July Workshop with Pitch Wars Mentors … Karma Brown & Stephanie Scott!

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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 …

 

Karma_CL Buchanan Photography-11 2

Karma Brown

Website | Twitter

KARMA is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer, who probably spends too much time on her laptop in coffee shops. When not writing, she can be found running with her husband, coloring (outside the lines) with her daughter, or baking yet another batch of banana muffins. Karma lives just outside Toronto, Canada with her family, and her women’s fiction debut, COME AWAY WITH ME, hits shelves July 2015 (MIRA/Harlequin Books).

 

Karma’s critiques …

 

#Critique #49 – Query:

Dear Mr. /Ms. ……..,

I am writing to you because I have read your profile on the…………… website. <= Good! Now tell agent what it was about his/her profile that made you send this query. Just keep it short and sweet.

My {insert word count} novel, Our Man in Malacca OUR MAN IN MALACCA, is an espionage thriller. <= I might put this line up in your introduction, then get right to the story in the next paragraph.

[new paragraph)

This Cold War era tale is set in Malacca, Hong Kong, Sulawesi, Singapore, Manila and Bali. <= This feels like info better suited to the end of this section. The Organization’s man in Malacca is Donald Leonard. **I think this is stronger opening line for your ‘what is this book about?’ section => When (who is this guy? Maybe a quick detail or two to give us an idea of who our main character is) Donald Leonard responds to an innocuous employment ad in the San Francisco Chronicle he believes he is applying for a job with a private shipping company. After a succession of escalating and sometimes bizarre interviews he is recruited into the Organization (what’s the “Organization”?). I’d like to hear a little more about these “bizarre interviews” – keep it short, but inject a compelling detail or two that lets us know this is definitely NOT a private shipping company. You said this is a thriller, and your query should showcase that!

He works and travels undercover, in due course, throughout Asia as a coffee bean merchant. So, he just accepts this undercover gig? How is he qualified? I mean, if he was simply applying to this “innocuous” employment ad where’s the link? Why do they want him? Why would he do this? Meanwhile, he operates clandestinely as Donald Francisco (a.k.a or code name: “Cisco”); and he uses this latter cover whenever he recruits and runs secret agents into China, North Korea and the Soviet Union. So…what is all this about? Why is he recruiting and running secret agents into these locations? Cisco recruits his first agent aboard a cargo ship as it transits the Panama Canal. This agent, a young Balinese man, is the radio operator on the ship. The ship is docked in a North Korean port when the agent (which agent?) observes crates with Russian labeling being loaded onboard. He takes photos of the Russian crates from inside his stateroom. Analysts determine from the photographs that those crates contain Soviet surface-to-air missiles: destination and purpose: unknown. Okay, so first, you’ve already implied he’s recruited agents…but are now saying this is his first time? Also, does this young Balinese man have a name? He seems important enough to be named here. And how does this all connect back to Cisco? Do they work together on this? We need the link otherwise it feels as though you’re telling us two different stories.

There is a sub-plot that is integrally linked to the main plot. The sub-plot involves Don’t worry about telling us what you’re going to tell us…just tell us J Cisco’s recruitment in Manila of a high-level Russian KGB officer. Through this connection the final destination and the purpose for the missiles are revealed. This plot/sub-plot combination leads to one of the major intelligence coups of the decade. Okay, I (so) get how hard it is to tell the story of your book – with all the plot twists and turns, character details etc. – in a 240-300 word query, but you must. This feels sort of like you gave up partway through – you need to hook us in about the reveal. Make it so the agent reading this has no choice but to ask for your manuscript. That’s the purpose of the query – make it impossible for the agent to say, “No, thanks.”

Like the protagonist Cisco, I operated as an intelligence officer under commercial cover during the same Cold War period described in my novel. Excellent detail! And definitely a reason why you are the right person to write this book. I eventually retired from the undercover work to pursue my business career. I lived and worked in Asia for the next thirty years. My homes during that period were, and had homes in Malacca, the Philippines, Singapore, and Bali. I have knowledge of the people, the cultures and the languages of that region; and this intimate first-hand knowledge is portrayed throughout the novel. I now live in Redondo Beach, California.

