Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Face-Lift 1293

Guess the Plot

Rachel and her Demon

1. When Rachel's mother-in-law develops Alzheimer's, Rachel discovers the woman who's made her married life a living hell is really a demon sent to kick-off the End of Days who instead fell in love and adopted a son. Unfortunately, now that the woman's senile, she remembers her original mission.

2. Rachel is sick of seeing bullies at her school get away with harassing students. So she contacts a demon she knows, and he gives her the power to summon fire. Should she wait till the next time the bullies attack, or should she just incinerate them now?

3. Five-year-old Rachel is the only kid in kindergarten who doesn't have a cute pet - Rachel's pet is uncute, vicious and evil. When she brings him to show and tell, all the class learns an important lesson about metaphysics.

4. When Rachel inherits the family vineyard she also inherits her grandmother's devil-infested dybbuk box. Oi vey. What's a Jew to do?

5. Little Rachel finally convinced her parents to let her have a pet--whichever stray she brings home next. Fluffy may have scales and wings and horns and a penchant for setting things on fire, but at least s/he/it is house broken.

6. I have a little Demon
She followed me one day
And in the late night evenings
My Demon and I play

Oh Demon Demon Demon
Your eyes so lovely red
Oh Demon Demon Demon
You sleep up on my bed.

We play with fire and water
And other things besides
But Brother saw us playing
So now we both must hide

Oh Demon Demon Demon
Listen to Mother yell
Oh Demon Demon Demon
Let's take them all to Hell!

Original Version

Dear [agent]:

My novel RACHEL AND HER DEMON is a completed 77,000-word YA fantasy novel with series potential.

Rachel Sasson, a 16-year old Jewish girl, is appalled to learn that a group of sadistic bullies in her school will face no punishment after driving another student to drop out rather than endure their abuse. Feeling a moral obligation to stand up to the bullies but aware that she cannot beat them in a fight, Rachel meets with Merihaim, a demon whom she befriended in a chance encounter as a child and whom she still talks to despite her religious beliefs. [Specifically, the belief that there's no such thing as a demon.] She finally accepts his longstanding offer of magical power, telling him the commandment of tikkun olam ('performing acts which improve the world') justifies her using his power to help people. Merihaim grants Rachel the power of summoning fire and she smashes the bullies, [I won't assault you if I can't beat you, but I'll happily assault you if you can't beat me.] taking them down before they can hurt anyone else. [Wait, by "smashes and takes down," do you mean she summons fire and burns them alive? If so, does she do this while they're tormenting their latest victim, or while they're just hanging out at the kosher deli? I mean, I'm guessing that while most bullies deserve severe punishment, even death, a few eventually turn over a new leaf, make amends, and even perform acts that improve the world, assuming they haven't been reduced to ashes.]

Rachel's use of magic, however, attracts other demons and demon-backed humans to her, most of whom are all too eager to use their powers to hurt others. As Rachel battles her newfound enemies [Wouldn't it be easier for these new demons to hurt people who can't summon fire than to take on Rachel? Or to team up with Rachel and burn some more bullies? Why are they targeting her?] she realizes she is increasingly neglecting her obligations to her friends and family, [There's a time to worry about whether you're neglecting family obligations, and when you're under attack by demons isn't it.] causing her to question if she really accepted Merihaim's power to follow a commandment and help others or if she just wanted an excuse to hurt 'deserving' people. [Merihaim's power isn't an excuse to hurt 'deserving' people; it's a means to hurt them.] She investigates those attacking her [There's a time to launch an investigation of demons, and while they're attacking you isn't it.] and discovers they are in the process of summoning an unstoppable horde of demonic allies with which they will conquer the world, but she also grows to understand that her willingness to sacrifice her other relationships has left her loved ones vulnerable, [I think they'd be vulnerable even if she hadn't been neglecting them lately.] and the demons are acutely aware of this weakness. [Those last two sentences total more than 100 words. And I don't mean short words. You'd probably need three tweets to compose either sentence, especially if you included #Sesquipedalian in each tweet.] Rachel must recover her conscience, then use all her strength to protect her closest friends, battle a legion of powerful monsters--and simultaneously deal with increasing evidence that Merihaim's motives for befriending her may have been less kindly than she thought. [You seem to suggest that this girl whose original goal was to teach a few bullies a lesson, has a chance in hell of defeating a legion of monsters and demons. If that's true, I could argue that if Merihaim's motives were unkindly, he wouldn't have given her a power so . . . powerful.]

