Day 39 (Part 2): Pitch Wars Query & 1st Page Workshop with mentors, Julia Nobel & Veronica Bartles
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 Julia Nobel . . .
Julia is a writing coach and middle grade and young adult author. Her childhood obsession with The Babysitters Club turned into a lifelong passion for reading and writing children’s literature. She offers writing masterclasses and courses for writers in all genres, and is a 2017 Pitch Wars Mentor. Her 3-year-old daughter likes to help her write by throwing apple sauce at the keyboard and pressing the escape key.
Find out about Julia’s writing coach services on her Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/JuliaNobelBooks/ and check out her upcoming classes schedule here: http://julianobel.com/for-writers/.
Julia’s Query Critique…
AGE CATEGORY: Adult
GENRE: Psychological Thriller
I am hoping you will consider my debut novel for representation. [You can delete this sentence, because the agent already knows you are hoping they will consider the novel, and you have such limited space to pitch your story.] No Colour in Black takes reader to a dark and troubled world but also one each of us can relate to directly or indirectly – otherwise known as life. Any of us could fall into a world, given hindsight – we would hide from. For my lead protagonist, her world became unrecognisable. She asks us – who do you fear most – someone with nothing to lose or someone who has it all to lose? We sit deep in the dirt of her emotions; her current life intertwined by her abusive past. Grappling with her conscience and sanity. A burning need to protect her son – fuels her fight. [I really appreciate the emotions you are trying to evoke with this paragraph. I think it would be more successful if it was more specific and focused on the plot. Who is the protagonist? What is her specific situation? How did she get there? Start with the details.]
Blinded by charm, hoodwinked by virtue; she married a psychopath. Once ensnared by lies; her life now hangs on no-one ever discovering a twisted truth. [You have semi-colons in back-to-back sentences—I would suggest switching up the sentence structure.] Married in less than a year. Fraudulent vows disguised by context. The perfect couple. Two professionals in their twenties. She, a psychologist; him a flying high solicitor. [Okay, here we have some great details! I would encourage you to move these details right up to the front of the query—introduce your characters right away so we know who will drive the story.] The white collar psychopath, clever, manipulating and sinister, her husband, father to her son. He stole years from their lives. [How?] Wasted dreams and fruitless hopes fell at the mercy of power. He took her in, chewed her up and tried to swallow the mangled remains. [How?] She hit him where it hurt the most, and he spat her out. [How?] But things aren’t always what they seem, we don’t always tell the truth and we don’t always see the truth. Even when we are honest; the truth, deceives. Then she was promised fresh air, but how could it ever be? When the smog of lies and dark secrets swung so low. Her corner, was harsh, cold and isolated. The veiling of her life and constant pretending had so brilliantly disguised the facts, and hidden the evidence. [The last four sentences don’t give us a lot of information, which is what agents are looking for at this stage.]
I have read extensively within the psychological thriller genre; although similarities can be drawn – I believe the voice, plot and subplots are very unique in No Colour in Black. [There’s no need to explain why you don’t have comp titles—you can delete this sentence.] We feel the impact of abuse, as it touches lives – then living on as scarred tissue.The story asks us to question what we see; consider what we do not see. It questions the human vulnerability to rely on perspective. Perspective being an ever changing truth. Both main protagonists claim for different reasons to be expert on the human mind; both have different agendas for their interest; one of them feels emotions – the other one uses them. [I’m curious, is this story told from a dual point of view? If so, I would state that clearly, and if not, I would eliminate the phrase ‘both main protagonists’.] It is a story of how a mother’s love eventually conquers the greed and power of the man who stole her life. But as with life – nothing is that simple and even this becomes sadly twisted in the end. [Don’t feel like you have to touch on the ending—you can keep that a surprise! I would encourage you to end with something about the stakes—what will happen if your protagonist doesn’t succeed?]
