Monday, June 5, 2017

FINAL Pitch Wars Mentor Critique 22 - First 500 - YA Fantasy

To skip directly to the material and critique, scroll down to the star divider line. If you'd like to know how I break down a critique, and what I'm looking for, keep reading:

To help the authors as much as possible, I've critiqued their full first chapter, however I'm only sharing the first 500 words as these can get quite long.

When critiquing a first chapter, (especially the first 500 words), I'm always searching for these pieces of information. A great book can include all of them right up front. Sometimes one or two need to take longer. But in the first page, or two at most, I should see at least three of these:

Who is the focus of the story?
Where are they?
When is it (i.e. what era--is it today? two hundred years ago? not sure?)
What are they doing?
Why are they doing it

And in the first chapter, if not the first 500 words, I want to know what the character's initial goal is. That goal will likely change as they learn more about the situation they're falling into. However, right up front, the character always needs to want something--desperately. And the author needs to communicate to me what that is, and why they might not get it, as quickly as possible. Because that's what tells me why I should care about this story.

I'm looking for technical expertise--does the author know how to set up a scene? Do they understand backstory and when to include it (and perhaps more importantly, when not to). Is their writing tight and polished, or are there a lot of unnecessary words? Is the author falling into purple prose (over-writing in an attempt to sound good, but actually creating a sense of melodrama which will turn many readers off).

Beyond that, I'm looking at how I respond as a reader. Am I intrigued? Do I care? Do I want to keep reading?
So, with all those elements in mind, here we go...

********************

ORIGINAL MATERIAL:

Not even the summer rain in New England was warm. I was soaked to the bone, chilled through completely. As the reality of the choices before me weighed down on me, a jolt of panic hit me, shivering through my every cell.

It had been over a month since my mother or better yet, the incubator kicked me out in a drunken rant. I could continue going from couch to couch, or I could head to Boston, where Ms. Mullers, a teacher I’d known my whole life, promised I could receive the help I needed. The terror had not quite settled in yet, sitting instead on the precipice, where it been for the last week. I pulled out my phone and leaned over it, desperately trying not to get it wet. It was already falling apart.
It was 10:45 p.m. and Tracy, my best friend since the third grade, still hadn’t shown. If she didn’t appear in the next few minutes, I was getting on the Peter Pan bus.

The bus station was old; it had not been remodeled since the 1950’s. Large, rusty holes gaped in the awnings hanging from the back of the building over the front of the buses. The rain poured through them, giving no cover from the weather. A single streetlight on the side of the bus station blinded me, so I shielded my eyes searching for any signs of Tracy. All the windows in the surrounding buildings were blacked out.  

“Izzy,” Tracy called as she stepped out of the passenger side of her brother Eric’s car. She hurried towards me, slashing through the rain puddles.

“Really Trace? You had to involve him?” I huffed under my breath with what I hoped looked like a smile.

“If that smart ass grin has anything to do with me being late, blame Eric,” she said when she reached me.

“I wasn’t sure you were coming.”

“Izzy, I wasn’t missing good-bye. You’re my best friend.” Tracy took a white envelope folded in half out of her back pocket. “This is from Mom and Dad. They don‘t like this, but they want to make sure you’re going to be okay, plus they paid off your phone for the year.”

“Trace,” I tried to interrupt her, but it was no use; it never was.

“This is from me. It’s no big deal, but it’s something you can use,” she said as she handed me a small wrapped package. Tracy twisted her neck toward Eric “Um…” She sucked her lips in with a gulp of air. “Eric wants to talk to you… Alone.” Tracy’s face scrunched up.                          

She knew how I felt about Eric and all that went with him. Did I even want to talk to him? Yes!

“Okay.”

Tracy’s arms wrapped around me and I wasn’t sure I was going to let her go. But I had no other choice. My other option wasn’t a choice; it was hell. I had to move on and Tracy knew it. She knew if I didn’t get out, I’d be dead in a matter of time.


CRITIQUE (My words in red font)


Not even the summer rain in New England was warm. I was soaked to the bone, chilled through completely. As the reality of the choices before me weighed down on me, a jolt of panic hit me, shivering through my every cell.

In concept and content, this is a solid opening. However, it’s over-written. Trust your reader. Your words are coming across as over-dramatic, rather than simply dramatic. Stark will work. Don’t push yourself. Consider what words you’d use if you were thinking to yourself about how cold you are. I doubt “my every cell” would be on the list. And statements like “the reality of my choices” have the weight by themselves. You don’t have to add “weighed me down” to get the idea across. In fact, the sentence is more powerful without them.


