Friday, December 11, 2009

Face-Lift 707

Guess the Plot

The Crystal Blade

1. For generations the warlike Karshai clan have pillaged and plundered their neighbors, armed with their dazzling crystal weapons. Until one day their rival clan invents steel . . .

2. By day she's Sally Jones, secretary of Ned Doorong, the CEO of Heinous Industries, a cartel selling heroin to fund the environment-destroying condo towers it builds for billionaires on artificial islands in the tropics. By night, she's Crystal Blade, the superhero who will bring this evil to an end -- if only she can get over her dyslexia and learn to trust Anton Wright, the dashing superspy from MI6.

3. When Tina fended off the annoyance of cousin Jerry by chucking Uncle Abner's crystal blade at him, it hit the wall and broke. Now she's cursed to sing everything she wants to say. Can she turn this curse into a blessing by launching a career in opera?

4. Zakthar has fought evil Lord Amgitt's army for years using the traditional weapons of the Arkfardel Guard; a natural bristle toothbrush, a pair of tongs and his mother's recipe for baked beans. Disillusioned with his lack of success, he seeks a manlier weapon. And scantily clad chicks.

5. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, a 14-year-old African American boy turns white, proving that he is either a savior or an evil sorcerer who was long ago banished by the Crystal Blade. Followers of both spill into Texas and war ensues.

6. Long has the elven smith Singlodion laboured in the forges of Belegthrond to bring forth the Crystal Blade of the longsword Thaumiriel. When it becomes the shortsword Thaumiriel, and then the dagger Thaumiriel, Singlodion returns to the forges of Belegthrond, to explore the possibility of maybe using something besides glass next time.

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor:

When an African-American teen starts magically turning white, he's thrust into a war that will destroy our world unless he kills himself [in my alternate history novel, The Michael Jackson Story].

THE CRYSTAL BLADE is a hip-hop infused fantasy adventure inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Finnegans Wake. [Think "Jabberwocky," being rapped by 50 Cent.] Set in Texas during the 2008 presidential campaign, the 120,000-word novel centers on Howie Gryphon — savior of an enchanted world or a demon forced to be human.

Howie is 14 and fed up with hearing how he's "acting white" — then he starts turning white and gaining powers. [What kind of powers? Name the superhero whose powers most resemble Howie's.] The deeply religious teen believes a demon has awoken inside him. With his soul and his sanity at risk, he realizes he can only stop the creature by killing himself. But fighting brings greater peril. [Drop that sentence. Not clear who's fighting whom or what it brings greater peril than.]

Howie's power draws rival factions vying for The Crystal Blade. That weapon banished a wicked sorcerer; Howie's transformation means he is either that tyrant or a prophesied savior. As minions of those adversaries clash, Howie's ordeal leads their war to our world. [I'm tired of my minions never clashing with the minions of my adversaries. If you people wanna be my minions, I wanna see some clashing.]

THE CRYSTAL BLADE combines fantasy literature, fairy tales, and James Joyce's masterpiece in a unique story about diversity. Exploring themes as sweeping as the history of math and the nature of magic, the book examines the changing American Dream, from classism in the black community to Christianity's fundamentalist-progressive schism. [And I thought Finnegans Wake was impenetrable.]

Fun without being farce, smart without being preachy, it answers a key question of modern society: What is morality in a world of diverse ideals? [You're supposed to be telling us what happens in your book, not reviewing it.]

This is the first book in THE RISEN KINGDOM series. I am a former journalist and current substitute teacher focused on his first novel. Thank you for your time.



Finnegans Wake doesn't get read in numbers that would justify a publisher putting out something inspired by it. Thus I recommend claiming your book was inspired by another author who made up lots of words, but was more accessible: Dr. Suess.

I want more about whose war is being brought to our world. Are the minions of those who think Howie's a savior and those who think he's a sorcerer both from somewhere other than Earth? Do they look like people? Does their war involve fighting with weapons in Texas? Do McCain and Obama take different sides in the war?

Put less time into setting up the situation and telling us the themes, and more into the actual plot.


Steve Wright said...

Comparing your book to an acknowledged classic of world literature is probably not a good idea. Comparing your book to a nearly unreadable acknowledged classic is definitely not a good idea. (Personally, I got to page 47 of Finnegans Wake before I gave up. And as for hip-hop... they don't play it on Radio Three, so I never hear it.)

I have no idea what the plot of your book is. Of course, if it really is like Finnegans Wake, I could read the whole thing and still have no idea, but never mind about that; the query is the place to give a basic outline of who does what and to whom and why.

So, I'd cut out all the stuff about how your book addresses sweeping themes and answers profound questions and cures cancer and promotes weight loss without dieting, and replace it with a simple description of what happens in the story.

Anonymous said...

Forget the nonsense that I can't wade through without a LOT more caffeine. My gut reaction, and take it for what gut reactions are worth is:

I'm already offended. I would replace the word magically in reference to turning white. Strict definitions notwithstanding, magically in American culture and conversation tends to mean good, something fortuitous. So when you say magically turning white, it sounds to me like you're implying it's a good thing.

And second, if the powers he gains when he turns white are not good, say so. Otherwise, again, within the cultural context of race history in America, there is a subtext here that suggests that turning white confers good things. Power. Ability. You know, that kind of thing.

And I hope to God that turning white isn't part of his being a "prophesied savior."


Anonymous said...

All that and you think it's the start of a series?

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Anonymous of 11:18 - the fact that he's turning white rubs me the wrong way. I don't think that it was intended to imply anything negative about being non-white, but to me it seems very easy to take it that way.

I'm also having trouble understanding why turning white is so important. I get that it marks him as a tyrant or a savior, but I'm not understanding why.

I think if you clarified some more in your letter it would be a big help, both about that and about the plot of the war in general. More information would likely be useful here.

Joseph said...

I have to agree with Anon 11:18, before I bother dissecting the confusing fantasy story, the basic racial premise sounds incredibly offensive.

Turning a black character white is morally problematic in any context. But to say a black man has to turn white to become a super-powered savior is just plain racist.

