Monday, November 23, 2015

#PitchWars Critique - BURNING HOPE

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green.

Query:

Only the Godless may live while the rest of the world burns, but seventeen-year-old Ella Shepard refuses to let hope burn with it.

After the God war anyone left believing in a deity was branded a Witch and banished from the city Sanctuary. possibly vague wording here -- is the city named Sanctuary, or is there a sanctuary within the city? Paranoid the Witches Again, confusion - is Paranoid the name of a group? are planning a revolt against who? , Chief Pierceson Is this a government leader? A police enforcer? sends his army of Crusaders to kill and burn anyone found outside the city, except the children. Anyone under seventeen is brainwashed and turned into his army of Crusaders, a punishment worse than death. But why banish them if they were going to kill them in the first place? Now they have to hunt them down...

Born outside the city, Ella spends her life running and hiding from the Crusaders, but she’s always had her family by her side. When the soulless like actually soulless? or just really mean people? army kills her parents and takes her younger sister to turn into a heartless killer like them, she will have to decide: follow her family’s original plan to find an underground city of safety or go to the one place she promised to never enter to save her sister’s soul before it’s too late. You need a question mark here. And we need to know more about the soul issue. Are the Crusaders truly and actually soulless? Or is this more a metaphorical statement?

Along the way, a fire-scarred Crusader saves her life making her question everything her parents told her about the merciless soldiers. A boy with a hero complex is this the same person as the Crusader? decides he’s going to protect her, even if she doesn’t want it. And Ella will face her inner demons, discovering how easy it is to turn into the very people she hates. We need to know more about that - sounds like there's an inner conflict at work here too, but it's just tossed on at the end.

First Page:

Tina and I sneak out of the dilapidated that's a big word to toss out in the first sentence cottage as the sun begins to rise, making our way to the river where I can work on Tina’s fighting skills without our parents’ knowledge. Against my better judgment, I wear the white dress Mom made for my birthday.  Yeah that seems flat out silly - 1) fighting in a dress 2) a new white one The soft fabric slides over my skin, blossoming out from my waist and tickling my leg just above my knee where the lacy trim ends. I promise myself I’m going to be good today. The dress will still be glowing like an angel’s gown when I take it off tonight. As usual it’s a promise I break. Unless there's a real plot reason for her to be wearing this dress, it should go.

“Is this how I should stand?” Tina asks from the rocky embankment as I stand knee deep in the murky river with a fishing pole in my hand. I look over at her words.

“Almost. Bend your knees a little bit more and spread your feet further apart.”

“Like this?”

“Yeah just like that,” I say paying attention to the water. “Keep doing that.” The line tightens on the pole. I’ve caught something. I reel it in. It takes a lot of energy to get it near me. Whatever it is, it’s big. I hope it tastes good. Lots of choppy sentences here, an it's all telling after the first line or so.

“Did you catch one?” Tina asks. “Mom’s going to be so proud of us when she sees what we’ve done.” This dialogue doesn't feel organic.

I stare at the muddy object swinging in front of my face. “Yeah. I don’t think Mom’s going to be proud we caught an old boot for breakfast,” I say back. Tina grunts in response. I look back to see her squatting with her face scrunched up. “What are you doing?” I laugh.

“You told me this is how I should stand.”

“You look like you’re straining to poop.” I’m still laughing with hands on my knees, trying not to fall into the water. “Bring your butt in and bend your knees a little less.”

Tina doesn’t find my laughter or her situation funny. “You said you were going to teach me to fight.” Decent question, since it's hard to teach someone to fight while you're fishing. She breaks the pose, placing one hand on her hip.

Right now I'd say this ms is starting in the wrong place. I don't have a sense of place, or genre from this first page. I'm also not being pulled in because the MC is making silly decisions (wearing a new, white dress to fish and teach her sister to fight), and it feels like there's nothing at stake here in the opening. These could be any sisters, in just about any setting. Get voice, genre-feel, and some kind of indication of what's going on from the beginning.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Saturday Slash

Meet my Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox.

If you're looking for query advice, but are slightly intimidated by my claws, blade, or just my rolling googly-eyes, check out the query critique boards over at AgentQueryConnect. This is where I got my start, with advice from people smarter than me. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query. My comments appear in green.