It had been over a month since my mother or better yet, the incubator kicked me out in a drunken rant. I could continue going from couch to couch, or I could head to Boston, where Ms. Mullers, a teacher I’d known my whole life, promised I could receive the help I needed. The terror had not quite settled in yet, sitting instead on the precipice, where it been for the last week. I pulled out my phone and leaned over it, desperately trying not to get it wet. It was already falling apart.
It was 10:45 p.m. and Tracy, my best friend since the third grade, still hadn’t shown. If she didn’t appear in the next few minutes, I was getting on the Peter Pan bus.

This is good! Your voice shows without melodrama, and the choices/stakes are here. Well done.




The bus station was old; it had not been remodeled since the 1950’s. Large, rusty holes gaped in the awnings hanging from the back of the building over the front of the buses. The rain poured through them, giving no cover from the weather. A single streetlight on the side of the bus station blinded me, so I shielded my eyes searching for any signs of Tracy. All the windows in the surrounding buildings were blacked out.  

This is a really solid setting description. I’d move it right to the front because it grounds us, then move into the cold/choices paragraph (pared back). I think you’ll be surprised how much more compelling it is to a fresh reader who doesn’t know your story, because it makes them feel like they know where they are immediately, which helps their brain fall into the story more quickly.


“Izzy,” Tracy called as she stepped out of the passenger side of her brother Eric’s car. She hurried towards me, slashing through the rain puddles.

“Really Trace? You had to involve him?” I huffed under my breath with what I hoped looked like a smile.

A teenager would more likely use “bring” than “involve”. Be really careful with your word usage in YA if you want your characters to feel authentic to the reader.



“If that smart ass grin has anything to do with me being late, blame Eric,” she said when she reached me.

“I wasn’t sure you were coming.”

“Izzy, I wasn’t missing good-bye. You’re my best friend.” Tracy took a white envelope folded in half out of her back pocket. “This is from Mom and Dad. They don‘t like this, but they want to make sure you’re going to be okay, plus they paid off your phone for the year.”

“Trace,” I tried to interrupt her, but it was no use; it never was.

“This is from me. It’s no big deal, but it’s something you can use,” she said as she handed me a small wrapped package.

Aren’t they standing in the rain? Make this all really grounded by showing them squinting against raindrops, her pruned fingers as she reaches for the present, etc.


Tracy twisted her neck toward Eric

Consider what a twisted neck looks like, and how different that is to turning her head. Don’t try to get clever with body language. Just tell it like it is so the words aren’t noticeable.


“Um…” She sucked her lips in with a gulp of air. “Eric wants to talk to you… Alone.” Tracy’s face scrunched up.                          

She knew how I felt about Eric and all that went with him. Did I even want to talk to him? Yes!

“Okay.”

Ooooooo, great romantic intrigue.


Tracy’s arms wrapped around me

You missed an opportunity to ground the reader here—if her clothes are wet and she’s cold, she’s going to notice her clothes plastering against her, maybe feel nervous about her friend getting wet, but also welcome the warmth.

and I wasn’t sure I was going to let her go. But I had no other choice. My other option wasn’t a choice; it was hell. I had to move on and Tracy knew it. She knew if I didn’t get out, I’d be dead in a matter of time.

“In a matter of time” sucks the power out of the statement because it makes the ending vague and possibly avoidable. Stop the sentence at “dead” for maximum impact.



SUMMARY:

Your opening paragraph does your writing an injustice. You’ve got solid writing here and, though you’re missing some chances to make the most of maximizing the power of your opening, all the right elements, conflict, stakes, and character intent that are so much harder to teach than line editing your own writing.

Be encouraged: You don’t need to change any of these pages, just cut back on melodrama, and use more setting detail to make it all feel real to the reader.

A couple chapters in, once the reader’s fallen into the story and feels like they’re coming to know your protagonist’s voice, there’s less need for consistent setting/sensory detail. But right at the beginning, when the reader is still aware of reading, you need really succinct, tangible details to bring the reader’s brain into that sweet spot where the world and people feel real and they forget they’re reading and are just seeing it all play across their mind.

It won’t take much work to make these opening pages pop and serve that purpose for you, so don’t go overboard in your revisions! If you can offer more sensory detail, and pare back on purple-prose, you’ll have very strong opening pages. And because I’ve read ahead I know it just keeps getting better from here.

Well done!


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Pitch Wars Early Bird Mentor Critique 21 - QUERY - YA Fantasy

The First 500 words critique to which this blurb refers can be read here.


When I read a query, or query blurb of a story, I'm looking for five major elements communicated crisply, quickly, and clearly:

Who is the book about, where are they (and when, if applicable)? What does the protagonist want? What's the conflict, and who or what is the antagonistic force? And for your final hook, what specific obstacle will potentially stop the protagonist from achieving their goal? And what's at stake if they fail?