Why can't a black man just wake up with magic powers and fight evil, like Harry Potter? Why does race have to play a part in this at all?

Najela said...

Why does he have to turn white to save the world? I think the story would be so much better and more unique if he stayed black. But why does race even matter though? I'd say to take the racial angle out this story because just reading the query, the story might just offend quite a few people.

I agree with Anon 11:18 as well. If race is an issue for your character and everything is hinged on it, you'd be better off just starting with someone who is white and save yourself the hassle of trying to be authentic without being racist...

I also agree with Joseph Louis. Everything about this book seems problematic and strange...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I have the same issues that many of the people here do. If you are writing about race issues, you need to show some sensitivity to them. While the novel may, your query doesn't. You lost my interest when the MC starts turning white and gains superpowers. Another issue is even if you get an agent and a contract the actual book would be published years and years AFTER the 2008 election. Alternate histories tend to work on somewhat remote history. IMHO, WWI is probably about as close in time as you can get. You might be better to set this on an fantasy planet or FAR in the future than in close modern times here on Earth.

I know very little about a 120,000 word story from your query. Stop trying to compare yourself to other works and just try to tell me what happens. There are skips in the logical progression of the story line because you don't give yourself enough room for it. I don't even know if Howie lives in a big city or some rural town. That's an important detail.

It seems like:
1)Howie's a typical 14 year old.
2)He's in a situation where other African American teens tease him about being an "OREO" but I have no idea why they'd tease him about this;
3) Howie's skin starts growing lighter;
4) Howie starts realizing that he gains some nebulus "power" the more his skin lightens;
5) he's deeply religious (because you tell me this even though I don't know what religion he is) and assumes he's being possessed by a demon - again I have no idea why he'd make this logic jump;
6) He assumes that if he doesn't kill himself, the world will end;
7) He doesn't kill himself;
8) Somehow there is this Crystal Blade thing;
9) Somehow Howie learns about the Blade and what it does;
10) His powers and the Blade are common knowledge so there are rival factions forming and fighting
11) Some how Howie decides he's either a tyrant or a savior; and
12) War comes to Earth as a result.

Try to make the story flow in the query as well it does in the book.
Good Luck.

_*rachel*_ said...

Who do you want us to fight, EE? I'll volunteer to lead a lawn flamingo task force. Does January 10 work?

That was some funny blue text, there.

If you've got to compare your book to something, compare it to something similar--you know, more adventurous and funny.

He's either horribly bad or horribly good? Hm. I'd go with Steve's idea of rewriting to give a clearer plot.

My gut's telling me this whole changing races/colors thing could blow up in your face. Can you make him turn blue, or something with less racial connotations?

Joanna said...

I can see why the other commentators are offended by the race part of the premise, and I can see that the story could be written in a way that implied that black is powerless and white is super-powerful (or that black is human and white demonic, which would offend a different set of people.) But it could be written in other ways. I think there are archetypal stories in which beings who are in between genders or races or species are conduits for spirit into the human world. I'd like to read this book. The combination of fairy tales, math and ruminations on race, class and religion sounds very intriguing.

By the way, does he end up white or in-between?

150 said...

Whether Howie turns out to be a Magical Negro or Mighty Whitey, the premise is problematic. If you're using tropes with a wink, you'd better do more winking within the query text.

Plot specificity might be your friend here.

Blogless Troll said...

Wow, what a courageous open-minded group of writers willing to explore serious issues without barfing up pre-programmed politically correct knee jerk reactions.

I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess the author is probably trying to make A Point about race, but that he/she/the story isn't actually racist. But then again I have no idea what the story is, so maybe The Offended are right. Author, maybe if we can get a few more specifics about the story we would be better prepared in jumping to conclusions on weather or not we should lynch you.

Steve Wright said...

Hmm. I have to agree with blogless about this one - it seemed to me that suddenly changing a character's ethnicity is something you can do, legitimately, in a fantasy story, if you really want to throw him/her off-balance and question his/her identity. (A sex change has a very similar effect.)

And I don't think that making that change necessarily says anything generic about the character's race before or after. I think people may be reading in stuff which isn't intended, here.

I'm much more concerned about the absence of story information in the query, and the presence of far too much hype about how wonderful the book is. I'd fix those issues first, and then worry about the race stuff.

Dave Fragments said...

Gee, this author stepped into the lion's den.

What to do?
What to do?

Obviously, this version of the query didn't work. I won't repeat what was said above.

Perhaps: At fourteen, Howie Gryphon is growing and changing unlike any other kid on the block. He wants to be a rap star but he might become a demon dictator and take over the world. Either way, puberty is not being kind to Howie Gryphon.

Start with Howie and tell his story. Don't bring in race or metaphysics or philosophy or religion unless you absolutely have to bring it up.

Think about what we've seen and read about Harry Potter. He was the cute, nerdy 11 year old, impossibly stupid around girls, geeky and adorable in the first few books. It wasn't until several volumes into the story that the plot itself got dark and scary. And you aren't going to get philosophically darker than reincarnating Voldemort in the Goblet of Fire. No kid is going to read that as a first book. The final two books -- Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows are adult tales. Harry's not a kid anymore. He's going to kill Voldemort and the various pieces of Voldemort any way he can. That's cold and ruthless no matter how it is dressed up.

When people who haven't read or seen Harry ask me what it is all about, I tell them it is a tale about the goodness of family, of losing family (an orphan) and gaining family and what that means. That's why HP is compelling. The main theme from start to finish is family. The reader adopts the orphan Harry and cares for him.

That's what you have to do with Howie Gryphon in the query.

I have a feeling that you (the author) are thinking, but this is an adult story of sweeping philosophical and metaphysical ideas. Well, it might be and it might well be the next Finnegan's Wake. But let me ask the ugly question -- what adult is going to pick it up and read it for that reason?

Think about pitching "The Handmaid's Tale" or the last book we discussed "Devil's Cape" -- they are adult fantasies and they are pitched to adult audiences. Try lines of thought like those to create the query.

