Wednesday, September 9, 2015

PitchWars Critique - ELEMENTALISTS

PitchWars is at its heart about the writing community. And even though at the end of the day Mindy McGinnis and I were only able to choose two mentees, we still wanted a way to give feedback to the many many many others who had been kind enough to share their work with us. Our decision to do this via our blogs, rather than a private email, is so that (hopefully!) everyone can learn a little bit from this feedback.

I'm happy to say that quite a few people have been generous enough to take us up on this offer! So, through November, Mindy and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Make sure to look for them on both of our blogs as we'll be posting totally different critiques.

And for anyone out there looking for personalized feedback, I am now offering manuscript critique services which you can find out more about here.

You'll see my comments in red.

Dear Ms. Quinn,

Sixteen-year-old Joel Blackford only believes the things he can see and touch are real. When tap water floats to him I'm not quite sure what this means. Floats out of the faucet? Is it only tap water that does this? I appreciate that you're trying to give a visual but this one is too muddled to work and rain leaves him dry this one is much better he’s desperate for a scientific explanation. Joel is an Elementalist Is this a scientific explanation? Seems more like a supernatural one. Maybe rework the previous sentence so that it connects better to this one. and his newfound ability to manipulate water comes with symptoms he must learn to control. The place to do this is in Renga Elementium, a city cut off from the rest of the world and full of Elementalists like him. So it seems like he was a normal kid in the contemporary world, but now he's going to this weird city. Maybe instead of "cut off from the rest of the world" use "in a world of magic completely different from the one Joel has known"? Or something similar that really captures this shift.

Once Joel arrives he starts having disturbing visions into the life of a long-deceased, legendary hero. He learns that a forgotten weapon from the last Elementalist war with the power to annihilate the world What world? This new city or the world he came from? was never destroyed. Joel’s best friends, Isaac and Katrina, urge him to keep his knowledge a secret so the weapon can never be found. 

If only Joel’s gift was keeping his big mouth shut. Ha. Great line. Good use of voice in a query.

Now a former mentor is after the weapon so he can use it to launch an elemental Armageddon against humanity. Joel and his friends will need to use the combined might of fire, earth, water and air to stop the man who trained him. If he doesn’t, his friends and family’s lives will be in grave peril as Elementalists clash against humanity. Great. This is exactly what the last paragraph should be - you clearly define the threat, what Joel must do to stop it, and what will happen if he fails.

ELEMENTALISTS: THE FIRES OF CANICUS is my debut novel. It is a YA contemporary fantasy, complete at 145,000 words. Oh no. Either that is a type of you have wwwwaaayyyy too many words in this MS. Anything over the 100K mark automatically gets the squinty, "what's happening here?" look. But this is (as I already stated) wwwayyyyy over that 100K mark. I know cutting words can be hard - especially when everything feels important. But really it's possible. Even just starting with those extra words like "just" or "that" can take several hundred words out. Beyond that, though, you may need to make some tough choices and really decide what is essential to your story. It is a standalone novel with three more in a planned series.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

First page:

The fist that struck the side of Joel’s face was faster than Joel's ability to dodge. I think there are ways to show this that are more dynamic. Especially for a first sentence where you want it to be extra perfect and just spot on. For me, the phrasing "the fist that struck" sounds a bit clumsy. Then "the side of Joel's face" isn't very specific. Is it his cheekbone? His left ear? His temple? His jaw? What about more simply something like, "Joel tried to dodge the giant fist. He failed."
            “Watch where you’re going, little man. You might hurt someone,” said Jake. 
            Joel stumbled backwards into the parking lot, getting thoroughly soaked by the rain as he wobbled. Would he be instantly thoroughly soaked? Maybe start simpler: Backwards into the parking lot and the pouring rain." Abe was helplessly pinned against the McDonalds wall by two of Jake’s oversized cronies. All they had done was accidentally bang the door into Jake on their way inside seeking shelter. Unfortunately, high school dropout drug dealers weren’t too big in the empathy department. Especially not one who put some poor ninth grader into the hospital last year.
Abe looked at Joel with wide pleading eyes. “Joel, help me!”
            “Shut up,” said one of Jake’s cronies, pressing his arm into Abe’s torso, making him wince.
            Joel rubbed the side of his face, allowing the rain to help cool the sting from the blow. “Let him go, Jake. It was an accident, alright? Just let him go and walk away.”
            Jake snorted and spat on the ground. “Who are you, anyway? His boyfriend?”
            “My name is Joel Blackford… and I’m warning you to back off.” This line feels a bit cliche. Can the hero of this story maybe have something a little fresher?
Joel had no idea where this reckless bravery was coming from. He was scarcely feeling the rain anymore and was almost oblivious to the fact that he was inevitably soaked. Do you need inevitably here? He might have been small, scrawny and sort of looked like a physicist who studied Latin for fun, but his dad had been a firefighter before he died three years ago, and the firefighter’s mentality had been long ingrained into Joel’s psyche.
Helping people was a virtue. Going into a burning building to save someone in spite of your own safety was a noble act. Fire was a powerful and often overwhelming foe. These bullies… they were simply a fire that needed to be put out, and as it so happened, Joel was surrounded by water. Great last paragraph! I like the way you go from the fire fighting with the dad into Joel using the water.

I think there's a lot you could do here to tighten up the writing. I also wonder if you're starting the story at the best point. From your query it seems that most of the action takes place in the Elementalist world, so you really want to get your MC there as quickly as possible.


  1. Hi Kate,

    Thank you very much for the critique. I fully expected the biggest issue to be my word count as that's been the one piece of extremely consistent feedback. It's also a really tough point because I've gone through my draft about 6 times from start to finish, cutting word clutter and unnecessary parts and words. At it's highest it was around 180k. The remainder is core story. Trying to figure out how to remove nearly 1/3 of my book is not an easy task nor one I look forward to.

    1. Hi Jonathan,

      I'd suggest you find a few good critique partners and ask them to help you zero in on what's not 100% essential to the story. Trust me - there's always something that can be cut. Also, ask of every scene: Does this move the plot forward? Does it reveal character? If the answer to either question is no - then remove it.

      Good luck!

  2. Hi Kate, hoping I can ask you a follow-up question here. Since your initial critique I've been working hard to reduce the word count by any means possible. I've had to cut quite a bit of character development and story, but I've brought it down to 114,000.

    I MIGHT be able to get it below 110,000 yet but I don't see any way I'll be able to reduce it below 100,000. What are my chances of finding an agent with 110,000 with a great query letter and first chapter?

    1. I can't really say what your chances are of finding an agent - with any sort of word count that's just an impossible thing for anyone to tell you. However, what I can say is that any word count over 100K for a YA novel is definitely going to give agents pause. And for some agents that pause will be enough for them to say no. So basically you're taking the already low odds of finding an agent and reducing your odds just a bit more. So at the end of the day it's up to you whether you want to take your chances with the higher word count or not.