Saturday, July 22, 2017

Pitch Wars #SaltyCrit - First 500 Words Mentor Critique

(If you're looking for it, you'll find my Pitch Wars bio and wishlist here)

A couple brave souls agreed to have the critiques they won from me last week posted on my blog. Let's give them a hand, shall we?

The first is a YA fairy tale retelling from the irrepressible (and very funny) Amelia Hollingsworth. She's @AmeliaHWorth on Twitter. And you can find her blog here where I believe she'll talk about the process of being critiqued, and the revisions she undertook based on this advice.

Now for the critique!


"A spell from the North by the looks of it." Cook’s hands shook as she gathered a few tarts, some cheeses, and a loaf of bread. She took the dish cloth draped reliably over her shoulder and laid it in the center of the table.

I love being dropped into the action without preamble, but because Cook isn't your MC, I think you either need one sentence immediately before this putting Kate in the setting (Like, she's looking around to see if anyone is looking for her, or maybe standing in the kitchen at a fearful loss, which also lets us see where she is), OR you need Kate's immediate emotional response to Cook's words with the same kind of setting details. You have all the right character details, but we're getting them in an emotional and setting vaccum until we get a couple paragraphs in. Setting is CRITICAL to your opening sentences.

Kate’s voice was tight between her sobs. "Can it be undone?" She watched Cook wrap the lunch in the cloth.

"Black magic can always be undone, Katy." Cook's fingers fumbled as they tied up the parcel. She placed it in Kate’s open hands.

In everything above, give us a touch of sensory detail—the callouses on Cook’s hands, or the smells of the kitchen.

Perhaps Kate feels cold and you can give us her pebbled skin, or something like that? 

Whatever it is, don’t wax lyrical. But drop in one detail with each blocking action to make it all feel real.

"How?" Kate asked.

"I don't know,” Cook said, shaking her head. “You'll find a way, though. I'm sure of it. But now you need to run." Cook took Kate by the shoulders. Tears threatened to run down her cheeks and fear creased deeply in the wrinkles around her eyes.

These details are telling. Instead, show the glint of a tear slipping down her cheek, or the tightness around her eyes that are normally so warm.

"You're not safe here. You need to run now. Far away. Understand?"

The hot summer air swelled inside the kitchen.

While I think I know what you're going for, I'm not sure, which means I can't feel it. Better if the heat begins to suffocate her so she can't breathe, or the smell of the damp stone turns her stomach. Make it clear, and sensory. Do you see what I mean? Figure out the most powerful sensation of the moment, and describe it through Kate's skin/senses.

Annie bleated softly at Kate’s side. The smell of the surf lingered in the air, and the sound of the waves hummed in her ears.

This is really close. But be specific. Instead of "smell" and "sound" replace with "salt" and "pound" or something like that. (and in my opinion, you want to give the sound/sense of the sea before this so it's part of the setting details right at the top because you can work with that a lot to ground the reader).

Away. Far away from ocean breezes and white sand. Far away from her mother and stepfather. Far away from the warmth of Cook’s kitchen and the comfort of the court. And farther away still from her stepfather's influence and friends. Away. Until the memories of home—and the stories—were all that remained. Kate nodded.

All good stuff that hints at the conflict.

Cook let go of Kate’s shoulders.

Telling again. Let the rough skin of Cook's palms catch on the fabric of Kate's sleeves as her hands slip away (or whatever). The point is, make us feel it rather than just understand the blocking.

"I'll find another lamb to serve for dinner. That should buy you a little time—”

Annie bleated impatiently.

“A very little time,” Kate repeated aloud.

Is Kate repeating what Annie the goat said? If so, make that a little more certain for the reader. You can do that by having Kate look at her with a nod, or something to acknowledge the animal so we know for sure what's going on there. If not, then the use of "repeated" is confusing. Just have her answer without a tag, or the tag could be "agreed" or something like that.

Memories unraveled with use. Poor Kate had used the memory of their flight from home until it was a threadbare story that haunted more than it consoled.

I understand that this is important, but I don't understand what it's actually saying. Is it literal--that memories are a tool she uses for magic? Or figuratively something she uses as a coping mechanism? This needs to be very clear. Especially this early, your world building is crucial. If memories are how she fuels her magic, you need to state that outright. Every moment the reader is trying to figure something out, they aren't falling into your story.

“I’m sorry, Annie.” The white lamb stood in the mountain road, chewing on the hem of Kate’s cloak. “Our story is so thick sometimes…”

Wait, I’m confused. I thought they were in the kitchen? And I thought Kate was talking to Cook?

Annie stared up at Kate with her obstinate, big brown eyes.

“I get lost in it.”

The lamb tugged at her rope and bleated angrily.

Kate ran a hand through her tangled tresses. “Yes, I know you don’t like the rope. But as I said before, it’s for appearances only. I promise.”

This is one of those moments dialogue has the right content, but is phrased in a way that feels unrealistic. Give it some thought: We rarely say to someone else "I know you know this thing but I'm going to tell it to you anyway." When we know someone knows something, we either don't refer to it at all, or only obliquely. So that phrase "I know/you know" is a huge red flag to me that THE AUTHOR NEEDS TO TELL THE READER SOMETHING HERE. The fix is simple though. You can trust the reader to understand if you SHOW it. Have the lamb butt the rope with her nose, and Kate respond as if that was the words "I don't like this." So, Lamb butt rope with nose and bleats angrily:

"It's only until we get to X, Annie. People will ask questions otherwise." (Or something like that that's accurate to what you want the reader to know.) With a simple sentence you can clue the reader in to Annie being different, Kate understanding her, and that they have a relationship much more of equals than of master/property.

Annie snorted and headed straight across the lawn toward the manor. Her hooves carefully picked out the driest tufts of grass.

“You have to promise not to give us away,” Kate told her. “You remember our plan?”
Annie looked back at Kate, and bleated. The rope was now taut.

This is all the right indicators, but it feels a little too pointed. A touch too obvious the author’s talking to the reader. Consider what you’d actually say/do if you were in her shoes and din’t know you had an audience? You’d probably mutter something about not giving us away, or scold. But presumably they’ve had this conversation already, so “you have to promise” and “you remember…?” sounds a little forced. Try to make it more organic and trust the reader to understand what you’re showing them.

“Yes, I’m coming,” Kate said. She stood up and shook the dust off her trousers and cloak.

The manor house, planted stoutly at the end of the lawn, would have been considered a castle if it had taken more architectural risks. A palace perhaps, if it had more finesse and subtlety. But the lines of the manor paralleled the plateau and hugged the safety this rare bit of flat land offered.

"Slow down, Annie." Kate tugged on the rope tied around Annie’s neck.

Because we have a cut off, you might already have done this in the upcoming material, but after “land offered” I’d put in Kate’s intention. You’ve just given us a nice block of setting so we know where we are. Now show us what Kate wants, where she thinks she’s headed, and why. Character intent and motivation drive your story. They have to be the launching point for everything else.


There’s some really solid writing and story elements here. It’s clear you know your characters and what they need to be doing/showing the reader. While I’ve nailed you on the sensory detail, it’s because the rest is strong. So now you need to finesse the characters and action you have with stronger setting and character intent. I think if you work on that throughout your manuscript, you’ll be surprised how much stronger it gets, even without any changes to plot or character arc.

I hope this is helpful, and I hope I get to see more from you in the future. Thanks for being such a great sport!


  1. Great sport... Or target practice! :) I'm kidding. It was very helpful, and I appreciate the learning opportunity. Even if I'm still smarting from the growing pains.

  2. You're very brave, Amelia. I mean that. That attitude and strength will take you far in this industry.