July Workshop with Pitch Wars Mentors … Natasha Neagle & Shana Silver!
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 …
Natasha writes diverse YA thrillers about characters with more guts than her and is represented by Andrea Somberg of Harvey Klinger, Inc. She considers herself a diehard fictional character shipper and has way too much fun shopping for makeup and shoes. She is a firm believer that the best way to hear music is live, and can always be found on Twitter, especially if Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead is on. Natasha lives in Northern Virginia with her superhero husband, two crazy-smart kids, and their demon-possessed cats.
Natasha’s critiques …
Critique #45 – First Page:
Hazy voices floated into the kitchen of The Chocolate Cottage, whispering of true love and destiny and happily ever after. My first thought is that this feels wordy. You could essentially say the same thing by flipping the sentence and cutting some of the words to tighten it. Whispers of true love and destiny and happily ever after floated into the kitchen of The Chocolate Cottage. Penelope Dalton rolled her eyes at the love-sick customers out front. Is it necessary to give us Penelope’s last name right away? You tell it to us when you could always introduce it later in dialogue or internal thought. You give us some body language here and introduce us to the character, but I’d like to know her thoughts. In the next sentence you do that, but it feels more like you’re telling us her thoughts than simply giving them to us as internal. You have a chance to reel in your reader with her voice and hook us in the first paragraph. Consider rewording the following sentence to do that. It’s not that she didn’t believe in the magic of her chocolates, but why someone would pin all of her happiness on finding a man eluded her. Sighing, she refocused on the bowl of dark chocolate melting on the gas burner. I highlighted the word chocolate to show its repetition. Consider rephrasing to avoid this issue. When I see the word too close together, I’m pulled out of the story and forced to stop and wonder whether I misread something. You can always make body language more active by showing us this sigh by the way she draws in a breath instead of telling us she sighed. Sometimes that extra showing helps the reader connect with the character just as their voice does.
Despite her constant stirring, it scalded. Instead of telling us it scalded, show us this scene. You jumped ahead and told the reader, when it’s a great opportunity to show us what the MC was thinking while she worked on stirring, which may have led to it scalding in the first place. Maybe give some internal here as well. How does the MC feel about her efforts being wasted? Is she frustrated? Show this with not only her body language, but her internal. The voice needs to jump off the page to really hook he reader. It clung in thick chunks to the bottom of the glass bowl, as if annoyed by her cynicism. Instead of telling the reader the chocolate was probably annoyed, use the opportunity to let the MC’s internal dialogue speak for her. The more you put us in the character’s head, the easier we are going to connect with them and the harder it will be for us (the reader) to stop reading. She shifted the pot of boiling water beneath the bowl off the heat. The chocolate continued to bubble and spit.
“So, it’s gonna be that kind of day, huh?” she said. She twisted the stove knob and killed the flame. When you are using tags and they are followed by the action of the character that is speaking, you don’t necessarily need the tag. The reader makes the connection. I’d consider cutting the tag in this situation. Grabbing a towel from a hook on the wall, she wrapped it around the lip of the bowl to protect her fingers from the heat. Steam licked at her skin as she poured the ruined chocolate into the trash. This feels like it contradicts your previous description of the chocolate. It was in clumps just a minute ago, but now she’s able to pour it. Shouldn’t it fall out of the pan in the same clumps it formed in instead since she scorched it?
A familiar voice grew louder out front, wishing the customers good luck with their love lives. Without knowing much about this shop, this sentence pulled me out of the story. Why would someone wish strangers good luck with their love life just because they were being lovey dovey out front? Unless this is normal with the Megha or something that happens frequently at The Chocolate Cottage, consider introducing her voice another way. It made me stop and wonder about the setting – is this a small town shop or are they in the big city? And since my questions didn’t get answered in the next few lines, it became a distraction. Also, what are the MC’s thoughts on Megha butting in the customer’s love life? You could add more voice Megha Ghelani poked her head around the door jamb a few seconds later. Her brown eyes and black pixie-cut hair complemented her dark tan skin. Her sharp cheekbones jutted out even farther when she flashed a wide smile at Penelope. You’ve taken the time to show us Megha, but I know nothing about your MC’s physical appearance. It’s best when a reader doesn’t dump a character’s entire appearance on the reader at once because it takes away from the story, but small bits and pieces help us connect with your character. You also have back to back sentences starting with the same pronoun. Varying your sentence structure will keep the reader involved.
“Have you seen him yet?” Megha asked.
Penelope froze. Shit. The rumors must be true.
