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Author Topic: MAGE STORM Query and pitches
Meredith
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I'm trying to get this one ready for WriteOnCon next month, so all help will be appreciated.

As always, rip, tear, shred.

Revised version after WriteOnCon:

When a killer mage storm blows up, catching Rell too far from shelter, he expects to die. Instead, the storm infects him with magic. That's almost as bad.

Rell's dream of doing bigger things than weeding the corn field was more in the line of being allowed to go all the way to Marketown by himself like his big brother, not becoming a mage. Not when the evidence of how not good being a mage can be is right outside his home settlement in the blackened stumps of the Blighted Forest.

Unless his magic could be used to restore the forest and his family's orchard. But Rell soon discovers that coming down with magic and knowing how to control it aren't even in the same neighborhood. When he almost burns down the family's barn, Rell realizes he needs help learning how to control this magic. So he sets out alone to find someone who can teach him, even though all the mages are supposed to be dead.

The first teacher he finds turns out to be a homicidal charlatan. Rell watches another boy explode into a cloud of sparks--far too much like a tiny mage storm. No one is going to survive this school. Rell's going to have to escape and risk being hunted down by this "teacher" if he's going to have any chance of actually learning magic--or saving his new friends.

MAGE STORM is a 55,000-word upper middle grade fantasy and potentially the first of a series. Readers of John Flanagan's RANGER'S APPRENTICE series will enjoy MAGE STORM. I have enclosed [whatever the agent wants].

Thank you for your time.


Original Query:

Eleven-year-old Rell doesn't want magic. He doesn't dream of being a hero or a mage out of old legends. Certainly not a mage, after they all incinerated each other at the end of the Great Mage War. He'd just like not to be in his big brother's shadow for a change. Someone should have reminded Rell to be careful what he wished for.

All that's left of magic now are the violent, destructive, semi-sentient storms made up of the cinders of those dead mages. When he's caught out in one, Rell is struck by a strange blue cinder that infects him with magic. That's when the real trouble starts.

Rell doesn't control the magic. In fact, it's more likely to cause destruction than do any of the useful things Rell's da remembers from before the Great Mage War. It's worse even than Rell knows.

Blowing apart the cave his family uses to shelter from the mage storms makes it clear that he's never going to figure this out by himself. The next thing that blows up may be Rell himself, if he can't find a better way to learn than trial and error.
MAGE STORM is a 55,000-word middle grade fantasy and potentially the first of a series. Readers of John Flanagan's RANGER'S APPRENTICE series will enjoy MAGE STORM. I have enclosed [whatever the agent wants].

Thank you for your time.

Elevator Pitch:

When eleven-year-old Rell is infected with magic that isn't even supposed to exist anymore, he must find a way to tame the magic before it kills him or someone close to him. But all the mages died in the Great Mage War before he was born, so finding someone who can help him learn to control his magic is easier said than done. Worse, not everyone who says they can help him really wants Rell to survive.

Twitter Pitch:

Infection with magic is fatal to the untrained. But all the mages are dead. Rell must find a way to tame his magic before it's too late.

[ August 23, 2013, 08:15 AM: Message edited by: Meredith ]

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micmcd
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Overall I like the query - it covers the basics of the story as I remember them pretty well. My only quick-read reaction is that you probably don't need "violent, destructive, semi-sentient" in its entirety, since violent & destructive are pretty much the same thing when it comes to storms. Personally, I'd just stick with destructive because it sounds more descriptive in that situation.
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MattLeo
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Well, maybe I'm too close to this MS, having critiqued it in detail, but I think the pitch misses what is really appealing about it, which is Rell's character as it is revealed on his journey.

Rell is "can do" to a fault. His essential quality is that he is never deterred by the difficulty of a task, not even when that difficulty rises to near-impossibility. Yet this isn't just stubbornness; when a task becomes obviously futile he simply changes his plans and forges on -- but he never gives up.

So ultimately this is a story about an apparently ordinary boy who, when touched by magic, discovers he has the cardinal heroic virtue, which is courage. This will transform him from an ordinary boy to a leader among his peers.

This is not unlike Harry Potter, by the way. Harry (note: at the same age as Rell) has never known responsible adult care. Freed from his closet under the stairs, he takes his place on a wider stage and discovers that this lack of benevolent adult guidance has endowed him with a special quality, something that Ralph Waldo Emerson called "self-reliance". What Emerson was talking about was following upon your own judgment, which Harry always does -- again to a fault sometimes.

