Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My Second Favorite Rejection

(No, I'm not doing a countdown to rejection. Last one, I promise. Just trying to give some perspective -- that often you don't know who is actually sending along the rejection letter or who they might be channeling.)

So a few years after the famous editor from my favorite rejection story died (let's call her MB), the team who took over her publishing estate decided to put out a sort of memorial anthology and invited past contributors to submit.

When I got the request, I thought back to a story I'd submitted to MB for another collection. That one flew in the face of everything MB generally did not like in a story -- it was first person, present tense, and full of poetic prose. But there was reason behind the madness, not simply authorial indulgence, and MB recognized that. I received a short note that she was holding it for a final decision. In the end, she sent me a beautiful, long letter letting me know she loved the story and had wanted to include it and the only reason it ultimately did not make the final cut was that the publisher had refused the final word count for the anthology. She had to cut two stories to make length and mine was one. (Okay, that was a pretty great rejection, right, but it is not my second favorite rejection story. Oh no, boys and girls, I have many favorite rejections [like the small press that folded right after they accepted my MG novel, the comic book publisher that folded right after they expressed interest in my series, the animated children's show that was canceled right before we signed the contract for my script...]. This is just background for what follows.)

I sold the story elsewhere, but when MB's team asked me to submit something for the new anthology, I sent a prequel to the original story told in the same style and voice. I, of course, included a comment about MB's response to the original. Had the new team sent me a rejection letter telling me they didn't like the style of the story because it broke some traditional rules, I would have simply chalked it up to they and I not being the same good fit MB and I were and given it no more thought. They, however, phrased the rejection in terms of what they thought MB would have said, telling me there was no way she would have accepted a story like that. They were rejecting me based on the perceived tastes of someone who was dead. And they were suggesting I had lied to them about MB having initially accepted the original story -- that they apparently knew her tastes better than she did.

Yes, I thought about arguing. Yes, I thought about sending them a copy of the correspondence MB and I had over the original story. (Yes, I do have an abiding need to be right.) But in the end, I took the high road (as should you!) and did not respond. There is nothing to be gained by burning bridges in an industry this small.

Besides, there was the whole nose-face-spite issue, and this team was cutting my royalty checks on some previous stories. And you really want to stay on the good side of anyone in charge of monies due you, you know.

Monday, July 26, 2010

More Feedback, Please

Mike has posted a new version of his query for the manuscript formerly known as A Tale of Youth and Sorrow in the comments. Please take a look.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Are Agents and Editors Really Dying to Reject You?

If you're like most writers, you've already accumulated dozens of rejection letters over the course of your career. In the beginning, you optimistically handed over your work to agents and editors in naïve belief that you held the power and they were simply waiting, contracts in hand, for your words to cross the transom.

After a rejection or two, you began to imagine agents and editors as predators, pouncing on their piles of queries, shouting in triumph as they snatch yours out of the slush then gleefully stuff yet another rejection into your waiting SASE.

Now that you're a pro at rejection, you've developed a healthier response to it. You've learned to mock the agents and editors who dare pass over your sublime writing. You place the blame squarely on them, thinking, "Sheesh, they must be completely out of touch or unconscious if they're rejecting My Wonderful Work!"

Hmm. Maybe you're right. Next time you receive a cold, impersonal rejection, consider this…

A well-known editor who had already published three of my works invited me to submit a story for her newest anthology. Knowing this editor’s likes and dislikes fairly intimately, I wrote what I thought was a spot-on story she couldn’t turn down. And since the anthology was “by invitation only,” I figured there couldn’t be too much competition.

On a Monday, shortly after I sent in the story, I received a form rejection. One sentence, quite rude even by normal rejection-letter standards. The signature was even stamped on. Because of our past professional relationship and because this story had been sent at her request, I thought at least a hand-scribbled “no thanks” would have been in order.

The next day I ran across an obituary for my editor. She had been admitted to the hospital the past Thursday where she lapsed into a coma. She died on Saturday. My rejection letter was dated Friday. I was devastated. All I could think was that my beloved editor had hated my story so much she had roused herself from her coma on Friday with the single thought that she must reject my story if it was the last thing she did. I can hear her rasping, “Must reject Phoenix's story … must ... reject …” Then, moments after thrusting the rejection letter into her assistant’s hand to mail off, lapsing back into a coma, only to die the next day.

Not quite a rejection from beyond the grave, but it does make you wonder how many editors and agents really are in a coma when they reject your brilliant work.

