Friday, 30 April 2010


For those of you who don't know how these work: an intrepid writer sends me her covering letter plus the first 500 words of the proposed MS and I put them here for your constructive comments. It is assumed that if this was actually being sent to agent or publisher, a synopsis would be included, and more than 500 words, so please allow for that.

This submission is from Sarah - she can say her surname later if she wants to but I'm just calling her Sarah. She is offering her novel, The Looking Glass, for your comment.

When commenting - and please do! - be constructive, honest, fair and open. Say whether you have any particular knowledge of or affinity for this genre / age-group, either as writer, editor or avid reader. We don't necessarily expect all comments to agree so if someone says something and you disagree, do say so. It will be up to Sarah to work out how to interpret and value your comments. These have been very successful in the past and writers have unanimously benefited, so you all have a lot to live up to!

Over to Sarah...
Dear Ms. Morgan,

            They lived happily ever after.  Of course they did.  Cinderella was beautiful and Prince Charming actually enjoyed attending the ball.

            This time, the heroine isn't the loveliest lady at the ball, and the prince dances with her alluring second cousins instead.  This time, a country's romantic custom becomes the center of a plot to steal the throne.

            The Looking Glass is a 95,000 word YA novel that begins a century after King Richard of Eiden fell in love with a maid when he returned her dancing slipper.  Now royal balls are part of Eiden's traditions and one of Prince Philip's chief annoyances.

            After her parents' deaths, Elsbeth moved from the Lowlands to live with Lady Augusta.  Lady Augusta believes that with enough training, plain-looking Elsbeth could be almost as admired as her own two daughters.  After a humiliating experience at her first ball, however, Elsbeth decides she'll attend the next one her own way.  Lady Augusta can't pick her partners or monitor her conversation if she can't find her.

            As Elsbeth hides on the edges of the three-night ball, she discovers part of a plot that could cost Prince Philip the crown.  The future of Eiden will be decided at the ball- by a girl who didn't want to be there in the first place.

            I'm a member of SCBWI and participate in a critique group.  The Looking Glass is my first novel, and I'd be happy to send you the manuscript. Thank you for your time.

Chapter 1

The tables in the low hall of the Underwall Inn overflowed with merchants ready to display their wares at Taylan’s Fair. Few men spoke, however, as Elsbeth finished her story. For a heartbeat, silence stretched across the room. Then someone shouted from across the hall.

“Elsbeth, you changed the end!”

Elsbeth came back from that world between the story she’d told and the crowded room before her. She half-smiled and called to the leather merchant, “I always change something, Nigel! You never complained before.”

“You never mucked around with one of my stories before!”

Elsbeth scowled for the crowd’s benefit. “Your story? You told me you heard it from one of your tanners.”

“A tanner, Nigel?” called someone over the laughter in the room. “We like our Elsbeth’s version better!”

Already the room echoed with dozens of conversations spoken in at least four languages. She had told one tale earlier that evening, but the men had coaxed her into telling one more. It was the last tale she’d spin at the sUnderwall. The knowledge weighed on her, and she sensed the others felt it as well. They had stopped heckling Nigel.

Before they could request another story, she walked towards the table nearest the kitchen hallway. Lady Augusta’s three men had camped there all evening, their livery setting them apart from the travel stained clothing of the merchants. Still, one could have told they weren’t merchants without the livery. The footman nervously eyed the curved knife of a passing merchant, and the man who rode as guard remained stone-silent. Only the coachman, with his endless appetite, occasionally nodded at those who walked past.  They were her first glimpse of the High Valley. She felt her heart sink a little as she watched them, and realized she had hoped friendlier men would escort her there.

She glanced again at the door on the far end of the hall. He still hadn’t come.

            “Miss Elsbeth…” Sadie, one of the Inn’s servants, appeared before Elsbeth reached the men. In her nervousness, the poor girl had all but knotted the rag she used to wipe the tables.


            Sadie gestured at a table of scowling merchants from Ermion. “Them from-” she faltered over the foreign name, “Er-mee-non declare they will not eat the stew Mistress had the kitchen prepare. They say they’ll leave. And if they do, Mistress will…” the girl shook her head miserably.

Elsbeth knew Marion, wife of the Inn’s new owner, wouldn’t hesitate to make good use of a cane across Sadie’s back. She caught the gaze of the irate merchants, and held up a finger, asking them to wait. Jin’s face lost some of its sternness when he recognized her. He nodded his approval, and said something to the men at his table.

Elsbeth touched Sadie’s shoulder. “Come with me.”

Elsbeth stopped just inside the kitchen to see if Marion was there. She wasn’t. Of course she wasn’t. The sharp-faced woman rarely entered the kitchen, lest the meal’s odors cling to her new, fine clothes.
Over to you...


Amie McCracken said...

It's hard to judge on just that. I'm still confused because I haven't gotten into enough of the story. But it's intriguing. Especially the fact that she's waiting for someone to show. I'm guessing a life-long friend who is now a love interest...