If a query can outline that in under 250 words, it's a winner.  So let's take a look at this query and see how it stacks up:



ORIGINAL MATERIAL:

Enterprising sixteen-year-old Bryn knows she’ll never be an airline mechanic as long as she lives on Eldeyja, an island of dragons where planes are forbidden. Here, she’s just the last dragon whisperer’s best friend, and though she and Freyja are like sisters, Bryn wants more. When the owner of the island's controversial new tourism lodge offers her a job and a key recommendation to aviation school, she takes it—and hides it from Freyja, who has been distant and stressed. If Freyja knew, it would only cause problems.

Bryn’s timing couldn't be worse. It soon becomes obvious the lodge owner’s using her to get to Freyja and when Freyja finds out Bryn’s secret, it drives a wedge into their rapidly cooling friendship. Hoping to make amends, Bryn decides she’ll help her friend puzzle out her dad’s latest suspicious experiments in magical science. But she discovers Freyja’s dad is up to more than either of them anticipated: he plans to tamper with a nearby volcano in a far-fetched bid to protect his daughter from her mother’s grisly fate.

To make matters worse, the lodge owner may be luring dragons onto the property for guests' amusement. Fearing he'll rescind her recommendation letter, Bryn doesn't turn him in at first. But when her hesitation leads to a tragedy that fates Freyja to certain death, Bryn must find a way to save her best friend from the consequences of her own mistakes. And she must do it before Freyja's father succeeds in his experiments, or he could set off an explosive volcanic eruption that would change the fabric of their island’s magic forever.

THE PRESERVE, a YA contemporary fantasy complete at 72,000 words, is THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE set in a mythical JURASSIC PARK. I am an editorial intern under Kate Brauning at Entangled Publishing, and have previously interned with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret and P.S. Literary. My short stories have appeared in the University of Maryland’s literary journal, Stylus, and placed in the 2012 and 2015 Jimenez-Porter Literary Competition. This is my first novel.



CRITIQUE (My words in red font)

Enterprising sixteen-year-old Bryn knows she’ll never be an airline mechanic as long as she lives on Eldeyja, an island of dragons where planes are forbidden. Here, she’s just the last dragon whisperer’s best friend, and though she and Freyja are like sisters, Bryn wants more. When the owner of the island's controversial new tourism lodge offers her a job and a key recommendation to aviation school, she takes it—and hides it from Freyja, who has been distant and stressed. If Freyja knew, it would only cause problems.

Great opening. And recognizably your first chapter. Good job.


Bryn’s timing couldn't be worse. It soon becomes obvious the lodge owner’s using her to get to Freyja and when Freyja finds out Bryn’s secret, it drives a wedge into their rapidly cooling friendship. Hoping to make amends, Bryn decides she’ll help her friend puzzle out her dad’s latest suspicious experiments in magical science. But she discovers Freyja’s dad is up to more than either of them anticipated: he plans to tamper with a nearby volcano in a far-fetched bid to protect his daughter from her mother’s grisly fate.

Too much detail (or too many words to cover the important details) here. We’re getting lost in the weeds. Important information that you need to pare back to:

1. The lodge’s owner has ulterior motives (try to indicate if he/she is a villain, or just caught up in something deeper)

2. Freyja’s Dad is up to no good.

3. The potential dissolution of the friendship means it’s harder for Bryn to figure out what’s going on.

Start with a sentence that clearly communicates each of those points, then flesh out anything that needs fleshing. (Don’t fall into the trap of the reader needing to know how these things are discovered. We don’t need that in a blurb).

I’m hoping the next paragraph will tell me what’s at stake, and what stands in Bryn’s way of keeping her friendship safe and saving whatever/whoever needs saving.


To make matters worse, the lodge owner may be luring dragons onto the property for guests' amusement. Fearing he'll rescind her recommendation letter, Bryn doesn't turn him in at first. But when her hesitation leads to a tragedy that fates Freyja to certain death, Bryn must find a way to save her best friend from the consequences of her own mistakes. And she must do it before Freyja's father succeeds in his experiments, or he could set off an explosive volcanic eruption that would change the fabric of their island’s magic forever.

Plot-wise, this is great. But it’s both too much and not enough for a blurb. Important points:

1. Bryn makes a mistake that could fate Freyja to death. And she has to fix it before . . .

2. Freyja’s father could set off a chain reaction that could destroy . . . What? Who? We don’t know what “change the fabric of the island’s magic” means. Be specific—will dragons die? People get hurt? Magic weaken, leading the people into poverty and possible revolt? Show us the consequences if Bryn doesn’t stop Freyja’s father).


THE PRESERVE, a YA contemporary fantasy complete at 72,000 words, is THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE set in a mythical JURASSIC PARK. I am an editorial intern under Kate Brauning at Entangled Publishing, and have previously interned with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret and P.S. Literary. My short stories have appeared in the University of Maryland’s literary journal, Stylus, and placed in the 2012 and 2015 Jimenez-Porter Literary Competition. This is my first novel.

