Monday, December 12, 2011

Face-Lift 975

Guess the Plot

Daughter of the Woods

1. Each Spring the elves of V'Larnye drug a strong young male and tie him to the Brach tree, where he will wait to be taken away by the Daughter of the Woods, never to return. When Evar'D is chosen as the sacrifice, he is resigned to his fate...until he sees what has come for him. Also, a talking owl.

2. Bob and Terry Woods were thrilled to finally have a daughter, but OMG, Missy grew so fast: at age twelve she's over six feet tall and weighs almost 300 pounds. Terry made her a grizzly bear costume for Halloween and that was fun, but now she won't take it off. Plus, she's hoarding apples and walnuts in a den out behind the shed. Bob wonders: is she part Sasquatch?

3. Having been labeled a criminal, Cassie flees into the woods, pursued by an entity that will stop at nothing to destroy her. That's about it. She's in the woods. And she's somebody's daughter.

4. Hank and Myra Woods's two-year-old daughter, Jayden, is just as cute as she can be. But why have the cats run away, and why does the poodle quiver and yelp whenever Jayden comes near it? And why has the family's hard drive melted?

5. Pinocchio gets a hardwood action-figure girlfriend who sets out to clean the toyshop using the apprentice's broom, but it turns out to be cursed. Plus, a witchey cat.

6. Ann is the pride of the Woods family. She graduates summa cum laude and works for the State Department. Bureaucracy is so boring that she also works as a CIA assassin. Then State sends her to peaceful Bhutan. Desperate for action, Ann sneaks out at night and murders innocent people.

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor,

I appreciate your review of this middle grade query which melds Native American fantasy and a coming of age adventure, together in a dystopian milieu.

Like others in the Great Forest, fourteen year-old Cassie's face is etched with a mystical tattoo that aims to define her. When it labels the timid girl a criminal, however, her life changes. [So the tattoo changes from day to day?] Now, fleeing the dark order that marked her, she travels a dangerous road. Her fledgling talent to weave spirits with animals could protect her, or embroil her so deeply in a rebellion that the Blessed will stop at nothing to destroy her. [Who's rebelling against whom? Who is the Blessed? What happens when you weave a spirit with an animal? Why would a dark order mark Cassie as a criminal?]

Her mentor, White Feather, finally catches up, but only hastens the impending collision [Who's colliding with whom?] when he sends her to find his friend, Danvin. [Why does he send her to find Danvin?] Cassie discovers he's been imprisoned, and must choose between her own safety and the wellbeing of those she loves. [She doesn't love Danvin, so how is that her choice?] Like her father once said, "Even when no choice is good, you still have to make one." [Father was a master of the obvious. We can do without him in the query.] No one's surprise could top her own as she rushes headlong back toward the fortress she had escaped. [What fortress? There's been no mention of a fortress.] In the end, she unearths secrets, not just about the Blessed and her forest home, but about a strength hidden within her.

DAUGHTER OF THE WOODS is a tale of confidence and perseverance. Complete at 48,000 words, this fantasy adventure stands by itself, and also has strong series potential.


I realize you're writing to an adult, but I expect the tone of a query for a middle-grade book to be lighter. This sounds like a query for literary fiction. Let's start by getting rid of the first sentence. We want to focus on Cassie. You can meld stuff in a milieu at the end if you absolutely must.

There's way too much vagueness. I can't say I know much about what happens in your book. Here's my guess:

Imprisoned in a fortress, fourteen-year-old Cassie wakes to find the mystical tattoo on her face has morphed into a scarlet "C", labeling her a criminal. Knowing this means she'll be hanged at dawn, she escapes into the Great Forest where her mentor, White Feather, sends her to find his friend Danvin, just to get rid of her. Sort of like the Wizard of Oz making Dorothy go get the witch's broomstick. Turns out Danvin is imprisoned in the fortress, so Cassie breaks back in to rescue him. She gets him out and he reveals to her that the Forest is enchanted and she is destined to become the legendary . . . Daughter of the Woods.

Turns out I didn't need to mention the Blessed in this version. That's probably a good thing.

Start over. Tell us what happens and why, focusing on Cassie. What are her goals and obstacles? What happens if she fails? Tell us the story in clear language that convinces us you can write in a voice that would appeal to a twelve-year-old.


AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Hi, writer. I write middle grades. I sell middle grades. Even though I'm previously published by Big Mega Publisher, I sell roughly half of what I write.

My point? This field is super-duper-competitive-as-hell. You don't have to be as good as what's out there to sell. You have to be better.

