Friday, 16 July 2010


A Submission Spotlight for you to comment on. This time, it's a novel for 10-12s and our writer is "Mandy Lemmer". Brave lady!

If you would like to know how this works, and why there's a covering letter and 500 words but no synopsis, please go here, for the guidelines.

Please do be constructive and respectful. "Do as you would be done by" is a pretty good motto, and I think it is especially important on these Submission Spotlights.

Oh, and by the way, please ignore Mandy's remark about the caramel toffees. This is, I hope (!), her little joke. I think it also goes without saying that the letter would really be addressed to the agent's name...

Dear Mrs. Awesome Agent

“I wish you weren’t real. I wish that you just never existed, that you weren’t ever born.”

It was just a squabble. Arrow hadn’t really meant it, had she? Well maybe, but she most definitely hadn’t thought it would work. Cousins don’t just disappear because you say they should, but why did everyone keep telling Arrow that Cathy wasn’t real? Why did they all think Cathy was nothing more than an imaginary friend Arrow had had as a kid.

Arrow struggles to adapt to the idea. Everything she remembers about Cathy feels real, too real. Has the world gone wrong or is Arrow a loony with mashed potato for brains?

Fear that the syringe wielding lab coat men are going to lock her up (and maybe a little guilt) sends Arrow into a world of giant slugs, absentminded kings and storms that rain socks to rescue her cousin and prove she isn’t a loony.

Complete somewhere between the count of 30-40,000 words (my constant editing tends to alter the count) Nowhere Place is a fantasy novel for 10-12 year olds. Please find attached the first 592 words.

I hope the caramel toffees find you in a good mood,

Mandy Lemmer

Chapter 1

“No,” Arrow said.

She had barricaded herself behind a book. Her knees were curled into her stomach and her back was facing Cathy. A cartoon print duvet bunched awkwardly behind Arrow’s knees. Sunlight played across her stick-like frame and danced along the posters on the wall. Most of the posters were faded with age and curling at the edges. They boasted pictures of fairies, dragons and other mythical beings.

“Oh Arrie, just a touch of colour,” Cathy whined.

“I said no!”

Cathy and Arrow were cousins, but you couldn’t tell just by looking at them. Where Cathy’s skin was fair, Arrow’s was a soft caramel cream. Cathy’s hair was dark and perfectly straight. Arrow had a mop of light brown curls.

“Listen, a dab of mascara and some eyeliner could really open up your face.  And then you won’t look so… boyish anymore,” Cathy said.

Arrow sighed.  Just that morning, Gran had helped Arrow set up a camper cot. The makeshift bed took up a lot of space and Arrow’s bedroom wasn’t very big to begin with. Now Cathy sat on the edge of the rickety thing with a hairbrush in her hands. Cathy’s tog bag slouched against the end of the camper cot, taking up even more space.

“At least let me do your hair. Just because you’re an orphan doesn’t mean you have to look like one.”

“Yap yap yap! You’re like a dog with a bone.”

Cathy frowned, “Am not!”

Arrow shot her cousin an over the shoulder glare before turning back to the pages of her book.  Cathy’s words had left a nasty taste in Arrow’s mouth. Arrow did not like being reminded that she had lost her mom when she was just a baby. She did not like that her mom had kept the identity of her dad a secret.

“Arrieeee, don’t be so stubborn. I’m only trying to help!”

When Arrow failed to respond, Cathy began tapping her foot to a melody in her head. Her eyes wondered around the room and she blew, rather loudly, at strands of hair that had escaped from her pony tail.


Arrow slammed the book closed and shot up. She swung her legs over the side of her bed and glared at Cathy, “What do you want?”

Cathy put on her sweetest smile, “To help of course.”

“If you want to help,” said Arrow. “Be quiet and let me read my book.”

“What’s it about anyway?”

“The book?”

Cathy nodded. Her sparkly blue earrings jingled in agreement. Arrow closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“It’s about this girl who works in the kitchens of a castle and the prince is really bossy, but then the castle gets invaded and Giselle and Maximums, that’s the girl and the prince, are kidnapped together and they have to find their way back home.”