Rell has that quality of self-reliance too. He's fostered in a loving family true, but in claustrophobic environment, a tiny, remote, isolated agricultural hamlet. And here is the significance of his being overshadowed by his brother: Rell longs to do bigger things, even if its just his brother's job of taking care of the animals in the barn. Taken out of his native bottle and put on the stage of wide, dangerous world, Rell's compulsion to *do something* expands to epic proportions.

I think it is this sense of Rell discovering he has something in his character large enough to rock the entire world that makes this book.

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extrinsic
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Half the sentences in the query are negation statements. In and of themselves, negation statements perceptibly require a mite more interpretation than positive statements; negation slow downs, stalls, or interrupts reading pace. Consider recasting to positive statements so that the prose is smooth. Timely and judiciously use negation statements for emphasis, for dramatic pauses, for example.

Positivation in linguistics is narrative components that signal a sender's intended meanings so that the recipient has adequate guidance to meaningfully understand the intent. Negation statements confuse that implicit contract because negation statements signal perhaps irony, intent to obfuscate, or hyperbole or understatement, which can be artful when those perhaps figures of speech clearly and strongly signal they are indeed ironic, for example.

Contrarily, an antithesis rhetorical figure of speech or scheme describes what a circumstance is by describing what it is not using negation statements. Antitheses are often artful uses of repetition, substitution, and amplification that echo negations three times, the proverbial rhetorical triplet. Once may be a coincidence; it takes two to tango; three's a party. Also, antitheses may use other artful rhetorical figures like syncrisis: parallel comparing and contrasting clauses. The opening of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities uses syncrisis: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." And alliteration: repeating nearby same or similar syllable sounds or consonants.

These are voice features that elevate otherwise everyday language to strong, perhaps poetic expression. Voice matters, in my belief, for queries.

[ July 04, 2013, 04:30 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Meredith
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Keep it coming. [Smile]

I'm absorbing all of this and hope to post a revision soon.

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Meredith
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Revision above. It's not finished. It's short and I think I still want to work in something about what the mage storms are.

But maybe you can let me know if you think I'm at least on the right track or whether I need to go back to the drawing board. [Smile]

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extrinsic
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The flow is smoother; however, the revision in my estimation is still mostly about the tangible situation and not so much about the personal, intangible, and possibly far more appealing complication Rell faces. This query tells on its surface about a boy who circumstances happen to by coincidence. It implies he might do something about the happenings in an "And Story" (from Turkey City Lexicon): something happens in the beginning, and something happens in the middle, and something happens in the end to little meaningful end.

A clue to the novel's theme is I think called for so that the larger-than-life meaning of the novel's appeal for readers is revealed.

MattLeo notes "I think it is this sense of Rell discovering he has something in his character large enough to rock the entire world that makes this book." That and Rell's discovering his "self-reliance." I think MattLeo pinpoints a theme area worthy of cueing up in the query. Something like self-reliance forges leaders and heroes during trying times.

Generically, and perhaps a and b, maybe c, below?

"1. The Individual in Nature
a. Nature is at war with each of us and proves our vulnerability.
b. People are out of place in Nature and need technology to survive.
c. People are destroying nature and themselves with uncontrolled technology" (from Themes in Literature http://theliterarylink.com/theme.html).

I don't think developing a personal complication and interpretable theme would need more than a few well-chosen words. Just showing more, telling less what compels Rell to act rather than what he conditionally will do could work miracles.

Yes, I think the mage storm needs to be shown and Rell's disastrous initial outcome from the mage storm.

[ July 04, 2013, 03:30 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Meredith
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New version above. Probably not there yet, but hopefully closer. [Smile]

Rip, tear, shred.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Rip, tear, shred.
Challenge accepted.

quote:
Eleven-year-old Rell doesn't set out to be a mage. No one would after they all incinerated each other at the end of the Great Mage War. He just wants to be able to do the same things as his big brother. Someone should have reminded Rell to be careful what he wished for.
In this first paragraph you set up the irony of Rell's position: he wants to do more, but his conception of "more" falls far short of what he'll end up accomplishing. This is fine in itself, but the last sentence is awkward and *obviously* rhetorical. Rhetoric works best when the reader doesn't notice it. Also, while I'm not doctrinaire about these things "being careful what you wish for" is a cliche, and it makes a bad impression in the first paragraph of a pitch. "Someone should have reminded Rell to be careful what he wished for," is vague, and generic. It describes *any* story in which a protagonist's aspirations turn out to be more of a problem than he anticipated.

