Wednesday, July 24, 2013

An Agent's Inbox #21

Dear Ms. Smith,

Please consider representing my character-driven YA contemporary, APART AT THE SEAMS, which features a multi-cultural cast and a complex LGBT character.

After Brooke Hardy’s father returned from his third deployment to Afghanistan six months ago, she endured his fierce waking nightmares by recalling her family’s picture-perfect past, telling herself the stern but kind man who once coached her soccer team would reappear any day. While her mom explained away her dad’s increasingly intense episodes as part of his “reintegration process,” Brooke took shelter under the wing of her older sister, Audrey, becoming her seamstress sister's assistant and picking up hand-me-down skills along with an unhealthy dependence on her controlling older sibling.

When classmate Mira--a girl with a murky past and a reputation for her own volatility--urges Brooke to break free from her sister's power once and for all, Brooke begins to imagine a life for herself beyond Audrey’s shadow. But as their mother wrestles with her own demons, Brooke knows defying her sister will mean fending for herself in an increasingly hazardous household. Then Brooke joins her crush, Jonah Oliver, in extracurricular activities that further threaten her ties to her military roots. As Brooke breaks the chain of command to seek love and her own voice, she and her family are torn apart at the seams. And she's not sure she'll ever be able to stitch them back together.

I am a member of SCBWI and a graduate of UC Berkeley (B.A., English) and Boston University (M.Ed.). My non-fiction pieces have appeared in the high school textbook series Opposing Viewpoint; a college textbook published by McGraw-Hill; as well as several print and online news publications, such as the Sacramento News & Review. As a former teacher who worked with emotionally disturbed students for many years, I endeavored to portray mental illness compassionately in this novel. My research for the military aspects of the story included interviews with veterans and social workers familiar with the effects PTSD.

APART AT THE SEAMS is complete at 68,000 words and is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.



Through the shifting yellowed loosestrife stalks, I could make out his form, rifle at the ready, as he stood rigid on the porch. His pinned-together hand supported the fore-end. A finger from his good one rested near the trigger. Audrey and I huddled against an oak tree out on the windbreak, fused at our sides like the core of a rock.

"Colleen!" my dad barked. He wore the gray knit hat Mom had made him years ago and which he rarely removed. The morning he'd left Kabul it was 29 degrees; he'd complained of a chill ever since.

What exactly my mom had said at the table, before the flash of flying silverware and the hollow clop of an upturned salad bowl as it trapped air and scattered lettuce leaves, I couldn't remember. Whether my dad was standing guard, whether he was on the attack, or what it was he had taken arms against, you couldn't say, either. When he got like this, you looked for somewhere to hide. When he was done, you looked the other way.

I ducked into Audrey's shoulder, plucked a crimson thread from the collar of her jacket, where it had somehow migrated from the dress she'd been hemming before dinner, and flicked the disembodied stitch into the wind. Icy air sliced the skin between the bottom of my too-small sweatshirt and the waistband of my jeans. My dad shouted my mother's name again.


Mandy P. said...

I love the concept of your story! I'm a military kid, so I know first hand how hard it is when a parents disappears for months at a time. I'm lucky that my dad didn't have PTSD, but I know it's not an easy thing for the families, especially the kids. So I love that your story is tackling this difficult situation.

I think the query could use a little cleaning up. I'm left a little confused as to how Audrey ends up being a bad guy. You describe her as "controlling" but how is she controlling Brooke? Is she just being mothering or is she actually limiting what Brooke can and cannot do?

I'm also confused by your description of extracurricular activities that threaten her ties to her military roots. I think maybe you should be more specific. Are she and Jonah burning flags? Protesting the war? What exactly is she getting involved in?

I greatly enjoyed your 250 and could imagine the scene well, so good job there! Though I do wonder why the girls followed their dad outside, as opposed to waiting out this episode in the house. (Possibly this is answered very shortly after this excerpt in your story, which if so, then no worries! :) )

Good luck!

Anne Tedeton said...

Your 250 are killer. As a a psych major, you definitely grabbed me with your concept & your writing.

Some thoughts on the query:

-The sentences in the query are on the long side. Chopping them up a bit would help to keep the flow quick and easy to understand.

-The tense. The first paragraph reads almost like backstory--everything is in past tense versus first. The story doesn't "start" until the second paragraph.

-Lots and lots of info. I think for me the two most interesting threads were 1) Brooke's father and 2) Brooke's rebellion. Streamlining the info here would help your query out, I think. As it is, it reads more like a synopsis than a query. Paring the info back would go a long way.

Hope some of this helps. You won me with your 250--hope to see you get some bites :)

Christine L. Arnold said...

I do think the query needs some tightening. I do don't really get why she would need to break away from her controlling sister, who from the query doesn't seem very controlling. Maybe giving us examples. And give us specifics with the extra curricular activities - right now it just feels like you're trying to hide it, and I'm not sure why. Specifics are what make or break a query, so make sure you put them in there! :-) It also feels like there are a lot of characters in there. We have Brooke, her sister, and two different friends from school. The one that convinces her to pull away from her sister - does she need to be named in the query? Or could you just tell us that Brooke pulls away, for whatever reasons she's been convinced of?