Great, succinct experience paragraph! Don’t change a thing! (And your writing reflects this experience too, which is even better).


SUMMARY:

Your query, as with your First 500, shows skill and an ability to stay on track. However, you’re losing sight of what will compel a reader to want to open the book (or manuscript) and see how it all pans out: What’s at stake if she fails?

If you pare back your second paragraph slightly and revise your third to focus on the danger/conflict and what will happen to Bryn if she fails at saving Freyja/stopping Freyja’s father (get specific!) then this query will be very successful.

Trust the reader not to need the tiny details at this point, but the over-arching sense of doom, and fear of failure. That’s what will make people go “Hmmmmm, that sounds interesting….” And open the book to get lost in it.

All of that said, don’t be discouraged. Your writing is strong and your query only needs tweaking—don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I believe if you get this query right, you’ll gain a lot of requests in Pitch Wars / from agents.


Good luck!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Pitch Wars Early Bird Mentor Critique 20 - First 500 - Science Fiction

To skip directly to the material and critique, scroll down to the star divider line. If you'd like to know how I break down a critique, and what I'm looking for, keep reading:

To help the authors as much as possible, I've critiqued their full first chapter, however I'm only sharing the first 500 words as these can get quite long.

When critiquing a first chapter, (especially the first 500 words), I'm always searching for these pieces of information. A great book can include all of them right up front. Sometimes one or two need to take longer. But in the first page, or two at most, I should see at least three of these:

Who is the focus of the story?
Where are they?
When is it (i.e. what era--is it today? two hundred years ago? not sure?)
What are they doing?
Why are they doing it

And in the first chapter, if not the first 500 words, I want to know what the character's initial goal is. That goal will likely change as they learn more about the situation they're falling into. However, right up front, the character always needs to want something--desperately. And the author needs to communicate to me what that is, and why they might not get it, as quickly as possible. Because that's what tells me why I should care about this story.

I'm looking for technical expertise--does the author know how to set up a scene? Do they understand backstory and when to include it (and perhaps more importantly, when not to). Is their writing tight and polished, or are there a lot of unnecessary words? Is the author falling into purple prose (over-writing in an attempt to sound good, but actually creating a sense of melodrama which will turn many readers off).

Beyond that, I'm looking at how I respond as a reader. Am I intrigued? Do I care? Do I want to keep reading?
So, with all those elements in mind, here we go...


********************

ORIGINAL MATERIAL

Before I open my eyes, I know I’m not in my bedroom anymore.

The air reeks of mildew, and it’s cold. Much colder than I normally keep my apartment. Goose bumps cover my skin, and my usual five layers of blankets are gone. There’s a steady ping of dripping water echoing across the room, one by one. Drip by drip. Something’s very wrong. I don’t have a sink in my bedroom.

I moan and cover my sleepy eyes from the assaulting light, much too bright for what my windows will let in. What day is it? Where am? I shift to the left, trying to get my legs over the edge of the bed, and the springs under me creak in protest. That’s wrong, too. My bed only creaks when I roll over.

My wrists itch, but when I scratch I don’t get skin. It’s grainy and hard material. I blink once at the black leather cuffed over them, chains hanging down. I understand some people have their preferences. But I’m not one to sleep with chains.

I pull myself up to sitting, and my head spins in response. Concrete walls surround me, except for the cell gate on the other side of the room. This isn’t my room. This isn’t my home.

It’s a prison cell.

It’s much quieter than I imagined. The leaky faucet is the only noise in the bright hallway that makes my head pound. I sway back and forth, stomping a foot on the ground to make it stop. It’s eerie. And I need to figure out where I am.

 “Hello?” My voice squeaks out dry and raspy. The effort makes me nauseous. I clear my throat and try again. It comes out louder this time, but still hoarse.

In the cell across the hall there’s movement, the creaking of a bed and the clink of chains. I’m not alone. That’s a good thing, I think. A bald man limps to the iron cell gate, blood shot eyes peeking out against flaky skin. He stares without blinking.

“Hi, can you yell me where we are?” I shift on the bed in slow, concentrated movements. Any faster and I’ll lose my balance. I need water. Something to make my head stop spinning. I swear there are colors swirling around me, the yellows and reds floating together. I must have hit my head very hard.

The man blinks twice, tilting his head. I stand, the cold floor helping my find my balance before I swallow my fear and walk closer to the gate. He’s only human. He won’t bite. But he’s silent. The man’s cheeks are sunken, and his bony legs are shaking. Rather, all of him is.

“Sir, are you okay?” I ask, shaking my head to bring him into focus. He bares his teeth and growls before convulsing to the floor. He’s seizing, and there’s no one here.

“Help, someone, we need help,” I scream down the empty halls, the effort making another dizzy spell come on. I grip the cold bars, pressing my forehead to it to help me focus. The man isn’t moving anymore. But there are pounding feet above us. Someone’s coming to help. Someone’s coming to tell me where I am.



