Saturday, January 1, 2011

#193-Revised 4x

Eleven-year-old Jeremy Bleamy is heartbroken after leaving his dog and friends behind when the 1802 drought forces his family to move from Scotland to London. Too soon, he watches his father die of consumption. A night later, he follows his mother's lonely footprints in the snow where they end at the edge of London Bridge. He almost follows her, but his grief turns to rage and he vows to persevere.

You've spent 71 words here setting the scene. It's not bad but it's not what's important. What's important is the PLOT. What choices does Jeremy have to make? Ok, he makes the choice not to jump in the river, but that's not the plot, that's backstory at this point.

And 71 words is 1/3 of your query: instead of using it on backstory, show us more of the plot and stakes.

Your story starts here------>Hope and money gone, left alone to fend for himself, Jeremy drags his parents' furniture to a corner between two buildings. There, against the landlord, gangs and neighbors' objections, he makes his stand. With his smarts and a club as long as he is tall, he bravely fights off those who try to steal his parents' possessions.

I frankly don't believe this. He's 11. He's armed with a club and "smarts" I don't believe one kid can fight off any group of people. This isn't Japanese martial arts movies.  The fiction in historical fiction isn't about people behaving in unbelievable ways.

And because you lose me here--I can't suspend my disbelief--I'd probably stop reading.  Right now this feels like a very old fashioned morality tale.  Noble child, prevails against all odds---this is Boys Life magazine 1929.

Jeremy ekes out a few pennies a night as a lamp boy, lighting the way for men seeking entertainment on the rough night streets. But as the Duke Street Boys muscle in, demanding a sizable cut, Jeremy pits his wits against them and a growing list of foes – the worst are the orphan hunters, who wish to capture and sell him to the textile mills. They all soon discover this is not a boy to be trifled with.

What terrible thing would happen if the orphan hunters got him? "Selling him to the textile mills" doesn't tell us why he doesn't want that.

I also don't understand why Jeremy is so attached to furniture.

Jeremy almost surrenders, when he returns one evening to find his shelter burning and the hunters awaiting him. Unbeknownst to Jeremy, his neighbors have been watching him and they have developed strong opinions about this brave little orphan. Jeremy's steadfastness and bravery have inspired them – and those who prey on children are about to be taught that this young boy is not alone in the world after all.

You've given away the entire story here. The purpose of a query is to entice us to read on, NOT tell the entire story.

Also "brave little orphan" isn't a phrase you can use without irony in this day and age. It's too over wrought to be taken seriously. You have to show us why we'll care about Jeremy. Right now he's just a Bekins man in the making.

BLEAMY'S CORNER is a YA historical fiction novel complete at 76,000-words

Dear QueryShark:

In 1802, eleven-year-old Jeremy Bleamy is orphaned in London when his father dies and his mother commits suicide.  (unless how his parents die is important leave it out, particularly at the query stage. Get to what matters.) Left alone in a city whose dark interior rarely lives up to its supposed standing as the “capital of the civilized world,” he is faced with the options of following his mother over London Bridge or fighting for survival. Jeremy chooses to fight.

this is a false choice. Of course he chooses to fight. If he went over the bridge, there'd be no book. When I talk about choices the protagonist is faced with, I mean choices that are central to the plot. This isn't.

He takes up residence in a corner between two buildings, and he finds a job as a lamp boy—lighting the city’s dark streets for men seeking “entertainment.” The work is profitable, but dangerous, and it is not long before Jeremy makes enemies of the Duke Street Boys, a local gang to whom he refuses to pay “taxes.”

This is all set up. And why does he refuse to pay "taxes?" Surely that's both shortsighted and dangerous? It doesn't demonstrate high moral character if that was what you intended.

During the daytime, Jeremy searches for escape—for anything that can make the task of staying alive more bearable—but what he finds instead are orphan hunters who want to ship him to the textile mills, thieves waiting to rob him of his meager possessions, and a street vendor and his rabid monkey who both have it out for him.

Ok, and? This is a series of events. I don't have any sense of connection to Jeremy. Sure he's a waif in London fighting for survival, but that's a description, not an enticement or a connection.

In time, Jeremy befriends an old man at the post office, another old man who owns a bookstore, and even the Duke Street Boys themselves. But his problems are not at an end, as a war is boiling between the Duke Street Boys and the Mims—a rival gang from across the bridge. As Jeremy becomes the target of the Mims, his friendships, his strength, and even his fearlessness are put to the test.

The problem is we're very removed from Jeremy. There's no sense of connection; of what he's like.

BLEAMY’S CORNER is the story of a young boy, orphaned in London in 1802, who in his fight to survive goes beyond the point where most boys and even most men would quit.

You don't need a recap of what you just told me. 

BLEAMY'S CORNER is a work of YA historical fiction, complete at 72,000-words.

There's no plot here. That's a huge problem.
There's no enticement to read on. That's a form rejection.
Start over. Focus on plot. If you're having trouble figuring out what the plot is, the problem is not the query letter, it's the novel.  You'd be surprised how often that happens to writers.

Dear QueryShark:

In 1802, eleven-year-old Jeremy Bleamy is orphaned when his father dies and his grieving mother leaps from London Bridge. Left alone in a city whose dark interior rarely lives up to its standing as the “capital of the civilized world,” he is faced with the options of following his mother or fighting for survival. Jeremy chooses to fight.

