Day 14 (Part 2) of the Pitch Wars Query & 1st Page Workshop with mentors Derek Chivers & Susan Bishop Crispell

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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 mentor Derek Chivers . . .

derek chiversWebsite | Twitter

Derek Chivers was born and raised on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. He spent his childhood running wild through woods where winter winds drifted snow deeper than he was tall, and the midnight sun stretched stories and summer days long past reasonable limits. Now he shares life’s adventures with his wife and daughters. He can still run wild in woods nestled between snow-capped peaks, or just lose himself between the covers of his favorite authors’ novels.

He is a founding member of Anchorage writing collective The Life Partners (thelifepartners.tumblr.com), and an infrequent contributor to their short fiction Tumblr. His short fiction was published in the 2009 and 2011 editions of Understory at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, where he wrote opinion for The Northern Light newspaper and received a BA in English Literature. His creative nonfiction “Gunshots on Dogfish” placed first in a 2011 statewide writing competition and was published in F Magazine. He is represented by Becky LeJeune of Bond Literary Agency.

Derek’s Query  Critique . . .

AGE CATEGORY: Adult
GENRE: Urban Fantasy

Dear Agent

As a nymph, Zephyra has had more than her fair share of unwanted attention, though no one has ever done anything quite as dramatic as leaving a pile of slaughtered animals in her favorite hunting spot. [This is a great hook, though I would play with word choice and see if you can whittle the same thought closer to 25 words or less for more impact.] All signs [evidence, or just human prejudice and suspicion? I ask because the distinction could paint a very different picture.] point towards the newly arrived [To the town? World?] wolf shifters as the culprits, and tensions escalate between the human citizens of Paros [city, nation, world?] and the aberrations they live alongside. [just shifters, or all fae?] Zephyra convinces her ex, Wildlife Officer Brady Shaw, to let her in on the investigation.

[This is a  dense first paragraph. We’ve got an inferred goal (identify the threat, and don’t die) and we have conflict (implied threat of the slaughtered animals, rising tensions with werewolves, working with an ex!), leaving only the stakes to be established. We also have a ton of world-building elements (Nymphs, wolf shifters, Paros). We know from context this is not our world, but this fact is complicated at the close by the addition of a familiar element in Wildlife Officer Shaw.

I love everything that’s here, but what concerns me is what’s not. After a killer hook, I’m left with more questions than answers. What sort of tensions are escalating, what is the baseline of the relationship between the supernatural and the human citizens, and with elements like Wildlife Officers how closely does Paros resemble our modern world?

These questions don’t need explicit answers, especially not in the opening paragraph, but the fact that I’m raising them means something. We all know brevity is important in queries, and that it’s hard to fit big things into little spaces. One way to do that is condensation, but another is distillation. I like this metaphor though it’s hard to explain, because in distillation the thing that’s captured is what’s boiled away: the big ideas and the style, the essence, rather than the concrete plot elements that remain. Shoot for that in your opening graph and leave the meat and potatoes for the body.]

Zephyra’s attraction to Ethan, one of the wolf shifters, only stirs up more trouble. Brady grows jealous, and Zephyra finds threatening notes left on her door. [you’ve connected these two elements with this sentence, are they connected? Does Zephyra think Brady is now threatening her?] The notes warn her to stay away from the shifters. She soon discovers [how?] that the wildlife slaughter is the macabre calling card of a deranged stalker. [I would like to see more of the relationship between these events. We’re given Ethan, the notes, and the stalker all with no context or connection.] The stalker forces Zephyra to make a choice: she can either heed the stalker’s demands and turn her back on Ethan, or give in to her natural tendencies and fight back. [Is fighting a natural tendency of Nymphs? I feel like Zephyra is a different sort, more of a fiesty fae, but the phrasing is confusing and we know how important every single word and line is in a query. Another issue is that while we have our stakes now, they could be clearer. What exactly are the stalker’s demands, and why should she heed them? What are the consequences if she doesn’t? What does fighting back look like? Is anyone in danger except Zephyra? I ask because given an uncomplicated choice between giving into a stalker’s demands or not, most people would do or expect their protagonist to do the latter without a clear idea of the consequences or reason why the choice is a complicated one.]

BOW ECHO, complete at 71.5k words, [I would lose “complete.” I feel like that is an expectation these days.] is an urban fantasy that draws on Greek mythology and contains elements of romance and mystery. A standalone with series potential, Bow Echo will appeal to readers of the Mercy Thompson series. [So much in this industry is subjective, so take this with a grain of salt, but a lot of these elements are unnecessary. We need the title, word count, and genre, but I’ve been advised before not to point out themes and references, and I feel like my query was cleaner for it. I also feel like pointing out the series potential is something which would come later; if an agent loves you or your book their decision to represent you won’t be based on whether or not there are more of this particular series to sell. The other exception here is the comp. Comps are great, and I’ve seen great response to the formula of “X meets Y.”]

