Query Doctor: SIMULATE by Elanor

| Friday, September 30, 2011
The lovely Elanor was brave enough to step forward and be my first victim patient for the Query Doctor. Everyone be sure to thank her for being so selfless!

If you would like to submit your query to be Doctored, please see this post.

Let's get down to business, shall we?

First, I'll post the query in its original, unaltered form. Then I'll give my diagnosis. Then I'll do line-by-line comments. Then I'll open it up to the commenters!

***

In the year 2500, virtual reality is a popular form of entertainment. To sixteen year old Astrid, it’s a way of war.

Europe is at war with America, and Astrid (the most intelligent teen on the planet) is America’s head General. Using the mental simulation known as The Web to pre-fight all the battles and plan the perfect strategy, Astrid has led America to four years of victory. But all this changes when Astrid meets a strange boy inside the Web who kisses her… then kills her.

Astrid wakes up in real life to find that America has lost their first battle, thanks to the boy. Turns out he can steal information from her mind during the simulation and pass it along to the Europeans. Now the Web is virtually useless and America has to figure out a new way to win the war. In this case, that’s recruiting millions of soldiers from anyone who fails an intelligence test, including Astrid’s brother and her almost-boyfriend.

Caught between power-hungry friends, a twisted dictator and a schizophrenic spy, it’s up to Astrid to win the war before her whole society crumbles around her.

For fans of Veronica Roth’s DIVERGENT and Orson Scott Card’s ENDER’S GAME, SIMULATE is a thrilling YA dystopia. It is complete at 100,000 words.


***

Healthy Bits: This is a technically solid query. Grammar, spelling, and structure are all good. The writing is polished and strong. My only quibbles are the lack of hyphens in her age (sixteen-year-old) and the ellipses, which are used to indicate missing words, not a pause. I know they’re often used that way in YA, but yeah. You’re definitely on the right track here. You center the query on your protagonist, you’ve boiled down your key plotline, and you increased the stakes as you went. You've managed to narrow down your focus well, which is an important query skill to master.

Under the Weather: While the writing is good and technically strong, I think this query needs an injection of oomph. It’s an interesting enough storyline, but it’s been done before, and there isn’t much in this query that jumps out and makes me think, “Well THAT sounds different from other war-inside-a-virtual-world-bleeding-into-real-life stories I’ve read/seen.” You need to highlight what makes yours different. Special. Find that little nugget of gold that makes your story shine. Hint: I think looking at the boy who “kisses then kills” her is a good idea. That made me perk up. But only you can determine what the most important and best bits to highlight are. BUT. Be careful not to mislead an agent as to what your MS is really about (aka, don't make it sound like there's a bunch of romance if there isn't). SO MANY THINGS TO BALANCE, I KNOW.

I worry that you might be focusing too much on THE WAR and not enough on Astrid’s personal war, if that makes sense. The stuff about Europe at war with America is all well and good, but in YA, it’s often more about the internal struggle. Action is awesome and fun to read, but the heart is in, well, the heart. What is Astrid herself personally struggling with? Beyond having to save the world, I mean? Draw that out of her and showcase it.

Though it seems like I gave you a bunch of stuff to work on, honestly, this is a strong starter query. I can tell you've edited it a few times already. You are so on the right track. Stick with it!

***

Now the line-by-line comments:

In the year 2500, virtual reality is a popular form of entertainment. To sixteen year old Astrid, it’s a way of war.

This is a nice opener. Punchy and to the point. I’m a little iffy on the wording of “it’s a way of war” because it doesn’t sound quite right to my ear, but that’s a personal preference. Interesting concept, if slightly generic – I think you could punch it up and express the same idea in a more unique way. This is your hook! Make it impossible not to keep reading because they love your voice and style!

(the most intelligent teen on the planet )

This raises immediate questions in my mind, not all of them good. How  was it determined that she was the most intelligent teen? Did they test all the other teens? There are so many different kinds of intelligence that it’s hard for me to buy that ONE person is the world’s “smartest.” If it's too difficult to explain this concisely, cut it.

