Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Steve's Query and First Page

I'm half excited and half nervous to share Steve's query and first page with you. Gives me a new appreciation for how you "An Agent's Inbox" entrants must feel, and this isn't even a contest!

Anyway, here they are (for the time being, at least). Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Steve's Query Twelve-year-old Ella Mae is a sensible girl. She believes in the Good Lord Jesus Christ and tunes in once a week for that new television show I Love Lucy (but only when Dragnet isn’t on). So when some egghead scientist starts spouting nonsense about deoxy-something-or-other and how he can regenerate her auntie Mildred’s long-dead son from the blood on his old dog tags, Ella Mae doesn’t believe him. Or at least she doesn’t until a man steps out of the bio-pod and drips yellow-green slime onto the floor.

Problem is, the man who steps out of that bio-pod isn’t her cousin. He’s a Japanese.

Ella Mae knows that she should hate him, but when he can’t remember his own name, she feels more pity than hate. Ella Mae gives the man a name and, like any good mama, vows to protect him from the world. She spits at the reverend for calling him an abomination and even tells off her loose-lipped cousin for trying to kiss him. But when the man’s memories resurface, memories about the war and what really happened on the day his blood splashed on her cousin’s dog tags, Ella Mae has to learn the hard way that she can’t protect him from some things.

[TITLE], complete at 52,000 words, is an MG historical with a dash of science fiction. [Agent-specific comments]

I am a BYU graduate, a stay-at-home mom, and a blogger. My blog, Mother. Write. (Repeat.), receives an average of 8,000 pageviews a month.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Steve's First Page Mama said it was plum foolishness to keep my cousin’s dog tags like that, with his blood still stuck between the ridges of his name. “Don’t know why Mildred won’t wash ’em,” Mama muttered one day while scrubbing dishes. “It’s like she thinks that blood will keep Robby alive somehow, like it’ll keep him with her. And we both know that’s plum foolishness.” She shook a soapy finger in my face. “That’s foolishness, Ella Mae, and don’t let anyone tell you any differently. Especially Auntie Mildred.”

But that was exactly what Mildred told me. “It’s not foolishness, Ella Mae,” she said one day while sweeping floors. “It’s science.” She gave the broom a flick. “And one of these days, those eggheads who invented the atomic bomb are gonna figure out how to create life instead of just destroy it.”

I never told Auntie Mildred what Mama had said, and I never told Mama what Auntie Mildred had said, either. Those two already had enough to fight about, seeing as how they were sisters and all. In fact, when Mama answered the telephone that Saturday afternoon, I figured it was Auntie Mildred calling to resume their ongoing argument about Ajax.

But I was only half right.

“Settle down, Mildred,” Mama said, since she wasn’t the sort to stand for anyone’s shenanigans (especially Auntie Mildred’s). “Now what’s this about Robby?”

I stopped chomping on my asparagus. Something told me I’d want to hear every word of this particular conversation.


Michelle Mason said...

I think the first page is great. I don't have much to say there. I do have a few comments on the query.

Is the egghead scientist on TV? The way it comes right after the mention of the TV shows gave me that impression, but I'm thinking that's not the case.

Why does Ella Mae know she should hate him? I'm wondering if some of the agents you might contact would know their history well enough to place the time period and America's issues with Japan. I'd either spell that out more or drop the sentence altogether. I'm also wondering why Ella Mae's the one taking care of this adult man. Did her aunt just step aside when he didn't come out as her cousin? Also, how do they communicate? Does he speak English? I think this idea is very intriguing and unique. The query just leaves me with a few questions about how everything works.

Good luck!

Anna said...

This is such a creative concept. I'm so not a pro at this but here are my thoughts. I'm following along, enjoying the query until I get to the bio-pod sentence. I'm suddenly wondering what in the world it is and where did it come from all of the sudden. It's so out of place with your time period and I had to read it twice to get where you were going. I think I need a bit more explanation about someone giving this scientist a chance to perform his experiment. Then zap your reader with the fact that it's the wrong guy.
That's my 2-cents for what it's worth. I really do love this concept and I think your first page is great.
Good luck (you deserve it for all you do for the rest of us!)

Lynn Lindquist said...

