Wednesday, April 10, 2013

An Agent's Inbox #27

Dear Ms. Sarver,

SHE-EAGLE \ shee – ee-g uh \ noun: 1. A woman who resembles an eagle, as in courageous and protective. 2. A 100,000 word women’s fiction about four friends who, with the power of friendship and the horror of breast cancer, shatter many social and political glass walls during 1980's and 90's because these walls must be shattered.
Lizzy, Ranie, Meredith and Pilar begin annual women-only weekends, and at their first reunion Lizzy purchases a journal with an image of a single Eagle feather and the words SHE-EAGLE embroidered on its cover. They share the journal and come up with ten “She-Eagle” rules since courage and protectiveness are their strengths or, at the very least, their goals.

Lizzy's courage wavers with a breast cancer diagnosis (the same disease that killed her mother in 1963), and she and her friends enlist in the breast cancer war at a time when 88% of physicians and 95% of elected officials are men. Ranie, courageous from birth, joins her brother at the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and realizes how much the AIDS activists can teach the newly formed National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC) about public awareness. Meredith’s 1979 abortion and the doctor’s disregard for her emotional well-being fuels her courage, and she becomes an attorney and connects with the NBCC. Pilar embraces the changing world of computer and a new site called the World Wide Web, and she helps Lizzy research treatment choices but only after she rejects her parent’s belief that women should get married, stay home and have babies.
They are She-Eagles, and their courage is obvious; however, She-Eagles are also protective. The discovery of the BRCA gene mutation for breast cancer ignites Lizzy’s protective instincts and she makes an uncommon choice for her daughter that threatens their 20 year friendship. Can these women, who believe so strongly in choice, accept a choice that’s difficult to understand?

Ms. Sarver, I have a MS degree in Nutrition and have written health articles for 29 years--a self-published newsletter for frequent travelers (Health Flight), a women’s health column in the Jill Magazine and a blog (A Teaspoon of Sugar). I created a She-Eagle twitter feed dedicated to acknowledging all courageous and protective women (past and present). SHE-EAGLE is my debut novel, and it blends my dedication to health with my strong belief in the power of female friendships.
Below are the first 250 words. Thank you so much for your time and consideration.



February 1961

Helen’s lips felt cemented to her teeth, and her tongue was swollen and stiff. She wanted water but couldn't ask; unsticking her lips took strength and she didn't have any. Her eyelids were too heavy to open too. It was easier to keep them closed, breathe through her nose and just listen. Yet, she knew from other half-awake moments that listening left her feeling confused because she heard the words breast, no choice, life.

Helen knew where she was, Medical College of Virginia, and she knew why she was there, a breast lump biopsy. And there were moments when she was keenly aware of how much she missed her daughter, Lizzy. What she didn't know was why she couldn't fully pull her mind out of the thick cloud around it or why someone, a nurse most likely, shushed her and told her to be still whenever she stirred, trying to reach for her diary with Lizzy’s picture tucked inside.

The cloud began to drift, letting her thoughts take shape, and she realized the familiar hand that had earlier rubbed her left arm and held her left hand wasn't there. Richard must have gone home, she thought, missing his weighty touch and warm pats.

Without warning, the prickliness in her throat was spreading and she needed to swallow but her sandpaper tongue made her gag and then cough. She moved to cover her mouth but her right hand was trapped, her arm was wedged, pinned against her body. Why can't I move my arm? Her eyelids shot open but closed quickly; pain trumped shock.


Anonymous said...

Hi DLD -

The 250 words about Helen are magnetic. I recently lost my BFF to breast cancer so your description rang true, and stung just as though I knew Helen myself.

The query was a little harder for me to digest. While I found the opening paragraph interesting, I also was distracted as I tried to make sure I was pronouncing the name right. You may want to start with a stronger visual that represents the theme of your book.

Best of luck!
AW #19

Ru said...

I think your voice in your 250 words is strong. Your query needs to be tightened up. You need a better hook, starting with a confusing definition probably isn't the best choice. The "walls need to be shattered" is redundant and pretty much implied. The paragraph that begins with "Lizzy's courage" kind of feels like a synopsis/character soup.

Try to reframe the query with the hook/setup/stakes format. Who is this about, why should I start reading, what is it about, and what is the dramatic "Oh no!" affecting the WHO that will make me want to finish?