I think you need to drop the generic cliche and focus on how the irony works in *this* story, e.g.,:

quote:
When eleven-year-old Rell dreamt of doing important things, he pictured working with his family's livestock like his big brother. Instead, he finds himself leading a group of young students against a killer wizard in a battle to restore true knowledge of magic to the world.
Functionally, this version does exactly the same thing your opening paragraph does, which is establish the irony of Rell's aspirations. However, it does it in a way which is *specific* to your story, and which makes what is at stake for your protagonist explicit. It could serve as an elevator or Twitter pitch for your MS.

One of the things that is remarkable about fiction writing, especially spec fiction, is how much it relies upon the reader's intuition to fill in details. By trusting the reader's ability to infer things, even unconsciously, you don't have to overload him with detail. If you don't rely on a reader's imagination to supply details or connect dots, you end up setting down a lot of redundant detail.

Here's an example:

quote:
When a violent, semi-sentient mage storm, made up of the ashes of the mages killed in the war, sweeps across his home, Rell is infected with magic.
Try reading this sentence out loud. It's awkward, because its heavy payload of explicit information has you welding bits of data together with commas. But the reader of the query probably already knows the title of the book is MAGE STORM, if not he'll discover it a few paragraphs down. So let's assume it's not necessary to draw a diagram connecting the inciting event to the title. Instead lets focus on what happened and let the reader's intuition fill in that connection, e.g., "When the burning embers of mages killed in the war rain down upon his village, Rell is infected with magic."

My opinion (take it for what little it's worth) is that all non-essential information should be stripped out of a pitch. "Non-essential" in this context doesn't mean "not essential to the story", but rather "not essential to the pitch."

So stuff you might need in a synopsis to show that the plot holds together doesn't belong in a pitch, unless it reinforces your main point. Let's pick on the same sentence above. Why tell the reader that the ashes are sentient at all, much less very precisely qualify their *degree* of sentience ("semi-sentient")? I think you mention it because it covers a subtle but important question in the plot: *why* was Rell infected by magic, instead of being incinerated like most people? The answer is that he was *chosen*, and for that to happen the chooser has to display some degree of awareness and motivation.

But is the sentience point essential to the pitch? Probably not this one. In a sci-fi pitch it would be, because the idea of fate driving the plot is a deal-breaker. Fate is pretty much a given in a fantasy story, but "fate" is just another name for "coincidence" in sci-fi.

Let's look at the issue of not trusting the reader's intuition:

quote:
...Rell is infected with magic. His attempts to use his new abilities in small, helpful ways are disastrous. With no way to control it, the magic makes Rell a danger to everyone around him. And struggling to tame it could kill him.
There's no one place you can point to here and say, "this bit is wrong," but *as a whole* this passage strikes me as full of redundancies. Rell is "infected" -- which implies that magic can harm him. His attempts to harness the magic are "disastrous" *and* they endanger the people around him. The essential point here is that Rell chooses to abort his experiments with magic because they endanger others. I think we can infer from this that he regards their results as "disastrous".

So I think you can streamline this passage by only making each point once, something along these lines: "...Rell is infected with magic. When his attempts to harness his magic endanger his family, he sets out alone to find someone who can teach him."

Let's look at your elevator pitch:
quote:

When eleven-year-old Rell is infected with magic [that isn't even supposed to exist anymore,] he must find a way to tame the magic before it kills him or someone close to him. But all the mages died in the Great Mage War [before he was born], so finding someone who can help him learn to control his magic is {easier said than done*. Worse, not everyone who says they can help him really wants Rell to survive.

Here I've taken bits that seem beside the point and put them in square brackets; other bits that are said over-elaborately I put in fancy brackets. Reducing the pitch to its essential details, we get:

quote:

When eleven-year-old Rell is infected with magic, he sets out to find a teacher who can teach him to tame that power before it kills him. But in a land where nearly all the mages killed each other in a great war, can he trust the last surviving mage's offer of help?

This preserves the focus of your elevator pitch, which is Rell's second act dilemma (can he trust Trav?). If you wanted to focus on Rell's entire character arc you could do something like the query opening paragraph above.
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extrinsic
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MattLeo makes strong and clear points that considering might strengthen the query.

I don't know about using "when" or any similar pronoun or preposition or conjunction, like while or as, but, and so on. Read a few pitches at authonomy or a hundred or thousands and you will note similar language across the gamut. I don't think using the same language voice as tens or hundreds of thousands or millions of query writers do will recommend your query over theirs.

The condition is I think faulty syntax. Let's look and see from your query and MattLeo's suggestion. The main idea: "When Rell is infected with magic."

