Thursday, October 30, 2008

Face-Lift 579

Guess the Plot

The Willow Knot

1. The Willow Knot had always been a quiet folk art school specializing in weaving classes for little old ladies - until biker and ex-con Carl "Stinky" Ross showed up for his court ordered art therapy. Can the ladies warp Carl to their woof before he puts their retreat in a hopeless tangle?

2. When Mylla's father is unjustly executed for treason and her brother Tyl is turned into a deer, Myl takes it upon herself to rescue Tyl with the help of an ancient willow tree. Also, a shape-shifting prince.

3. Leeshia owns the Willow Knot, a small pagan store. Her landlord, grant Stevens, is an avowed Lutheran. He's also handsome, strong and wealthy. When a flood threatens to wipe out all of Ottumwa, will she drown---or will he be the angel she always thought?

4. Bob Stanstead is set upon by black-clad thugs -- Mae Wong's gang of hunky lifeguards! Their mission? Follow Mae to the North Pole, rescue her, and stop Bob's evil twin, Dave, who bought Russia from a syndicate of billionaires, and plans to blast half of Eurasia from its moorings, tow it across the Bering Sea, and pile it on top of Canada.

5. When Taylor Needham retires to Lawrenceville, he hopes he'll be alone to practice his craft of chainsaw sculpture and to pursue his Ahab-like quest to carve the most obdurate wood of all. But among the tourists drawn by his growing fame is one woman whose face haunts him in every twisted trunk and root.

6. It is 1867 and Tom Johnson prepares to present his findings to a secret commission of the Royal Society, claiming the Willow Prize, a reward funded by Queen Victoria for solving the great bio-physics creation enigma. But the unruly little winged space aliens he captured on the Heath of Blinnabore are determined not to participate. Can Tom subdue the putti long enough to save the world? Or does the future belong to Darwin?

Original Version

Dear Agent spelled correctly,

To free her spell-trapped brother, Mylla must save a kingdom, with the help of the king who had her father executed--and a willow tree. The Willow Knot is a 105,000 word fantasy, based on the Grimm tale "Brother and Sister", set in a fairy-tale kingdom grounded in the realities of 18th century Europe.

After their father's execution for treason, plain, practical Mylla and her impulsive brother Tyl flee to the forest, where old tales come true--but not all tales end well. Tyl is transformed into a deer [He just becomes a deer with no explanation?] [Wait, is he a weredeer?] and though he and Mylla rescue an abducted princess and a shape-shifting marsh-prince, she cannot rescue him.

Sheltered by an ancient willow, they survive robbers and wild beasts until young king Alard finds them, but their troubles are not over. Burdened by guilt over her father's unjust death, Alard makes Mylla queen, [He makes Mylla his own queen? He unjustly kills her father and then she becomes his wife? Does she have a choice?] of a kingdom beset by war without and conspiracy within. To uncover the true traitors, Alard needs the seal-magic Mylla had scarcely begun to learn. To unspell her brother, Mylla needs Alard's protection, but dares not trust him with the full truth, for fear of being accused as a witch herself. Parting in anger, they fall into the hands of enemies. With the help of deer-Tyl [This kind of help?] and the grateful marsh-prince, [You seem to assume we know what a marsh-prince is. A reasonable assumption if he's the prince of a marsh.] [Or is this like the march-hare?] [Come to think of it, I don't know what a march-hare is, either.] Alard escapes an ambush by rebellious nobles [He's already in the hands of enemies. Are the nobles the enemies? Or are they ambushing the enemies?] and returns, not knowing his most trusted councillor has conspired to remove the queen. [Conspired by sending the enemies to capture her? Or by sending the nobles? Or is this a later event?] Near death, Mylla shelters in the willow's roots while an imposter takes her place. Her happy ending must yet be earned with blood, fire, and pain.

In 2006 I attended the (fairly well-known writing workshop), and was shortlisted in the (quirky writing contest). My short story, published in (new-ish ezine), received an honourable mention in (year's best anthology) 2007. I have other novels underway, including (modern fantasy), and (mystery). I work at the (academic) library, which makes it easy to indulge in [my own personal] research [while getting paid for it by the clueless administration].