All her life, Kaliyah has trained to graduate from the Drákon Akademie, a school for dragon slayers. After all, a girl doesn’t have much choice when her father is a General. 

Outside the Colony walls, the battle to control magic wages on, dragons against humans, but inside the Colony walls, laws against magic have separated its people. Here, Kaliyah meets an infuriatingly troublesome prodigy who poses a threat to everything she’s worked towards. When she makes a deal with him it might be good to name this male character in the query if he's a significant plot point, she discovers the dragons aren’t the only ones with stokers and scales. As a person who is not well-versed in dragons, I don't know what a stoker is. Delving deeper into the magic the Akademie forbids, Kaliyah’s forced to acknowledge a burning secret she can no longer ignore—the desire to never slay again. What does her research and the magic have to do with this desire? 

So when Kaliyah tarnishes her family’s legacy and breaks Akademie code by freeing a Stoker dragon, she learns the true meaning of Akademie Above All. The more secrets Kaliyah uncovers—the Akademie’s history, the reason behind the quarantine of slayer recruits, and the oppression of magic—the more Kaliyah realizes becoming an Akademie General one day is the furthest from her goals.

Now she must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice: save herself from certain exile by swearing her soul to the Akademie or defend her faith in magic…at the risk of losing her life.

This is actually well written and quite good. The main plot point is clear, but what we need to know is what makes this book different from the others that already exist? A reluctant child of an ideology's leader who discovers something dark about her group isn't exactly a new story - give us details. What's at work here that separates this from every other novel that uses that storyline?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Book Talk: CONVERSION by Katherine Howe

My book talks are coming at you from a librarian, not a reviewer. You won't find me talking about style or craft, why I think this could've been better or what worked or didn't work. I only do book talks on books I liked and want other people to know about. So if it's here I probably think it won't injure your brain if you read it.

Colleen knows pressure. At St. Joan's - an all girl academy where only the best and the brightest of New England's young women get in - it's a constant. And senior year will bring things to a boiling point when queen bee Clara suddenly develops tics in the middle of class. Seeing Clara rolling on the floor and sputtering nonsense is disquieting, but Colleen knows better than to let her focus slip - she's got a Harvard interview coming up... and blowing it is not an option.

But when a second girl is felled by the mystery disease, a third loses all of her hair, and a fourth beings spitting up pins, the events at St. Joan's finally has Colleen's attention - and the nation's. Parents and reporters are demanding to know what's going on at the elite school, and Colleen starts receiving mysterious texts urging her to read The Crucible if she wants to understand St. Joan's Mystery Illness. Some research leads Colleen to the realization that her hometown was once known as Salem Village... a place where another group of girls suffered mysteriously 300 years ago.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

#PitchWars Critique: SUFFER THE CHILDREN

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green.

Query:

My 42,000-word novel word count isn't long enough to be called a novel, technically - refer to this awesome word count post from agent Jennifer Laughran "Suffer the Children" is the opening volume in a series it's extremely difficult to launch a series as a debut. You're better off having a standalone with series potential. Also, given that your word count is very well, particular for your genre, I'm guessing all the volumes could be collapsed into one. called "Voiceless Screaming." This thrilling story of speculative fiction with mild flavors of fantasy and science fiction was inspired by Frank Peretti's "This Present Darkness" and the Discworld series by the late Terry Pratchett.

Lux is a high-ranking employee of The Agency, a mysterious group with subversive goals led by an enigmatic lots of adjectives at work here person only referred to as "The Caller." Lux lost her partner Michael over 45 years ago to a religious zealot, Father. Lux has not dealt with her feelings for her former partner, or her anger at Father. Because you queried me as a PitchWars mentor, and I only accept YA, I assume this is a YA story? But you're opening your query with a character that is over 45?

