Day 43 (Part 1): Pitch Wars Query and First Page Workshop with Mentors Michella Domenici and Lisa Amowitz
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 Michella Domenici
Michella Domenici was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She studies English and History at Fordham University. When she’s not reading, she’s drinking tea and searching for mermaids. She works at the Brooklyn Public Library, and is represented by Heather Flaherty of The Bent Agency.
Michella’s Query Critique…
AGE CATEGORY: Young adult
Dear [agent’s first name],
Tito Pablo and his husband Craig were the only family seventeen year-old Sim Francisco has ever known ever since Sim’s birth parents died in a car crash more than ten years ago. Pablo unexpectedly dies on All Saint’s Day, and soon after, Sim begins to hear his uncle’s voice in his head, suddenly speak fluent Filipino without realizing it, and see and relive Pablo’s former life as a teenager in the Philippines in his dreams. Sim believes that Pablo is asking him for help with…something. Or someone. The latter proves true when, while unboxing a bunch of mementos his uncle has left for him, Sim finds a printout of what appears to be a part of an email love letter that Pablo sent. Pablo’s husband, Craig, finds out that the letter is definitely not for him.
Afraid that he will lose his family for a second time because of what the letter implies, Sim enlists his friends Harper and Nina to hack into cyberspace to locate the rest of the letter, properly translate it, find its recipient, and hopefully clear Pablo’s name. Sim’s search leads him to Angelo “Santi” Santiago, who is also seventeen years old and living in Manila.
All Santi wants is to move out—of the house, even out of the country to go to college abroad—in order to escape his mother, who doesn’t approve of his “lifestyle,” and his father, who doesn’t seem to care for him at all. Good thing he’s getting by his senior year, thanks to some life hacks he swears by, a pseudo-boyfriend who may just have the right connections, and a couple of guys he’s met and is flirting with online and in real life.
But then Sim holds his entire digital life hostage in exchange for answers. Santi has no choice but to help the former. What Sim and Santi find out is that they’re more connected that they initially thought.
HACKING IT is, at a glance, about two boys, a ghost, and a malware. But at its core, a story of these boys’ search for their identities. Told in Sim and Santi’s alternative POVs and set between the US and the Philippines, this novel is also a story about families and the love, pain, joy, and sorrow that comes with it; about friendships in the most unlikely situations; and, to some extent, security, privacy and internet safety. [You don’t need this paragraph, but if you really love it, it does no harm. If you decide to cut, you can slot the bit about alternating POVs into where you talk about word count.]
[Wooo!!! A book partially set in the Philippines with Filipino characters! 😀 (My mom was born and raised in Manila.)
This query is a good starting point! The bones of the story are here. Now we need to refine it; let the characters, conflict, and stakes really shine.
First, we need to tidy this query up. You don’t need to name every character you mention. We’ve got Tito Pablo, Craig, Sim, Harper, Nina, and Santi. That’s a lot for the reader to keep track of. Generally the rule is name the MC, the villain, and the love interest. We don’t need Craig and Sim’s friends. I also think All Saint’s Day is an extraneous detail that muddles things up—what matters is Tito Pablo dies.
Here’s my thing, though. The meat of this isn’t that Sim can hear his Tito and is suddenly speaking Tagalog. The conflict is the letter he finds. The strange fantastical abilities Sim has don’t reappear anywhere in the query. They don’t seem to play any role in the search to find out who the letter was for, or who may have truly written it. Even the way Sim finds the letter has nothing to do with his powers. Additionally, I don’t understand why Sim is at risk of losing his family over this letter, when Pablo is dead. Is Sim afraid Craig won’t want to be his parent anymore because Pablo may have been unfaithful at any point in the past? Would Craig just kick him out of the house? So I think the biggest thing is clarity and making the conflict clear.
Next, let’s talk about Santi. First, don’t resort to info dumps, even in a query. Try, ‘The last thing Sim expects is to realize the letter was for 17yo Santi. *next paragraph* Angelo ‘Santi’ Santiago wants out—out of Manila, out of his house, out of his life. His mother doesn’t approve of his “lifestyle” and his father pretends he doesn’t exist.’ (p.s. love the “lifestyle”—it’s a great use of voice) This is also telling, but it’s snappier and moves at a faster pace.
