Friday, December 14, 2012

Bullies, First Days, and Magical Realism

After poring over Pitch Wars applications for the last couple of weeks, I had a few thoughts I wanted to share with you. Keep in mind, I was reading applications for MG manuscripts only, so I don’t think these points necessarily extend to writers in other categories (except for the definition of magical realism, of course).
On the whole, I was quite impressed with the MG applications in this contest. Of the 49 applications I received, I ended up hanging on to about 25% of them, kicking another 50% into the “Up for Grabs” folder, and flagging the other 25% as not quite there yet. I can’t remember the last time I thought 75% of the queries I read had potential, so that’s quite a feat in and of itself. And now for a few more trends I noticed:
1. A TON of the opening pages involved bullies or first days of school (or both), so if you’re going to use one of those motifs, you shouldn’t rely on it to be your hook. I’m not saying you can’t have a bully or a first day of school in your first chapter; in fact, several of my favorite applications involved bullies or first days of school in one way or another. Just know that, if you do, you’re not alone, so you’re going to have to do something special with it.
2. A query needs more than a paragraph-long summary. I know a lot of websites, including some prominent agency ones, encourage writers to use this query formula: one paragraph for business (title, category and genre, word count, etc.), one for summary, and one for bio. But I found I didn’t get a very good sense of the plot if the summary was only a paragraph long. Specifics are the lifeblood of a query, and you don’t have enough room to cram very many into a single paragraph. So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the summary in a query should be at least two paragraphs and, in some cases, maybe three or four. So long as everything fits on one single-spaced page (and you haven’t overly adjusted your margins), you’re good.
3. No one really knows what magical realism is. I’m not sure I do, either, but I feel like I have a better handle on it than I did even six months ago, so I wanted to share some of the ideas that have been bouncing around in my brain. I’m pretty sure none of the magical realism applications I received actually fit within that genre, so hopefully, this will help.
The problem is, magical realism is a misnomer; magical realism is NOT a realistic story with magical elements. Well, it is, but the definition has more to it than that. In general, magical realism involves an Unexplained Phenomenon--hereafter known as the UP--that actually exists outside, not inside, the story. Put another way, the UP creates a frame for the story that affects the main character’s perspective while leaving everything else unchanged. Here are a few other characteristics of magical realism:
--The main character is usually the only person who can even tell the UP is happening. She could try to explain it to the people around her, but since there’s no evidence of the UP outside her own head, they probably wouldn’t believe her.
--Even though the main character can tell the UP is happening, he can’t control it. By the end of the story, he understands it no better than he did at the beginning, though he’s probably learned something from this change in perspective. That’s one reason why magical realism is a really tough genre to write in: because you have to get your readers to completely suspend their disbelief without ever finding out why or how the UP was occurring.
--If your story involves an object, a creature, a physical transformation, or superpowers, it’s probably NOT magical realism. Contemporary and/or urban fantasy, certainly, but not magical realism.
By those criteria, the best examples of magical realism I’ve encountered are Lauren Oliver’s BEFORE I FALL and Gayle Forman’s IF I STAY. And that old movie with Bill Murray, Groundhog Day. I saw it again on TV a few weeks ago, and I was like, “Holy cow! This is magical realism!” :)
That’s all I’ve got. Hope you have a great weekend!


Myrna Foster said...

I'm glad there were so many great MG applicants. That makes it more exciting for everyone involved.

Magical realism is hard to pull off.

Vicki Tremper said...

Thanks for all your work on Pitch Wars, Krista! Yes, I've seen lots of confusion, too, about magical realism. I think Nova Ren Suma's Imaginary Girls fits your criteria as well and it's the one I think of when trying to figure out the genre. I've researched this, actually, because my NaNo novel is probably magical realism (and meets your criteria, yay!).

Huntress said...

I'm living proof of 'magical realism'.

I tell people that I'm a writer and soon-to-be-published. But since there's no evidence of this, they don't believe me!

Yep. Definitely Magical Realism.

Elizabeth Prats said...

Interesting post. I think two good examples of magical realism are Isabel Allende's The City of Beasts--you never quite knew if it was a spiritual experience or really happening. Also, Like Water for Chocolate is another great one :)

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Great points, Krista. I had never given much thought to magical realism, but I like your definition.

And I'm so proud of you for pulling through PitchWars. Seriously so impressed with you, girl!

Ink in the Book said...

I really enjoyed your thoughts on magical realism. Thanks for sharing!

Kristen Wixted said...

I had always thought my ms was magical realism and you have just solidified it so nicely--thank you!

Good luck with Pitch Wars!

Unknown said...

I love all your comments and advice. I'm still not sure what "Magical Realism" is though. Luckily, I write Horror, and I know what that is. lol

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Magical realism IS hard to pull off, Myrna. I think it's really hard to come up with a credible, unique concept.

Cool, Vicki! I have to believe good things are waiting just around the corner for you. Your writing so impressed me.

Huntress, ha! :)

Elizabeth, thanks for sharing! I haven't read either of those. Are they YA or adult?

Thanks, Amy. I must admit, I'll feel much better once all of this is behind me. As much as I've enjoyed Pitch Wars, it's been an uber-busy month, and it's not going to let up for at least another few weeks...

Happy to hear it, Ink! Thanks for letting me know.

Good luck to you, too, Kristen! Not with Pitch Wars but with other things... ;)

Lexa, magical realism is definitely one of those things you have to see to know. I think it's easier to come up with an example and describe it than come up with a description and look for an example. Horror, thankfully, is much more straightforward:)