The Web to pre-fight all the battles and plan the perfect strategy

This sounds close to plot elements of ENDER’S GAME to me, which you're clearly aware of. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as you can show how it’s different.

Astrid has led America to four years of victory.


So, she’s been a military general since she was 12? That seems a little far-fetched to me. Training and primed to become a military leader, I’d buy. Making a 12-year-old America’s Head General leaves me a little hmmm.

But all this changes when Astrid meets a strange boy inside the Web who kisses her… then kills her.

LOVE this. Keep it. For serious.

fails an intelligence test

So they’re using anyone who fails an IQ test as cannon fodder?

Orson Scott Card’s ENDER’S GAME


Careful with comparing to classics. ENDER’S GAME is clearly relevant, but it’s a story from a different time. Comparisons should generally be made against books that are currently selling in today’s market. Which, yes, ENDER’S GAME still is, but it’s a classic. I don’t think the comparison will sink you by any stretch, because there’s an obvious link, but just something to think about.

a thrilling YA dystopia

I'd cut "thrilling," if only because it's usually best to let your manuscript prove its thrilling nature rather than telling people so. 

100,000 words

This is a little steep for A) a debut novel and B) a dystopia. Not a deal breaker, but you’re walking that fine line. If the story’s good and every word counts, the number won’t matter. But, that said, DO make sure every word counts. Also, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you YA dystopias are a hard sell right now, but there it is. You've got to make this query pop. I know you can do it!

***

And thus ends the first edition of Query Doctor! Thank you again to Elanor for being amazing and allowing me to poke and prod her poor query. I hope it was helpful.

Commenters, feel free to chime in with your thoughts!



Second Campaigner Challenge: The Imago Tree

| Sunday, September 25, 2011
Today's Tune: Fields of Gold (cover)

Hello, writer pals. Today I have a little bit of flash... something. This is my entry for the Second Campaigner Challege for Rachael Harrie's Platform Building Campaign. If you like it, please go here and follow the link in that entry to find me on the Linky List and vote for me (I'm #107 [edit: or possibly #106? It looks like the numbers shifted. Look for "maybe genius: The Imago Tree."]). The winners are determined by your votes, so make sure you read a bunch and vote for the ones you like best. Thank you!

The Challenge is:
 

Write a blog post in 200 words or less, excluding the title. It can be in any format, whether flash fiction, non-fiction, humorous blog musings, poem, etc. The blog post should:

-- include the word "imago" in the title
-- include the following 4 random words: "miasma," "lacuna," "oscitate," "synchronicity,"
 

If you want to give yourself an added challenge (optional and included in the word count), make reference to a mirror in your post.

For those who want an even greater challenge (optional), make your post 200 words EXACTLY!


I forewent the "extra challenges" this time because I just liked this piece better. Enjoy :)

The Imago Tree

Sometimes, during the days of late summer when the sun is high, the fig tree in the backyard releases a special kind of miasma. It creeps across the air, noxious and oversweet, making my nose wrinkle. Comforting and repulsive. Fleshy fruit gone rotten.

The junebugs spread their iridescent bodies over the drooping figs. Fill the lacuna of the trunk. Cling to the leaves. Oscitate lazily with clicking mouths, unwilling to let go of the season. I know how they feel.

Every time I come back, the grass is a little more yellow, the wall a little more broken. The netting of the basketball hoop hangs in ragged shreds. Nonetheless, the dog next door still barks and the hummingbirds still weave between the bougainvillea. The buzz of the beetles and howl of the dog and hum of the birds chase each other around my head in a strange synchronicity. I’m still here.

I’m still home.

Interview @ Perfecting the Craft

| Friday, September 23, 2011
Today's Tune: Friday (as covered by Stephen Colbert and The Roots)

This will be a fast entry today.

First: I've been interviewed over at Michelle Merril's blog! Click on through the link to read my ramblings about writing and reading if you'd like.