Thank you for your time and consideration.
(my contact info)



The plot description is too complicated. It has some logical progression, but it still feels like a list of events: Father is executed. Myl and Tyl flee. Tyl becomes deer. They rescue princess and marsh-prince. They survive robbers and beasts. Alard finds them. He makes Myl queen. They argue, part in anger, fall into enemy hands. That's already a lot of events, and I'm not clear on the rest. They parted, so when they fall into enemy hands, is it the same enemy, or different enemies? He escapes the enemy? She ends up hiding in the willow roots; did she also escape the enemy? I think it would be better with less plot detail and more of a general overview.

This is grounded in the realities of 18th century Europe?

Hard to believe a shape-shifting marsh-prince needs rescuing. Can't he just change into a bird or a bee and fly away?

Who would win between a boxing weredeer and a weredingo?


writtenwyrdd said...

It is difficult to make your plot elements clear in a fantasy query, but not impossible. Focus on what's important, such as the main plot, the main charcter and the goals. You can't just tell us that Alard makes her a queen and then jump off to another plot point. It actually doesn't sound like the queenship is relevant the way you have worded this, partly because it sounds to me that all the action is occurring underneath a willow tree. (Which sort of grants a picnic-like atmosphere to the query for me, at least.)

Start with ye olde elevator pitch and expand from there. Because remember: You don't have to sell every detail of the no doubt awesome plot; you just have to show the gist and get some agent to ask for a partial.

Blogless Troll said...

Ahhahaha! on the deer video. It's extra funny because the person filming it didn't stop to help.

Julie Weathers said...

This is hard to do because so much is going on in a fantasy. You often have complex plots, lots of characters and world building. However, you have to condense it down to one page total and preferably the 250-word range.

I understand the dilemma, but this is mandatory. You have to keep things simple and easy to understand. If I have learned anything here, that is the one universal truth. If people have to keep going back to figure things out, they won't continue.

At Surrey, Rachel Vater told me she gets 250 queries a week. That's what you are up against, 249 other people vying for her attention and 8-10 of them catch it well enough for her to offer representation in one year.

Anonymous said...

That boxing deer was the funniest.

The query left me with a sort of so-what-does-it-mean??? feeling. This happens, that happens, and so??? Basically the plot sounds very gothic romance and the main character sounds more like a victim than a heroine. Magic that lets you live under a tree doesn't sound all that great. The people living under trees here in Florida could explain it not only doesn't take much magic, it's not exactly a good time. So if magic doesn't solve any problems, why is it in the book? Which seems to be a sorry-I-married-the-rich-bad-guy story at heart. I'm just left wondering about the meaning of it all.

none said...

"a fairy-tale kingdom grounded in the realities of 18th century Europe"

Ow. ow ow ow ow

You cannot do that to my brain.


talpianna said...

[Wait, is he a weredeer?]

No weredeer than any of the other characters.

a shape-shifting marsh-prince

Let's be honest: we're talking frog here, aren't we?

With the help of deer-Tyl

The devil is in the deer-Tyls....

pacatrue said...

What's wrong with a fairy tale kingdom grounded in XVII century Europe, buffy? Not being snarky; genuine question.

Evil Editor said...

What's wrong with a fairy tale kingdom grounded in XVII century Europe

Nothing. Nothing at all. But this one's grounded in XVIII century Europe. I mean, really...

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Big fan of historical fantasy here, but just like there should be a reason to add fantasy elements to a story that otherwise isn't fantasy per se, there should be a reason to ground a fantasy in an historical setting. From this query, I don't understand why it's set in 18th century Europe. Are there any historical figures as characters? Are the kingdoms recognizable? Mainly, "18th century" and "Europe" are both pretty broad categories. Narrow it down: Paris in 1710 is going to evoke a whole different set of expectations than Bulgaria in the 1780s. Then give us a taste in the query as to why it's set where and when it is.

Nancy Springer did some nice things with characters transformed into deer, and I'm all over that aspect, but if you're going to bring it up, qualify the mention with the how or why. Is Tyl a shape-changer who can't change back or was it done to him? And the mention of seal-magic needs to either be explained or deleted. Is Mylla part sylkie? Do brother and sister share shape-changing abilities? And, if so, why is the marsh-prince singled out as being "shape-changing"?