I absolutely loved your 250. Beautifully written, and I'm already starting to care about Brooke and Audrey. Nice work!

Anonymous said...

I think your first 250 words really outshine the query letter. I love the second paragraph - what a great example of showing not telling! Lots of good bits there in the sample.

As for the query, there's quite a lot of backstory in there. I have a really hard time with this, too, and I just had to keep combing over the letter again and again.

You mention a strong LGBT character and a multicultural cast but I don't see any of that in the rest of the query. If it's that important to include in the query, I'd say you should try to work those details in seamlessly (no pun intended!) with the rest of the query.

Niki Moss said...

(Quick disclaimer—I have intentionally not read through any of the other comments before offering my own. I didn’t want anything to influence my own perception. So if I repeat what others have said, I apologize. But at least you will know that particular thing stood out to more than one person, right? :))

You have a very nice query here, and a great concept. I was following along very well until I got to the part about Brooke’s sister being controlling, and their relationship unhealthy. Up until that point, I’d gotten a very positive impression of their relationship. I think that impression came largely due to your phrasing of “took shelter under her wing”, which seems comforting to me. It may also be a little due to Brooke being her sister’s assistant and her picking up skills from her sister. Those both seem very positive as well, so I was a bit thrown to find that their relationship is actually antagonistic by the end of the paragraph.

In the second synopsis paragraph, the part about Jonah and their activities together, as well as the “chain of command” part could maybe use a little rewording. It was confusing for me, and took a couple of passes for me to understand it completely.

“As Brooke breaks the chain of command to seek love and her own voice, she and her family are torn apart at the seams. And she's not sure she'll ever be able to stitch them back together.” Killer hook! I like it!

First 250 Words:
You have SHOWN (rather than told) a lot of information in a very short amount of time, which is awesome! We gather right away that dad is probably military, has been injured, but is home now, and he is dealing with anger issues. Their home life is tense. Audrey is a seamstress, or at least she sews. Very nice job!

Again though, I’m getting the impression that Brooke and Audrey have a very positive relationship. (“…fused at our sides like the core of a rock.”) That sounds strong and good to me. So I am further confused as to how their relationship is so bad.

Also, your very first sentence is quite a mouthful. I tried to read it aloud a couple of times and got tongue-tied. Maybe rework it? I’ve never heard of loosestrife, so that probably didn’t help, but that may just be me; perhaps it’s a regional thing?

The only other thing I could point out is that maybe there’s one too many adjectives in this area: “…flicked the disembodied stitch into the wind. Icy air sliced the skin between the bottom of my too-small sweatshirt and the waistband of my jeans.” For the sake of pacing, maybe throw out one or two? (disembodied, and too-small don’t seem nearly as essential as icy.)
Otherwise, it’s a very nice passage. I would certainly read on. Great job! And good luck!

Megan Reyes said...

I think you’ve done a really great job laying out the plot—including all of the main conflicts—in just 2 paragraphs. There seems to be a lot of great conflict (the dad’s PTSD, the mom’s “demons,” Audrey’s overbearing nature, Brooke’s struggle to find her own way, and I’m guessing Mira probably has her own issues too) and you’ve done really well weaving it all together!

I do agree with Anne that some of the sentences are long. Shorter sentences are a bit easier on the eyes, and you wouldn’t have to cut out any info—just rework some of the longer sentences.

I was a little thrown off about Audrey. The first paragraph kind of paints a confusing picture:
“Brooke took shelter under the wing of her older sister, Audrey, becoming her seamstress sister's assistant and picking up hand-me-down skills along with an unhealthy dependence on her…” --> all of this seems to imply Audrey is the sweet older sister, taking Brooke under her wing, protecting her from her parents.

But then “ … CONTROLLING older sibling.” The controlling really threw me. Because all I can picture is a sweet little seamstress girl who’s trying to shelter her sister. I think you might need to lose the whole “seamstress/assistant/learning hand-me-down-skills” bit and replace it with examples of how Audrey’s controlling? If she’s an antagonist in the story, we need to see that with more specific description. I think it would give the reader a much better sense of why Brooke wants to break away. Hope that makes sense.

Another thing that tripped me up was Brooke’s “extracurricular activities that further threaten her ties to her military roots”. This is maybe too vague. And “FURTHER threaten” implies Brooke has already done some damage to her military ties? And the “chain of command” threw me a bit as well.

The 250 words were wonderful, with beautiful imagery. Very well done! If the rest of the story is written this well (and I’m sure it is!) then I imagine it is a wonderful read! SUPER job showing verses telling!

Bridget Smith said...

Very compelling! You’ve got a clear sense of the world Brooke is stuck in as well as a glimpse of the one she’s going to emerge into, and you’ve shown the process by which she’s going to do that without undercutting the actual plot. You’ve made it clear that this is going to be an emotion-driven novel, and I’m willing to go along for the ride.