The authors that have inspired me to write this story are Somerset Maugham (his short stories of crime and adventure in Asia), Daniel Silva, John Le Carre and Nelson DeMille. I expect this autobiographical (Hang on…is this more fiction or more autobiography? If it is a fictionalized version of a specific/in-real-life experience, I think that should be mentioned explicitly above as that changes how the story may be perceived by a potential agent) novel could share a bookshelf with the latter three writers.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Very truly yours, {insert your name and contact information}

I’d recommend going back through your query and breaking it into three main sections: 1) Your HOOK – or what makes your story special/compelling/unique (think of it like a 1-2 line pitch for your story); 2) The BOOK – the main plot points/characters in your story; and 3) The COOK – or your bio. If you focus on those pieces – keeping tension, pacing, and storytelling in mind – you’ll have what you need to make this a compelling, memorable query! Best of luck, and thanks for sharing your work with us 🙂

 

#Critique #50 – First page:

29 March 1945: (remove the colon)

Fünffürreihe. We hear it all the time – first lines are critical to catch a reader’s attention. You need to hook them right away, and starting with this word (which I Googled, and which – I kid you not – crashed my browser 🙂 ) concerns me. I don’t know what Funffurreihe means, and rather than reading on to find out what’s coming, I’m stuck wondering about how to pronounce it… A line of five. Fate had brought this miniature League of Nations together, and kept it together while so many other Fünffürreihe hadn’t lasted. But this Fünffürreihe was different. It was based on love, friendship, and the will to survive.

They’d lined up differently today. This time fourteen-year-old Eszter was on the rightmost side. In spite of everything, she still had a will to live. So, did her lining up differently = will to live? It sort of reads that way, though I’m not sure the two thoughts are connected. And where there’s a will, there’s a way. Okay, so I’m curious as to why, “in spite of everything,” 14-year-old Eszter still has will to live, BUT I’m also still wondering what Fünffürreihe means. You need to set the scene here for the reader. Remember, you’ve just dumped us into a moment in your story, so please help us get our bearings.

Out of the corner of her eye, Eszter saw their side and end guards (what are “side” and “end” guards? Who is “their”?) running towards the back of the column, presumably in pursuit of escapees. Simultaneously, she saw people (what people? Her people? The enemy?) running out of a large house across the road. Seizing this divine (why is this “divine”?) opportunity, she grabbed Marie’s hand (wait…who’s Marie?) and ran the fastest she’d ever run towards the back of the house. Caterina, a twenty-three-year-old doctor and the oldest member of the Fünffürreihe by some years, followed them with a strength she hadn’t had in months. Why hasn’t she had strength for months? How long has this been going on?

Eszter’s heart pounded as she frantically tried the back door. She could already hear the shots ringing out, and hoped the other two members of the Fünffürreihe, Jadwiga and Malchen, weren’t among the victims. But weren’t they all in a line? Why didn’t they run together? Also, are Jadwiga and Malchen young/old/male/female/sick/well/strong…okay, so you don’t need to give us THAT much detail here, but there’s a lot happening right now, we’re being introduced to a bunch of characters, and so far I can’t figure out what/who I need to pay attention to.

Finally she found one of the windows open a crack, and managed to pull it up. She crawled in, then ran to unlock the back door. They (who?) crept up to the attic and peeped through the curtains. The usual fresh corpses (how long have they been at war? What does seeing ‘fresh corpses’ regularly do to a person? Can’t imagine the horror of that…but I want to know how that has affected these main players. Are they more or less oblivious now, or does it still cut deeply?) lay on the road as the shivering skeletal mass (the enemy?) marched on. They couldn’t make out the forms of Jadwiga or Malchen.