Note that the word "with" is a preposition and the predicate "is infected" takes a to be auxilliary verb and a verb. Both those features signal the voice is passive voice. I understand that Rell's protagonist importance promotes him to sentence subject position, as is one of passive voice's discretionary and perhaps artful uses, but Rell's really the sentence object, the acted-upon object of the verb's action, to infect, and magic is the sentence subject, the doer of the action.

On the other hand, this query is as expressive and clear as many I've read. Some for novels accepted for further content evaluation and, eventually, publication. But the ones that have similar properties that were published were from writers who had previously published.

I know your intent is to break out; breaking out I think demands demonstrating a deft facility with language as well as expression and story craft. Passive voice in a query is an immediate tipoff the whole may have shortcomings that will give a screening reader justification for rejecting an unsolicited manuscript.

//Cinders from a mage storm infect Rell with wild magic. His first attempts to quit or tame the magic cause hardships for him and his community.// Okay. Generic words but offered to show active voice dynamics.

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Meredith
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Great feedback!

Thanks.

I'm working on a newer--better--version. [Big Grin]

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Meredith
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Newer version above.

Rip, tear, shred.

@MattLeo: That's an invitation, not a challenge. [Big Grin]

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extrinsic
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Meredith, stronger, smoother, more meaningful, and working more effectively for me. What doesn't work for me:

This part: "Sure, eleven-year-old Rell dreams of doing bigger things, but he means being allowed to go all the way to Marketown by himself, like his big brother, not becoming a mage."

"Sure" is a discourse marker, a form of an interjection part of speech, conventionally used to express an emotional attitude. I think it opens with an interruption rather than an engaging expression of attitude, as I think is intended. It disrupts the flow right out of the gate from its emotional meaning not set up beforehand nor I feel fully followed through afterward.

The conjoined clauses I feel are stronger, less jumpy, if broken out into individual sentences and using creative punctuation's appealing signals. For example, below. My voice, diction and syntax, and punctuation projections though.

//Young Rell dreams of doing grand things. He means being allowed to go all the way to Marketown by himself--like his big brother--not becoming a mage.//

Though not passive voice, this paragraph opens and continues with static voice:

"Rell is caught in a mage storm, destructive remnant of the Great Mage War. Instead of killing him, the storm infects Rell with magic. That's big all right, but it's not so good. He almost sets the family barn on fire when his brother's taunts make him angry. He needs help learning how to control his magic. So Rell sets out alone to find someone who can teach him."

//A destructive mage storm left over from the Great War of Mages catches Rell out in the open. Instead of burning Rell to ashes, the storm infects Rell with wild magic, That's big, all right, but it means trouble for Rell. His brother's cruel taunts make Rell angry; he mistakenly sets the family barn on fire. He wants help learning how to tame the magic. Alone, Rell leaves home to find anyone who can teach him control.//

This paragraph similarly I feel is in static voice. And I also wonder if other readers might feel the paragraph telegraphs a bit too much of the plot, which I feel is okay for a middle grade audience but perhaps too revealing for agents:

"That's a problem when all the mages were supposedly killed in the Great Mage War. It's an even bigger dilemma when the first teacher he finds turns out to be a homicidal charlatan. Becoming a real mage is going to be a challenge. But it's only the first of many as a new idea grips Rell: a new mage might just be able to repair all the things magic once destroyed."

Again, my projections.

//All the mages were supposedly killed in the Great War of Mages. The first teacher Rell finds turns out to be a brutal [mean or nasty?] faker. Rell getting control of the wild magic is hard. If he can, maybe he could restore control of magic loose and wild in the world.//

Again, my projections for guidance purposes.

Since this novel targets middle grade readers, I wonder whether the diction of words like "homicidal" and "charlatan" signal a perhaps too complex diction--too high a readability index for middle graders--might be in the novel overall. Some three-syllable words or longer are part of middle grader vocabulary instruction and exposure. Not many; however, passionate middle grade readers read up in age or those words might be too sophisticated for that audience generally. I think those two and similar words are questionable. Consider instead middle grader words like killer and faker?

Where I have doubts is the query is obviously intended for adult readers, yet that the voice of a query as a best practice is a representation of the voice of its novel, hence, the pitch and synopsis parts of a query ought perhaps signal the voice of the novel's middle grade target audience. The declaration part, where genre, length, and comparison similarity are given, can and for a best practice be in a different, more sophisticated voice, I believe.

Edited to add: Upon reflection, this clause from the second paragraph has passive voice markers: "Rell is caught in a mage storm," "In" is a preposition. "Is caught" is a to be auxilliary and main verb construction. The doer of the action is the mage storm catching Rell in it, the object of the action.