Wow. Just wow. I don't even read middle grade and I would read this.
I think you could tweak the query based on different opinions, but bottom line, you'd get plenty of requests for partials/fulls just as it is. (I'm wondering how you fit all that plot into just 52,000 words.) Best of luck!

Janice Sperry said...

Query: I do wonder why she is put in charge of him. She's a child. He's the enemy. Does she do it in secret or with the full knowledge of her mother?

Ella Mae knows that she should hate him, but when he can’t remember his own name, she feels more pity than hate. This line feels strange to me. I'd replace when with since and remove that.

First page:
You have a very strong voice. That could be good or bad, depending on who you're sending it to. I liked it, but it might get annoying after a few chapters. It reminds me of an older Junie B. Jones. I wonder if you could tone it down just a little so it's still there, but as a nice background.

I love this concept - one I've never seen.

Chantele Sedgwick said...

This sounds awesome, Krista. I think the first page is great. Your voice is awesome.
I had a few comments on the query.
Was the scientist on a tv show she was watching? Or was he at her house? And I was also confused about the bio-pod. What is it? Is it something from the future? I'm pretty sure this isn't set in the future. I think just a little explanation would help with that.
Also, when it says "like any good mama, vows to protect him from the world", it seems like Ella Mae is much older and not a child. And the man is much older than her. Wouldn't her mama take care of him? Would her mama have a problem with a grown man following her young daughter around?
Anyway, I think you have a great story here, just look over those few little things and you'll be fine. :D GOOD LUCK!! I'm excited for you!! I wish I could write middle grade. *sigh*

Maggie Hall said...

Oh WOW. This is definitely eye-catching! The concept is so intriguing, and I love, love the voice of the first page.

Just a couple things in the query made me read them twice: leading from her TV watching into the scientist does make it sound like they contacted him off the TV, maybe? That didn't *really* bother me, but I see that a couple other commenters had questions about it. What did give me pause was the line about "like any good mama..." I had to go back and check on Ella Mae's age and wonder if I read it wrong. I get what you're saying, but just the word "mama" really threw me and I think you could convey Ella Mae's caregiver instincts without it. I wondered too, like some of the other commenters, why she--and not a grown-up-- was caring for this man, but I wondered it more in a "I want to read and see" way.

I loved the voice and thought the first page was great. My one nit-pick was using "plum foolishness" twice in that first paragraph. It's such a strong, great phrase, but gets a little less strong with the repeat.

This sounds really awesome! Good luck!

K. L. Hallam said...

Love the sound of this query. -Not much of an expert on query writing. Lord, I've had my problems. But I love the creative idea (happen to love SciFi..so) of the Story
Good Luck! i'll be looking for it in the near future on the shelves.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Really love it, Krista. The query is great! And I like the change you made to first line so it's clear Robby's a cousin, not a dog. LOL!

This is a really great book, people! :)


Ninja Girl said...

I loved it! The idea stands out to me and now I think I understand what the tone of a MG novel should sound like. At the beginning of the query, I loved how you told us it was a historical without straight out saying it. Very well done there. I also enjoyed how mid-way through, Ella Mae turns into his protector.

A few things I noticed: In the first para of the query, you didn't capitalize "Auntie," but in the sample it's capitalized every time. Also, in the last phrase before the [TITLE] para, I think you could just leave it as, "Ella Mae learns the hard way that she can’t protect him from some things." The "has to" doesn't need to be there, and it flows a little smoother. The sample was great, and I enjoyed reading, wanted to keep going. Oh, and I love the name Ella Mae. Great job, Krista :)
Ninja Girl

Jenilyn Collings said...

For the most part, I love the query! Especially the details like the green slime.

I do have a couple suggestions:

I would like to have a better sense of the time right from the beginning of the query. I know you say that I Love Lucy is new, but honestly, I have no idea when the show started. I think it's important to know that this is soon after WWII. Saying that her cousin is "long-dead" makes me think that this is years and years after he died (which it probably is in her perspective, but it really wasn't that long).

Also, I'm not entirely sure how her beliefs and TV choices make her sensible.

And, of course, I love Ella Mae and her voice. It makes me want to go read it again. :)

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Wow, such awesome feedback! Okay, I still want to respond to everyone, but I might have to do this in shifts...

