Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Query Revision 17

Face-Lift 783: A Tale of Youth and Sorrow

Please read the original query at EE's. This author would like some direction with where to begin his revision.

I'm going to change the title, but at the moment I can't think of a decent replacement. I was thinking "Yggdrasil" since the mystical tree plays an important role in the story... but that will make people think "Norse-inspired" when the story isn't. I just borrowed the name. Another name, along with "Rogue" and the title, which needs changing...

This story isn't middle-grade. I'm not sure if it's even YA. It was originally meant for readers 16 - 26 years old. The main character is a girl of 12, but the story's as much about Ilona (who is 26 years old) as it is about Minette. Ilona cusses, drinks, does bad things, and has had bad things done to her.

The story's really about how Ilona, who was once a good-natured, naive Priestess, transforms into the angry, violent Rogue... and how Minette, after learning about Ilona's troubled past, tries to save her from self-destruction.

Here's the story in more detail:

Minette is under Ilona's care. And though Ilona's trying real hard to be a good friend and guardian, she's prone to dark mood swings, which of course scares Minette. Anyway, in the city they live in, a vigilante is going around at night savagely assaulting criminals (think Batman but bitchier). People have given him the name "Belphelial", after a mythical demon who used to terrorize their world.

Curious, Minette asks Ilona about Belphelial. The question makes Ilona very angry, and she lashes out at Minette, accidentally breaking the latter's headband (a gift from Ilona, and a token of their friendship).

Minette, being a kid, thinks that by having the headband repaired, she can fix everything that's wrong with their friendship. So she goes out to look for a shop. She instead ends up being forced to buy three items from a mystic.

After another argument with Ilona, Minette uses the first item (a key) to open Ilona's journal. Minette is magically whisked into its pages, where she finds herself in the body and mind of a younger Ilona.

Ilona was a Priestess obsessed with finding Yggdrasil, a divine tree said to have the power to grant one's innermost desire. She was, however, betrayed by her best friend, and left for dead in the Isle of Lament, where she became the plaything of Belphelial. This experience would embitter her and eventually turn her into a thief and a ruffian - a Rogue.

Minette then uses the second item (a potion) to make Ilona forget her past, and to change her into a more cheerful person. The potion poisons her, so Minette goes to the mystic again, who then instructs her to use the third item (a magical box that can summon any object).

In the middle of the desert, Ilona opens the box, which reveals a brand new headband. She gives it to Minette (friendship fixed!), then dies. Then the gargantuan Yggdrasil errupts from the ground. An angelic being, a resident of the tree, explains to Minette that Yggdrasil has no physical location as people have been led to believe: “The Tree is nourished by love, and grows where love exists. For it is only when one learns the value of true, unselfish love that the seeds blossom into Yggdrasil." After this, the tree sheds a single leaf, which brings Ilona back to life.

In the epilogue, it is revealed that two years ago, Ilona saved Minette from her brother, who murdered Minette's mother before turning on his own sister (he was a deranged Alchemist who believed killing his own blood would turn him into a God). This explains how Minette and Ilona ended up together.

END

So there it is... I've been trying to fix the query for two weeks, but so far I haven't come up with anything pleasing. Could you please suggest which elements of the story I could use in the query? Or how I could incorporate those elements in the existing query to make it less vague? Sorry for the long post and the late reply... and thanks again for all the help...

Comments

If you know me, you know I have an addiction. Put a query that needs a little help in front of me, add author comments just as you gave, and it's like tying a goat in front of a leopard. Dangly bait that I can't ignore. I simply have to rewrite that query.

But a few false starts later and I'm no further along than you are.

So let me show you the blocks I found myself stumbling over.

The Hook - At first, I was excited that you seemed to have captured the essence of your story in a single sentence:

The story's really about how Ilona, who was once a good-natured, naive Priestess, transforms into the angry, violent Rogue... and how Minette, after learning about Ilona's troubled past, tries to save her from self-destruction.

Then I realized that the details you were using to flesh out that sentence didn't seem to support it. Illona is both on a downward path to self-destruction and trying real hard to be a good friend and guardian. And apparently Minette has to first learn Illona had a troubled past before she thinks to save her.

The Plot - Granted, not every fantasy must be epic, but what plot there is here seems rather thin. Kind of like you're trying to wrap some sort of plot around a couple of characters. In fact, it feels, plotwise, more like it should be literary fantasy, but the voice in the query and the notes doesn't convince me the "literary" aspect is pulled off here. If the story were more clearly allegory or fable-feeling, that would probably help, but the journey here seems too personal for the typical fantasy audience.

The Audience - One house is experimenting now with crossover YA/Adult, but I'm not getting that threshhold feel for these characters or the story. While character age is important to make them identifiable in YA, if the characters don't fit the profile, it's more about subject, really, that determines where the book will be shelved. So it's all about the character journey in this case.

The Characters - The journey around the characters feels uneven. The demons Ilona wrestles with seems firmly adult in nature especially as there really doesn't seem to be an emphasis on Ilona being concerned with where and how she fits into the world. She doesn't even seem to particularly want to change, so the story isn't really about her, except that she's the one who does wind up changing. Minette drives the story, but her plotline with going back and forth with the mystic to try things to change Ilona seems more upper MG than even YA.