The main challenge I have with your first page is that you’re giving us a lot of detail, without really telling us what we need to know. It’s a tricky balance, especially when you open with a scene like this – because you’re trying to introduce us to your major players, while also dealing with fast-moving action and heightened tension. I’d encourage you to make a list about what is absolutely critical for the reader to know in this first page. Do we need the players’ names? Or who can run fast, and why? What does getting to the house mean for them? I wanted to know why Eszter, the youngest of the group, also seems to be the one in charge. And I wanted to connect w/the scenery – for example, what sounds, sights, smells are present for the characters? Make it tense, make it taut – I assume this is a life/death moment for this group, so be sure to set that emotion for the reader early on. Make us wonder, even in those first few paragraphs, if Eszter and her crew will make it to the house, to safety, then make us pray they do. I know, I know – easier said than done. No one said this would be easy, right?  🙂 Best of luck with your writing journey, and thanks for sharing your work with us!

 

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Stephanie Scott

Website | Twitter | Tumblr

Stephanie Scott is a Midwest girl at heart and currently lives in the greater Chicago area. A day job in healthcare drove her to pursue her literary dreams, which led her to Romance Writers of America, where she serves as Historian (aka picture-taker) of her local Windy City chapter, and VP of Communications for the online YA-RWA chapter. Her addictions include TV binge-watching with her musician/artist husband, dance fitness classes, and stupid cat memes. Beyond pursuing publication, Stephanie dreams of cosplaying Hoth Leia in all her snowsuit glory. She is represented by Sarah LaPolla of Bradford Literary.

 

Stephanie’s critiques …

 

Critique #51 – Query:

Ten-year-old Julian Newcomber knows that he has a very fitting–what the smart folks call apropos–last name. His family moves a lot, so he is always the newcomer in school. You see, Julian’s dad is an inventor. Only he’s not a very good inventor, and his inventions keep blowing things up…things like the family home. (Nice voice! I think you can combine several of these sentences into one punchy line, something like: His father’s job as an inventor means the family moves often—especially when his inventions go awry, like when he blew up the family home. I did notice that being new at school isn’t brought up again after this mention. Is Julian’s move to a new school a major part of the plot?)

One day, Julian’s dad hands him his latest invention. It looked like a nothing more than a piece of black paper.

“What is it?” Julian asks.

“Swipe your finger across it,” his dad says. (While I appreciate the storytelling aspect, I would suggest sticking to a more traditional query format. This showing detail can be saved for the story. Right now we want a high level pitch that focuses back on Julian and the overall plot. I would suggest cutting this section and streamlining with the sentences below.)

Julian does, and the thing turns into a tablet, sort of like an iPad, only without the trademark restrictions. The eTab, as Mr. Newcomber calls it, doesn’t blow up. But it does do something…unexpected with regard to time, specifically altering it. (Perhaps this can be condensed to the main points, while still preserving your voice: When Julian’s father invents a tablet-like device that does something … unexpected with regard to time, specifically altering it, [state what happens and how it specifically affects Julian. This will then set up the next section.]

And now it’s up to young Julian to help the grown-up Julian get the thing working again so he can go back in time, back to the Civil War, to retrieve his…um, their (??) cell phone, and avoid polluting the natural timeline and rewriting history as we know it. (You have plenty of room in the query to flesh out the story. We need to know what happens specifically—the device sends Julian back in time etc., does he exist in both timelines? Why the Civil War? I can see hints of the story here but it’s a bit buried. I would suggest focusing on Julian: what happened to send Julian back in time, what specific challenge does he face with getting back, and what will happen if he doesn’t. We want to see the threat—what happens if he can’t get back to his timeline? Does being new in school affect this outcome?)

No pressure. (I love this ending sentiment. Just fill in the details prior and it will have real impact!)

 

Critique #52 – First page:

As their hot air balloon ascended, (whose hot air balloon?) the air became thin and frigid, and the fabric of the balloon flapped in the wind. (I love the imagery of a balloon, but it would be helpful to know a name right away, and perhaps a connected emotion to the character rather than fabric flapping in the wind, which reads a little generic.) Above them the night sky glowed with waves of undulating green and pinks. Everywhere the horizon was streaked with colors as if an artist had taken a brush to the sky. (Again, this is nice imagery, but I feel like we are missing something since this isn’t connected to a character. Naming the character right away can remedy this, and then you can filter these sights through the character’s eyes a bit more.)

