Sunday, April 29, 2007

Face-Lift 326

Guess the Plot

The Magic Gameboard

1. After his parents die horribly, little Jimmy Carlson uses his expertise at Clue to solve the crime. It was the maid with the knife in the parlor. Jimmy won't feel safe until she goes directly to jail without passing Go.

2. A Monopoly board. Paper money. Loaded dice. When John challenged his big brother to a game, he didn't know what real bankruptcy meant. Now his family is destitute, and Sorry won't cut it. Maybe a game of Easy Money can save them.

3. Tommy thinks his birthday present, a holographic gameboard with over 150 games, is pretty lame. Then his real estate agent father wins at Monopoly and has a record month, and his overweight mother successfully removes the bread basket during a game of Operation and loses thirty pounds. But chaos ensues when Tommy tries to persuade prom queen Cindy Givens to join him in a game of Twister, and she instead opts for Hungry Hungry Hippos.

4. When Steve and Andy, ten-year-old friends, find a Checkerboard in an abandoned house, they Risk reading the rhyme on the back. The board magically whisks them to 16th-century Belgium. Boggles their minds.

5. Calvin's latest role-playing game turns him from a nerd to a handsome warrior prince who has exciting battles and tavern brawls and beautiful women at his beck and call. Naturally he wants to disappear into his game board forever. Can his nerdy friends convince him his real Life is worth living?

6. When the Greenbriar twins buy the cracked, old gameboard from the flea market, they expect a jolly time. Instead, they are sucked into a world where they are Chess pieces . . . and survival is not guaranteed.

Dear Evil Editor,

It is with great fear and trepidation that I ask for your query help after the last email I sent. But my need to know what works/doesn't work with my query outweighs that fear! Please help! I have 3 questions:
1) I'm writing middle-grade historical fiction, focusing on artists. I've completed one book, and have started another. Books about particular artists are a niche (for MG). Should I mention in the query that I'm writing stand-alone books about artists that take place in their time period? Or just focus on the one book that I have? [Mentioning it is fine, but you should still focus on the current book.]
2) My 'hook' did well in Miss Snark's crap-o-meter. But it's the first two paragraphs of my book (a kid writing his will). Should I include this 'hook' in the body of my letter, even when agents ask for pages with the query? [If the query letter is better with the hook, use it. However, the agent will see the hook when reading your pages, so if the query is okay without it, don't strive to work it in.]
3) Back in October at a conference, Michelle Poploff (Delacorte) asked for a full ms when I finished. I was told that I shouldn't say this in a query to an agent, and I think I read this somewhere. But I think it's a selling point. What should I do? [For starters, you should send a full ms to Michelle Poploff. If you already did, and she said Thanks, but no thanks, it's no longer a selling point, if it ever was. Wait a minute, that Michelle Poploff? She's a sweetie, but a real pushover. She'd ask for a full ms from her plumber. In fact, at a conference, anyone will ask for a full ms if they think it'll get rid of you.] Below is the query I'm working on now (without the hook from Miss Snark's crap-o-meter). I will copy the 'hook' below the query. Thanks so much!!

Original Version

Dear Agent,

I loved your biography on the Publisher's Marketplace. It has an energy and humor which compelled me to write to you. [Is this a query letter or a fan letter?] My middle-grade novel, The Magic Gameboard, takes best friends, Steve and Andy, to 1560 Belgium in search of Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel. [Allow me to suggest a more appropriate title: The Sadistic Gameboard from the Depths of Hell.]

Steve is a ten-year-old boy who enjoys writing stories, watching the History Channel, and riding horses. He's not very good at reading cursive or cleaning his room. Andy, Steve's best friend, collects tools, reads National Geographic magazines, is fascinated by Zambia, [A ten-year-old? If you want it to be believable, change Zambia to Zambonis.] and is very good at reading cursive and cleaning his room. Steve and Andy's friendship goes beyond Chalk-Walk, Slurp-N-Kick, and Fried Pumpkin Poops. [So far, this is a list of lists. How about elaborating on something?] Their bond stems from an alienation each one feels from his father. Steve's father is overly critical and emotionally distant. Andy's father is an alcoholic. [Amazing. That last list had only one item on it.]

