Day 4 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Query and First Page Workshop with mentors Diana Gallagher, Katrina Emmel, and Kit Frick
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 Mentors Diana Gallagher and Katrina Emmel …
Katrina Emmel grew up in New Hampshire and has been migrating westward ever since. Now a Californian, she work as a technical chemistry consultant, and writes YA and adult contemporary and historical romance. Follow her on Twitter:
Though Diana Gallagher be but little, she is fierce. She’s also a gymnastics coach and judge, former collegiate gymnast, and writing professor. Her work has appeared in The Southampton Review, International Gymnast, The Couch Gymnast, The Gymternet, and on a candy cigarette box for SmokeLong Quarterly. She holds an MFA from Stony Brook University and is represented by Tina Wexler of ICM Partners. Her contemporary YA novel, Lessons in Falling, released this February.
Diana’s recent book …
LESSON ONE: Playing it safe beats taking chances.
After an injury ends Savannah’s dream of a college gymnastics scholarship, she quits despite her parents’ protests. She won’t risk breaking her body—and heart—again.
LESSON TWO: Catch your best friend when she falls—or regret it forever.
Rules are meant to be broken, according to Savannah’s best friend, Cassie—and it’s more fun to break them together. But when Cassie attempts suicide, Savannah’s left wondering how well she really knows her.
LESSON THREE: Learning to leap forward, not knowing where you’ll land, is the hardest of all.
Falling for Marcos wasn’t part of the plan. Not only did he save Cassie’s life, he also believes Savannah can still achieve her dreams. Except Cassie thinks Marcos and gymnastics will only break Savannah’s heart.
As Savannah tumbles and twists through toxic friendships and crushing parental expectations, she realizes you never know who will be there when you fall.
Diana and Katrina’s Query Critique . . .
Dear [Agent’s name],
Avid-gamer Dax, a college student in Texas, is [was? It seems like he probably doesn’t think it’s awesome anymore] one of those naive people who thought, “[remove space] Magic should be real. It would be awesome.” Well, Dax got his wish and it sucks, really sucks. [I like the voice!] He gained power, but it’s more of a curse. It reacts to music, so restaurants, grocery stores, and cute little ice cream trucks are the equivalent of an alien landing on one’s face. [Not sure what this means.][I don’t get it either. Maybe simplify by saying ice cream trucks…nothing’s safe.] So, Dax can’t date or go to the movies or do anything normal. He once tried to buy coffee for a girl, but ended up putting the entire java shop to sleep. The only reason he is not still stuck in a psychiatric hospital for Melophobia is because of his best friend, Teddy. [I like the flashes of voice here! I’m not entirely clear on what Dax’s magic is all about, despite the exposition above. I’d trim this entire paragraph into three to four punchier sentences that establish the premise and the conflict.] [I love the voice, too! But I think you need to get to the heart of the problem right away. Agents read tons of queries, so get to the gut of the story right away.] When Dax discovers his curse comes from a dead god, he must resist searching for others with magic or jeopardize leading the god’s killers straight to them. [I like the way this sentence is constructed because it contains both action and stakes! However, I am unclear as to who “them” refers to and why Dax should be concerned. What does “jeopardize” mean in this context?]
With the [remove “the”] help from a local coven, an investigative police officer, and a renegade demon, Dax and his friends are willing to fight when no one else can. In order to stop the old-world gods from stealing his essence [I thought the god was dead?], Dax must vanquish [vanquish is a strong word! Love it!] them before they can gather more strength. [I think these sentences can be combined to make it punchier: With help from a coven, police investigator, and a renegade demon, Dax and his friends fight to vanquish the old-world gods before they can gather more strength]. To do so alone would be to give in to the destructive power of his magic [is it destructive? As per the opening paragraph, it puts people to sleep] [how does having the others prevent him from giving in to the ‘dark side’?], but to enlist his friends to help would lead them straight into the hands of demons. [I like how you’ve established the stakes here! At the same time, I’m confused because Dax’s friends seem to be both aware of what’s going on and down to help, as per the opening sentence of this paragraph.][So, he’s battling gods and demons? How do they fit together?]
