Wednesday, April 12, 2017

An Agent's Inbox #3

Dear Ms. Piraino,

Thank you for participating in such a fun contest! Since you're looking for imaginative fantasy, I hope my project is a good fit for your list.

GOLDEN CROWNS, CRIMSON THORNS is a young adult fantasy novel complete at 87,000 words. It combines the fairy tale elements of UPROOTED with the girl power of THE PRINCESS ACADEMY and the betrayal and darkness of SHADOW AND BONE. It was requested by Miriam Weinberg from Tor/Forge at the May 2016 Atlanta Writer’s Conference, and it’s my goal to find an agent before I submit my manuscript to her.

Synne Davies is seventeen years old, a fisherman’s daughter, and--technically--a princess. When she’s summoned to attend Caerwood Academy with three other princesses to save the peace of the four kingdoms, she is, at first, defiant. She’s chosen a life of independence, fishing in a boat made with her own hands, holding her own in a harbor full of men. But when she’s escorted by armed guards to attend the Academy, her loss of freedom becomes the least of her worries. School might not be as dull--or safe--as she thought.

Despite her fears, her initial days at the Academy are filled with etiquette classes, history lectures, and homesickness. She struggles to find common ground with the other princesses, and her only ally is the handsome mathematics teacher who sees potential in Synne despite her rural background. However, the normalcy crumbles when Synne unearths the truth: the princesses were brought to the school to be brainwashed into supporting the wealthiest kingdom of Astun--or, should that fail, as hostages. 

Facing a princess rebellion, the teachers use powerful enchantments to trap the girls in the castle, where the princesses face starvation if they refuse to comply. Now Synne has only two goals for the academic year: to resist, and to survive. To do that, she must unite the other girls, uncover some magic of her own, and prepare the castle for siege, knowing failure means more than death--it means war.

I graduated in 2010 with honors and a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts and Culture from New St. Andrews in Northern Idaho, where I read and wrote until I had brain callouses and terrible posture. I've pasted the first 1,250 words below, thank you so much for your time and consideration. 

All my best,


The fishing net caught the stitches on the back of her hand with a stomach-lurching jerk. Synne bit off a curse and hauled the empty net in, blood trickling down the crook between her thumb and finger. There were only five stitches, but three had torn free, and the puckered flesh was even uglier now. Her mother had stitched it up only the night before, and she kept a tally of the scars on Synne’s calloused fingers. All scars and no ring.

Synne sighed and ignored the school of cod flashing in the water. Swaying in her perch on the prow, she pinched the cut together, wrapped a bit of cloth around her palm, and knotted it.

She glanced to the stern, but, thankfully, Captain Cam wasn’t watching. He didn’t allow her to swear like the crew did, but then again, he was her father. Rough hands were a fisherman’s trademark, but he still fussed over her every time a hook marred her fingers or the ropes burned blisters into her palms. Probably because his wife only gave him an earful over Synne’s marriage prospects.

She picked up her casting net and rubbed the wet fibers between her fingers. Her shadow stretched past the bow and over the waves, and she could look east without squinting. It was the end of the day.

The boat was her second home. She’d spent half of her seventeen years on it. Every knot in the nets, every groove in the deck were as familiar to Synne as the pattern of scars on her hands. The captain gave her a man’s wages, and the crew couldn’t complain. She could mend a net before any of the men could thread a needle. Like an otter in the water, she was the only one who could bring in a stray float or dive to check a snarled line.

Fishing was her birthright.

A cold snout pushed into her bandaged palm. Synne drew it away, reaching around to scratch behind Kip’s ears with her uninjured hand. His stub tail vibrated, but when the scratches were over, he circled back to his resting place in Synne’s shadow, panting beside the full basket of bait fish. Every cast, he twitched like he would follow the net into the sea. But he wasn’t allowed. Hauling him back out, smelly, exhilarated, and thrashing, was a nightmare. Besides, it scared the fish.

Synne rolled her shoulders and brushed a trickle of sweat from the back of her neck. A shout rang out from the stern. Synne dodged the sail and lines, swinging her way towards the men at the rear of the boat. They had pulled the lines in for the night, stashing the gear away. All except one.

Synne’s father crouched down, one brown hand on the line, squinting at a swirl of white water behind them. A sea turtle struggled behind the boat, caught.

“Can’t pull it in without hurting it,” Cam grunted. “Will, fetch it in.”

Will glanced at the captain, uncertain. The turtle was an Ebban Snapper, as big as the one that took off a man’s hand last spring. Only a fool bothered a snapper, even on land. One tangled in a net would be rearing for a fight. And Synne had seen Will swim. He’d either drown or paddle to the turtle just in time for it to take a chunk out of him. It should be her job. If Will got hurt, it would be her fault.