Native American fantasy could work for MG, but the problem is it's often been written in such a misty, distant voice that it's not accessible, not even to Native American children, and kids don't get excited about it.

EE is right. The voice isn't suggesting that the story will grab the target audience, and the vagueness isn't serving you.

Rewrite in a more MG friendly voice and be way more specific. Focus on Cassie. Repeat. Focus on Cassie.

Anonymous said...

What EE said. Using descriptions that are more concrete and less romantic would help. It's nice that you love nature and Native American legends etc. but the query should focus on what happens in the book.

The nature of the tattoo and what's going on with that isn't clear, and it seems to be a key part of your plot so telling more about it would help. Also, I'm foggy on the nature of her danger and her plan to deal with it.

Victor Bondar said...

I can see you do have a story. I think you are trying to tell it in your query to show us full arch of your MS, but you don't have to do this. You'd be better off concentrating on Cassie and your "hook".

vkw said...

I would like to read EE's story.

That's a good query. The author's query is confusing.

I would stay with the MC throughout the query. I want also to know why the mentor sends her to Danvin.

And, I want to know why the Mentor sends Cassie to FREE Danvin. Why isn't he doing it? Maybe he doesn't know Danvin is a prisoner. If this is the case, then I think that needs to be made clear.

White Feather finds her (catches up sounds like they are in a foot race) and sends her to his friend Danvin for safety. Unbenownst to Cassie's mentor, Danvin is being held inside a fortress.

Clearly a mentor would be better a choice of freeing his friend than a 14-year-old girl.

What Fortress?


Khazar-khum said...

I was kinda hoping for the sasquatch.

Is Danvin a sasquatch? That would be cool.

Jo-Ann said...

I got a good laugh at some of the GTPs. Well done to those who contributed.
The story sounds like it could be fun. That age group might see a tattoo on her face as being either really cool or kinda gross. Initially, I assumed the tattoo was part of her tribe's culture (and that other cultures discriminated against her because of it), but later it is stated that the dark forces have "marked" her - does that mean they tattooed her?

Also, I'm not sure how or why one would weave spirits with animals - is this seen as desirable by either the spirit or the animal? Is the gift commonplace or unusual?

I think the problem with the query is that there are hints about the elements that you see as making your narrative unique and intriguing, but only serve to confuse the reader.

Keep going, you'll get there.

St0n3henge said...

I agree with the others, here. This is about as easy to read as a bowl of alphabet soup.

Start with your protag. What does she want? What is her goal? Then show what is in her way of getting it. All we need to know about other things and people right now is how those things/people either help or hinder the protag. And yes, they must be specific.

For instance, "Annie is a Dream Weaver" is not enough info. "Annie uses her dream weaving ability to escape" doesn't really help. If I say, "Annie sees into her captors minds while they are sleeping and uses the knowledge gained to escape," that helps a lot.

You're going for something more like this:

Fourteen-year-old orphan Cassie is captured and imprisoned by the Blessed, a dark religious order that is feared by others in her forest kingdom. The order marks her with a tattoo that identifies her as a criminal, so if she ever escapes, others will be afraid to shelter her. Cassie doesn't understand the order's interest in her until she begins to manifest a magical power- the ability to temporarily disguise herself as any animal. She learns that the Blessed uses the abilities of people like herself for their own purposes.

She is assigned a mentor- an old, weakened mage named White Feather. He helps her learn to use her power, but as an act of rebellion against the order which captured him as a child, he also helps her escape. He only asks one thing in return: Cassie must bring back help to find and free a mysterious prisoner hidden in the labyrinth within the fortress...

I'm making this up, but it's an example of being specific. Ending on the dilemma or choice usually works pretty well. Cassie must find the strength to keep her promise, even though there's nobody left to help, for instance.

Author said...

Revised Version:

Evil Editor,

Cassie's face has been etched with a mystical tattoo by a dark order that controls the Great Forest. When Cassie saves the life of a stray dog she accidently kills an evil creature, and the tattoo -- which has never changed before -- brands the timid girl a criminal. Now she's on the run. Escaping from the order's stronghold, she's able to thrive in the wilderness. Her rare talent to weave spirits allows her to speak with animals, and together they help her elude the dark order.

White Feather, her mentor, tries to get her back to the safety of her home, but when he enlists her to carry a message to a friend, his plan backfires. Cassie discovers the friend has been imprisoned. While she'd rather slip into the woods and disappear again, she knows this message is vital. Instead, she sneaks back into the order's stronghold and unearths secrets, not just about the ruling order and her forest home, but also about herself.