Micah Solomon is the 13-year-old child of Father, the religious leader of the Frontier. Father commands a small contingent of Hybrid Children - acolytes that develop a hive mentality to the priest shortly after indoctrination. But what does this actually mean in terms of the story? Father wants to bring Micah completely into his errant punctuation 'flock. Father does not tolerate dissent, and commands absolute obedience. There is also this strange behavior with his eyes. His glow red, and after initiation to his cult, the Hybrid Children possess one blue eye that sometimes glow. Why? Father's Frontier is a dark and creepy place, where horrible acts are still regarded as negative only because people try to look away from Father's wrath. I don't understand what that sentence is trying to say.

Voiceless Screaming follows both Lux and Micah as they learns the truth behind father, what his plans are. comma not period and his eventual change into someone known as The Gattler. "Voiceless Screaming" is told by two narrators: Gattler opens every chapter, and the Agents (Mick and The Rookie) relates the events. So neither one of the characters that you introduced in the query is a narrator? Who are these people? At the end of "Suffer the Children," Micah finds himself in the real world So we weren't in the real world before?, which creates a whole new series of questions with few precious answers. Lux will come to grips with her past, and in Micah, will find a new lease on life.

Diversity is a concern of mine, but it is not germane to this specific story, but will be introduced later.  Not relevant - you need to sell what's on the plate now in this story, not what might be coming up. Micah is Jewish by way of his birth mother Elthea. Many characters in the story are white, but a majority of the important cast members are non-European in ethnicity. Confused on this point if it isn't set in our world in the first place. Another factor that is not germane, but important to me, is that Micah is asexual and does not experience aesthetic or romantic attraction in conventional ways.

"Suffer the Children" has elements of violence towards the innocent, thrilling races against time, and makes a person ask a basic question: who are my real friends? Which doesn't come across in the above query at all. I really have no idea what the plot is, except that there is a bad guy who sometimes has red eyes, he wants Micah in his group, and there's an older woman who is angry with him. I don't know what's at stake for anyone.

I am submitting both the Prologue and the first chapter. The latter alone certainly helps build the world, it is best supplemented by the Prologue. Prologues generally are considered a no-no in publishing.

1st Page:

She relied on the bartender to keep the vodka coming. Again, if this is YA, you probably can't open in a bar. The bar was probably 3 spell out years overdue for revarnishing, and the woman pouring drinks didn’t know the difference between Glenfidditch, Maker’s Mark, and Jack, but she who is she? loved this bar. She was there when the building inspector wanted to condemn the place and the owner – a stout ‘gentleman’ in his late 70s – offered said inspector a bottle on Balvenie 21 as a ‘gift’ to ignore the structural problems. She still loved this bar.

She spent years in this place. Sooner or later the bartender Janet would ask her why she never seemed to age a day, or could down thousands of dollars in booze and not keel over.

Noticing that the customer finished a bottle of Smirnoff again, this is loaded with alcohol already. If this is YA, that's not happening  and dropped another $45, Janet prepared another bottle. Grabbing the cash next to it – more than enough to pay for another bottle and tip, she was quickly losing her patience with her most reliable customer. “Ya know ya ain’t gonna find yer answer in this bottle of vodka.” Up until this moment, the Lux loved this bar. Ok so Lux is "she?" We needed to know this sooner. Lots of echoes of "bottle" here and also the repeated concept of her loving this bar - again, if this is YA, it's not working.


The woman looked up at Janet and tucked a lock of blonde hair behind her ear. “If not this one, then I’ll find it in the next one.” She was not in the mood to talk – part of why she used to love this bar. Janet originally tried asking her questions when she first came there, but when she didn’t reply but kept overpaying for medium-tier vodka, she left this visitor why not "her"? alone. That was almost 15 years ago. An errant thought crossed her mind; she could feel her boss’ influence. She tried to push that out. A futile effort on her part.

Is this the prologue or the first chapter? Either way, if this is a YA (and I assume it is since you sent it to me as a YA PitchWars mentor, then you aren't going to get anywhere opening in a bar with a 50+ protagonist. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Saturday Slash

Meet my Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox.

If you're looking for query advice, but are slightly intimidated by my claws, blade, or just my rolling googly-eyes, check out the query critique boards over at AgentQueryConnect. This is where I got my start, with advice from people smarter than me. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query. My comments appear in green.

