Monday, July 11, 2011

Face-Lift 926


Guess the Plot

Swindle Witch

1. Potions don't come cheap. Meg has stayed young and beautiful for centuries by cheating mortals out of their hard earned cash. But when her used car business goes under, Meg is forced to take swindling to an even higher level: Infomercials.

2. In the sleepy English town of Swindle Witch, Postmistress Wendelin May sells eye of newt along with stamps and sweets. But when Sir Edward Fezziwig chokes to death on a newt eyeball, Wendelin must turn amateur sleuth to clear her name.

3. Octavia Bly, the last witch in Massachusetts, used to intoxicate people with love potions, poison their soup, fly around at night . . . old-fashioned stuff like that. She loves the 21st century. She's in overpriced real estate, tech companies that make only virtual products, and Internet dating sites. Which brings her to the attention of the Chinese Dragon Society -- a group of witches who want her dead.

4. When a creature kidnaps her parents and sister, Patricia's magic isn't strong enough to get them back. So she accepts an offer of help from a witch named Lillian. But this witch is also a liar and a murderer and a thief, so Patricia isn't sure she can trust her.

5. Investigative journalist Martha Jameson poses as a witch to infiltrate the local Wiccan group, whom she believes are manufacturing amphetamines. Imagine her surprise when they actually turn out to be vampires!

6. The village of Swindle, Massachusetts is known for never letting a wayfarer escape with his shillings. But when the problem comes to the attention of the Bay Colony authorities, the villagers all blame Strange Maggie. Can amateur sleuth Patience Goodbody keep them from stringing Maggie up?



Original Version

Dear Evil Editor,

At age thirteen, Patricia’s not stupid. She’s known not to follow strangers for years, [Following strangers isn't nearly as dangerous as being followed by strangers. If a 13-year-old followed me around, the only danger would be dying of boredom.] especially ones who admit they’re dangerous. But when an empty-eyed creature steals Patricia’s parents and younger sister on the morning of her birthday, it’s Lillian—a liar, a murderer, a witch and a thief [Aren't those the members of that singing group--The Village of the Damned People.] —who helps her escape. [Why did that sentence begin with "But"? It doesn't seem to have anything to do with the previous sentence. A logical sentence that does start with "But" might be: But one morning a complete stranger tells Patricia that he's dangerous, and . . . she follows him!] [Also, it sounds like Patricia's parents and sister are the ones Lillian should help escape, as they are the ones who were taken.] Patricia runs, and discovers a newly-awakened green magic that glows in her veins, allowing her to see mythical beasts ordinary people ignore [I'm not sure it counts as ignoring them if we can't see them. And I resent being called "ordinary."] —including beings who want her childhood laughter, her taste for chocolate, or her soul.

Lillian’s one of the most feared people in the Otherworld. She can sway emotions with a thought, and Patricia’s felt first-hand how her skin blistered when Lillian grabbed her wrist. But those scalded fingerprints [If anything was scalded it was Patricia's wrist; I'd call the evidence blisters or burns or scars.] prove Lillian’s strong, and all Patricia knows for sure is that allies willing to fight the creature who captured her family are nearly impossible to find. Patricia’s learning about her own magic, but she doesn’t have time to master her illusory and empathy-based powers—she needs to rescue her parents and sister, [Before the creature eats them? Does she know why the creature wanted them?] and only Lillian has the knowledge, power, and vengeful drive to help Patricia save the people she loves most.

I love the way you encourage new writers to continue writing—and keep that ever-essential sense of humor. [Buttering up the recipient of your query letter doesn't help your cause. Unless you're a famous movie star.] Please consider Swindle Witch, an 86,000-word YA contemporary fantasy set in Auburn, Washington. [I got the impression this was set mainly in the Otherworld.]

I have a Master’s degree in English from the University of Utah, and I’m the recipient of several writing awards, including a 1999 Scholastic Art and Writing Gold Award in the fantasy category.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,


Notes

This is all set-up. You've used your entire query to say: When her parents and sister are kidnapped by an empty-eyed creature, 13-year-old Patricia knows her empathy-based magic isn't developed enough to rescue them, so she accepts an offer of help from Lillian, a powerful--but untrustworthy--witch.