CRITIQUE (My words in red font):

Before I open my eyes, I know I’m not in my bedroom anymore.

Excellent succinct opening, with a hint of doom or curiosity. Good!


The air reeks of mildew, and it’s cold. Much colder than I normally keep my apartment. Goose bumps cover my skin, and my usual five layers of blankets are gone. There’s a steady ping of dripping water echoing across the room, one by one. Drip by drip. Something’s very wrong. I don’t have a sink in my bedroom.

Definitely doom. Also great. I hope we’ll move into seeing the surroundings next.


I moan and cover my sleepy eyes from the assaulting light, much too bright for what my windows will let in. What day is it? Where am? I shift to the left, trying to get my legs over the edge of the bed, and the springs under me creak in protest. That’s wrong, too. My bed only creaks when I roll over.

“What my windows will let in” is clunky.  I’d cut it back to “My room” or something simple like that.

It also feels like her natural first question would be “where am I?” then as she got her bearings she’d realize she’s lost time and start asking herself how she got there, and how long she’s been there.

My wrists itch, but when I scratch I don’t get skin. It’s grainy and hard material. I blink once at the black leather cuffed over them, chains hanging down. I understand some people have their preferences. But I’m not one to sleep with chains.

A hint of humor without overpowering the doom. Well delivered!


I pull myself up to sitting, and my head spins in response. Concrete walls surround me, except for the cell gate on the other side of the room. This isn’t my room. This isn’t my home.

It’s a prison cell.

Dun! Dun! Duuuuuuuuuuuuun! (That’s code for, this is great).


It’s much quieter than I imagined.

She’s imagined a prison cell? Seems odd. Unless your next statement tells us why she would have imagined ending up here, it might be better for her just to observe that it’s quiet.


The leaky faucet is the only noise in the bright hallway that makes my head pound. I sway back and forth, stomping a foot on the ground to make it stop. It’s eerie. And I need to figure out where I am.

We’ve had the faucet too many times, it’s lost it’s impact. Preferably give another sensory detail. Or, if that’s the only one you can reveal yet, change it up with onomatopoeia or by describing the sound itself, rather than its source.


 “Hello?” My voice squeaks out dry and raspy. The effort makes me nauseous. I clear my throat and try again. It comes out louder this time, but still hoarse.

In the cell across the hall there’s movement, the creaking of a bed and the clink of chains. I’m not alone. That’s a good thing, I think.

Seems like the natural response would be a shot of fear, underlined by hope. She’s just woken in a strange place and doesn’t know how she got there. Any new unknown is going to cause heartrate to increase, or skin to prickle, or adrenalin to flow—whatever you choose, give that sensory detail, along with her hope that it’s a good thing.


A bald man limps to the iron cell gate, blood shot eyes peeking out against flaky skin. He stares without blinking.

“Hi, can you yell me where we are?”

Typo. Not the end of the world, but better if you can cut them all out.

I shift on the bed in slow, concentrated movements. Any faster and I’ll lose my balance. I need water. Something to make my head stop spinning. I swear there are colors swirling around me, the yellows and reds floating together. I must have hit my head very hard.

Why isn’t she asking how she got here? If she already knows, the reader at minimum needs to know she knew this was possible, even if you don’t tell them the specifics of why, yet. And if she was clueless, you need to have her ask the question. It’s noticeably missing.


The man blinks twice, tilting his head. I stand, the cold floor helping my find my balance before I swallow my fear and walk closer to the gate. He’s only human. He won’t bite. But he’s silent. The man’s cheeks are sunken, and his bony legs are shaking. Rather, all of him is.

“Sir, are you okay?” I ask, shaking my head to bring him into focus. He bares his teeth and growls before convulsing to the floor. He’s seizing, and there’s no one here.

“Help, someone, we need help,” I scream down the empty halls, the effort making another dizzy spell come on. I grip the cold bars, pressing my forehead to it to help me focus. The man isn’t moving anymore. But there are pounding feet above us. Someone’s coming to help. Someone’s coming to tell me where I am.

Excellent! I want to keep reading!


SUMMARY: 

Your first 500 words are very well-woven and definitely have the intrigue and sense of danger that will keep readers turning pages. Just make sure you have your character asking the questions the reader would ask themselves in that situation, or, if there’s stuff the reader needs to learn about this situation (i.e. that our protagonist is a rebel and it was only a matter of time until she was found out and arrested) then have her give the reader the assurance that there’s a good reason she’s not asking that—it will actually add to your sense of mystery, because it adds a question: What kind of life does he/she lead that that’s something they have to imagine?

The ending of these first 500 words also makes me want to keep turning pages and learn where we are and what’s going on, so well done.

In short, your premise is intriguing, and while there's work to do on your dialogue, etc, you're definitely onto something special here. Keep going!


