Thursday, July 29, 2010

Face-Lift 802

Guess the Plot

Book of the Baba Yaga

1. Dmitri's family died in the Holocaust. All he has is a battered copy of "The Book of the Baba Yaga" to guide him to his Russian roots. Can Svetlana from the library help him--or is she trying to thwart him?

2. Young Baba was sent by her parents to learn magic with the local witch. But when famine strikes, the witch declares her intent to eat Baba to survive. With the help of another captive, a handsome boy, Baba must use what little magic she's learned to trick the witch and escape before she's turned into brisket.

3. 13-year-old Samantha is invited to attend Dr. Xenon's Olympic archery training facility, which is also the tree-dwelling Baba Yaga's home. Xenon is responsible for making the Olympic medals, using gold he creates from souls in hell. When Sam discovers her friend Jonah, who's been missing two years, is in hell, she heads off to rescue him. Think Dante's Inferno for the middle school crowd.

4. Tessa wants to be Prom Queen but she's short, plump, and homely--until she finds a mysterious book of beauty secrets that really work. The first time she uses it, her complexion clears but her best friend is covered in zits. She tries the spells for glossy hair and a slimmer waist; other friends get bald and fat, confirming that not only do the beauty tips work, each comes with an unexpected bonus.

5. It wasn't enough that David's brother became Oxford's youngest ever linguistics professor, admired for his abstract ravings. Now the little toddler has a book contract. Will David expose his parents' intention to replace the English language with gibberish before publication?

6. To read the book of Baba Yaga is to have your eyes opened--quite literally--to every ghoul and spirit visiting our plane. But to survive the experience you must not only finish the book, you must pass it on to the next unsuspecting soul. When Father Gregory happens upon the book he must decide whether to die or damn another to his fate.

Original Version

Dear Agent,

I am seeking representation for my middle reader fantasy, BOOK OF THE BABA YAGA. In this story of alchemy, wealth and mystery, thirteen-year-old Samantha Liffey must cross a forbidden Gate and journey through Hell – literally – to save a friend from losing his soul.

Thirteen-year-old uber-archer Sam [Are you going to tell us her age every time you mention her? She's 13. We got it.] is super excited when she qualifies for top-secret, exclusive Xenith Academy, where the world’s leading young athletes train for the Olympics. [How can a place remain top-secret, if the world’s leading young athletes regularly go there?] From the moment she arrives in the Baba Yaga’s treetop cabin with a talking doll as her guide, she's engulfed in a world like nothing she ever imagined. [I can't tell if you've jumped ahead three chapters or if it's the normal chain of events for someone going to Xenith Academy to be guided to the Baba Yaga's treetop cabin by a talking doll. Also, you might want to identify the Baba Yaga for those who never heard the name. You throw it in like you expect us to know who/what the Baba Yaga is and why Sam is in the Baba Yaga's cabin. What you need is to start that sentence with a transitional phrase that lets us know you haven't switched to a different novel. Something like: But instead of the Academy, her guide whisks her off to the treetop cabin of the evil witch known as . . . the Baba Yaga!] [Or: Arriving on the Academy campus, Sam is taken to her archery instructor, a strict disciplinarian who lives in a tree and is known only by the terror-inducing name . . . Baba Yaga!] [Note that in both cases I left out the part about her guide being a talking doll.] [Although now that I think about it, Baba Yaga does sound like something a talking doll would say.] [Baba Yaga being introduced to Lady Gaga by Lady Gaga's daughter: "Baba Yaga, Mama Gaga. Mama Gaga, Baba Yaga."]

Dr. Xenon, president of the Academy, has a remarkable skill: he makes gold using soul energy, or qi, in the land beyond a forbidden Gate. [If you don't want people going through your Gate, you probably shouldn't keep capitalizing the word "Gate." Human nature dictates that people who would totally ignore a gate will do anything in their power to pass through a Gate.] That’s where Olympic medals come from, [Does qi also make silver and bronze?] and there’s plenty left over to make the Academy extremely wealthy. But Sam’s dreams of Olympic gold begin to crumble when she’s sucked into the search for her childhood friend Jonah, who vanished after sneaking into Dr. Xenon’s laboratory two years ago. [Did Sam know about this all along?] With the help of her friends, she figures out how to get through the Gate, only to discover it leads to Hell. [How can she tell where it leads? Is there a sign? A road paved with good intentions?] Inside, soul eating monsters are on the prowl. They steal qi from anyone brave enough – or stupid enough – to enter. Sam’s journey grows more difficult when Hell turns out to be as psychological as it is physical. [Drop that sentence or give a specific example.] Even Sam’s own sister turns out to be a far different person than the girl Sam thought she knew. [Where did that come from? What's her sister doing in this top-secret place?] Sam must find a way to rescue Jonah [Did she happen to bring her bow and arrows when she went through the Gate?] without losing those she loves, all the while struggling to accept painful truths about herself and her family. [Sis and family haven't even been in the query, and now they're brought in like they're of vital importance. Get rid of them.]