Your plot is what happens next. What's their plan? What's stopping them from carrying it out? What are Lillian's ulterior motives? Is the main plot the rescue or a confrontation between Lillian and Patricia?

I'm told kids like to read about kids who are a little older than they are. So if your main character is 13, your readers might be in the 10 to 12 range, which is not YA. I would call a book in which a 13-year-old must contend with a "creature" and a witch middle grade.

24 comments:

Aika said...

Some other thoughts: I also was surprised to see the YA at the end - it's a combination of Patricia's age and her family-based rather than friend-based stakes.

Patricia sounds like an old-fashioned name, especially for YA.

I'm confused by the reference to Patricia's powers - can she do something more than see creatures? And if she has empathy, why is she treating Lillian like a tool to be used rather than an ally? That might be something much better shown than told (ditto the ref to sense of humour).

I liked the detail about the blistered skin. And the title is great!

arhooley said...

You did the "but" thing again.

"But those scalded fingerprints prove Lillian’s strong" comes after a sentence about her fear-inspiring powers. What's the contradiction?

Also, any stranger who admits to being dangerous isn't as dangerous as they think they are.

Anonymous said...

Damn! I hoped it was #5!

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

her illusory and empathy-based powers

If her powers are illusory, then she doesn't really have them.

I think you might try rewriting this query with less Lillian in it. You spend a lot of time describing her character, but she's not the protagonist. It would be better to tell us more about what Patricia has to do.

The first two sentences aren't a real grabber of an opening. Look for something more immediate to Patricia's situation and use that instead.

Brenda McKenna said...

Aika: Thanks! I'll be doing a rewrite, so I'll try to add more about powers. Do you think I should call her Tricia (her nickname) in the query?

arhooley: Good point. I think the "buts" are remnants from old drafts, and you're right about the stranger thing.

AlaskaRavenclaw: I'll try writing a query without Lillian, and I'll work on those opening lines!

Anonymous: I know--I'd revise to reflect #5, because it sounds awesome, but maybe the author should use that idea. I'm too lazy to rewrite that much...

Thanks, everyone, especially EE. I've been wondering about the YA/MG thing for a while, and I'm glad you cleared it up for me!

no-bull-steve said...

Tricia is much better in my opinion for MG.

YA - is becoming such an overplayed term that people are forgetting it stands for Young ADULT. Maybe 16...but more like 18/19/20.

Look forward to the rewrite!

Jo-Ann said...

@ Brendan, I thought that Patricia's "green magic" was intriguing, (do you mean "green" = immature, or green = nature-based, or green = literally turning her veins a healthy emerald color?)and think the query would benefit from a little more specifics about it.

@ Brendan and Anon - GTP #5 was mine, and I'm chuffed you liked it. As I have absolutely no intention of ever developing it, I would be delighted if somebody chose to put in the 99% perspiration required to write it. (I'd be interested to read the finished product).

The only one of my fake GTPs that I've ever tried to develop ended up getting trunked - it just wasn't singing. It was the very first fake plot I offered EE, as it happens. The title was "Living in the Forgot" (or something close) and my take centered around somebody selling fake real-estate on a planet called "the forgot", and running afoul of the local chapter of the mafia.

If anybody wants that one, they're welcome to it.

BuffySquirrel said...

Well, EE, you may dislike being called ordinary, but apparently millions of readers are prepared to enjoy being dissed as muggles. So, la.

Eh. What happens?

Aika said...

Brenda, I'm looking forward to the revision too! It sounds like a fun book.

Here's a fun site for checking name currency (in the US): http://www.babynamewizard.com/voyager

(How strange, Evil has never been a top-1,000 name)

Brenda McKenna said...

no-bull Steve: Thanks! You're right about YA being overused--I guess I don't distinguish enough between MG and YA in my own reading, and I should.

Jo-Ann: It's literal. Oh, and nice plot idea! I'm not brave enough to develop it (still), though.

Buffy Squirrel: Stuff happens, and perhaps I'll have to put in the query!

Aika: I like baby name wizard! I've got little boys, though, so I haven't checked out girl names as much. Is it okay if a protagonist has an old-fashioned name--and a nickname, too? I never thought about it all that much before...and I guess my own name is old-fashioned, so there's that.