Gerald Norman's mantra is simple -- avoid life, and everything that goes with it. He spent his entire life happily waiting to die, and on his eighty-seventh birthday he did. Which is the same day he was rudely reawakened from death by two complete strangers who, most annoyingly, informed him that he was not supposed to be awake. So far so good - I'm intrigued!

Befuddled, Gerald is shuffled off to start again in a world completely different from his previous.  Awkward sentence structure. Fitted down to his duties what are those duties? of contributing to the ghostly world, Gerald begins to understand that his mantra is superfluous in death. You've got a lot of higher functioning vocabulary at work here in this query, yet it's supposed to be an MG novel. Make sure the voice and wording of the query is similar to that in the ms.

Like a rock concealing maggots, whispers of a notorious ghost's return has overturned the seedy underbelly of the ghostly world. Why is this ghost notorious, and what about his return brings out the seediness? Horrified, Gerald finds himself thrust into a purpose he would rather avoid when confronted with the face of the vicious ghost. What purpose is that? Should he tell the others that his face is the reflected face of his youth, or is the secret better left hidden behind wrinkles?

Unfortunately, for Gerald, it takes more than death to escape limbo Is that where he is?, and two that are alike to raise the dead. I'm not really getting what the problem is here though - there's a bad ghost, that is / or has the face of / Gerald's youth... and that's a bad thing, but is he trying to defeat this ghost, or help it? Does he want to escape limbo? Is that a reward?

The Land Between is a juvenile-fiction novel and is complete at 70,000 words. It has the shocking horror of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, and humor of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Chapters or a synopsis are available on request. I teach my target audience, fifth grade to be exact, and use them shamelessly as lab rats for my writing.  Hmmm..... I'm really not sure about the MC of an MG novel being the ghost of an 87 year old man. MG typically has tween protagonists.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Book Talk & Giveaway: WHAT WE SAW by Aaron Hartzler

My book talks are coming at you from a librarian, not a reviewer. You won't find me talking about style or craft, why I think this could've been better or what worked or didn't work. I only do book talks on books I liked and want other people to know about. So if it's here I probably think it won't injure your brain if you read it.

Kate Weston knows how to have fun, but she also knows when to call it quits - which is why she had already left John Doone's party when something happened, something that has everyone who was there talking in hushed tones and deleting pics from their phones, something that has her former friend Stacey not leaving the house... and something that has brought news fans to their quiet town.

With cops confiscating phones and most of the town turning against Stacey for daring to accuse their star athletes of assault during a championship season, Kate knows it would be best to keep her head down and her mouth shut. She doesn't want to end up on the wrong side of the argument, and asking too many questions might mean learning things she doesn't want to know about her best friend Ben... right when their long-simmering friendship might be blooming into something else.

Even so Kate can't help but question what's going on in her small town when the length of Stacey's skirt that night is the main focus of guilt - not what happened to her when she was passed out. And when the rumored video finds it's way into Kate's hands, she has to decide if she's going to stand up for what's right, or keep her mouth shut.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

#PitchWars Critique - GREATER THAN COURAGE

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green.

Query:

Avi’s dad whispers a secret the day he dies of cancer: he was a knight in another world called Turia, and all his fantastical bedtime stories were true.

Avi soon discovers that her witty, flannel-wearing, very-much-from-our-world mother was something out of a fairytale – and that she’s been lying about it for 14  spell out the number years. Despite distrusting Turia and its veiled danger, Avi’s mother allows her to go to high school in both worlds, as long as she keeps everything a secret. Wait - so there's a high school in this fantasy world with knights? You might want to world build a little more here in the query.

Avi thinks she understands what she’s getting in to. She hasn’t tense? counted on Turian girls being laced up, primped, and silent though – something she’s never been good at. She hasn’t tense? counted on hearing the screams of a dragon attack, or that the king may have her head if he finds out she touched the White Hart, never mind she didn’t know it was forbidden.

Corsets and murderous dragons are the least of her worries as she begins her double life, however. The school’s stable hand attacks her, but he also sees her touch the White Hart. With a magic even the sorcerers only whisper of, he seals both secrets inside Avi’s bones – she keeps his secret, and he keeps hers. As a sinister plot unfolds, Avi is faced with a choice: stay silent and belong in her father’s world, or speak up and risk losing everything – including her head.

