Wednesday, March 16, 2016

An Agent's Inbox #11

Dear Mr. Taylor,

Your recent MG sale, Call Me Sunflower, seems to explore some of the same family dynamics as my MG manuscript, Phoebe Fogg and the Chronos Apparatus.

Set in 1903 Boston, the story follows eleven-year-old inventress Phoebe Fogg, who is desperate to stay with her adventuring father. When she finds Benjamin Franklin’s old journal and reads an entry about freezing time, she’s convinced his device is the key to solving her problems. Using Franklin’s invention, she stows away on her father’s airship. When she’s discovered, Phoebe and her father are forced to face what happened on the family’s terrifying last archaeology expedition. Throughout the story, flashbacks gradually reveal that Phoebe’s mother was swept away by the 1900 Galveston hurricane.

Phoebe Fogg and the Chronos Apparatus is complete at 35,000 words. It will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Invention of Hugo Cabaret and will go on to read Kenneth Oppel, Scott Westerfeld and Gail Carriger. The story was somewhat inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, and makes several nods to that classic novel. The manuscript is written as a stand-alone story, but has series potential.

Andrew Harwell of Harper Collins critiqued the opening pages at a past Oklahoma SCBWI conference. He found the premise intriguing and requested the manuscript. I explained that I needed to make revisions and perhaps secure representation before submitting to an editor, which he agreed was the best plan. The opening pages also earned me a finalist spot for the Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentor Award at the Austin SCBWI conference the same year. A work-for-hire project delayed my progress on this manuscript until recently.

In 2011, I completed an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In 2014, my first nonfiction book, Art of the Oklahoma Judicial Center, was published and my second nonfiction book, Frontiers of Healing: A History of Medicine in Oklahoma, just shipped. These books drew on my background as a journalist, but I hope to move my writing career in a different direction. This manuscript reflects my true passion of writing books that will inspire and excite young readers.

I hope you will be captivated by Phoebe’s adventures. As per your submission policy, I have pasted the first 250 words of the manuscript below. I look forward to hearing from you.



Phoebe Fogg paused at the radiator before fetching a footstool. Certainly the heating pipes would transport her father’s conversation with Aunt Catherine to the study. The stool’s cushion boasted a prime example of those “feminine arts” her aunt always praised: a needlepoint explosion of flower blossoms bursting forth in tiny knots. After arranging her pesky petticoats, Phoebe took great joy in planting her derriere on the petunias.

Closing her eyes, she focused on the task at hand. Sounds drifted in from the dining room, but the words ran together. Was that her father or Aunt Catherine? Concentrating to sort the voices, she nearly fell off the footstool when a hand touched her shoulder.

“Shattered sockets, Paul! Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

Her cousin’s face twisted into a grin as he apologized. He wasn’t a complete popinjay, though he was dressed a bit like one. With his fencing jacket and rapier, he looked ready to battle Captain Hook. Light glinted off the silver buttons racing down his shoulder from his high collar.

“What are you listening to?” He sliced his blade through the air, making a hissing sound.

“Jasper and Aunt Catherine. Trying to at least.” She pointed to the radiator register.

Phoebe shushed him, straining to hear. “I can’t tell if that’s Jasper speaking.”

“Mother says you shouldn’t call him that.”

She rolled her dark eyes at her cousin. “Lots of people have nicknames for their fathers: daddy, papa. Mine just happens to be his actual name.”


Jan Fosse said...

This is wonderful! I like the use of language and the pacing of the narrative. It definitely has series potential, and I know I would have eaten up this steampunk adventure as a middle grade reader! I'd eat it up now, as an adult. Good luck to you - I have no doubt you'll find representation. If there was a way to follow you to see where this goes, I would, because I want a copy of this book!

Erica Klarreich said...

Cool idea! The part about Phoebe's mom sounds really creepy (in a good way).