Second: I'm thinking about starting two new features on the blog. First is a "What's The Appeal?" series where I dissect the appeal of well-known YA characters (Bella Swan, Edward Cullen, Katniss Everdeen, Miles "Pudge" Halters, etc.). So I'll ask you to post your favorites in comments! Who would you like to see me dissect? The goal is to figure out what attracts readers to certain characters.

The other series I want to start is something along the lines of a Query Doctor. I'm one of those weirdos who actually enjoys writing queries and boiling down plots to their central conflict, and I'm pretty good at it. So, would anyone be remotely interested in this? If so, I can post my email and have you sent me queries to pick apart and rebuild :)

Happy Friday, everyone. Have an awesome weekend!

It's a Friday.

| Friday, September 16, 2011
Today's Tune: The Waiting

Hello everyone. It's Friday. My brain's kind of doing one of these today.



So I'm just going to ramble and hopefully be sort of entertaining. First, hello and welcome to all the new followers who have been gathering on my blog's doorstep over the last few weeks! I'm excited to see you! I hope you enjoy yourselves.



I'm still in the thick of the waiting game. Which is. You know.





But I also just landed a new job!




Also, I started a new project. One and a half chapters in.



The YA community kind of exploded this week over what appears to be a miscommunication on one or both ends and I don't really have anything to add or say about it that hasn't been said already, especially since I don't know the whole story either way, but suffice to say:



Aaaaaaand in closing, because I love you.



Have an awesome weekend! I'M SEEING THE LION KING IN 3D. YOU'RE JEALOUS. What are your plans?

Why Flash Fiction is Awesome

| Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Today's Tune: Attractive Today

I love writing flash fiction. You can find evidence of this all over my blog. Particularly under my "writing samples" label. I love the freedom and the experimentation of writing in short form.

First: what, exactly, is flash fiction? It's a complete short fiction piece that's usually 1000 words or less. For more of a challenge, writers can restrict themselves to 500 words or less. Sometimes it goes as long as 1500 words, sometimes it's as short as 100. The goal of flash fiction is to write an entire short story, not an excerpt.

Even if you're a true-blooded novelist to the core, flash fiction can break you out of old patterns and reinvigorate your writing. It's fabulous practice and makes you stretch your writing muscles in a different way than you're used to.

Still not sold? Allow me to inspire you further.

Reasons Why Flash Fiction is Awesome


It's fast. I mean, duh, right? But seriously. You can write the first draft of a flash fiction story from a prompt in an hour. Maybe even fifteen minutes. If you have a shiny new idea that you're throwing around, but you're not sure it's going to work and the idea of dedicating hours of time to it is daunting? Play with it in short form first. See if it holds water on paper. I've found many novel seeds inside a flash fiction exercise I set for myself.

Some ideas are better in short form. Not every story idea has enough going for it to carry an entire novel, but that doesn't mean we have to abandon it. Certain storylines are cleaner and more entertaining if they're quick and easy to digest.

It's excellent practice. Let's face it: not everyone has the time or mental energy to dedicate to writing four, five, TEN novels before they figure out certain elements of writing. Writing in short form is amazing exercise for hammering out voice, style, and word choice. It's great for learning economy of words. You only have so many to work with, so you're forced to make each and every word count and pull its weight. Flash is also wonderful for learning story structure. You have to have all the usual elements of a story, albeit in an abbreviated form - inciting incident, rising action, midpoint/climax, falling action, resolution.

You can be highly experimental. Want to try out a new style? Have an idea that seems incredibly far fetched and you're not sure it'll work? Interested in playing with line breaks, weird punctuation, or unusual typesetting? Flash fiction is an ideal test run without the large commitment of writing in novel form.

Yes, you CAN do it. Many novelists seem wary of flash fiction. They claim there's no way they can tell a story in so few words. They have a hard time cutting themselves off at 100,000 words, let alone 1000. But they can. Anyone can write flash fiction. It may be difficult, it may be unusual, it may be loathsome, but they can do it. I think writers should experiment with multiple forms before they decide they're all novelist, all the time. Being able to create full stories in different forms is an important skill to have. And, in my opinion, brevity remains the soul of wit.