First Page:

Mourning clothes make my skin itch.

I’m probably supposed to be focusing on other things right now but all I can think about is how my throat prickles from this high lace collar and that salmon tartlets are disgusting.

He always said blue was my color. Never black.

Stephen appears next to me, looking almost as uncomfortable in his suit and tie as I am in this ridiculous dress. We silently watch people drift around the room, their hushed voices like hollow wind.

“He would have hated this,” I finally mutter as I try not to glare at the caterers in black suits, carrying around trays of appetizers like this is a cocktail party.

“I know,” Stephen says quietly. After another second of silence, he adds, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” I turn my frown down to my shoes. It’s your parents’, I want to say, but that’s not fair. This is how the Harfords mourn, I guess - in style. And four months late. There's a lot going on here - "it's your parents" fault at first made me think her father's death was their fault. Upon re-reading I see it's the style of the wake that is the problem - clarity is needed. And why is the funeral four months later? This needs addressed, I think.

A woman I’ve never seen before touches me on the shoulder, her face lined with all kinds of fake concern. “You’re Avalona, aren’t you?”

I stare at her blankly for a moment and my collar suddenly feels like a noose.

“Excuse me,” I manage to get out before I all but run out of the room. Stephen lets me go.

I can’t do this.

I can’t fake nice to some woman I’ve never met about someone she never knew. Not that I’m sure I knew him anymore, either.

I stumble into the back entry room, where the Harfords OK so Stephen is the Harford and his family is hosting the wake? This is a bit confusing because we don't know enough to draw these conclusions just from context without stopping and checking things - which pulls the reader out of the story always make us take off our muddy shoes. I fumble to unfasten the lace at my throat, my hands shaking as I try to calm down. My dress crinkles under me as I sit, taking one steadying breath after another.

I blink at my Keds, shoved in the corner, who look about as forlorn as I feel. I had to change into heels that make my toes ache once we arrived at this awful luncheon.

I say he would have hated this, but maybe he was lying about that too. Maybe he did prefer fancy finger foods to campfires and worn jeans. Maybe he lied about everything.

My hands tighten on my purse like I’m trying to strangle it. I can feel the dagger inside as it all bubbles up in me like I’m a kettle, finally ready to sing - or explode.

I think about walking back into that room of stuffy people and black coats and sympathetic smiles and I feel panicky, like some dreadful beast is closing in on me. I need to scream, need to run, need to get out of here.

I need to know.

I kick my heeled shoes off and pull on my Keds. They feel weird over tights as I slip out the back door.

I could go home and change - it’s only two houses down - but I’m afraid I’ll lose my nerve. I half run to the wrought-iron gate that leads from the Harford’s back yard to the forest behind our houses, pulling out the worn paper map.

I run.

Yes, I think we need clarity on why the funeral is four months late, why Stephen's family is hosting the luncheon and not her own, etc. Otherwise we're working with patchwork to figure out what's going on, and that's distracting for a reader - especially on the first page.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Some MADNESS On A Tuesday... Enter to Win An E-Book!

I thought I'd give away some things today...

Enter to win one of five e-book copies of A MADNESS SO DISCREET!


Grace Mae knows madness.

She keeps it locked away, along with her voice, trapped deep inside a brilliant mind that cannot forget horrific family secrets. Those secrets, along with the bulge in her belly, land her in a Boston insane asylum.

When her voice returns in a burst of violence, Grace is banished to the dark cellars, where her mind is discovered by a visiting doctor who dabbles in the new study of criminal psychology. With her keen eyes and sharp memory, Grace will make the perfect assistant at crime scenes. Escaping from Boston to the safety of an ethical Ohio asylum, Grace finds friendship and hope, hints of a life she should have had. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who stalks young women. Grace, continuing to operate under the cloak of madness, must hunt a murderer while she confronts the demons in her own past.

In this beautifully twisted historical thriller, Mindy McGinnis, acclaimed author of Not a Drop to Drink and In a Handful of Dust, explores the fine line between sanity and insanity, good and evil—and the madness that exists in all of us.