Do YOU have a favorite rejection story to share?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Query Revision 18

Face-Lift 797: Reincarnate

Hey everyone. Thanks a lot for all the feedback. I've made a few adjustments in an attempt to make it work a little better, but I'm not so sure I've succeeded. I've been having a lot of trouble achieving a result that has enough details but doesn't become too long. >.<

Dear XXX,

Finding out she’s the reincarnation of Jeanne d’Arc is no picnic for Jeanne Delacey. Sure, she now has a divinely empowered bracelet that turns into a sword, and Luca Griffith—tall, dark, and definitely hiding something—to guard her, but she’s going to need, well, a hell of a lot more. Especially since she’s also inherited nightmares of burning to death, a centuries old arch-nemesis, one Pierre Cauchon, who’s been reincarnated as well, and—oh yeah, there’s that pesky business of an impending war between Heaven and Hell.

Jeanne is an atheist but even if she wasn’t, she wouldn’t believe her soul once belonged to Jeanne d’Arc; they have nothing in common. Torn between anger and fear, she falls back on her usual method for dealing with problems: ignoring them. But as demonic attacks grow more frequent, drawing her friends and family into danger, she realizes she’ll have to find the courage to fight. Cauchon sent her to the stake in her past life; he’s more than willing to do it again. And this time, the entire world will burn with her.

REINCARNATE is an 82,000 word adult urban fantasy set in modern day New Orleans.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Comments

Now, I thought your original version stood up just fine. Sure, everything can be improved -- no matter how many revisions it's already been through. But sometimes you just have to go with it. And sometimes the enthusiasm of a first effort can never, ever be replicated. So I'm going to deconstruct this version with a very critical eye as long as we're agreed that you are likely to get requests from your first version (which I like better than this one) anyway and these are just picky things. Okay?

Finding out she’s the reincarnation of Jeanne d’Arc is no picnic for Jeanne Delacey.

Is it really the finding out part that isn't a picnic or is it the whole being d'Arc that's tough? And maybe change "no picnic" to something more appropriate to the theme you're setting up, like "no communion party" (but not that).

Sure, she now has a divinely empowered bracelet that turns into a sword, and Luca Griffith—tall, dark, and definitely hiding something—to guard her, but she’s going to need, well, a hell of a lot more.

"Now" throws me. Do you mean more like, "Sure, this time around she has a divinely...". Also, the switch from the present "is" in the previous sentence to the future "going to need" is a bit off. In the first sentence, you're saying it's no picnic right now, but in the second sentence you don't defend that statement; instead, you tell us that for some reason she will in the future need more than the bracelet and the guard.

Especially since she’s also inherited nightmares of burning to death, a centuries old arch-nemesis, one Pierre Cauchon, who’s been reincarnated as well, and—oh yeah, there’s that pesky business of an impending war between Heaven and Hell.

Since you didn't really give us a clue in the previous sentence as to why she needs a hell of a lot more, the "Especially since she's also" isn't exact and throws the reading off a bit.

Jeanne is an atheist but even if she wasn’t, she wouldn’t believe her soul once belonged to Jeanne d’Arc; they have nothing in common.

Technically, "wasn't" should be the conditional "weren't" here. More importantly, this is the one part of the query that I think needs to change as it contradicts what was said in the first sentence. She's found out she really is, now you're saying she doesn't believe it.

Torn between anger and fear, she falls back on her usual method for dealing with problems: ignoring them.

You're giving us her emotions but no motivation for them. Maybe the fear we understand, but why the anger? Who/what is she angry at? The god she doesn't believe in or the demons or her heritage in general?

But as demonic attacks grow more frequent, drawing her friends and family into danger, she realizes she’ll have to find the courage to fight. Cauchon sent her to the stake in her past life; he’s more than willing to do it again.

The transition to Cauchon is abrupt. I don't know his relationship to the demons. Is he one? Is he in league with them? I thought he had political reasons for sending her to the stake before; what does she have this time around that he targets her in this life, too?

And this time, the entire world will burn with her.

I think this sentence needs an "if" clause. I don't know what she's fighting against this time around. Just the demons? Hell itself? What does she have to do that tells me when she fails the world will burn, too? 

REINCARNATE is an 82,000 word adult urban fantasy set in modern day New Orleans.

My Revision

Heaven hath no fury like a saint reborn.

Being blindsided by the revelation she's the reincarnation of Jeanne d'Arc would have been preferable to the slow reveal heaven subjected Jeanne Delacey to. For starters, she grew up atheist. And there's nothing of the saint's fire and courage in her own heart. In fact, her preferred method for dealing with problems is to ignore them. Maybe the persistent nightmares of burning to death should have tipped her off early, but it isn't until she's given a divinely powered bracelet that turns into a sword and the enigmatic Luca Griffith—tall, dark, and definitely hiding something—comes to guard her, that she begins to suspect the soul she possesses may have been preowned.