The tie in with the 2008 Election might make it alternate history (what if something else historical happened?) but you don't play up that aspect in the current query. The parallel to the election of the first African-American to the office of President of the USA while an African American 14 year old begins a battle with demonic forces to take over the world, is a good hook. Think about that line of thought.

Anonymous said...

Blogless, grow up re: your purposely and preprogrammed provocative use of "lynch." Even though you, I'm sure, know that no one got lynched for playing into racial stereotypes, only for, you know, being a certain race.

I'm guessing the STORY probably isn't a racist work. But, and maybe this isn't clear after years of reading the blog, we were talking about the QUERY. Which was a turnoff. The phrasing led to images that I'm sure the author didn't intend. The suggestion was made to change them.

Or, as you call it, barfing up pc crap. Because we shouldn't really worry about racial insensitivity anymore, right?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, definitely worry about that little "race stuff" later.

Anonymous said...

this is the author.

hear me out, i do appreciate the critique. part of my reason for submitting this here was because i wondered how a mostly white audience (and i assume here, but the folks with the pictures are all white) would react to the race part being so upfront in the query. the reaction was interesting but not wholly unexpected, i just wanted to see if i was reading too much into my own misgivings. and i am african american, by the way.

to be quite honest, i'm really surprised by how much was read into the changing of race/making a statement about the worth of a person angle. the idea is that a character has white skin in a fantasy world but is sent to our world, where his skin has been changed. as his true self begins to awaken, his skin changes back to its original hue. race plays a big part in the book precisely because it is so controversial and, i thought, would be interesting to play with all the notions presented: the magic negro, mighty whitey, white devils, etc., without doing so in a farcical manner because the farce and being funny too often overshadows the examination of the issue.

the idea that "magically" implies "goodness" strikes me as odd. i've never come across that idea: what about vampires and werewolves and whatnot? people are turned magically but the transformation is not automatically thought of as good, and usually is seen as evil. hell, ursula leguin had a series, i think, in which people could change sexes, why not race?

i think lots of folks are still uncomfortable with race and that sets people off, which is what i wanted to gauge by submitting.

the idea is actually about exploring this weird notion of certain color= certain value; it just struck me how so many folks are willing to go with people turning into angels and turning out to be aliens, but changing the race is "morally problematic." howie's name pays homage to john howard griffin, a white man who changed his race to black to experience southern life in the 1950s and wrote about it in "black like me." that he could do so in real life and be seen as courageous but to do so in a fantasy novel and it be viewed as morally problematic is strange.

why can't he be like harry potter and just find out he has power is simple: he is not harry potter; and in a broader sense, that is the whole problem that african americans have with the country, that the way things happen for whites is not the way they happen to african americans; just giving a black kid powers and letting him have fun ignores the issues that being black creates (thereby ignoring what it means to be "black:" to stay with the harry potter theme, imagine if harry is black and a great quidditch player. european soccer fans act crazy toward great soccer players with darker skin, to ignore that idea for the magic equivalent if harry is black is to ignore a big part of the "black" experience, see?) and that should be explored.

on another note, i've noticed that many of the submissions here read more like synopsises than queries, at least as i understand a synopsis. what would be the difference between the two? for example, EE's question about "powers," how much description is needed? keeping with the harry potter theme, you'd just say he learned he was the most powerful wizard of all, not delineate his various magical abilities, i would think.

the stuff about themes and not being farce goes to something i read here, in which it's said that agents want to see this kind of summation.

he actually ends up half/half.

and thanks, dave f., you were most helpful. i actually have a synopsis written that starts: Howie Griffin plans to serve God even if it means becoming a demon. A friend said that might should be the start of the query, i'd hoped the race thing wouldn't throw too many folks but maybe it does.

Anonymous said...

author again.

i'm also wondering about the length of the query. i thought the goal was saying who is facing what and what are the stakes, which i thought were fairly clear if the race uproar is overlooked. i know someone said they didn't get it but then described it precisely, so that confused me. was the set up not clear (ignoring one's feelings about race)?

you know, i am at least glad no one said they preferred one of the other ideas to this one and stayed pretty focused on me. i'm not seeking controversy but do recognize that the story can generate questions and force people to start talking openly about race and whatnot.

Anonymous said...

author again again.

i hadn't thought i'd compared the book to any novel or classic literature. i don't equate "inspired by" as "compared to." "the looking glass wars" were inspired by alice in wonderland, but i don't think anyone thought the guy was claiming to be compared to the earlier work. is that how it comes across? i really do wonder if folks were so offended by what they thought they read that they ignored the stuff that was in there. in particular, steve wright's first response about saying who does what to whom and why seemed pretty succinct: howie fights what he thinks is a demon and by doing so attracts an otherworldly war to earth. the otherworldly wasn't in there, but i thought it implied.

also, EE, i note your comments but didn't get a feel for how the race approach struck you.

Anonymous said...

author again 3.

i didn't like a sentence i wrote in the first response about what if harry potter was african american, so to put it more clearly:

european soccer fans can be really racist in taunting black opposing players. quidditch is the soccer equivalent in the hp world, so if harry were black, it would be reasonable that having is notoriety would prompt some racist comments hurled his way. and if that didn't happen, it seems to ignore an experience that a black soccer player might have that the whites don't; at that point, why have the character be black to begin with?

Evil Editor said...

It takes no more space to tell us whether the character has all the powers of Superman (or is merely mildly psychic), than it does to tell us he has developed powers. Specificity is always more interesting than generality.

The length of the query should be a page. No need to fill it entirely if you can say everything in less, but I want enough plot to get me hooked. A query is a business letter that includes a brief synopsis. I prefer about 8 - 10 sentences of plot but others have their own ideas. It can include credits, but unimpressive credits aren't worth including. I know of no one who wants the author's opinion of the book included.

In this query I want more about what happens after the fantastical characters show up. You've just set up the situation in which that happens with no follow-through.

I didn't even notice a possible race issue; I tend to focus on whether the writing is strong and whether the query is making the plot sound ridiculous. So while I did think you needed to make a better connection between your character and the presidential election campaign (or to just not mention the campaign), I didn't get the impression your character's life was made better by becoming white.

