Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An Agent's Inbox #30

Dear Agent:

When fourteen-year-old Zinnia discovers Mom’s high school diary hidden in an old Back to the Future lunchbox, she realizes her dad exists. He knows about her even though Mom’s always denied she ever told him.

Zinnia’s rules-obsessed world tugs at her conscience, but she keeps reading the diary because she’s sure it contains Dad’s identity. She’s counting on him to have tips for handling her anxiety and compulsions. If she only knew why the diary was stored inside that dusty old lunchbox or how come her vest and skateboard make her Marty McFly’s double. Next, the neighbor pulls up in a fancy new DeLorean, and Zinnia meets a cute store clerk named Martin. If she’s going to figure out what it all means, she’ll need to find her dad, but time’s running out

When Mom wants to clear out the attic for a yard sale and mentions the lunchbox, Zinnia panics: come clean or layer more lies and secrets between them. How can she expect Mom to tell the truth about Dad if Zinnia’s secretly reading her diary?

If Zinnia doesn’t confront Mom soon, she might never meet her dad. All she wants is to be brave like Marty McFly and fix her broken family. Instead, she’s doing a bang up job tearing it apart.

If only Zinnia understood that not all secrets are meant to be shared.

ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY, a 66,000-word young adult contemporary novel with elements of magical realism, will appeal to fans of Rainbow Rowell and FINDING AUDREY by Sophie Kinsella.

Logos Publishing House released my first two novels, THIS GIRL CLIMBS TREES (MG) and BIRDS ON A WIRE (YA). My most recent work appeared in The Writing Disorder, and I am a member of the SCBWI. I maintain an active blog at [redacted] and teach writing strategies to middle school students--the inspirations for my stories.

I have pasted the first 250 words below.



When the last six months of my life turned into a television reality show for closet organizers, Mom signed me up for therapy. Which explains why I’m presently crouched on the floor untangling rug fringe, combing each thread straight. Like that matters.

It does to me.

“How do you feel, Zinnia?” Seated in a narrow leather chair, Lisa the Scribbler flips through pages then sets the pad in her lap. “Is the…sizzling in your chest gone?”

Focused on straightening synthetic yellow fiber, my brain’s firing neurons and hormones settle. And, yes, the sizzling’s gone. Lisa says repetitive tasks soothe me, and that’s okay as long as I can stop them.

So far, so good.

Today’s our fourth session in two months, and her office is still a mess. Papers pile on her desk; some in folders, some not.

“Like I said, if something eases your nerves, and no one’s getting hurt, go for it.” Lisa tucks a purple streak of hair behind her ear. What is she…twenty-five?

No diplomas on her wall, just weird posters.

I can’t stand the silence, so I blurt out the question I’ve been chewing on for two months: “Is it true anxiety’s passed down? I mean, my mom’s the least organized person I know, but…”

“What’s your dad like?”

The million dollar question. I swallow. “Never met him.”

“Oh.” She lifts her pad and scribbles. “Is he alive?”

G**, I never even thought of that. Thanks, Lisa. “I don’t know. Mom keeps him a secret."


Dane! said...

Hi E.M.!
To start, this is a neat premise! I teach a fanfiction class each summer, and I love that this concept skirts around that genre without going too far. It definitely has my attention. Maybe be careful that it doesn't come off too fanfiction-ish or else you might lose an agent's interest.

The Query...
I love some of the details. The Back to the Future lunchbox is great and caught my attention. Zinnia's conflict is clear--she wants to know more about her dad, but knows she's traveling beyond what she should know. I think I was hoping to move past the lunchbox and diary sooner in that second paragraph.

There are some sentences in that second paragraph that are a little clunky and hard to understand--"If she only knew why the diary was stored inside that dusty old lunchbox or how come her vest and skateboard make her Marty McFly’s double," for example.

I really like the third paragraph and the stakes presented there. I like it even more than the second paragraph. Not sure why...maybe because it flings me further into the story. That said, consider getting rid of the rhetorical questions. I've read that agents don't love that device.

The "If only..." sentence feels a little tacked on at the end. Could you put it somewhere else where it might amplify the drama that came before it? Before the paragraph before, maybe? Just a thought.

The Excerpt...
I love the opening scene--Zinnia, on the floor, arranging the rug, analyzing the room. I definitely get a strong vibe about her character. Does she have OCD? That's probably a dumb question. I learn a lot about her in only a few paragraphs, and I love it.

How can you clarify sooner that the she's untangling the rug at her therapist's office? Not sure why it took me a second to realize this. I wonder if you can move the first sentence to later on in the passage--maybe just before "Today's our fourth session."

There's a lot of tone in the opening, and you had me snickering a bit. The way it jumps from sassy narrator to observer, though, can be disorienting. How do you use her observations to reveal more character? Does she notice the papers piled on her desk because she wants to arrange them? Probably, but consider stating it more explicitly.

Hope that helps! Thanks for sharing this. It was fun to read!

Kim Long said...

I like this TONS, but it read as more MG than YA to me. Your MC is 14, which I know is young YA, so it's possible you're targeting that audience, but the whole library stealing thing to me and the query suggests it might work better if she was 12yo. Just my two cents.

I think the part about how Marty McFly references play a role could be helpful. You list a bunch (which I love!) but I'm just not sure how they're supposed to play in the plot or her conflict.

I don't really have anything on the sample. Great voice. Great starting point. My only concern is it might read younger than 14.

Good luck!

Ellen Mulholland said...

Thank you, Daniel and Kim. These are super helpful comments!

Lisa Leoni said...

Love the opening 250! We get a sense of your voice right away. Love the snark at the end :)

My suggestion is about the query. I was surprised by the mention of magical realism. Maybe work that in earlier. I also felt like I wanted more stakes around the dad. Why was it so important to know his identity? I know it's super important for someone to know he identity of their parents - but maybe hint at why the mom hid it or suspicions Zinnia has. Sounds like a great adventure!

The Agent said...

Oooh old high school diaries and Back to the Future? I'm in.

Not sure what you mean by "rules obsessed world" - I would just say "Zinnia is hoping that if she reads the diary she will discover her Dad's identity because she's counting on him to have tips for handling her axiety and compulsions." I love the idea of "Mart McFly's double" but wasn't sure how that related to her vest and skateboard - are these things she's always had? I just though we had a lunchbox...and also - a real Delorean???

But your next paragraph is clear and succinct. Not sure you need the paragraph after that - but the next line is nice" If only Zinnia understood that not all secrets are meant to be shared."

I like your comp titles and the word count sounds about right - I'd definitely read on.

The text:

I like the way this starts but I don't think you need to say both "television" and "reality show" - cut the word "television" - and maybe it's clear to your main character why she's untangling rug fringe, but it wasn't exactly clear to me - maybe better explain that? Or have her doing something different?

I like the way Zinnia analyzes her therapist's desk. This is well written and I like the concept and the voice. I'd read on!