All in all, a very strong opening!         










Thursday, June 1, 2017

Pitch Wars Early Bird Mentor Critique 19 - QUERY - YA/NA Contemporary


When I read a query, or query blurb of a story, I'm looking for five major elements communicated crisply, quickly, and clearly:

Who is the book about, where are they (and when, if applicable)? What does the protagonist want? What's the conflict, and who or what is the antagonistic force? And for your final hook, what specific obstacle will potentially stop the protagonist from achieving their goal? And what's at stake if they fail?

If a query can outline that in under 250 words, it's a winner.  So let's take a look at this query and see how it stacks up:

Dear [Mr/Mrs. Agent],

All eighteen-year-old aspiring chef Josie Fulton wants is out. Out of her house with her overbearing mother and joke of a stepfather. Out of her small town, where no one appreciates her one-of-a-kind recipes. And, if she’s being honest with herself, out of Arkansas altogether, where the only thing that ever happens is the University of Arkansas Razorbacks losing another football game.

Great opening that lets us into your character’s major motivation. I’m hoping to see conflict and stakes in the next paragraph.


Her dream is almost a reality when she’s accepted to the Blue Ribbon Classe de Patisserie e Chefeasure culinary school in Paris. But a pricey school 4,500 miles away is a hard sell to her former sorority president mother, who is convinced Josie needs a social education as much as an academic one. Josie is forced to sign a deal with the devil - if she can survive her freshman year at Ozark University and pledge a sorority, her mother will pay for her culinary school tuition.

Interesting premise. I’ll be honest, though, as written, it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice?


At first, Greek life is everything Josie thought it would be - lame parties full of shallow, stupid people. But the more time she spends with her energetic Big Sis and James, a Kappa Beta with an uneven smile and surprisingly good taste in food and music, the more she finds herself feeling at home wearing her letters. She even begins to consider choosing a culinary school closer to home. But when Josie learns the truth of who is really pulling the strings in her Greek relationships, she must decide what’s worth fighting for - her dreams or her newfound friends.

I know, because I write books, that you’ve probably got a really great, layered character and high emotional stakes in this story. However, the early promise of emotion in your first paragraph dilutes with each paragraph as it goes.

To create a sense of real drama, I think you need two things:
      
1.       Cut some of the multiple things she’d like to change in the first paragraph and give us some insight into why she’s the last person who’d want to be in a sorority (is she a tomboy? Does she hate her mother? Is she fighting against the stereotype of good looks means no brains – something that invests us in her not entering the vapid world of a sorority).

      2.       Rather than the vague “who’s really pulling the strings in her Greek relationships”, be more specific. Does she think the guy she likes is essentially being bribed to stick close to her? Or is there some other element to the story we aren’t aware of that puts her at a disadvantage? Basically, create an impending sense of loss—and be specific about what’s at stake if her fears are founded.

With those elements in place, this query will be stellar because your writing’s succinct and you have all the right progression.

PITCH PERFECT meets GREEK, PLEDGED, a young adult contemporary is complete at 70,000 words.

Just a niggle: I thought the name of the second comp was “GREEK, PLEDGED” and had to reread a couple times. Try “PITCH PERFECT meets GREEK in PLEDGED, a young adult . . . .”

My bigger concern is that that this isn’t the query for a YA. It an NA book, unless you’ve misrepresented it. Set in college and dealing with that world takes it out of YA by all the advice I’ve been given.

Thank you for your time and consideration.
Best regards,
Amy Oliver


SUMMARY:

A very well-written query and a clear and concise blurb. What you’re missing isn’t talent, but stakes.

If you can make the reader feel concern for Josie—and wonder how bad this is all going to be, your query will be immensely successful.

Seriously, while I’ve given a couple big notes, in truth this is very well done and you should be proud of it. But I think you’ll have more success pitching it as NA, and if you can sharpen the sense of sacrifice and conflict.

Those changes won’t need more than 3-4 sentences to make this really pop, so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s very, very close to being perfect.

Good luck!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Pitch Wars Early Bird Mentor Critique 18 - First 500 - YA Fantasy


To skip directly to the material and critique, scroll down to the star divider line. If you'd like to know how I break down a critique, and what I'm looking for, keep reading:

To help the authors as much as possible, I've critiqued their full first chapter, however I'm only sharing the first 500 words as these can get quite long.

When critiquing a first chapter, (especially the first 500 words), I'm always searching for these pieces of information. A great book can include all of them right up front. Sometimes one or two need to take longer. But in the first page, or two at most, I should see at least three of these:

Who is the focus of the story?
Where are they?
When is it (i.e. what era--is it today? two hundred years ago? not sure?)
What are they doing?
Why are they doing it

And in the first chapter, if not the first 500 words, I want to know what the character's initial goal is. That goal will likely change as they learn more about the situation they're falling into. However, right up front, the character always needs to want something--desperately. And the author needs to communicate to me what that is, and why they might not get it, as quickly as possible. Because that's what tells me why I should care about this story.