Thanks, everyone! I'll get to work rewriting now.

Jo-Ann said...

@ Brenda
I was tired when I wrote my comment - apologies for getting your name wrong.

Brenda McKenna said...

Jo-Ann: No worries! Maybe it could be a pseudonym, if I ever need one. :)

Do I post revisions in the comments? Phoenix's beautiful blog is done with query revamps, I believe, and I'm naive about the protocol...

Thanks!

Evil Editor said...

Yes, in the comments.

Brenda McKenna said...

Okay, then. Here's a rewrite I worked up today--let me know what you guys think!

Tricia wakes at dawn on her thirteenth birthday, sneaks downstairs—and discovers her parents and little sister have been stolen. She glimpses a stretched humanoid creature creeping toward her room as her veins start glowing green. So she does the only thing that makes sense: she runs out the front door into her neighborhood gone silent and strange, and she quickly learns the world is full of magic only extraordinary humans notice, people gifted with enough excess talent to use supernatural abilities. Runners might fly, engineers might shape electricity with their bare hands, and politicians might control other’s emotions with a smile. Tricia can travel back to the worst memory of a person’s life when she touches their hand, and she can’t even control when it happens.

Her skill doesn’t seem very useful when the creature from her house keeps hunting her, taunting her with the way he’s enthralled her family. He’s called Belial, and no one returns after he captures them—he drains their will, their power, and their life. Tricia can’t afford to lose her life: she literally can’t tell her friends and teachers from the real world, and he’ll kill his hostages if he captures her, too.

Since Tricia’s magic awakened, she can see all the mythical beings who hide from human sight. Some of them want her childhood laughter, her taste for chocolate, or her soul—but most fear Belial, and would rather not pay for what they take. So Tricia must dodge the dangers of a newly-weird world, trust allies who hate each other, and use her own seemingly-pitiful magic to save the people she loves most.

I left the last couple paragraphs the same, except the buttery sentence, which I only used once anyway (I'm not a famous movie star, which is probably fortunate for you guys, given my acting skills).

Whew! Querying is tricky work!

Aika said...

Hi Brenda. Tricia feels like more of a character now that the focus is on her, but without Lillian it's confusing how running away gives Tricia all this info about the setup. Also, the reference to allies comes out of nowhere.

Why does being able to see stuff put Tricia in more danger? The query reads as if these magics and beings have always been around, doing their flying/manipulating/laughter/soul-stealing thing - and so being able to see them makes you safer more than anything. And if she can see them, why can't she tell them from her friends?

Does Tricia actually time travel back to when someone's memory happened (and then what, is she stuck in the past until she touches someone having a prophetic thought:)) or does she just experience the memory herself?

It still doesn't say much beyond the setup. Where does she have to go to find her family? Are they in jail somewhere with a pint of life being sucked per day? Why would Lillian be any help? And it would hang together better if you can hint at how her powers will help her save the day.

On Tricia's thirteenth birthday, her family disappears, her veins start glowing green, and a stretched humanoid creature creeps into her house. She runs - smack into a witch. As Tricia tries to push Lillian away, her hands blister over.

The only thing that could make this birthday worse is Lillian's explanation for the craziness: Belial, a life-sucking [demon?], has [escaped from somewhere? done something to change the world?] and now magic is on the loose. Now runners can fly, engineers can shape electricity with their bare hands, and politicians can manipulate other’s emotions with a smile. Tricia, it seems, can experience the worst memory of a person’s life when she touches their hand, and she can’t even control when it happens.

Tricia can't see how this pitiful skill will help her find or save her family before Belial finishes draining their lives. All the other mythical beings [that followed Belial into this world?] keep shapeshifting into her friends and teachers, and some of them want to suck things from her too: her childhood laughter, her taste for chocolate, or her soul. Lillian offers her help if [payback] - but Tricia knows from that blistering touch that Lillian is [a scary swindler].

150 said...

Ah, I've seen this kind of thing before. You're one step closer, but still one step away. This query spends all its time on world-building when it should switch after the first paragraph to what Tricia does about her situation, and how things get worse because of it. We need fewer examples of local weirdness and more about Tricia's specific choices and their consequences. But it's getting there.

Evil Editor said...