By the way, a query for Aria, which you linked to, also appeared here not long ago. (Face-Lift 682, October 8).

Anonymous said...

yeah, i remembered the aria submission. appreciate it, EE.

none said...

Oh, please, let's not present Harry Potter as some example of excellent character building. His character is psychologically completely wrong for what he's supposedly gone through.

This could be an interesting story but the references to Joyce are off-putting. Saying you're combining his masterpiece in your novel makes it sound derivative.

I read 'Black Like Me' many years ago; fascinating book.

Anonymous said...

actually, thanks to this critique, i may be realizing that the original idea of using finnegans wake and the race change may no longer be necessary.

and actually, buff squirrel, i think harry potter is probably the best view of a psychopath as he pictures himself. always angry and feels justified in doing anything he pleases (cheating, lying, etc.) because he has been so wronged and he alone knows what is right, etc., etc. i watch the movies and think "this could easily be ted bundy's view of himself."

- author

Dave Fragments said...

You have wonderful bits to assemble into a query...

1. Howie Griffin plans to serve God even if it means becoming a demon.

2. Howie fights what he thinks is a demon and by doing so attracts an otherworldly war to earth.

3. Howie originally had white skin in the fantasy world but is sent to our world as a baby, where his skin has been changed. As his true self begins to awaken, his skin changes back to its original hue.

Those three things make your story happen.

Anonymous said...

i thought i saw a policy on resubmitted a query but can't find it anywhere now. what is the policy?

and thanks, dave f. i heard a phrase "kill your darlings" when it comes to writing, i'm finally understanding what it means. all the cool-to-me stuff may need to be jettisoned.

- author

Blogless Troll said...

Blogless, grow up...

That sounds like age discrimination. You should probably take a sensitivity class.

What cracks me up is when writers, who presumably depend on freedom of expression for a living, start trying to dictate what should and shouldn't be said because it might offend someone.

Anyway, author good luck with this. It's clear from your comments that whatever you come up with will be thoughtful.

Evil Editor said...

To resubmit, send as a comment; I'll alert the minions that it's there. There's less activity on the weekend, so don't rush.

Marie Simas said...

Howie Gryphon (really, does the last name have to be spelled like a mythical creature?).

Any newbie author that compares his work to a bona-fide classical work is probably going to go straight in the trash.

I was trying to tell this to another newbie author who insisted that his book was just like "Catcher in the Rye". Not good.

I think that "turning white" is a little weird. What does it have to do with the story? Plus, I saw that show last week, it's called the "Sammy Sosa Lifetime Movie".

I think it's a dumb plot device and a peculiar way to attract attention. Considering the publishing fiasco over Larbaleister's "Liar" cover this year, I think that themes like this are an unwise decision for a first-time author.

_*rachel*_ said...

If you've got questions about synopsis versus not enough, read the archives of Miss Snark's hookometer: That's what you need in your query, plus genre, wordcount, and maybe bio.

As we've just demonstrated here, the simplest thing can be misread or overinterpreted, making things uncomfortable in the extreme. Racism has a stigma akin to a certain brand of fascism, so rather than risk associating myself with either, I'll bow out of the conversation, or at least ruthlessly self-edit what I say and write. There's a reason my Underground Railroad-inspired fantasy WIP doesn't describe my charries' looks.

Sylvia said...

I was shocked to see the comments as I did not feel that the query was racist.

I presumed that the author was making a point about racial issues - great! Political correctness does not mean pretending that race doesn't exist. However, it is clear that the premise needs to be handled very carefully in the query and I can see how some people made a jump from "turning white & superpowers" to "white is better". A lot of this would be irrelevant if the author told us more about the character and the details of the conflict, rather than the book as a whole.

I like Dave F's example intro - make Howie more important than his colour.

Also, I'd like to reassure the author that magical does not generally imply good within the Fantasy genre in my experience.

I'm looking forward to seeing the rewrite.

Sylvia said...


Am I really watching a bunch of white people telling a black author that his handling of his black character is offending them?

I can understand pointing out that the line in question might be a red flag for some people or that the reference made you uncomfortable. I can even see why some people jumped to the conclusion that turning white was depicted as positive within the context of the novel (although the query most certainly didn't say that).

But do people really feel it is reasonable for white people to tell non-white authors how they should deal with race issues?

part of my reason for submitting this here was because i wondered how a mostly white audience (and i assume here, but the folks with the pictures are all white) would react to the race part being so upfront in the query.

Well, I guess you found out. Sorry about that?

Anonymous said...

actually, now i'm at a bit of a crossroads.

the uproar got me to thinking that i could nix the race-change from the novel and focus on an african american kid, but as i think on it this morning, the whole sammy sosa, michael jackson, et. al. references are exactly my point: if a black guy lightens his skin tone, people start making all these assumptions and those assumptions have never been addressed in a novel, fantasy or otherwise, to my knowledge. isn't that exactly what people are always clamoring about: give us something new and unique?

so my problem now becomes, if stating the premise directly (african american kid's skin starts getting lighter because of a magical force) causes people to assume racism, what better manner is there to use when the issues and themes related to that change -- that very idea of racism -- are exactly the things i want to look into ( i mean, hell, we're talking everything from white guilt to black classism to the stigma felt by folks with diseases that change skin pigment, to the celebrity questions of mj and sammy sosa, that's stuff that makes for fascinating reading and, apparently, discussion).

as sylvia points out, and for which i thank her because i had thoughts along the same lines this morning, how can i help what people read into something that isn't expressed in any way in the query. if i had written that a cat magically turns into a dog, i doubt anyone would think i was saying one was better than the other; and i wonder, having a commenter make that leap so early in the discussion has clouded the view of the premise. focusing on howie (which i thought i had, mentioning his dislike of being told he's acting white - and someone wondered why that would be offensive to him, to be called an oreo, when the "acting white" phrase is taken from michelle obama when she told school kids how she used to be made fun of) doesn't let me skip the hook of the thing, namely that an african american's skin is getting lighter by non medical means and it's affecting his life.