Will was still halfway out of his shirt and her father’s eyes were on the snapper bobbing behind them. She stripped down to her shift, stepped past Will, and dove. Delicious cool surrounded her, the sun’s harsh glare gone. Synne kicked, judging the distance to the turtle. Don’t get too close.

Surfacing, Synne spat briny water and wiped her eyes, waving to Cam. He had one hand on Kip’s collar, his arm jerking as Kip tried to throw himself after Synne. She could just make out her father’s mouth, pressed into a line under the shade of his cap.

“That isn’t a buoy, Synne,” he called.

Cam threw his thumb over his shoulder.

But he was the man who’d taught her to pull her weight in the world. And Synne always did. She gulped, treading water. She should have stayed underwater until she was far enough away to pretend she couldn’t hear him. She pressed her own mouth into a frown, shook her head, and pointed to the turtle. Its slitted yellow eye glared. The captain threw up his free hand and shook his head. Will laughed. Cam smacked him on the back of the head.

Synne grinned, and sea water sloshed into her open mouth. She hadn’t disobeyed a direct order. Besides, there wasn’t much he could do from the deck of the boat. Unless he replaced her with another crew member. And there were rules on the boat. No special treatment.

She struck out for the turtle. Facing it, she felt like she’d taken another gulp of cold seawater. It loomed like a tiny island of rage. Loops of tangled line wound around the wide, spiked shell, and its muscular flippers thrashed the water. She wouldn’t be able to get near enough to do anything. Of course not. She couldn’t exactly ride the turtle back to the boat. She swallowed, the heat of embarrassment warming her numb limbs.


A shout, then the end of a line smacked in the water beside her. Synne swam to the turtle’s side and bobbed out of the reach of its powerful jaws. She tied a noose, treading water with her legs. Bellowing with rage, the turtle craned its neck to spot her, but she drifted behind its flailing tail and looped the rope around the shell.

“It’s all right, you ugly thing.” It snapped its beak at her like it knew what she’d said. Her soothing voice needed work, then.

“Shush, I’m sure your mother loves you very much.”

A vision struck her, of what her mother would say if she lost a whole hand. Or both hands. A desperate laugh bubbled under her ribs.

She kicked and surged backwards. The noose tightened, wedged between two primeval spines. She waved to the boat, and a shout answered. A foaming wake formed behind the turtle as strong arms pulled it in. Synne bobbed in the water, light as a cork. Will was safe and dry, and she was still irreplaceable on the boat, still in one piece.

Flipping onto her back, Synne dawdled in the wake, ears in the water. The world turned to sunlight, cool water, and silence. The silence was important. A lecture waited on the boat. But she couldn’t stay in the water forever.

Her father looked down at her and shook his head before pulling her aboard, his mouth pressed shut, his eyebrows drawn. Good. That meant he was trying not to smile. She was in trouble, but he’d be telling the story at the pub that night. From the looks the crew gave her, they would be, too.

She pulled her dress over her soaked shift. On the deck, three men held the turtle’s shell as it scrabbled deep grooves in the planking, eyes rolling. Will crouched beside it, slashing each loop of line with swift strokes. Synne slid an oar handle under its nose. With a crack, the turtle’s beak clamped down, giving her father enough time to ease his hand between its jaws.


Drayton Alan said...

I was intrigued by the story and liked the writing, I'm not usually a fan of dark stories but felt this one merits some attention. Overall good submission.

RobRoy McCandless said...

Your query letter is incredibly strong, and congratulations on being requested by Tor/Forge! I’m incredibly jealous!

You capture my attention from the start, but there are some weird moments of disconnect between your POV character and the way she references her parents. “Captain Cam” was easy enough to let go, but the last line “Probably because his wife only gave him an earful” put me off, as if there is distance between her and her mother and father. Later references to her father as “the captain” and “Cam” feel odd.

The size of the boat and the crew isn’t entirely clear. A bit of showing here would help the reader understand the number of people involved and how large the operation is. The hand-tossed nets made me think this was a very small boat, with two or three people tops. But as you made the point that the crew are paid for their work, along with other little hints, there seemed to be more aboard then that, suggesting a much larger boat. There’s an opportunity here to really show us this ship, its size, its crew and establish more firmly the world Synne lives and works in.

Would a turtle really be freed rather than taken in and sold for food? In our modern world, turtles are threatened and endangered, so we would definitely free them. But in a Medieval/fantasy setting, where fishing ships sail and catch with hand-tossed nets, it seems likely that they’d take the snapper in and make a fine stew! Just a thought.

