Wednesday, August 30, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: THE SPIRIT HUNTER

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.


I understand you are looking for contemporary, character-based, YA novels, and stories that explore complex, emotional relationships. I thought you might be interested in my 85,000-word manuscript entitled THE SPIRIT HUNTER, aimed at mature teens. It is a bittersweet story about a seventeen-year-old Montana kid who teaches an abused, neglected, thirteen-year-old neighbor to hunt and fish, and suffers the consequences. The 17 year old suffers the consequences? The book explores some dark themes, but has a hopeful, positive ending, and the emotionally difficult portions are heavily counter-balanced with humor. The following is how the book flap might read: This is well written, but I would say that placing this at the end of the query would be a better place. Generally starting in with your hook is a better way to go, and this para gives an overview rather than the details that a query needs to differentiate itself, which, I'm sure that's below. However, start with that so that you know it's the first thing the agent sees. Also, nix the line about how the book flap might read. 

Seventeen-year-old Marty Kilpatrick has issues. His family lives in a half-finished house in Montana with no plumbing, occasional electricity, and only two woodstoves for heat. I would say only a woodstove for heat. As soon as you say he has more than one it sounds like that's not so bad - make sense? He’s ready to kill his best friends – assuming they don’t kill him first. Huge, massive leap here. Why would he want to kill his friends? Do you mean literally, or just as a turn of phrase? I assume literally since it appear they might kill him as well, which... that's definitely attention grabbing. But we really, really need to know why these kids feel this way. He worries he might be turning into a stalker. Definitely need more on that. And his crazy great-uncle, a full-blooded member of the Blackfeet Tribe, is hounding him to get in touch with his spiritual side. But when thirteen-year-old Chuck and his drug-addicted mother move into the trailer across the road, Marty discovers that bottom is still a long way down. Nice line.

First Chuck steals Marty’s trophy trout. Then he bewitches Marty’s hunting dog Deek, transforming him from a mud-covered wrecking ball into a pet. Chuck even manages to steal the affections of the mysterious fly fishing girl Marty has been ogling here's your allusion to to the stalking reference above. But don't use the term stalking lightly. Is he just noticing her? Or is he following her? Making notes of her movements? Learning her routines? Cataloging her likes and dislikes? There's a huge difference between being aware of someone and stalking them for months but has never had the courage to approach. But nothing compares to the damage Chuck inflicts when he gets a grip on Marty’s heart.

Chuck needs a big brother in a big way, and he’s determined that Marty is the man for the job. But as Marty is drawn inexorably into Chuck’s world of heartbreak, abuse, and betrayal, he finds himself challenged in ways he never imagined – to the point where he wonders whether either one of them will even survive. This is well written but we need to know what those challenges are, and why they would threaten their lives. There are a lot of really interesting thoughts here that have my attention - homicidal friends, etc - but we need to know more about what that actually entail in terms of plot.

In the interest of space I'm cutting your para where you asked about language in YA. My answer is don't worry about it. 

1st Page:

Little boys instinctively kill things. I absolutely love this first line. I think it's awesome. I do think some people would disagree with the statement, but since this is from 1st POV, I think it works. I didn’t know that when I was a little boy, despite all the things I killed. Somehow that insight floated right past me, probably because Phil and Bob and I were too busy impaling grasshoppers on barbwire fences, blowing up anthills with sparkler bombs, pouring gasoline down gopher holes, stoning every fish we pulled from the water, and shooting every bird we saw with our pellet guns. I guess most kids grow out of that stuff eventually. We didn’t. The critters we went after just got bigger, tastier, and sometimes more dangerous. We also started calling ourselves hunters, which somehow seemed more mature. First paragraph is awesome. It's brutal, yes. But if the book is brutal (and it seems like it will be, given the query), the it's true to the story and can stand as is.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing hunters. I haven’t turned into some kind of animal rights freak, no matter what Phil and Bob think. People have been hunting for a really long time, and there are good reasons to do it. One of them is free meat, which is a good thing when your family is broke. But until I met Chuck, I never thought about whether hunting was good or bad. It was just something I’d always done and everyone around me did. It wasn’t until I taught Chuck to hunt that I began to have doubts about what I was doing.

I can’t really blame Chuck. I don’t know where those first little doubts came from, but they were definitely there before he came along. Maybe my Blackfeet blood had something to do with it. I’m only a quarter Indian, but that doesn’t mean those genes aren’t messing with my head. My great-uncle Frank, who is full-blooded, says an Indian should never kill without a reason. He also says a hunter should have great respect for the animals he does kill. Otherwise the animals won’t come back in another life to feed the Indian again. Or maybe the doubts were a sign that I was finally growing up. Phil and Bob weren’t suffering any doubts, nor were they making any progress towards growing up...

Honestly, I think your first page is very, very strong. I think it's fantastic. My only critical thought here is that the narrator seems to be addressing these issues as if they happened in the past, giving the manuscript a feeling of an adult looking back on their teenage years, kind of like Stephen King's short "The Body." Which... that would mean this isn't YA. I would urge you to consider if this might actually be literary fiction, given the darker themes (speaking here as someone who has read more than just the first page), and the nostalgic lost-childhood feel, I do think you might be looking at an adult literary rather than YA.

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