The Word Count - 53K is, in general, upper-end MG, lower-end YA, and not quite there yet for Adult. Especially for fantasy in any of its forms. From what you've given us, my gut is saying there's really not enough plot here to expand on that word count either. Nor does it feel like a tight, exciting read where the length works with it and not against it.

I'm hoping others will chime in to either refute or validate what I feel after reading the original query and the story descriptions. Everyone's opinion matters - don't be shy about commenting!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Are YOU Query Blind?

There's an affliction sweeping the writing world. A pestilence that strikes when writers are at their most vulnerable. A pandemic that strips them of every modicum of good sense when faced with the most crucial blank piece of paper in their writing careers.

Its name: Query Blindness.

The statistics are grim: Fully 99% of the querying population will develop Query Blindness during the course of query development.

The symptoms:

  • Ability to produce 90,000 words of eloquent, coherent, brilliant prose yet unable to string together 300 words that make sense when face-to-face with THE QUERY LETTER.
  • Inability to see mistakes in own work yet able to lucidly point out those same mistakes and failings in others' query attempts. 
Fortunately, there is a cure.

What you can do if you think you're suffering from Query Blindness:
  • Seek help immediately. There are online resources ready and willing to assist. They may not be trained professionals, but their advice will be heartfelt.
  • Get a second opinion. Validate all heartfelt advice.
  • Keep an open mind. Close-mindedness is the leading cause of treatment failure. If you're not willing to act on validated advice, you will not get better.
What you can do to help others beat this dreaded affliction:
  • Be direct and constructive. Query Blind writers need your love and support.
  • Remember this is an affliction that will likely affect you, too, so how you treat others now will be indicative of how others will treat you when you find yourself Query Blind.
  • Understand that because a writer is Query Blind about their own work does not handicap them when it comes to evaluating the work of others. Query Blind writers can still function as effective members of critique groups.
  • Do not diss Query Blind writers' opinions about your work based on the strength of their query attempts. Remember, YOU may well be in the early stages of Query Blindness yourself and not yet realize it.
 A Case Study

A writer fairly adept at revising other people's queries came under the influence of Query Blindness herself when faced with writing a query for her latest WIP. In her Query Blinded state, she was SURE backstory was important and that over-explanation was essential to an effective query because, unlike the others, her story was special.

Fortunately, she submitted to Query 911 for feedback well before the WIP was finished. Fortunate because this writer was especially delusional and her Query Blindness persisted for weeks.

Once the WIP was completed, she reached out for query help again -- and again, and again -- only these times were in the privacy of her critique group whose members were well indoctrinated in the prescriptive treatment. Through tough love and constructive criticism, the critters helped the writer through her Query Blind state.

The writer then submitted a revision publicly for a final dose of feedback. The result: a reasonably strong, reasonably effective query letter able to be released confidently into the world.

Still, the writer must remain ever-vigilant, knowing that if she must produce another query for another WIP, Query Blindness is likely to strike again.

Because no one is immune.

Query Blindness - It Can't Be Prevented, But It Can Be Cured.  

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bernita Harris Book Launch Party

Dark and Disorderly by Bernita Harris launches Monday. RSVP early for the party and chances to win PRIZES at Bitten By Books!

Practice Horses

Confession time. As a kid, I had an infatuation. With horses. Startling, no? I read about them, played with likenesses of them, cut out and saved pictures of them, dreamed of riding them -- even dared to dream of being a jockey. With others, I played at being them. Yes, this quiet, shy girl became one bossy lead mare on the playground.

I knew with the inevitability of moon and stars I would own them one day.

But my family was entrenched in suburbia and we moved around a lot. Plus, while I didn't want for any of the essentials, I had very few nonessentials. And horses were a HUGE nonessential.

Time and childhood passed, horseless. The desire, though, never passed. I took animal husbandry classes in college to get my accreditation as a vet tech and got to be around horses a couple of hours a week for awhile. But I wound up working at a small animal clinic and so missed out on them as a career.

In 1989, I set out to make my dream come true by purchasing 14 acres south of Fort Worth. By then, however, I had left veterinary medicine behind and was working in advertising for a large company headquartered in town. The hours were brutal, the commute long and, though there was a large pole barn on the property and I had built out 6 stalls in it, I never felt I had the time to properly attend to horses. After 5 years, I moved back, defeated, to suburbia.

But I never gave up the dream.

When technology and company policies made it possible a dozen years later to work remotely from just about anywhere, I tried again.

After one failed fiasco of an attempt to get a barn built that landed in court, a second contractor erected a nice, suitable structure, and my dad and I fenced off a couple of pastures. Soon I'd be galloping across the land and, like one or two neighbors, go visiting on horseback.

But I noticed on some of those visits from and to horsy neighbors that my elderly dad -- because of an earlier accident that had left him with a pair of feet that were none too stable -- was intimidated by large, heavy animals. Like Quarter Horses or Arabians or Thoroughbreds.

So I compromised.

The first horses I would get would be "practice horses." They would be smaller versions of the "real" thing and they would be healthy horses that didn't need special care so I could become accustomed to what normal health and behavior looked like before attempting to rehab abused individuals. But I was still determined to get older or younger horses that would be harder to place.

I wound up purchasing a 17-year-old mare and her 4-month-old colt from a breeder who was selling out and moving on.