The Magic Gameboard begins with Steve and Andy exploring the Kruger House - an old, abandoned house in the woods. There they find a checkerboard with a mysterious rhyme and carvings on the opposite side. Steve convinces Andy to follow the directions of the rhyme, and both friends are whisked back to the year 1560. [Those three sentences are the best part of the query. You're connecting ideas. Much more interesting than just listing ideas. And better writing. Agents do judge your writing ability when they read your letter.] During their adventure in Belgium, they encounter teenage bullies, kind-hearted peasants, bed-bugs, the plague, and eclectic artists. They learn how to mix paints and make gesso. Their bravery, friendship, ingenuity...and getting painted into Bruegel's masterpiece Children at Play, [Are you sure you don't mean Bruegel's masterpiece Children's Games? I can't find any reference to Children at Play. It's not gonna look good if your big climax is based on a painting that doesn't exist. Maybe it depends on who translates the title from Flemish, the language they speak in Phlegm. (It's a lot like Dutch, but at the end of each noun you make a hacking noise like you're coughing up a phlegmball.)] eventually brings them safely back home.

Michelle Poploff from Delacorte has requested a full ms. [But I'd much rather send it to you.]

I have a Master's degree in education, and am a member of SCBWI as well as Publisher's Marketplace. I belong to an online critique group, and avidly read Newbery books. I am learning about art, one [obscure] artist at a time.

I am currently working on Justin's Turn, which takes the main characters to 1425 Italy where they meet Renaissance artist Masaccio Giovanni. [My goal is to cover all the important artists no one's ever heard of.] Each middle grade novel stands alone.

I have copied below the first ten pages per your website instructions, and will be happy to send the full manuscript at your request.

Thank you for your time, and best wishes for your continued success.


I, Steven Morgan Carter, being able to read and write, would like to give my stuff away if I die. After what happened earlier, I had to be sure the right things would be done. Just in case.

My little brother, Justin, can have any of my toys he wants. Mom can have my clothes, school pictures, and story notebook. Dad can have my dictionaries. Andy, my best friend and the only one who understands Doorstep, can have him. And the red wagon we pull him around in. Pieter can have his checker board back, even though he’s been dead for five hundred years. I’ll tell you how to find him in a minute.


For those unfamiliar with obscure artists, Pieter Bruegel the Elder is considered the greatest of the 16th-century Flemish genre masters. Which is saying a lot, as this was the same time period in which Pieter Bruegel the Younger worked.

The hook is better than the query. I suggest opening with the hook followed by something like So begins the last will and testament of ten-year old Steve . . . And get rid of some of the lists. Anyone can list stuff.

So if it's Pieter's checkerboard they find, as the will claims, what are they going to find that whisks them to Giovanni? Masaccio's pasta strainer? Is there a different relic for each artist, or does Bruegel's checkerboard whisk you to any artist?

Dad would rather have Steve's baseball cards than his dictionaries.

Okay, minions, no need to send comments claiming anyone with any culture would be familiar with the works of Bruegel and Giovanni. I happen to know the author stole those names from a new pizza bagel chain.

Michelle Poploff requesting your manuscript is far less impressive than Miss Snark liking your hook. But don't brag about that either.


phoenix said...

I can add an agent's take to EE's comments regarding the publisher's request to see the full and whether or not to include that in the query. I had a similar question that I posed to Rachel Vater just last week, and she replied at

(BTW: I got the same ding you did in a query I submitted here when I mentioned the ms was with an editor. Later, not three days after I had submitted a requested partial to her sans mention, I saw a post by that agent who said just such a mention would put you at the top of her slush pile -- awwwkk. Damned if you do/don't...)

Cute idea. I can see if you write it well enough, entertainingly enough, and broadly enough, it could well go beyond niche placement. I wouldn't say you are "learning about art," though, in the query. It raises the question of whether you're qualified for writing this, and even a hint of negativism could be enough justification for rejection. Just ignore your art background altogether; your general education degree should pull you through there.

takoda said...