I am an active member of Wattpad (@xxxxx), and I was a finalist in their 2014 Watty Awards. I also serve as a Wattpad ambassador, and my urban fantasy story Xxxxxxxx is a featured story on the site. I’m building my presence on Twitter @xxxxx) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/xxxxx). [More subjectivity: I, personally, like the Wattpad and social media details because they give an agent a route to find out more about you if they’re on the fence. Also Wattpad IS a huge platform, so being a finalist and getting noticed in such a large pool is an accomplishment in itself. Others may disagree, advising against linking to free material or mentioning being a finalist in anything you didn’t place in or win, and may argue that the query and the story should stand on their own. YMMV]

Thank you for your time and consideration.

XXX

[I’m sure you’ve noticed that for all that blue text I offer very little in the way of specific changes or line edits. It’s my opinion that stuff like word choice and sentence structure is best handled by the author, because I believe an author’s style is equally important to the query as the story itself. Instead, I like to ask questions and make statements that encourage you to think objectively, clarify, and make those line edits yourself.

That being said, all the elements of a great query letter are here, in the correct order and format, and I’m intrigued by the concept. I feel like the only misstep is in the focus and the flow. While it works as is, I think you got in the way of yourself by trying to check all the boxes, and you just need to take a step back and ask yourself if it really represents the spirit of your story. For a story obviously full of dark intrigue and life-or-death consequences, I’m just not getting enough of a sense of that tone in the query.

You give us the things that happen, but not what they mean to the world at large. You give us the characters and relationships, but not how the things that happen affect those characters and relationships. Is Zephyra scared? How does she feel? How fragile is the relationship between humans and shifters? These are the stakes that I want; I hope that’s helpful.

Best luck! I think this story is going places, I hope I can in some small way help it to get there. Message me on Twitter if you have any questions!]

 

Next up we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor Susan Bishop Crispell . . .

Website | Twitter

Susan Bishop Crispell earned a BFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Born and raised in the mountains of Tennessee, she now lives twenty minutes from the beach in North Carolina with her husband and their two literary-named cats. She is very fond of pie and is always on the lookout for hints of magic in the real world. She is the author of The Secret Ingredient of Wishes (Sept 2016, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press) and Dreaming in Chocolate (Feb 2018, St. Martin’s Griffin).

 

 

Susan’s recent release …

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Indie Bound

Rachel Monroe, 26, can make wishes come true just by thinking about them. But it’s a gift that has caused more harm than good. And after her mother’s death, which Rachel blames herself for, she decides it’s time to leave her hometown—and her past—behind.

But when Rachel gets stranded in small-town Nowhere, NC—also known as the town of “Lost and Found”—she realizes she can’t escape her past, or her gift. In Nowhere Rachel is taken in by a spit-fire old woman, Catch, who binds the townspeople’s secrets by baking them into pies, and who has an uncanny ability to see exactly what Rachel is trying to hide. She also meets Ashe, Catch’s neighbor with southern charm and a complicated past, who makes her want to believe in happily-ever-after.

As she settles into the small town, she hopes her own secrets will stay hidden—especially the one about how she wished her little brother out of existence when they were kids. But starting over is harder than she thought, and when her wish-granting secret is revealed, the town people’s wishes begin popping out of thin air everywhere she goes. Scared the wishes will go wrong like in the past, she tries to ignore them, which only makes the wishes more determined to get her attention. Then when Rachel is forced to confront the truth about her brother, she must accept her magical ability or risk losing those she has come to love—and a chance at happiness—all over again.

Susan’s First Page Critique . . .

5th January, 2013
 
Saturday
 
It should have been the best day of his life, or at least one of them. Instead it was the opposite. [These opening lines feel a little cliché. Maybe cut them and start with the next one for a stronger hook.] They were both dead. His beautiful wife. His unborn child. She looked so peaceful, lying there. Why couldn’t he feel that peace too? It wasn’t fair. Life wasn’t fair. [This paragraph is all telling so I don’t feel this main character’s (MC) heartbreak the way you want me to. Can you rewrite it to show these emotions instead? This should be an intense moment for the MC but it feels a little flat at the moment.]
 
Rage was finding a voice inside him.
 
‘What have you done?’ He’d realised he was losing it, but couldn’t stop himself.
 
‘Mr Fitzpatrick, come with me … ’
 
‘What the hell did you do?’
 
‘Sir, please, go with the nurse—’
 
He’d grabbed the young doctor by the scruff, hooked him round the neck …
 
Security was called. [Nice voice in these couple sentences!]
 
Amniotic fluid embolism they’d said at the inquest. There was nothing they could have done.
 
Nothing?
 