“And what?”

“Well what happens?”

Arrow clenched her fists, “If you really want to know you can read it after me.”

Cathy blew at the loose strands of her hair again, “If it’s any good they’ll turn it into a movie. I don’t like reading.”

With a groan, Arrow flopped back onto her bed. The glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling stared down at her. They were faded with age and prestick marks were visible through the cheap plastic. It was a wonder none of them had fallen off. Arrow looked at her book, but didn’t pick it up again. She was counting down in her head, three... two...

 “Oh,” Cathy blabbered on.

 And bingo.


Catriona said...

Hi Mandy,

First of all, good on you for sending this in. It takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there.
I've never commented on a submission spotlight before, but one thing jumped out at me about your one, so I thought I would share. It was just the similarities between your story and the film Labyrinth. I know Nicola has posted before about similar ideas producing completely different stories, and I'm sure the main part of your story is very different from Labyrinth. However, there seemed quite a few similarities in the opening section, which I thought you should be careful of.
Apart from that I enjoyed reading this. I love the name Arrow for your main character, it's so unique! You slip slightly into Cathy's POV at one point, which you might want to look at if your novel is from Arrow's POV - 'When Arrow failed to respond, Cathy began tapping her foot to a melody in her head. Her eyes wondered around the room and she blew, rather loudly, at strands of hair that had escaped from her pony tail.'
Apart from that, well done, and I hope these comments help and don't come across as too negative!


Bailish said...

First, I'll comment on the query. It caught my eye, and it continued to entertain as I read it to the end. It also sounded like an entertaining premise for the target age--having your wish come true, even though it isn't a real wish.

But the problem I had was that I wasn't sure where the story was going. I'd like to have an idea of the plotline from the query. Does Arrow spend the rest of the story trying to find a way to get her cousin back and undo her unintentional curse (my initial instinct)? Or does she spend the rest of her life trying to convince men in white coats that she isn't crazy (as your query sounds)? The first one, I'd like to read. The second, much less so.

Now, on to the story.
'“No,” Arrow said.'
The first line left me feeling empty. It didn't encourage me to read further. Had I picked it up in a bookstore, I would try another novel.

This first chapter failed to reel me in. I realize you're introducing your characters, but I felt this was extremely ordinary rather than the start of a fantasy novel.

In general, the first chapter was less impressive than the query. Your query showed you have what it takes to be a writer. If you could get the flow of the query into your novel, it would be a better read for your target audience.

Anna Bowles said...

Credentials as per guidelines: I’m an editor, formerly in-house at Egmont and now freelance.

There’s a lot that’s promising here but one key element is sabotaging you – the narrative voice in the chapter. The query letter gets inside Arrow’s head in just the kind of way that should appeal to the readership, but the chapter steps back and does a lot of impersonal description. “Sunlight played across her stick-like frame”? That’s not going to interest a kid, they want to get on to the giant slugs and rains of socks (though there is a bit of an age-targeting issue here: the fantasy world sounds like it fits very much with the younger end of your proposed readership, while the real world stuff feels more like the upper end).

Sometimes the omniscient narrative voice talks as if in an adult novel, and sometimes it dumps info that doesn’t quite seem to belong, such as the stuff about Arrow losing her mum and not knowing her dad; that seems to be shoehorned in.

So if I were you I’d age down the older-seeming bits and ruthlessly edit out anything which isn’t expressly designed to charm Middle Grade kids. As there’s plenty of material in here which does work for that age group (the unwanted sleepover set-up, tension between bookish girls and glamour girls etc), it shouldn’t be too hard. For a given value of ‘not too hard’ when it involves rewriting one’s baby for the nth time.

Nicola Morgan said...

Mandy - I agree with the points the others have made so far (though I haven't read Labyrinth so I'll take Catriona's word for it).

I'd also like a more focused and informative pitch - too many open questions for this context. This is not meant to be simply enticing, like the blurb on a book - it is also meant to give the agent a clearer idea of how you've not just posed questions but answered them. We get a nice intriguing taste of the story, but we need more.