THEME SONG PANIC [cool title!] is a New Adult Paranormal Urban Fantasy [I’d stick with one genre here — paranormal or urban fantasy] [I’m actually cool with calling it a Paranormal Urban Fantasy- I would argue that the HP books fit that mashup, but I’m more concerned about the NA part. Is this a romance? My understanding is that the NA market is mostly romance, so I’m not sure where this title would fit on the shelf. What comp titles can you name? Can you age the MC up to adult or down to YA?] complete at 83,000 words. I won first place in the category for Fiction Short Story through the 2016 On My Own Time contest with the DFW Business Council of the Arts.
Thank you for your time and this opportunity,
It sounds like you have a manuscript with humor and high stakes! Cutting down the exposition in the opening paragraph while being more specific as to the parameters of Dax’s magic and what he’s up against will help the query read more smoothly. Doing this will also help to answer some of the logistical questions in the same paragraph. The hints of Dax’s voice are fun and something you could extend throughout the query, too.
Arguably, I haven’t read a whole lot of paranormal urban fantasy lately, but I think your premise sounds fresh and I think you have a great voice. I think paring down the query and focusing on what’s key info for the agent to know will really help. Your first paragraph really has to pack a punch to get them to want to read more. If you make it super punchy, you can play around a bit more in your second paragraph, where you can really showcase your voice. I wish you all the best with your querying! Thank you so much for sharing your words!
Next up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentors Kit Frick …
Kit Frick is a novelist, poet, and MacDowell Colony fellow. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, she studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA from Syracuse University. When she isn’t putting complicated characters in impossible situations, Kit edits poetry and literary fiction for a small press, edits for private clients, and mentors emerging writers through Pitch Wars. Her debut young adult novel is See All the Stars (Simon & Schuster / Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2018).
Kit’s First Page Critique . . .
Age Category: YA
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy
10-year-old Emily [I noted in your age category and genre description that your novel is “YA contemporary fantasy.” Just a note that if Emily will be your protagonist, a ten-year-old protagonist would position your novel as MG, not YA. I’ll share with you here a great post from Writers’ Digest on the differences between the two age categories that you may find useful.] stood in the doorway leading into the dark brown vinyl and brick funeral parlor. [I might cut “dark brown” from the first sentence. “Vinyl and brick” is the much more evocative description of the setting, and we’re already seeing a reddish-brown color, so to me “dark brown” clutters the opening sentence a bit.] Her head [still] stung from the foster woman, who [had] spent the morning raking a comb through her long black hair. [Since you’re writing in past tense and describing here a memory of even further past (this morning), you want to use the past perfect to clarify.] The tulle of someone else’s black dress scraped her bare legs that the red-haired CPS woman forced her to wear. [What’s CPS? Some readers might know off-hand that this stands for Child Protective Services, but others won’t. I’d recommend writing out the full name of the organization the first time you use it (here); then you can abbreviate going forward.] [The taste of] bad eggs clung to her tongue.
“There’s a bad taste in my mouth,” Emily whined through clenched teeth. [You’ve just said “bad eggs” in the previous sentence, so is there another phrase you could use here aside from “bad taste,” to diversify? Maybe “icky taste?” Or “My mouth doesn’t taste good.”]
The CPS woman pulled a packet of gum from her pocket and handed a piece to Emily.
She cringed when the mint coated her tongue. “It made it worse.”
“You need to pay your respects.” She firmly patted Emily on the back sending her into the viewing room. Holding her phone, the CPS woman walked into the parking lot[, leaving Emily alone].
As she made her way towards the caskets on the viewing platform, she could smell the carpet which was saturated with the sweet floral scent of Febreze. [Great description here; I love that we get the smell of the funeral parlor carpet.] Passing through the sea of unfamiliar mourners, a spike of uneasiness filled Emily, glancing up at these strangers.