Why her and why now becomes apparent when demons attack, drawing her friends and family into danger. Seems there's an impending war brewing between Heaven and Hell, but this one's going to take a hell of a lot more than a simple saint to stop it. If a pack of demons weren't enough, playing for the opposition is her reincarnated arch-nemesis, Pierre Cauchon. He sent her to the stake before and he's eager to prove he can do it again. The demon army behind him is poised for the win and if Jeanne can't find the courage to stop him, this time the whole world will burn with her.

REINCARNATE is an 82,000 word adult urban fantasy set in modern day New Orleans.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Summer Interlude

Here we are halfway through summer and while I've introduced you to a good many of the beasties, I haven't caught you up on Sim Farm©, the Rainbow's End edition, lately. Animal health is always a paramount concern on a farm, so I'll start with a quick medical rundown then talk about the big renovation project underway.

Usually the beasties here can be categorized simply as alive-and-well or dead. Over the past few months, the current beasts have been remarkably healthy and free from injury. Oh, there was the time back in May when Lucy the goat tried to push her way through a gate I was opening and managed to impale her lower eyelid on a rather wicked piece of tie wire. Trying to extract a piece of wire caught in flesh millimeters from an eye while dealing with a frightened 90-pound goat, a swinging gate, and a group of curious horses was an experience none of us wants to go through twice. Let's just say in the end the goat was freed and Lucy's eye was saved.

This past week, however, there were two rather perplexing injuries. One of the roosters somehow hurt his leg. It didn't seem to be from a fight or an attack, but there he was limping about. He's now in a cage in the sunroom to keep him away from the other roosters and give his leg a chance to heal. He's standing up and eating when he doesn't think I'm looking. Otherwise, he's down and looking as pathetic as possible hoping, I think, that I'll let him stay in where it's cool and he has a food bowl all his own.

The more disturbing injury was to one of the female ducks. She was attacked in broad daylight right next to the barn. By what, I have no idea. But the scattered feathers and deep wounds point to a big coon, dog or coyote. One wing and a leg are in pretty rough shape and she, too, is recovering in the sunroom -- sharing quarters with Fafnir the iguana. I've been reluctant to let the ducks go back out to the pond as the attack happened within sight of the horses in a fairly well secured area in the middle of the day. Short of digging under a gate or scaling a four-foot fence, an animal big enough to do that kind of damage couldn't get in. Even my dogs don't go in that pasture. What surprises me the most, though, is that the duck survived the attack. Did the horses chase off whatever it was? I do like to think they were protecting their little duck friend. How else would she have managed to come through the ordeal alive?

As for the renovations, I'm fencing in two more pastures and building another barn. By which I mean I have contractors doing the work. Well, most of it, anyway. The first contractor was here to do the dozer work. The new barn (I'm referring to it as my "summer barn") will be smaller than my main barn and will be built in a low area on the property, which means it needs to be built up on a nice pad to keep rainwater from getting in and ponding on the dirt floor. Building a pad involves using a lot of dirt to build up the ground on which the barn will sit. Just as with the main barn, I elected to dig a pond and use the excavated dirt to build the pad rather than haul in dirt from somewhere else. There were a lot of tricky drainage issues that had to be compensated for when digging the pond for the main barn, including creating berms and a dam and an overflow field.

Because of the natural topography and water runoff that drains directly into a creek that runs alongside my property line, the new pond doesn't have to be much more than a hole in the ground deeper at one end and shallowed out to catch the runoff at the other end. We hadn't had rain for a few weeks so the initial digging went fast and the pond was looking good. The dirt was spread for the pad and the dozer had rolled over it a few times to pack it down when the rains came. Nearly 4 inches before it was all over. The unfinished pond, about 5 feet at its deep end, filled halfway up, effectively shutting down effort to dig it any deeper. More dirt was needed to finish off the pad, and the dirt had to come from the shallow end of the pond but the dozer couldn't get into the pond far enough to pack it down well. It'll take a few rains and few seasons now for it to all sort itself out to where the pond looks nice. Meanwhile, I'm just thankful the heavy clay we have here means the pond will hold water regardless.

Now, you would think someone who has been building pads for 20 years would 1) know the pad should extend a few feet out from the actual dimensions of the building to be built on it and 2) would put a tape measure to the pad to be sure it's big enough. I started getting antsy about this guy when I measured the pad width and found it was exactly the planned width of the barn with no extra on either side to compensate for erosion over the years. Which is why he had to go back and dig more dirt out of the pond.