I am a Jewish writer who has sold short fantasy stories to [pro venue] and [other pro venue] under the pen name of [pen name]. Thank you for your consideration. [Your pen name sucks. I suggest a visit to this pen name generator  for more creative suggestions.]



When you are all that stands between life as we know it and an unstoppable horde of demons, your familial relationships and obligations are put on the back burner. They may cross Rachel's mind briefly in the book, but I'd leave them out of the query. When the army of orcs was attacking Frodo, he wasn't thinking, Dammit, I forgot to thank Bilbo for the pie last week. It seems like the inner conflict of deciding whether and how to use her new power, along with the feelings of guilt over neglecting friends and family are good problems for a YA character. When her goal escalates into saving the world from a demon takeover, readers may lose interest in Rachel's other relatively insignificant problems.

This is awfully wordy. By which I mean you can say most of it with a lot fewer words. For instance:

When 16-year old Jewish girl Rachel Sasson learns that a gang of bullies in her school will face no punishment for tormenting other students, she's appalled. Feeling morally obligated to stand up to the bullies, Rachel summons Merihaim, a demon she befriended as a child. She accepts his "fire-wielding" gift, telling herself the commandment of tikkun olam ('performing acts which improve the world') justifies using any means to help people . . . and incinerates the bullies.

That's about 50 words shorter than the original paragraph, and would be shorter still without the references to Judaism, which I left in because I assume it's a major theme of the book. Although . . . since hordes of demons would be unsettling to non-Jewish readers, and performing acts which improve the world is a noble pursuit of any religion or even atheism, maybe the book would be marketable to any young adults, and the references to Judaism in the query are suggesting to the agent a narrower audience. Are you targeting a publisher of Jewish YA? 


Anonymous said...

Mostly, I'd like a bit more clarity on plot logic, and the extent/price/limitations of Rachel's power(s) defined.

Not enough information about the situation with the bullies for me to determine if her use of force was justified by their actions or if what she does in return is overreacting to the situation. If the drop-out had been hospitalized/committed suicide I probably wouldn't question her justification as much.

I don't see why her use of magic would make her a target. It would make more sense if she decided to extend her new-found vigilante powers by hunting down other evil doers, thus making herself and everyone connected to her into a target. It would also make more sense that she'd know about the other demon-power wielders' plans. As is, I'm wondering if some shmuck shows up and says, "Hey, you're one of us. Wanna help summon a demon horde and level the city? No? In that case, you know too much and must die."

Survival does tend to take priority over everything else. Relationships being neglected sounds like a minor subplot that could be left out of the query.

Most people would assume a demon befriending them and offering them power is after their soul. Does Rachel not question her friend's motives at all? If not, why hasn't she accepted his offer before now? What's the price/limitation(s) for Rachel's power?

When does Rachel lose her conscience? Does her recovering it involve giving up her demonic power? If so, it would help to know what she plans on doing about the situation.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Yeah, re the references to Judaism: Unless you're targeting only religious publishers, then the references are overdone, because they make it seem that you don't feel the book will have widespread appeal.

If you are targeting only religious publishers, then you may need to deal a little more directly with the Torah's prohibition of magic.

Matt said...

I like it. Might not buy the book unless it had a killer first page, but I'd check it out if it was a Saturday morning cartoon or something. Maybe I'd like to see something a little more original than fire power though, unless you have a unique take on that sort of thing.

SB said...

Speaking as a non-Jew, I thought the Judaism angle was interesting and would be a point in this book's favor if I picked it up off the shelf. There are many books about demons from a sort of generic, secular, fantasy perspective, but I haven't read one that's a fantasy with an overtly Jewish perspective on the demons. (This, of course, assumes that there is a distinctly Jewish take on the demons in this book, which I'm not really getting from your query except that you say she's Jewish.)