They stood closely together, whispering loudly, too loudly as if they wanted to be heard. She didn’t care.
The closer she got to the caskets, the deeper the hot sandy smell [Is this the smell inside the funeral parlor, aside from the Febreze scent of the carpet? Or is this referring back to the bad taste in Emily’s mouth from before?] clung to the back of her throat. It made her mouth gritty and dry. She swallowed trying to wet her mouth so she wouldn’t cough. Emily pulled a red handkerchief from her pocket tying it over her mouth.
“That’s Jean’s daughter.” A feminine voice [Maybe a more specific adjective here, other than feminine? What might describe this voice? Lilting? Soft? Etc.] whispered from the group of mourners.
Emily’s pale fingers dug into her leg through her coarse dress.
Ascending the stairs to her parent’s caskets [Both parents! Yikes, poor Emily. She’s clearly been dealt a very hard blow here, which sets some very high emotional stakes.] she rounded them approaching her mother’s casket. They can’t be dead. It had been fine. This is all a joke.
Her feet crushed the white roses which had been spread over the ground. The smell of disinfected [disinfectant?] clung to the caskets. Emily fingers twitched, touching the smooth glossy lid. It was heavy and cold in her hand as she lifted it. [Nice actions and descriptions in the previous two sentences. You’re doing a good job here of conveying the emotion of the moment without telling us “Emily was sad.”]
“You shouldn’t do that.” A boy rested his hand from over the casket next to Emily’s pressing down.
The boy looked to be about her age. His dirt brown hair framed his face which drew attention to his brown-red eyes. [Here, you could note that his eyes are the same color of the funeral parlor décor, which I’d suggested cutting from your opening sentence, but would here be an interesting detail.]
Emily’s eyes burned, pinching as everything was painted in a blue tint including the boy. [I’m not quite sure I understand what’s happening in this moment. Is the blue tint a metaphorical description of Emily’s anxiety and sadness here? Or is something magical happening?]
His brown-red eyes became more red than brown. Then the pain was gone, along with the blue tint leaving the boy in his white tank top and beige shorts. In his free hand, he held a tall net meant for catching butterflies. [Ah, okay. I’m thinking something magical has happened—something that the boy was able to do with his eyes to alleviate Emily’s pain. I’d like to see this conveyed more clearly so there’s no confusion for the reader. We don’t need to know what exactly is happening—that can still be mysterious!—but we shouldn’t question if something magical has occurred. Can you describe how Emily sees the world through the blue tint? Does it surprise her? Does she worry that something is wrong with her when everything turns blue? Does the boy do anything to reassure her? By calling more attention to the experience, we’ll understand that something strange and possibly magical is transpiring between them.]
Why does he have that? It’s fall, all the butterflies are dead. [Oooh very intriguing! I’m sure this is going to come back later in the narrative in an important way.]
“Two fatal fires and Jean’s girl is the only common denominator in both cases.” The woman voice rippled through the crowd. [Oh! So, Emily’s a suspect in these murders! Now I’m even more compelled by her predicament.]
“How didn’t they see the signs? I mean look at her.”
“Sue said Jean once found a knife under her bed.”
“Murderer.” The woman’s voice came as a sneer. [Great flip here; we go from feeling pure sympathy for Emily to wondering if she’s been framed for murder, or if she could possibly even be a murderer if these women are right. I’m certainly compelled to read on.]
Thanks for sharing your opening page with me and the Pitch Wars community! I hope you’ll find the bracketed comments helpful as you revise your work. You introduce a very compelling premise in these first 500 words, and with some attention to the writing, identifying the right age category for your manuscript, and a more fully-formed introduction of your story’s first magical element (the blue tint), you’ll be well on your way to a charged, compelling opening for your novel. Best of luck to you (and Emily)!
Thank you, Diana, Katrina, and Kit, 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 2.