DAUGHTER OF THE WOODS is an upper middle grade fantasy of confidence and perseverance. Complete at 48,000 words, this adventure stands by itself, but also has strong series potential.

Thank you for your time,

Anonymous said...

I think the query’s problem is vagueness. I understand wanting to let the agent be caught up in the story and not wanting to spoil the read but the query is far too vague to even create a feeling of suspense.

I have no idea who or what this order is, their power structure, what makes them evil, you don’t mention a single bad guy, it’s just an “organization”.

There’s zero mention of what the message is, what the evil creature is or why it’s important, why an adult is sending a child on such a dangerous mission, why she’s the only one involved, why killing an evil creature is bad, and so on and so forth.

Your entire query could be condensed into “Cassie has a tattoo that changes after she kills something, then she’s in a stronghold, then she’s in a forest, then she tries to deliver a message, then she goes back to the stronghold and finds out stuff about stuff.” It tells me nothing aside from an incredibly vague and generic version of the plot.

A second problem is your query isn’t linear. You jump from her killing something to escaping a stronghold and we have no idea what the stronghold is or how she even got there. I think it’s just a matter of being so close to your own work, you know what happens so it makes perfect sense to you. A person who has never read it before, and doesn’t know the plot, isn’t going to be able to follow it.

You can fix really fix both problems just by adding more description.

For example - “Cassie’s life changed the day she killed an Ardvark, a creature fiercely protected by the corrupt ruling XYZ government.

Uncaring she did it to save a stray dog the tattoo on her face, branded there when she was a baby, changed, marking her as a criminal for all to see.

Arrested immediately and taken to the prison stronghold XYZ, Cassie manages to escape to the forest where she is forced to fend for herself while fleeing the pursuing soldiers intent on recapturing, and making an example of her.

Her only hope is her mentor, White Feather, but he has his own agenda...etc., etc.

Obviously this example isn’t that great but it shows us how she got from A to B to C and so on. It also shows more detail on the who, what, when, where, why and how of the story. The query needs to BE the story in an insanely short format. It’s incredibly hard to do and I do think you’re on the right track so don’t give up!

Chicory said...

In your original query you say your story melds Native American fantasy with a coming of age adventure. Aside from the name White Feather, I'm really not picking up on the Native American aspect. Is there a way to get more of a non-western culture `feel' to your query? Don't over-do it or anything, just some specific details to ground us in the culture. (Sorry if that doesn't help.)

St0n3henge said...

Yeah, this is clearer, but only just.

It's been mentioned that you say she escapes from a stronghold, but don't tell when she got there. You don't tell why killing an evil creature brands her a criminal.

Why doesn't the order just stop following her once she's in the wilderness? Won't they assume she'll die? No one would aid and abet a criminal anyway, not if they were afraid of this magical ruling order.

What kind of message to an old friend could be worth breaking back into the fortress to deliver? Especially when the friend is a prisoner and therefore can't do anything with the information anyway.

And what kind of mentor sends a child on an errand when she's been branded a criminal for all the world to see? You've just finished telling us he's trying to help her get back home. So let him get her home and then send somebody else on an errand.

It's great that she unearths secrets and all, but how do these secrets help the plot move forward? Can they lead to the distruction of the dark empire? Do they explain the "kryptonite"- the thing which can disrupt the order's magic? Secrets are okay, but they must do something in the plot.

Author said...

Evil Editor,

Cassie, a timid thirteen year old, knows exactly how many owls live within ten miles of her home, but the rules of the city are a mystery. When she and her father haul their harvest to town, she meets a bedraggled dog, sneaking it bacon from the table. Cassie feels drawn to animals because of a hidden gift that will eventually let her hear their thoughts.

This affinity doesn't extend to the scaly, ten-legged creature called a gantian. Especially once it attacks the little dog. When she tries to scare it off, it knocks over a pillar and is crushed beneath a cistern. The ruling order worships the gantians, and the word "criminal" magically appears on Cassie's face. Now she's on the run.

Her gift to speak with woodland creatures finally blossoms with the help of White Feather, her mentor. He tries to send her away from danger, but the plan backfires. Alone, she discovers that White Feather might soon fall prey to the dark order that's marked her. She surprises herself, returning to the city and unearthing secrets, not just about the ruling order and her forest home. She finds a strength within her that has nothing to do with magic.

DAUGHTER OF THE WOODS is an upper middle grade fantasy of confidence and perseverance. Complete at 48,000 words, this adventure stands by itself, but has strong series potential. I am a member of the SCBWI, several writers' groups, and an avid reader to my five girls. I've had a few medical articles published, but this is my debut novel.