I run my own mental health consultancy at a local hospital, with previous experience in a brain rehabilitation hospital [Excellent information to include—this really supports why you are the right person to tell this story.] and I have lots of experience within the delights of the family court and legal system, therefore my research has been significantly supported. I live in beautiful Cornwallwith my husband and three children, and animals! This is my first novel – I have many more ideas. [You probably don’t need this last line—they will assume you have more ideas!]
Thank you for your consideration.
[It sounds like you’ve crafted a multi-layered story that touches on many themes that fit well in the psychological thriller genre. I think your query would stand out more if it focused less on those themes and more on the specifics of the story: Who is the protagonist? What do they want? What is getting in the way? What will happen if they don’t succeed? Those specifics will naturally touch on your essential themes while still giving agents the details they need to be hooked by the story. Good luck!]
Next up we have . . .
Pitch Wars Mentors Veronica Bartles . . .
Veronica Bartles, author of TWELVE STEPS (YA), and THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS (PB), has spent most of her life wondering “What If?” She believes there are many sides to every story, and she’s determined to discover every single one of them. Veronica believes every princess deserves a frog (because princes aren’t pets), and she’s an incurable optimist who loves gray, drizzly days because that’s when rainbows come out to play.
TWELVE STEPS by Veronica Bartles
When her crush asks her to fix him up with her perfect older sister, sixteen-year-old Andi decides it’s time to step out of the shadows. She creates a twelve-step program for second-class siblings to help her steal the spotlight, and the guy, from her sister, Laina.
Step 1: Admit she’s powerless to change her perfect sister, and accept that her life really, really sucks.
Step 4: Make a list of her good qualities. Even if all she’s got going for her is really great hair.
Step 7: Demand attention for more than just the way she screws things up.
But when a stolen kiss ends in disaster, Andi realizes that her prince isn’t as charming as she’d hoped. And as Laina’s flawless facade begins to crumble, Andi discovers that the spotlight she’s been trying to steal isn’t really the one she wants. The sisters will have to work together to find a spotlight big enough for them both to shine.
Veronica’s First Page Critique…
AGE CATEGORY: YA
GENRE: Speculative Fiction
The wooden box on Gram’s bookshelf sat shrouded in the shadows of the early morning. Andrea pursed her lips as she stared at the carving of a snake-haired woman. She had no idea what the box held, but she suspected it had something to do with her mother’s death. [Why?] Beside the box was a framed photo of her mother as a teenager. Both these objects were new to the bookcase since her last visit to Gram’s home in Greece. Every morning of this trip [The first half of this paragraph seems to be setting it up as the first time Andrea sees the box … but then we hear that she’s stood there having this same revelation “every morning of this trip” – how many mornings is that? And what makes this particular morning so special? What has changed?], Andrea stood there and pondered the contents of the little wooden chest. She had tried opening the curved lid before but found it locked.
Turning away, Andrea tip toed over to the large living room window, her bare feet cold on the tile floor, and pulled back the gauze curtains. She squinted as the sun beamed in, warming her cheeks like the kiss of an overbearing aunt. [I love this description – you have a way with words!] Down the hill, the Aegean Sea lapped against the sandy shore. Its rhythmic beauty did nothing to ease the anxiety squirming through Andrea. [Is there a purpose for this gazing out the window moment, other than to broadcast the setting to the reader? You’ve already stated that she’s in Greece, and I don’t feel like it’s adding to the plot or the character development, so this whole paragraph – and the next one – feels unnecessary.]
Maybe she’d start the day with a run on the beach. The sand squishing through her toes as the breeze cooled her skin would calm her. Then she’ll [tense shift] lay in Gram’s garden and finish the fantasy book she had started two days ago. Afterward, she’ll cook a special dinner for Gram to show her appreciation before going home to California. [Is this the end of her trip, then? How long has she been here? What has she been doing for this whole time?] Her fingers twisted [tense shift – decide whether you want to tell the story in present or past tense, and make sure it’s consistent throughout] together. One thing she would not do is inspect the wooden box. [Why not?]
Yet moments later Andrea found herself in front of the bookcase again. [You can increase the connection between your character and the reader by giving her more purpose in her actions. When a character simply “finds herself” in a situation, you make them passive by default. Let her act, instead of being acted upon.]
