Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Face-Lift 1146

Guess the Plot

Penny and the Treasures of Prydain

1. Penny is an ordinary girl in every ordinary way, until she falls asleep under the rowan tree. She awakes in Underland, new matriarch of the Prydains, and learns the Queen never survives Samhain. Can Penny escape the ritual sacrifice?

2. Prydain was once handsome, but now he's a clumsy giant, thanks to a mean witch. Penny thinks Prydain is cute, and leaves flowers on his doorstep. Now she's trapped in his underground lair, and he won't let her go until she kisses him.

3. The Treasures of Prydain have disappeared, and it's up to Penarddun verch Morfudd ("Just call me Penny.") to get them back, aided by a man named Wmffre. But will they abandon their mission when their path leads to the otherworldly prison of Caer Siddi?

4. Prydain is a land rich in gold and crops. Penny had heard her mother say this often enough. And now that she's an orphan, Penny is setting her sights west. Good luck getting past the scorpions lurking in the Desert of Despair.

5. Adventures of a middle-grade fantasy writer, Penny, who, after years of trying to convince agents and editors that "Prydain" is just Old Welsh for "Britain", gives in and changes the title of her manuscript.

6. Little Penny is a shiny copper coin. When Quarter Master tells her it's time to go off to the Mint, she thinks it's the end. After a tearful goodbye to Nickle Back and Dime Bag, she's whisked off...only to arrive in Prydain, a strange vault filled with thousands of other coins. But is this really a paradise for unwanted money, or is something more sinister lurking beyond the sealed door?

Original Version

Hail, O Evil One!

It’s 1920--the 750th anniversary of Prince Madoc of Wales’ discovery of the New World. [If the most interesting event going on is the anniversary of something that happened 750 years ago, maybe we need to open in a different year. Unless . . . is there something else special about 1920?] And it’s also the first Great Eisteddfod--the decennial cultural festival that brings together the druids of the Old and New Worlds--since the end of the Great War between the Pagans and the Catholics and their Ottoman allies. [1920: The Year of Living Boringly.] [If this is the first Eisteddfod, how can they already be calling it "Great"? They're gonna look pretty silly if hardly any druids show up.] [If I were a druid, I would suspect that the Great Eisteddfod was dreamed up by the Catholics as a ruse to get all the druids into one place so they could kill us. It wouldn't be the worst thing they'd ever done.] For Penarddun verch Morfudd, Assistant Curator at the Madocian Institution of Arts and Culture, it’s also the chance to mount an exhibition of the ancient Treasures of Prydain, [I would think the curator would mount the exhibition, while the assistant curator would . . . assist.] including the Cauldron of Rebirth that helped win the war by resurrecting dead soldiers on the battlefield.

[Soldier: The men are starving sir. We must surrender.

Captain: Not necessarily. If you can just find the strength to throw all those corpses into this giant . . . Cauldron of Rebirth . . . we might have a chance.]

[In three sentences you've capitalized 30 words. See if you can cut that down to 20. Also, those last two sentences are so long and contain so much information readers won't retain anything. The only interesting item is the Cauldron of Rebirth, but even that's lost interest now that its a display in an exhibition rather than a weapon of mass resurrection.]

Penny’s ready for some festivity. Life has been grim since her fiance’s death in the War--blown to so many smithereens that no Cauldron could bring him back. She’s looking forward to a reunion with her British friend Elen, and maybe the success of the exhibition will win approval from her archdruid uncle. Respite from her mother’s relentless political match-making would be nice, too. [When every druid who's any druid is in town, the matchmaking is more likely to ramp up than ease off.]

But things start going pear-shaped almost immediately. Penny has to host the belly-dancing priestess Sirona of Galatia, a woman so beautiful that nearly every man who lays eyes on her falls into Love at First Sight. Penny herself falls victim to Love at First Sight with Elen’s cousin Gwydion, but Gwydion seems to adore Sirona. [Everyone adores Sirona. If Mrs. Evil couldn't deal with the fact that I adore Julia Roberts, I'd never get any action.] The audio recordings for her exhibition are infected by a bwg [big whirling gadget] that turns informative description into bad vaudeville routines. A trip to the beach turns tragic when Gwydion’s twin brother Gil is savaged by a feline predator. During ritual single combat, a young man is beheaded [Near the top of my list of rules to live by: I refuse to engage in any religion or culture whose rituals involve beheading.] and Elen’s fiance, Wmffre, loses his arm and foot [and a couple of his vowels] when a magic sword runs amok--a sword stolen from Penny’s exhibition. And then the Treasures disappear, along with Gil, Sirona, and Penny’s brother Dylan. [That's seven examples of things going pear-shaped. Choose three and do without the rest.]