P1. Get rid of the green glowing.

The part about what runners and engineers might do isn't clear. Does she see these people doing these things or not? If yes, don't say "might." If not, how does she know they might do these things?

P2. The last sentence is unclear. To me it makes no sense at all, in fact.


It's still all set up. Use one three-sentence paragraph to tell us who your MC is and what her situation is. Then give us two paragraphs that tell us what she plans to do about her problem, what goes wrong when she tries it, etc. Tell us a few things that happen in the last half of the book.

Brenda McKenna said...

I fear it may be getting too long this try around, but maybe there's bits that are workable. Everything Aika, 150, and EE said makes sense, although I did the rewrite before I read EE's comments--so it may be foolish to post what I've done...

Tricia wakes at dawn on her thirteenth birthday—and discovers her parents and little sister have been stolen. She glimpses a stretched humanoid creature creeping toward her room, and she dashes out the front door into her neighborhood, where something she can’t see promptly knocks her out.

She wakes in the home a woman who appears ordinary, except for electricity she’s holding in her hand. The woman introduces herself as Samantha, one of the gifted, a rare person with enough excess talent to use supernatural abilities and see the mythical creatures who hide from the human world. A gifted runner might fly, an engineer might make sparks fly from toasters, and a politician might force joy with a wink. Tricia tests her own powers—and travels to the worst memory of Samantha’s life with a touch, dragging Samantha back with her until they’ve both relived every moment and are thrown, panting, back into the present. Samantha’s understanding, but Tricia quickly realizes that she doesn’t have the sort of power that makes friends.

Samantha says the creature hunting her is called Belial, and no one returns after he captures them—he drains their will, their power, and their life. He’s imprisoned her family, and Tricia wants nothing more than to return and save them. But she doesn’t know where he is, and realizes that if he captures her, he’ll probably kill the bait he used to make her come back.

So Tricia follows Samantha to the Council, beings who want her childhood laughter, her taste for chocolate, or her soul—but they fear Belial, and they’d rather not pay for what they take. Tricia nearly dies in their lair, and even though Samantha gets them out, apologizing all the while, Tricia starts wishing she had more options. After a vivid dream about a witch named Lillian, who claims to have more power than any other gifted human and offers her help, Tricia feels elated—until Samantha informs her that Lillian is a liar and a murderer, able to twist emotions with a thought and burn with a touch. Tricia’s not sure she should believe the electrical engineer, who almost got her killed in spite of how informative and kind she is. But Tricia’s also not certain she should follow a woman known as the Swindle Witch, especially since the fingerprint blisters on her wrist prove some of the rumors about her are true. So Tricia must dodge the dangers of a newly-weird world, decide who she should trust, and use her own seemingly-pitiful magic to save the people she loves most.


Is that too much information? Too many characters to introduce? Thanks (as always) for the help, everyone: I obviously need it!

Brenda McKenna said...

Perhaps I should delete the last post, but I'll leave it, along with a version that I've hacked at a bit (not enough), especially that pesky last sentence:

Tricia wakes at dawn on her thirteenth birthday—and discovers her parents and little sister have been stolen. She glimpses a stretched humanoid creature creeping toward her room, and she dashes out the front door.

She’s met by a woman who appears ordinary, except for electricity she’s weaving with her hands. The woman introduces herself as Samantha, one of the gifted, a rare person with enough excess talent to use supernatural abilities and see the mythical creatures who hide from the human world. Samantha offers to test Tricia—and finds Tricia can travel to the worst memory of a person’s life with a touch, dragging the person back with her until they’ve both relived every moment and are thrown, panting, back into the present.

Tricia’s skill doesn’t seem all that useful, especially since Samantha says the creature hunting her is Belial. He’s taken young gifted for centuries, and no one returns after he captures them—he drains their will, their power, and their life. He’s imprisoned her family to catch her, and Tricia wants nothing more than to rush back and save them. But she doesn’t know where he is, and realizes that if he captures her, he might kill the bait he used to make her come back.