I had also hired this contractor to clear some brush and saplings along a short area where the new fence was going. There were basically three thickets that needed a 15-foot swath cleared through them along a straight line, taking out nothing more than scrub and leaving all big trees alone. I walked the area with the contractor and carefully explained what I needed. He kept assuring me he could clean everything up in this heavily treed area and make it look like a park. I carefully explained I did not want a park, I simply wanted a clear fence line, 15 feet wide and straight. That was all I needed and all I was prepared to pay for. Confident in my communications skills, I returned to the house and my day job work.

I had an inkling something wasn't right when I saw a 20-foot cedar fall. I knew 1) from my desk window I shouldn't be able to see him working along the path I asked to be cleared and 2) there were no mature cedars in that path. I ran down to the worksite. That's when I discovered the man has a vendetta against cedars. He'd been taking out trees that he felt detracted from the landscape, and these big evergreens were in his gunsight. Five of them were already prostrate on the ground. And he'd completely missed the point of needing a straight fence line -- he was clearing an area a good 30 feet from where the fence needed to run. Now, not only were some trees I looked at as a buffer between my property and my neighbor's land uprooted, there was the question of what to do with the corpses, including the huge rootballs. Digging yet another hole and burning then burying the large trees was the only answer.

I ran the guy off as soon as the heavy work had all been done. As I was paying him by the hour rather than by the job, I figured it would be far easier for me to do the cleanup and move all the dead brush out of sight than to have him pile it up somewhere, probably in the middle of the fence line he finally did get cleared satisfactorily (that's the line in the picture above).

Despite the issues, the pad, the pond and the fence line all appear to be serviceable now. This is the view from my side porch door of where the barn will nestle between two matured cedars. I gambled a bit going with the contractor who charged a flat hourly rate rather than the contractors who bid by the job. One contractor had bid $4000 just for the pad and pond and was talking about bringing in a landscape crew to clear the fence line and this treed area in general. For some reason, everyone wants to turn this area into a park -- in fact, there's a whole line of trees (the ones you see in this picture) that run in front of this area and make it impossible to see from the drive or house. So spending several thousand dollars to dress it up for the occasional afternoon stroll? Um, no. I see it as a nice treed area to keep the horses cool, nothing more. Another contractor had bid almost $3000 for the job. I wound up paying the guy I went with $1600.

This week, the fence contractor will start setting posts for the new fences. Thankfully, I have some existing fence that can be incorporated into the new pastures. In total, it's about 3150 feet of fence to be installed along with 3 gates and will cost $8400. That's going with basic green T-posts (it's beyond me why the manufacturers don't sell metal T-posts in white to compete with the vinyl fence look -- hmm, maybe there's an entrepreneurial opportunity for me there!) and 5 strands of smooth wire. Not even a pretty fence for that price. Sigh.

Then, in 2 or 3 weeks, the barn builders will be out and I'll be dropping $8000 on what should be a cute red-and-white metal barn with a porch and cupola and a weather vane. In fact, the front view of the summer barn should look a lot like the side view of my main barn. Just imagine it! Or, better yet, through the magic of Paint and PowerPoint, let me help you imagine it. (Go ahead, click on it to make it bigger. You know you want to.)

So that's how I'm spending my summer and my vacation money for the next 6 years. What are YOU doing this summer?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Query Revision 12: Redux

Original critique here.

Hi! I've been "wrenching on my ride" and hopefully this can pass inspection. Thanks for giving it a look - Author

Dear Agent,

Alamandine “Mandi” Croach may be next in line for the crown of the Star Court in Faelyn. Her younger half-brother has been kidnapped and even the strongest seekers cannot find him.

But she doesn't know any of that. Her parents are dead, and though she and her full-fae aunt run a magical jewelry store in Philadelphia, she isn't much more than a Tufts-educated checkout girl. She knows that she is half-faery, but with no magic and only one messenger as a connection to the faery homeland- it doesn't mean much to her.

At least, it doesn't until she is dragged to Faelyn. Under the pretense she is a suspect in her brother's disappearance Mandi becomes pawn in a political game she doesn't understand. Mandi is asked to fetch a weapon, but gets much more.She gains access to her powers and to the true memory of the night her father was drowned when the binding spells that hold her are removed.

The more Mandi pokes around, the more obvious it becomes that faery politics are dirtier than even Philadelphia has seen, and she doesn't know who she can trust. Whoever had her father killed is also responsible for the prince's kidnapping and she needs to find out who is behind both crimes and what they have planned for her.