I don't have a lot of query expertise so please take all of the following with a grain of salt, but here are some comments/suggestions:

1. In the pitch, it might be worth adding a quick phrase about *why* Phoebe is having difficulty staying with her father. Is it just because he's always traveling? Or is he avoiding her, or something else? Also, once she has solved that initial problem by boarding the airship, what is the main problem that she faces throughout the book? Is it coming to terms with her mother's death, or is there more? It might be nice to hint at what the resolution is for Phoebe, without completely giving it away.

2. I'd suggest maybe moving the personalization bit down to after the pitch. Saying that your book explores some of the same family dynamics as Call Me Sunflower is a little vague, so it doesn't make the strongest possible opening. Another advantage to moving that part down below the pitch is that you then you'll be in a position to be a bit more specific about what the similarities are.

3. Maybe shorten the bit about Andrew Harwell -- you could just say that he has expressed interest. Right now that part seems really long.

4. Since you didn't mention the year in which you talked to Harwell and got the finalist spot, I don't see a need to mention that you were delayed by the work-for-hire project.

L. Ditton said...

This is delightful! I love the humor in your first page and the spunkiness-as well as the name-of your protagonist. I want to read more!
Good luck!

Jeannie Alford Hagy said...

I love this. I especially like all the little touches that show the time period. I suggest you expand info about the story line and shorten the info about your writing experience, Andrew Harwell, etc.

Best of luck to you!

Lm Hersch said...

This premise sounds absolutely fascinating, but I feel like your query could use a little work. A possible opening line could go something like, "11-year-old inventress Phoebe Fogg is on the brink of discovery yet again." Then explain the problem. Why is she desperate to stay with her father? Does he adventure and leave her at home? Then you could say "When she discovers a possible way to freeze time, she believes she's finally found a way to stay at her father's side on one of his adventures." Also, how does freezing time allow her to stay with her father? Will they be living "present-ly" but without time passing? This seems really, really vague to me. It makes me more confused, because I don't understand how this will help Phoebe. Is she hoping to trap her father in an endless Groundhog Day? Does she hope that if he can't adventure, that he'll actually spend time with her for once? Wait, no, they are going on an adventure together. I'm sorry, the concept of a time-stopping invention, while insanely interesting, has me very confused on how this will resolve Pheobe's problem.

There are some other plot points you bring up that don't help build up any sense of conflict. Where is the resolution in knowing your mother was swept up in a hurricane? What does that resolve? Is her adventuring father trying to find her? Or is he running away from the memories of how he failed to save her? THEN MENTION THAT. But as it stands, it's like "I had a great idea to find a way to make my father appreciate my company... also my mom died in a hurricane." You'll need to mention how it brings the two together, or how it is a source of contention. Right now, it's a random plot point that means nothing.

I would suggest removing much of your previous accomplishments. It runs almost longer than your actual pitch. What are you selling, the story, or the fact you almost published a story? It's great to include credentials - but just list "I was a finalist in the Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentor Award." THAT IS IT. An agent is going to care about the STORY you are trying to sell them than knowing you and an agent talked a long time about a possible manuscript that never left the ground.

Also, I would greatly considered shortening your explanations of your previous publishing credentials. "I have previously published "Art of the Oklahoma Judicial Center" and "Frontiers of Healing: A History of Medicine in Oklahoma." That is all that is needed. What you used to write them is unnecessary fluff. It may be helpful to mention publishers - university presses, for example.

Brent Taylor said...

There are some great elements here. Thanks so much for the personalization, and the nod to CALL ME SUNFLOWER (I love that book and can't for you all to read it!). If this were in my inbox, I would excitedly dig into the pages, because this does seem up my alley. But in terms of the query letter, there are a few things that give me pause. Although you do a great job at personalizing and detailing your biographical information, I worry that it's at the detriment of the most important part of the query: the story. I would scale both the personalization and the bio back a bit, and use that space to elaborate on a few more story details. What's at stake -- what exactly is it that's threatening Phoebe being able to stay with her dad?