Day 1 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Workshop: Query and 1st Page critique by mentors, Jessica Vitalis, Julie Artz, and Shari Schwarz
Welcome to our Query and 1st Page Workshop with some of our amazing Pitch Wars mentors. From a Rafflecopter lottery drawing, we selected writers to participate in our query and first page workshops. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a query or 500 word opening from our lucky winners. We’ll be posting four critiques per day (except weekends) through July 7. Our hope is that these samples will help shine up your query and first page and that you’ll get to know some of our wonderful Pitch Wars mentors. We appreciate our mentors for giving up their time to do the critiques. If you have something encouraging to add, feel free to comment below. Please keep all comments tasteful. We will delete any inappropriate or hurtful ones.
First up we have …
Pitch Wars Co-mentors Jessica Vitalis and Julie Artz …
Jessica Vitalis is a middle grade novelist represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch. An active member of the literary community, she volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and writes for The Winged Pen. When she’s not pursuing her literary interests, Jessica can be found preparing for her upcoming move to Canada (or eating copious amounts of chocolate).
Julie Artz spent her childhood sneaking into wardrobes hoping to find Narnia. Now that she’s older, people think that’s creepy, so she writes middle grade instead. Her stories for children feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to helping run From The Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, contributes regularly to The Winged Pen, is a mentor for TeenPit and PitchWars, and is the incoming co-RA of SCBWI Western Washington. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.>
Jessica and Julie’s Query Critique . . .
AGE CATEGORY: middle-grade/young-adult
Dear (agent’s name – triple checked for correct spelling) [Good idea!],
When mysterious blue fire consumes 14-year old Aila’s village is burnt down by mysterious blue fire, she escapes and lands [We aren’t sure “lands” is the best word choice—does she fly to the new empire? How does the find it? Is she rescued?] in an obscure [What makes it obscure? This is vague]Empire surrounded by giant white walls [So maybe she did fly? Otherwise, how did she get in; best to clarify so you reader isn’t confused]. But as dazzling as Praesidion is [Insert comma] with its glowing forests and quirky inventors, Aila must escape [It’s not entirely clear why she must escape—if it’s dazzling, is there a part of her that wants to stay? Or is she being held prisoner?] to find her sick mother, who may or may not be alive [Add: back at home. Also, this feels like the personal stake of the story, but it disappears after this mention].
But [You started two sentences in a row with “but”; change it up] the only way out is invisible [You mean there is an invisible door in the wall? How did she get in?). Or so says a mad scientist who thinks his drowned daughter is still alive [Great detail!]. And the search for it is to be punished [This sentence is unclear. We need slightly more info about her status in Praesidion. Is she in hiding? Is she in danger? Or are the citizens relatively free but never allowed to leave? You may want to consider cutting this sentence entirely––at the current word count and the need for more explanation about the world, there likely isn’t room]. Although it is said that death is preferred to being Blackringed. [Again, we need a little more help understanding Praesidion—in the first paragraph, you described it as being dazzling, but there are hints that it is a dark, ominous place. Work on bringing out that tension. It’s also not clear what this means—do you get blackringed if you look for the invisible door?]
Joined by an unlikely group of people [This is very vague; can you be more specific? Who are these people and are they all trying to escape?], Aila embarks on a dangerous and epic quest [How is it an epic question if she’s simply trying to escape to find her mother?] taking her deeper [Would suggest “deep” rather than “deeper”] into Praesidion’s forbidden history. A history, they find out, the Empire will do anything to keep secret. [Nice stakes! We don’t think you need the next paragraph; the query will be stronger if you leave us here.]
And with Outcasts gathering forces in the background, there is now more at stake than finding Aila’s mother. Much more than anyone ever imagined. [Consider deleting]
THE EMPIRE’S LAST SECRET is an epic fantasy story of with an adventurous quest, unlikely friendships, and an Empire’s forbidden history. [You don’t need the previous sentence; it’s simply telling us what you’ve already shown us.] At its core, it is a story of a girl and mother’s bond [Can you give us a better sense of that toward the end of the query? You mention it at the beginning, but then you drop it as her story turns to an epic quest, losing the personal connection], and the love and pains that come with it. It is set in an inventive and rich world, partly inspired by traditional Japan. [This last paragraph could simply read: THE EMPIRE’S LAST SECRET is a fantasy inspired by traditional Japanese culture. Also, it might be good to note if you have any personal connection to this culture.] It is the first book of a five part series. [Can the book stand alone? If not, it might be a tough sell. If it can stand alone, perhaps note: The book stands alone; however, it’s designed as the first in a five- part series.]
I am seeking representation for this young adult/middle grade [pick one or the other—perhaps upper middle grade?] novel of 75,000 words.
Thank you for giving us an opportunity to review your query; it sounds like you’ve put together a fun adventure with an intriguing setting and nice stakes. By way of big picture feedback, we’d suggest you focus your next draft on giving us a better sense of the world and bringing out the stakes again at the end of the query. Also, definitely choose either MG or YA—don’t query this with both because they are very different. With a protagonist aged 14 and a strong subplot of finding her mother, we think upper middle grade is your sweet spot. Good luck!
Thank you, Jessica and Julie, for your critique!
Next up we have …
Shari Schwarz lives in Ft. Collins, Colorado near the Rocky Mountains with her husband and their four boys. TREASURE AT LURE LAKE is her debut which reflects her love for a good survival adventure story. When she’s not reading or writing, Shari can be found freelance editing, weight-lifting, gardening or watching her boys play football, basketball, speed stacking, or wrestling. She frequently dreams of exploring Oregon Coast beaches or plotting out her next children’s book.