The voice is strong and so is the character. Again with not that much to go on, I hope she has some kind of flaw. Right now she seems too perfect.

An avid reader of YA novels, sometimes editor, and aspiring writer.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the synopsis and can imagine this working well as a book. Perhaps it might be worth searching out the recently published Ash by Malinda Lo which is a modern reworking of the Cinderella story. As there is not a lot of the story here I feel I can only make one constructive comment - I felt you introduced rather a lot of character names and places very quickly in a short amount of words. However, it's intriguing and you write well. Very well done!

Anonymous said...

You've got Taylan’s Fair; telling the story; changing Nigel's ending; Lady Augusta's men; leaving for the High Valley; he who hasn't come; Sadie and the stew. All that, in 500 words.

I know everyone's always barking at writers to start in the middle, but I think you could afford to slow down or prune. Do we need Nigel, or is he a one scene wonder? I dunno where you're going with this, but I wonder if you couldn't reduce it to essentials, and then expand upon them. That is, instead of touching briefly on 5 things, take more time with 3.

What kind of story is Elsbeth telling? Flowery and lyrical? Raunchy and humorous? Possible to show her telling it? Show her story interrupted by Lady A's men, to introduce them in action? Show her watching the door, distracted by waiting for 'him' to arrive while trying to concentrate on the story? Show the merchants pushing the stew away, and poor Sadie appealing to E?

I imagine that these are the most-rushed 500 words in the entire book, because of the chorus of 'start fast! in media res! Go go go go go! Drop and give me 500, maggot!' that we always hear. But I'd consider slowing down.

Pen said...

I enjoyed reading your writing. An intriguing beginning.

I did think there was room to tighten up the query though, mostly in regard to paragraphs 3 and 4.

They're minor changes, but I think they would help it read more succinctly. This is just my two cents of course.

In paragraph 3 you write:
"Now royal balls are part of Eiden's traditions and one of Prince Philip's chief annoyances."

I suggest: "Now royal ball are a tradition and one of..."

In paragraph 4 you write:
"After her parents' deaths, Elsbeth moved from the Lowlands to live with Lady Augusta.Lady Augusta believes that with enough training, plain-looking Elsbeth could be almost as admired as her own two daughters. After a humiliating experience at her first ball, however, Elsbeth decides she'll attend the next one her own way. Lady Augusta can't pick her partners or monitor her conversation if she can't find her."

I suggest it's more important to know where she's going than where she came from at this point. Also using present tense - moves rather than moved - adds more immediacy to your words.

I don't think you need the second sentence here so jump to the humiliating experience. And I don't think you need the "however" in the middle of the next sentence it only slows the pace.

I suggest something like:

"After the death of her parents, Elspeth moves to the Highlands to live with her aunt, Lady Augusta. After a humiliating experience at her first ball Elsbeth decides next time she'll do things her own way. After all, Lady Augusta can't pick her partners if she can't find her."

Sometimes less is more. :D

I hope this is helpful and doesn't come across as if I'm nitpicking and annoying. Best of luck with your book, it sounds like a fun story. I love re-created fairytales. :)

Anonymous said...

I liked both the query and the sample. My only comment would be to bring the main character Elspeth out much earlier in the query. Typically, an agent likes the protagonist to be introduced in the first paragraph and the conflict and stakes to come in pretty early too--we don't see those until nearly the end.

That said, I like what you have. I'm an aspiring YA author and a reader of many genres, including YA.

Thomas Taylor said...

Something interesting is going on here but I'd need another 500 words at least to discover what. I found it hard to anchor myself and it all felt like a bit of a blur, but again, a longer extract might have left me feeling different. Nice writing though.

Do you need all those exclamation marks in that first exchange? They just made it all the more breathless to me.

I'm an aspiring writer of... well right now, I'm not entirely sure. let's call it Kid-lit. But whatever it is, I read a lot of it too.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

I loved the voice and the opening paragraph of your query, and enjoyed the start of the novel. You write well and it seems very polished. (There was a typo with an extra s in front of the name of the Inn.) I would suggest tightening the query though as it seems long. Some agents prefer longer queries, but a lot of them like to be intrigued by brevity.

Glynis said...

I enjoyed what I read. Thank you for sharing, it takes a lot of courage to do so.

The Wicked Lady said...

The first paragraph of the query made me think this was going to be about what happens after 'happily ever after', so I was surprised when the second paragraph didn't follow that. I'd start the query with the concept of the slipper tradition going awry, as that's the intriguing hook.

As for the opening paragraphs, the story doesn't really catch my attention until we come across Lady Augusta's men. Here is the first indication of something out of place, which creates interest. How about starting with her noticing them, and her thoughts about them (and the "where is he?" thought) before she finishes telling the story? That creates suspense while she has the interaction with the crowd. Without the tension, the storytelling, the heckling, and the details of the inn, are not particularly captivating. However, if you've teased us with this impending change in her life we'll be alert and waiting to hear more.

All that said, I would definitely like to read more of this story. Good luck with it!

KM said...