(From what it sounds like, Lizzy is the main character. The hook is her cancer diagnosis. The what is the group of diverse friends that support her through her medical problems. The stakes are ... I can't tell. Is she going to make her kid have a double mastectomy or something? Does this upset her more liberal friends? You have to be really clear that Lizzy has to choose between X and Z so the reader knows your book is going to have a dramatic arc.)

(Sorry if that sounds super critical. I think your writing is good, I just think the query is going to cause you some trouble when you need to stand out in the slush pile.)

Stephsco said...

Queries belong in their own special little category of strange writing pieces. It takes awhile to get one right, and I think for this one, this is a good starting point to work from, but it will need to be reworked form synopsis to back cover copy hook. You want to stick to the high level details--the main characters names, their journey, what is at stake for them.

I would suggest ditching the first paragraph of the query entirely, and begin with where you introduce the characters. This gives an idea that it's a multi-character story about women and friendship without you having to spell out "This is a story about women's friendships." The agents are savvy and will pick up on that when you describe your characters.

You have a good start with the next section, but I would suggest taking out the percentages and keeping to the story arc--save those other good details for your book. You could sum that up with a phrase like "women banding together in a male-dominated world" or something. It's the '60s, that line alone and we will get it.

Maybe focus on your main character, or the main hook of the story. That paragraph about Lizzie and the gene research, maybe be more specific what is at stake for her daughter with the choice she makes. Or, what is the one big threat to this group of women collectively and show why they are banded together? You want to show an obstacle to overcome in a short amount of space, rather than list the plot for all the characters.

Multi-character books are tough to write queries on. Maybe a few others have some advice. I'd be curious to see how a book like The Help or Ya Ya Sisterhood was pitched; maybe reading the back cover copy on books like that might help how to pare down a wide ranging story into a 2-3 paragraph query.

Good luck!!

Unknown said...

I think it's great when people try to switch it up from the regular query format, however, it didn't really work for me. I wasn't hooked. When I read on and found out the book was about struggling breast cancer, that's when you grabbed my attention. This is an issue so many people face, I think that's where you're going to stir up the most interest.

Your 250 was good, but there were some sentences that I found worded a bit strange. I think you have a strong idea and a good start, it just needs a little bit of reworking.

Rosalyn said...

I agree with the previous commenters: the query needs to be tightened. It helps me to ask myself: what does the main character want, what obstacle is she facing, what are the stakes if she doesn't (or does) get what she wants . . . This helps me get at the essential information for the query.

I think the writing in the 250 is strong, but I did feel a little disconnect as Helen isn't one of the main characters you describe above (it took me a minute to realize that she was the mother you mentioned in the query). I wonder if it might be better to start with one of the main characters?

tarak said...

The first 250 words pulled me in. But I was initially confused that Helen was the focus when she wasn't one of the characters mentioned in the query.

For the query, I would really focus on one character, rather than all of them. Lizzy stood out for me. I think the hook might be spelling out what choice she wants to make for her daughter. Start with that.

What does the MC want? What does she have to do to get that? What will happen if she fails?

Anonymous said...

The previous posters pretty much nailed it. The query itself needs to be more refined, concise and tight. Too much explaining, back story, and too many characters can make an agent lose interest.

I (actually, I think all writers) do understand how challenging it is to write a query, even if we're the best writers in the world. But remember, a query is what MUST convince an agent to read your fabulous manuscript.

However, your 1st 250 words were incredibly powerful and very well written. I was instantly pulled in and want to read more.

Melissa Sarver said...

I think the sample here is much stronger than the query. Based on the query, I wouldn't request to read the manuscript because I found the query confusing as to what the story was really about. You've given me who the characters are and the time period, but not the real conflict that will drive the narrative arc. I understand the desire to start the query in an interesting way but the intro here didn't work for me at all. I was also a bit turned off by each of the characters having a major issue-of-the day; it felt inauthentic and that you were trying to hard to write an "issue" book as opposed to just a really great novel.
The scene in your opening page is powerful. Be careful not to use so many short sentences that can really break up the flow and prevent your reader from becoming immersed in your narrative (unless this is this particular character's voice/inner monologue). Is the book going to be alternating chapters in the different characters' POVs?

Lastly, it would be helpful to mention comp titles or authors that are similar to your novel (or have similar audiences).