I do have some problems, though. First, I agree with the others--I don't understand why the other demons/demonfriends are going after her. Also, if the big surprise is that the demon isn't actually nice and doesn't have her best interest at heart, I question both her intelligence and the book's estimation of my intelligence as the reader. I'd expect anyone, let alone a Jewish girl, to know that demons are inherently evil. Now, given that demons can be very persuasive and deceptive, I could buy that he convinced her that he really wasn't all that bad and really was her friend, but I'd need to get a feel of his personality and their relationship here, and you haven't really established that in a way that makes me buy she'd be surprised when it turns out he's evil.

I think you've got an interesting angle here, with the whole "do the ends justify the means" theme. I think the Jewish element of your story gives it something unique to stand out amongst other YA demon fantasies. I certainly don't agree with the others that any stories with a character's religion playing a significant role need to be marketed only to members of that religion as religious fiction. More religion in mainstream fantasy, I say. (Especially when written by a member of that religion, to give it credibility.)

AA said...

If your audience is strictly religious, don't be surprised if kids feel uncomfortable reading it and even “turn it in” to their parents and religious leaders when they get to the part where the Rachel makes a deal with the demon, no matter what justification is presented. Considering the title, many religious parents would have never let their kids read it anyway.

If you're going for a mainstream readership you have a better chance of kids actually getting a chance to read it.

I'm not quite sure what you're suggesting, either, but I personally don't think we need ANY kids' books where a 16-year-old immolates people, despite the fact that they are bullies. This kind of sick, twisted revenge just doesn't belong in YA. I don't really care what happens afterward. Maybe you have a personal axe to grind, I don't know, but the internet is the best place for these types of fetishes.

TheAuthor said...

Thank you all very much for your feedback. A few comments:

* Rachel doesn't kill the bullies. In the book there's actually two fights with them, which are just combined into one in the query for space. In the first fight, Rachel is just trying to scare them enough that they won't hurt anyone else. So she breaks into their clubhouse, roasts most of their fancy stuff, and when they attack her she uses fire to force them back enough that they can't really hit her. The only injury is when the bully leader strikes at her with a metal rod, which she's able to catch and heat up with her fire, burning his hands before he drops it. That scares off most of them. The bully leader later comes back and attacks Rachel in a more intense fight (the villain demons get involved), but while Rachel injures him she again doesn't kill him.

I think in the next draft I'll focus on the first fight and be more explicit about how Rachel used her fire powers to scare and intimidate, but not incinerate, the bullies.

* This book was written for general audiences. While the protagonist has a cultural and religious background which informs her motivations and actions, I don't consider it to be a religious novel, but rather a novel with a protagonist who happens to be religious. I don't think you need to be Jewish, practicing or otherwise, to read or enjoy it.

In previous versions of the query I just briefly alluded to Rachel's religion, but got feedback that the references to it felt superfluous, so this time I tried to make it more prominent to avoid that problem. I'll continue working on the text to try to indicate that, while the character is religious, this isn't a tract.

* The demonology is drawn from Jewish mythology, such as myths about how King Solomon used divine power to bind demons and force them to build the Temple of Jerusalem. (Summoning in this book works similarly to how it worked in apocrypha related to that, and Rachel meets one of the demons from those myths during this novel.) Similarly, Rachel trusting her demon makes sense in light of certain bits of Jewish mythology in which non-hostile, or even friendly, demons are shown.

My problem here is that most agents will probably be thinking of demons in the always-evil, always-want-your-soul context, and while that isn't really how they work in Jewish mythology (where they're evil a lot of the time, and definitely have alien morality, but they're not always evil, aren't necessarily interested in your soul, and it's not impossible to work with one constructively or even befriend one), I'm having trouble conveying that in a short query. I'll think some more about the best way to do this.

* The demons are targeting Rachel because they know she'll try to screw up their plans otherwise. First they try to befriend her, tricking her into thinking that they have beneficial motives, but when she finds out the truth before they can pull off their plan under her nose, they shift to using brute force to get rid of her before she screws up the plan. (Just hoping that she doesn't notice them isn't an option, since among other reasons, Rachel's demon could find out and tell her, at which point she could blindside them.)

TheAuthor said...