Don't fear the flash. Embrace it! What say you, readers? Do you like flash fiction? Hate it? Never tried it?

Everybody Reads Your Blog. Yes, Really.

| Monday, September 12, 2011
Today's Tune: You Don't Know Me

This morning's post comes from the "Things That Make You Go Duh" files.

Your blog is public, and it can and probably will be read by publishing professionals and/or other authors.


Everyone posts about this topic, but aspiring authors still seem to let it skip their mind. I suppose, in a sense, this is understandable. When our tiny little blog has a few dozen followers and gets maybe five comments a week, it can be difficult to imagine that anyone "important" is reading. But they are. Especially if you mention them by name.

I know it doesn't seem like anyone's reading, but comments and follower counts are no indication of who's actually stumbling onto your little corner of the Internet. Literary agents, editors, and published authors can and do surf aspiring author blogs. Some of them (rarely, but it happens) will even go so far as to contact the author if they like what they see. Not in the sense of, "Hey, I love your blog, can I represent you?" But more like, "Hey, you have a great blog and I really enjoyed your writing samples. I see that you're working on a novel project. I'd love to see pages when it's complete."

On the other hand, if they come across your blog and discover a lot of negative name drops and sourpuss angsting, at best they'll move on and never look back. At worst, they'll make a note of who you are in case your name ever crosses their virtual desk.

Here's the thing: these agents and authors are usually pretty Internet savvy. Many of them use Google Alerts for their names, their agencies, and their titles. Which means if you say something crappy about any of those things, they will know. And they will take note.

It's very easy to get personal on a blog or assume that if no one comments, it means no one reads. As an Internet marketer, I can pretty effectively tell you, "nope." The vast majority of blog readers are lurkers -- or people who read, but don't comment. Comments are a big deal, but they're no indication of how many people are actually reading.

Before this edges dangerously close to "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" territory, I'll say here that I absolutely do not think people have to be happy-bunny-sunshine-lollipops all the time, or that they can never post a less-than-glowing review or blog about their frustrations with publishing. No no no. I think such posts are honest, balanced, and healthy. Everyone's blogging style is entirely up to them.

What I'm saying is: be smart. Remember that this is your public persona, and people WILL see it. If you had a scuffle with a particular literary agent, don't name them. If you think X Agency are a lot of horrible meanie heads, don't name them. If you hated Book Y with such a fiery passion that it makes you feel like your ears will bleed if you talk about it, don't talk about it. Fair, balanced, and professional behavior is always okay, even if it isn't always positive. Pitching a hissy or being snide about another person for laughs? Well, that's your call, but you should know it can bite you.

There are some things that are great to blog about, and some things that are great to vent about over drinks with your writer friends. Make sure you know the difference.

Adventure Time & Cross-Audience Appeal

| Friday, September 9, 2011
Today's Tune: Adventure Time Theme

Can we talk about the cross-audience appeal of Adventure Time? Because I think we should.


I generally avoid comparing television or film to novel writing because they're drastically different mediums. There are elements that work very well on screen that don't work so well in prose, and vice-versa. But sometimes I think we can find the connection and relate it in a way we can apply as kidlit writers. Once such connection is the script writing of Adventure Time and how it can appeal to both children and adults.

If you're unfamiliar with Adventure Time, you may want to check it out. It's a short cartoon show on Cartoon Network (at least here in the States), but you can find many snippets and episodes online. At first glance, it seems like your typical silly "Saturday morning" (actually Monday evening) cartoon about a 13-year old boy who goes on adventures with his magical dog-pal.

However, if you watch the show for any length of time, even adults may find themselves sucked in to the irreverent humor and sly under-the-radar jokes.



I find Adventure Time strikes a remarkable balance between genuinely kid-friendly entertainment and appeal for older audiences without sacrificing the fact that, at the end of the day, it's aimed at children. Many writers aim for cross-audience appeal in their kidlit without actually hitting the mark. So, what's different about Adventure Time?