So Tricia follows Samantha underground to beings who want her childhood laughter, her taste for chocolate, or her soul—but they fear Belial, and they’d rather not pay for what they take. Tricia nearly dies in their lair, and even though Samantha gets them out, apologizing all the while, Tricia starts wishing she had more options. After a vivid dream about a witch named Lillian, who claims to have more power than any other gifted human and offers her help, Tricia feels like she might have a chance—until Samantha informs her that Lillian is a liar and a murderer, able to twist emotions with a thought and burn with a touch. Tricia’s not sure she should believe the electrical engineer, who almost got her killed in spite of how patient she is with teaching. But Tricia’s also wary about following a woman known as the Swindle Witch, especially since the fingerprint blisters on her wrist prove some of the rumors about her are true. Tricia needs a solution, fast—she doesn’t know what Belial will do if he gets irritated, so she races to figure out who she should trust and how she can use her own seemingly-pitiful magic to save the people she loves most.

I'm sure there's more I can cut, and more that's horrible/confusing/blah. Feel free to rip it apart with evil miniony zeal: I won't feel bad.

Heather Munn said...

I'm worried this is getting too long. It's such a temptation to tell everything because it won't make sense otherwise, but that makes it into a teaser rather than a query letter.

Also, EE is right: this is (still) all set-up. You have to remember an editor's not the least bit worried about spoilers; they just want to know you have a decent plot, which actually tends to require that they know the ending. They want to know so that if Lillian magically turns out to be good for no obvious reason and saves the day they can reject you and if Tricia uses her empathy powers to rescue her parents in some awesome twisty surprising-yet-inevitable way, they can (hopefully) accept.

The question is: if you really, really had to sit down and write all the necessary (and only the necessary) set-up in five or six sentences, and tell the (general shape of the) plot climax and ending in two or three more, could you do it? I think that trying to do this (fresh) might take you somewhere that would help.

I think this book sounds great. I think it's totally got the potential to be published.



I'll try an example, not meant to be how it should be done but to show it can be done that briefly.

The day Tricia's parents and sister are kidnapped, she discovers she is one of the Gifted; and that she is being hunted by a creature named Belial, whose victims never return. On the run, she discovers a new world: creatures invisible to normal humans, beings who want to steal her laughter, her taste for chocolate, and her soul--and one of her fellow Gifted: an engineer who can weave electricity with her bare hands. But Tricia's own Gift seems useless: she can travel to the worst memory of a person’s life with a touch and relive it with them. How can she rescue her family with *that*? Perhaps she should instead call for the help of Lillian, the so-called Swindle Witch whose fingers can burn skin--untrustworthy, but the only one powerful enough to help her...

But as Tricia and Lillian... [plot climax]


(I capitalized Gift and Gifted because it made my version of the query less confusing. I honestly think it's OK to take liberties like this in a query, because a query is just there to get the point across and no one will remember it when you're published.)

Brenda McKenna said...

Heather: It was getting too long--I knew that, but your example helped a lot to see how I could shorten it. Thank you!

How's this?

The dawn of her thirteenth birthday, Tricia discovers she’s Gifted—and her parents and little sister have been stolen from their beds by a creature named Belial. He’s actually after Tricia, so she runs into the streets and finds the world is full of creatures who hide from humanity, fairytale beings who want to steal her laughter, her taste for chocolate, and her soul.

She’s soon met by one of her fellow Gifted, an engineer who can teleport and weave electricity with her bare hands. Tricia’s own Gift seems useless in contrast: all she can do is make brief illusions and visit the worst memory of a person’s life, forcing them to relive it with her. Belial’s terrorized the magical world for decades, and Tricia doubts a novice with weak powers like hers could even phase him. Perhaps she should agree to a deal with Lillian, the so-called Swindle Witch who has haunted her dreams since before her birthday and whose fingers can blister skin with a touch. Rumors swirl around her, stories about cruelty and the death of young Gifted, but she may be the only one willing and powerful enough to help Tricia save her family.

Lillian takes her back to fight Belial, but she betrays Tricia for more magic, revealing that she cares nothing for friends or parents or sisters—she only cares about taking revenge on the monster who stole her childhood. She drains Tricia, leaving her unconscious, but when Tricia wakes up and limps after her she discovers that Belial is more powerful than she’d ever suspected, and only a chance combination of Swindle Gift, illusion, and ordinary human empathy have a chance of bringing him down.


