and the use-and-lose-Will thing is glossed over.) Rein it in a little and focus this query and it will shine! Sounds like a super adorable story! Best if luck!!!


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


Filed: Workshops

  • Thank you, Sarah! I have been struggling with my opening for so long. Early feedback said there wasn’t enough of a hook, so I added a bit of backstory to try to bring a hook. Just happens to be that’s it’s in the first 250 words. Then it’s straight to action. I think I need to rewrite it… again. *sigh*

    • Sarah says:

      I can’t tell you how many times I wrote the beginning of RECLAIMED. And of my new project as well! So I feel your pain. As a reader (and probably as a writer as well), I like a one or two sentence “hook” that sets the tone/theme of the piece before it drops us into the scene. Good luck! I’m sure you’ll strike the right balance. 🙂

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