You'll see from the comments that the plot, as it appears here, doesn't make much sense to the minions. That just means you need to step back from the story a bit and see the story from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about it. Then revise to remove any specifics that aren't needed for the general storyline. Pretty much what Writtenwyrd advises.

Oh, and you can safely ditch everything after "2007" is your credits 'graph.

The good thing is that you can post your revision here and see if it's any clearer to the uninitiated before sending it off to an agent. This is a great proving ground!

none said...

It's the connotations, paca. They clash.

In "fairy-tale", things may go wrong, but they always turn out right in the end. In C18th Europe, not so much. It's like taking Bambi and Thumper and making stew.

Anonymous said...

is it a talking deer?

Anonymous said...

Eh, I think I'm going to give up on queries. The first one I posted here got a 'not bad' from EE, and this one is unsalvageable, so as far as I can tell I'm getting worse at writing them. I'd better stop before the attempts also suck away my ability to write simple expository prose.
Thanks everyone for your comments. I'd like to say that I'll make good use of them, but that would presuppose some ability on my part to do so.

Kiersten White said...

No, no, don't give up! I've found it much easier to write 250 pages than to sum up those 250 pages in 200 words!

Give it another go. Really.

Chelsea Pitcher said...

I'm going to take a stab as this, because I don't think it's "unsalvageable" at all. I just think it's halfway between a query and a synopsis; a hybrid, if you will. And salvaging it is well within the realm of possibility if you can bring yourself to chop out a good portion of the third paragraph.

So let me start with what I think worked.

I liked your first paragraph a lot. It tells us who the main characters are, how long the book is, the genre, etc. My thoughts are, an agent will read the first paragraph and think, Oh, this person actually knows what she's doing.

(However - I do agree that 18th century Europe can be made much more specific. I think Buffy's issue stemmed from the phrase "grounded in the realities of," because fantasy and "the realities of" seem to clash. Maybe something like, a fairy-tale kingdom set in 18th Century England (or whichever European country you like.) I think it's ok to put "set in" even if it's a fantasy, because things like Robin Hood were set in real time as well. "Grounded in the realities of," though a very eloquent sounding phrase, seems very non-fiction-ish.)

The second paragraph starts out nicely as well, but I agree with the comments about the deer situation. If we don't KNOW why Tyl turns into a deer, we're going to wonder, and if we wonder, we're going to come up with all kinds of ridiculous scenarios of our own. And trust me: you don't want that.

The next sentence says a lot without really telling anything. There is a princess and a shape shifter, but who are they and how important are they to the plot? I felt like you set a lot up in this sentence and then the next paragraph moves very far away from that info before coming back to it.

My best advice (and remember to take your grain of salt with this) is to take some of the key plot points of paragraphs two and three and fit them into paragraphs the size of the first one. I know, scrunching a 400 page book into 250 words is hair-tearingly frustrating. Just remember, we really don't have to know everything. Ideally, the query letter needs to give us the basic plot BUT leave us hungry for more.

I think maybe the second paragraph lingers too long on the concept of the willow, when it seems like, compared to everything that follows, the siblings spend relatively little time with the willow. I know the title comes from the willow, and I'm not saying leave it out completely. But most of the action seems to take place after they leave the shelter of the willow, so I would focus on that . . .

I think the main focus of the book is Mylla's complicated relationship with Alard: she needs him but doesn't trust him. Is there a way to make this the focus of the query, while leaving in the piece about Tyl becoming a deer and seeking temporary refuge under the willow? The stuff about the marsh prince and abducted princess seemed to be secondary. Maybe that can be saved for the synopsis?

I know you said you wanted to give up on queries, but this letter has a lot of potential. Would you be interested in shortening it up and reposting? I'd love to see what you come up with. :)

Sylvia said...

I'm TERRIBLE at any sort of synopsis, you are not alone.

One thing that I find helpfulis to spend some time critiquing other queries. When I've posted queries here, I've found that a run of critiquing afterwards can help me to see what went wrong with mine. It can make it easier to follow the comments made by others as you see the same mistakes in a different context.

Sophia said...

Barbara, please don't give up! A "not bad" from EE sounds *good*, to me. Queries are hard to get right. Hang in there, and work on it a little at a time. You can definitely do it!

batgirl said...