The brown-and-white paint mare was on the tall side of miniature standards, but still much smaller than a pony. She was a good mother, and rightly so as she'd been having babies yearly since she was 4 or so. I felt good I could at least get THAT cycle broken. And while she hadn't been completely neglected, it was clear she only got cursory attention. Still, except for some minor hoof issues, she was in good health. It also became obvious that aside from her colt, she had only one other motivation in life: she was a food junkie. Her name, as it said on the registration papers that I didn't really care about otherwise, was Alyssa. I shortened it to Lyssa.

Her son was a compact little bay, deep brown with a black mane and tail. It was obvious from the first that he needed to learn some manners -- and fast. He was a little too mischievous and a lot too bull-headed about getting HIS way. His favorite trick was backing up to you as if all he wanted was a good scratch, then kicking. If he wanted more treats and there weren't any more forthcoming, he would kick. He would rear up and lash out with his front hooves, too. And he would nibble and bite and grab and yank at any loose piece of clothing. So I set about teaching him to be more polite with the goal of him not losing his natural curiosity and spirit. I credit time and maturity more than my training that we seem to have succeeded. I let my dad name him, and he chose a good one: Cody.

While Lyssa seemed quite content to simply hang out with Cody and eat all day, Cody was obviously missing a playmate. Plus, I figured having a playmate other than me would help run out his energy and settle him down quicker. The single playmate I decided on quickly became two -- but I'll have more about that, and them, in another post.

My practice horses accomplished everything I hoped they would. I learned hands-on the care I needed to and my dad felt at ease interacting with them. In fact, he became so attached to them in the year before he had his stroke that it was the desire to come back and see them that helped drive his rehabilitation during his 4 months in a nursing home. It wasn't pictures of me or my brother or my brother's children my dad asked to keep in his room to motivate him, but pictures of "his" horses -- most especially Cody, his favorite. His laser focus on the horses helped him relearn to speak and move and think.

Turns out my little practice horses helped us practice something far more important than simple husbandry. They helped us practice how to live again.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Query Revision 16

Face-Lift 784: One Man's Treasure

Retry, with thanks to everyone (and Stephen, I've totally ripped off your start, thanks).

Weakened by poison meant for the head of his spy network, Arrax isn't prepared for war. But war is coming--on two fronts. The leader of the ruling elite he defeated 15 years ago is back and wants nothing more than to destroy Arrax and his people, and a local warlord is making a play for Arrax’s lands at the same time.

The last thing he needs is spacers landing in the middle of the war, searching for Callan's legendary treasure.

The enemy ally themselves with the spacers in an attempt to defeat Arrax. In return they promise access to Callan's laboratories and the treasures she produced there.

But Arrax knows that if the spacers get hold of Callan's treasure then he and his people--along with everyone else on his world--are doomed. Suddenly, stopping the spacers is just as important as stopping the war and Arrax is determined to do both. If the poison doesn't kill him first.

Comments

The thing I liked about your first version is that mention of "spacers" came quick after you telling us this is science fiction. The start of this query doesn't get me in the SF frame of mind. I'm not getting a feeling for the world itself. It sounds like a backwater, third-world planet, so when spacers and laboratories are mentioned, I'm feeling like there's some huge disconnect.

Weakened by poison meant for the head of his spy network, Arrax isn't prepared for war.

Maybe let us know what position Arrax holds by giving him a title when he's intro'd? Is he a king, a general, head of the CIA?

But war is coming--on two fronts. The leader of the ruling elite he defeated 15 years ago is back and wants nothing more than to destroy Arrax and his people,

I think this can be tightened by deleting "and wants nothing more than to destroy Arrax and his people" -- revenge can be easily inferred. But maybe you want to clarify that the leader is back with an army rather than coming alone? Or is she coming alone? The "ruling elite" makes it sound like that war was an uprising where the middle class overthrew and ousted the ruling class.

and a local warlord is making a play for Arrax’s lands at the same time.

Just something to think about in how you're presenting this: one leader just wants to kill everyone and doesn't care about the land and another just wants the land? If we're talking "local warlord" it doesn't sound like this is a very large holding Arrax has. How are the two enemies not stepping all over each other? And "at the same time" is redundant after telling us war is coming on two fronts. We presume it's at the same time.

The last thing he needs is spacers landing in the middle of the war, searching for Callan's legendary treasure.

In this version, we have no idea what/who Callan is. Even reading further down, I still don't know if Callan is a who or a what, and if a what whether it's the name of Arrax's holding or the planet.

The enemy ally themselves with the spacers in an attempt to defeat Arrax.

Which enemy? Both factions? And just how many spacers are we talking about here that they can make a difference in the war? We know if it's the Serenity crew they can single-handedly bring down nations -- but the spacers aren't the heroes here. Or is the spacer's technology such that one starship can make a difference?

In return they promise access to Callan's laboratories and the treasures she produced there.

Sorry, but with the title of the book in mind, I have the strains of "One Tin Soldier" in my head now.

But Arrax knows that if the spacers get hold of Callan's treasure then he and his people--along with everyone else on his world--are doomed. Suddenly, stopping the spacers is just as important as stopping the war and Arrax is determined to do both. If the poison doesn't kill him first.

