Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An Agent's Inbox #3

Dear Secret Agent,

SWIMMING WITH TCHAIKOVSKY, complete at 65,000 words, is a young adult light fantasy, in the vein of Jennifer Donnelly’s REVOLUTION.

Fifteen-year-old Sally arrives in St. Petersburg, Russia focused only on her upcoming cello competition. But when her host father Misha is kidnapped in retaliation for his exposé about the corrupt local government, her music takes on new meaning,

With Misha’s grandmother’s scarf around her neck and her cello’s bow carving out the music of Russia’s past, Sally starts to see visions. Street children perform an impromptu opera about the tsar. A young woman, exhausted from factory work, dances with a seagull. When she sees a flock of birds whispering “Misha” with their wing beats, it becomes clear the visions are offering clues to help rescue him as they trace the lives of his grandmother and mother. His grandmother faced the tsar’s cannons to defend a crowd of protesters. His mother endured torture at the hands of Stalin’s regime rather than falsely accuse her first love. Not the sort of women who’d let hoodlums kidnap their Misha without a fight.

Drawing on the visions, Sally organizes a mass protest about the kidnapping even though it means risking arrest on foreign soil. Now on the run from government agents, Sally must decipher the rest of the clues before Misha becomes yet another voice permanently silenced by the government.

I majored in Russian at [redacted] and lived with a host family in St. Petersburg.  I’m also a member of SCBWI. The first 250 words are below.

Thank you for your time and consideration.



That chair shouldn’t be empty.

Sally kept her eyes on her bowl. He had to be coming back. It must be a mistake. Some sort of misunderstanding.

As Sally chased down the last bit of kashi, the scrape of her spoon against the bowl was deafening in the silent kitchen. Beside Sally, her host sister Irina had stopped eating breakfast long ago and now sat cross-legged in her chair, facing the window. Without a word, Sally’s host mother ladled yet another serving of kashi into Sally’s bowl.

“Thank you,” Sally murmured in Russian. She couldn’t bear to tell her she was too full. To do that she’d have to look up into those unblinking eyes.

Yesterday evening her host father, Mikhail Gregorovich, had been sitting in that chair, drinking tea. His mug was still on the table where he'd left it. He’d only gone out to walk the dog.

That frantic barking was still echoing in her head. It had been loud enough to send them tearing down the apartment stairwell--only to arrive too late.

But Sally had to stay focused. She’d been preparing for this competition her whole life. It was the only reason she was here, and her time slot was just a few hours away. Even if their explanation of what had happened was true, what could she do to help? Nothing.

Anyway, it couldn’t be true. What government was willing to kidnap an innocent man in broad daylight?

Sally stood up. “I should get going.”


Melanie Stanford said...

Everything about this sounded great to me except for one thing: Why does she care so much about Misha? I didn't get it in the query and I especially didn't get it after your page. In the writing, she cares more about her competition. But the query is all about how Sally needs to help Misha. She stages a protest and goes on the run from the government. Why? Because she saw a woman dancing with a seagull? But I see the potential here for a really great book.

Alex said...

I Agree with Melanie. It seems like there should be some back story with her host father. What I get from it is that she came to Russia for a concert and maybe just met these people two or three days ago.

I think once she starts playing and sees feels that deep connection to Misha perhaps it might feel more believable. But I would want her to experience more of Misha's life in a vivid manner to find it believable and to really invest in wanting her to save him.

But I think this is a very strong concept and from the query I would keep reading after the first page.

Robbin L. said...

The title caught me off guard. I thought it was going to be a story about swimming, not a cello musician. I agree with the others that the concept is good. I didn't quite get Sally's visuals - why was Sally the one connected to Misha? The first page was easy to read, but moved a little slow for me. I would've liked more conversation, concern, fear, instead of silence at the table. There is intrigue, and I do want to know more - so that is good. I'd read more.

MarcyKate said...

Love the concept you've got going here in the query and the first page, but I think the one thing we still need to understand is what is at stake for Sally and why/how Misha's kidnapping fits in to that. I would definitely keep reading to know more (the writing and premise are both fantastic!), but it would definitely bother me if she doesn't have a realistic motivation to stage the protest etc. I'm just throwing out ideas here, but something like Misha being a personal friend of the family she's known all her life, or if Misha had just saved her from the men coming to get her and they took him instead, that would believably inspire the necessary motivation to me. I'm sure you've got something better up your sleeve, it just needs to be more clear up front.

Great start! :)

Princess L said...

I really liked the first page. Even though Sally is focused on her competition, I get the feeling that the character grows and her priorities will change over the course of the story.

As far as tightening your query, I'd rewrite the third paragraph. The first sentence is good but the rest gets distracting. Maybe you could replace it with a single sentence summarizing what the clues from the visions meant or led her to?

This sounds like a beautiful story. Good luck with it!

Kate Larkindale said...

Like the others, I didn't understand the relationship with Misha. If she's just arrived, and just met him, why is she so invested in saving him from the kidnappers? Is he someone she's known before? Someone she admires for his talent? Has someone else in her life been kidnapped and she relates in this way?

I think this is the most important thing you need to clarify, because the whole story appears to hang on it.

Mim said...

The connection between Misha and Sally does need to be stronger. the first read through of the query I thought it was her father kidnapped. A stronger connection does need to be formed.

I like the first page and i would keep reading, but I do need more motivation for Sally to get involved, especially to the point she is risking her life. If she's been in the country for a few months and formed a relationship that needs to be stated in the query.

Overall good job. Good Luck!

Jeanne said...

I have to agree with the others that I was confused about Sally's relationship with Misha. On a first read, I thought he was her father. After reading the excerpt, I realized he was the father in her host family, but why is she so invested in his well-being? Somehow you need to strengthen the connection between Misha and Sally in the query letter. Perhaps he is a mentor, a famous musician, or a former teacher.

The excerpt feels slowed down by backstory. You begin with them eating and then jump back to why Sally is so distressed. Why not begin with Misha's kidnapping as your inciting event? One other thought: Which Tsar are you referring to in the query? There were quite a few of them. It might be useful to name names to anchor the historical details.

The Agent said...

A.B. - I felt for the query's purposes, the relationship between Sally and Misha was fine. As long as I'm able to see it in the writing, it works for me. I really like this premise and I enjoyed what little I was able to see of your writing. One question I had was what type of story is this. It starts out as a quiet piece of magical realism, and seems to end up as a thriller. I think the 2nd full paragraph of the query could do a better job connecting those two ideas. I was also curious what "her music takes on a new meaning" means. How so? Does her music become relevant to the plot? I would request this out of curiosity, but I would have preferred the query itself be more focused.