- author

Anonymous said...

oh, and someone asked about his last name not being a mythical creature. john howard gryphon's name is actually just that, i thought it a nice coincidence to make reference to a white guy who cosmetically altered his race to explore race relations in the 1950s in a fantasy novel using a fantastic creature.

- author

Evil Editor said...

Of course there's a difference between a black kid's skin getting lighter and and a black kid turning into the alien being he was to begin with. Does he look like a human when he's in his original form?

Anonymous said...

EE- yes, everybody is human looking in the book. it really is a matter of a kid whose skin gets lighter and the assumptions people start making because of that change and how that affects his ability to stop a plot to take over the world and usurp the power of god, essentially.

i was just thinking about how little is made of white people tanning and the fury that comes up (at least in black communities) when an african american lightens his/her skin (beyonce, sosa, mj), and that's what's seeming to crop up in people's responses to the query opening line.

- author

Phoenix Sullivan said...

how can i help what people read into something that isn't expressed in any way in the query.

Which is exactly why getting reaction to your query from a lot of critical-thinking readers before you submit it is so important. People tend to assume things based on what they know or think they know. That last bit is what trips so many of us up. We know our story, our history and our research, but others are not so blessed. We have to proactively counter any false assumptions that may surface, not just assume that people won't jump to wrong conclusions.

A small example: One of my queries mentioned Vesuvius erupting in the 4th century. Much to my chagrin, a lot of people pointed out the date was wrong and so the rest of my history was automatically suspect. These folk knew Vesuvius erupted in the 1st century, but had no inkling it's blown its top 40 or 50 times since. They were operating from their knowledge base -- and because a one-time eruption was such a widely held assumption, I learned I would have to acknowledge that in my query and not phrase it in a way that could be misinterpreted. I did not change my story, but I DID change my query to better match the typical reader experience.

Had I not submitted that query for critique beforehand, I -- in my hubris -- would not have known I was possibly alienating a large percentage of my target readers with that single, simple statement.

Feel fortunate that you now know what unintended interpretations are coming from a broad spectrum of fairly well-informed readers. Your next query attempt will either sidestep these issues or relate them in a way that cannot be misconstrued by the typical reader doing a very fast read. And your query will be better for it.

none said...

Umm, psychopathy wasn't what I had in mind. But whatever.

Polenth said...

My first thought was a case I read where a woman turned white due to a medical condition. But the query disappointed because it didn't suggest Howie suffered any of the issues she suffered.

For me, it felt like you were offering me the chance at diversity... only to snatch it away and make the character a majority character with no real discussion of the race issues. It might be the book is discussing those issues (which the later comments suggest it might), but that wasn't clear for me in the query. The query suggests all the issues are down to dealing with new magic powers and religious problems.

Joseph said...

My comments regarding race issues were focused on the query, and obviously not the book itself. I would really like to see more fantasy / SF novels deal with these human issues. But the query struck me as:

Average black kid becomes magical white hero, and fights monsters.

If the focus is a thoughtful treatment of American race issues, then that needs to be loud and clear in the query, as opposed to the disjointed plot summary.

_*rachel*_ said...

When I read a book, I don't check the author photo first.

Chris Eldin said...

I think the author is being smart because now his book can be placed on both the white and black sections of the book stores.

You know you're on to something when minions start popping out of the woodwork.

And for the record, I don't want BT to grow up. He's fine just the way he is (though I'm sure his wife would prefer him potty trained. But still)

Anonymous said...

This is the author. Here's the rewrite. Comments are appreciated.

Dear Evil Editor:

An otherworldly war threatens a teen’s soul and his sanity, but he’s determined to serve God even if it makes him a demon.

THE CRYSTAL BLADE is a 110,000-word fantasy novel set in a sleepy Texas town thrust into a nightmare. Howie Gryphon is an African-American teen whose religious upbringing usually gets him picked on for “acting white” or being a “Bible thumper.”

Now it may get him killed.

After gaining divine powers, Howie sets out to learn if God has a higher purpose for him. That forces him to interact with kids he usually avoids, helping the high school freshman uncover teachers usurping students’ souls. He tries to stop them; a presence wakes in his mind. But what Howie fears is a demon may be his salvation.

The teachers are just one faction hunting for The Crystal Blade, a talisman key to a war on an enchanted world. Howie’s power is tied to The Blade; fighting the demon attracts more factions, who use souls as weapons. Howie can no longer afford to fight the demon. He must find a way to join it.

THE CRYSTAL BLADE combines fantasy, mythology, hip hop, and science in a unique story about diversity and faith. The book examines the changing American Dream, from classism in the black community to Christianity’s fundamentalist-progressive schism.

Howie symbolizes our search for identity and meaning; as he questions his worth, he confronts the key issue of modern life: what is morality in a world of diverse ideals?

Joseph said...

well, you've "solved" the racial issue by avoiding it. It's your call whether that's the best approach.

The new query is still light on story. There are many basic questions unanswered:

How does he get powers? What powers? Who is the antagonist? What events take place?

The query is still too vague. You say he "sets out" and "uncovers" and "helps" and "interacts" and "tries." Give us some concrete plot points.

Evil Editor said...

The first paragraph isn't needed; the second and third are a fine hook.

P.4 is the problem. The 2nd sentence isn't clear, the power gaining is too abrupt, and the last two sentences are vague. I'd go with something like:

When he suddenly gains divine powers, Howie decides God has a higher purpose for him. He learns that teachers at the local high school are usurping students’ souls, and resolves to stop them.

(The power gaining is still sudden, but this way it's sudden to Howie; your way sounds like he purposefully went out and gained divine powers.)

Having knocked the demon out of the query, we'll have to alter p.5 a bit:

The teachers are just one faction hunting for The Crystal Blade, a talisman key to a war on an enchanted world . . . and the source of Howie's power. Now Howie must [find the blade?] and [use it to send the warring factions back to Neverland?] or [Texas will disappear?].