It's normal practice, and usually preferred at least in the UK, to begin the letter by saying the word count, genre and age target, rather than having it at the end.

Most agents would also want to know a little more about you - whether you've been published and if not what you've been doing to try to get published - spin it postively, showing that you've been working hard to learn your craft if you haven't any publishing credits. Determination and knowledge of the market / genre needs to shine through, while maintaining professionalism.

I'd pick you up for missing a question mark at the end of para 2 of the letter. And this bit: "Complete somewhere between the count of 30-40,000 words (my constant editing tends to alter the count) Nowhere Place is a fantasy novel for 10-12 year olds." has some problems: the punctuation is a bit awry, because of the parentheses, so I feel it should have been re-written. But, more importantly, I don't think it is useful to make this point about your constant editing anyway: the agent wants to know that you have now got a final word count - no problem if it changes within that range later, but it would be better if you gave it a word count (such as, "around 36,000 words) and didn't mention the constant editing. Of course, constant editing is no bad thing, but it should have happened earlier! I am just like you in that respect, but at the stage of approaching an agent you need to make yourself look in control.

So, flesh out your covering letter a bit, with some relevant info to portray yourself as a serious, determined writer who knows her market and has a career ahead of her.

One thing that's just occurred to me about the opening - this feels like the opening you first started with, because you wanted to set the scene. Well, duh, you may be saying. But have you considered that you've maybe held that there as a sacred cow but that actually there may be a better, later, more dramatic place to start and that you can fill in the back story later?

I think you have a very interesting idea here, and you'll be doing it a great service if you can tighten up the aspects we've mentioned. Well done! It's very promising.

catdownunder said...

I know who this is so I won't comment except to say I am purroud of you for putting it up - although I did tell you not to tease N with caramel toffees - she prefers chocolate!

Anonymous said...

Hi guys.

I'm the writer. Thank-you so much for all the comments. Very useful. :)

Catriona: I haven't seen Labyrinth, so any similarities there are a total coincidence. Thanks for pointing it out. I'll have to hunt the movie down.

Mark said...

Quick synopsis of Labyrinth -> Girl is baby sitting. The baby won't stop crying she wishes the goblins would come and take away the baby. Goblins steal the baby. Girl travels through a fantasy land trying to get baby back, think she has until the clock strikes thirteen to achieve this. David Bowie is the Goblin King.

Anyway, I really like the query, it is good fun. It does read a bit like the back of the book might do.

The first 500 hundred words are quite slow but ends on a good "bingo". I want to know what happens after that. Only slight drawback is I'm not sure if boys will want to continue reading a story that involves girls putting on make up.

Anyway, well done and good luck. I've written an unpublished book and I'm a web designer in real life so you're probably best off ignoring everything I've said.

Anonymous said...


Hi. Published author of middle grades fiction in the U.S. here. Just a few things to add to the good points the others made.

First, I was a little taken aback that your main character "struggles to adapt" to the idea that her cousin Cathy suddenly never existed. Seems like she should be busy trying to figure out how to get her back.

Second, the word count might raise some questions. Better to have an edited version in hand that you're ready to send out (or wait to query until you *do* have one) and then give the word count.

Third, please watch out for synonyms for "said". "Said" is a nearly invisible word, and won't suffer from overuse as other words do.

Hope this helps. Good luck!

SF said...

Hi Mandy,
I like the idea of giant slugs and raining socks!. I can see the similarities to the Labyrinth, but there are many stories that follow this theme of going to another world to retrieve something that I wouldn't worry about it too much.

Some small things:
In your query letter, after describing the squabble, maybe switch to present tense- "why does everyone keep telling Arrow that Cathy wasn't real? Why do they etc.." to make it more immediate, as you do in the next paragraph.

I thought Cathy sounded older than I was expecting from the query letter, talking about dabs of mascara, but maybe I'm out of touch with 10-12 year olds!

Also, it should be "her eyes wandered around the room" - I feel like I'm being picky, but it's your first 500 words...

