Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Face-Lift 829

Guess the Plot

Tenth Grade

1. A novel exploring one year in the lives of a dozen teens as they deal with murder, suicide, gang violence, family tragedy and the other staples of . . . tenth grade. Told entirely in verse.

2. Springfield High was also known as the Temple of Doom, but Sally didn't know why. Now, thanks to the dog that ate her history paper, she is about to find out.

3. After her terrible experiences with the first nine grades of sin, Gladys decides she's had enough and converts to atheism. But can she really get off that easy? Not if Satan has anything to say about it.

4. Swirlies. Atomic wedgies. Bizarre, pointless homework. Girls who've developed too much, too fast, and are oblivious to everyone but the football hero. Yes, for forty-three year old Hugh Smathers, teaching tenth grade is the nightmare he feared it would be.

5. Everyone in the tenth grade at Wharton Memorial High is a vampire. It's so last-decade. But when Steve Chance, a moody, glitterless boy from out west, moves to town, Chastity falls head-over-fangs for him. Trouble is, every other girl in the tenth grade wants a piece of him. Preferably, his jugular.

6. Janelle is a long-lost faery princess with magical powers, but all she wants to do is pass her algebra final. There's only one way to get rid of her pesky faery minions so she can study: wholesale slaughter.

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor,

When adolescents begin to develop their own voices, they are often faced with roadblocks ranging from personal fears to the extreme of violence in their schools and communities. Told in multi-voiced verse, [Whoa. What is this, an epic poem? A Canterbury Tales teens can actually relate to?] “Tenth Grade” explores a year in the life of a dozen teens growing up in an unnamed rural community somewhere in the Midwest. There is Jasmine, struggling with the resentment she feels towards her long-absent father upon his unexpected return.

[Father, I'm glad that you've returned,
Partly 'cause I love you still,
But mostly 'cause now that you're here
You'll be much easier to kill.]

Aaron faces family tragedy when his sister is killed during military service, but his relationship with Alexie helps him not to linger in grief.

[My sister was blown up
By the Taliban yesterday.
Comfort me, Alexie,
With a roll in the hay.]

Sandra struggles with body image and self-mutilation before she meets artistic Javier.

[I wish you wouldn't cut yourself, Sandy,
But since you do insist,
Let me show you how to make
Cool red designs on your wrists.]

Javier spends the year trying to avoid notice, but he is in the wrong place at the wrong time and is murdered. His death rocks the school and the community, and lies and rumors take the place of truth. While the community points to gang activity, the students remain skeptical: those who witnessed the murder refuse to speak out, but the reader has witnessed it all and realizes that it was not a gang shooting. Marquae, a quiet boy who has been targeted by Dustin, [Dustin? Who's Dustin?] is the one who pulled the trigger, but the death is not entirely his fault. Marquae and Javier were friends, and Marquae only had a gun in the first place to frighten Dustin. When Dustin’s ex-girlfriend, Rachel, saw a gun aimed at him, she acted without thinking, knocking the gun to the side.

[But the trigger got pulled,
And the gun went Bang!
And when Javier died
They said, Let's blame gangs.]

Although the school is plunged into grief, gradually things begin to return to normal. The novel ends with fragile resolution for some characters, like Jasmine, while others, like Dustin and Marquae, cease to speak. [They cease to speak? To anyone?] [That sounds like a fragile resolution. You implied it would be an example of a more drastic resolution.]

Complete at 10,000 words, this realistic novel-in-verse will appeal to [fans of Beowulf and Stephenie Meyer.] reluctant and voracious readers alike. [The only thing reluctant readers will like about a 10,000-word novel in verse is that it's only 10,000 words.] The diverse backgrounds and experiences of the multiple narrators paint a picture of a modern American community that will resonate with young adult readers. [Especially those who speak in iambic pentameter.]

My background is rooted firmly in YA literature. I hold a Masters in Library Science with a k-12 media specialist certification, and I have taught middle school Language Arts for the past four years. On the side, I have reviewed books for Voices of Youth Advocates for the past two years.

Thank you for considering my work, and I hope to hear from you soon.


If someone is pointing a gun at someone else, I wouldn't call knocking the gun to the side "acting without thinking." Possibly Rachel did think. Possibly she thought, My boyfriend's about to be shot; maybe I can save him.