I'm looking for technical expertise--does the author know how to set up a scene? Do they understand backstory and when to include it (and perhaps more importantly, when not to). Is their writing tight and polished, or are there a lot of unnecessary words? Is the author falling into purple prose (over-writing in an attempt to sound good, but actually creating a sense of melodrama which will turn many readers off).

Beyond that, I'm looking at how I respond as a reader. Am I intrigued? Do I care? Do I want to keep reading?
So, with all those elements in mind, here we go...


********************

ORIGINAL MATERIAL 

Patience has never been been my virtue.
Somehow, I manage to resign myself to boredom and listen to voices in passing, flies hovering over fish rotting in crates of crushed ice, screaming hawkers desperate to make a few copper coins.
It isn’t like I have much to do besides wait. Might as well pass time. I turn my head and concentrate.
Patterns in footsteps, the direction of a scurrying mouse, the friction of clothing rubbing against skin, the sound of sweat as it beads along hairlines.
The hours drag by at snail speed, or at least it feels that way, until I hear the clip-clop of iron hitting the ground.
Soldiers on horseback are galloping beneath the market gate. Finally. They look at the stalls, ready to stop the sale of contraband goods. Their bays are small, but swift; they handle long marches and are quicker in battle than larger horses. So perfectly under command, their riders have little use for reins.
Only the best for Zhu military.
I hone in on the conversation between the two men in the lead. I can’t look at their faces as they speak, because they’re riding down the street ahead of me, but I can block out ambient noises and single out their voices, even with the din of the market.
“They are saying in town that Silent Raven is causing trouble again,” the lieutenant says.
“Put your mind at ease,” General Sheng says. “We’ve disbanded the Yellow Turbans. Repelled the Boxers. Tamed the White Lotus Bandits. It’s only one girl in a mask who flashes an indestructible blade, as they say. I can’t swear as to the sword—I’ve never seen it. But Silent Raven bleeds like every other criminal we’ve eliminated.”
“General, she terrorized our outpost in Tai’an City. Raided the camps, robbed the payroll, and freed the prisoners. A soldier who escaped claims she immobilized the men with a single syllable and a point of her finger. Somehow, the raven has learned Taoist spells. She knows the magical arts.”
“Are you an owl, lieutenant?” General Sheng says. “Unable to see beyond the end of your own crooked nose? The girl must have a place where she eats and sleeps. When she’s not attacking or spying. We’ll trail the raven back to her nest, burst in on her while she’s resting, and catch her.”
If you can. I smile beneath my mask. It’s cute when people try to sound dangerous.
Standing on the edge of a tavern, a mane of black flies out behind me. It matches the color of my robe, which flaps in the breeze like a flag of victory. The Sword of Integrity is strapped to my back, a heavy but comforting weight.

I take a flying leap from one pagoda-style roof to the next, my feet moving soundlessly on the brown-tiled eaves. No one sees me. No one thinks to look up. Not a soul in this heat. At high noon, the air is hot enough to ignite dust. The oppressive sun pours out its brilliant oranges and reds over my inky hair, which enshrouds my face and most of my body. It lies poker straight, yet it moves like tall reeds of grass with the wind blowing gently.


CRITIQUE (My words in red font):

Patience has never been been my virtue.
Somehow, I manage to resign myself to boredom and listen to voices in passing, flies hovering over fish rotting in crates of crushed ice, screaming hawkers desperate to make a few copper coins.

Your descriptiveness here is great. But we’re missing the framework to place these evocative images, so they happen in a vacuum. Start wide and then bring these into focus. It could be as easy as “wandering down the dirt street”, or “slipping between people in the marketplace”—just something to gives us the wider setting.


It isn’t like I have much to do besides wait. Might as well pass time. I turn my head and concentrate.
Patterns in footsteps, the direction of a scurrying mouse, the friction of clothing rubbing against skin, the sound of sweat as it beads along hairlines.

I gather you’re trying to create the impression of the narrative character logging extraordinary sensory details (i.e. greater hearing than we have). Which is great character and world-building. However, the transition between internal narration and listing the stimulus is jarring. You need to indicate to the reader, in a way that suits your voice, that you’re switching from thought to sensation.

The hours drag by at snail speed, or at least it feels that way, until I hear the clip-clop of iron hitting the ground.
Soldiers on horseback are galloping beneath the market gate.

Very nit-picky line-editing note, because your writing is strong enough that it’s worth going to this level: The was/are *ing construction is passive. Instead of “are galloping”, just use “gallop”. If you do this everywhere in your manuscript you not only lower your wordcount, but make your prose more active, and thus more compelling.