Also, a nitpick, but would Synne would wear a dress, much less a shift, while working on a fishing boat? Depending on the climate that she’s working in (and the turtle suggests something warm perhaps even tropical) readers might think it a bit odd, as practicality would trump “convention” even for women. Female sailors, though they were rare, would wear pretty much the same stuff as their male counterparts.

You build a very intriguing world with realistic characters. This whets my appetite for more.

Ali L. said...

Hi there!

Wow. The fact that you already had an editor for Tor request it is INCREDIBLE! I wish I had more constructive criticism, but your query is ON POINT! It sets up the setting and background of the world / story, and teases us with just enough information to make us want to read more.

I recognize your entry from Miss Snark's contest, so I won't rehash what I already said haha. Best of luck in the contest!

Becki said...


OMG LOVE your title. Wow. Made me stop short and go, holy moley I'd pick that up. :D Also, you worked your comp titles flawlessly into the query, telling us WHY they're similar and giving us a very strong sense of how your novel will progress. Also lists awesome writing credentials, which is fantastic. :D

And holy S*** (haha, see what I did with the astericks?), this pitch is amazing. I'm ALREADY rooting for Synne. The only thing I was confused about is how many princesses are at this Academy. You mentioned three others, so four, but then you say they're trapped in the castle and the teachers are out to get them, which implies the castle is actually full of princesses. How many princesses are there in this world?? And how did Synne get away with living by the ocean and sailing boats when she's actually royalty? If you answer these somehow, I think this query is SUPER solid; maybe the best I've read yet!!

(Also, OMG northern Idaho is my favorite place in the country; and I'm a flight attendant. I go all over. You're so lucky you got to attend school there!!)


Ah haha, the dog. LOL. I love it. So easy to relate as a dog owner. :D The visuals here are fantastic, but I think I'm most impressed with how Synne actually shows fear. Like, she acts impulsively, but then regrets it, doubts herself, and wonders how her mother would react if she lost a hand. That felt remarkably real to me, and made me love her even more. She's obviously a very headstrong, confident woman, but she's also cautious and logical, and those are excellent qualities.

If I can suggest anything, it's that I didn't get much of a sense of placement. It's a fantasy, so I assume it's not on Earth. But then you mention a snapping turtle, so I was like, "Well, maybe..." And then the turtle had spikes, and I was like, "Maybe not." I'd love the name of the country she lives in, something to firmly anchor her in another world. :)

Also, while this chapter was brimming with excitement, it didn't hold much to the main plot. I'd have loved to hear someone shout, mockingly, "Look at the princess go!" Or, if they don't know she's a princess, have her bring it up somehow. Something to connect me to the story that's about to happen, or hint at a life bigger than this fishing boat.

But those are pretty nit-picky things. Overall, your writing is solid and the story sounds awesome. I loved the characters, and omg the dog. :D I KNOW I'll see this in stores someday, and I'll be tripping over myself to buy it!


BW said...

Really, really great writing here. You get such a good feel for who Synne is, and she comes across as such a strong character.

The query explains Synne and the conflict really well - although I wonder if there's a way to shorten it a little? I also wondered (and this kind of goes against my last point) what the maths teacher's role is when the princesses are trapped? I think I'd like to know about the other princesses too, just briefly, as it's implied that uniting them is a task in itself - why?

As I said, I loved the writing in the first pages. My only comment is that I wondered if you could shorten the 'That isn’t a buoy ... No special treatment.' section somewhat. I think it very slightly lost tension by going on so long. Even so, not a major issue.

I don't doubt we'll all be seeing this in bookshops soon!

The Agent [GP] said...

A.D.: Thanks for participating in the contest! You were effective in telling me very quickly what type of story you had written by the nature of your comps, and kudos for the interest from a major commercial publisher! Your letter succinctly summed up your story but I had one major question about the concept--how can Synne be a princess and effectively act as a fisherman’s daughter? The two are very disparate roles. If her father was sacked as a king or she was adopted by the Captain, that should be noted briefly in your summary so I can grasp the history behind the story that you're telling.

The voice really resonated with me and the use of third person narration was useful to introduce the story and world to your audience. You did a wonderful job of immediately dropping me into the story and creating a wholistic sense of character. However, I did wonder about the pacing of your story and how quickly Synne would be pulled into the drama of the Academy--this should probably happen fairly quickly hereafter as it seems to be the main plot arc per your summary.

Audrey Dion said...

Thank you so much, everyone, for your kind and insightful feedback! I hope my MS delivers and answers your questions, Ms. Piraino! (I should probably indicate in my query that the kingship of Synne's country is a very unusual one).