Day 5 (Part 2): Pitch Wars Query and First Page Workshop with mentors, Erin Foster Hartley and Gabrielle Byrne
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 Erin Foster Hartley …
Erin Foster Hartley is a YA author represented by Melissa Nasson at Rubin Pfeffer Content. Her published work includes the first two volumes of ZOMBIE HIGH (a choose-your-own-adventure gamebook app available through Delight Games) and academic articles relating to film history and theory.
Erin’s Query Critique . . .
AGE CATEGORY: Young Adult
GENRE: Sci-fi thriller
Dear Ms./Mr. Agent,
Ten experiments were conducted.
They all failed.
But he is experiment 11.
[I appreciate what you’re trying to do here in terms of a hook. However, it’s not entirely effective. The first sentence is using a passive voice, and it leads me to wonder many questions that aren’t addressed elsewhere in the query. (What went wrong with the first ten experiments? Why is it important that he’s the eleventh one? What makes him special?)]
When seventeen-year-old Charlie Walker wakes up surrounded by strangers, he has no recollection of where he is or why he’s there. His captors implant a chip in his neck and leave him. Hours later, a doctor comes into Charlie’s room, carrying a gun in one pocket and a regular key in the other. He will help Charlie on two demands: that Charlie protects the key, and shoots the doctor before he is allowed to escape.
[There’s a lot of extraneous plot detail here, which is delaying what an agent really wants to know about your story: what does the main character want (goal), what’s standing in his way (conflict), and what happens if he doesn’t achieve his goal (stakes)? That’s your story’s core—what’s going to get someone interested and passionate enough to want to read more—so focus on those key points.]
The doctor turns out to be the leader of Phantom, a notorious hacker-group. Phantom hides Charlie from the ones who captured him: the NIC (National Intelligence Center). NIC have created the world’s first successful biochip and it is inside Charlie. NIC will do whatever it takes to get it back, but Phantom will do anything to keep it from them. Charlie is torn between the two groups who both claim they want to save the world.
[More extraneous plot, and I’m already starting to get confused by these details. I don’t know what exactly a biochip is, or why it was implanted in Charlie specifically, or how this could lead to either of these groups saving the world. Charlie seems like a tiny cog in all of this, when he should be the star of your query. Give me a reason to care about him as a unique individual.]
Charlie is thrown into a world of conspiracies, betrayal, and top-secret technology. With the fate of the world’s future within him, will Charlie rise up to defend it, or will he once again run away from his problems?
[Asking rhetorical questions is generally frowned upon in query writing. But the bigger issue here is that there seem to be a lot of things happening to your main character, but I’m not seeing him be very active. In fact, you’re calling into question whether or not he’s going to be active at all in his own story. I’m assuming the answer to this question is yes, he will rise up and defend the world, or else you wouldn’t have much of a story. But how does he do this, exactly? What sets Charlie and his plight apart from all the other Chosen One narratives already written? Give him some agency in the matter, so I have a reason to want to root for him.]
PROJECT HALO (94 000 words) is a YA sci-fi thriller in the vein of Divergent and The Maze Runner.
[Be sure to choose your comps carefully! These are two big-name, best-selling series, but how similar are they to your story’s plot, tone, or voice? Comps are an opportunity to illustrate how well-read you are in your genre—which is something agents do care about.]
The story tackles the increasing problems around surveillance and the constant invasion of people’s privacy. It features a diverse cast, and the main character himself discovers his sexuality to be bisexual throughout the book.
[If the main character’s sexuality factors into the central conflict somehow, you should clarify how right away. The way you have it here, it comes across as an afterthought that seems tacked on to appeal to agents searching for diversity or LGBTQ-themed manuscripts.]
I have a BA in English Literature and Language, as well as a semester’s worth of Creative Writing. I have also studied religion, socioculture, and psychology, subjects from which I constantly draw inspiration into my writing.
PROJECT HALO will be my debut novel.
Thank you so much for your time and consideration.
[Overall, it sounds like your story has an intriguing and highly commercial premise. I think if you focus more on Charlie’s role in all this in relation to that basic formula (his personal goal, conflict, and stakes), it will better highlight your story’s unique elements. Good luck!]
Next up we have …
Pitch Wars Mentors Gabrielle Kirouac Byrne …
Gabrielle lives in the rainy wilds of the Pacific Northwest, where she writes fantasy for middle graders. Gabby studied opera in Philadelphia, medieval studies in New York, literature in Scotland, and marine biology in the Pacific Northwest, but writing stories is the common thread that ties all her interests together. She has a degree in literature and another in environmental studies. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her fishing spineless critters out of the Salish sea with her husband and two daughters. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management.
Gabby blogs at www.thewingedpen.com
Gabrielle’s First Page Critique . . .
AGE CATEGORY: MG
GENRE: Science Fiction
If Gryph had to watch one more Expanded History holo about Earth and the collapse of tech, he was going to scream.[I love this first sentence. It sets the scene, tells us the genre, provides great background info without telling, and adds a layer of micro-tension. My advice is to stop at “scream.” Naming the emotion is redundant, and takes power from the sentence.] He let his virtual teacher jabber away while he tucked his knife into his waist [maybe belt, or waistband, instead—unless you mean waist, which is a tough/weird visual].