Michelle, the egghead scientist isn't on TV, but I can see how those two ideas seem related. I'll have to tweak that line a bit. Also, the first line of that third paragraph used to say, "Ella Mae knows that she should hate him, that his people are responsible for killing hers..." then cut it when someone on Absolute Write thought it was redundant and that most people would be aware of the racial friction during that time. I'll have to think about that. (More about Ella Mae as the man's caretaker down below...)

Yeah, Anna, that bio-pod reference is definitely part of the manuscript's sci-fi side:) I'll have to tinker with it and see if I can come up with anything I like better.

Princess L, your comment made me smile:) I hope you're right!

Janice, you brought up some good points, especially about Ella Mae's caretaking responsibilities. Her mama takes custody of the regenerated man after her sister Mildred refuses to do so, but Ella Mae's the one who really takes him under her wing. I know I had a line in there at one point that explained how that worked, but I cut it just because it felt like the query was getting too long. Maybe I'll have to stick it back in and see if I can condense it a bit.

Chantele, the story takes place in 1952, and the bio-pod is part of the egghead scientist's (non-historical) experiment. The whole novel is kind of couched in the race to discover the chemical structure of DNA. Whereas most scientists were trying to tease out the structure, the scientist in my manuscript was more interested in application and attempted several FRANKENSTEIN-esque experiments. The bio-pod reference tripped Anna up, too, so I'll have to think about how to handle that.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Okay, my kids still aren't screaming, so I'll respond to a few more...

Maggie, good points. I can definitely do without that "like any good mama" clause. I threw it in mostly to balance the flow of the sentence. I'll have to come up with a better way to balance it.

Karen, thanks for stopping by! And believe me, if Steve ever lands on a shelf near you, all you lovely blog readers will be some of the first to know:)

But Amy, just think how many more people I could have misled if I'd left that line alone! ;)

Ninja Girl, I didn't capitalize "auntie" in the query because of the addition of the pronoun "her." When Ella Mae calls her "Auntie Mildred" in the first page, it kind of becomes a title, but when the query talks about her auntie (whose name is Mildred), the possessive pronoun nullifies the title effect. Or at least I think that's how it is. Also, I went back and forth on whether to include "has to," so I appreciate your vote to cut it:)

Jeni, good points. I've wondered if that second sentence didn't seem sensible enough. Sounds like I need to play with it a little more...

Melodie Wright said...

I commented on your query over at Absolute Write and am glad to see your first 250 here.
My only issue w/ the excerpt (keeping in mind that 250 words is so limiting) is the knowledge that blood doesn't stick to metal well. It flakes off. And I have no idea if blood stuck between the tiny ridges of his name is enough for a DNA sample. But this is for an MG audience soo...
The fact I'm wondering these technical things instead of critiquing your writing says a few things: WELL DONE and INTRIGUING. :)

Ben Spendlove said...

I think you should add "It's sure to win the Newberry Award" to the end of the query. Or at least, "Ben highly recommends you read this book."

Seriously, there are some good comments about the query. Nothing to add.

Liesl Shurtliff said...

Awesome! Since I've read the book, I'm not the best person to critique the query, but I think the other comments have brought up some valid points that will steer you in the right direction.


A.J. Cattapan said...

I love this concept, and the first page is great! Like some of the others have said, I think the query could use a little tweaking. I had to reread the first paragraph a couple times.

I think I was missing the fact that the man who stepped out of the bio-pod was regenerated from the blood on the dog tags. If Ella Mae doesn't believe the man, how did he get the dog tags? I'm assuming the aunt handed them over?? If that's the case, maybe try something like this for the end of the first paragraph:

So when some egghead scientist spouts nonsense about deoxy-something-or-other and claims he can regenerate her dead cousin from the blood on his old dog tags, Ella Mae doesn’t believe him. However, her aunt turns the dog tags over to the scientist, and before Ella Mae can shake her disbelief, a man steps out of the bio-pod, dripping yellow-green slime onto the floor.

Just a thought.

Oh, and as an English teacher, I can tell you that you were correct not to capitalize "aunt" when you have a possessive like "her" in front of it. :)

Adam Heine said...

Concept: Fabulous.
Voice: Strong (in both the query and page).

I like how the query establishes the world (1950's America), but I do think the sci-fi aspect should come even sooner, if possible. (And I agree with the commenters who said it sounds like the egghead scientist is on TV -- it's just the way it's arranged at the moment).