[ July 12, 2013, 11:30 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Brendan
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I'm sorry Meredith - this doesn't grab me. At least, not like the original short story did all those years ago.

There were a couple of sentences that didn't work for me. The first was:

"Sure, eleven-year-old Rell dreams of doing bigger things, but he means being allowed to go all the way to Marketown by himself, like his big brother, not becoming a mage."

It feels like the punch line is being given away without the key element that makes the story unique - the mage storm.

The next line is a reasonable start, but could be punchier - particularly if the first line is cut. Something like "When eleven-year-old Rell gets caught in a mage storm, the destructive fallout of the Great Mage War, he expects to die. Instead, it infects him - with magic."

These two sentences didn't work for me either - for different reasons:
"That's big all right, but it's not so good. He almost sets the family barn on fire when his brother's taunts make him angry. "

The first feels vague. The second feels like a cliche, in that he is unable to control fire. (Why is fire always the magical element that is hardest to control? And why are fire controllers always people with rage issues?). Now, as a plot cliche it can still work if the reader is caught up in the other elements of the story - so this isn't a criticism of the plot. It is just that when exposed within a short query like this, any suggestion of cliche could be detrimental to the whole.

I am also wondering - is the key antagonist of the story the first teacher? Or is it the storm? In this query it is unclear. If it is the storm, then my instinct would be to reduce the time spent on the teacher conflict, and focus more on the storm conflict. (As a test, when does the story feel complete? After overcoming the teacher? Or overcoming the storm? Which is the main focus of the climax?)

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extrinsic
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Forms of to get and to have as well as to be auxilliary verbs also might mark passive voice. "When eleven-year-old Rell gets caught in a mage storm" is passive voice. The mage storm is the doer of the catching.

Also, though "in" is a preposition marking passive voice, casting a sentence without a preposition may be passive voice if the sentence object clause is left out or implied. //When a mage storm rages, Rell gets caught.// That example has a dangling participle too. A dash instead of the comma could defuse the dangler, since a dash signals an interruption.

[ July 16, 2013, 11:38 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Meredith
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Thanks. Keep giving me things to think about. I'm taking a short break from actually making revisions to prevent the dreaded query fatigue. [Smile]

@Brendan, that short story is essentially the first chapter of this. So, yeah, the story goes on to other things from there.

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Meredith
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I actually made it in (#20 of 20) to The Agents Inbox on Mother.Write(Repeat)

Soon, I should have some actual feedback from an agent on this. [Big Grin]

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MattLeo
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Wonderful, Meredith. Be sure to pass along any useful feedback you get.
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extrinsic
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I read the posted query and excerpt. I feel they are stronger than before. I don't agree with the comments posted so far about shortcomings, without much more than aesthetic hunch bases: no whys and wherefores. And they don't balance with strength commentary, of which there are ample evidence upon which to comment, though also commented upon from aesthetic hunch bases.

If I were the agent, I'd probably further consider the project for representation, but consider a necessity to engage in a middle degree of editorial development. I see voice and craft shortcomings that could benefit from closer and more intense development. Number one, why this story matters to its target audience.

A strength I see overall is the wish fulfilment-ism that most appeals to the target audience. That is, self-realization and self-actualization that most appeals to middle-grade readers. Though without too heavily foregrounding writer surrogacy's shortcomings of self-idealization and self-efficacy. That's a delicate and challenging balance to develop.

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Meredith
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Thanks, extrinsic.

The later commenters seem to have a better grasp on fantasy.

I do agree, I think, with the one who says I need to build a greater sense of urgency into the query. I just have to figure out how. [Frown]

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MattLeo
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There's a point with any piece of writing where you know you could make it better, but when you try you end up chasing your own tale. That's a good time to get some reader reaction.

I think extrinsic's on the right trail -- why does this story matter to the target audience? But I'm wary of giving more of my own opinions at this point. It'll be interesting to see what people who haven't seen this query develop will say. One thing to keep in mind is that when a query doesn't work for someone, you *do* have to take that into account but you *don't* have to take their opinions at face value. People aren't always aware of why the react as they do, and often fasten on the wrong point.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Meredith:
Thanks, extrinsic.

The later commenters seem to have a better grasp on fantasy.

I do agree, I think, with the one who says I need to build a greater sense of urgency into the query. I just have to figure out how. [Frown]

To my mind, locating why there's urgency leads to developing urgency. Rell as protagonist reflecting the audience's matters wants more freedom to go where he wants and do what he wants. That's a core convention of middle grade complications. Dad and brother oppose that and are a problem. A desperate need to go somewhere before it's too late, like Marketown, would serve.