Penny, Gwydion, Elen, and Wmffre must rescue the hostages before the Treasures are put to dangerous use. [I'd leave Wmffre behind on the rescue mission. A guy with only one foot and one arm is going to slow them down, especially if his blood is still oozing and dressings need to be changed a couple times a day.] But success will bring to light shameful secrets and old betrayals. [Vague.] How far, exactly, is Penny willing to follow her dreams, [What dreams?] when their path leads into the Otherworldly prison of Caer Siddi?

Penny and the Treasures of Prydain* is inspired by my nearly thirty years’ study of Celtic mythology (PhD UCLA, 1992). [Word of advice: next time you decide to invest thirty years in the study of one subject, come up with something more useful than Celtic mythology.] I have published five nonfiction books and some two dozen articles and encyclopedia entries on a wide range of topics in folklore and mythology; Penny is my first novel. The manuscript is complete at 100,000 words and I would be pleased to send you sample chapters at your request.

*I hate this title but I have not yet come up with anything better.


Somehow I feel like we should be told everything about this world at once. The first sentence prepares me for a historical novel set in 1920. But then I find that Catholics + Ottomans have just had a war with Pagans, so maybe it's alternate history. But then I find the war was won thanks to a magic cauldron, so it's a fantasy. Was it a war involving tanks and planes and machine guns, or guys with swords on horseback? It has a medieval feel to it, but the "audio recordings" feel anachronistic. Maybe you should start, Set on an Earth where magic exists and religious wars have continued into the 20th century...

The plot description is too long. We just want to know what Penny does about her problems. She's looking forward to the big anniversary celebration when her friends are kidnapped and the treasures vanish. What's her plan, who's out to stop her, what's at stake? That's the story. The boring stuff can be put in your synopsis if you need one.

Nowadays, a high school student named Penarddun verch Morfudd would go by Penny to avoid being ostracized. But in your world, maybe not. In any case, Penarddun verch Morfudd and the Treasures of Prydain is a better title. It sounds like Baron Munchausen and the Deathly Hallows. And who wouldn't read that?


Unknown said...

Wow, Author.

This query gets the "Too Many Names" award. That some are next-to-impossible to say gives me chills. In a bad way.

Way too much is happening here, and yet I didn't manage to retain anything but this:

Heartbroken Penny wants to enjoy life without her nagging, matchmaker mother. New loves might bloom, except now there's all sorts of magical intrigue. Magic relics in Penny's care are stolen and her friends are kidnapped, so Penny must save the day.

Big question: How? What skills does Penny have to vanquish evil and remain free from the clink...

Best advice: Start over. Use simple language. Dig out the mind-bending names and alternate history lesson and cut to the chase. I mean that literally. I recall there being a chase, with high stakes and poor odds for survival--tell us more about that.

Best of luck!

(Captcha word AFIfom could be a character in the sequel.)

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Writer, I thought this was a hoax till I got to the last paragraph.

I thought it because you've done a number of things that you shouldn't do in a query (or a manuscript).

You've frontloaded the backstory.

You've engaged in excessive capitalization.

You've made lists.

You've given us unnecessary details.

You've mentioned nine different characters.

Don't worry if we don't know everything we ought to know about ancient Britain, Celts, or the alternate history of your alternate world. Don't tell us about every character and how he or she feels about every other character.

Distill your entire story into a single sentence, under 20 words of length. Build your query upon that.

But don't bother writing a query at all until you've edited your manuscript to the point where it doesn't contain a single unnecessary word.

150 said...

I'll be honest, I'd request pages based on the solid creds, but the query itself is a hot mess of information, and like Alaska, I'd worry the manuscript was the same way.

If it's not (and we'd be able to tell if you submit your opening), rewrite it in simple sentences, focusing on one character with one problem and two ways to solve it. If it is...get a beta reader who's not in your field of study. Maybe do that anyway.

