Wednesday, March 16, 2016

An Agent's Inbox #18

Dear Mr. Taylor,

In the summer of 1914, seven year old Ruchel and her siblings lead a poor but happy life on the far eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but as World War 1 begins, her father is forcibly drafted into the Austrian Army. Three days later, the Russian Army invades, leaving her and her family far behind enemy lines. To survive, they take jobs in a canteen cooking for the occupying Russian soldiers. One of the officers’ pastimes is playing chess. Ruchel learns the game from watching them. When the soldiers leave to join the rest of the army fighting the Germans to the north, the family converts the canteen into a restaurant, hoping to stay in business by catering to the locals.

Unfortunately, the Ukrainians and the Poles don’t particularly like Jews, and the other Jews fear being near anything once associated with the hated Russian Army. So even though her mother is an excellent cook, business is terrible until Ruchel challenges and defeats a customer in a chess match. Local chess players start coming to play her, others come just to see her play and beat much older men. Slowly, the family’s fortunes begin to improve, but then the Austrian Army marches back in, soon to be followed by the Russian counterattack. As each side repeatedly conquers their homeland, Ruchel and her family find themselves in a desperate battle for survival as food becomes so scarce they are eventually forced to hunt rats.

Finally, as the Central Powers collapse, civil war rages across the territory as both the Ukrainians and Poles battle for control, with both sides attacking their Jewish population. Gambling on a chance to leave, the family will bet their life savings against immigration papers on Ruchel beating a Polish chess champion.

The Chess Girl is a 66,000 word middle grade historical novel based on my Grandmother’s life growing up in what is now part of the Ukraine. While a novel, it is interwoven with the family history of how she and her siblings survived WW1, and how all but one of them eventually escaped to the United States before the Holocaust.

Below are the first 250 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.



Chapter 1: The Final Match

Ruchel’s opponent carefully pushed his knight two spaces forward and one space left using the two fingers remaining on his right hand. He nodded to Ruchel as he pulled his hand back. The burned side of his face remained frozen, as did the milky white eye contained within, but the other side of his mouth tried to turn upward.

Once, Ruchel would have felt both pity and horror at his appearance, but she’d seen so many ruined men in the last couple of years. Besides, the stakes were too high. The fat constable by the window kept playing with the holster around his waist, grunting every so often just in case she hadn’t noticed him. “Pig,” she mumbled in Yiddish. She quickly looked away. If he realized what she’d said, it wouldn’t matter who won this game. Fortunately, he was focused on the shopkeeper across the street struggling to remount his store’s smashed in window frame. The smile on his face made her say pig again, but this time only to herself.

The Assistant Secretary to the Deputy Administrator of the Lwow Voivodship stood impolitely close to the playing table just behind her opponent. Occasionally he leaned in close, pretending to peer at the board but really just trying to intimidate her. Even if she did win, would it matter, or would they just be cheated again? She heard a ‘hmm’ further behind her, the priest from the local Eastern Orthodox church. The Rabbi had wisely invited him. The secretary stepped ever so slightly back.


N.H.G. said...

I really like your premise and the idea of a child's chess match at the center of such a sweeping conflict. As long as the story doesn't depend on too much familiarity with chess (!) for the reader, I think this sounds great.

I do think the query reads a little heavy on history/backstory. While that's of course central to the plot, I think for the purposes of the query this should begin and end with Ruchel, focusing in on her story about the chess match and whether it can save her family (or however this factors into what is at stake for them).

I am also wondering whether Ruchel "ages up" at all over the course of the manuscript? For 66,000 words, I imagine the target audience would be an older middle grade reader, who might identify with a slightly older protagonist?

I'd definitely be interested in reading this. Good luck!

Jamie Beth Cohen said...

I agree with the previous comment that the query seems to be backstory heavy - I like the second paragraph very much but I had to push through the first paragraph to get there.

I love the first 250 words and want to read more! Good luck!

L. Ditton said...

You have a very engaging concept and I am intrigued.

The first page is nicely written, although it perhaps reads a tad older than middle grade?

What a great story to have in your family history!

Good luck!

Torsha Baker said...

I'm intrigued by your concept and would love to read more of this. Although I do agree that it reads older to me. I feel you have a strong opening to the book, but your query may need little more work. I think you can cut a bit of it. I recommend going through each sentence and asking yourself: does this need to be here? Would the query still make sense if I took this out? If it's not absolutely necessary then cut it. Also, the last sentence of the second paragraph and the first sentence in the third paragraph have two as's in them, consider restructuring those. Best of luck to you!

Jeannie Alford Hagy said...

This sounds like an interesting story. Like others have commented, I believe the query is too wordy and would benefit from judicious cutting. Get rid of everything that isn't necessary to describe the basic conflict.

Would this story work better as a YA? If Ruchel needs to be a young child throughout the book, your view point character could be an older sibling, cousin, or neighbor. I'm also curious about how Ruchel's age is handled. A middle grade reader is considerably older than seven, so Ruchel should be at least 10 to 12 during the bulk of the story if she's the view point character.

Another thing that confused me is the title of the first chapter--"The Final Match." If you're starting with the end of the book, with the final match and then going back to the beginning, I'd guess that you're starting in the wrong place.

I do like the subject matter very much, and I wish you luck.

Ben Lacy said...

Thanks for all the comments. I just got a favorite at #pitmad so I'm going to be using these suggestions to tighten the query up before I send it to him later tonight.

For those who've asked about character age, she starts at 7 and ages to 13 as the war runs it's course. I'm trying to be close to accurate as to my Grandmother's true age during the period.

Erica Klarreich said...

I found this query very compelling, although I agree with the above commenters that it could be tightened up. It's well-structured but on the long side, and I think you could reduce the amount of space you give to the various invasions and counterinvasions so the focus is squarely on Ruchel.

I also agree with some of the other commenters that the first 250 words read a bit older than middle-grade -- they feel pretty intense. I get what you're saying about Ruchel going from 7 to 13 in the course of the book, which is appropriate for middle grade. But the text does have kind of a YA feel to it, and the way you describe the subject matter in the query fits in with that. I wonder if you might want to consider making Ruchel a little older than your grandmother really was -- maybe 9 to 15? Since this is fiction, that seems allowable, and might serve the story you're writing well.

Brent Taylor said...

As a query letter, I didn't find this to be written in an engaging way. It read more like a synopsis, and I wanted to learn so much more about Ruchel and her passions and goals. It felt much more like a history lesson. I would refine the details here and rework it to be focused on your protagonist and her goals. What does she want more than anything -- and what's going to happen if she doesn't get it?