The last sentence in the Santi paragraph is very confusing to me and I can’t really follow it. I feel like you’re trying to be purposefully vague and avoid “spoilers,” but don’t be. Be specific. Tell us what Santi is doing to get what he wants, what stands in his way, and what he’ll lose if he doesn’t succeed.
We transition to Sim and Santi very quickly. It needs more time to develop. How is Sim holding Santi’s digital life hostage (what does that even mean :O)? Is he threatening to tell Santi’s parents about Santi’s sexuality? But they already know. And what does Santi have to help Sim with? How to get rid of Sim’s powers? To explain the letter? Make it clear what the characters are doing and how their stories/arcs intersect.
Then we end without any stakes. You tell us in the beginning Sim could lose his family, but it’s easy to forget that by the time you get to the end of the query, so we need to reestablish what the characters stand to lose. And what does Santi have to lose? Tell us and make our hearts pound, needing to find out if they win or not.
Additionally, I suggest reordering the opening sentences. Start with your MC, not Tito Pablo: ‘17yo Sim grew up with Tito Pablo and his husband… When Tito Pablo unexpectedly dies, Sim starts hearing his uncle’s voice and dreaming about his past.’ Or, with a bit more voice, for example, ‘17yo Sim grew up doing X with his uncle and his husband.’
Personally, though, I would start later, at the inciting incident: After the death of his tito, 17yo Sim finds an unfinished love letter his tito never sent. The only problem is, the letter doesn’t seem to be for his tito’s husband.’ Boom. You’ve grabbed my attention. It’s hook-y.
In general, the query is very wordy. The whole second paragraph, for example, is too much. We don’t need all that detail. Just say ‘Sim enlists his technologically-superior/hacker/computer-whizz/anything voicey friends to help him figure out who the letter was for.’ It conveys the same meaning in a single sentence.
So let me sum all this up, I know it’s a lot.
-The conflict needs more oomph.
-Clarity. You’ve probably already done this, but find people who haven’t read your manuscript and let them read the query. If they can follow and understand everything, then you’re in good shape.
-Watch your word choice. Be precise, and brief where you can. Make your sentences more active, instead of ‘begins to hear’ use ‘starts hearing.’
-Stakes at the end.
-This one seems a bit of a genre jumper. The ghost stuff and his visions make it paranormal, but in general this reads like a query for a contemporary. So sort out how the paranormal elements matter to the story, what role they play, and if they’re worth having. If you want, you can call this contemporary with paranormal elements.]
I am seeking representation for this [genre!] young adult novel of 78,000 words. I’ve been working in the cybersecurity industry for more than 13 years as a writer and a content marketer. I was also a Lambda Literary Fellow for Young Adult fiction in 2016. An excerpt of this manuscript was published in the workshop’s anthology, EMERGE [I thiiiink don’t capitalize this. Only the manuscript’s title should be capitalized so it is easily identifiable].
[Good work! Keep revising and tinkering. J This is an intriguing premise, and I have all the feels for Santi already.]
Next up we have…
Pitch Wars Mentor Lisa Amowitz
Lisa is an award winning author of three fantasy/thrillers for young adults, UNTIL BETH, VISION, and BREAKING GLASS. She is also a cover designer and Professor of Graphic Design at Bronx Community College. She is represented by Shannon Hassan of Marsal-Lyon Literary Agency
Lisa’s recent release . . .
She doesn’t just play, she kills it.
Talented rock guitarist Beth Collins has been barely holding herself together for months, ever since her boyfriend and bandmate became the latest victim in a string of suspicious disappearances. When her brother is injured an accident and she sees something dark billowing around him as he hovers close to death, she’s convinced her sanity is collapsing for good.
Then she’s accepted by a boarding school for the musically gifted. All of her new friends are bursting with talent, but they’re also keeping secrets. Can she trust Vincent, who’s so sweet that his very touch makes her fears melt away? Or Xavier, who’s trying to tell her something but is hiding even more?
And will anyone be safe when her true Talent comes out?
Lisa’s First Page Critique . . .
AGE CATEGORY: YA
GENRE: Contemporary Fantasy
“Emily Mulligan, first place, ahead by a full second.” I really like this as your opening line.
If Coach says one more good word about me, I may scream. But it’s inevitable. Every time she says my name, I wait for the team to glare at me with jealousy. Coach thinks reading our top scores every week is motivating.