ALAMANDINE'S SONG is a 90,000 word adult urban fantasy that mixes adventure, humor and romance.

Comments

Overall, I'm really liking the direction is going! I was caught short by the startling revelation at the end, though, so which aspect of the story and voice in the book that you want to bring out most in the query may be something to think about.

Alamandine “Mandi” Croach may be next in line for the crown of the Star Court in Faelyn. Her younger half-brother has been kidnapped and even the strongest seekers cannot find him.

Since Mandi doesn't know these things, this is is the authorial voice and the author and the rules of succession would dictate whether Mandi is next in line or not, right? So it's not a question that she "may" be next in line, but that she may be called to the crown soon if her bro can't be found. 

But she doesn't know any of that. Her parents are dead, and though she and her full-fae aunt run a magical jewelry store in Philadelphia, she isn't much more than a Tufts-educated checkout girl. She knows that she is half-faery, but with no magic and only one messenger as a connection to the faery homeland- it doesn't mean much to her.

The "one messenger" muddles things here as it isn't explained and could, in a cold reading, come across as meaning the aunt. Unless the messenger is a love interest, you can delete him. If he is a love interest, we need to know more about him.

At least, it doesn't until she is dragged to Faelyn. Under the pretense she is a suspect in her brother's disappearance, Mandi becomes pawn in a political game she doesn't understand. Mandi is asked to fetch a weapon, but gets much more. She gains access to her powers and to the true memory of the night her father was drowned when the binding spells that hold her are removed.

I got a little lost in this paragraph. A suspect is asked to fetch a weapon? It's likely well explained in the book but as presented, this doesn't seem reasonable. The "binding spells" come a bit out of nowhere, too. Perhaps allude to those in the previous paragraph: "... but with no magic and no memory of the short time she spent in Faelyn -- and with a few strong binding spells imposed on her to keep it that way -- she ... "

The more Mandi pokes around, the more obvious it becomes that faery politics are dirtier than even Philadelphia has seen,

... are even dirtier than Philadelphia's sordid games ... (or if you infuse a lighter touch in the query, maybe "are even dirtier that Philly's own political laundry/unmentionables")

and she doesn't know who she can trust. Whoever had her father killed is also responsible for the prince's kidnapping and she needs to find out who is behind both crimes and what they have planned for her.

If you do go lighter in the query, maybe "... who is behind both crimes before they turn her into so much fairy dust."

ALAMANDINE'S SONG is a 90,000 word adult urban fantasy that mixes adventure, humor and romance.

Oops. Humor and romance? Nothing in this query seems to indicate the story goes in either of those directions. I think if these are strong selling points for you, then you'll need to give a bit of an indication and bring back the love interest in the query and go with a lighter voice in the query. As it is, I'm expecting to see a dark political suspense.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Query Revision 17: Redux

Original critique here.

The author offered up more insight into what the story is about in the comment section of the original post and requests further feedback about ways to go with the query.

In my version, I play up the allegorical nature of the story, but it feels a little synops-y to me. There are surely other ways this can go. Your help is requested, please!

My Version

When the brother she idolizes slays their mother in a deluded plan to gain immortality then comes after her next, 12-year-old Minette is rescued by a thief with betrayal issues of her own. At first Minette clings to her rescuer, Ilona, merely to survive, but when she realizes Ilona harbours dark secrets and an old rage that turn Ilona into an angry, paranoid monster capable of murder, she sets out to redeem Ilona's soul.

From a mystic, Minette is given three magical items: a key to unlock Ilona's past, a potion to suppress the monster inside, and a box to summon her heart's desire. The key reveals Ilona to have been a gentle priestess loved by a wizard whose love she couldn't return. The spurned wizard betrayed her, giving her into the hands of a demon who tortured her. When she escaped the demon's clutches, she tracked the wizard down and put a sword through his heart. Then she turned her back on religion and the world -- until Minette's plight recalled her to her duty of healing those in need.

Determined to change Ilona back into the priestess healer she once was, Minette slips her the potion, unaware that it's lethal when change is forced. When a desperate Minette turns to the box to restore Ilona, what it offers up is not life but a symbol of deepest friendship and love free of all betrayal.

Armed with her new understanding and ability to accept people for who they are and not what she would make them be, Minette can now summon the one power in the world greater than magic that can resurrect Ilona and defeat the ghosts of the past threatening to tear them apart.