He remembered the doctor’s voice: afraid, panicked. [Can you show this instead of telling what these emotions are? Does his voice catch or go so soft that the MC has to lean in to hear the doctor?] He watched the young man now. Broken. Explaining. [Are you saying the doctor is broken/explaining? Can you describe his facial expressions or gestures to show how he looks broken or explaining? It’s a little confusing as written.] In his daze, it seemed like he was appealing to him – personally. But he was trying to justify his actions. His inexperience. He didn’t really blame him. He blamed the system. [Because you don’t name the MC, the pronouns in this paragraph get a little confusing.]
 
If only it had been a week day.[How would it being a week day have changed things?] They should be made to stay at the hospital. [Who should stay at the hospital?] Why did she have to live so far away? [Who lives far away?] [I think you mean for this paragraph to explain why he blames the system but instead it is so vague and unclear that it raises more questions that leave me confused.]
 
“There was nothing they could have done …”
 
The Consultant’s presence surely would have made a difference. [Who is the consultant? Why would their presence have made a difference? Instead of propelling me into the story, this just leaves me more confused.]
 
[On the whole, I’m not sure you need this prologue. It certainly starts the story in a shocking way, but since I don’t know who this MC is or why I should care about him and his now-broken life, I don’t feel any connection to him. I think you might be more effective starting this story in a different place to grab the reader the right way.]
 
 
Chapter One
 
Friday [When in time is this compared to the prologue? It’s a little confusing with just the day so when I start reading I have no grounding in the story. Is the day important? If not, I would cut it.]
 
When I looked up my gut made an almighty leap. [Why? I want a little more grounding here to set the scene. Also changing from third person to first here makes me unsure if this is the same person as the prologue (so might be another reason to cut the prologue).] The kind of hurdle that rendered the term nervous redundant. They called it good anxiety. The ‘right kind of stressors’ were good for you. Apparently. Well, not in my book. I’d seen enough train wrecks to know that wasn’t the case. [The voice in these first few sentences is great.] Right now, adrenalin was pumping [in?] my veins, surging through my peripherals, [not sure what this means] heading straight for my ticker. The passages leading to my lungs were expanding, my pupils were already dilated and the sudden dry mouth was due to a raised blood glucose level. [This is a lot of description of a reaction when we don’t even know what the reaction is to. I would maybe cut the last two sentences and get back to the cause/action sooner.]
 
I wanted to flee. Get away. Far away. [Why? I know he has anxiety but I don’t understand what he is scared of or why he wants to flee. Without any context, this doesn’t add anything new to the story.]
 
‘Hi,’ she said.
 
‘Er, hi … can I help you?’ I replied, from my semi-submissive [This is an awkward way to describe this position and I’m not sure what it actually looks like] position; a book on Naked Art poised precariously in my left hand. Wouldn’t you know it, eh? [This internal thought feels off. Not sure this is really what he would think here when all he wants is to flee.]
 
‘Um, yes …’ she tried not to look at the nude man on the cover, without success. ‘I’m looking for a book on archaeology.’
 
Well, duh, take your pick. I didn’t say what I was thinking that would’ve been rude. [Again, I don’t follow his internal thoughts here. I thought he wanted to flee so why is he now being snarky? (Also, why is he nervous if he’s at work and his job is to help people? I don’t follow that emotional struggle.) Also, since I don’t know where this scene is taking place (a bookstore? library?) this makes him seem like a jerk but that doesn’t fit with the super nervous guy from the first paragraph so I’m confused on who this character actually is.] I replaced the book onto the pile beside me and straightened. ‘Any particular category?’ Clearing my throat, I moved off, indicating for her to follow. ‘We have a whole section on archaeology. I pointed to the A’s. ‘Aerial Archaeology, Anthracology, Archaeoastronomy, Archaeological Science—’
 
‘Calceology.’
 
Ah. Interesting. The study of footwear. [Why does he find this interesting? This is a great place to give a little internal on who he is and what he’s thinking about this woman based on this book choice.]
 
‘Okay …’ I moved off again.
 
‘Roman … specifically,’ she finished when I turned to look at her.
 
‘Dissertation?’ I asked.
 
‘Oh no, I … um … you’re very organised,’ she said, distracted by the bountiful show of reference books that sat row on row, waiting patiently for their next owner. Or she was avoiding my question. [Why does he assume she might be avoiding his question when the question was not remotely personal?]
 

The voice in this opening really jumps of the page in places. I would love to see more of that come through! That’s what will really grab a reader’s attention and help them connect to this main character. I would also like to have some scene setting early on to help ground this character (and therefore the reader). Just a few details here and there to show where the scene is taking place and what things look/smell/sound like to really bring it all to life. You’ve got an interesting story here (I’m guessing it will be a love story of how the MC met and fell in love with the wife he eventually loses?) and it has so much potential to be a beautiful emotionally charged story.

Thank you, Derek and Susan, for your critiques!

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 2nd.

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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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