Having just returned from a book club meeting hosted by my Frenchy friend with lots of wine, I'm a bit, well....can't separate the French from their wine.

Thanks, EE. You're evil and so much more.

Now, I saw the title "Children at Play" somewhere, then didn't go back to it because I was engrossed in research about the time period. Thanks for that HUGE save for me!! Yikes! And yes, I am trying to learn about one obscure artist at a time. Bruegel's genius, to me, lies in his ability to portray everyday life. Not royalty or religious stuff. It was quite a break from artistic tradition at the time. I encourage anyone reading this post to look up him and his paintings. And the painting (ahem) "Children's Games" shows over 80 different games. It's also a political satire, but that's another book.

Okay, still typing away on EEs blog although the letters are starting to blur. So, Michelle Poploff will ask for manuscripts from the corndog vendor? Hmm, best to cut that line. Thanks.

The hook was really confusing me. I didn't know how to work it into a query smoothly. Thanks for your suggestions!

In case anyone's wondering why I'm drinking wine in the afternoon, I'm not. I live overseas for now, and we're 9 hours ahead.

Anyone with suggestions, I'm very grateful!! Thanks again, EE!!!


Oh, and Massacio was one of the three founders of the Renaissance. He died at 29 I believe. He was a mathmatical genius, and introduced perspective into paintings. He was messy, unkempt, and a bit funny to look at. Great material for an MG

Anonymous said...

The main problem I can see here is the 'magic boardgame' aspect - which, while fun, seems like rather a rip-off of Van Allsburg's Jumanji/the film of the same name. Ditto Zathura. I'd be worried that your book uses the Jumanji type frame to shoe-horn in a lot of factual information in a kind of attempt to conceal that this is 'learning' (rather than being a good, fictional tale which just so happens to impart a little actual history by-the-by). Oh, and I still love the hook (remember it from Miss Snark's crap-o-meter). But basically I'd concentrate more on the plot & the boys which sounds fun - and less on Bruegel (ie. cut the first two paras and begin in the creepy house!).

Evil Editor said...

Assuming Steve is writing his will in present day, Bruegel's been dead 438 years. I wouldn't necessarily expect him to know the exact number, but he might say "over 400 years" if he's rounding off.

McKoala said...

Still love the hook. Still love Bruegel. I like the way EE suggests you weave the hook into the letter. My heart did sink slightly when you pushed the educational thing at the end - I was thinking more jolly good read with incidental education than 'here's an art lesson for juniors'. However, only you can know what the real aim of your book is. Either way, the writing should be good. Go for it!

McKoala said...

hee hee, while we're doing Dutch/Flemish - word ver is in badly spelt dutch: 'ocsel'. Koala prizes for anyone who knows what that means, plus the correct spelling.

Dave said...

There was a plethora of puns in the GTPs.
Much like a birthday party with a plethora of gifts (obscure movie reference there).

takoda said...

Hi Phoenix, Thanks for your comments. I will definitely take out the line about the requested ms. And I'll also delete the line about me learning art, one artist at a time. I can see your point about how that diminishes my credibility. Thanks!!

Hi Anon, I see what you mean about Jumanji (BTW, LOVE that movie!) I'm just stuck for a catchy title. The gameboard is the catalyst for their adventure. After that, it has no role in the plot. The characters are in 1560 Belgium trying to cope with issues of the time. It was a blast researching this thing. I can't wait to go even further back to the 1400s for my next one. And thanks for the kind words about the hook! With EEs help, I know how to work it in now!

EE, about the 438 years. I know, I know. But I chose to round to 500 years because it seems like something my character would do, for the drama of it all. But heck, if an agent wants my ms and wants to make it 438 years, my keyboard is ready!

McKoala, Thanks for the comments. It is meant to be a jolly good read. I wrote it for boys. I wanted to keep the pace fast, have lots of humor, but also keep it as historically accurate as possible. One of my favorite moments was a chapter where the characters are learning how to prepare paints, etc. They needed sandpaper, and I knew I had to find out what they used as sandpaper back then. What we use today was patented by England in the 1800s. Sandpaper made with crushed pebbles and seashells was invented in China much earlier. I loved getting these details accurate. But overall, it's meant to be fun!

