Day 29 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Query & First Page Workshop with Mentors Melyssa Mercado and Heather Cashman
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 Melyssa Mercado
Melyssa Mercado is a writer of Middle Grade and Young Adult stories. Creative writing has always threaded the needle of Mel’s life, weaving worlds and characters together in hopes of connecting to the experiences and evolutionary pages of a young person’s heart. She believes humor is the true chicken soup for the soul (and that nobody really throws up all night). Mel’s wish list will forever include book-scented candles and making readers smile. SCBWI and Eastern New York chapter member. She’s represented by the lovely Victoria Selvaggio of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.
Melyssa’s Query Critique…
AGE CATEGORY: Middle grade
I am seeking representation for my middle grade fantasy, Dragon Talker: Heart Stone. [Great title! As agents know you are querying for rep, I’d sub this opening with either a personalized reason you’re querying this specific agent or go straight into the hook and grab their attention right off the bat—the latter is always my personal preference, as agents view tons of queries on a daily basis. You can always add a personalized statement for querying in your closing paragraph].
“All middle school kids are weird – no one fits in.” So says Jake’s school counselor, and his best friend Owen agrees. But Jake is sure that no one has the night life he does.
[Generally, queries don’t include or start off with dialogue. I’ve seen it done, but it’s risky. But my biggest concern here is that a guidance counselor is telling two kids they are all weird and don’t fit in. Do you know how fast I’d be on the phone to that school? (: You can easily turn this around using a snappy word opener with something like: If ___year-old Jake hears that feeling weird is just a natural part of middle school one more time, he’ll go unnaturally bonkers—because, no matter what his guidance counselor says, Jake is sure no one has the night life he does. [LOVE this line about the night life! I’m immediately intrigued, so I’d love to see one more specific line hinting about that unusual night life in this opener. Ex: because, no matter what his guidance counselor says, Jake is sure no one has the night life he does—unless every kid travels to a dragon world while they slept. [This is the essence of your hook. It’s a quickie preview showing us how your MC and premise are unique, his/her age, and a glimpse of your MG voice. It’s that all-important listen-up moment in your query that baits an agent to want to read on. The next paragraph should delve deeper into your story, stakes, and give us an idea of what Jake wants or needs]
[New paragraph] When Jake sleeps, he enters another world… as a dragon. [cool!] But during the day he (?)_______ ex: pretends it never happened? Ignores the scaly goosebumps growing under his armpits? Tries to forget enemy dragons are out to get him every time he closes his eyes? [These are just random examples, but we need something here to lead us into the double life reference that comes next. He Jake maintains his double life until his dreams turn sinister and start edging into the his school days—with [some] embarrassing side effects. [I know I’m not the only one dying to learn what some of these side-effects are. Adding in a few choice embarrassing moments here would be cool. It will also connect the dots of how his day and dragon night life are specifically colliding. And after reading ahead, I’m wondering if it could even be one particular side-effect that results in Jake’s mom being called into school where he accidentally overhears what comes next. You know your plot best, but as far as the query goes, I think adding something like this would make for a smoother transition in your next chain of events. Then [When] he [Jake] overhears his mom say something about him being adopted, and Jake is finally convinced: he’s either crazy, or his dreams are trying to tell him something. Something about his real family, and the other [dragon] world he visits in his dreams. A world that’s in [serious] trouble. But when Jake wakes up in that [dragon] other world [again? permanently? And can’t get back?], he knows he isn’t crazy. [And he also knows he must (?)_______ in order to (?)______or else________(?) happens]. And he quickly learns the only way for him to get back is to go forward.
I feel like that last line about going back to go forward is a bit vague. Let’s leave off with some high and specific stakes. The blanks above are just a generic example of how you could formulate those stakes. You can always voice them up in your own way. What must Jake go back to do? What happens if he doesn’t succeed? I’d also like to get a sense of what Jake truly wants in this query. What personally drives him and his actions? Does he want to finally know where he comes from or where he belongs? Get back to his non-dragon life? Stay in this new one? How does he come to terms with his new reality? Giving us just a line or two about these personal details helps connect us to your MC and want to root for him. I’m sure all this info unfolds in the pages, but since you’ve only got a few paragraphs to nab an agent’s attention in a query, be sure to make each line count, so they become immediately invested in your character’s journey.
Dragon Talker [capitalize your title, and keep consistent, using either DRAGON TALKER: HEART STONE or just DRAGON TALKER throughout] is a high-energy tale of teamwork and friendship. Jake discovers more about his family than he ever dreamed, and learns how to be comfortable in his own (human) skin. Along the way, he makes an alliance with a fire-breathing dragon, dodges a power-hungry evil sorcerer, and eventually saves the world! Complete at 42,000 words, it is a standalone with series potential for middle grade readers. Dragon Talker will appeal to readers who identify with unique characters who have out-of-this world adventures like the protagonists of Peter & The Starcatchers (Barry) and Gregor the Overlander (Collins).