The ending of this page has my attention. More than the first few paragraphs. I’d turn the page to read more based on her internal from Megha, which leads me to wonder whether or not the setup with the burning chocolate is necessary. Obviously, I can’t tell from the first page, but as a reader, I’m more interested in the action taking place between Megha and Penelope interacting with one another than seeing her fail in the kitchen. If her cooking debacle doesn’t come up in the chapter, consider condensing her cooking and diving right into the action because that’s what sold me on wanting to turn the next page.
Critique #46 – Query:
When two mismatched teens rewrite the romantic ballet Giselle for a summer camp project the plot comes alive in their own story of first love, inner demons and dark secrets. This is a mouthful and seems more like a twitter pitch than a hook. What makes this story so special? Use the hook to introduce us to the main character, give us the inciting incident, and show us why we want to read more.
My contemporary young adult manuscript, DANCE FOR ME, stars 17-year-old NYC ballet dancer Josh Trent and 16-year-old small-town violinist Bree O’Brien. You need to introduce your characters in the first paragraph. Out of his urban element on the lush Michigan lakeshore, Josh arrived hoping for inspiration and expecting surprises, but not the shock of his former partner/love Elsa Duvall with her old magnetism and new scars. This is really generic. Give us something to sink our teeth into. What’s so important about Josh seeing Elsa? Bree, who has grown up next to Glenvale Fine Arts Camp with a bipolar single mom, could do without the entitled rich kids but she’s counting on this scholarship as her ticket out before she goes off the deep-end too (and there’s signs of that already). You’ve got a lot going on in this paragraph. Generally, the title of the novel is saved for the end of the query or given right away in the beginning (based on agent preferences), but never mixed in with the plot itself. Use this paragraph to deliver the major plot points and introduce us to the other key characters that will contribute to the high stakes. Be careful you don’t introduce too many and that you don’t bog down the paragraph with unnecessary information. The information about the bipolar mom doesn’t come up again, so I’d consider cutting it. If it doesn’t impact the stakes, it doesn’t need to be in the query. Save that for the lovely dreaded synopsis.
After her rescue of this Prince Charming results in their partnership on the Giselle project (comma) Bree finds Josh is more than a handsome face: he sees meaning in her music no one else has ever noticed. I’m confused. When did Bree save Josh if that is the Prince Charming you are referring to and what happened for him to need saving? This seems like it would be your inciting incident that would push the two together, so maybe consider starting your query here. Mentioning this ‘rescue’ is a great way to hook the reader in the first paragraph. Although Bree finds herself falling for Josh she resists, it’s no secret he spends his nights with Elsa. But when Elsa’s obsessed choreographer discovers she’s at Glenvale, Josh and Bree come together to confront their hidden pasts amidst a deadly present (this phrase reads a bit cliché and is very general, consider revising to avoid the wordage) as they take on Giselle’s big question: If your true love is someone you could never have, would it be better never to meet at all? Where are the stakes? I’m not sure what’s at risk here. Who is this ‘obsessed choreographer’ coming after Elsa? Are they all in danger from this person? Consider mentioning this earlier in paragraph two if it’s major plot point. In Paragraph 3, we need to see there are high stakes and that the MC has to make a decision.
This 41,000-word alternating POV novel is a journey of self-discovery with a deeper questions about mood disorders and creativity paired against daily teen issues of drugs, emotional abuse, love triangles and anxiety over the future. Here is where you should put the title of your book and the supporting details. DANCE WITH ME is a 41,000 word standalone YA Contemporary novel told in alternating POVs. Then add your information about it being a journey of self-discovery, etc if you feel that the query doesn’t show that for you. Red flags go off when I see the word count because it’s dangling at the long end of a novella. Also, if you have it in alternating POVs, we make the assumption we only have 20,500 words with each character, which doesn’t seem like it’s enough to give us a full understanding of everything you’re trying to convey. It is also near to my heart as a dance mom who has observed mood disorders first-hand. I’m a member of SCBWI-Michigan with a B.A. in journalism from Michigan State University. After two decades as a marketing manager I am ready, able and willing to support this book in any way you deem valuable. Nice bit of personal information at the end, but maybe consider cutting the last line. Even though you are showing you have marketing experience, you’re jumping ahead of yourself. Get the agent to love your book first.
Thank you for your time,
Janet Reid said it best when it comes to ending a query letter or any correspondence with an agent/editor.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Shana Silver is the alter-ego of R.S. Preiser, whose debut YA novel, ALICE IN WONDERLAND HIGH, comes out Spring 2015 from Merit Press. When Shana isn’t writing, she works in digital publishing in NYC where she creates mobile apps. Prior to working in publishing, Shana was a computer animator who designed graphics for the 2007 Superbowl, USA Network, and a 3D Barbie Movie. She lives in NJ with her husband and daughter and often chooses writing over things like sleep and housework. She’s represented by Jim McCarthy of Dystel and Goderich.