You might enjoy Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys.

Tk said...

There's a Mrs Evil?!?! Congratulations EE.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

They're solid creds if you want a treatise on Celtic mythology. The writing required in academia is so different from the writing required in commercial publishing that one is almost a hindrance to the other.

There are successful novelists with PhDs, but they're essentially diglossic as writers. They have to be.

Tk said...

Hi Author, the world is intriguing, big kudos there. WWI with druids; I'm definitely curious.

IMO, it's Penny who needs more life and more of a trajectory. You mention she's been down, she wants to party, she wants her uncle's approval and she wants her mother to back off. Then she goes off on a Treasure-Retrieving Quest without any hint of how that will solve any of these issues. I'm also left a bit in the dark about her personality. Is she feisty? Clever? Bumbling? Incurably romantic?

I can't believe I'm asking you for more info when there was already too much in the query :) 150 always has good advice - one character with one dilemma and a hint at the action needed to solve it... For example: Penarddun will never get her uncle to promote her to druidess unless she proves her divination skills by locating the missing Cauldron of Rebirth.

I did want to help you with the title, but it's difficult without knowing Penny's arc. World-based options could be The Cauldron Thief, Caer Siddi, The Eisteddfod Incident, The Otherworld, etc but I think something thematic would sound more adult.

How do you pronounce Wmffre?

khazar-khum said...

I find the notion of Jazz-Age/Lost Generation/Flapper druids intriguing. That these people all have names that are murder for the average reader is something that does have to be modified if you want to have any readers in the first place.

That Cauldron sounds like something found in a peat bog, unless the druids have been keeping it hidden at the museum for centuries.

Dave Fragments said...

Baby Name Ocean solves the Wmffre problem...

Unknown said...

Author here. And trying to respond a second time, so if you get two slightly different versions, it's Pick Your Own Response time!

There's a lot to respond to here. One of my problems is, in fact, trying to limit myself to semi-pronounceable Welsh names and words for English speakers. (Wmffre, btw, is the Welsh version of Humphrey, pronounced OOM-free, and I know the spelling is insane, but it fits him so it stays. There will be a glossary and a pronunciation guide in the final version.)

The legend of Madoc is a bona fide legend--Elizabeth I tried to use it as a pretext to lay claim to all of North America--and 1920 is, in fact, 750 years after Madoc is said to have discovered and colonized the place. (Seriously, you guys have never heard of the legends of Welsh Indians? You don't know what you're missing.) The world of the novel is premised on the legend of Madoc being true. And his descendant Harri Tudor re-conquering the homeland in 1485, leading to the Druidic Reformation that resulted in all of Northern Europe reverting to paganism rather than becoming Protestant.

In any case, it seems that what I need to do is distill the world into just enough to establish its main parameters and then concentrate on Penny.

The Eisteddfod Incident, btw, sounds like it's on the road to being the right title. Certainly gives a better feel for the tone of the story.

Unknown said...

Oh, and : [Word of advice: next time you decide to invest thirty years in the study of one subject, come up with something more useful than Celtic mythology.]

Good lord, you don't think I earn a living at this, do you? No no no. I am, in fact, an editor.

Dave Fragments said...

Kevin Hearne has a series of novels about a druid and he involves the entire pantheon of gods from Roman and Greek Olympians to Norse Thor, to the Tir Na Nog, some fairies, dwarves, and American Indian gods (I forget all of them).
He does the list of weird names and strange pronunciations in the beginning of each of his books.

All those strange names and terms don't bother me. However, that's not why I read the books.

I read them because I liked his main character in the first few pages of the first novel. There's my message. Your main character has to pull the audience past the strange names and unusual history... Another example I can think of is HELLBOY where the main character is so fascinating that he or she pulls the reader into the unusual aspects of the story.

Personally, when I read THE HUNGER GAMES, I thought the concept to be the most horrific and nasty piece of work ever put to paper and then to film. I mean to say, blood sport with children ranks a whole lot lower than pond scum in my book... But Katniss is a strong enough character to push me past that. And I thought the reboot of BATMAN with the Heath Ledger Joker was the darkest, most joyless movie I'd ever seen. However, the portrayal of the Joker was inspired and thrilling, along with being truly evil. A real Tour de Force of acting.