He was officially ungrounded as of tomorrow, and really, this day was as good as over. [I suggest a change to “and” to better connect these. He’s saying he’s practically off the hook now. He can almost taste it.] He carried his boots and sneaked past his cousin Plei’s open office door. [go for a more meaningful verb than carried—one that either tells us something about him, or about the scene. It might mean re-working this sentence.] The glowing holo projections on the desk cast eerie shadows on her face and sparked off her pupils, making her look kind of alien [I think it would be more powerful here to have him react to the way she looks. “making her look kind of alien” doesn’t have the impact it could. He could shiver, or look away, or some other physical reaction that shows us she’s spooky looking. I think you could work in a few physical descriptors for either or both of them through here too (more on that below).] She chewed her lip while her fingers flew across the interface. Totally engrossed. [Great characterization]
He was two meters from freedom when she called out. “If I let you go, can I trust that you won’t do something stupid?” Not so engrossed after all. [I love this because it’s so unexpected. Great characterization through relationship.]
“Like what?” Dumb question.
She beat him to their tiny entryway. “You know what.”
He did know, but he shook his head because that’s what she wanted him to do. “I’m not going to get in trouble.” [This whole section is a brilliant exchange. We’re learning tons about their relationship, and you’re setting up good tension, and mystery for us. I want to know what!]
“Why do you have your Ka-Bar [I think I’d just add the word knife here this first time Ka-Bar is used, even though you let us know that’s what it is in the next sentence], then?”
He’d deliberately worn a looser shirt to hide the knife. Talk about observation skills. [You could make this stronger, and enrich their relationship further, by sharing how he feels about it, instead of just noting it (which you can trust the reader to do). Instead of “Talk about observation skills,” you could go with something like, “He wished for the millionth time that he could think of a way to get something—anything, past her.”] “So I don’t get into trouble.”
“A Ka-Bar is trouble.”
“Not if I need to cut myself free from vines.”
“So common on the running trails.”
“Just three times around the colony.”
“Like you need to run thirty k right now?” Plei glared at him. She took her guardian duties way too seriously. [This is a great exchange. I’d write out kilometers. About now, I’m really wanting to see more description of them. You can do this with a small sprinkle of dialog tags—a raising of a thick eyebrow, a blink from wide blue eyes, a tension in her sinewy frame—or his, a hand moving to a hip. Another great way to do this is to let us see them move in the space. Does her crimson hair stand out against the purple plaid wall? Does he shift his weight, and lean against the stark white bunk, or clasp his hands, or stare at the streaks on the wood floor under his desk, where he’s been kicking his feet for days? You get the idea. It’s a balancing act, but this is a good place to play with it, and a little goes a long way.]
“I’m so bored that I’m caught up in math. I’m going nuclear. Twice around.” None of this was a lie, but Plei would kill him if she knew he wanted to train. [Cutting words that don’t have a specific purpose, or that distance us.]
“I told your instructor that I’d handle this.”
“Seven days grounded for one climb on the wall?”
“After hours. No equipment. No instructor.” Plei put up fingers. [move the tag to the front of the quotes]
Adults got worked up over the smallest things. He could climb circles around the instructors but just because he was a kid, he wasn’t allowed on the wall unless he was tied-up like a puppet [I’m taking this literally, which is strange/confusing. If it is literal, I think we need more information. If it’s not literal, rephrase. J]. “I’m twelve Earth years.” Earth years made him sound way older. “Old enough for free climbing.”
“Why are we talking about Earth years here? You’re six Eirene years.” [This is well done world-building. If I were mentoring this book as a whole, I would want to know if this distinction adds something meaningful to the story. If not, it may be a layer/opportunity for confusion you can lose.]
Gryph reached out and tugged at one of Plei’s loose curls, the way he used to when he was little. She made a disapproving sound but pulled him into a hug. “You know I have to watch out for you,” Plei said.
“Or else what?”
“Or else…” She gave him a look. She wasn’t willing to say it, but Gryph knew. Or else something might happen to him. Like it did to his sister Callie when she went on her first Far Side mission.
“I’ll be quick. I’ve been doing nothing but push-ups for—”
“Seven days. Don’t I know it.” Plei reached for a beanie on one of the hooks. She held it out to him. “It’s chilly.”
The door swished open and Gryph walked into the darkening night.
[This is really well done beginning. You’ve established a lot about the personalities of these two characters in a very short time. There’s micro-tension and stakes, and you’ve peaked my curiosity about his past, their world, and his lost/dead sister. When I critique, I lay it on pretty thick at the start. In part this is because the beginning is really important (of course), but it’s also a chance to identify patterns, and point out areas to amp up, or improve, throughout. What I’ve noticed in your writing so far, is that your dialog and relationship characterization is really well done, but you could work in more description (both the setting and the characters themselves). These are opportunities to work in sensory metaphors that are meaningful to the character, as well as to start establishing physical/emotional connections – i.e.; I always yank on my earlobe when I’m irritated. Check you’re using the best, most meaningful verbs. Don’t name an emotion if you can show it and trust your reader to feel it/see it. What I would be looking for in your manuscript in the next five pages or so, would be more detail and tension building for the overarching stakes—the why of their wall and their rules (without an info dump). Based on this page alone, I would request to see more. Good stuff!]
Thank you, Erin and Gabrielle, 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.