10,000 words is gonna be about 50 pages, on 25 sheets of paper. The spine won't be wide enough for a legible title. And people won't want to pay as much for such a short book, but the book will cost almost as much to produce because the biggest expense is the cover. So the publisher is gonna consider this a money-loser. Thus I recommend turning it into twelve songs and putting out a CD.

If that idea isn't appealing, call it something other than a novel, and be sure to enclose the first few pages so the agent has a strong sense of what you're selling.

It probably seems unfair that telling your story in verse took five times as much work as telling it in prose would have, only to discover that most young adults would rather read the prose version. But unless it sounds like Dr. Suess wrote it, or it's set to music, that may be the reality.


Dominique said...

Based on my admittedly limited experience with small midwestern towns, but you seem to have built an almost unrealistically diverse community here.

Also, much of the query is devoted to characters who seem to have nothing to do with the chief conflict (Javier getting shot) and their problems, which also have nothing to do with the main conflict. You might need to better explain who they're related to the story.

Anonymous said...

. . . the reader has witnessed it all and realizes that it was not a gang shooting. Marquae, a quiet boy who has been targeted by Dustin . . .

This passage is awkward. Don't explain what "the reader" sees. Just describe the event in the present tense in chronological order as usual (but more briefly than you've done) and state that no one is prosecuted because the witnesses aren't talking -- at least I assume that's what happens. "The community," I suppose is the adults? Why does no one speak up? You've got quite a few things to clear up, in fact.

But in the end, whose story is this? Why should I care whether Dustin and Marquae speak to each other? What became of everyone else, like that cutter who relied on the murder victim? And I'm not sure this is a group of characters I'd care to get to know or spend time with for any number of words. Some people just aren't fun.

Anonymous said...

Okay: two novels in verse have won the Newbery Award. So we know novels in verse can be successful.

The first was Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust. The story is a lot simpler than this one; we follow one character through some difficult times.

The second was Laura Amy Schlitz's Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village. She has even more characters and story lines than this querier does, but Schlitz doesn't actually try to tell a cohesive story; the focus is on each character expressing his/her POV in turn.

I can imagine that both ladies must have had a heck of a time querying and faced a lot of rejection, to say nothing of stunned disbelief. If I were this writer I'd look around the web for anything either writer may've said about how she made the sale.

Becca C. said...

Even for a YA verse novel, 10k is VERY short. Ellen Hopkins' verse novels range from 35k to about 60k.

Anonymous said...

It's like a humorless John Hughes version of that movie Crash, but it's a poem.

Dave F. said...

RALAN has plenty of markets for 10K long stories on the electronic publishing side of things. That eliminates the cost of printing. RALAN also lists sites for poetry in both long and short forms.

I"m not sure how the "in-verse" thing works for a modern story. Milton's Paradise Lost and Dante's Divine Comedy are in verse but they were in-fashion when they were written. Both sound bombastic and overwritten in light of modern writings. They aren't either of those things, of course...

This is one of those pieces of writing that you might just have to go out and submit and take your chances. 10K (which is a short story and not a novel) is mostly a crap shoot that the editor or the editorial board likes it if you write anything unusual.

My best advice is send it out and don't be disappointed if you get rejected multiple times.

Ellie said...

Oh, man, someone needs to write #5. I'd read it.

Joanna Hoyt said...

I don't know much about what sells, but I'd be interested in reading this.

Anonymous said...

"Novel," "10,000 words" and "in verse"...really?

The "I wish you wouldn't cut yourself, Sandy" is priceless.

vkw said...

I am sensing minions struggling and I think I know why - this is unique and hard to visualize, therefore, hard to comment on.

But, I'm a positive person, (and I have no experience in the publishing world), and miss Dr. Seuss. I think you can find a market if it is good.

I would strongly suggest that you you insert a few lines in the query from the book just so the reader gets an idea of what you wrote.

I would generalize as well.

This story is told in verse by twelve different POV of students in the grips of teenage angst. The reader is introduced to the teenager struggles from self-image to gang violence.

Or something like that.

I would further compare it to a modern day Canterbury Tales in hopes inventive teachers will use it to introduce students to the idea of story telling by verse.