I think this is a really good wrap-up paragraph! I'm still not a fan of "Callan's treasure", but if that's your mystery and hook, then OK. What the query needs, IMO, is a better set up for this last paragraph.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Art of Query Revision

I recently saw an ad for a class being taught by someone who made the critique blog rounds with their query a couple of years ago. The first version I saw (on Evil Editor's site, and no I'm not going to link you directly to the query in question because I don't have permission and, besides, that would be rude) was, shall we say, not very good. Naturally, EE and the minions came through with some really brilliant and considered advice to help improve it.

The query then started popping up on other sites, revised for the better each time. By its fifth public version, the query had gone from bland to spectacular. In fact, when version 5.0 appeared on one agent's query critique site, the agent didn't just ask for pages, she demanded them. While THAT agent didn't take on this author, another did. (It's been a few months now and the ms that snagged the agent hasn't sold yet, but they are pressing forward and working on other projects together.)

What's important to this conversation is not the revelation that getting an agent doesn't always translate into a book sale to a publisher (although that's a reality we all need to keep in our back pockets) or that people actually get paid to critique queries (EE, you're missing out on a bucketload of change to slip into your back pocket, it seems), it's that this person put their ego aside and learned from the critiques. Now those early versions were beaten, kicked, shredded, gutted and left a bloody mess. It took courage to subject those attempts to public pummeling -- not once or twice but multiple times. And it took bull-headed determination to get that query to the point where it had agents begging for more.

I have tons of respect for writers so willing to learn.

So, in easily digestible form, here are the takeaways from today's sermon:

  • It generally takes several revisions to get a query to the point it can do its work well.
  • Query writing is a skill that can be learned (some writers will always be better at it than others, just as some people are better at writing brilliant marketing pieces than they are at writing technical documents, but if you have any kind of general writing skill, you can learn to write a good query)
  • You have to be able to filter conflicting advice and choose what works best for your unique style and voice.
  • While feedback is subjective and you might easily ignore advice you only hear once, if several people are piling on over the same issue, realize it's a "you, not them" problem and CHANGE IT.
  • Initial drafts (plural) usually suck.
  • There is no one way to write a query; even the pros in the biz differ on length, ingredients, and spoilers.
  • Listening to conflicting industry advice and trying to cater to every conflicting "rule" out there is a sure way to madness. Pick a style that works for you and do your damnedest to perfect it.
  • The same people you're thinking of paying for advice might well be the same people who learned for free -- the same way you can learn for free.
  • Whether you pay for advice or not, be sure to solicit multiple opinions and not rely on any one person's blessing or evisceration.
  • Even a killer query can't overcome a story that isn't perceived as marketable (go back and read that one again -- it's important).
  • Pay it forward -- once you've learned the skill, pop on the critique boards and help others hone their skills as well.
Phoenix's 5 Stages of Query Writing

I posted these in the comments on EE's site awhile ago and thought they would be fun to include here, too.

Version 1: It might need a little tweaking but it can't be that bad. (Oh, but it is.)

Version 2: Ouch. But OK, I've cleaned up the stuff readers had issues with and it really is better. (Uh-oh, new issues have been introduced.)

Version 3: OK, I am going to meticulously answer every reader's concern and concentrate on exactly that and nothing else because, frankly, I'm getting pretty frustrated over all of this. (Only now, the query has lost its voice and, somewhere, the story's tight plot and style.)

Version 4: Ah, now I see that I can leave out some of those problematic issues completely and the query experience for the reader will actually be improved. Less really IS more. (And it is. Often, V4 is a complete re-envisioning of the query, with a cleaner feel and fewer plot points and characters.)

Version 5: Gah, how could I have misspelled THAT and not seen it until now? (Final grammar check, but it's now ready for submission.)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Editing Out Voice

For those of you who don't know, I'm a writer/editor/project manager in the corporate world, although these days I seem to be spending far more time managing than doing what I think I do best: writing and editing. I've worked in advertising, marketing, and sales, and am fluent in corporate speak.

I've also edited newspapers for nonprofits and newsletters for businesses.

Although I play at copyediting, it is not my strong suit and I make no apologies for that. Too many grammarians -- especially in the corporate world -- get caught up in the rules and forget about what makes writing effective and memorable: voice.

Since I don't have the luxury to pick and choose my projects, I work with text that runs the gamut from techno-babble that makes precious little sense to competent copy that reads fine but just isn't that compelling. Unfortunately, I also work against a corporate mentality that rewards the bland and frowns on anything outside a small range of approved voice.

Two projects stand out most for me where I had to battle for the addition of voice, one a technical white paper and the other a company newsletter.

In the white paper, which I ghost wrote for an executive, I used an extended metaphor to get across the idea of why business continuity and disaster recovery are critical components of a company's IT strategy. (Stop fidgeting; I promise that's as technical as I'm going to get.) For the metaphor, I chose the asteroid slam that wiped out the ponderous dino beasties and gave the smaller, more agile mammals a chance to thrive. "What's this all about?" was the cry I kept hearing from one reviewer to the next. "This kind of thing just isn't done. Not in this organization! We pride ourselves on being a staid and incomprehensible IT company. Stop making what we do accessible to the general public!"

For a paycheck, I'm willing to compromise -- but only to a point. I argued that the metaphor was the paper's hook, the thing that would make it stand out from all those other white papers every other IT services organization was writing on the subject. We could either be noticed or be assimilated. And if they chose assimilation, someone else was going to have to write the paper. In the end they signed off on it, grumbling all the way. Of the hundreds of white papers the company produced, that one had the longest shelf life and was the one most downloaded and used. In fact, when the original executive resigned a couple of years after it was first published, the one taking his place slapped his name on the paper and kept it alive a few more years.