I just want to crawl into a hole. Note: I rearranged some sentences here.
Instead, the girls whoop and clap for me, their cheers bouncing around the pool. My points are their points. We are winners. I catch David grinning at me from the other side. He’s paying attention as his score is announced. The guys thump him on the back and chant, “Ecklestein! Ecklestein!”
We’re a pair of winners. A matched set. The perfect couple. Same thing for the above paragraphs.
So why aren’t I enjoying any of it?
I make myself smile for the other girls. Pushing down the dread (or whatever—give us a physical description of what she is feeling) I jump in for warm-ups, and let the water swallow me. I rush downward to the bottom twelve feet below. Slowing, I open my eyes and gaze up through the jelly-like water to the lights of the gym.
Emily, you don’t belong here. Here as well. Up until this point, you have my interest. I am getting a sense of Emily and her world.
It starts as a prickle on my arms. Then I want to rub my eyes. They’re gritty, like I haven’t slept. Just as I’m thinking how weird that is, the pain kicks in. I gasp water. I need to get to the surface. I need to breathe.
Here you lose me. There is a lot of angst and it seems like she is either having a PTSD episode or a supernatural encounter. I think, before she simply dives in the water, we have to know what is the source of her discomfort. Is it guilt, fear, anxiety, or does she want to do something else. Or is it fear? We have no clue—we just know she is uptight in a moment of triumph. She seems to have everything. Then she jumps in the water and has a strange episode where she is either trying to drown herself, encountering some beings who want her to drown herself or reliving a terrifying past experience.
In other words, before this happens, we need MORE. This dramatic interlude is too soon and too fraught with emotion. Strong emotion that feels forced because we don’t know enough about Emily to care.
Deep in the base of my skull, a voice begins to whisper. Words are hard to make out: Swim, swim, swim, ocean, you don’t belong here, swim, find the real water, find it, swim now, find us later, we’re waiting, you need us, need to be with us. This is the part, in particular, I don’t understand. Is it PTSD?
I push off the bottom but it’s like I’m hardly moving at all. I’m crying underwater, no idea how far the surface is now. Panic seizes my heart. I can barely hold in my screams of pain, of fear. This comes off as odd and hard to relate to. She is a championship swimmer. Why is she suddenly having an underwater panic attack? We need more context here. Which way is up? Why do my mouth and my ears and my nails and my hair all feel like they’re being torn apart? I’m being shredded in the water. I can’t breathe, I need to breathe! Yes—most of us need to breathe after we’ve been underwater awhile. Why is this alarming Emily so much? Is it because she is being dragged downward like an undertow? If that is the case, let her fight it more. Give us a better sense of what is happening down there.
I want my mother. No, I want my mommy. She taught me to swim, she’d know what to do. Thinking of her gives me strength. This part feels like a lot of sudden, self-inflicted melodrama. She’s having some kind of panic attack, but we don’t really know enough about her or its cause to relate to her.
The prickling sensation along my skin is getting worse, it’s getting spiky, it’s driving needles into me, setting my nerves alight. Again—lots of drama without context. Hard to get sucked into that. We need a little more of Emily and her everyday world before we can let ourselves care.
I break the surface and suck down air but the burning doesn’t stop. I’m still wet, still in the water, and it feels like my hair is incinerating itself against my scalp. A howl echoes around the room, bouncing off the cinder block walls, a sound too alien to have come from my throat. I thrash with hands that are lit like hot pokers and slip under again. Again—this part is high, high like we’ve been dropped in the middle of a horror movie and we have no idea why.
I’m the best swimmer in the state and I’m drowning. I think this makes a GREAT last line of this chapter.
Your writing is smooth and clean. I think your issue is, perhaps pacing. You give us a momentary glimpse of Emily in her real world, but it’s very fleeting—not enough time to understand who she is, and what is troubling her—or at least what she THINKS is troubling her.
Then, in the midst of what should be her triumph, which already we know does not feel like a triumph, she dives in the water and suddenly can’t swim. There are a whole host of plausible reasons why Emily might experience this. Past trauma, psychosis, panic attack, or since this is a contemp fantasy, a real destructive entity.
But without more CONTEXT, your high drama falls flat. We need more context—more buildup—and PLEASE tell me that Emily is not a mermaid, the ocean calling her back home. Please.
Thank you, Michella and Lisa, 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.