The writers never forget their target audience. You can't have it all. You have to pick your audience, especially where kidlit is concerned. Harry Potter was written for fantasy-loving children, Twilight was written for teenage girls. Rowling and Meyer selected their audience and tailored their work to appeal most to that one audience. They didn't try to fit the kitchen sink into their work so it would appeal to everyone in the world. However, they happened to create characters and stories that resonated with people beyond their target audience. Usually when authors actively try to write for both children/teens AND adults, the story flops. It can't decide what it wants to be.

The writing isn't dumbed down. While Adventure Time is not actively written for an adult audience, neither is the show poorly written. Many times, people assume entertainment for children needs to be simple and superficial because kids can't understand or relate to anything else. Not true. Kids can think a character saying "ALGEBRAIC!" in place of "AWESOME!" is just as hilarious as adults. This is writing that doesn't assume kids are too dumb or adults are too experienced to think it's entertaining.

The humor is varied and doesn't try to be too much of any one thing. Adventure Time doesn't shy away from either poop jokes OR dry sarcasm. No, I'm not implying that every work for kids should contain satire AND fart jokes. It doesn't have to contain either of those things. The point is that the writing doesn't think too highly of itself, but it doesn't go for cheap shots only, either. It strikes a fitting balance between low brow and high brow. Something very different audiences can enjoy.

Likeable, entertaining characters. This is a big step to crafting something universally loved: people have to connect with the characters. If there's a variety of interesting characters who are fleshed out and have desirable traits (WITHOUT being too perfect), people of all ages can feel a connection.

It's easier to make something for a younger audience appeal to an older one. This depends entirely on a person's attitude -- some adults refuse to have anything to do with children's entertainment because they feel it's beneath them. Oh well. But in the end, adults have been children before. They remember what it's like to be that young, and those feelings of newness and excitement can be brought out in them again. Adults don't read YA or MG literature for the "adult appeal." They read it because it's intended for a younger audience. It speaks to the child that still exists inside them.

What do you think? Have you seen Adventure Time? Do you like it?

The Trouble with Epilogues

| Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Today's Tune: Bicycle Race


Obligatory disclaimer: the following is, of course, my personal opinion, and is not intended as a blanket no-room-for-debate statement.

Obligatory disclaimer over'd.

Epilogues are terrible. Or rather, epilogues that focus on telling us that "it all turned out (reasonably) okay sometime in the future" are terrible.

Don't get me wrong. I think sometimes, rarely, there exists an epilogue that serves a real purpose in tying up a narrative and isn't completely awful. But more often than not, particularly at the end of series, I feel like epilogues exist more for the author than they do the audience.

And you know, I can understand that. It's unbelievably difficult to send off characters that you've lived with and loved for the years it takes to finish a series. You want to make sure they're taken care of. That they get their happy (or "happy") ending wrapped up in a neat bow. And I imagine some readers who've also come to love the characters enjoy seeing that everything worked out in the end.

I am not one of those readers. I don't want complete ambiguity after I've invested a lot of time and emotion into a series, but I also don't want to be force-fed the author's idea of a perfect ending. As a reader, I like my endings to be somewhat in my hands. I want to know that things are okay for now, not for always. Knowing that everyone is happy and married with three kids and an awesome job doesn't make me feel warm and fuzzy. It makes me feel like I've been robbed of my "what if."

This is kind of what I mean when I say I feel that epilogues are more for the author than the audience. I'm one of those people who believe that once a book is out there in the world, once it's been read and consumed, it no longer belongs to the author. It belongs to the reader. Their imagination breathes life into it. Which is not to say that the author can't write with a certain intention in mind or that they lose ownership of their own creation, not at all. But once we release it into the wild, we can't control how other people react to it.

Part of letting go of that control is coming to terms with the fact that your characters no longer belong to only you. It doesn't necessarily matter how we think they end up 20 years down the road. What matters is that they live on in the mind of the reader.