Is that last sentence enough of the climax, or should I give more details? You guys have helped so much--thanks for your time and your thoughts!

Heather Munn said...

I think it sounds quite good. I had been meaning to come in and add--you don't have to tell the entire ending, but enough to show what the themes are/what makes it unique. This definitely shows what the themes are. (The "ordinary human empathy" bit is intriguing and hints at a theme where it's great to be gifted but there are more important things in life--am I right? I like it.) If there's any additional unique thing (about the *way* the magics combine maybe?) it might be worth adding. But on the whole I think this is the right idea.

Do you agree, EE?

I think the shape of this query is really good. And you actually did it in eight sentences! Now here's the thing, I meant this to be a sort of exercise, and it's quite natural that sticking to eight sentences has made each sentence really long. My advice would be, now, to keep the words you've written and break them up into sentence lengths that are natural to you. One little tweak I would suggest: I think it would sound better to stick the beginning of sentence two on the end of sentence one: "by a creature named Belial, who is really after her." That's slightly more dramatic and puts the whole "inciting incident" in one sentence. It also more directly connects the rest with her being Gifted--putting them closer together implies that may be why he wants her (which I assume is true.)

Oh, and, I know this is annoying, but you used "chance" twice in the last sentence. Sorry to nitpick.

I like this. It's getting more intriguing all the time.

Evil Editor said...

P1. How does she discover that the creature is named Belial? Does he introduce himself? Why are you using stolen instead of kidnapped? If Trish runs into the streets and finds them filled with creatures that want her soul etc, how does she escape all of them? If her gift is the ability to visit the worst moment of someone's life, how does she know this? Does she do it?

I think there's too much in this plot. We don't need to know about creatures if you aren't going to mention anything they do. We don't need to know Lillian can burn skin.

You need to follow the main story line, providing a logical sequence of events. A happens, and thus B happens, leading to C which leads to D. Here's an outline of what seems to me to be the story:

Trisha awakens on her 13th birthday to find her parents and sister have been kidnapped. She runs into the street where she meets an engineer who tells her he saw the fearsome creature Belial carrying off her parents and sister. Though she has magical powers, Trish knows they are too weak to take on Belial, so she recruits the Swindle Witch, Lillian, the only one who has the power snd the will to defeat Belial. But Lillian proves untrustworthy; she drains Trisha leaving her unconscious. Now, with only powers she's barely used and considers almost worthless, Trish must find a way to defeat Belial, or she'll never see her family again.

Fix what's wrong, expand with specifics where necessary, put it in your style, and don't add a bunch of junk.

Not sure what you mean by she drains Tricia. I assumed you meant drains her magic, but then you say Tricia has to use illusion, so I guess she still has some power. And how is it she has "swindle gift"? Did the witch leave her a gift when she drained her and left her unconscious?

Brenda McKenna said...

Thanks for the exercise, Heather--it was super useful. And you're good at helping me see the junk, EE, which I tried to throw out:

Tricia awakens before dawn on her thirteenth birthday to find her parents and little sister have been kidnapped. She runs into the street where she’s met by an engineer, who offers her a ride and a warning: a fearsome creature named Belial carried off Tricia’s family because he’s hunting her. The engineer is a Gifted human—she can teleport and weave electricity with her bare hands—and she’s there to teach Tricia, if Tricia wants to learn.

Tricia’s barely-awakened Gift is the reason Belial could find her house and her family, so when she finds out that all she can do is make brief illusions and visit the worst memory of a person’s life, forcing them to relive it with her, she’s furious. Belial’s terrorized the magical world for decades, and Tricia doubts a novice with stupid powers like hers could even annoy him. Perhaps she should accept the offer of the Swindle Witch, Lillian. Rumors swirl around her, stories about cruelty and the death of young Gifted, but she’s the only one with the power and will to defeat Belial.

Tricia goes with Lillian, but once they’re near Belial’s lair the witch knocks out her teacher and rips away most of Tricia’s magic by force, leaving her unconscious. Now, with powers she's barely used and considers almost worthless, Tricia limps after the woman who betrayed her. She’s determined to use her wits and empathy to defeat Belial—or she'll never see her family again.

You guys have already done a lot, more than I ever expected, and I'd never get this thing whipped into shape without you.