Thanks EE for helping me with my query, and for everyone who took the time to comment!! I'm always open for suggestions, if anyone thinks of other things!

And my favorite GTP was #6. Way cool.

And my favorite comment was EE's new phlegm language. Funny!


Anonymous said...

For those unfamiliar with obscure artists, Pieter Bruegel the Elder is considered the greatest of the 16th-century Flemish genre masters.

Exactly how can you use the words "obscure artists" and "greatest masters" in the same sentence. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Flemish art will know him, there's nothing obscure about it.

takoda said...

Am I allowed to post an update? How's this version of the query?

I, Steven Morgan Carter, being able to read and write, would like to give my stuff away if I die. After what happened earlier, I had to be sure the right things would be done. Just in case.

My little brother, Justin, can have any of my toys he wants. Mom can have my clothes, school pictures, and story notebook. Dad can have my dictionaries. Andy, my best friend and the only one who understands Doorstep, can have him. And the red wagon we pull him around in. Pieter can have his checker board back, even though he’s been dead for five hundred years. I’ll tell you how to find him in a minute.

Everything started this morning when Andy and me went to the old Kruger house. No-one’s lived there for a long time, and it’s covered in creepy spiderwebs. Andy almost didn’t come with me. He usually plops himself in his room with his screwdriver collection and Zambia pictures. What’s so great about Zambonis, I don’t know.

We found a wooden checkerboard with a mystery rhyme and a bunch of carvings on the back. It was written in cursive, so Andy had to read it. Once Andy and me figured out it belonged to someone named Pieter, and Pieter lived in the 1500s, we had a few decisions to make. When were we going? Would Doorstep come with us? How much stuff should we bring?

We lit a candle and chanted a rhyme, and boom! We were in 1560. Our problems started right away. Cranky and Rock Star bullied Andy and me. Doorstep got lost when he chased them away. Andy and me looked all over Belgium for him. A band of archers tried to stop us, but since I’m the mighty one, I scared them away. A few nice people, and also lots of strange ones, helped Andy and me find Doorstep. Our next biggest problem was finding Pieter Bruegel so we could get painted back home. Cranky and Rock Star tried their best to stop us. So did Mette. I call her Creepy Crown Head.

None of their tricks worked. We found Pieter Bruegel after just two days. He painted us in something famous called “Children’s Games.” Andy and me are at the bottom, playing leap-frog. Doorstep didn’t make it in. He was too hyper.

Pieter gave me the magical gameboard to hide. He said to find a real spooky place, so only the bravest kid can find it. Which is exactly what I did.

Andy and me had lots of bad and lots of good on our adventure. The thing is, life is like eating a slightly-burnt chocolate chip cookie. Most of it’s sweet and easy to swallow. A few pieces, you just gotta spit out.

I have a Master's degree in education, and am a member of SCBWI as well as Publisher's Marketplace. I belong to an online critique group, and avidly read Newbery books

I am currently working on Justin's Turn, which takes Steve’s younger brother and a classmate to 1425 Italy where they meet Renaissance artist Masaccio Giovanni. Each middle grade novel stands alone.

Thank you for your time, and best wishes for your continued success.

writtenwyrdd said...

Not sure, but if the gameboard has so little to do with the plot, why is it the title?

I found the original letter difficult to follow, but the revision didn't work at all for me. It's not a query, it's the rough draft of your opening, as far as I can tell!

Perhaps you might just say what occurred rather than plonk your story opening in the letter? For example, something like "Trapped in the past by a mysterious magical gameboard, Steven and his friend(s) now wanted only to get home. Trouble was, [plot points standing in their way.]"

Whatever you do, don't have your character talk about set up; at least have him talk about what they are trying to do to get home.

Evil Editor said...

The new version is certainly more interesting to read. It's not a standard query format. To get it into one, you'd want to switch to 3rd person after the hook.