The final two paragraphs are okay if you're submitting to a Christian/Inspirational publisher. Otherwise I wouldn't put so much into the themes. Give us enough plot and we'll figure out the themes.

Anonymous said...

i'm reluctant to take out the first line. I don't want folks to think it's simply a pro-christian polemic and hoped the explicit use of serving god/becoming a demon would keep that from happening.

- author

Evil Editor said...

Actually, it was the first line that made it sound--to me--like a Christian/Inspirational book.

Anonymous said...

you know, what's tripping me up is your comment about liking 8-10 lines of plot. to add as much specificity as folks want seems to drives it way past the 10-line mark. but the 10-line mark makes for a nice-sized middle paragraph.

- author

Sylvia said...

I like the sleepy Texan town thrust into a nightmare, highlighting the scale of the conflict.

But then it gets really confusing...

"After gaining divine powers" - how is it that he knows they are divine but doesn't know whether he has a higher purpose? I think this could still be improved by describing the specific powers rather than categorising them.

"That forces him " reads oddly and we have kids and then a specific one but you tell us his year not who he is - I'm not sure that sentence really carries the weight it could. Personally, I'd rather simply be told his name and a fast description (one of the bullies?) and then an explanation of what he does (confides in Howie?) . Or even skip the other kid and tell us what the problem is (teachers are usurping students' souls) and that Howie sets out to stop them. I would then separate out the result without the salvation reference : A presence wakes in his mind: a demon who (tells/taunts/teaches) Howie about the Crystal Blade.

150 said...

Use specific sentences INSTEAD of general sentences, and the query doesn't get any longer. Made-up example:

He tries to stop them; a presence wakes in his mind.


When he locks them in the basement, he gets a piercing headache and booming voice in his head.

Good luck!

Robin B. said...

Dammit. I'm missing the good commment trail stuff here. I was better off without my own blog. It's more fun here.

Robin B. said...

Oh - and reading through the comments, I note that there were some good old-fashioned gutless anons in the crowd. As per usual.

Anonymous said...

this is the author and my re-write. any opinions are appreciated:

Dear Evil Editor:

To stop an arcane war from destroying our world, one teen must choose between saving his soul or keeping his sanity.

THE CRYSTAL BLADE is a 107,000-word fantasy novel set in a sleepy Texas town thrust into a nightmare. It’s home to Howie Gryffin, an African-American teen whose religious upbringing usually gets him picked on. Now it may get him killed.

Howie cherishes his family’s eccentric views even though they get him called “Bible thumper” and “Uncle Tom.” But when teachers start forming rival armies by imbuing students with power, his religion warns of spiritual warfare; when Howie starts moving objects by thinking, he knows God has chosen him to stop the war.

Howie sets out to learn about the teachers, even as a voice in his head tries to usurp his mind. But what he believes is a demon may be the only way to save a magical world, a world where souls are used as weapons.

An alliance has formed to find The Crystal Blade, a talisman needed to repel a despot or reveal a savior. Competing goals have split the alliance, and some factions are drawn to Earth by a power once wielded by the despot and savior — Howie’s power.

When the factions reveal themselves as the source of people’s power, Howie’s faith is shaken. The demon offers to help … if Howie abandons his mind. If not, it promises to help those factions claim his soul.

THE CRYSTAL BLADE explores faith, identity, and how we decide what’s right in a world of diverse beliefs. Blending myth, science, literature, and philosophy, it’s a coming-of-age story about how a change of heart can help change the world.

Dave Fragments said...

I think this paragraph is a problem: An alliance has formed to find The Crystal Blade, a talisman needed to repel a despot or reveal a savior. Competing goals have split the alliance, and some factions are drawn to Earth by a power once wielded by the despot and savior — Howie’s power.
It's just OK.

First off, we were reading about Howie. This kinda jumps into something else. (not really but for a few words.
Second, the Alliance is already broken. Saying it is formed and then breaks apart doesn't help the query. The important part is that it is broken.
So perhaps you need to merely say that two groups want Harry's powers to wield the "Crystal Blade" which will reveal Howie as a savior or a demon. That makes Howie the primum mobile' of it all.

BTW - this version of the query is very good.

Evil Editor said...

If the teachers are imbuing students with power, how does Howie know the teachers didn't give him the power to move objects by thinking? By "power" I assume you mean superhuman powers?

When you say "Howie's power" at the end of p.5, do you mean his ability to move objects by thinking?

I don't think it's clear early enough that a place other than Earth is a major part of the story.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

An alliance has formed to find The Crystal Blade, a talisman needed to repel a despot or reveal a savior. Competing goals have split the alliance, and some factions are drawn to Earth by a power once wielded by the despot and savior — Howie’s power.

This paragraph seemed like it cane out of nowhere. It might be better to lead with Howie and not with the Blade.

_*rachel*_ said...

Much, much better.

I get confused at "an alliance...." What you're saying is that nobody's sure whether he's turning despot or savior. The evil alliance gives him a choice: join them as the despot and live, or be the savior. But if he becomes the savior (of what?), they'll make sure he loses his mind and everything else he cares about.

This is difficult to clarify, but I think I've got a general idea of what's going on--and that idea is pretty compelling, like the first sentence of this query.

Matt said...

You had me at the beginning, but you lost me as it dragged on. I also didn't like the crystal blade paragraph, but I started losing interest in the one before it.

Anonymous said...

this is the author. any suggestions are appreciated:

Dear Evil Editor:

To stop a war from destroying two worlds, a teen must choose between saving his soul and keeping his sanity.

THE CRYSTAL BLADE is a 107,000-word fantasy novel set in a sleepy Texas town that’s forced into a nightmare.

Two worlds depend on Howie Gryffin, a high school freshman whose religion usually gets him picked on. Now it may get him killed.

Howie loves his family’s unorthodox beliefs, even if he’s called “Bible thumper” and “Uncle Tom.” When he miraculously heals from an injury, he thinks God has a higher purpose for him.

He learns he can move things with a thought and even bring them to life … but he finds no purpose.
His faith falters — and a voice in his head threatens him.