TITLE is an allegorical fantasy, standalone at 54,000 words but with series potential. I look forward to sending you the completed manuscript.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Promise-Keeper

While I was at the breeder's two summers ago, scoping out her pen of throw-aways looking for a playmate for Cody, I noticed a roan filly with a pretty trot and a dash of flash. She was half Shetland pony and half Miniature horse and was registered as both. At 6 months, she was the oldest, and biggest, foal in the pen. She was going to be big enough that kids could ride, so I wasn't concerned about her being able to find a home. My dad was talking with the breeder's husband and I noticed he kept looking the filly's way. When I told him I was buying a thin little colt instead and that the breeder would deliver him in a couple of days, Dad seemed happy enough.

The next day my dad and I were sitting on my porch and he asked me why I had chosen Ricky over, say, the big, pretty filly we'd seen. It was clear he'd been smitten. I made a quick and easy decision.

"There's no reason I can't get two horses instead of just one," I told him.

"How much do they want for her?" That was Dad, ever practical.

I shrugged. I saw how much he wanted the horse so, within reason, the price didn't really matter. "I'll find out if she's still available."

She was, for $550, and the breeder would be only too happy to bring her out along with Ricky the next day.

When I told my dad everything was arranged, he shook his head and said, "I want to be the one to buy her."

I didn't understand. "Why? I can afford it and you'll get to see her all the time anyway."

"I want to buy her for you. Your mother and I promised a long time ago that we'd get you a horse. So I want to give you that horse now."


I flashed back to a Christmas 41 years earlier when my big present had been a promise: a handwritten certificate entitling me to "one horse, one saddle and one saddle blanket." I would have to wait a little, though, till the time was right and we had the money to get the horse. I hung on to that certificate with all the faith an 8-year-old has in the world. I memorized it. Kept it in a safe and treasured place. Dreamed about it. And waited.

A year passed and we moved, then a year later moved again. When it looked like we would be in one place more than a year and I dared to start looking at livestock and boarding facilities in the classifieds, Dad was laid off and there was no money for a horse. He eventually found a good job, but it took a handful of years to recover financially and another couple before he and Mom felt comfortable enough to spend beyond the essentials. By then I had graduated. And by the time I moved out on my own at 17, I had put my childish hope away.

I folded the certificate along with its empty promise and threw it into the trash.

I may have resigned myself to letting it go, but my dad had never forgotten. And now, 41 years after he'd made that promise, he was ready to make good on it.

He wanted to name the big-boned filly Beauty. We compromised on Bella. She's an easy-going girl who loves company and will follow you around like a puppy. She'll even carry the 50-pound feed bags when asked, though it's usually too much trouble trying to keep them balanced, even on her broad pony back. And while not every horse can pull off the style, she looks terrific with a mohawk.

Mostly, though, when I look at Bella, I see my father's abiding love. In her trot I see his fierce determination not to disappoint his daughter, and in her eyes I see his delight at being able to fulfill a nearly forgotten promise made 40 years ago.

I'm glad he died knowing he'd made his little girl's dream finally come true.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Throw-Away

When I decided to get my 4-month-old colt, Cody, a playmate, I reluctantly turned to a local breeder after not finding an appropriate youngster in any of the local shelters or foster homes.

Now let me explain that a generation ago I haunted dog shows and hung with breeder types. In fact, for a time I wanted to breed Chows and lovely long-tailed, floppy-eared Dobermans. Then I figured out that 1) there was way too much politics going on in the ring and 2) breeding to an arbirtrary standard is like breeding for the writing talent: odds are someone will turn out to be a great author but the majority of offspring will be talentless wastrals forced to live life as doctors or politicians or software engineers instead.

My new attitude was solidified the day a breeder brought in a week-old Doberman pup to the clinic where I worked. Its little eyes were still clenched tight, its pudgy face was all screwed up and wrinkly, and its tiny paws flailed the air looking for its mama's belly. I held the little guy thinking of how he would soon be someone's new BFF and play puppy-foolish pranks that would make people laugh and grow into a guardian and protector that would make his owner feel safe when he was around.

He was a black-and-tan Doberman with a little splotch of white on his chest that was his unique identifier in a crowd. Breed standards, however, do not allow for unique identifiers. Those few stray hairs being more than the allowable 1/2-inch worth would disqualify him from the ring. He would never be a show dog or a stud or earn his keep. He was outcast, unclean. And so long as that patch of white hair could be traced back to her kennel, he was a living symbol of shame to the breeder.

She had brought him, not for us to delight in the fresh puppy scent of him or to watch him suckle my finger in happy puppy abandon, but for us to kill him and make her shame go away.