There weren't any groundbreaking revelations in the paper. In all other respects, it was pretty run-of-the-mill. It was popular because of voice.

In the second example, when a techie guy working at a client site sent in an article about how his team had pulled together and overcome obstacle after obstacle to get a computer network up and running, I knew I had to use it in the company newsletter. Why? The actual details weren't any different from any other team's challenges in putting in a network, but there was such a raw enthusiasm in this guy's writing that it begged to be included.

Corporate speak it was not, though, and that was a problem. I had a choice: rein it in so it was in line with the bland brand or give it its head and let it take others along on its rather wild ride. I chose the latter, which actually presented the greater editing challenge. Preserving unique voice in an unpolished work while making it conform to at least some syntax, structure and punctuation rules is akin to performing delicate surgery. The last thing I wanted to do was kill the brash joy that crashed through so potently.

I published the newsletter. The investment relations manager was outraged. "What if a client sees this? I want all future newsletters to come through me so I can give them a professional edit."

Which, if you know me, didn't sit well at all. "Um, excuse me, I am a professional editor. And if I were a client, I'd be thrilled that someone working on my site had the level of passion this guy obviously has for the work he's doing. Given a choice between this guy and someone just punching the clock and spending his days conjugating verbs correctly, hands down I'd choose this guy -- meaning OUR company -- every time."

What is it about a large corporation that makes people afraid of standing out in some way? Of infusing life and voice into the work it produces? Of wearing passion on its figurative sleeve?

As a result of that article, we had employees with some truly amazing stories tell us they felt they could submit them now because they weren't intimidated; our employee newsletter was now accessible by its intended audience. And yes, the article did fall into the hands of some of our clients, and they expressed hope that future issues would be highlighting similar stories and teams at their companies.

So what does any of this have to do with your fiction writing?

You have a unique voice. Use it -- loudly and well. Don't give in to the pressure of critique groups who try to flatten it or otherwise corrupt it. Have confidence in your voice, nurture it, praise it, reward it.

Your voice is you. Never, ever let anyone edit it -- or you -- out of your work.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Stubborn Is As Stubborn Does

When I first moved out to the country, I dreamed of goats. Long-eared does with big brown eyes and  gentle, mellow personalities. Soft and cuddlesome. They would be Nubians, probably, like the two sweet babies pictured to the right.

I would line the mothers up, hand them treats and milk them, then use the milk to make delicious cheese. Perhaps I'd shear them and turn their wool into warm blankets.

Goats would come in time, I imagined. After I put in goat-proof fencing and built a shed and made all the right preparations.

The cosmos, however, had other plans.

My dad called one morning three years ago to tell me there were "a couple of kids" playing on his front deck. He got a kick out of making me think they were human before finally letting me know they were, in fact, capricornian. I grabbed a couple of leashes and headed over. I found a mother and her baby buck, neither of them friendly and both a bit wild. The mother scrambled over the three-foot railing and leaped to the ground another three feet below. Her baby tried to follow but I was able to catch him before he cleared the railing. I carried him to my backyard, which I'd had fenced and cross-fenced when I moved in, and let his sad bleating lure his mother (that's her in the picture directly below) into the yard after him.

I had already taken in a couple of stray dogs and cats, but I'd never even considered that a couple of stray pygmy goats might wander up. I made phone calls to neighbors, checked surrounding streets for signs, distributed flyers, and scoured the newspapers for 'lost' ads. After two weeks went by without anyone claiming them, I decided it was time to build a shelter. Two weeks after that, I had the fast-growing buck neutered. In goatherd-speak he was now a 'wether'. A few days later the owner -- who had apparently missed the flyer about them in her mailbox but heard about them from a neighbor -- called.

The goats had been a wedding anniversary gift to her from her husband. The couple had recently moved out here from the city and they had not adequately prepared for the curiosity, intelligence and Houdini-like prowess of goats. Within the first hour of their arrival, the goats had escaped. During the month following, the couple had redone their fencing and bought more goats. As the owner had not had time to develop a significant attachment to these two goats, she agreed I should just go ahead and keep them.

The baby buck was about 3 months old when he showed up and far from the soft, tiny kidling I'd dreamed of holding in my lap. Neither he nor his mother were interested in being touched much less fussed over, so considerable time and energy was spent simply taming them. Plus, they still had their horns (goats are generally "debudded" by their owners by the time they're a week old) and they were quite adept at using them: on me, on each other, on the wooden structures around them.

Since the buck, aptly named Rowdy by my dad (in the picture to the right), was still nursing, the mother, Lucy, was milkable. Assuming one could actually keep her still enough to milk. Or that Rowdy didn't drink it all first since pygmy goats produce pygmy quantities. Usually the half cup or so I'd get would have so much dirt and goat hair in it after wrestling for it, I'd pour it out for the dogs and cats to drink. I filtered it a couple of times and used it in my coffee, but when Rowdy was ready to be weaned, I let Lucy dry up, especially as I'd already decided a herd of pygmy goats was not part of my overall plan.