Thanks for considering this query.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Okay, this is clearer, but has the following problems:

Paragraph one could easily be set in, say, 1920s Indiana. Paragraph two could not. It's confusing.

This is awfully awkward:

When she and her father haul their harvest to town, she meets a bedraggled dog, sneaking it bacon from the table.

Focus on the challenge Cassie faces. All else is extraneous.

And about that last graf... the standard phrase is "stand-alone with series potential". Saying it's an awesome stand alone for an awesome series does not help and can hurt. Talking about the qualities you hope to teach-- perseverance or whatever-- doesn't help either.

AFAICT the story starts when the gantian attacks her dog.

Mister Furkles said...

I don’t read MG novels or even YA. So, I am guessing and Evil may clarify.

My guess is that MG voice means shorter sentences and that you should show some of your MG voice in the query.

And as A.R. says, start with the main conflict and avoid as much setup as you can.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Shorter sentences-- eh, I dunno, maybe. More a matter of speaking in a way that might interest a kid. I'd say limiting the psychological distance from character to reader (which the latest version does much better than the first version) is more important than short sentences.

An example of less psychological distance than the current version would be:

Life on a pig farm really sucks. But it's better than being on the lam with a dog under your arm, a ten-legged gantian chasing you, and the word CRIMINAL tattooed on your forehead. Cassie found that out the hard way.

Something like that. The idea is to make the reader feel that s/he could be Cassie.

Decreasing psychological distance also means writing across to the readers and hence not down to them.

Mister Furkles said...

A long sentence which is mostly a list is not a problem.

Long sentences with independent, even dependent, clauses are a problem for young readers who have not been reading for pleasure for very long because they must remember the beginning until the end and then assimilate the entire thing.

There is a formula for determining the amount of education needed to read a document. Average sentence length and average number of syllables per word factor into it.

If I call, middle school texts strive for eight to ten word sentences. Scientific documents average something like thirty or more words.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Well, you're the expert, of course. My editors occasionally call me on a long sentence, like maybe once a book, but not usually.

Mister Furkles said...

(ref. RA 914pm)
Well, of course, I am not an expert. But you knew that.

I wondered if MB writers should be writing their queries with a voice similar to their novels.

Here is a link to one of many experts on writing complexity:

This kind of thing has been studied for several decades. Equipment manufactures needed to know whether their instruction manuals were easily understood by those who would reference them.

So, a question remains: Should MG and YA writers write queries in a voice similar to their novels?

Anonymous said...

This one is better but it's still really vague with the second paragraph more vague than the first.

Also, you make a big deal about her magic then end the query with her finding out she doesn't need to rely on her magic and it can't help her. A. We haven't seen her rely on her magic at all, we're just told she has it and B. Why bring it up at all if it doesn't matter?

I was also left wondering where in the world her father was, why she was totally alone in all this, what happened with White Feather (all we're told is he had something planned and something happened) and why a small child would be taking on an entire corrupt government all on her own.

Think of a movie trailer. A two hour movie condensed into a two minute blurb. In that two minutes you get the main characters introduced, the main points of the plot, the main threat/villian, and a hint at the danger facing the MC. It's short, concise (not vague but not telling you so much that you don't bother seeing the movie), and grabs your attention.

A query is the first example of your writing an agent will ever see and if it's not written well they're going to say, "if he/she can't write a query well there's no way they wrote a book well".

One thing that might help is outlining your book. What's the catalyst? What's the rising action? What's the climax? What's the falling action? What's the resolution?

A possible example:
Catalyst - Cassie gets branded a criminal when she kills an animal sacred to the ruling bad guys.
Rising Action - Cassie is forced to flee to the forest to escape.
Climax - Cassie's mentor, White Feather, is captured and Cassie is the only one who can save him.
Falling Action - Cassie goes to save White Feather and in the process finds out blah, blah, blah.
Resolution - Cassie saves/doesn't save White Feather, gets pardoned/escapes for good/overthrows the bad guys/etc.

Once you have all that figured out you can sit down to write a clear, tight query that shows you're a kickass author with a kickass idea.

I think you're on the right track so don't give up! I rewrote my own query twenty times and three more times after I started sending it out. I ended up with four partial requests and, though I didn't get offered representation, just the fact they liked me enough to request was a huge confidence builder and made it all worth it.

So hang in there! We all rewrite, rewrite and rewrite some more. The ones who make it are the ones who keep doing it! :)