So when I made my reluctant way to the horse breeder's farm, I asked to see the pet-quality foals. The breeder showed me to a pen of just-weaned youngsters in a back pasture out of the way of the casual visitor. A 5-month-old sorrel colt with a creamy mane and tail and white markings caught my eye. He was of questionable parentage, his mother being a miniature and his father quite probably some precocious scoundrel of a pony. Taller than all but one of the dozen or so miniature foals parked in that pen of throw-aways, he was thin and shy, not having been handled much. His ridiculously low price of $150 underscored how eager the breeder was to be done with him and have him off her property.

His beautiful deep brown eyes drew me in as surely as they repelled his owner. Her breeding program revolved around producing horses with blue eyes and any horse with eyes that didn't reflect the sky was an abomination in her pasture.

My dad named the new colt Ricky and he and Cody bonded immediately. All was exceptional for a couple of weeks, until Ricky started throwing his back legs out and swinging them in wide circles when he walked. It looked like some horrible neurological disease, and I got that hit-in-the-gut feeling when I first saw him stumbling about.

It was stifle lock. A horse is able to sleep standing up because it has a trick ligament in its back leg that locks its knee in place while it sleeps. When the horse is ready to move, the muscles around the ligament push it off the knee so the horse can bend his leg and walk or run again. Sometimes, because of a genetic disorder or because the surrounding muscles aren't built up enough, the ligament doesn't slip off the knee when it should and the leg "locks up." It isn't really painful, but it is very uncomfortable for the horse.

I hoped that with Ricky it was simply because he was so thin and not well developed. So we started on an exercise regimen. If I stretched his leg out past a certain point, the ligament would slip off the knee and Ricky could walk a few steps before seizing up again. But not knowing when his leg -- or which leg -- was going to act up made him afraid and reluctant not only to walk on a lead but to walk at all. Still, once warmed up, the more he walked during a session the easier it was. And when I could get him to trot for awhile his knees would usually stay unlocked for a few hours.

Lunging him, or putting him on a long lead and making him run in a circle around me, was impractical because of his fear of leads. So morning and evening I chased him and the other horses around the pasture, forcing him to keep moving. Occasionally, he'd have enough confidence to break from a trot into a real run. His joy in those moments as he streaked along, his legs biddable as they stretched and bent and drove him forward, was palpable. He was as eager as I was for him to be a normal colt again.

Eventually he filled out and muscled up as much as his naturally lean frame would allow. It was enough. The incidences of stifle lock dropped from generally to occasionally to rarely. At last they disappeared altogether. While drugs can be injected into the knee or the ligament can be cut surgically (although the horse is then never able to doze or sleep standing up again), being able to heal it naturally was well worth the time and effort he and I put in.

Only now when I look back the year or so it's been do I realize how much effort it really was. I suppose whenever we love something we put on blinders when it comes to how much work it takes to keep that something in our lives. We simply shoulder the responsibility and do it without much thought to the time and energy suck that it is. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to Ricky if he had still been at the breeder's when his symptoms started showing up. She certainly wouldn't have been able to sell him in that condition. Nor would she have invested any effort in him. Would she have literally thrown away this remarkable little throw-away?

I don't generally believe in fate and kismet and things working out for a purpose -- not really. But sometimes, when things go so wonderfully right, I can't quite bring myself to disbelieve.



* Disclaimer: The puppy in the photo above is NOT a Doberman, but it IS heart-meltingly cute and the same general color and is perfect for demonstration purposes after a short web search.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

You -- Yes, YOU -- Are A Fabulous Critiquer

How do I know? Because you're a reader.

Even if you don't think you have anything important to contribute to a query critique because you can't write a decent query yourself, think again!

You know what interests you as a reader. Does the query make you want to find out more? Is it missing that certain zzzzinggg that makes you disappointed there aren't any pages here to read? Even if you can't pinpoint what that zing is, you can let the author know whether it's working for you or not.

Even if someone's said it already, it doesn't hurt to say it again. One person's opinion is debatable; five or six people saying it tells the author they have a problem -- or they've gotten it right.

I credit my critique group with helping us understand the difference between "piling on" and "validating". A simple "I agree (or disagree) with Commenter A about Issue X" will help even if you don't add more than that.

Anonymous comments carry weight, too. Just keep everything civil -- it's the work you're questioning, not the author's morals or politics or IQ.

Ease yourself into critiquing anonymously if you're more comfortable doing that. I was afraid of being laughed at, of not "getting" something that everyone else seemed to be getting, and of any number of insecurities that came from being vocal and sort of identifiable in the comments when I first started out.