Say an object or person is there in Marketown, thematically related, that Rell desires, and will be gone sooner than Rell can get there. The objective doesn't have to be adult sober serious. It can be a carnival-like desire that middle graders can identify with. When I was that age so long ago, I wanted the silly items advertised in comic books. I didn't want them for their inherent purposes, if they actually have any. The thought of having money to spend adult-like as I wanted was the underlying desire.

The deadline clock is ticking and all Rell's family and his private fears, like isolation from family support, oppose him.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
One thing to keep in mind is that when a query doesn't work for someone, you *do* have to take that into account but you *don't* have to take their opinions at face value. People aren't always aware of why the react as they do, and often fasten on the wrong point.

Amen! And this applies to editors and agents as well as beta readers. The first time I heard OSC speak, he pointed out that you don't necessarily have to change the thing an editor may have a problem with (even if the editor is working with you on getting the book ready for publication).

What OSC recommended was looking at why the editor had that particular problem with that particular part of the manuscript, and then to see if there was something else that could be changed to fix that particular problem. Often, the rewrite had to happen somewhere else entirely.

After he fixed what was really wrong, he said he never had an editor complain that he didn't do the exact thing the editor asked for.

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extrinsic
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An editor once noted a dangling participle as a minor issue in one of my short stories. A duh-huh oversight. No suggestion how to adjust the sentence though. I just changed the comma to an em dash in revisions. The editor said that had never come to mind as an artful treatment for the editor's own writing before nor had that treatment come up in any of the manuscripts that passed across the editor's desk.

One important criteria though, judiciously and timely using dashes, semicolons, and colons needs to be instituted gently early on so readers know what they mean and so one or two instances don't seem incidental or accidental.

[ July 26, 2013, 02:56 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Meredith
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Hmm. About the urgency issue. Just thinking out loud (sort of), but, maybe somehting like this:

quote:
When Rell witnesses another boy explode into sparks like a miniature mage storm, the need to find a real teacher becomes more urgent.
Better written, of course. [Smile]
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extrinsic
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I like the idea of a hapless mage storm victim for developing urgency and developing tension from the fear-pity emotional meaning. There but for the grace of fate go I (Rell and reader). That shows the mage storm hazard and develops empathy from the fear-pity factor. It's somewhat like the reaction shot paradigm of filmmaking, where the emotional meaning of a circumstance is portrayed by a character's emotional reaction to the immediate circumstance.

That's antagonizing and causal too, and develops suspense's curiosity for how Rell will proceed. Antagonism, causation, and tension development is the trifecta for gauging whether a motif might or might not work.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Meredith:
Hmm. About the urgency issue. Just thinking out loud (sort of), but, maybe somehting like this:

quote:
When Rell witnesses another boy explode into sparks like a miniature mage storm, the need to find a real teacher becomes more urgent.
Better written, of course. [Smile]
Well, having read the MS, the missing piece that gives Rell's predicament urgency is that he has an antagonist, who is responsible for the boy in question exploding!

It's remarkable how often I see an MS in which the author seems to have forgotten the protagonist. I've seen otherwise brilliant MSS which are nearly impossible to finish because there is no conflict to follow -- the villain isn't introduced until the third act or he spends so much time of stage that we forget about him. The solution is usually pretty easy: introduce some conflict earlier in the story. A Macguffin or example can transform a travelogue into a race.

But getting back to the topic at hand, I'm not sure how much urgency you can create within the bounds of a query letter. I'm with one of the commenters on the contest web site in that while I think your query is good, it's a bit synopsis-y and could be improved.

I've been mulling over the query issue recently; I know that what *I* want to know about a story before reading it is what the protagonist is like; what the nature of his predicament will be and the nature of the choices he'll face; the kind of universe he's in. But I'm not an agent. I'm guessing that what an agent wants to know right off the bat is, is this the kind of story I handle? Is it something I can pitch to a publisher successfully?

In any case I wouldn't fret too much at this point. You've got your query into the contest, so wait to see what kind of feedback you get.

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Meredith
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And the agent's feedback is in: less backstory, more forward momentum.

Also, more voice, which is going to be an issue for me, I think.

I'll work on what I know I can fix. Forward Ho!

Look for a revision soon. [Smile]

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extrinsic
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Guidance on voice? Give Rell a strong subjective attitude, like or dislike about the subject matter of the moment. Give every character an attitude: Dad and Brother, disapproving of Rell's independent streak for his own good.

