Sunday, 30 May 2010


OK, folks - you know how this works now, I think. (If not, go back to SS 10 here).

"Margaret Dunlop" (not her real name) offers this for your consideration and she's being very brave in doing so, so please be fair but firm and imagine being in this position: you'd want to know the truth but you'd want it expressed constructively, sensitively and respectfully. Remember that for this I only ask for the letter plus the first 500 words - it's often not enough to judge a writer on, but it's important to showcase your work from the very first sentence, so it's still a valuable chunk to examine.

Dear Publisher [NB name would be here]

According to the Russian legend of the Fire Flower, the fern only blooms once a year, on the feast day of St John, June 24th at midnight. If you throw the flower up into the air it falls like a star on the very spot where a treasure lies hidden.

THE FIRE FLOWER is a book of 18,400 words for eight to twelve year olds. It is a drama/adventure story with important links to the past, both historical and legendary.

Twelve year old Asya is sent from war torn Grozny in Chechnya by her father to stay with her seventy year old great aunt Nadya. On her journey Asya is robbed of her money and passport but manages to reach her great aunt’s cottage on the Artists’ Cottage Estate in Barnet. This estate has been bought by a greedy and ruthless developer who is determined to evict all the old artists from their homes by illegal means if necessary.

Nadya has no children of her own and is at first appalled by idea of Asya interfering with her peaceful retirement, but she very quickly grows fond of her great niece and tries desperately to prevent Asya from being 'dispersed' by an bossy immigration officer to a detainment camp for asylum seekers.

Asya starts at the local school, which is attached to the nearby St John’s monastery, and there meets Sam an anxious, clever boy who is being bullied. They become friends and together find the exciting hidden treasure that reveals itself after a dramatic thunderstorm. This treasure will change all their lives and together with Sam’s bravery will bring about the defeat of the evil developers.

I am a published author/illustrator and this is my first book for eight to twelve year olds. I have previously written many texts for picture books, and have illustrated my own picture books, as well as illustrating books for older children by other authors.  I have a blog ******** and I am also on Twitter. I visit schools and libraries all over Britain.

Thank you for considering my story.

Yours sincerely
Margaret Dunlop


The Fire Flower
Chapter 1.

Moscow.   May 5th 1996

Dear Aunt Nadya
We have never met, but my mother often used to talk of you, when she was with us in Grozny, after my father died. She would reminisce about the beautiful mountain countryside where you both lived as young children, before the deportations.

Things are very bad now in Chechnya. When Grozny was shelled for the second time, our home was destroyed. For two weeks we hid ourselves in the cellar. Once the food and water was gone, we got out of the city, while the bomber planes were still flying over our heads. It was a miracle that we were able to reach Moscow.

At the moment we are safe, but I have decided that I must return to the hospital, in Grozny, as there are so few surgeons left. I cannot take my daughter Asya, back with me, which is why I am writing to you. I am sorry to give you so little warning, but life is too dangerous for her, in Grozny.

I have paid an agent here to arrange her journey. Can you remind Asya to telephone me when she has reached you in England.

Kind regards,

Your loving nephew, Ruslan Akhmatov

Asya had walked all night. When the men left her at the service station, she hoped at first that they might come back. She had travelled in one lorry all day, and another one all night. There was a third lorry after the Tunnel.  But when she had gone to the Ladies’ cloakroom, she had glanced back, and saw the two lorry men laughing, and looking at her. She didn’t like them. She had been in a hurry, so had left her knapsack, with all her money and her passport in the lorry, something her father had warned not to do. And when she came out of the lavatory, she saw that the lorry had gone.

So she began walking. She walked by the side of the main road. Cars passed by her in a blur of speed. ‘A1 North’, the sign read. ‘Barnet. Hatfield. The North.’ Barnet was where her Great Aunt Nadya lived. Asya remembered the full address - even the postal code. If she just kept walking she would get there eventually. She walked on and on through the night, until suddenly she smelt the fresh, green smell of grass and leaves. Then she knew that she must be leaving London behind her. The sun was rising. She had left the main road, when she saw the sign:  The Artists’ Cottage Estate. Asya’s English was good. She had won prizes at her school in Grozny. Attached to the main sign, was:  NEW DEVELOPMENT COMING SOON.  Immaculate Homes Ltd.

“Rossetti Cottage,” Asya murmured. By her great aunt’s cottage gate grew a large oak tree with branches that zig-zagged and curled.

 Great Aunt Nadya saw the child sitting on the wet grass, leaning against her tree.

“She is going to upset my life –Big Time,” thought Nadya.


fairyhedgehog said...

The Fire Flower legend is very evocative and made this sound like a magical story!

I wondered if the first sentence of your letter could be made smoother by missing out some information that isn't essential, e.g "The Fire Flower blooms once a year and if you throw it into the air it falls like a star on the spot where a treasure lies hidden" or similar.