SO I hope you see what I'm trying to say about the query and the story. Whatever Gaelic history you work into the story is great but in the end, you must make us love or hate Penny in such a way that we must find out how she saves the day or destroys the world.

Unknown said...

Hi Author,
I get the wish to be authentic, however...
How many Welshmen will be picking up Penny's story?

Divest yourself of impossible least in the query. Perhaps it's me, but when agent will --at most--give your query 1-2 minutes of consideration I want them thinking about the book, not Googling "Wmffre" to determine if I've misspelled.

My $0.02. Send a revision. Sounds like a fun adventure.

150 said...

A useful model for you to follow might be the jacket copy on The Yiddish Policemen's Union:

Notice that it:
-describes the alternate history in two sentences of simple, clear language
-presents a threat to the setting (i.e. where it's set isn't interchangeable; it figures heavily into the plot)
-then immediately introduces a specific protagonist with a specific set of goals and problems
-states what he's doing about it, and what that might cost him.

Notice that it doesn't:
-explain how the alternate history came to be (Wikipedia says the point of divergence is the death of an Alaskan senator. Interesting--but not here.)
-pile on the Yiddish
-name more than one guy

It is my unprofessional opinion that it is bananas to name a guy Wmffre and expect readers to check the glossary to find out his name is Humphrey. I know there are legitimate reasons to disagree with me, but geez.

Tk said...

What about using a nickname for the query? You already have Penny for Penarddun. Can he be Oom or something spelled more phonetically for an English audience?

Of course, Wmffre might not need to be in the query when you focus it.

Unknown said...

Author again. I find it interesting how Wmffre has overwhelmed the discussion and yet no-one seems to have any problem with a belly-dancing druid priestess. I think poor Wmff is going to have to cede his spotlight in the query letter to the irresistible Sirona. And the slightly more pronounceable Gwydion.

I also see that the assumption seems to be that this is an adventure, whereas it's really more of a comedy of magical manners with a road trip element toward the end, so clearly I didn't get that across. It's good getting this feedback because it's all been so entirely in my head for so long I've lost all objectivity.

150 said...

EVERYONE has to cede their spotlight to Penny. Assuming she really is the protagonist.


CavalierdeNuit said...

As an American I was confused with "things start going pear-shaped". I have Welsh ancestry and am interested in all things Celtic so I would welcome the challenge of referring to a glossary and pronunciation guide. The more authentic the names the better.

I'm getting somewhat of a Celtic AGAINST THE DAY (I have not finished but continue reading) vibe from your book. It would be nice to have a book similar to AGAINST THE DAY out there, but not as long.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

150 said: It is my unprofessional opinion that it is bananas to name a guy Wmffre and expect readers to check the glossary to find out his name is Humphrey.


Unknown said: Wmffre, btw, is the Welsh version of Humphrey, pronounced OOM-free, and I know the spelling is insane, but it fits him so it stays.

I'm trying to imagine the expression on the face of my editor if I said such a thing to her.

Unknown, reading your query letter and now your responses, I'm forced to the conclusion that self-publishing is for you. Don't knock it. People swear by it. And you'll get to keep your names, your spellings, your glossary and the whole nine yards.

As Buffy Squirrel would say: Sorted.

St0n3henge said...

Author, I can see where Alaska is coming from. You are asking for help, but are you willing to change anything?

Words without vowels don't cut it for me, I'm afraid. And I won't read a novel if I have to refer to a glossary. Novels are for pleasure reading.

You are seeing this from your point of view as a long time researcher of the subject. I belong to the more than 99% of the general public who has not researched this subject extensively. I will NOT read a novel in which a main character's name has no vowels. Either change some of the spelling to a phonetic spelling or I will be one of the many people who did NOT spend 30 years studying Celtic mythology who won't be reading this book.

You may have received different feedback than this from other writers. Keep in mind that writers in general tend to be more studious and more willing to learn mythology and history and such. Most average people didn't enjoy school lessons and were more than happy to graduate. Many still consider studying a chore and a bore.

Regular fiction readers don't want reading to be work. They read for FUN.

Anonymous said...