This is difficult to balance. I don't think writers are some weird spirit medium that only serve as a conduit for transcribing stories from the void. We make conscious, personal choices when we put words to paper. We're trying to convey a specific scene, a specific emotion, a specific theme. We create worlds.

But in the end, we have to let our worlds go so that others might live in them.

First Campaign Challenge: The Door Swung Open

| Monday, September 5, 2011
Today is the first Campaigner Challenge for Rach's Platform-Building Campaign. Exciting!

The challenge: write a short story (or poem) in 200 words or less, opening with the words "The door swung open." For an additional challenge, you can close with the words "the door swung shut" and/or make your story EXACTLY 200 words.

Definitely challenging, but also a lot of fun. My entry follows. If you enjoy it, you can go read entries by other participants all week. They'll be linked in this entry on Rach's blog. (For the record, I'm #69 on the Linky list).

Viva la challenge!


***

The door swung open.

Sunlight made the drops leftover from the storm glisten gold. She breathed in the wet stone and flowering vines of the village. In the distance, the sea stretched beyond the boats until she couldn’t see anything but sky.

It was beautiful.

She wasn’t fooled.

Beneath the sweet rain and greenery lay something else. Something rotten; mechanical. The only sound was the distant clicking of the clock tower.

Her fingers wrapped around the lightweight metal of her pistol. She held it out of view behind the doorframe. It would be better if they thought her weak, unarmed. It would be best to stay holed up until their batteries wore down, but that wasn’t an option. Her water supply was gone.

She stepped outside, ignoring the bite of broken flagstones on her bare feet. Quick, now. A cracked pipe still leaking fresh water was hidden fifty yards down the street. She’d be there and back before they could react.

The faintest slick of oiled pistons sighed behind her.

No. Too late.

Slow as suffering, she turned her head and stared into the thing’s glowing green eyes.

As the mainframe began to pixilate and decay, the door swung shut.

Varying sentence structure

| Friday, September 2, 2011
Today's Tune: Devil

Woo, so now that I got my whole BRAIN BLEARGH thing out of my system in the last post, I'm feeling a lot better. Thanks to all of you for your supportive words, they were very much appreciated!

Today is a quick 'n dirty writing tip about varying your sentence structure.

When we write first drafts (or "starter" drafts), most of the time we're just trying to get the basic form of the story down on paper. If you're a pantser, your first draft might end up more like an outline than a novel, and that's okay. It's all part of your individual writing process.

What most of us don't worry about during that initial drafting process is the exact phrasing or structure that we'll end up with in the final draft. Since the first draft is all about taking the idea and getting it out, we just write whatever comes to mind. So long as we put the ideas down, we're good. Afterwards, we go back through and do rewrites and grand-scale edits and all that other fun stuff. And then we get down to line-editing, polishing, and smoothing. Part of that smoothing involves varying our sentence structure.

Have you ever read a novel excerpt that feels monotonous or boring? It may be the content, but it may also be that the sentences are structured the exact same way. Too many short bursts, or long multi-comma phrases, or lists, or conjunctions, or whatever. They may also start the same way, like this:

I jumped at the sound of a creak at the door. I crept slowly toward it and listened carefully. I placed my hand against the wood and reached for the knob. I knew then that I wasn't alone.

Repetitive sentences and paragraphs like these can make a reader's eyes blur. They start skimming because they become used to the structure and think they know what's coming. You want to avoid that. Varying your sentence structure mixes it up and makes the reader have to think about what they're reading.

CRASH. My heart hammered in my throat, making it ache with every beat. Something was out there. The floorboards sighed under my feet as I crept toward the door. I reached for the knob and stifled a gasp. It was freezing cold.

Not perfect, but much more interesting than the first example. All you have to do is watch for repeated words, sentences starting with the same word or phrase, or multiple sentences that are roughly the same length or structure. Then change them up!

Just one of the many ways to keep a reader's interest. What other methods do you recommend?

 

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