Treasure at Lure Lake by Shari Schwarz
In TREASURE AT LURE LAKE twelve-year-old Bryce’s best-laid plans for a backpacking trip with his grandpa seem about to fall through all because his big brother, Jack, is threatening to boycott the trip. Then, while sulking in his grandpa’s barn, Bryce stumbles upon a treasure map. He doesn’t mean to steal it or unearth a painful family secret that will explain the root of the brothers’ conflict as they embark on an exciting and dangerous adventure.
Shari’s First Page Critique . . .
AGE CATEGORY: Middle Grade
GENRE: Urban Fantasy
The scent of decaying flesh accompanied the memory. [This opening feels vague and incomplete. The memory of what? And whose memory? You want the reader to ask questions but questions that lead to an eyebrow raise, a sort of curiosity. If it’s too vague, it will fall flat with readers and be more confusing than intriguing… After reading through a couple of times, I feel like this opening is done more for shock value since nothing in the rest of this opening refers back to this smell or the memory.] Leo’s stomach turned at the thought [The thought of what? The thought of the memory? Or the thought of the scent of decaying flesh? You could also just say, “Leo’s stomach turned.” And then start a new sentence at, “He pushed the memory deep…”] and he pushed it away, deep down in a corner of his mind where it couldn’t hurt him as much. To clear his head, Leo paced around the bedroom, tossing a basketball back and forth from hand to hand. [This first chapter is very close in 3rd POV but by the fourth paragraph below, you’ve pulled way out and it sounds like a distant narrator.]
He glanced at the clock on the floor, for the third time. Aside from that and his bed, the only other things in the room were a number [Vague: give us a better picture of how many.] of unpacked boxes. Two weeks had passed since he and his mother moved but Leo hoped that if he didn’t unpack, the move wouldn’t be real.[Underlined sections indicate strong MG voice. This sentence shows us how Leo is feeling without telling us outright. It shows his hesitation or displeasure with having had to move.] He could forget about this house in Upstate New York and move back to New Jersey where his friends and basketball team would welcome him back with raucous applause. [This section in gray feels passive and I fear that you would lose readers because nothing is really happening. He’s just waiting around and we get some backstory which I’d advise against in the first page. If your MC is bored or waiting around or inactive, then your reader will feel that passivity and boredom and you don’t want to do that to your reader…especially in the first pages where many readers are deciding if they want to keep reading or not.]
He began shooting shot the ball against the wall Anything to distract him. and stole another peek at the clock. Where is this kid?[No need to put in a different font. And would he really say, “this kid?” Maybe, “Where is he?” or “Where is Vikram?”] His new friend, Vikram Singh, had agreed to bring over his laptop. Leo struggled to contain his emotions. [This is telling vs. showing. How did he struggle? What emotions? Frustration? Anger? Worry? Also, Leo is just doing more waiting and we’re getting more backstory here. I want to start right in the story, deeply seeded in the action/problem/character.]
Major storms had rolled through the area almost the entire time since the move, preventing anything from being turned on in the home. [More backstory. When you do need to use this info, perhaps you could show, in-scene, how Leo’s mom wouldn’t allow him to turn anything on. That would also reveal character and the relationship between Leo and his mom.] Life for a twelve-year-old without TV or internet access proved to be no life at all. [As I mentioned above, this paragraph pulls out and feels very distant, as if an adult is now telling the story. Try to stay close into Leo’s POV. Also, we’re just doing more waiting here.]
The only good thing had been that the storms had caused significant damage to the middle school, closing it for days, so Leo had yet to attend. But as a result, he hadn’t had an opportunity to make any other friends. Lucky for him, Vik took archery lessons from the old woman living next door to Leo. The boys met the day Leo moved in while Vik waited for his instructor. They had hung out several times since. [Backstory.]
Ordinarily, the fact that an archery instructor lived right next door would have delighted Leo. He loved the sport, it being one of the many things his father used to teach him. But as of late, his love for many things, [“Many things” was just used above and also is vague.] especially those connected with his dad had waned. [Overall, we’re getting a lot of backstory, so I’d venture a guess that you’re not starting in the right spot in your book. If I had the query or more of the story, I could help you find the right place to start so that the reader is really hooked.]
But that wasn’t the only reason his excitement abated. [‘Abated’ and ‘waned’ sound very adult-like.] In truth, the old woman weirded him out. She showed all the signs of being a typical old lady except for the one time. Leo had been staring out of his bedroom window that overlooked the expansive forest at the end of the street when she pulled into her driveway. She loaded her arms up with a bunch of bags and made her way toward her front door. A huge puddle left from one of the storms blocked her path. She looked up and down the street and leaped right over the water. Leo’s eyes bulged, doubting that he could make such a jump. [“Huge puddle” is vague so I didn’t envision a large enough puddle which made Leo’s surprise fall flat. Consider showing how huge the puddle is.] As soon as she landed, she snapped her head up toward him as though she knew he was there. The memory of her eyes made chills radiate over his skin.
[Your writing wavers a bit between an MG voice at times and an adult narrator. I would encourage you to work towards refining your MG voice. I like the dark, mysterious tone you’ve set. Dark MG is really being sought after by some agents, so you’ll get some attention there! I would love to know more about this story, where it is going, what it is about and also, the world…is it magical? Fantasy? Or is it set in the real world with just a touch of the extraordinary? Thank you for sharing your work and I wish you all the best on this!]
Thank you, Shari, for your critique!
Interested in more critiques? We’ll be posting critiques through the first part of July. Hope you’ll read on. And get ready! The Pitch Wars Mentor Wishlist Blog Hop starts July 19 with the Pitch Wars submission window opening on August 2.