Shana’s critiques …
Critique #47 – First Page:
The year 2033.
There must have been something in the water. Usually an idea reserved for a group of young women teachers who drank from the same water fountain and became pregnant at the same time. Or perhaps a school of children all afflicted with the same disease in a small town. I find this opening to be rather confusing. I tripped over the second sentence in particular. After reading the rest of the First 250, I don’t think you need this paragraph at all. I would start with the second, which orients the reader right into the story whereas this just provides a vague set-up.
There must have been something in the water in Jessamine County Kentucky too. Only I was pretty sure it wasn’t producing any mutant fish or frogs with four eyes and ten legs or turning entire townspeople into zombies or anything. You’re telling me what it’s NOT doing but since I don’t have any idea of what it IS doing, I’m finding it difficult to understand. I like the sentence itself but I would move it to after you reveal what is actually happening to the townspeople. But it was affecting people. With this sentence, you’re telling me that the water was affecting townspeople but I highly recommend showing instead. Maybe start by describing how people stop aging in this town? That’s for sure.
My name was Owen Dansby, We don’t need his name upfront, I would reveal it more naturally in dialogue. and I was kind of an outsider in these parts at first. Again, you’re telling me this. Show me instead by showing how people in these parts react to him. Do they shy away? Make fun of him? An official EPA investigator. I love this idea! Only they didn’t start calling it that until around 1970, but in my mind, I was still an official G-man. Not sure what “G-man” is given the context. Now I know what you’re probably thinking. So what? People have been destroying the planet for years with thousands upon thousands of investigations into the causes. So what made mine so special? Well, all those years of investigations? Mine’s lasted over one hundred, and I still haven’t found the answer. The fact that he’s over 100 is a big hook (what a cool idea!) and I would put that up front, right after the water sentence. As for his job, I think this info would be better revealed in a scene (more on that below). In fact, yesterday was my 125th birthday, and I was still regretfully clueless with the body and mind of a 30 year-old. I love this! I think this could be a great first sentence too. Then get into the part about the water.
Had this area of the country stumbled upon some type of fountain of youth? Poured some kind of life-preserving chemical into the water table by accident that halted the aging process? I wasn’t sure. I’m not the biggest fan of rhetoricals in narrative and I think these questions could come through questions he asks in dialogue as part of the investigation.
I love the idea of a town that doesn’t age and the protagonist being someone who investigates the mystery from an environmental standpoint. The writing is really nice too with some fun pops of voice. But I think you’re starting with too much exposition/info dump that would be better coming out in a scene. My suggestion is to start with a scene where the guy is in the middle of interrogating someone about the strange mysteries of the town (and use the part where he is 125 as your first line). This way he can ask questions that get the info to the reader in a more interesting way than just dumping. You can also then reveal his job without saying what it is and show how the person he’s interviewing reacts to him to get across that he’s an outsider. Hope this helps!
Critique #48 – Query:
Seventeen-year-old Kayden Walker lives in an evolved society where ancestral implicit memories are inherited love the idea of memories inherited from ancestors! That being said, the construction of the sentence uses a passive verb, and you can make this active by changing the order. “Seventeen-year-old Kayden Walker lives in an evolved society where people inherit their ancestors’ implicit memories.”– the repetitive tasks and behaviors that become automatic, This is a bit vague and makes me wonder how this society is different than ours, like how some people are born with innate art talent. Are those the type of memories passed down or something different? I think it might be good to give an example here. are Same issue here, nothing technically wrong, but this verb could be stronger by reordering the sentence and changing it so the subject is doing the action. passed down, I would split the sentence here because it’s rather long with a lot of clauses that makes it difficult to follow. By splitting it into more digestible chunks, it is easier to understand. embedding a predetermined lens Good use of voice of how their predecessors viewed the world– and break the world into the Refined (moral people) and the Unrefined (immoral people). I’m not really understanding how the predecessors viewed the world leads to this. After reading further, I’m even more confused about how these differ from the Tyros. I suggest cutting the Unrefined/Refined from the query because it’s confusing and I think the focus on the Tyros is more important since that’s where the conflict lies. AJust immediately go into this sentence: There are only two exceptions to this rule, one is being a Tyro– people that have not evolved into receiving memories– and the other is being Kayden Walker. Good, I like this, though I think we need to see right here why Kayden Walker also breaks the rule. Right now that info is buried in the second paragraph.