When I read the opening of the book, I assumed that the writer was a child because of addressing it to an "aunt". (I know this isn't necessarily the case, I'm just saying how it struck me.) "We have never met" seemed odd - surely the aunt would know that they'd never met?

I didn't find it easy to get into the letter and absorb the information it was giving so I wonder if it would be better to open with Asya arriving.

I liked the way this excerpt ended.

Great Aunt Nadya saw the child sitting on the wet grass, leaning against her tree.

“She is going to upset my life –Big Time,” thought Nadya.

I wonder if you could start there?

I have no credentials except that I read, and mostly in the speculative fiction genre. So I hope that I'm not being completely unhelpful!

GalaktioNova said...

I'm Russian and I used to live in Grozny for some time... so I have to admit that at first I cringed reading the query because Chechnya really isn't an appropriate subject for a children's picture book :-( But I found the opening very convincing. I'd love to read more.

Moreover, I can see that the writer has a very good grasp of all things Russian. Even the names are remarkably realistic and period-correct, which is an extremely rare thing. I loved it!

Thank you so much!

JaneF said...

This sounds interesting. I think the situation Asya finds herself in is a great opening for a children’s story, but you gloss over it too quickly for me – the mini flashback right at the start reduces the immediacy. Could you start, for example, with Asya coming out of the loo and finding the lorry pulling out with her money etc. in it, and presumably her aunt’s address – and maybe she runs after it... Then she tries to remember where her father said her aunt lives...

You may not want to start at this particular point, but wherever you start I think the opening scene needs to be more immediate and tense. As a reader I want to identify with Asya's predicament and wonder how she’s going to get out of this mess. I need to ‘see’ the scene, to feel Asya’s despair as she is left all alone, to wonder with her what on earth she is going to do...

There are a few grammatical problems/typos– e.g.: ‘She had been in a hurry, so had left her knapsack, with all her money and her passport in the lorry, something her father had warned not to do’. There should be a comma after ‘passport’ (or the one after ‘knapsack’ needs to go) and it should be ‘had warned her’.

Hope this is helpful. Good luck!

M. Gray said...

I especially liked the opening of the letter and the names and setting. I thought the opening of the acual MS could have been more eye catching.

Anonymous said...

Over on Nathan Bransford's blog, he says to be sure that if you're previously published you provide both the publisher and the dates.

Nicola Morgan said...

Ok, time for me to add my comments, and I'll save time by focusing on the things that need to be improved (sorry!):
1. By saying 8-12 year-olds you show lack of knowledge of this market. You have to define it much more. 8-10 would be quite different from 10-12, for example. A 12 year-old is a teenage reader and an 8 year-old is a young child. The word count is also far too slim for 10+. Even 8-10s would tend to have 30k at least
2. Drama / adventure - what's this? You mean an adventure story?
3. When is it set? (You don't say in the letter.)
4. the asylum issue is relevant and interesting but we need to know more of the context and time. I think you should major on this, more than the aunt relationship.
5. I very much agree with Anon, who said that if you say you are published you have to give details. However, I assume that you've done this because you are being anonymous and in the real letter this info would be given.
6. You could give us a hint of your passion for writing for this new age group, and, preferably, what writers you read and admire.
7. Much of the content of your letter should form the synopsis that you would also separately attach, so I'm again guessing that this is not the actual letter you'd use as your covering letter, but one written for this exercise?
8. For the start of the book, I think that Asya's letter is not the place to start. It's not engaging enough. We don't get enough sense of character or conflict. It's very scripted and feels unnatural, as though this is simply an author device to tell us a few things. Definitely better to start in medias res - all the content of that letter can be fed to us more naturally later.
9. I agree with someone else's comment about the grammatical and stylistic inaccuracies - this gives the sense that the voice is not going to be confident or strong enough.
10. You have some POV switches - we see mostly Asya's thoughts, and then Nadya's at the end - are you going to make sure you control this and follow the rules? It can't be haphazard or for author convenience.
11. The covering letter implies that the story will show the journey, but you start the story after the journey. This is misleading, I think.

to be contd...

Nicola Morgan said...

12. When Nadya says "Big Time", this is very unexpected for an older person. If you are quickly going to go on and portray her has someone with a very youthful turn of phrase, perfect, but make sure you do keep each character's voice absolutely right and consistent.

11. The first para of the main text (Asya had walked all night) feels very detached and unengaging because it's in the pluperfect tense. can you find a way either not to have this at the beginning or else make it feel more exciting and immediate. We don't want to know what had happened but what is happening now, otherwise we have no sense of tension.

JaneF hit the nail on the head with how she explained that.

So, not enough immediacy, not enough tension. I don't get the sense of Asya's exhaustion or fear at all - shouldn't she be both those things? There's no emotion, and there needs to be, otherwise we can't identify with Asya. This, i think, is absolutely crucial - we need to care, and we only care when we can get inside the character's mind at all.