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Monday, November 9, 2015

#PitchWars Crit: WILDERNESS

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green.

Query:

Mia Belmont is strong in empathy this wording feels awkward and drawn to the damaged, but when she tries to establish a peaceful amity with her ex-friend Mercedes, her friendship with Val who is Val? begins to unravel. A reconciliation with Mercedes has the added edge of Hunter coming back into her life like a raging storm. As Mia feels the impact of his attraction, her emotions become an overwhelming tornado she may not escape. You're throwing a lot of names at us right now, without much grounding. We don't know how to feel about these characters, let alone how Mia should feel.

Val Garcia is all about protecting herself and those she loves from the hurt and pain in the world. From the poverty of her old neighborhood, the mental illness that took her mother’s life. not a complete sentence. From the two most self-centered people at Thornegate, and the one who will never love her back. Same problem. I realize what you're going for her but it's not quite working. 

On the Smoky Mountain survival trip, where did this come from? You mention it like we should know what this is - a school trip? a retreat? Val resents Mia's attempt to keep her friendships with Mercedes and Hunter alive and recruits their eager co-leader to be Mia’s love interest. But when Val and Mia disagree on who is worthy of friendship and under what circumstances, the relationship they renounce might be the one between them.

Thank you for considering my 80,000 word contemporary YA, Wilderness. It is The Breakfast Club in the Smoky Mountains with love triangles and a thriller twist and filled with diverse, multicultural characters and a dual narrative.

This query would be better served if you can find a way to use less proper names. You say it's a dual narrative but introduce four named characters. Keep the focus of the query on your narrators.

First Page:

With dual narrators you need to state who is speaking right now.

It’s an overcast day, right before the funeral. I’m on the second story floor at school, sitting on the large sill where the heating vent is, looking out the window to the grey quad below. Outside, grey clouds send down grey flurries, dusting the brick of the quad with grey powder. Everyone’s still in class, so it’s peaceful. Peaceful like death. My sharpened graphite pencil sweeps against my sketchbook in even strokes, shading the outline of the long cement bench that winds around the entire brick quad, the iced-over fountain in the center. I get that you're painting a picture here, but the repetitive use of "grey" looks like lazy writing.

On the other side of the quad is a grassy patch, now brown. The large oak tree in the center is dying. They’ve got it surrounded with yellow crime tape.

That oak tree was planted when they built the school, almost a century ago. It was supposed to symbolize strength. It’s a sad irony. The oak tree is dying because of a virus, Mercedes’ mother died of a virus.

I can’t stand all the grey. I’m sick of winter.

Blowing the graphite dust from my fingers, I choose a cerulean blue pencil so I can put some color in the sky. Add some burgundy texture to the brick. In my drawing, the oak tree will never die. Mrs. Whitman is alive, and Mercedes doesn’t hate me.

In my depiction, The Fallout never happened. Just a note here - with the capitalization of "Fallout" and the repeated use of "grey" it almost sounds like a post-apoc setting. I know "fallout" refers to the friendship evaporating, so perhaps different word choice?

I insert myself into my drawing, on a bench with Mercedes, the two of us kidding around like we used to. Me laughing at the things she used to say. Things that shouldn’t have made me laugh in the first place.

Vaguely, I’m aware of the bell. The sound of classroom doors opening and I know the kids are outside, making tracks in the fresh powder. But I keep coloring and shading, adding depth  into everything. Depth that was probably never there in the first place. In the back of my mind I know I will have to go to Thornegate All-Saints Church, find my parents and listen to a sermon. But the drawing isn’t done, and I’m not ready to say goodbye.

There is a sound of choppy footsteps coming up the stairs. There aren’t any classes up here, just a small auditorium that’s hardly ever used. Only one other person knows my secret place.
“Mia?” My best friend, Val, materializes in front of me. “I knew I’d find you here.” She tucks a strand of her jet-black hair behind her ear. “I take it you skipped class again.”

I shrug. It’s just PE.

The opening isn't bad at all, but the fact that it takes place right after a funeral, and the placement of crime scene tape around the oak tree insinuates things I don't think are true. I'd keep it simpler just by saying it has "caution" tape around it - completely different from crime scene tape.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

#PitchWars Critique: FIREBIRD

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green.