Following the direction of her parents and mentor, Dr. Jardean, Kayden tries to focus on graduating and keeping the secret that she wasn’t born knowing the route to school and the national anthem. How is that different than a Tyro? It seems to me that makes HER a Tyro as well. I think you need to make the difference clear so you can keep the awesome sentence above about Kayden being the other exception. Also, I didn’t realize Kayden was female until here so I would try to make that clearer earlier.
She didn’t inherit her father’s passion for government You’ve used the “inherit” phrase more than once so I would use a different word, in fact, I think you can cut this whole clause and start a new sentence “Instead, she received…”, but instead she received visual flashbacks of her ancestors’ memories. Interesting idea! Though Kayden lives with the moral Refined, all three groups have a thirst for knowledge and there their methods of inquiry vary. Here I would give more info about why this matters. You want to make the reader care and right now I don’t really care that their methods of inquiry vary or what that even means, I care more about Kayden and how she’s different.
Lucas, the ruthless leader of the Tyro Rebels discovers that Kayden is farther along in evolution LOVE this, and is the only one capable of piloting a secret device. But this seems to come out of nowhere, especially tacked to the end of the sentence about Kayden being farther along in evolution. Here I think so what if he is the only one capable of piloting a secret device? Instead, show me why this device actually matters to Kayden and then put the info about Lucas being the only one who can pilot it. The device was long ago created and then abandoned by Dr. Jardean because of its ability to manipulate the memories of others The part about the device needs to come first and I would probably suggest keeping the Dr. out of it for clarity and to be more concise. Something like, “Lucas is the only one with access to a secret device that manipulates the memories of others.” , and the dire cost This is too vague and therefore you lose the tension and the stakes that could come from knowing what exactly those dire costs are. I suggest revealing them to amp the stakes. of doing so. Lucas has promised the Tyro Rebels that the device can stop the passing of memories and end the existence of the Refined and Unrefined. I’m still confused what the difference is between a Tyro and an Unrefined so again, I suggest keeping it to only the Tyros and having the goal here for Lucas to unify the entire society so those without inherited memories are not outcasts. Also I would add here that using the device would out the truth about Kayden to the world.
Kayden is the weapon Lucas needs to control all three societal groups. How so? Be specific. I like the idea but I need more info.
When the truth is revealed, Kayden’s world is flipped lots of passive verbs here that could be easily fixed “When Lucas reveals the truth…” “Kayden’s world flips…” upside down and she must leave the few things she has ever held close. I think this can be voicier When Two sentences in a row that start with “When” reads awkwardly Kayden arrives at a hidden base Dr. Jardean created to protect her she meets a handsome member of The Guard, Alex Weston. Okay, I think the love interest is introduced too late. I had already assumed the love interest was Lucas. You’ve already mentioned 3 named characters and I think that’s the limit for a query (and I don’t think you need the Dr. at all in the query). My suggestion is to focus on the battle between Kayden and Lucas only because I don’t think you actually need this whole paragraph, the query is long and needs to be condensed and this one doesn’t offer anything new besides her leaving home, which is unimportant. We already know from the last paragraph that Kayden has to stop Lucas. With him she begins her training to face the Tyro Rebels and stop Lucas. <- You could prob keep this sentence though without naming Alex, something like: “She trains with a sexy instructor in order to face…”
If Kayden is to save the ones she loves and keep Lucas from his reign, she must search her ancestor’s memories. Rewrite to condense and be more active: “Kayden searches her ancestor’s memories for a key to defeating Lucas and saving her loved ones.” When the past dictates ones future, Kayden Walker must second instance of “must” in a row find her own path and fight the parts of herself that will turn her into the weapon of ruin Lucas wants. She must third use of “must” draw her own line in the battle for peace. I think you can combine the last two sentences because they say the same thing.
Complete at 96,000 words, Weapon of Ruin, is a YA Sci-fi that will appeal to fans of X-Men and The Giver. Good comps.
I am currently a grade two teacher by day and a writer by night. As per your request for fast pace, character driven stories, I have attached the first five pages of my manuscript.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
I really love the premise of the book—what a cool idea, being able to search your ancestors memories! But right now the query is too long with a lot of extraneous info that makes it difficult to understand. I think you need to whittle it down to only the really important parts: Kayden being the exception to the rule and needing to stop Lucas from destroying the world as she knows it. The Dr. can go, and Alex probably needs to go though you may be able to squeeze him in. Keep the focus of the query on Kayden and what SHE stands to lose if Lucas uses the device (I’m not really sure what she will lose and I need to be). I think you have a good start here though!
Thank you, Natasha and Shana, for your critiques. Everyone, come back tomorrow for the next round of critiques!