=Unknown said: Wmffre, btw, is the Welsh version of Humphrey, pronounced OOM-free, and I know the spelling is insane, but it fits him so it stays.=

We all have characters with that kind of name -- and that's what global replace is for. Use the "real" name until the actual submission draft. Then change the name to something that won't stop the average reader, be that reader agent, editor, or someone browsing "look inside this book" on Amazon, so dead that you might as well not have written the book at all.

Evil Editor said...

The book is set in the 20th century. Call him Humphrey.

Unknown said...

"The book is set in the 20th century. Call him Humphrey."

Well, no--the book is set in an alt-history 20th century in which the Welsh, with their language and culture, hold the place that English holds in our world. Wmffre's name may, reluctantly, have to be changed, but the one name it cannot change to is Humphrey.

This does raise an issue for the alt-history and steampunk/dieselpunk/etc genres, however. There's a lot of criticism of the overly white, hetero, Anglo-Saxonness of a lot of it--some people even claim that it can't be steampunk if it doesn't take place in London, while others advocate for making a conscious effort to bring in non-Anglos, people of color, LGBT characters, etc. Part of the "what if..." that started me on this story was wondering what if the English hadn't conquered the world in the Industrial Age--what if the perpetual butt-of-the-joke underdogs, the Welsh, had done so instead? What if, rather than the Protestant work ethic colonizing East and South Africa and India, it had been a set of decentralized paganisms that set out to explore the world? And if you do that, you have to demonstrate how English never became the lingua franca. You have to give people names that are native to their own languages.

If this story took place in Africa, would you demand that all the characters be named Fred and Mary? If you were to write a story that takes place among the Asante of Ghana, for instance, you'd have a grand total of 14 names to give people, 7 for men and 7 for women, because you get named for the day of the week you were born. If you write a story that takes place in South India, you might have to have characters with names of more than a dozen syllables. This is exactly where the problem of the invisibility of the non-WASP world arises, at the very initial querying process. It seems that what most writers do is cop out and either give their characters inauthentic names, or ignore any part of the world that's tricky to pronounce.

There are a lot of reasons why Wmffre is a great name for this character. He's a man with literally two left feet (thanks to a war injury), he's inarticulate, he's the kind of big, beefy guy who settles down into his chair with an audible "oomph!" And I did want to have a secondary character whose name was an example of a Welshified English name, to demonstrate one of the differences between the story world and the real world. (But you see what happens to an English name when you translate it into Welsh.) There might be some other names that will suit him, but he will always be Wmffre to me.

150 said...

The book is set in the 20th century. Call him Humphrey.

I'd actually say to call him Humphrey because it's being read in the 21st century (the 20th century in the book is grounded in Welsh dominance, and people must have learned to live without vowels). There's a throwaway line in Once and Future King that I am constantly citing as my guideline for authenticity vs readability:

"...they were drinking Metheglyn, not Port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel."

In one line, White tells us that he prioritizes the reader's experience over showing off his extensive research. It works.

(Author, we're not focused on Wymmfe because it's the biggest problem, but because it represents a whole category of apparent hurdles for your reader. I really do hope you send in your opening.)

Evil Editor said...

If Wmmffrre is a fictional character you can name him anything, including Humphrey. I assume he was named as a baby, not after his physical traits became known. Besides, when I think of the name Humphrey I think of a big, beefy oaf who settles down into his chair with an audible "humph!" Unless I'm thinking of Bogart, of course. Some Welsh woman in 1640 could have married an Englishman named Humphrey and they named their kid after him and it became a family name, passed down through the generations until 1920.

Which is not to say you should name the guy Humphrey. We don't care what you name him as long as we can pronounce it.

To claim that if Wales had conquered the world 750 years ago we would all have olde Welsh names is to declare that we now have (and spell) names as the English did in Chaucer's time. Names like Albinus
Alwinus Arnaldus Athelardus Aylewynus Bartholomeus Berengarius
Christofarus Everardus Fray Fulco Galefridus Gillebertus...

You're not writing the entire book in Welsh, the language we would all be reading in your alternate history, so obviously you're willing to make some concessions to those of us who just want to enjoy a good story.

Let's forget about the names at least until we've made the story sound so fascinating that an agent will demand the full manuscript.

Unknown said...

Opening submitted.