One dirty little secret the milk industry -- whether cow or goat -- hides simply by not discussing it is why an animal produces milk in the first place and what happens afterward. Since the hormones needed for milk production and let-down kick in during pregnancy, that means an animal must birth offspring in order to produce milk. This is where the majority of people obliviously stop thinking about what the logical consequences to that are. They prefer to picture happy cows or does grazing in lush fields with tiny babies gamboling about them.

In commercial operations, however, if the baby is a female, the owner will calculate herd size and determine if it's worth the cost to raise it. If so, the baby will be immediately separated from its mother and will be raised on milk replacement since the owner will be selling its mother's milk and won't want to waste any of it on the baby. As for the boys, since it only takes one male to service a herd of females, unless a male is exceptional, they all -- along with any unwanted girls -- become "excess." In the case of cows, some of these babies will wind up as veal calves: force-fed exorbitant amounts of high-calorie food, raised in the dark to keep the meat white, not allowed to move to avoid muscling and spoiling the tender meat, and slaughtered when only a few weeks old. Otherwise, the cost of raising a baby on milk replacement usually exceeds any potential cost on the other end and the babies are simply disposed of.

(This was the cycle I wasn't yet planning for since I wouldn't be "disposing" of any "excess". I have to be sure I have the room, the time, and the resources before I commit to raising goats, cows, horses or whatever else might stray up.)

Eventually Lucy and Rowdy tamed down to the point I could pet them, brush them, walk them around on a lead, etc. But neither of them are "easy" when it comes to trimming their hooves or keeping them still enough to treat injuries. They don't like being told what to do or forced to do something they don't want to. They fight. Every. Single. Time. It's exhausting. Even the simplest things become a chore with them. And no matter how patient I am trying to correct their bad habits -- butting the door to the food shed if I'm not getting their food out quickly enough, butting me if the treats I hand them aren't the ones they want right then -- they refuse to back down. The stubborn stereotype fits them perfectly. They're smart; they KNOW what's being asked of them. But, unlike dogs, the best reward for them is keeping the upper hoof. If it's a choice between a yummy treat and showing dominance, they'll abandon the treat every time.

In fact, the mother goat has to believe her name is really Lucy No or Lucy Don't. I can't remember when I last spoke her name, Lucy, by itself in a kind and loving way.

Don't get me wrong. Although these two goats showed up at a time I wasn't prepared for them and even though they aren't the breed or the personality I dreamed about, I've come to love them fiercely. As exasperating as that independent nature and stubborn streak is, it calls to me. They have spirit. And I'll take spirit over a broken soul any day.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Query Revision 15

Face-Lift 776: Third Rainbow

The Narrator’s first memories are of hell, of being transformed into a demon, made into a slave, living life from one beating to the next. This all changes when Raven appears in his life. She awakens in the Narrator a desire for something more, however vague that sense of something may be, and together they devise their plan to escape hell.

The Narrator is forced to escape on his own when he finds Raven’s preserved head on the floor of his cave. Now he has one demon chasing him across hell and another planning to crucify him.

In another world, Beta is plagued by nightmares – nightmares of demons chasing each other through hell. He has written a program to stop his dreams, but the program isn’t working any more. He tries seeing a doctor. The doctor helps, until the demons appear in his waking life and his closest friends begin to die off one by one. He can’t understand why anyone would be hunting him or his friends.

Beta goes into hiding to escape those hunting him, but the demons find him once again and his fragile attempt at a normal life is shattered. His wife is murdered; his child is kidnapped; his home is burned to the ground. He decides to hunt those that have stolen his life. This decision leads him to hell, where he is transformed into a demon.

He is Beta no longer. Now he is the Hunter. And crucifying the one that calls himself the Narrator isn’t as much an end to his torment as it is a new beginning.

THIRD RAINBOW is a completed, 97,000 word science fiction novel about man-made demons and time travel.

Comments

I do apologize, author, but I'm really not understanding the story from the query. As a non-redemptive piece, I could maybe see it as a short story in one of the old pulp SF/Horror 'zines, but as a 97K-word novel? Well, I'm afraid I had tons of questions reading through the query that I felt weren't adequately answered.

The Narrator’s first memories are of hell, of being transformed into a demon, made into a slave, living life from one beating to the next. This all changes when Raven appears in his life.

Why does Raven appear? Does she remember more about her past life? Is she a demon, too?

She awakens in the Narrator a desire for something more, however vague that sense of something may be, and together they devise their plan to escape hell.

I don't think we need to know it's a vague sense in the query. Perhaps relook at the details you're choosing to relate.

The Narrator is forced to escape on his own when he finds Raven’s preserved head on the floor of his cave.

Why is Raven's head "preserved" and is it important for the query? Again, you seem to be focusing on inconsequential details. Raven herself seems rather superfluous in the query other than that she comes along and convinces the Narrator to grow some demon balls and get the hell out of hell.

Now he has one demon chasing him across hell and another planning to crucify him.

Why two demons? Do they want him for different reasons? If the one chasing him catches him, what will he do to him that's different than the crucifixion the second demon wants to impose?

In another world, Beta is plagued by nightmares – nightmares of demons chasing each other through hell. He has written a program to stop his dreams, but the program isn’t working any more.

You tend to repeat yourself a bit. If that's your voice, that's fine. In a short letter, though, it's somewhat distracting. "On another world, Beta dreams of demons chasing each other through hell. The program he wrote to halt those nightmares stopped working long ago."

He tries seeing a doctor.