This is a cute idea for a book, and I can definitely see this on bookshelves.

My main issue was with the query letter. I like the sentiment of the first paragraph, but it doesn't flow well to the second. Maybe if you said something about how that's the Cinderella story "usually" works, or you could say "BUT this time, the heroine..." Just play around with the transition there.

Also, the third paragraph feels a little out of place. The first two paragraphs are very general, and you're getting into specific with the third one, which is fine; but it doesn't work for me. Again, there's not really a transition. I also felt like there are a lot of names thrown out in the query. I'd cut out the name of the land because it definitely threw me.

Try to infuse your query with some of your writer's voice. It's crazy hard to do that, but I think it will help a lot. This is a great concept, and I enjoyed your writing. Good luck! :)

Anonymous said...

The covering letter needs a little polishing but the story sounds interesting. However, in the first 500 words, you mention Elsbeth, Sadie, Marion, Nigel, Jin, Lady Augusta and so forth, plus others, plus place names. It seems rather a lot to take in - perhaps concentrate on your main character more. Colour with more description of the place, emotion. Nonetheless it's very intriguing and I hope the comments help you.

JaneF said...

This seems like a really interesting story to me. I don’t know anything about the YA genre, but here are my thoughts anyway (I am a copy editor of non-fiction and an unsuccessful writer of fiction).

I found it hard to ‘see’ this scene as I read the first few paragraphs. Where in the room is Elsbeth? Is she standing at one end? Sitting somewhere?

The first sentence is confusing – it sounds as if the merchants are sitting on the tables and there are so many of them that they are overflowing onto the floor! Well, maybe they are... but I think this could benefit from being reworked.

I like the suggestion from Anonymous that you could maybe start with Elsbeth coming to the end of her story, trying to concentrate on it while things are going on in the hall – maybe the men arriving. If it was, say, a funny story, the contrast between that and Elsbeth’s feelings of sadness at leaving might work well.

Elsbeth comes across as a sympathetic character – someone the reader would care about. I also like your turns of phrase – Marion making ‘good use’ of a cane across the maid’s back, for example.

Good luck!

Sarah said...

Thanks, everyone. I've just gotten in from work and have been reading through the comments.

I've gone back and forth about how much to put in this first part, how many folks should have names, etc. It's helpful to get an idea of how much is too much- and what is really necessary.

Again, thanks for the comments, and I'd love to hear more about any parts that didn't seem to work.

Elizabeth West said...

I would totally read this; it sounds fun.

It seems a bit busy at the beginning. Maybe don't cram so much info into the first few paragraphs? Let us discover Elspeth's world gradually. No need to introduce everyone right off the bat.

If it does get published, be sure to let us know because I want to know what happens to Elspeth! :)

Pen said...

Whoops! Realized I forgot to say I'm a writer and and aspiring author of YA fantasy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah,

Just popped back to see the comments. I think you've done a fine job and can see this working well as a book (I've re-read it a few times as well).

You asked for more about the parts that didn't seem to work...Perhaps it is a personal preference of mine but it's great to feel empathy with the character, know them, breathe them, even from an early stage. Show her story, describe things in more detail.

My final point and it's really not a big issue at all (only a teeny tiny thing and I hope not nit-picking), but your characters have old fashioned names, King Richard of Eiden, Philip, Sadie, Marion, Elsbeth and Nigel. Nigel seems slightly out of place.

Overall these are very small things. You deserve a pat on the back because you have clearly done a great job on this!

A reader of YA and 11+ books, previously editor and writer for magazines (and just finished first book).

Anonymous said...

Like The Wicked Lady, I was a bit thrown by the jump from paragraph one to paragraph two in the query. I wondered if it might better start with paragraph three-- and perhaps avoid naming the king unless he's central to the story. Name main characters in your query.

Your writing style is smooth and you have a good voice. But I'm a fan of starting the story at a crisis point-- the moment when the main character's life changes irrevocably.

--US author of YA novels

Girl with One Eye said...

I’m an aspiring writer, fan of YA books, love period pieces and have enjoyed spins on the Cinderella story. With that, take my comments with a grain of salt.

I think the voice is strong, it sounds like a period piece (the flavor of how they talked back then). Your writing is definitely polished. But I think your query letter is long and I found myself skipping around because it was breathy. And just like the beginning of the story, it had so many names and places I wasn’t sure who was important and who was not. I didn’t even realize she was waiting for someone until I read the other comments. Sorry.

When everyone in the room laughed at her “tanner” comment, I felt like only one in the room who didn’t get the joke. (like when I watch Much Ado About Nothing and William Shakespeare goes over my head). For me there was a lot going on in a short length of words as if your hook was to tell us all these hints to draw us in. I’d pick the most important one and focus in on that.

I hope this helps. I debated back and forth to even comment but I find in critiques for my writing, the most negative are the most valuable. Good luck to you Sarah.

Sarah said...

My goodness, Girl WOE, please don't apologize. If I want positive critique, I'll talk to my mom. : ) All this feedback has been so helpful- yours included.