Sigh, and sorry for sounding ungrateful or unappreciative. EE's comments are incisive and funny as always - the image of a weredingo and a weredeer boxing match is both insane and charming. And I'm sure the continution, when it's posted, will be kick-ass and cause me to shriek in mingled outrage and hilarity. This blog is an invaluable resource, and I recommend it regularly.
I'm just coming to the realisation that however I may get published, it's probably not going to be by writing a killer query.

I'm trying to figure out how to reply to the concerns raised without sounding defensive and whiney. I realise that these concerns need to be addressed in the query and that going all 'but you don't understaaaannd!' in the comments isn't useful.
Okay, let's see if I can restate some points I didn't get across, without sounding like a six year old.

The setting is based on the German Small States, just prior to the time the Grimms were collecting their stories. If you haven't read about this time and place, it's unnerving how closely it matches the weird political/social setup of the many kingdoms of fairy tales, the tiny ones you can ride across in a day or half-day, whose 'kings' spend all their time hunting, have absolute power over their subjects and are sometimes insane. The politics in the second half of the book are mostly swiped from German Small States infighting and jockeying - but how do I say that without a paragraph of explanation? And yet I think it's one of the things that does make the story a bit different and unusual.

Another aspect which maybe makes the book a bit different is that Mylla knows the fairy tales, and when her brother is changed into a deer (by drinking from an enchanted spring) she knows she's in a tale, but she doesn't know whether she's going to be the heroine or even survive. She's the eldest child - eldest children don't do well in fairy tales. And lots of children are eaten by the ogre or the witch or turned into stone before the real hero wins through. Even when Alard makes her queen (and no, she doesn't have the option of saying no - he's king and he thinks this is the best way to expiate his guilt), well, most fairy tales, originally, didn't end with the marriage. Plenty of queens are falsely accused and imprisoned, or worse, by their husbands.
I don't mean this to be all meta and postmodern, only that it seemed to me unlikely that there wouldn't be fairy tales in this setting and unlikely that a child wouldn't know them.

Deer-Tyl doesn't talk. I couldn't make myself believe in a talking deer, even though I could make myself believe in someone changing into a deer.

Mylla marries Alard because it's not a good idea to refuse the king, because she hopes she'll have more opportunity to save her brother, and because she does want to ease his guilt. They fall in love later, as they work together to solve some of the problems in the kingdom, like the battles between the established guilds and the refugee craftsmen fleeing persecution in the neighbouring duchy.
And that's not going to fit in a one-paragraph summary either, at least not one I have the skill to write.

The inclusion of the princess and of the shape-shifter was meant to show Mylla and Tyl as active and not as just victims, and to show how events in the forest tie in to events in the second half of the book, with the fairy tale motif of doing a favour to someone or something and being paid back with help later. I understand that it doesn't work in the query, but that's why it was there.

I think one of my strengths as a writer is that I love research (maybe more than I love writing) and that I'm not bad at conveying the flavour and texture of everyday life in a historical setting. But I can't say that, right? So I hoped to sneak it in via the line about setting or the line about working in a library, but that's no good either.
Argh. Why can't I have a strength that's allowable to mention?
Sorry, now I'm getting whiney again and this is way too long.

none said...

It's often tempting to give up. Almost every five minutes! But I think what you need to do here is take a deep breath, step back from this project, and go do something else for a while.

When you come back to it, you should have some distance, and you'll be able to look at it more objectively. We've all omitted things from queries because they were so obvious to us that we never expected anyone to need to be told. Plus none of us are geniuses at query writing--it's much easier to critique someone else's efforts :).

Never give up!

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Deceptive beast, the query. It has its moods. And sometimes it's just stubborn and uncooperative.

Here's what I've learned, and EE or whomever feel free to correct if I'm surmising wrong. There are 3 things agents and editors look for in a query:
1) Is it a genre they represent?
2) Is it a story they can sell (is it unique enough, something more than the same-old, same old; have they just sold one similar)?
3) Can the author string a few sentences together coherently?

Maybe 10% of queries pass that simple litmus test. Most everyone serious enough to learn how to write a query and who visit this site can hit that 10% mark. The final trick is taking the query that notch above -- adding voice or a sense of excitement or broodiness or whatever is appropriate to the genre.

What a lot of people do, though, instead of concentrating on the elements that will raise their query from the slush is to focus on story elements. That focus on details tends to keep a query mired in the bottom 10%.