Teachers did it with Romeo and Juliet and Westside Story. First we had to read Westside Story and see the movie. Then, we were allowed to read Romeo and Juliet. Then we had to compare and contrast the two.

I can see this working in that way.

The first paragraph . . . needs to go. It's too general, boring, cliche and tells us nothing about your unique idea and voice. This is your pitch - modern day Canterbury Tales set in a high school. Twelve students using verse tell their stories of their day-to-day struggles.


Phoenix said...

Ooh, a double whammy of being literary and in verse - that makes for a harder query letter.

Still, the important thing is that you see it as a 'novel'. That means it follows novel conventions. So concentrate on the main story line. Yes, you'll have fascinating minor characters, but so does every book. You can weave into the query description how the main plot affects them -- or better, how they affect the main plot, but don't dwell on them here; there isn't room. The gun part also went on a bit long. All we need to know in the query is that the shooting is accidental. Then you can talk about how the community is torn apart and how the students react and how the incident changes the lives of those students touched by it.

Be concrete. "Fragile resolutions" doesn't tell the reader much. And the "return to normal" line makes me question if by normal you mean at the end of the year Jasmine is still resentful, Aaron is still turning to women to help him forget, Sandra is still carving herself up, and Marquae is still toting a gun.

"Realistic" novel-in-verse? Perhaps "contemporary' instead? Also, it's better to spend the space showing the reader its appeal and how it resonates. Put down your reviewer's pen when writing the query. Throw in one sentence at the end that talks about the book's themes, but don't dwell on them. You're selling story and writing, not themes, in a query. It's a different beast. Come across too theme-y and scholarly and readers will think the book is too agenda-driven for the YA crowd to stomach. Kids, agents, and publishers want a story, not a theme.

EE: I truly think YOUR verse would appeal to both reluctant and voracious readers alike! Who could resist the EE version?!

Anonymous said...

Yes, this might work if EE "translates"!

BuffySquirrel said...

People don't stop self-harming just because they meet a guy. It's a much more complex issue than this query makes out.

_*rachel*_ said...

Try focusing on the murder and its aftermath, being less detailed about the actual murder and more detailed about the aftermath. It would probably help to focus on fewer characters--maybe in the book, too.

I hate to be a downer, but I doubt this will sell. On the other hand, this sort of thing is one of the valid arguments for self-publishing: it lets stories that otherwise wouldn't succeed get out there. The two self-pubbed books I own are both worth reading, but wouldn't have a chance in commercial publishing.

Then again, there are always novels like Patricia McCormick's Sold. When it works, it can work brilliantly.

We should have some sort of story-to-poetry writing prompt. Maybe minions send in GTPs, and we have to choose one and write a scene from it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ellie :). #5 was mine. But I kinda feel that's the whole story there...

Polenth said...

It meandered too much for me. This is being sold as a novel, not a poetry collection, so the thread between the poems is the important bit.

Are names like Javier and Marquae common in the midwest? It seemed a bit coincidental that the fancy names go to the artist and his friend, unless Javier changed his name at ten so he'd sound more arty.

Anonymous said...

And as a public librarian, I'm here to tell you that award-winner or not (and since it's an award-winner, we all had to buy it), NO ONE wants to read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! It does NOT go out.

Anonymous said...

The librarians at my high school chuckled over the amazing popularity of trout fishing until some idiot informed them Trout Fishing in America, a slim tiny book, is certainly not about trout fishing. Then they hid it away in some cupboard and we all had to buy our own. Likewise, I think your verse novel could be a great hit with the teens, if it's about things teens care about. Like trout fishing. Plus funny. It should be hilarious. So far it doesn't sound hilarious, but maybe you can work on that.

sylvia said...

A few years ago I bought a YA novel in verse for a reluctant reader and it went down very well. But a critical deciding factor for me was that the language and the rhythm would be easy for her to follow. Although a normal novel submission doesn't include an excerpt in the query letter, I'd be tempted to include one here - the opening lines perhaps? - to give a sense of the style.

batgirl said...

The Ellen Hopkins books are definitely popular (thanks, Becca, for providing the wordcount - I couldn't remember) and are written in that sort of free verse that's basically prose broken into short lines (my bias, let me show it you). If your novel is in verse, you might want to let us know what kind. Couplets? Blank verse? Anglo-Saxon heroic?