As Yoda says, "There is no try."
"The doctor he sees helps -- until the demons step out of his dreams into his waking life ..."

The doctor helps, until the demons appear in his waking life and his closest friends begin to die off one by one. He can’t understand why anyone would be hunting him or his friends.

I'm not sure I follow this. The demons in his dreams are chasing each other. I'm not getting a sense of correlation -- help me, the reader, better fit the pieces together.

Beta goes into hiding to escape those hunting him, but the demons find him once again and his fragile attempt at a normal life is shattered.

Hiding works even for a little while? Where does one hide from a nightmare demon? And how is hiding an attempt at a normal life?

His wife is murdered; his child is kidnapped; his home is burned to the ground. He decides to hunt those that have stolen his life. This decision leads him to hell, where he is transformed into a demon.

Why would demons kidnap a child? I presume Beta wasn't hiding at home, so why do the demons destroy his family and home when they've found him again?

At this point, the reader still doesn't know the reason why the demons are hunting him. Is it that vague in the book, or is there something about Beta that attracts demons?

Who transforms him into a demon? Is this the fate of everyone who goes to hell or of a special few? Do the demons hunting him just abandon THEIR hunt and conveniently return to hell where he can follow them?

He is Beta no longer. Now he is the Hunter. And crucifying the one that calls himself the Narrator isn’t as much an end to his torment as it is a new beginning.

Was the Narrator one of the demons hunting him? Why is he after the Narrator? I'm so sorry, but I'm just not getting a sense of why any of this is happening.

THIRD RAINBOW is a completed, 97,000 word science fiction novel about man-made demons and time travel.

Time travel? Uh, where did that come from? I wasn't getting this being SF at all. The time travel element helps move it from fantasy or general spec fic to SF, but other than you telling me here that it's part of what the novel is ABOUT, I would never have seen it in the query.

And is "man-made" literal or figurative? These guys are transformed into demons, but I didn't get the impression humans were transforming them. If you mean it figuratively, such as we're all carrying our personal demons inside, I don't get the metaphor from the situations described in the query. I rather think you mean it to be ALL metaphor and I'm reading too literally, but I'm assuming reading agents will go in with the same frame of mind I have. Especially given the number of books out now where demons are all too real.

Perhaps others may "get" this story better than I do from this query or the original. Can anyone help?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Query Revision 14

Face-Lift 778: Bound and Fallen

In a world of nine squabbling gods, no one seeks to upset them. But one girl did and now she must pay.

15-year-old Ki -- who hates her new name -- must serve the most capricious, and often bored, god of the nine. Wishing she could turn back time, Ki struggles to please the whims of her new deity. Her current random mission? To train a boy nicknamed 'the Designer'. 'De' for short. It's worse than her new name.

However, Ki discovers the training is a fa├žade. Her god, seeking amusement, has put her in the middle of a brewing god-war. De's family is supposed to be under the protection of the Sister gods, yet another god has forced his way into the house by sending a demon to possess De's father. The Sister gods and the unknown god all need De -- a Genius that could alter the balance of the pantheon -- and Ki is their best bet. Ki doesn't want De to lose his family the way she lost hers, but she doesn't want to upset the gods again either. With time running out, Ki must outmaneuver an entire pantheon to save De's life or watch as history repeats itself.

Comments

This version is also posted in the comments of the original on EE's site in case it sounds familiar to anyone.

Author, I think you're at that point in every rewrite where you've gotten a lot of feedback and you're trying to please everyone but in doing so you sort of let the query get out of control. It happens to most of us. The good news is that the NEXT version is usually head-and-shoulders above the previous versions.

Reading the first plot paragraph, I have no idea why Ki wants to turn back time. Is it because she wants to go back to a time when her parents were alive? Or because she just wants to go back to a time when it wasn't the capricious god she was serving? Was she serving another god previously if this is a new one for her? Do people get shuffled from one god to the next in this world?

I'd also like to get a better sense of De. In this version, "boy" could well mean an 8-year-old. If he's a hottie love interest, let's hear it up front. He's also referred to as "Designer" and "Genius". Too many handles that aren't explained -- stick with just one for better reader comprehension. Also, I still don't know what "training" means.

Your second plot paragraph is, unfortunately, still not very clear, IMO. I'm confused as to how De's life is in danger if all the gods need him and why they need Ki at all. And your stakes seem to switch from saving De's family to saving De's life. I'm also unclear if any of the gods are "good" gods. Is the main struggle humans against gods or gods against gods? Lots of extranneous words, I think, are getting in the way of a succinct summary. See if you can pare it down.

My Revised Version

In a world with nine squabbling gods, no one can afford to upset them. But one girl does and now she must pay.

15-year-old Ki serves the most capricious of the gods. Not by choice -- it's her punishment for [trying to stop the gods from killing her parents when she accidentally interferes with a divine bet]. Wishing she could turn back time, Ki struggles to please her new deity. Her current random mission? To train some boy in the art of [servitude]. The problem? The 'boy' is two years older than her and annoyingly attractive in that "how can I even concentrate when I'm in the same room with him" kind of way. Oh, and his new nickname, De, is even worse than hers.

