Wednesday, April 12, 2017

An Agent's Inbox #4

Dear Ms. Piraino,

Dylan Ronayne has struggled with a dark secret for his entire life--an almost uncontrollable urge to kill. But when the South Pacific military base he lives on is attacked with sarin gas, and the evacuation plane crashes on a remote island, that secret might be the thing that saves him.

As the five other army kids who survived the crash try to gather food and search for a way home, Dylan does his best to keep his distance. However, six-year-old David, the youngest survivor, looks up to Dylan and unwittingly becomes his responsibility. Having lost his little sister in the attack on the base, Dylan promises to keep David safe.

Soon, mercenaries arrive on the island, but the kids quickly discover they’re not there to rescue them--they’re there to kill them. What begins as a story of overcoming obstacles and hope soon turns into a tale of pure survival against carnal thirst, where the most dangerous predator on the island might be Dylan himself.

SURVIVING SARIN is a 56,000 word YA thriller, best likened to Lord of the Flies meets Darkly Dreaming Dexter.

I’m a high school biology teacher who also serves as Chapter Director of Pets for Vets NYCLI, an organization that trains rescued dogs for military veterans. I am also a land searcher for Search and Rescue, and will be taking my SAR TECH II in a month. I’m a member of SCBWI, RWA and Sisters in Crime. My article, “Lessons We as Writers Can Teach Our Kids,” was published in Sisters in Crime’s First Draft July 2014. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Warm regards,


“Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.” --Paul Tournier

The ear-numbing blare of sirens fills the air. My hands clamp over my ears and my eyes slam shut. The pain in my head is excruciating. A loud metallic hum replaces the wail of sirens and the floor vibrates. My eyes flutter open, focusing on the metal floor lined with white and yellow lines. It reminds me of a parking lot for miniature cars, except for the evenly spaced grip pads. A Galaxy. Why the h*** am I on a C-5? Screw that, when did I get on the plane? I rub my aching temples, trying to remember.

My head pivots toward the tiny window over my left shoulder. On the ground below, bright red bodies lie sprawled in the streets, some with puffy patches, like water balloons ready to burst. Frantic people race along the tarmac as the last plane waits to take-off, desperate to find a way inside.

Our plane picks up speed and the images outside skip around, making my stomach turn. I swivel my head to face forward, hoping to alleviate the nausea. The steel engines roar and my ears pop as our plane ascends. When it’s fully off the ground I turn my attention back out the window.

The last plane hurtles down the runway. Just as the wheels lift off, the C-5 plummets to the ground, and flames engulf the fuselage from both sides. A loud boom cuts through the air, sending vibrations through my body, and shakes our plane.

“Holy s***!” The tall boy sitting next to me slaps his head, mouth hanging open, while bulging green eyes fixate on the burning vessel.

Those people, the kids. In a matter of minutes they don’t exist anymore. A small girl with dark curls sprawled on the floor in front of me cries. I grit my teeth, hating she’s afraid. My eyes close, fingers undulating against my temple. This makes no sense. There’s no reason to attack a US military base in the South Pacific with barely 8,000 people on it. “What the f***’s happening?”

“Don’t know. No one knows.” The boy’s gaze settles on the rear of the plane, his eyes dancing from one side to the other. I recognize him from school, but can’t remember his name. D*** drugs still haven’t worn off. “Thought you were dead,” he says.

“Huh?” I turn quickly. My eyes trail behind, sending a wave of nausea racing through my body. “Honestly, I hardly remember getting on the plane.”

“A nurse helped you.”

The nurse. She shook me viciously, her eyes wide as she told me we needed to go. I could hardly stand from the pain killers so she helped me across the tarmac. Strapped me into this harness.

“Ugh.” I grab my head, the pounding viscous. A distant, dull throb fills one of my palms. I pull my hand from my head.

It’s covered in gauze.

Bile creeps up my throat. Cynthia. Her chest…the blood…her vacant eyes…

My chest tightens, tears threatening to overflow at any moment. I take in deep breaths to calm myself. I will not cry in front of these people. My hand slides deep into my pocket until my fingers touch the smooth metal of the pocket-watch. Still there.

Cynthia’s tender cheeks, full of leftover baby fat, were covered in red welts. Through her shirt, flesh protruded in ways it definitely shouldn’t, oozing clots of thick, blackish blood from a large wound. Her tiny, frail frame was impossibly still. My baby sister wasn’t a threat. She was helpless.

Our plane levels off, the screaming dies down, and I scan the cargo bay as the effects of the drugs begin to wear off. There aren’t enough seats for everyone. Most people are huddled on the floor. Some parents squeezed two to three kids into a single seat. Others coddle sobbing children. But most are silent. Their eyes wide. Their bodies stiff. Their hands gripping whatever’s in their reach.

“I’m Tim by the way,” the muscular boy says, his shaggy auburn hair framing his perfectly spaced almond eyes.

“Dylan.” That’s right. He’s the captain of the basketball team. Tim cranes his neck, his eyes still darting from side to side. “Is your family in the back?”

“What? Uh, no. It’s only me and my dad. But he’s on the base like the other officers.” Tim shrinks into his chair, wringing his hands, his face taut. “And your family? Have you found them yet?”

“My stepdad’s on the base too.” I don’t offer any more information.

“When the sirens went off, everyone stampeded. Some kids got trampled. I barely made it onto the plane,” he says, words pouring out like he’s got verbal diarrhea. “So much for order. What would’ve happened if we were in school? Like single file out the door for a fire drill would work?” Tim rolls his eyes and throws up his hands.

I look out the window and find nothing but a black abyss dotted with white twinkling stars. No turbulence and the low hum of the engine make the ride peaceful, withstanding the reason we are on the plane that is.