Query:

Cursed by the prophecies that foretold her future as a killer, 16 year-old Tatiana – daughter of Koschei the Deathless – will do anything to avoid her destiny. With a kingdom that quakes at the mention of her name and her notoriety as a harbinger of death, Tatiana only wants a place to belong.

When she meets Ivan Tsarevich – a handsome and charming prince, who offers Tatiana the companionship she desperately wants – she jumps at the chance to let go of her curse and falls in love with him. Tatiana plans her escape escape from what and how? Is the prophecy something that's going to follow her as a person or does she just need to leave the kingdom where she's known as that girl? with Ivan – but on that night, she has a prophetic dream and turns back home to find her kingdom burned to ashes by the very prince to whom she swore her his pronouns?? love.

Alone, Tatiana begins on a new path to rescue her father from the clutches of Ivan Tsarevich – whose power is dangerous at the hand of any mortal. Wait - is this an implied supernatural power? Or just princely power? The only way to accomplish this is by finding the legendary Firebird, which holds the key to unlocking Ivan’s grasp on Koschei confused on how the prince would have power over a supernatural being, but time is running out. With Kochei’s powers on the hands of a mortal OK you're phrasing above didn't imply that Ivan had found a way to wield K's powers, which is what I think you're saying now, the boundaries between life and death have already begun to shatter.

Fearful of more betrayals and tempted by thoughts of revenge, Tatiana must decide if saving her father and kingdom are worth the cost of sacrificing herself – and fulfilling the destiny she has feared all her life. Overall the query is pretty good. Clear up the questions above.

FIREBIRD is a stand-alone young-adult fantasy set in alternative Imperial Russia. Retelling the classic Russian fairytales of “Ivan and the Firebird” and “The Death of Koschei the Deathless”, I believe FIREBIRD will appeal to fans of Leigh Bardugo’s SHADOW AND BONE  and Kristin Cashore’s GRACELING.

First page:

The body lay sprawled on the floor.

The woman had been stabbed multiple times, the blood pooling beneath her. I tiptoed my way around the room, avoiding where it what? the blood? had touched I don't know that blood "touches" - splatters, spills, pooled. After all these years, I had learned not to stain my clothes. I held my breath as I faced her, the pale reflection of a dying human. The knife plunged in her chest did not make her breathing any easier.

I did not know this woman’s name.

But she knew mine.

“Tatiana Koscheiovna” she said, with her last will. Her final words. Daughter of bones, daughter of blood, daughter of death. These were her last moments. I had seen too many like it to care anymore. “Have you come for me?”

There was no relief on her voice, like there wasn’t in any of the others when they saw me. She already knew she was dying, and my appearance only confirmed it.

“Yes” I answered. “I have come for you.”

#

I stood outside with the knife in hand, my braid slashing in the wind like a coiling whip. The smell of the blood didn’t seem to vanish from my nostrils, grounding me to the world that wasn’t accustomed to my presence.

The Mortal Realm. Something I thought I’d never see in person, and yet, here I was.

The wind sent shivers down my spine, but the sensation was relishing word choice?. New. Like my body was telling me that I belonged here, and not the drab and cold castles in the Other Realm. Telling the daughter of Mariya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless that she had stood in the wrong place. Like always.

At the same time, the scene of death had never felt more real. At least, in the dreams, the blood hadn’t smelled so strongly. The woman didn’t matter — like none of the others had. Ever since the day I was born and my role was made clear to the world as the daughter of the Tsar of Death. Three daughters of death, with three different roles as spirits of death. My sisters appeared for those who had died honorably in battle or reached old age. I was the one who had to appear to all of those who had been murdered.

Overall, pretty good. You've got some echoes that need addressed. Yes "death" is going to occur naturally a lot in these pages but you'll need to find other phrasing to help with flow.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Rena Rocford On The Cover Of Acne, Asthma & Other Signs You Might Be Half Dragon

I love talking to debut authors. Our experiences are so similar, yet so very different, that every one of us has a new story to share. Everyone says that the moment you get your cover it really hits you - you're an author. The cover is your story - and you - packaged for the world. So the process of the cover reveal can be slightly panic inducing. Does it fit your story? Is it what you hoped? Will it sell? With this in mind I put together the CRAP (Cover Reveal Anxiety Phase) Interview.