[Great comps! But you want to make sure that you only give away your ending in a synopsis. The query is just to catch an agent’s eye, so they are interested enough to request more pages. I struck the synopsis-y parts to give you a better idea. That being said, just a little shifting is needed on this close].
Suggestion on an alternate close:
DRAGON TALKER: HEART STONE, complete at 42,000 words is a high-energy tale of teamwork and friendship. It’s a standalone story with series potential. DRAGON TALKER: HEART STONE would appeal to middle grade readers who identify with unique protagonists that experience out-of-this world adventures as in Peter & The Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins.
I have been an educator for 16 years and worked with all kinds of kids, from inner-city to upper class. I love that all children, no matter their background or baggage, can find escape and adventure in books. I use the red pen to draw out the best, not to point out the worst. My favorite part of teaching – and writing – is the editing/growth stage. I want to help young people discover who they are, even if they have to do scary things and work really hard. That’s the core of this adventure.
[Your heartfelt thoughts and sincere desire to reach kids are wonderful! <3! I hope you have this in your official BIO someplace (hint hint). Let’s see if we can condense this close to keep the intent and reason for writing this specific tale, so it leans more toward the story/query elements and less on the teacher pitch (unless this was solely an educational book) Consider:
I have been an educator for sixteen years [briefly, add age groups taught and in what specific capacity]. Through storytelling, I hope to help young people find comfort in their own skin, and assist them in overcoming any obstacle, as portrayed in DRAGON TALKER: HEART STONE.
The first fifteen pages are below, per submission guidelines. Thank you for your consideration.
[If you have one, be sure to put a website link and Twitter handle in your signature. Agents love to stalk (Just like PitchWars mentors (:). Oh, and a note about Owen: Unless this is a dual POV or he has significance referenced throughout the query, no need to keep him in there. You want to keep us focused on your MC].
Thank you so much for sharing your query!! This sounds like a very intriguing story written with extremely positive motivators. High-five props to you and educators with hearts of gold everywhere! There are so many interesting elements to love in this premise. I also get a good sense of your MG voice (which isn’t always easy to capture in a few paragraphs). With just a few minor tweaks, I believe this query will be in excellent shape. When in doubt, using the back cover of a book method as your querying compass will always steer you in the right direction.
I hope some of the suggestions are helpful. I wish you the very best of luck with this story and all your publishing adventures to come!
Next up we have . . .
Pitch Wars Mentor Heather Cashman
With a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry, the lab reports always lacked the fantastical element Heather’s imagination demands. Hypotheses turned into taglines and novels that range from Epic Fantasy to Contemporary Speculative Fiction. Agent Intern. Managing Director of Pitch Wars, #PitMad, and Pitch Madness. Member, SCBWI.
Heather’s First Page Critique…
Age Category: Young Adult
[I really enjoyed your first page! I think you have a great story and MC here. So I went really hard on you, because I want to read the rest of it someday! In print, of course. ;)]
No one is ever ready to lose someone close to them. Colorful flowers and sympathy cards flooded our tiny living room. Heartbroken reminders of the accident. I shrugged off the pity and refused anyone’s prayers.
[I really like opening with a universal truth that everyone can relate to even if they don’t believe it. I’d rearrange the order of the sentences for visual interest, that eye-catching opening, and then have the emotional resonance really hit home. Last, I’d add a why. What is it that makes her not want pity and prayers? And why does she consider sympathy to be pity? It makes me sad for her.
My suggestion: Colorful flowers and sympathy cards flooded our tiny living room. Heartbroken reminders of the accident. No one is ever ready to lose someone close to them. I shrugged off the pity and refused anyone’s prayers, because . . . (a sprinkling of understanding into her worldview or experience).]
Today was the first day Aunt Lyla let me leave the townhouse. I didn’t know what to do with myself. My choices swayed between silent staring and sobbing in my bedroom to running the track at school with a dash of anger. But I chose to hide in the basement of our family’s coffee shop, The Talon, with a cinnamon latte crafted by my cousin, Ronni. She even gave me extra whip — her pity gesture.
[I’d like to be grounded more in the beginning of this second paragraph. I thought from the last paragraph that we were in the MC’s living room, because that’s what we’re seeing through their eyes. Without a transition, we’re in a coffee shop basement. I think it’s a matter of showing movement rather than telling or your verb tense, but I would suggest that keeping it in media res would be better.
When Aunt Lyla had finished breakfast and said, “You’re free to go,” I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wandered (describe her leaving the townhouse and the sights and smells and senses she encounters.) Internalize what she wants to do. She could turn down this street and go to the track and run herself into the ground, but she decides instead to turn right. Get us to the basement. Let us see her cousin treating her well, and we as the reader will also think that the MC deserves our attention and possible affection. And please, let me taste her extra whip and drink. It would be so yummy.