Loosely based on Dante’s Inferno and Slavic mythology, BOOK OF THE BABA YAGA is complete at 63,000 words. I would be delighted to send you a partial or a full manuscript should you be interested.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


First of all, the opening paragraph is a waste of space. There's nothing in it that you don't repeat later on. Get rid of it.

The International Olympic Committee is extremely touchy about things like claiming their medals are forged in hell. Maybe Sam should be looking into the World Junior Archery Championships.

It sounds like the main plot is rescuing Jonah. If Sam accepted the invitation to the Academy knowing that Jonah vanished from it two years earlier, and hoping to solve the mystery, make that clear early on.

What was Jonah doing in Xenon's lab two years ago? The place is top-secret. Was he an aspiring Olympic athlete too? I don't see how a world-class athlete could vanish forever from Xenith Academy, and the place still be top-secret. It should have been in the news for weeks.

Is it called Book of the Baba Yaga because there's an important book involved, or just because it is a book?

Can anyone remember the last time we had a query that wasn't set partially in hell?


Eric said...

With that title, I want some more about Baba Yaga herself, or at least her book. As it was, I was disappointed to see that, in the query at least, B.Y. has seemingly retired from the kid-eating business and is running a boarding house for young athletes. An incidental character in her own book--And no chicken feet? This won't do.

Being trapped by an ancient Slavic witch who's planning to eat you is, to me at least, a lot more scary and exciting than a rehash of Dante's Inferno and hidden passages in a school. Imagine a combination of GTP 1, 2, and 6-- now that's some good stuff.

Of course, I'm saying all this as a sucker for Slavic folklore, but that's the kind of person who's likely to pick up a book with that title.

EE, I join the ranks of the coffee-spewers at the introduction of Yaga to Gaga.

angela robbins said...

EE, the entire "Baba Yaga, Mama Gaga. Mama Gaga, Baba Yaga" was frigging hilarious. I don't drink coffee, but my monitor is not spittle free!

Sarah from Hawthorne said...

There are so many elements going on here. Olympic junior archers, qi from dead souls being turned into gold, Baba Yaga and talking dolls, trips to hell, long lost friends and mysterious family members. There's no reason why it can't all work, but right now it just comes across as a confusing mishmash.

The biggest question I'm left with is why on earth a man who can make gold would use his wealth to make Olympic medals and fund a camp for athletic youngsters instead of, oh, say, buying his own island nation where he can create even more gold in peace.

Anonymous said...

Hell is clearly the new vampire. Which begs the question, what's next? Cannibals? Laywers? Phlegm?

Stephen Prosapio said...

This whole thing just doesn't make any sense.

Author you've got us asking all of the WRONG kinds of questions:

- How and (and maybe more confusing) why is an Olympic training camp top secret?

- If it's top secret, then how did Sam know Jonah went there? If she didn't know, how did she learn it?

- Why is she sneaking past the Gate when Jonah disappeared in the laboratory?

- Where did Sam's sister come from?

The collection between all these elements may be clear in your mind but they're not making any sense to us. We should have to guess at your plot in a query.

Dave Fragments said...

You will hear me ask this question more than once. What am I reading about here? Is this really suitable YA or MG reading?

What do we want the kid to learn from Samantha's struggle?

An interest in The Divine Comedy?
A fascination with "Pictures at an Exhibition?"
An exploration of Russian mythology?

Sorry, but this question is on my mind this week. If we dress a concept up in magic and fantasy what topic isn't suitable for YA or
MG literature?

And to the author, Sorry. You aren't an afterthought but I will ask the same questions I asked in a previous query -- What is it about Samantha that I can focus on and want to spend 200 to 300 pages reading. What lesson is the kid going to learn?

BTW - I'm not being prudish. I have showed teens "The Emerald Forest" because of its conservation aspects. If you ever see the movie, you will realize that there are lots of bare female breasts and the movie highlights the maturity of the characters involved.

And I've shown kids Bruce Willis's profanity filled "Die Hard." in which all the action is cartoonish TSTL.

Joe G said...