So begins the will of 10-year-old Steve Jones, written after an adventure that takes him to 1560 Belgium. It all starts when Steve and his friend Andy find . . .

There are those agents who would find your format original and creative, however. Either way, it should be shorter. We don't need as much info as you're now providing.

If the gameboard is similar to other works, you could have them find some other artifact. Was Bruegel an avid checkers player? With all the games displayed in the painting, perhaps you could find another kind that could have a rhyme inscribed on it.

Anonymous said...

After reading the Rachel Vater agent X blog spew disgust on "portal" dependent plots, I was initially mystified: what's her problem with that? Big whiner. After all, my brilliant project features just such a portal.

So I went on a field trip to the Middle Grade / Young Adult section of the bookstore and started reading the first few pages of everything of the historic/fantasy ilk. And I quickly discovered that 9/10 of these books feature exactly that kind of beginning. Modern kid suddenly goes to another time/place/world, thanks to odd object/mysterious door or whatever. How many ways can this scene be written? They quickly blur into same old same old predictability. What does it matter if it's a mysterious gameboard or a rabbit hole or a cupboard or an old shoe? After about the 10th such scene, you just want to skip it and go straight to the other world, although most of what the person does in that other world tends to be sort of like historical tourism and the character's big goal is to get back where they started. Most of these are books you never heard of. They're not bestsellers.

Which brings one to the question of how do Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and other hugely popular books in that section of the store begin? The characters are already in their world, which may or may not be partially integrated with this one. They never go from a 'real' world to a 'fantasy' world, which is the distinction a "magic portal" makes. The characters aren't trying to escape their world, and they can't dodge problems by zipping back to "reality". These books are written as if the story takes place in the only world that exists. The difference is immediately apparent and hugely significant.

Which is why I'm revising.

You're obviously pretty enamoured with your magic gameboard and "portal", and that might work great. But if this manuscript just gets its ass kicked wherever it goes, you might consider ditching the gameboard and rewrite it as if the boys belonged in that world, not this one.

takoda said...

Thanks all! You've given me much to obsess, er, I mean, think about!

Truly, thanks to everyone who took time to comment! Deeply appreciate all of it!!


pacatrue said...

Dave, or should I say El Guapo, your movie reference is not obscure enough. And, yes, I would say you have a plethora of gifts.

I'm OK with the game conceit since this is going back in time to see Bruegel's painting of children's games. I hope an old rotten ear takes them back to Van Gogh.

Ash said...

On your 'second' version of the query, posted above, I think the problem is that you risk that the agent thinks that this is the first page of your novel or so, and gets annoyed at you for giving away everything that will happen so early, not to mention for not writing a "proper query". So I defnitely agree that it should be switched to third person after the 'hook'.

It sounds like a good read to me, though, as it did when it was on Miss Snark. Will probably pick it up if you get it published. :)

takoda said...

EE-- I just found out (from the SCBWI discussion boards) that Zamboni has an actual meaning. Here it is:

Man, I'm depressed. I loved that word. Got any more?


Evil Editor said...

I'm not sure why you're depressed or what you want more of. My point was that a 10-year-old kid is far more likely to be fascinated by a Zamboni than by Zambia. Hell, who doesn't stare in fascination at the Zamboni any time they go to a hockey game or an ice show? I go to hockey games solely to watch the Zamboni, but that's because Zamboni driver has always been my dream job.

The Zamboni figures prominently in Face-Lift 23, by the way.

takoda said...

Hi EE, Not really depressed. But disappointed...Zamboni would be something my 10 yr old character would say. It was perfect!!

"Got any more" was a light-hearted request to see if you have any other funny "Z" words I could use. But I'm going with Zambani.

Thanks so much for all of your comments--they've really helped!

Off to Face Lift 23....

sylvia said...

I just wanted to say that I loved the first two paragraphs of your revised opening. After that, I did, as Ash said, start to think, "hang on, he's just posted his novel start" which isn't good.

I would absolutely shift gears at "I’ll tell you how to find him in a minute."