Wednesday, September 14, 2016

An Agent's Inbox #18

Dear Jennifer Johnson-Blalock,

We've had retellings of the classics: Cinderella as a cyborg, Elizabeth Bennett and zombies.

The Girl Who Said No To God reworks an even older classic. It’s based on the (fictitious) legend that before God sent the angel Gabriel to ask Mary to be the mother of the Messiah, he asked twelve other young women first.

The twelfth, Keziah, who’s seen too many tragedies in her short life, is willing to tell God exactly what He’s done wrong. In this YA historical novel, complete at 57,000 words, we witness village life under oppressive Roman rule and female life under patriarchy and catch glimpses of Biblical characters, including Mary herself, along the way.

My first novel, Brother’s Keeper, Sister’s Child, was published by a small literary press, Carolina Wren. I won first place in a short story competition judged by the late Southern novelist, Doris Betts. That story was subsequently published, as was an essay in the Phillips Exeter Academy’s book of memoirs, Exeter Remembered.  I wrote arts reviews and lifestyle columns as staff writer for The Knoxville News Sentinel, and somewhere in the archives of the U.S. Senate, have a speech in the Congressional Record from time working there.  My play, The First Mrs. Crockett, won first place in a regional theater competition and was subsequently produced. I contribute regular YA book reviews to the Sewanee Mountain Messenger as well as occasional columns to other papers. I was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers Conference, where I studied with novelists Tim O’Brien and Ellen Douglas. I hold an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a Master’s in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Thank you for your attention. I look forward to hearing from you.



I’ll be remembered as the girl who said no to God.

If anyone remembers me at all. The fact that I turned You down pretty much guarantees that when my earthly remains crumble into our Galilean soil, my name will disappear as well.



People will shrug their shoulders. “Never heard of her.”

Mary, now--. Her name will live forever. In songs and stories, hymns of praise and prayer.

My name? It will die right along with me.

“Write,” my Aunt Martha snaps, pushing a quill pen into my fingers. “You won’t talk about what happened. So write it down. Get it all out into the open.  All of it. No one else has to read it. Just--get it out. It’s all you think about anyway, am I right?”

Of course she’s right. My Aunt Martha usually is.

Which doesn’t make it any easier.  I lift my eyes to hers and glare.

“Well, that’s an improvement over staring at the wall,” she says, before marching back to the low stone house, her short figure sturdy as a young heifer’s beneath her homespun robe.

She leaves out the part I overheard her say yesterday to Aunt Mary: “…with that look of death in her eye.”

Staring at the wall: that’s about all I’ve done since they brought me south from Nazareth here to Bethany, a quiet village just outside Jerusalem where Martha lives with Mary, my youngest aunt. Neither ever married, though I’m sure Mary, anyway, had her chances.


Audra Coldiron said...

I have never heard of this particular legend (though I am a student of the history of Christianity), so the topic piqued my interested. However, I was disappointed that you wrote so little about it in your query and re-read it just to make sure I didn't miss something before heading on to the writing sample, which, BTW, I liked. Perhaps describe it a bit more and go a little lighter on the bio in the query?

H.S. said...

What an interesting premise!

Unfortunately, I feel like it gets lost a bit in your query. I think your opening would be stronger if you skipped the first line and dove straight into your story. I also agree with Audra that you could probably cut a bit from your bio. You have some impressive credentials, but I think you could narrow them to a select few so that the focus remains on the story you are querying.

Your first 250 words definitely live up to the intriguing idea you presented in your query. I love your opening line and the brief exchange between Keziah and her aunt felt genuine. The only part that gave me pause was the last paragraph. I felt like I suddenly lost the close connection I had with Keziah in the rest of sample.

Amber Hall said...

I think you should cut out the line "we've had retellings of the classics..." because it isn't needed. It says nothing about your manuscript.

Instead of saying "fictitious," I'd like to know the origin of the legend. Is it a Jewish legend?

You say so very little about your manuscript. I'd like to know the plot. What's at stake for Keziah. What her goals are. What she's trying to accomplish. You peaked my interest, but I'd love to read more about Keziah and less about your credentials. You sound like an awesome, accomplished person, but maybe pick the top two most important credentials that relate to your manuscript and focus more on describing your manuscript.

I LOVED your 250. Usually, I don't like books that start with internal dialogue, but yours was an exception. I also loved the description of the 'low stone house.' The only part I'd cut is "Just--get it out" because I think the rest of the dialogue is more powerful without it.
Also, the last paragraph lost my connection with the main character. I'd like to see the plot start rolling or some other important detail. It almost feels like backstory.

Deborah Kreiser said...

I have to agree with the above comments. I really really love the concept and was drawn in by your 250, but the query just didn't quite hit the right notes. There is definitely room to expand the meat of the query with a good hook, characters, and stakes, and a need to tighten up the credentials.
What about this as a hook: Before Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, there was Keziah, who rejected God's request that she be the mother of the Messiah.
With your writing skills, I'm sure you could do better, but this is a way to maybe pack a little more punch into your first line.
Best of luck!

megster said...

Thanks, all, excellent comments all around, and very helpful. Thank you, and the very best of luck with your work!

Jennifer Johnson-Blalock said...

Thanks so much for your entry, M.S.! I actually don't hate the opening--it did grab my attention. However, I think the other commenters are right in that there's probably a way to grab my attention that's more directly focused on your book. And you should definitely give us more info about the work itself! What you have is good, but tell us more about Keziah--her life and personality, what she thinks God has done wrong. On a related note, I would tighten up your bio; just give me the most relevant info in a shorter paragraph. I tend to shy away from religious-related works myself, but I hope you find the right agent for this; it's an intriguing concept.