I don't think you need to mention Auntie Mildred in the query. She only appears once, and I think that sentence would be clearer if it said "regenerate her long-dead cousin" rather than making the reader think through relational hoops :-)

And for the page, I love how it jumps right in to the inciting incident.

But really, this all looks pretty good as it is. I'm mostly nit-picking. Nice work!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Melodie, thanks for keeping me on my toes. Since this is science fiction, I think I'll just decide that however much dried blood managed to stay stuck to the dog tags is precisely how much they needed:)

Yeah, Ben, I had that line in there about the Newbery, but then I decided to cut it just to conserve space:)

Thanks for your enthusiasm, Liesl! Now if I could only manage not to get my hopes up...

A.J., thanks for sharing your expertise on that possessive pronoun issue. And thanks for your suggested rewrite. I'll definitely take it into consideration.

Thanks for your vote of confidence, Adam! (Deep thought: Since we're querying twins, if you compliment my query, is that the same as if I compliment it myself?) You know, I originally had "her long-dead cousin" in that opening paragraph, but everyone on AW got hung up on why the cousin was so important to Ella Mae. The answer is, he wasn't - he was important to his mother, and Ella Mae just happened to be his cousin. Nobody's brought up the cousin issue since I changed it, so now I don't know what to think. But I might have to add another previously chopped line about Auntie Mildred back in, anyway, so we'll see. (That last bit probably didn't make much sense, but never fear. I'm just thinking out loud...)

Adam Heine said...

Interesting thought. Maybe I'm channeling your own self-confidence (which is good to have at this stage!).

I can see the trouble with the long-dead cousin line. I also think I misread the page; I thought it was Ella who kept the dog tags.

Maybe instead of some egghead scientist, the sentence can be about Aunt Mildred? "So when her Aunt Mildred says some egghead scientist is going to regenerate her long-dead cousin, Ella Mae doesn't believe her."? Something like that.

Jeff Chen said...

Hi Krista!

Thanks again for all you do - the contests have been great for feedback. I've found them very useful.

First of all, I love your premise. I think it's catchy, and could see it along the shelves with other MG historicals. I also think your writing sample is strong - you come across with voice, and I was enticed to read on.

However, if I were an agent, I never would have gotten to your writing sample. Perhaps that's just me, but I worry that other people will share my reaction. Here's why:

I'm surprised no one's pointed this out yet, but are you prepared for the ramifications of using the word "Jap"? I consider it on par with the n-word and other ethnic slurs (I'm Chinese but got called all kinds of Asian slurs as a kid, including a Jap). I was actually quite offended when I saw it used so offhandedly.

If you're trying to get into the world of anti-Japanese sentiment in WWII (Japan no doubt did some horrible things through the late 19th and early 20th century, and not just to Americans), this would certainly be accurate. But if I had gotten this query, I'd have the first impression that this author uses the word with such nonchalance, they probably don't understand a Japanese person well enough to write about him.

I also realize there are quite a few historical MGs out there that use the n-word, but I wonder if that gave them a harder road to publication. Perhaps the controversy would make your book more enticing to an agent who could see it getting on the "banned books" list? I'm not sure which way this would go.

Okay, off my soapbox, back to other comments. My biggest point is it took me two reads through the query to figure out really what was going on, and I'm still not 100% sure if I have it. My summary: kid tries to bring cousin back to life using DNA on a dogtag, but accidentally brings back an enemy soldier whose blood was splattered on.

If I have it right, I'd like to see you clarify that. Perhaps if the second paragraph contained the info: "But there was someone else's DNA on that dogtag too." That single sentence second paragraph made me think perhaps there's a mixup in some time travel thing, it's her cousin in a different body, who knows. The premise doesn't actually solidify until the very last sentence of your query, and if I were reading this quickly, I might have dismissed the entire thing by the time I got to the third paragraph as it didn't seem like there was enough cohesion from sentence to sentence.

I would also consider taking out mention of the scientist, or clarifying the who what why about him. "...some egghead scientist" doesn't tell me anything useful like where she met him or how he knows how to do this or why he does this for her. It just muddles things up for me (does he have anything to do with her TV watching), plus the phrase itself is awkward: it doesn't flow with the rest of your writing.

Do you need to mention the TV shows? I know it sets the decade, but unless it relates to how she meets the scientist, it might be better to just state somewhere that it's in the post-WWII era.