Serious alliteration with swayed silent staring sobbing.
Watch your verb tenses. If you decide to keep her already in the basement, then it should be: I hadn’t known what . . . had swayed . . . I’d chosen . . . She’d given me extra whip . . .]
Holding up my hand to guide me in the dim light, I paced among shelves of junk, bumping into random boxes. As I touched the worn leather spines of my dad’s books, glimmers lit up my fingertips. I stopped and snapped my hand back after an intense jolt of tiny sparks. My rattled nerves caused me to lose grip on my to-go cup, and I bathed myself in a scalding shower of the sticky latte.
[Again, I’d ground us first. Shelves of junk and dim light . . . And how does holding up your hand in dim light guide them? I can’t picture that. I think of holding up a hand to shield my eyes from a bright light. Also, to me, pacing is nearly impossible while bumping into things. But then she touches her hand to the book–COOL! Change the order for impact. An intense jolt of tiny sparks made me snap my hand away. I mean, say it in your own words, of course. But remember that our imaginations need those specific images to grab hold of. Not to say everything has to be that way. In these beginning pages, grounding and sensory details and setting are key to getting to know the world we’re going to be living in. And then the latte spills. OUCH! I love it.]
“H-H-H-Hot,” I yelped, doing a little dance.
The stinging heat faded, then turned immediately cold and suctioned my jeans to my legs.
What was that?
[My answer to this question would be, “Hot latte on your jeans.” That’s our last image.
Maybe she should be so concerned about the shock of the book that when the latte spills and is hot, then turns cold, she barely notices because she’s already looking back at the book. Reaching out tentatively to touch it again. Her actions would show us that the jolt was more significant than a hot latte down your front, and I remember people suing McDonald’s about that several years back. So that’s a pretty important jolt.
It’s all in what you show.]
A prickle of energy laced my veins when I reached toward the books again. But as my index finger grazed the edge again — nothing.
No glimmer. No spark.
The energy faded.
Ember, it’s just a magic trick.
[So, I didn’t get this line. After reading the whole sample, I know this is now a girl, that her name is Ember, and she’s telling herself it’s a magic trick. But there’s no context for this line at this point. I’d rearrange with the following lines.
I could almost hear Aunt Lyla in my head saying, “It’s just a magic trick. Your cluttered brain is playing tricks on you because of all those lattes you drink.”
Just an example. I know you’ll do it better in her voice.
Also, calling the aunt unimaginative is redundant since what she says shows us more than this single word can.
Did the aunt keep saying stuff about the cluttered brain or is that now Ember’s thoughts? Clarify this.]
My unimaginative aunt would have said. I shook my head.
My cluttered brain playing tricks on me.
I wrestled the caramel-brown frizz of my hair into a ponytail
ready to find a true distraction. Avoidance took me to my dad’s old workshop corner [corner workshop] of inventions. Even though I hated cleaning, I pushed coil[ed] copper wires into a box.
Something creaked, and light burst from the other side of the room. I jumped.
Ronni’s shrill voice hollered down the stairs. “Ember!”
Ronni usually didn’t bother me. I admired her individuality and confidence. She acted more like a big sister I looked up to than a cousin. But right now, I wanted to be alone with my tear-soaked flannel and these old books.
[This paragraph, hmmm . . . It feels like too long of a break in momentum. I think some of it could wait until later. For some reason, the tear-soaked flannel is throwing me. Is this a blanket or her shirt? The only other thing I know about is her latte-soaked jeans.]
“Where’s my mom?” she asked.
Aunt Lyla spent more time grocery shopping than anyone I have ever met.
“The store,” I yelled back, thankful Ronni didn’t head down here.
[All of these one-line paragraphs should be mixed into varying paragraph lengths. So many one-liners turn the nice rhythm of a marathon into a 100-meter heart-pounder.]
A twinkle winked at me from the corner of the workbench one of my old, handcrafted foil flowers, I smiled. My dad had taught me how to make these years ago. I picked up the delicate stem, admiring the twisted reflective metal when another shock burst from my fingers.
[The winking twinkle is a bit too much. Also, avoid word echos like corner and workbench. Tighten this in general.
Metal glimmered from one of my handcrafted, foil flowers in a special vase near his tools.]
I shuddered, dropping the flower. The energy faded, again.
“Okay. Are you coming back up here anytime soon?”
I forgot Ronni was there.
“I don’t know,” I muttered.
“Take your time. I’ll see you when I see you,” Ronni said. “Don’t forget to turn off the lights. You know how my mom is about energy conservation.”
[Overall, you have a great start! I think you could do with some expanding. Let us see her world, her family as I suggested earlier. It’s really good that we see the fantasy element so soon, so there won’t be any surprises. Good luck with Ember and your publishing journey! I hope to see your entry in Pitch Wars!
All the best,
Thank you, Melyssa and Heather, 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.