It’s a demon, according to Howie’s faith, but fighting it lures deadlier foes. Howie is actually from a world where souls are weapons; he is either that world’s savior or nemesis, and only The Crystal Blade can reveal the truth.

Factions from that world are searching for The Blade, and Howie’s power brings their clashes to Earth. Howie fears a spiritual war has begun.

He thinks his purpose is to stop the battle even if he must make a deal with a demon trying to usurp his mind. Otherwise, he will lose a war threatening his soul.

THE CRYSTAL BLADE explores how we decide what’s right in a world of diverse beliefs. Blending myth, science, literature, and philosophy, it’s a coming-of-age story about growing up in a complex world without giving up what makes us unique.

Evil Editor said...

I don't see this all fitting on one page when it has so many blank lines.

I recommend you drop the first three paragraphs as well as paragraphs 7 and 8. Add Howie's last name to paragraph 4, and the word count to paragraph 9.

Anonymous said...

actually, it's shorter than all but the previous one or two entries i originally gave and the plot is two lines fewer than the plot i gave in the previous version. but is all on one page. i just added the lines of space to make it easier to read.

- author.

Evil Editor said...

There should be lines of space if it's on paper, as well. In any case, it's a far superior query if you cut out the five paragraphs I suggested. There's nothing of value in them.

Dave Fragments said...

The first and third paragraphs say nearly the same thing:
1: To stop a war from destroying two worlds
3: Two worlds depend

1: a teen must choose
3: a high school freshman

1: his soul and keeping his sanity
3: it may get him killed

Then you repeat Howie's name in Paragraph 4. And at that point, I agree with EE, paragraph 4 is the superior paragraph to open with. Why? because it starts with Howie and presents his internal dilemma as the meat of the story. Howie is the story. The story isn't the crystal blade or the two worlds drawn together. Those two things are what Hitchcock called McGuffin. They make the story work. The emotional story, the big payoff of the novel is Howie's decision.

Anonymous said...

this is the author. here's a rewrite. any comments are appreciated.

Dear Evil Editor:

Howie Gryffin loves his family’s unorthodox beliefs, even if he’s called “Bible thumper” and “Uncle Tom” in high school. When he brings objects to life, he thinks God has a higher purpose for him. When he fails to find it, his faith wavers — and a voice in his head tries to usurp his mind.

Howie’s faith has warned of such demons, but fighting it lures deadlier foes. For Howie is either the savior or nemesis of a world where souls are weapons; factions seek The Crystal Blade to reveal or destroy him, and Howie’s power has led them to Earth.

It’s the start of a spiritual doomsday foretold in Howie’s faith, but the demon has a way to avert the war … if Howie surrenders his mind.

THE CRYSTAL BLADE is a 107,000-word fantasy novel about faith, identity, and how we decide what’s right in a world of diverse beliefs. Blending myth, science, literature, and philosophy, the coming-of-age story shows how living in a complex world shouldn’t mean losing what makes us unique.

Matthew said...

I thought the sentences got a little vague as they went on. It sounds okay, but if I were a publisher I'd probably pass it over knowing there were hundreds more waiting in the inbox.

Evil Editor said...

It's certainly better than the previous versions. I can see it generating some interest.

Sarah Laurenson said...

1st para: Why Uncle Tom? That doesn't go with Bible Thumper for me. Other than that - this one is good.

2nd para: I deliberately did not refresh my memory on your original query. This para confused me a bit and was hard to digest. You have room to flesh this out a bit more and clarify what you're trying to say. The 2nd sentence is a bit long and convoluted.

3rd para: Like this one a lot. Love the hook and how it's presented.

4th para: Went on a bit long for me and seems like you're repeating some information. I think this can be tightened up a bit and give some more words to the 2nd para.

That's my opinion on this version.

Ellie said...

The query doesn't work for me. I'm going to give a line-by-line accounting of my responses, so you can see the parts where I find it unclear.

Howie Gryffin loves his family’s unorthodox beliefs, even if he’s called “Bible thumper” and “Uncle Tom” in high school.
What do "unorthodox beliefs" mean in this context? He's part of some new Christian denomination?

When he brings objects to life, he thinks God has a higher purpose for him.
"Brings objects to life" is far too vague. He can move things with his mind? Create sentient marionettes? Plus, all I can think of when I read that phrase is "We bring good things to life."

When he fails to find it, his faith wavers — and a voice in his head tries to usurp his mind.
Why would his faith waver because he can't find (I think maybe "see" or "understand" works better) God's purpose for him? Are his powers causing him problems? Are they directly contradicting what his religion teaches? God does all kinds of things we can't understand. Why is this thing a problem?

Howie’s faith has warned of such demons, but fighting it lures deadlier foes.
I know what you mean, but grammatically, this sentence says that fighting his faith lures deadlier foes.

For Howie is either the savior or nemesis of a world where souls are weapons;
What world? Are we not on Earth?

factions seek The Crystal Blade to reveal or destroy him,
Reveal who? Howie? What does "reveal" mean in this context?

and Howie’s power has led them to Earth.
Led who? How? Why? What does Howie have to do with any of this?

It’s the start of a spiritual doomsday foretold in Howie’s faith, but the demon has a way to avert the war … if Howie surrenders his mind.
Up until this point you've only said what happens to Howie and very little of what he actually does. Ending with him having to surrender makes it sound like he's a passive pawn through the whole book. 

Blending myth, science, literature, and philosophy,
This is so vague as to be pointless.

the coming-of-age story shows how living in a complex world shouldn’t mean losing what makes us unique.
This makes it sound like an after-school special.

I'm not trying to be mean, but rather trying to show the questions someone would have reading this for the first time. I know how hard it is to simultaneously establish character/motivation and explain a whole fantasy world/war in a few paragraphs, but I don't think you've pulled it off here yet.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

I thought this was a definite improvement. I could see this generating some interest.

Joanna said...

I find this version interesting, but I liked the first one better; the race questin was very interesting as well as provocative..
Re this version: . I would normally assume that Bible-thumpers were orthodox. Maybe a little more specificity would help.