To be honest, the problem for me is that you haven't taken the fantasy to a logical point. You have interesting elements in your story (a scientist who can manipulate matter, a girl who descends into hell to save a friend), but I'm not buying the motivations. Why is the guy manufacturing gold from the souls of hell? It just seems like such a prosaic use for the powers of alchemy... first of all, the guy has proof of hell. And of a soul. And he uses it to make gold for, for some reason, Olympic medals? What? How does a 13 year old girl get to the Olympics? What? I could believe gymnastics... Why does this story involve the Olympics at all? It feels incidental. Is archery like, a weapon for her? I've always thought archery was the worst weapon a fantasy character could have. I keep wondering when the arrows are going to run out. Unless you're a cartoon character, or only use them at the last second because you have spiritual powers.

Also, you have two different plots and you haven't demonstrated how they relate to one another. The introduction of the "psychological horror of hell" towards the end strengthens the suspicion that there isn't a logical progression to your story.

Look, you have a villain: the scientist. You have a heroine on a quest. I don't know if it all comes together in the book, but it isn't in the query. It sounds like Inuyasha crossed with The Golden Compass.

I don't really care about Baba Yaga. Frankly I'm not sure why she's in the story at all, or how she made it into the title.

Maura said...

I was first struck by a pretty clear idea that "Olympics," etc. are trademarks, and a visit to the International Trademark Association seems to confirm this ( Like EE, I don't think this is a use the IOC is going to be anxious to approve, and echo his suggestion you might select a different name for your tournament.

Meanwhile, I'm left feeling like this query is missing important pieces of information. Why does Xenon have to go to Hell to get gold to make Olympic medals? Is this an alternate universe? Why can't the gold just be mined in the usual fashion? Is it part of some sinister plot to capture the souls of the victors, or what? If there's a reason for it, it ought to be stated in the query; otherwise it just seems like a plot hole.

I was also puzzled by the sudden appearance of the sister in the last paragraph, and by the use of "qi." That's an Asian philosophy and a little bit odd popping up in a plot that seems to draw on "The Snow Queen." There's just... so much going on here. If this query were a contestant on Project Runway, Tim Gunn would say it was a lot of look. Pick the important story elements, set your scene/world, and lay it out up front.

Author of BOTBY said...

Hi everyone,
Thank you all for your feedback - you've been extremely helpful! You've outlined the exact problems I was struggling with when writing this query, and made them very clear to me. I definitely need to downplay the Baba Yaga and am thinking up new titles. I see where it's confusing, and I'm definitely going to work on it. The villain of the story is based on Madoff, and the idea is that he runs this school in order to harvest souls to fuel an army (hey, it is fantasy, I'm allowed zombies), not to make gold - they actually are just stealing it (by using the army). Kids provide souls, souls raise the army, army steals gold. I guess that's the basic plot. One kid gets too curious, problems ensue.
I love all of your feedback, even the stuff that at first made me bristle (Anonymous's comment about hell - I had no idea it was so trendy). But even that, I love, because it's helped me to see there's no real reason for that. I think I'll cut the whole hell thing right out. So there, Dante's Inferno!
You're fabulous. Thank you for taking the time and energy to read my query, and a HUGE thank you to Evil Editor for doing this. I wish I could get you all cocktails!

Anonymous said...

Don't ax hell because of one comment--it was just a lame joke!

Okay, swear to God, (no pun intended) the word veri is "damin"

Joe G said...

Well, the last three queries have also been Hell stories, so it's hard to miss :P I still think your villain has awfully prosaic goals. Does he want to build an army of Olympic hell spawn or something so he can harvest gold? I just don't really get it.

M. G. E. said...

...So the whole thing is an allegory for Bernie Madoff and his pyramid scheme?

When I finished reading the query the word that came to mind was "mishmash."

Why the olympics?

People are saying your query doesn't make a lot of sense; that's because there's no sense of logical cause and effect throughout.

Also, you don't need to mention everything in your plot, especially if it's going to confuse us. You can gloss over plot details for the sake of clarity and space--include just the central conflict and its elements.

Grateful Author Again said...

yep - hear you on your comments. Thanks so much again for taking the time to read this, will be reworking based on all of your valuable comments and feedback. I appreciate the time you took to do it.

My villian wants to be wealthy, respected, important, the guy who takes care of everyone, indestructible, etc. Pretty much what I imagine was the motivation of Madoff - and most villians. I don't think most villians go out there saying "I want to be the epitome of evil" - they want to be what everyone thinks of as great. It is kind of prosaic, I agree - but that's sort of the point, how quickly one can shift from being your average person to being Madoff.

150 said...

Hi, author. Try writing out what happens, in order, in short, clear sentences. I think a lot of query writers get caught up in trying to make things sound mysterious when it's much more important just to get across what is happening to whom.

Author Again said...

150 - thanks - will definitely try that! Appreciate the suggestion. I've already changed the title, and I'm debating on whether to discard Hell or not. We'll see!
Thanks for all your help, everyone.