In this sense, voice is about attitude. Yeah, social pressures compel us to suppress our private attitudes. But writing is where we can expose them artfully, through the creative irresponsibility of fiction's separating writer attitude from implied writer, from narrator, from character attitude. Loose the kracken!

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Meredith
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Fourth revison above.

Rip, tear, shred.

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Craig
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I feel awkward trying to critique another writer because I know so little about writing, but what the heck, I'll try.
Maybe it could be changed a little..... like so.

Eleven-year-old Rell stopped his weeding and stared off in the direction of Marketown, longing to adventure there as his big brother had before him. He had no interest in becoming a mage.

I hope this helps a little.

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extrinsic
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I still feel the query gives away too much of the plot. Rell wants more freedom. Rell is infected with magic, ostensibly while enjoying a degree of freedom. He needs and finds a guide to help him control the magic, though a wicked guide. He learns to control magic somehow. He struggles to fix magic in the world. That all projects that Rell successfully tames magic in the world. Why should I read it if I have no doubt about the outcome?
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wetwilly
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Well, this is a query for agents/publishers, right? Not potential readers. If this were going on your book jacket, that might be a problem, but I gather (from what I've read by more experienced authors, i.e. people who have ever published anything) that clarity about what happens in your book is a good thing in this context. The agent/editor is not going to say, "that sounds like a good story, but I already know the ending, so I'm not going to read it to consider buying it/representing it."

Just the way it seems to me.

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Meredith
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You're both right.

It does go a little farther into the story than is usual. That's in an attempt to get at Rell's essential nature, which is shown most clearly as he deals with what he wants to do with his magic.

Since many of them will also see a synopsis--which does always give the whole plot, including the ending, away--this probably wouldn't stop an agent or editor.

On the other hand, a little mystery, to draw them to read on is not a bad thing, either.

That's why queries are almost always works in progress. Even after you've started querying.

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extrinsic
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I've asked and agents who've been forthcoming and forthright have answered they read maybe as many as one in ten of the books they represent, and read far fewer of the ones that they receive seeking representation. They do not have time to read as much as they perhaps wish. Many agents and publishers read nothing they represent beyond the barest query and maybe synopsis. Many employ or intern semiskilled or skilled readers and editors for reading cover to cover, to certify the material is reasonably reputable and publishable: original, nonlibelous, reasonably fact-checked, appealing, and ready enough to go to print. After a query, a synopsis may be all an agent uses to gauge whether a project is complete. A query might be all of a book project an agent ever reads in person.

Paradox on paradox: a query of few words representing a book full must appeal to the agent, the agent's staff, and to potential publishers. It must do most of the heavy lifting and express a novel's appeal for its target audience.

Many gatekeepers upstream from an agent will not read either. A cobbler's children go about unshod, so to speak. Maybe one editor will take a close and unyielding read or two before publication. Yet a few summary words must do the heavy lifting in such a way that they entice those gatekeepers to read on, at least past the first few words of the query and maybe into a synopsis.

A query is a tangible expression of what a novel is about, but tangible summary and explanation is least probably appealing. The intangible qualities are what creates greatest appeal, even in middle grade genre.

Middle graders read up in age, but reading teachers, parents, other guardians, and marketing practices appealing to those custodians of young folk push down in age. Middle graders number-one most meaningful life complication is wrapped up in the pushmi-pullya of holding them back while they struggle to surge ahead, whether physically, emotionally, or intellectually.

It is the age young men may want firearms, karate lessons, and four-wheeler dirt bikes, for example. Young women may want flattering attention, party dresses, and more of daddy's detaching affections. Both want to be treated as more mature than primary graders. The intellectual ones have learned from primary education how to learn somewhat on their own and crave more mature literature than the holdover, formulaic, primary-grade, SRA-approved chapbook readers their reading-development lagging classmates are stuck on. Paradoxes.

Middle grade is edgy, the age when youths crave more independence and are consequently exposed to more hazard. How they cope with their dawning independence and its hazards are at the kernel of middle grade literature and, not too coincidentally, the young adult literature they read up in age.

One of the high-pressure social paradigms confronting middle graders is realizing their guardians are fallible and frail. They are realizing the polar opposites of wicked and noble are not so categorable, that there are shades of between, with consequent, negotiable risk-benefits and consequences.

I see Rell as overly protected in a hazardous milieu and he chafes at the bit. His father is a nemesis in that regard yet family is the only trustworthy if oppressive sanctuary he's got. That to me is the underlying, intangible meaning of this or any middle grade narrative. I also see wild magic loose in Rell's world as symbolism expressing runaway technology in the real world.