Decise whether you want to tell Asya's story, or to be clinicially omniscient, or whether you want to give Asya's and nadya's in parallel, but also be aware that the convention for children's writing is that the main (80%) POV should be mainly the MC's and not that of an older person.

Sorry to sound overly critical - I don't have time to do otherwise! There ARE some nice ideas, and the Russian cultural themse and that of asylum-seekers are definitely good ones, but the writing is not quite there yet. I don't think you've quite entered the young MC's mind, or at least not in this extract.

Anonymous said...

Margaret here-
Phillip Pullman once said that when his early books were published it was ‘like throwing pebbles into a swamp.’ It often feels like that to me when submitting work to publishers! But that is why your Submission Spotlight is so valuable. You may not always like to hear what readers think of your work but it gives you precious feedback.

There’s much to digest in the comments but here goes-
I think I have a lot of re-writing to do! JaneF’s comments were very helpful. I will dispense with the flashback and re-write the petrol station scene, so creating the tension and fear that Asya is experiencing. As you say Nicola I need to write about Asya’s immediate plight and describe what she is going through mentally. I shall also move the content of the letter into the main body of the chapter. M.Grey’s comment makes me wonder whether to have the legend of the Fire Flower as the chapter heading, to replace the letter.

I take your point Nicola, re the POVs, and will remember to keep the main POVs as the child characters throughout the story. I will also have to increase the word count if I want the book to be for 10-12 year olds. Yes, I would certainly mention my books for younger children as Anon suggests. I will also check my grammar and commas as JaneF suggests.

These are my first thoughts. I will re-read all the comments and mull them over. But meanwhile thank you for the opportunity Nicola.

Anna Bowles said...

I’m a children’s editor/writer (several years in-house at Egmont and now freelancing Normally I try to comment on Nicola’s children’s Submissions Spotlights but I’m not managing to be on Blogger much at the moment, and it’s 3am.

Anyway, mostly I would echo Nicola’s comprehensive list. Overall the key issue is the lack of immediacy. The story seems to have been thought about from the outside rather than lived from the inside, and that’s something you can’t get away with in writing for kids.

There’s a lot of atmospheric potential in a scene where a foreign child walks down a main road, but she needs to smell the petrol, see the strange foreign advert hoardings, dodge the roadkill. That kind of immediate experience will be what draws a child reader into the story. Starting with a fairly formal letter from one adult to another will alienate them – after all, their own experience is likely to be one of grown-ups shunting them around for hazy or, to them, simply uninteresting reasons. The way to get the backstory might would be to have Asya resentful at being sent away, or glad to be out of the danger zone but terribly worried for her father.

I agree with the positive stuff too, though, particularly as I know Russian culture a bit myself and so join in the appreciation of the cultural authenticity. But even if a lot of adult readers say writing is technically or artistically excellent, kids won’t necessarily notice that and will reject it if it doesn’t speak to them directly.

You say you’ve written for younger kids, so I’m betting you actually know most of this and won’t have trouble putting it into practice once you get enough distance to redraft.

Anonymous said...

Margaret again - Anna, this is very helpful and I will certainly re-draft this first chapter, injecting more immediacy, and imagining Asya's walk from her POV. I will ditch the letter too. I'm glad that you and GalaktioNova say that I have the Russian element right. I became very interested in Chechnya and its struggle. But as you say, research must always sit lightly on a book for children.
To reply to an earlier comment by Nicola re which authors I admire - I think the book I tried to emulate was 'Holes' by Louis Sachar. I loved the mixture of history,legend and adventure story that he managed to create so beatifully.

Nishant said...

I can see that the writer has a very good grasp of all things Russian. Even the names are remarkably realistic and period-correct, which is an extremely rare thing. I loved it!

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Anonymous said...

Margaret again - Re-reading all your comments, what is clear to me is that although some of my ideas are good, I must re-write my book from a chid's point of view. I should really have known this, as at the time of writing it I had two youngish children myself. But you don't always see the obvious faults until they are pointed out. So thank you for all your comments and I will have a go!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Nicola and the others but I'm just adding my first thought was that the manuscript seemed very short. I realise I'm echoing Nicola but a 12 year would probably expect more.

I've just completed ms in same age group.My word count was 74,000.

I imagine you could afford at least another 10,000 words, maybe a little bit more particularly if you feel your work is more 10/11/12 rather than 8?

I think the idea is lovely though and sounds quite magical. I would be interested to read more.

Well done for putting it up and allowing us to enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I hasten to add that although I said mine was same age group, I targeted 11+ within this group. Might be worth pin pointing actual age within the group. I am re-iterating Nicola but 8 year olds are very different to 12 year olds. Good luck.