Anonymous said...

this is the author with a rewrite. any comments are appreciated:

Dear Evil Editor:

Howie Gryffin is an easy target in high school, called cult freak and Uncle Tom for believing Jesus saved many worlds. Faith is his refuge — until objects move at his whim and a voice offers more power.

His faith teaches that the power is divine but the voice is demonic, forcing Howie to doubt his beliefs. He sets out for answers, finding wizards from a world where souls are weapons. The wizards need The Crystal Blade to stop a despot from ending all life. Their search has led to the tyrant: Howie.

Repressed by magic disguised as religion, he will be killed if he doesn’t gain more power. He will destroy us all if he does.

THE CRYSTAL BLADE is a 107,000-word fantasy novel about morality and diversity. Blending ideas ranging from Santeria and string theory to Alice in Wonderland and Atlas Shrugged, the story examines how we define what’s right in a world of diverse beliefs.

Steve Wright said...

I think this latest version is too heavily condensed, and possibly over-dramatic in tone. I went "bwuh? What? What's going on?" several times during the second paragraph, and the third paragraph looks like the tagline for a movie, not part of a query letter.

I'd also seriously consider leaving out all the literary comparisons and influences. Having read the original, and now this version, I get the impression your book is a hybrid of Finnegans Wake, Atlas Shrugged and Alice in Wonderland, and that idea's doing my head in. Less comparison and more explanation, please!

Matthew said...

Needs clarity. I'm not sure what's going on.

I know it's frustrating, but keep at it.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

"many worlds"? Is this interplanetary?

"His faith teaches that the power is divine but the voice is demonic, forcing Howie to doubt his beliefs." Actually, powers like that sound like witchcraft, and Christianity would probably say, "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." How does he determine that the voice is demonic?

"The wizards need The Crystal Blade to stop a despot from ending all life." This might be a good time to insert a quick explanation of what the blade is. "The crystal blade, a knife forged from the crystal skull of a long dead alien king, to stop..."

"He will destroy us all if he does" The problem with saying 'us' is that you give the impression this story occurs in the real world. It's fiction.

I feel I must agree wtih Steve that comparing your book to acknowledged classics can go very, very wrong, especially if you don't explain the similarities.

Ellie said...

I think you're still giving too much setup and not enough of the stakes.

This might help as a potential outline:

Howie Gryffin's Christian faith is a refuge from high school bullying and taunts. But it offers no comfort when he's suddenly able to move objects with his mind, and hears a strange voice in his head.

Unable to decide if these changes are demonic or divine, Howie [does something] to get answers. It turns out that he has these powers because [reason]. [Specific entities (humans? demons? aliens? fairies?)] from another world are hunting him to use his powers [to do something.]

Howie must [overcome enemy or obstacle] in order to [do something successfully] so he can [realize goal.] If he can't, [specific consequences.]

Anonymous said...

this is the author:

i do wonder if folks are comparing earlier posts to this one and losing something in the translation.

like the question "is this interplanetary?" why would someone assume it is not unless it was being compared to an earlier version, see what i mean?

that's also why i don't mention christianity specifically. it does involve two worlds, EE said in an earlier post that i need to point that out early so figured i'd do so with the hint of jesus saving other worlds as the reason people say he is in a cult. that's the same reason i don't call him christian: christians don't see this kind of phenomenon as godly and would call folks who do as being in a cult; it is his religion that tells him these things are divine/demonic, which is stated pretty plainly in the query, i thought. i had just put "strange faith" or "unorthodox faith" in an earlier post but someone said it wasn't specific enough.

i wonder about the idea of comparing myself to other literature. it seems like if i said "the book is like" or "it would appeal to", or as i did in the first query "based on yadda yadda" fine, i'm setting myself up. but to say i borrow ideas from various places doesn't seem like a comparison (no one said i was comparing myself to santeria or string theory, for instance). i thought the idea of blending so many ideas would show the uniqueness of the book.

thanks, though. i'm going to keep plugging at it, though it might be a while before i repost something.

Evil Editor said...

You're going to get useful comments and comments from people who never read this genre, people who don't know what they're talking about, 8-year-old kids, etc. Your job is to use what's helpful and ignore the rest.

Ellie said...

i thought the idea of blending so many ideas would show the uniqueness of the book.

The thing is, the book is ultimately what sells the book. The query letter doesn't so much sell the book as sell the agent on the idea of reading the book. A good query letter says: "I am not a crazy person. This book is complete and has a clear vision and structure. Reading this will not be a waste of your time."

If your description of the book leaves the agent confused, talking about all the different influences is going to make it worse, not better. It'll look like your story is a big mishmash of ideas without any coherent narrative arc. Nobody wants to spend time reading a really unique blend of subjects if it doesn't eventually go somewhere and wrap up sensibly. (Unless you really love Robert Anton Wilson. (I kid, I kid.))

Make sure the first part of your query shows that you have written a compelling story that's worth reading because it's just a darn good story. Then you can ice the cake with how unique it is.

(Just my two cents, of course. Like EE says, take what's helpful and ignore the rest.)

Unknown said...

Keep working on it.

You have lost some of the voice and, well, the uniqueness of this in this last revision. You've also switched detail for vagueness.

The main plot point that is now missing is that Howie is something more than your average kid. Tell me that because I can't tell why HE's the one to save or doom the worlds in the current version.

How about something like:

Seventeen Howie Gryffin's belief that Jesus saved alien nations in addition to Earth-bound souls makes him an easy target for ridicule in high school. But then Howie's skin changes color reverting to its alien appearance and he moves objects with a thought.

XY, the demon, whispers to Howie that he can have even more power with his assistance. In resisting XY's influence Howie attracts an otherworldly war to Earth. XY tells Howie he must find the Crystal Blade, a talisman needed to repel a despot or reveal a savior if the souls of Earth are to be saved.

- ---

It's a start. I still don't have a good idea of who the main antagonist is and why he wants the Blade.

Good luck,

Repressed by magic disguised as religion, he will be killed if he doesn’t gain more power. He will destroy us all if he does.