You want an agent excited about your story. Piling on detail doesn't create excitement. Explaining what happens in a linear fashion doesn't create excitement. What creates excitement is choosing the two or three most salient points and characters of your story and couching them in a provocative way -- be it through voice, word choice, syntax, or pacing.

So, please, try again. Heck, we've only seen one iteration of your query. Many of us go through several iterations before we get it right. Just as your novel has no doubt gone through a revision or two. Let's see another version. Or answer some of the questions posed, and I'm sure a couple of us can try to help you boil it down to the essentials.

Robin B. said...

There are people here who can truly help you, and people here only capable of commiserating.

I'm only a commiserator, but if you rework your query and post it again, I can just about promise you'll shortly have in hand some excellenet help. Seriously.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Speaking of boiling it down - can you boil it down to 4 sentences? That should help you decide what is the central theme. And then you can add a little flesh to the bones without trying to explain the whole book.

It is a bear. And sometimes it does help to let it rest in a drawer for awhile. The ones who succeed are the ones who never quit, eh?

Anonymous said...

"so as far as I can tell I'm getting worse at writing them."

I, too, commiserate. I've written query letters in the past that got requests for fulls, but my brain just will not click over into 'query' any longer.

Maybe EE could run a query-writing challenge now that the New Beginnings etc are drying up. We all send in our 'this is my hero(ine); this is my setting; these are my main plot points' and let the other Minions get crazy with the query letters. Votes for the funniest and the most useful. Good practice for Minions and queriers alike.

talpianna said...

Several people have suggested in jest that we do better writing queries for other people's books than for our own; why not try doing this for real? We could be like the Scilly Islanders, who earn a precarious living taking in one another's washing.

One problem I had with the query was that the perspective was not clear: is the king really a good guy or a bad guy? Is the heroine in love with him or with the marsh-prince?

(And what about Naomi?)

Have you read Mercedes Lackey's 500 Kingdoms series from Luna? The Tradition, the collective weight of tales and folklore, shapes people's lives; and the protagonists have to wrestle with it to make things come out happily.

writtenwyrdd said...

It's difficult to render down a complicated plot to the essentials, but you must and you can. Really, it's simply a matter of stating the main plot without embellishment. For the purposes of this exercise, mostly ignore the non-talking deer brother, the reasons for marrying the king in specific and give us who she is and her goal, including why she cares (which is partly her deer-transformed brother and the kingdom).

Perhaps the problem is that her story begins too early in the book itself, but that's something only you can decide. But from the sounds of things, perhaps try something like this (which is just a rough attempt):

Orphan Mylla's life is overturned when her brother is transformed into a deer. In seeking to save her brother, she meets the king, who is smitten with her. Forced into a loveless marriage, the new queen discovers a plot that will destroy the kingdom, and with her husband seeks to save the kingdom, her brother, and perhaps, if she's really lucky, to discover and nurture a growing love for her husband the king.

Like I said, really rough, but that conveys the ideas I think I see in your plot description.

Just remember: You do not need to give the entire plot, or even really all that accurately so long as it gives the gist and gets someone to read your novel.

And when you do your synopsis, try starting with an outline.

Keep at it!

writtenwyrdd said...

Oh,and regarding mentioning your skills, just leave that out unless it's related to the novel. In this case, being a good researcher doesn't seem to be applicable. Your writing is what matters, research ability or not. Now, if you are a PhD in Medieval German History, that's another story... :)

Anonymous said...

try writing about five alternative plots for each GTP title that comes up.

Bevie said...


Please do not give up. Just let the hurt recede and give it another go.

I know what you're feeling. I've just gone through it myself. But these people know what they're about, and they are willing to pass their knowledge on to us. We owe it to our desire to write to take that knowledge and make ourselves better writers.

Others have said it better, but sometimes hearing something from someone in the same boat is easier to bear. Query writing is not story writing. To me, they are different animals, and I find myself now cursing all of the creative writing teachers I have had for not teaching query writing. They focused on teaching us to write good stories. Now we do. But our education is still incomplete. We need to be able to write queries, too.

These people will help you (us) do it. It's going to hurt, but every part of my being tells me it will be worth it.

Please, give it another go.


Robin B. said...

Bevie's right, in my opinion.