Lastly, I don't understand why Ella Mae feels initial pity for this guy. If you're really in the WWII setting, I can't imagine that her first gut reaction is anything but hate. I think there has to be something that explains her initial pity, or you ought to make it so that she develops a sensitivity to him only after getting over her initial repulsion.

Again, I think you have a very strong premise. But I'd very much like to see you rewrite the query to make that premise more clear, and reconsider the ramifications of using that particular word.

Best of luck!

Sophia Chang said...

Whew! Finally a yellow brother who pointed out the obvious. (Although it is majorly sad that none of the white commenters even batted an eye.)

I'm incredibly offended by the term "Jap" - it's fine if the character sees it that way and comes to change her mind in the actual book (particularly if it's in first person), but in the query like this, it reflects upon the author, not the character. I'm so taken aback and my heart literally hurts to see this so easily written and even more easily accepted. This is incredibly angering and hurtful.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Jeff and Sophia, thank you for your comments. It was certainly not my intention to offend; I was just trying to use the language of the time period in the query, but maybe that's not the best way to go.

Ella Mae uses that word because, like a lot of kids, she simply uses the words she hears the adults around her use. (She actually only thinks it and can't bring herself to say it out loud. And by about chapter three, she can't even think it anymore.)

I actually have some Asian heritage as well (although you'd never guess it by looking at me). My grandfather was part-Filipino, part-Chinese, so in no way do I want to represent an Asian culture in a negative light. I can easily change that word to "Japanese."

Thanks again for offering your perspective.

Jeff Chen said...

I'd ask you to re-read your query with the n-word replacing "Jap". Is that the type of impact you're going for as an initial impression to an agent? Who knows, maybe that would catch people's attention and make your query stand out. But to Sophia's point, you run the risk of an agent thinking off the bat you're a racist.

I think you'd get your message across even better if you changed it to "a Japanese soldier from WWII". It helps with the flavor of your story.

Sophia, you go girl! Asians unite!

Unknown said...

Great job, Krista! I wouldn't change much of anything with your first page. Kicks off with a great pace and conflict.

I agree with Jeff that you should reconsider the use of the word "Jap." It's jarring. I realize for the time period, that might be what you're going for, but I think it would be clearer and less offensive to use "Japanese soldier." Within the text of your manuscript, it will more clearly be her voice and culture, not yours. And it seems that the whole point of her story is that she's going to grow to see this man as more than the enemy.

In the third paragraph of the query, something seemed a little off. Her voice seemed too old. Probably the "good mama" line, but for a second, I forgot she was a kid. Also, I'm a tiny bit confused as to what his mental state is. Through the "regeneration" has he become child-like himself?

I'd definitely want to read more.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Jeff, you bring up a good point. I must admit, the slur for a Japanese person has left effect on me personally than the slur for a black person because I've never actually heard the first used in everyday speech whereas I have the second (mostly by middle-school-aged boys). But I certainly wouldn't want anyone to think that I think it's okay to use derogatory racial terms, so I'll make the change.

Karen, thanks for this. You bring up a good point about that third paragraph. And I'm glad the first page is working for people for the most part. It's a lot harder to change a manuscript than a query:)

Bethany Crandell said...

Nicely, done.

This line made me laugh out loud: "Those two already had enough to fight about, seeing as how they were sisters and all." SPOT ON for a 12 year-old. Such a subtle statement but, for me anyway, is rich with voice.

I like this Ella Mae kid.

I think you've got a winner here.

Anonymous said...

Krista, how very brave you are! Your story sounds great and I love your first line!It is so "visual". I have a reference to I Love Lucy in my story too! :>) All the best to you and your wonderful story! Thanks for all you do to encourage your readers each post!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Bethany, so glad you like Ella Mae! I've got a soft spot for her, too:)

Momslifeponderings, thanks for your enthusiasm:) And best of luck with your project as well!

Write Life said...

Hey Krista! I have to say when I saw, 'He's a Japanese,'
my eyes kind of widened. I think there's another way of saying that without it being so, POW!
Why does she know she should hate him?
But wow, this is an interesting concept! : )

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Linda, thanks for your thoughts. I've already made a couple of changes that hopefully address the issues you raised. I'll probably post the new query as a page sometime in the next little while...