So I was anonymous for awhile. Then I chose a name that my comments could be identified with and used that for awhile longer. Eventually I moved to a Blogger profile and link. But even an unlinked name that you use consistently helps people get used to seeing you around and start looking forward to hearing from you. I quite recommend that, but anonymous works, too.

Commenting on the queries here would be great. I know the authors would love to hear more than just my opinion ;o) and critiquing others really helps you refine your own work. But if time is limited, do try to comment somewhere if not here. The connections you make mingling in the comments can be invaluable.

A HUGE THANK YOU to everyone who IS commenting here. And a BIG THANK YOU, too, to those of you who are lurking. Because as I see it, y'all are just critters-in-waiting. Right?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Revised Revision: Beauty for Ashes

Revision of Query Revision #13

Dear [Agent],

I found your site through XXXX and after perusing your website I thought you would be interested in my book BEAUTY FOR ASHES.

John Douglas wants to die. After wasting years of his life serving God, he is betrayed by Him when his wife and child are killed in a house fire. On a rampage against the Almighty and his old moral code, John is pouring his insurance money into the alcohol that deadens his pain, never mind the incessant Voice that won’t quit calling to him. But now the booze just isn’t enough to stave off his torment. Plans on how to take his life are beginning to take shape when he meets April, a dead ringer for his deceased wife. When she names her price, he throws himself into the fantasy. He wakes up in bed with the prostitute, and the proverbial scales fall from his eyes. Ashamed, he falls to his knees before God in the vomit-ridden bathroom of a Vegas hotel room where the Lord comforts and restores him.

Second chances are seldom deserved, and John is astounded to find love again with church-going Jenni. Their future together promises to be a happily-ever-after, until April makes her way to John’s doorstep claiming he is the father of her unborn child. Now John wrestles with his shameful past, Jenni faces insecurity and bitterness, and April doesn’t know what to make of all the “God talk” going on. For John and Jenni, it will take incredible faith to follow God through what is quickly becoming their darkest valley, but a willingness to surrender all could save a soul in the process.

BEAUTY FOR ASHES is a contemporary Christian novel standing at approximately 93,000 words. The full manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your time, I look forward to hearing from you.

About Me

My husband Mike and I have been married for nearly fifteen years. Our four kids range in age from one to fourteen years. We are very involved in our church where we teach the Junior High School students, and I also periodically serve on the worship team. This is my first novel.

Comments

This is a MUCH stronger letter, so kudos, Michelle!

I have nits mainly about what's ON the page rather than what's OFF it, which means, for me, it's capturing what it needs to and needs just the eensiest more refinement, IMO.

Plans on how to take his life are beginning to take shape
I would make this an active sentence rather than passive to make it more immediate sounding.

dead ringer as word choice may be taking it a bit far when coupled with deceased wife.

These last sentences feel more synops-y to me than quer-y:
Plans on how to take his life are beginning to take shape when he meets April, a dead ringer for his deceased wife. When she names her price, he throws himself into the fantasy. He wakes up in bed with the prostitute, and the proverbial scales fall from his eyes. Ashamed, he falls to his knees before God in the vomit-ridden bathroom of a Vegas hotel room where the Lord comforts and restores him.

Maybe combine them a bit:
He's on the verge of taking his life when April, a hooker who's a ringer for his dead wife, seduces him into a one-night fantasy. Scarred, frightened and ashamed after the encounter, he submits himself to God, who comforts and restores him.

"God talk" feels off to me, but it's understandable enough in context.

BEAUTY FOR ASHES is a contemporary Christian novel standing at approximately 93,000 words. The full manuscript is available upon request.

BEAUTY FOR ASHES is a contemporary Christian novel, complete at 93,000 words.

I'm assuming the About Me section will be tacked on for those agents who specifically ask for a bio. I wouldn't include it otherwise.

And I KNOW the personalized sentence in the beginning is only a placeholder, not the real thing, yadda yadda, but my suggestion -- for any query, not just this one -- is: Don't personalize if it's a meaningless personalization. To wit: I noticed on your website that you're interested in fantasy/romance/mysteries so I thought you might be interested in my fantasy/romance/mystery novel.

A slightly more personal spin that doesn't require any more research would be:
From your website I see you represent a number of respected fantasy/romance/mystery/inspirational authors. I think MY NOVEL, an urban fantasy/historical romance/cozy thriller/contemporary Christian novel with its focus on the clash between metaphysical science and werewolves/The Bruce and Scottish Highland legends/quilting bees and murder at a local display shop/redemption and faith in the face of tragedy, would be a great fit with your current list.