(Sorry, one more bullet):

* The demons prove themselves wiling to target Rachel's friends and family, and because Rachel has drifted away from them over the book, she's not really in a position to defend them, and won't be until she can actually reconnect with them. I.e., there's a point when a hostile demon possesses Rachel and makes 'her' talk to one of her friends to get her to do something which will both help the demon's plans and likely kill the friend . Rachel's friend doesn't notice her acting weird, since she's been acting weird lately anyways, and is successfully manipulated. Rachel needs to get out of her 'I must focus exclusively on fighting bad demons' thing and reconnect with her friends to better protect them (this is also what is meant by her 'recovering her conscience'). Again, I'll try to get at this more in the next query draft.

Thank you all again for your feedback.

Anonymous said...

"she breaks into their clubhouse, roasts most of their fancy stuff"

You do know that arson is a felony, right?

AA said...

I didn't honestly think she'd roasted them. I just wanted to show how people jump to conclusions when you aren't clear. The fact that she fights with the bullies and stops them temporarily is interesting and should be in the query somewhere.

As far as the demons are concerned, they aren't always considered evil. When I was growing up fundie Christian, yes, demons were always evil. They were also untrustworthy, liars, and would try to trick you. It was strictly taboo to have anything to do with them.
Later, I saw Japanese Anime. They entertain the idea of "trickster" spirits that are sometimes helpful, sometimes not. This was translated "demons" in a movie I saw when I was a kid.
Anyway, you can use "spirit" in the query even if "demon" is used in the book. That's allowed.

Anonymous said...

If the book is about Rachel stopping a bunch of humans and their demon companions from taking over the world, then that's what the query needs to focus on. How does Rachel plan on stopping them? Why isn't that going to work? What's plan B?

If the main point of the book is angsty teen-drama about reconnecting with family/friends after gaining demon powers to fight bullies, then focus on that and leave out the world domination.

If you're using non-evil demons, I would suggest calling them a different word. As is, it sounds like your MC is using the specialized knowledge that not all demons are evil and finding out the more general knowledge that they actually are, which puts her in TSTL land.

The Rachel/Merihaim relationship needs to be clear. How changes in the relationship affect the battle for world domination need to be specified.

Superfluous means "unnecessary, especially through being more than enough." I'm not sure why you thought adding more references to her religion would improve the situation.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Reduce your story to a single sentence, no more than 20 words in length. Build the query upward from that sentence.

Tk said...

It's an interesting story idea. I second AA's idea of using a different word than demon. Suggest you change the title too, since at least half the guess-the-plotters thought it was a picture book.

Could the way to play up the Jewish mythology while not making the book sound religious be to identify Meriheim as a Jewish demon/spirit rather than identifying Rachel as Jewish herself? (In the query, obviously you don't change that element in the book). E.g.:

MERIHEIM'S SECRET/FIREPOWER/BURNED/NEW TITLE is a completed 77,000-word YA fantasy with series potential.

When 16-year-old Rachel Sasson learns that a gang of bullies in her school will face no punishment for tormenting other students, she's appalled. Feeling morally obligated to stand up to the bullies, Rachel summons Merihaim, a Watcher (Jewish fire spirit) she befriended as a child...

InkAndPixelClub said...

The connection between Rachel stopping the demons and Rachel reestablishing her bonds with her friends and family needs to be clear. Even in your comments on the query, the neglecting her loved ones plotline feels less connected than it should. It's a nice, relatable idea, but it doesn't make sense as you have it. Rachel can spend her time rebuilding her relationships, but she'll still have a horde of demons looks no to take over the world to deal with. Better to take care of the demons first and then worry about explaining why she's been acting so weird lately and repairing the damage done to her social circles. If there's a reason why Rachel has to fix things with her friends and family before she can battle the demons, that needs to be explained.

alaskaRavenclaw said...

I like TK's idea.

Jeff Boulier said...

Julie Kenner's demon-fighting-and-extremely-Catholic soccer mom series made it to at least six books, which suggests that religion angle has worked out for authors in the past (and Kenner's series, incidentally, wasn't ghettoized into a "Christian" section, at least not in bookstore in which I first found it.)

On the other hand, the Catholic view of demons is pretty close to the default in American culture. The name change idea is worth considering.