Then Ki discovers the training angle is just a ruse; her trickster god has placed her smack in the middle of a brewing god-war. It seems De is a Genius -- born with the ability to [XXX], which could alter the balance of the pantheon. When one of the gods uses a demon to infiltrate De's family, the boy [abandons good sense and swears revenge]. Afraid to upset the gods a second time yet unwilling to watch De and his family end up like hers, Ki must find a way to outwit an entire pantheon and keep De from repeating her own gut-wrenching mistakes before it's too late.

Complete at 80,000 words, BOUND AND FALLEN is either a standalone YA fantasy novel or the first in a trilogy that [fouses on your theme or world]. I look forward to sending you the completed manuscript. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Query Revision 13

Face-Lift 774: Beauty for Ashes

I would love to see if this is better. There's less plot given away, but it's more succinct and I tried to emphasize each of the three main characters more. By the way, the book title comes from a verse in the Bible:

Isaiah 61:3

To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
***

Dear Evil Editor,

When John Douglas' wife and infant are killed in a fire, he abandons his faith in the God who betrayed him. Ignoring the persistant Voice of the Lord calling him back, and drowning his pain with alcohol, he falls further and further from the man he used to be. An unthinkable act finally leaves him broken before the Almighty, but he must still deal with the consequences of his sin.

April has escaped an abusive relationship and fights to make it on her own, refusing to be a victim. With no place to go, she is willing to do just about anything to keep herself off of the street. It will take grim circumstances for her to realize she’s not alone.

Jenni is a faith-filled college student, waiting for life to begin. But when things don’t go as planned, she questions whether or not she has the strength to follow God even through the darkest valleys.

When their paths collide, God moves in each of these three lives, weaving their circumstances together to make something beautiful out of tragedy.

BEAUTY FOR ASHES is a 92,600 word Christian Fiction novel. Thank you for your consideration.

Warmly,

Comments

It IS much more succinct, Michelle, so kudos on that! Unfortunately, I think this is way too vague to be useful in evaluating the strength and merit of the manuscript. Honestly, it doesn't take any more words to be specific. Plus, you wind up with more bang for your buck through detail. And as M.G.E. pointed out in your first draft, you seem to rely on cliche to carry your message. Inspirational fiction still demands a story, not a sermon. CBA agents likely see tons of sermons.

My [Partial] Revision

When John Douglas' wife and infant [son] are killed in a senseless fire, his rampage against God leads him first to alcohol and gambling then progressively deeper into Las Vegas' seamy underbelly. He doggedly ignores the persistant Voice of the Lord calling him back until he wakes up one morning in a stranger's bed and [something profound and concrete happens that reawakens his faith and puts him back on the straight-and-narrow].

April has escaped an abusive relationship and fights to make it on her own. Even though she [turns to prostitution] to support herself, she doesn't realize she is simply substituting one form of victimization for another. It's only when she discovers she's pregnant after a one-night stand that she [instinctively reaches out for help and finds she's not alone.]

Jenni is a faith-filled college student who falls for John as hard as he falls for her soon after he starts to rebuild his life. But when a very pregnant April shows up and names John the father, Jenni [questions whether she has the strength to follow God through even what's fast becoming her darkest valley.]

Leave it to God to be able to weave something beautiful out of the fabric of this tragedy.

BEAUTY FOR ASHES is a 93,000-word inspirational novel. Thank you for your consideration.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Query Revision 12

Face-Lift 777: Alamandine's Song

Mandi Croach knew she was half faery, but that didn't mean much to her. Her parents were dead, and though she and her full-fae aunt ran a magical jewelry store in Philadelphia, she was nothing more than a Tufts-educated checkout girl.

In a single moment all that changes. It seems her aunt has been hiding a few things: Mom is alive, reigning as Queen of the Star Court; her son, Prince Prase, has been kidnapped; and Mandi's father didn't drown--he was murdered.

As she pursues her father's murderer, Mandi realizes there are powerful forces in Faelyn that don't want her to succeed, including her mother's new husband, the King. If she is to have any hope of getting her life back; a life made more interesting by the addition of sexy, yet sweet, Chase Ballentine; she'll need a bargaining chip--and the Prince may be the most valuable one.

Comments

With two exceptions I like the first two paragraphs:

  • I think the first paragraph should be in present tense.
  • In a single moment all that changes is too convenient. WHY does all that change? This is, I think, an important detail. Replacing "In a single moment" with the detail of that moment should be enough to take this from a vague moment to a concrete one: "But when X happens, the truths that once shaped her life suddenly change" type of thing.
The third paragraph introduces some concepts that don't add up for me:
  • I don't know why she's pursuing her father's murderer or how she knows who murdered him.
  • What does "succeed" mean? Simply finding the killer, pointing him out, or killing him? Is she a victim seeking justice by trial and jury or a vigilante? I do like how you've woven the king into that sentence, though I'm nor sure why King and Prince are capitalized when not being used as proper nouns.
  • I don't yet know what Faelyn is or how she got there.
  • Chase B seems to come out of nowhere. If he's part of her old life, he should show up in the first paragraph, which would, of course, require a complete revision as to how the first two paragraphs are set up.
  • What good will a bargaining chip do her and is she thinking about kidnapping the already kidnapped prince to use him as one? It likely makes sense in the context of the book, but I'm struggling with it here.
The semicolons setting off the Chase B phrase should be dashes, which means the part about the prince needs to be set off some other way if you keep this construct.
 
All-in-all, this version is such a marked improvement over your first version that I think you'll be able to pull off these final tweaks and wind up with a really solid query.