This feisty and tough little boy (this is telling not showing)  uses all his ingenuity and fearlessness (telling not showing) to take on the city, battling street-enemies who prey on his vulnerability (doing what?), orphan hunters who try to enslave him (how/why?), and the Duke Street Boys—a local gang who will not leave him alone. (why?)

This is generalization of the worst kind: telling not showing, and telling nothing specific.

Although Jeremy knows little about city life, and even less about survival, he learns quickly. These lessons in survival sometimes come from the swell of friends Jeremy meets along his journey; many other times, he learns these lessons alone, at great emotional and physical cost.

Same thing here: all talk, no show, nothing enticing.

In time, Jeremy finds a profitable but risky job on the dark streets; in the early hours of the morning, he returns "home" to a corner between two buildings.

Same thing.

BLEAMY’S CORNER is not the story of a hero. It is the story of a young boy who does what almost any young boy would do: fights for his right to survive. BLEAMY’S CORNER is a story of triumph, and throughout all of Jeremy's struggles, he holds onto the one thing no one can take away from him: his ability to smile.

If this is 1802 he's lucky he has any teeth.  Again, no specifics.

BLEAMY'S CORNER is a work of YA historical fiction, complete at 72,000-words.

I get no sense of 1802 London, and no sense of the story. The first paragraph is the only one to keep.

Start over. Think of what specific events SHOW what happens, and SHOW character.

Form rejection.

Dear Query Shark:

BLEAMY”S CORNER is a work of historical fiction and complete at 72,000 words.

This gives me pause.  I doubt there's a  fully furnished world with such a low word count.  Historical fiction requires sights, smells, atmosphere: world building.  There are no brand name shortcuts in historical fiction. 

In 1802, London was the largest city in the world. It was the center of trade, commerce, finance, art, and government for the British Empire that devoured whole counties and continents.

Unless London is the main character of the novel, you're starting at the wrong place.  All this may be true, but it's not action. It's not plot. It's not character.

As London wallowed in its glory as the capital of the world, it was ill-prepared to handle the massive increase in population. Inept to handle the needs of such a large city, it was plagued with poverty, and laws were passed that attempted to weed it down. Children and women were hanged for petty theft, same as a man for murder. And if that was not enough, over three quarters of the children born in London died before the age of five. So much for the civilization of the capital of the civilized world.

Again, this isn't plot. It's hyperbole. And it's not very enticing.  If you want me to read 72K words set in London, why are you telling me what a terrible place it is? 

So it was in London in 1802 a festival of people and excitement, but a cold-hearted and cruel place to live. Where the rich and privileged lived in proximity to the poor and homeless; Where intrigue mingled with despair and hope battled misery; Where acts of sacrifice and heroism were often only found in the pages of Gulliver's Travels and Ivanhoe.

None of this is about your book. It's still hyperbole.

BLEAMY'S CORNER follows the life and wanderings of eleven-year-old Jeromy Bleamy, a mostly-wise, sometimes-precocious, and often-proud child who is full of what he would call unshakeable resolve…and what others would call courageous stubbornness.

How about you just tell me what he is instead of invoking other people. This device does not work in a query letter. I cannot over emphasize that you want straightforward simple sentences that tell me what the book is about.

You're trying to be all fancy schmancy here. It backfires.

I'd have stopped reading at this point.

“The evil of the city seems to unaffect those who have wealth and the cruelty of the world is seldom felt by those who have never fought for a meal. I, for one, will never see the world without its ruthlessness ever again. My eyes are not wide to its splendors.” Jeromy Bleamy. London, March 11, 1803.

Don't quote the book in the query letter.  At this point you've told me NOTHING about the plot. You've used up 292 of your 250 words and you've not answered the main question of a query: what is the book about?

Here's where the query should start but you're telling not showing.------->In 1802, Jeromy’s parents were forced to abandon their drought-besieged farm and travel to London. As if such a transition would not be difficult enough on one so young, Jeromy soon loses both his parents. Displaying the sort of resolute ingenuity and fearlessness one seldom finds in children, Jeromy takes on London, becoming a sort of urban Robinson Crusoe, leading the reader through an inspiring, funny, and altogether soaring tale of equal parts misfortune and adventure.

What happens? Specifically. Not "inspiring" not "funny" not "altogether soaring": what happens.

Telling me your novel is an altogether soaring tale is like telling me your kid is good-looking. I'm sure you believe it (I hope you do in fact) but I'm not going to believe you until I've seen the kid myself. In other words: show me, don't tell me.

I have become irrevocably attached to Jeromy and his heroic tale; I know that many readers will feel the same way, and I hope you will give him a glance and find out whether he is able to break your heart and put it back together.

This is a HUGE warning sign in a query.  What you think it means is you're passionate about your work.  What I think it means is you're the kind of writer who is more likely to take rejection personally, not be able to handle revisions with objectivity and be a total pain in the ass.

There's no reason to put this in a query. It doesn't tell me anything about the book, and what it says about the writer is NOT what you intend to convey. 

Thank you so much for taking the time to look over this letter. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is a form rejection for the usual: it doesn't tell me what the book is about. There are other problems as well, but if I were tallying reasons I'd rejected queries this week, that would be the category for this one.