I run my fingers over my wrapped hand. D*** it! I could’ve tried harder to save them. I should’ve let Cynthia stay in my room, I shouldn’t have shooed her out. If we went downstairs together, maybe she’d still be alive and with me.

We should’ve been safe on base. With all the security protocols, how the h*** did a murderer go undetected? Taking a deep breath, I force myself to focus and remember whatever details I can about that day. Three days. It’s only been three days since she died. Black boots. Yes. Definitely black boots. But everyone wears black boots--we live on an Army base for crying out loud. No, I need something else.

My brain is still fuzzy and the killer made sure to stay in the shadows. Short hair. Or was it longer? Doubt creeps in. Why can’t I remember what she looked like? Or was it a he? I slam my fist into the armrest. The way Cynthia’s blood smelled like copper, the waft of jasmine from that stupid candle Rob keeps in the kitchen, those details stick in my mind.

The plane suddenly swerves then dips, tossing several unbuckled passengers out of their seats. The people sitting on the floor slam into the walls of the fuselage. As they regain their balance, and the plane levels off, it plummets again.

“Oh s***, oh s***, oh s***,” Tim shouts, gripping his armrest, eyes closed.

I do the same, my stomach taking a dive. The parents and kids who were seated on the floor fly past me towards the back of the plane. A girl in front of me wails. Suddenly, a pair of hands tries to unbuckle my seat belt from my right. “Yo, man! Gimme your seat,” a bigger kid commands, his breath reeking of corn chips.

“F*** you.” I shift my body sideways and land a kick that sends him stumbling backwards. The plane’s dipping action pulls the linebacker wannabe farther from me. He scrambles to his feet, flips me off, then runs to the other end of the plane.

“Hold on.” Tim’s fingers work tirelessly as he tries to help me re-buckle my seatbelt.

The plane dips into a downward spiral, and its force is too strong, ripping me from my seat.


Becki said...


Whew, you've got some incredible credentials!! There's NO question why you're the person to write this novel. Awesome!!

As for the pitch itself, it's incredibly engaging! I'd love to know how old Dylan is; when you mentioned a military base, I thought this was Adult, and then you talked about kids and David being 6, and was like, "Oh, maybe not." Telling me his age right off the bat is a great way to avoid confusion!

I absolutely love survival stories, too, so this is really exciting!! The plane crash would capture my interest right off the bat. Although I want to know why we should root for a kid with homicidal tendencies. You showed he's pretty loyal to David, which makes him more sympathetic, but I'd love to see his good side in paragraph one. What makes us want to follow him for 56,000 words?

Otherwise, SOLID query! You clearly mention stakes and goals and conflict. If you can add some more personal information about Dylan, maybe even details on HOW he plans to kill these people, you'll grab us that much faster!! <3


The first paragraph was a little wordy, but WOW, you captured me with the second and then we were off!! Loved the details here, the glimpse into military base life. That's not something most people get to see, and it's especially rare in a YA novel. :D

I was pretty confused about the timeline involving Cynthia when she was first introduced. When he's remembering her body, I wasn't sure if she was on the airplane with them, or if it was a memory. (Became clear it was a memory, but that wasn't immediately noticeable...) But whew, there's the sympathy I was advocating for in the query; Big Brother Dylan trying to save his baby sister from a murderer. You should lead in with THAT in the pitch paragraphs. :P

The personalities of the kids on the plane felt very real, as did the horror of those left on the ground. I'm confused about why a military base wouldn't have enough planes for everyone; maybe mention a few ships (is the base on an island?) standing by, or sinking just off the coast? And the sarin attack seemed like it was happening NOW, but the symptoms you described on Cynthia sounded similar, and she was murdered three days ago. It confused me regarding the timeline of the attack. I think some clarifying paragraphs in the middle might help! :)

Overall, awesome job!! This was incredibly engaging and filled with tension, and Dylan seems like a great character. Can't wait to see this one in stores! ;)

Gea said...

Oooh an unlikable MC that we'll find ourselves rooting for! When I read that Dylan has an almost uncontrollable urge to kill, I rubbed my hands and grinned. Unlikable MCs are rare, and I love those stories. Your query grabbed my attention from that first paragraph and made me want to know more.
I was a little confused as to what was happening in your pages before I figured out you were time jumping. I thought they were escaping the sarin attack by plane at first because when Dylan looks out the window, he sees bodies. I also thought Cynthia died as a result of it. But then you said 3 days ago and described a killer. If you could find a way to streamline the events, that would make your first pages so much easier to follow. Other than that, the visuals you use, the emotion are raw, disturbing, and powerful. Well done.

TSLiard said...

Thank you both so much for the feedback. I truly appreciate the time you took to read my entry and will be working on making both my query and first pages stronger.

The Agent [GP] said...

T.S. Thank you so much for participating. It was great to see something in the YA thriller category! Per my note on entry #2, one of the first things that I check out is the word count. At 56k, I expect that your story is relatively short for this age group, or written in a very succinct style. However, your concept definitely has the capacity to be really drawn out and gripping, especially since the characters in your story have to survive on a deserted island and then escape being killed by blood thirsty mercenaries.

Personally, I rarely connect with present tense narration. It requires such an incredibly high level of precision to describe the ongoing action without losing track of the pace and all of your characters’ actions/reactions. I didn’t mind the language throughout because I felt that it was appropriate given the circumstances, but I didn’t connect with Dylan's attempts to 'catch up' with the events throughout the entire sample because he was drugged and emotionally whiplashed by the bombing. It would be more effective for him to recall the last few days as the catastrophe mimics the current events as they unfold. I also found the chronology a bit confusing--when was the bombing and was the murder of his younger sister a separate or related incident? Because I had so many questions, it was difficult to focus on the story itself.