Orion shivered and zipped his jacket to his chin making him look like a turtle. (Did he look like a turtle to himself, or is someone else seeing him? Not sure whose point of view we are in.) He rested his gloved fingers on the edge of the wicker basket and looked down. The island of Tromso and its tiny lights disappeared as the balloon rose. The colorful wooden houses turned into shrinking specks and the fjords, narrow strips of sea sandwiched by icy cliffs, reflected the misty colors of the Aurora dancing across the sky. (I like this description. Is there a way to also add in why they are in the balloon? Are they sight seeing? Or fleeing? Is Orion glad to be there? Or terrified of heights? If you can shape these images through the filter of a character’s POV, it can have a more powerful impact, so long as you aren’t dumping in too much information.)

Mr. Christensen, the elderly pilot of the balloon, gazed up at the green and magenta waves. “In all my life, I’ve never seen the lights so big.”

Orion pulled his gaze away from the fjords. “Really?”

“Portent of bad things, it is,” Mr. Christensen grumbled, shaking his head.

“Rubbish,” Orion’s Dad said (how many people are in this balloon?), “There’s a scientific explanation for everything old man.” He extended a long bronze telescope and pressed the eyepiece below his brow. Wind gusts ruffled his dark curly hair as he pointed to a patch of sky where the Aurora Borealis seemed especially bright.

In that moment, Orion couldn’t help but be in awe of his Dad, (why? Can you show this? What is he doing that causes Orion to feel awe?) the tragically famous astrophysicist, Dr. Eugene Theodore Ackerman.

Overall, this has great setting detail, but I feel a little disconnected with Orion and his purpose here in the balloon. I realize the limits of a first page—you aren’t going to dish the whole story in one page. But if there is a sense of urgency it would be nice to see here, or to get a glimpse of why they are in the balloon. If they are heading toward a scientific discovery for example, that could be mentioned, and Orion’s feelings about this. Lots of promise here, good luck!

 

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

Author: Brenda Drake

New York Times bestselling author of Thief of Lies (Library Jumpers #1), Guardian of Secrets (Library Jumpers #2), Touching Fate (Fated Series #1), and Cursing Fate (Fated Series #2) available now, creator of #PitchWars, #PitchMadness, and #PitMad, fueled by coffee and Goldfish crackers (but not together), and represented by Peter Knapp with The Park Literary Group. @brendadrake

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the feedback. I thought it was obvious that the definition of Fünfferreihe was provided in the second line and that the setting is a women’s death march. It’s a Lager (German concentration-camp dialect) word meaning “row of five.” Prisoners were required to line up in rows of five for marches and roll call, and it was their responsibility to find five people.

    It’s actually based on the escape of the late Isabella Leitner (née Katz) and two of her sisters, though I didn’t want to make it a complete copycat (e.g., Isabella and her younger sister had to hide behind a dog house to avoid being caught by a guard and his dog who ran after them, and the wind blew their scent away). Their side and end guards on the column ran after some escaping prisoners, and the sister on the end ran towards a house across the road, with no smoke coming from the chimney. The people who abandoned that house near the end of the war left almost all their belongings there, and plenty of food. The fourth sister was caught as she was following them, and forced to remain on the march. The guards had returned to the column by the time she was starting after them.

    This is connected to another book, which focuses on Malchen, the youngest member of the group. This is the point where their stories diverge, as Malchen and Jadwiga remain on the march and go on to have a much different end of the war and post-liberation experience.

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    • Thanks for the clarification, Carrie-Anne — much more clear now, what this story is about. I think if you took some of what you posted above and weaved it into what you already have, to add some texture and clarity, you would have an amazing first page. Just my opinion, of course! Karma

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  2. Stephanie, thank you for the helpful critique and suggestions 🙂

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