Query writing takes a separate skill set from that of writing fiction. It really does. Don't feel bad.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Hi Barbara: I didn't see you had answered many questions before I posted. My suggestion: Leave motifs like the favour returned stuff for the synopsis, or for the reader to figure out. Would you try to cram in all 12 steps of the traditional Hero's Journey if you were querying a quest fantasy? You don't need to prove your research in a simple query.

So how do you say all that needs to be said in a paragraph? You don't. You either don't say it or you simply allude to it with a few well-chosen words that mitigate questions. Of course readers will still have questions after they read the query. It isn't the story and it isn't a synopsis. But it you've done your job, the questions they have won't be the kind that makes the plot seem implausible or the characters unlikable.

Retellings of fairy tales are pretty hot right now in YA. My suggestion, FWIW, is to play up the aspects of the book that emphasize it's a dark retelling of a dark story. Play down the plot and don't mention secondary characters. Keep the focus on the story's hook. I'm not completely satisfied with my version, but maybe it will suggest to you another way to take your query…

Growing up in the dark and brooding world that was Germany in the 18th century, home to the Brothers Grimm, Mylla is well aware of the tales of iron-fisted kings, abused and abusive queens, and assortment of ogres, witches and shape-changers that stalk the land. So when her father is unjustly killed by the king for a crime he didn't commit and her impetuous brother, Tyl, drinks from an enchanted spring and is changed into a deer, Mylla recognizes she's wound up in fairy tale of her own. And in such tales, things don't usually go well for eldest siblings such as she.

For a time, Mylla and her deer-brother hide out in the forest, sheltering in the branches of an ancient willow and fending off robbers and wild beasts. Then the young king, Alard, discovers them while hunting one day and, seduced by her strength of spirit and feeling deep guilt over the death of her father, makes her his -- at first -- unwilling queen. Trouble is, his petty kingdom is beset by war without and conspiracy within. Only strong rule, love and a little magic will bring peace and prosperity to the kingdom and to Mylla's life, and end her brother's enchantment.

But fairy tales in the Grimms' world rarely end happily, and when they do it's often earned through blood and pain, and sacrifice of self and soul -- as Mylla will soon be reminded.

Based on the Grimms' tale "Brother and Sister", THE WILLOW KNOT is complete at 105,000 words. In 2006 I attended the (fairly well-known writing workshop), and was shortlisted in the (quirky writing contest). My short story, published in (new-ish ezine), received an honourable mention in (year's best anthology) 2007.

I look forward to sending you the completed manuscript.

Robin B. said...


Phoenix - you are a genius.

Julie Weathers said...

"Eh, I think I'm going to give up on queries. The first one I posted here got a 'not bad' from EE, and this one is unsalvageable, so as far as I can tell I'm getting worse at writing them. I'd better stop before the attempts also suck away my ability to write simple expository prose."


Of course it isn't unsalvageable.

I believe with all my heart this is the best place to work on a query or opening.

One of the queries I submitted here had been rewritten by a NYT best-selling author for me. I loved it and thought I finally had it very close to ready. It wasn't received well here, which made me want to beat my head on the desk. If she can't write an acceptable query, how on earth can I?

I took the advice people here gave me. I salvaged what I could of the author's query and haunted Miss Snark's archives. Then I went back to the Snowflake Method of novel writing and mixed it all together.

I took that query to Surrey and Janet Reid asked me to submit to her even though she doesn't normally handle fantasy. Rachel Vater asked me to submit to her and Paul Stevens, an editor who acquires properties for Tor, asked me to submit.

Obviously, that's just a small first step, but it's a step we all have to take. I don't think I would have made it that far if not for the help I received here with both the query and opening.

Step back and let the advice simmer a bit.

EE has a really sharp eye and the minions are very astute. I know it gets frustrating, believe me, I know, but you get top notch advice here.

Anonymous said...

Phoenix's version is still rough but I think it really does catch the spirit and flavor of your story.


batgirl said...

Wow, thank you, phoenix and written. Those are brilliant. Now if I can just mash phoenix's clarification with writtenwyrdd's conciseness, I'll have it.

And thanks for the encouragement. I'll let this stew while I wrimo and try another iteration in a few weeks, as buffy suggests.
Oh hey, julie, congratulations! I hadn't heard your terrific news.