One, this is the age when youths begin to realize the world may not be as stable, socially, technologically, and physically, as they've been led to believe. They also begin to take sides, for one, in the debates of secondhand smoke, of pollution, littering, and the social debates of society-wide social ailments and the haves and have-nots.

I have no doubt that middle graders crave technology devices. They're prestige markers; they're cool. Yet they are unexplained and impenetrable magic as far as middle graders know. They are complicated and complicating. Possessing and using, say a cell phone, helps them to come to terms with the complications and the mystique of a world they do not know and frightens them in all its glories and hazards.

As Meredith notes, the paradox of a query summarizing a plot yet not giving away too much of the plot is a cognitive dissonance. Reconciling those equal yet seemingly impossible mutual requirements takes a doubled-awareness of the tangible and intangible meanings that hold meaning for adults and middle graders.

[ August 03, 2013, 07:27 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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wetwilly
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Which would be why every wannabe author on the planet hates the dreaded query, I think.
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Meredith
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New version above.
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Meredith
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Revised version after WriteOnCon above. There's a lot of action in the WriteOnCon forums for about three weeks of the year. Dead silence the rest of the time.

(I also deleted the other five revisions, just to keep it from being too confusing.)

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kmsf
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When a killer mage storm blows up, catching Rell too far from shelter, he expects to die. Instead, the storm infects him with magic.

Hi Merideth. Thank you for posting your query.

Having not written a full query yet, I'm looking at this as a reader.

I'm thinking of a book jacket for the first sentence. Though the premise interested me once I thought it over. But I did have to think it over. Shorter sentences would help me draw the picture with less effort. That and more concreteness would make me flip the book open.

Below is a an example of what I'm suggesting. You're right, we definitely don't want to give our plots away, but maybe one sentence per chapter up through the development section would work. I hope this helps.

Edited to use another example, because I don't know that you want someone else rewriting your stuff! I realized it annoys me, so...

A tornado catches Dorothy scrambling for cover. Rather than dead, he finds herself in the land of Oz.

[ August 24, 2013, 12:27 PM: Message edited by: kmsf ]

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extrinsic
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Hi, Meredith,

I think the query gives away less, and about the right amount of the plot. However, the voice is still on the stale side. It feels entirely mechanical to me.

I think the voice needs to be more emotional, not per se highly reactive but more of a sampling of the stronger voices of the novel, if they have a strong voice.

For example, take the word supposedly. It may illustrate all of the points I'm making. One, if it were supposably instead, that's middle grader language, hence voice. However, the mediators of middle grade literature: school boards, librarians, teachers, and parents and guardians, would cringe at an unconventional spelling for supposedly. A middle ground should be negotiated. For example, another middle grader or tyranical grammar teacher or parent abruptly correcting supposably's improper usage. Then the speaker emotionally reacting to the correction. //Frag you, Rell thought, and the scaredy cat what drug you in.//

Middle graders have a secret language they use to exclude adults from their cohort group. Boys tend toward potty mouth emotional commentary, using modifying words like booger, butt, piss and pee, crap, dick, dinkus, heck, holy cow, jeepers, cripe's sake, and so on. Though they use obscene words, they are awkward about it and do not often use them around adults. They use terms like the latter, booger, as a way to play the male bonding ritual of one-up-manship. They elaborate and exaggerate, playing the game of bovine feces, challenging their cohort fellows to call their bluffs, dare them; in other words, imitate masculine male adult behaviors.

Girls compete in a different status competition rite, mostly competing for attractiveness dominance among their young female cohort. Makeup and fashion talk are their secret language. Secret like boys' so that they can try on adult behaviors without adult oversight and embarrasment about their awkward trials.

Snakes and snails and puppydog tails, that's what boys are made of. Sugar and spice and everything nice, that's what girls are made of. Their secret languages reflect those lines from the famous "What Folks Are Made Of" nursery rhyme.

So voice, how to imply the central character voice of the novel's, Rell's, in the query? Sprinkle in a little of boys' secret language and emotional expression reactions. //The booger-headed mage storm fired H-E-double-hockey-stick flaming cinders onto the cornfield. Rell wouldn't have to pick that crop. But, "Darn and heck," he said to Dad, "all that motherless work was for crap." Dad slapped the back of Rell's head. It stung. "Watch your language, boy," Dad said.// Show Rell's emotional attitude using boys' secret language's modifying words: adjectives and adverbs. That's what they are meant for.

[ August 24, 2013, 09:52 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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