 Finally. They look at the stalls, ready to stop the sale of contraband goods. Their bays are small, but swift; they handle long marches and are quicker in battle than larger horses. So perfectly under command, their riders have little use for reins.
Only the best for Zhu military.

Great world-building.

I hone in on the conversation between the two men in the lead. I can’t look at their faces as they speak, because they’re riding down the street ahead of me, but I can block out ambient noises and single out their voices, even with the din of the market.

Great character-building!

“They are saying in town that Silent Raven is causing trouble again,” the lieutenant says.
“Put your mind at ease,” General Sheng says. “We’ve disbanded the Yellow Turbans. Repelled the Boxers. Tamed the White Lotus Bandits. It’s only one girl in a mask who flashes an indestructible blade, as they say.

This is the first sentence that doesn’t ring authentic to me “just one girl with an indestructible blade”, then ending with “as they say”, when clearly both have heard these stories.
First, true soldiers don’t laugh off that kind of weapon if it’s real. He can demonstrate bravado, even stupidity. But the phrasing feels off. Seems more realistic that he would poo-poo the rumors as superstition or wishful thinking—mock the people for being scared of a little girl.
Secondly, “as they say” means “we both know this, but the author wants to tell it to the reader, so I’m going to tell it to you.” Strike it. When people talk about things they both know, they don’t say things like this. They just talk about it. Use internal narration to fill in any blanks the soldiers imply because they are both clued in.


 I can’t swear as to the sword—I’ve never seen it. But Silent Raven bleeds like every other criminal we’ve eliminated.”
“General, she terrorized our outpost in Tai’an City. Raided the camps, robbed the payroll, and freed the prisoners. A soldier who escaped claims she immobilized the men with a single syllable and a point of her finger. Somehow, the raven has learned Taoist spells. She knows the magical arts.”

This is great world-building and I’m definitely intrigued. But there’s a clunkiness to this because you’re using two people who know the information to tell each other the information.
Find a way to make it more organic. “Such and such claimed she did X.” “Oh? Well, I heard this-and-that say she did Y, so which is true?” “Probably neither.” “Maybe both?” “Doesn’t matter—if I find her, she bleeds just like the rest of them.”
Trust your reader to read between the lines (no pun intended)


“Are you an owl, lieutenant?” General Sheng says. “Unable to see beyond the end of your own crooked nose? The girl must have a place where she eats and sleeps. When she’s not attacking or spying. We’ll trail the raven back to her nest, burst in on her while she’s resting, and catch her.”

Must say, it’s very convenient that she happens to be here to hear this conversation. Maybe set it up in such a way that she has learned a specific general or someone of importance has a messenger waiting here for the soldiers, to fill them in, and that’s why she’s waiting—to hear what the message is. It shows her strategic thoughtfulness—and gives them an organic reason to discuss this. Otherwise, why didn’t they have this conversation before they reached the place they know she is? Strategically, they’re a bit dim—which makes them weak adversaries, which minimizes the power implied to her.

If you can. I smile beneath my mask. It’s cute when people try to sound dangerous.

The irony is, she’s mocking them for doing exactly what she’s just done.


Standing on the edge of a tavern, a mane of black flies out behind me.

This doesn’t make sense. I had to re-read it three times. I’m still not sure if it’s real or metaphor.

It matches the color of my robe, which flaps in the breeze like a flag of victory. The Sword of Integrity is strapped to my back, a heavy but comforting weight.
I take a flying leap from one pagoda-style roof to the next, my feet moving soundlessly on the brown-tiled eaves.
No one sees me. No one thinks to look up. Not a soul in this heat. At high noon, the air is hot enough to ignite dust. The oppressive sun pours out its brilliant oranges and reds over my inky hair, which enshrouds my face and most of my body. It lies poker straight, yet it moves like tall reeds of grass with the wind blowing gently.

Excellent setting details. Watch out for getting too purple in your prose. The last two sentences (especially the “enshrouds” sentence) read a little melodramatic, rather than dramatic. Go stark over excessively descriptive. It’ll work better for the type of character you’ve built.


SUMMARY:

You’re a good writer. You understand pacing, setting, and building anticipation to a coming event. I foresee her ambushing the soldiers in some way, to gather information or resources for whatever goal she’s given herself.
My only real quibble here is that it feels like you’re trying too hard to make the voice unique. In actuality, you’ve got what sounds to me like a unique setting, and definitely a unique main character. You don’t need to give her such a staccato (yet also flowery?) way of expressing herself. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the technique you’re using is getting in the way of the reader falling into the story—and a very good story it’s already shaping up to be.
Pull back on the purple prose. Let her use full sentences when she’s describing the sensory details. Don’t put in any barriers in the way of the reader, and then we’ll get the full promise that’s here: A very intriguing protagonist in a new and different world from standard fare.

Well done. Good luck!