Love the main character's name.
Good luck with it!

Anonymous said...

Well done! It takes a brave person to put up their words for critique. But it's worth it in the long run if it makes for a tighter ms.

I'm probably only going to repeat what others have said but I guess that shows they are issues pulled out by everyone and worth addressing.

In your query letter I would probably avoid saying the work is somewhere between 30-40,000 words. Be more precise, if it's 34,552 for example, round up to 35,000 words. Go to nearest round figure. And probably not worth mentioning about the editing (just part of the job).

Just a feeling but you're aiming at 10-12 and it does seem to slip into an older age target.

Finally, I agree with Nicola, perhaps think there might be a better more dramatic way to open. Not saying there has to be a huge explosion but just something more dramatic than starting with a, 'No.'

Good luck with everything and again well done for putting it up. Hope all the comments are constructive and helpful.

(Previously an editor. Just finished first novel).

Linda Strachan said...

Hi Mandy
Well done for putting this up for comments, it sounds like a really interesting story.
I wanted to add a little to the very useful comments so far. I felt that you need to get inside the characters heads a bit more, to make sure that you have two really distinctive voices for them.
In the passage we can see the ways they are different and about the room they are sitting in but it is all telling and not showing us, and as was said above there is too much description and scene setting to wade through when the reader wants something to be happening, something to engage with.
If you have written the whole book why not have a look further in and see if there is an exciting bit you could adapt to put at the beginning to grab the reader and make them want to read on. I'm guessing but it could be that by the time you wrote the bits further on you actually got to know the characters better and this will come across.
I am also struggling a bit to understand where this is fantasy. In the query letter it reads almost as if it could be a real life story about a girl trying to find her friend/ cousin, a mystery as to why people pretend the girl doesn't exist. Perhaps the query letter should say more about the fantasy element of it and how that is revealed rather than having it like a blurb to entice the reader?

Marie-Louise said...

Agree with much that's been said. Love the idea and Arrow's name. Def think it would be better to have us plunged into Arrow's head and have it through her eyes, from her corner of the room, over the top of her book, we see the story begin.

A detail (this is the picturebook writer in me coming out)-
' “Oh,” Cathy blabbered on.'
'oh' does not a blabber make...either give Cathy some blather to blabber or lose the 'oh'.

An editing detail, but you need to have your pitch perfect!

Ruth Donnelly said...

Wow--I was completely hooked by the query (except for the joking parts about toffee and constant editing, which presumably would be left out of the real thing). In the US agents are fine with beginning with the hook; I understand the custom is different in the UK. I agree with what others have said--the first chapter didn't grab me as much as I expected it to. It wasn't dynamic enough. I wonder if the set-up would be shortened and you could plunge right into her wishing her cousin away--or trying to convince someone that she really exists. I think it's a great premise--I would love to read this!

The Wicked Lady said...

This is my favourite Submission Spotlight to date. Well done! I thought the voice and pace were just right for pre-teens (I currently have two of those, and one that's been there, done that, so I've read quite a lot of junior fiction in the past few years).

I agree the query is more American in style -- but I think it would hook American agents, as would the first 500. I definitely want to read more.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you very much for all your comments and advice. This stuff is really helpful.

And i honestly don't have a full word count yet. I've written this book several times. Changed the start, changed the end, changed the middle. I'm back to changing the end again and I suspect... minor changes for the beginning will follow shortly. >_<

As to the US/UK agent thing. I'm in South Africa and haven't really decided if I'm focusing on one, or sending to both.

If I'm reading correctly, the main point here is that I need to get into Arrow's head in the way I did with the query piece. (does finger stretching exercises)

Thanks again. :)

Leila R said...

Hi, just a quick suggestion:

“I wish you weren’t real. I wish that you just never existed, that you weren’t ever born.”

could be stronger if you simply write:

"I wish you'd never been born."

Also, not sure if this is just me, but it did look for a second as if you were writing to the awesome agent to tell her that you wish she wasn't real, didn't exist and had never been born! :) Maybe re-structure that opening, slightly?