Today's guest for the CRAP is Rena Rocford’s who has found that living as a muggle brought some level of success such as completing her master’s degree, but always stories returned, calling her to the keyboard in the dark of night. Now, having built armies from words, Rena has set her sights on world domination, one book at a time.You can find Rena at her blog, follow her on Twitter, GoodReads, or find her on Facebook. Her debut novel, Acne, Asthma, and Other Signs You Might Be Half Dragon comes out November 23rd, 2015.


Allyson fights acne, not trolls. As an inhaler-carrying member of the asthma society, she just wants to meet the father who turned her mother into a paranoid, move-across-the-nation freak. Now she’s trying to fit in at yet another school, but for the first time in her life, she has a best friend, Beth. When Allyson accidentally spits fire at kidnappers in the mall, she realizes why her father isn’t in the picture: she’s half dragon. Her acne? Emerging scales. Her asthma? The side effects of her dragon’s fire breath. Instead of freaking out, unflappable Beth reveals her own troll heritage and explains how things work with the supernatural creatures hiding within the modern world of smartphones and skyscrapers.

When trolls kidnap a unicorn, Beth gets blamed. Allyson is determined to prove Beth’s innocence and keep her friend off the unicorn chopping block. When they start looking for the kidnappers, they get a call from the last person they expect: Allyson’s father. He tries to warn them off, but he’s been put under a spell by the kidnappers to keep the victims from escaping. Nothing short of death can stop him. Now Allyson must choose between killing the father she’s always dreamed of, or letting her best friend die for a crime she didn’t commit.

Did you have any pre-conceived notions about what you wanted your cover to look like?

Yes and no. The book was always really amorphous as far as what it would look like, but I think that was because all I could picture was a cover where you have the protagonist looking back over their shoulder, looking somewhat forlorn. I did know that I wanted a person on the cover of my book, and I really wanted it to be pretty. With a title like mine, there’s definitely a lot of room for a cutsy or joke cover, and I really didn’t want that. 

How far in advance from your pub date did you start talking covers with your house?

With my publisher, they give you an opportunity to put forward your ideas about the cover from the moment you sign the book. So, August of 2014 I sent Curiosity Quills my thoughts on a cover. After that, silence until late August of this year when they sent a request for a description of my MC.

Did you have any input on your cover?

While they gave me all kinds of opportunities to give input, they―rightfully!—took practically none of it. Right at the very end, the artist wanted to add just one more element to busy up the cover a touch, and they asked me about my thoughts for that element. To my great surprise, they took my suggestion.

How was your cover revealed to you?

I knew it would be showing up sooner or later, but, like all other good and bad news, it slipped into my inbox without any fanfare. I knew what it was the second I saw who had sent it, and I went to make myself a cup of tea before opening the email.

Was there an official "cover reveal" date for your art?

There was a date, but it wasn’t that official. Because my art came so close to my release, they needed to get the promotion part going, so they quietly sent it as part of the promo work and a couple days later I clogged up Facebook with it.

How far in advance of the reveal date were you aware of what your cover would look like?

About a week.

Was it hard to keep it to yourself before the official release?

Yes, very much! I LOVE my cover, and I wanted to splash it up everywhere once I had seen it. I maybe even did like a little happy dance about it. 

What surprised you most about the process?

The biggest surprise for me was how much I was in denial until I saw my art. There were long swaths of silence, and in those periods of quiet I felt like someone was going to pull the plug on my book and make the whole thing go away. I was haunted by this feeling that at any minute someone would show up and say “Whoops, sorry, we didn’t mean to get your hopes up, but we’ve come to our senses and remembered that your work is terrible!” And then one day, there was a cover. What had previously been very cerebral and hypothetical was suddenly very, very real.

Any advice to other debut authors about how to handle cover art anxiety?

It’s pretty cliché at this point, but keep writing. There is only one thing that helps, and it is getting lost in a new project.