She pulled the box down and ran her hand over the rough carvings. The tips of her fingers prickled as if the mysterious contents were a magnet, drawn to her, begging for her attention. The woman’s oval eyes stared back. [There was enough filler between the initial description of the box and this point that I didn’t know who “the woman” was. I had to go back and check.] The wide emptiness of them stirred a warning sense in Andrea. [What did that feel like? Draw on the five senses to bring us into the moment with Andrea.] More out of habit now than curiosity, she fiddled with the cool clasp. The metal instantly heated under her touch. [Why? What changed?]
The latch released with a click.
A gasp expelled out of Andrea’s lips [much like when she “found herself” at the box, this makes Andrea a passive participant in her life – “Andrea gasped” is much more active.] as the lid of the chest popped open. But not all the way, only a crack. A peculiar tingle scurried up Andrea’s arm. Excitement fluttered in her chest. Then that melancholy tug of resentment that always came when she thought of her mother. Did she want to know the truth?
Andrea scanned the living room. The room was silent except an occasional crowing from the neighbor’s rooster in the distance. She felt the worn ivory couch watch her every move [How does the couch watch her? Is this simply metaphorical – a manifestation of her guilt over touching the box – or is there some kind of magic at work, where the furniture is alive and judging? I don’t know enough about Andrea’s world yet to decide.], judging her as she trespassed into Gram’s private life. She peeked down the hall. Gram’s bedroom door was closed.
Swallowing back her nerves, Andrea lifted the lid, the rusted hinges groaning at the movement. A cedar smell wafted into the air. Her muscles, still sore from yesterday’s run, stiffened. Her eyes danced over the contents. Inside she found a tarnished key, a few worthless drachmas, and a black velvet pouch. [!!!]
I love the fact that the box was filled with unexceptional things, after all. Especially since there are possibilities of hidden meaning and more layers of story behind these seemingly-drab objects. I kind of wanted to read the next sentence, to see how Andrea reacted to the reveal. (Was she disappointed? Immediately curious? Confused?) However, I wasn’t emotionally invested enough in the story yet to really want to read much past the next sentence.
Often, a disconnect like this happens when you’re starting the story in the wrong place. Perhaps, we need to start a half beat sooner and see why Andrea is sneaking back in to look at the box again this morning, before everyone else is awake. Has she been staring at it all summer? Did she only really notice it yesterday? What is special about this moment? What makes *this* the beginning of your story?
You have a talent for evocative language (i.e. the box “sat shrouded in the shadows of the early morning”), but I haven’t yet connected with your character, so the pretty descriptions aren’t as powerful as they could be. If this moment with the box is truly your inciting incident to kick off your story, you can draw the reader into the scene and make us invested in Andrea’s story by using that evocative language to show us who she is and what’s truly important to her.
· What does Andrea want more than anything in the world at this moment in time?
· What does she need? (This may not be the same thing – she may not even know what she needs … but you, as the God of her world, should absolutely know.)
· What stands in her way?
· What dire catastrophe will occur if she doesn’t get what she wants/needs? (Remember, stakes should be specific – and being forced to sit with the losers in the high school cafeteria could be a more devastating consequence than the literal end of the world.)
· What is she willing to sacrifice to achieve her goals?
Your descriptive language is beautiful, and I could instantly call up the scene outside the window as Andrea pondered the view. But I was left wondering “so what?” The scenery felt like an interruption to the story, rather than a driving force. But you can make the pretty descriptions drive the story forward better if you weave it together with Andrea’s character development. Why is she studying the box? What do the engravings make her think of? What happens to make her abruptly leave the box and go to the window? Does she see something in the box that reminds her of something she saw on the beach yesterday? Does she hear something outside that makes her think she’s going to get caught?
You have all the elements in place. You just need to bind them together with your character’s motivations. If you can tie the “what happened?” together with the “why do we care?” your reader will be anxious to turn the page and figure out what’s going to happen next.
Thank you, Julia and Veronica, 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.