Wednesday, September 12, 2012

CAGI Entry #86

Genre: Young Adult Historical Fantasy
Word Count: 70,000


Seventeen-year-old Josiah Turn has many regrets. His biggest: failing to die along with the only folk he’s ever known. Josiah belonged to a family, a community, a mountain. In the snap of an instant freeze, only Josiah and the mountain remain. 

Now, he knows he’s in Appalachia, in the United States of America, in the year of his Lord 1888. What he doesn’t know fills the world’s libraries, but he holds no earthly notion. He doesn’t know the town founders shared all things in common, that they’d been brutal experiments to the Confederates, or that the military coming to town had always meant new and deadly trials. He’ll not suffer the thought his dad knew a thing or two he doesn’t. And Josiah’s not ready to learn the truth about the freeze or his new strength over the earth.

Leaving the mountaintop to find more than survival, Josiah seeks a truth to call his own. He stumbles through chances to learn and love, whilst picking up fresh regrets like killing a man, being a fugitive, and having black skin in a white world. Josiah believes in the peace he finds in France, complete with a mentor who helps him explore and control the powers he sought in vain to avoid.

His mentor’s confession of conspiracy against him pushes Josiah toward revenge, regret, and a knowledge he fears. Josiah can’t promise he won’t lament going home and hates to think of being a piece in anybody’s game ever again. He has not a soul to protect, save for the whole world who openly scorn or exploit him. Staring into that troubled world with no protector but himself, Josiah must decide to check out completely or become an unwanted hero.

First 250:

The last thing I hear before I stir in the morning is my sister's voice.

"Up, up! Y'all need a bite before you go out into the world today," Sharon says cheerful as a lark.

She fixes breakfast for us, but Dad's been gone a couple hours already. He's not had a morning meal here since Mama died.

"Why you so bleary?" Tabitha asks me. I swing her in a circle, and Sharon thwacks me with her wooden spoon for threatening the table.

"Why are you so cheery?" I ask Tabitha. She kisses my cheek. Mama used to say the rhyme with me on waking; I started it with Tabitha before she could even talk.

"I'm cheery 'cause I'm five years if a day. I get schooling today!" She smiles like a skunk eating molasses in a snowstorm.

James, Naomi, and Thaddeus tromp in. The boys carry armfuls of wood for Sharon's fire. I scoop Naomi up to the table.

"You oughta stay in from the cold. Let your brothers carry firewood," I say. 

"I would, if you'd wake of a morning!" She teases me at every turn.

"You just watch it, now, or I'll make a pack for you to carry the wood on your back, girl." She claps her hands.

Half the table's shoveling down porridge. I stoke the fire as the others get around for school. Sharon comes up whispering at me in a fuss, "Bad enough she lost her legs.


  1. Love This story want to read more of it. Keep up the wonderful writing.

  2. This seems like a nice start. One thing that really threw me is this: 'She smiles like a skunk eating molasses in a snowstorm.' - all I could think was... huh?

    I like the interaction between the brother and sister. I also wasn't quite sure who lost their legs.

    I think the query's a little confusing - particularly paragraph two. I know it's a good idea to get some of your manuscripts voice in there, but it might be a little much - in this case simpler language might get your sense of story across a bit better.

  3. Hi #86! This is your first-round judge comment.

    Comments on your query:

    I like your first two sentences for the first paragraph, but when you set up the story’s problem with the last line, I thought “In the snap of an instant freeze” sounded awkward. If you’re trying to say that it happened suddenly, I think “in the snap” should be reworded.

    Second paragraph feels like too much infodump. I think you could keep something about what Josiah doesn’t know filling libraries, because that’s a clever turn of phrase, but everything else was packed with enough detail that we get lost. We need the gist of this story, but after presenting its initial problem in the first paragraph of the query, you diverted into history and exposition instead.

    I can’t determine which parts of it are essential since you are the one who knows the highlights, but after this paragraph, I’ve now been given stage-setting and a couple vague clues about plot that aren’t nailed down enough for me to see where they’re going. (Obviously I’m not saying you should spoil the whole story, but I need to know enough about what I’m looking at to decide if I want to buy it and take it home.) Everything about Confederate experiments, town elders sharing all things, and his dad knowing stuff he doesn’t know could be condensed to a hint at secrets lurking for Josiah to discover; what we want to know from this query is where he goes from here.

    In the third paragraph you get back to the story to tell us he leaves the mountain for “more than survival,” and that’s compelling, but the rest of it is vague “he finds himself” stuff that doesn’t work well in a query. We need the shape of the story. We need an initial situation established with a few well-placed words, a problem to solve, and a hint at how he’s going to solve it—simplified, with as much flavor as you can work in. After reading this all I know is that a disaster struck and left Josiah with no family, so he left his home and did things and ended up in France. I like that one of the things he has to deal with is “having black skin in a white world,” though it’s surprising to me that after all the detail before, this is the first inkling we have that Josiah would suffer personally in a blatantly racist society. You might consider being more specific about Josiah’s powers, whatever they are.

    The last paragraph at least gives us some motivation, but I got lost. You say he has no one to protect, but then say he has no protector—sort of confusing. You say he “can’t promise he won’t lament going home” when I don’t see the connection this has with the story. And you say he’s got to decide whether to “check out completely” (what’s that mean, exactly?) or “become an unwanted hero” (doing what, for whom?). There’s too much going on here without much focus on the story’s trajectory.

    I suggest taking a look at your favorite books in your genre and reading the backs of them, and trying to create from scratch a tight, two-paragraph (or so) sum-up of your story that sheds the unnecessary details and gives us the big picture. Don’t describe Josiah’s feelings; we’ll project our own if you present his situations. Don’t withhold intriguing aspects of the story in an attempt to surprise us; we need to know something. Pull back on the dramatic language if you can; lead us with concept and character, not so much tone.

    Language notes on the query:

    * “but he holds no earthly notion” sounded out of place to me.
    * “save for the whole world who openly scorn or exploit him”—the whole world is not a “who.”
    * Everything’s got a purple voice-over feel to it, and I think this would present much better if you aim for a more neutral voice.

  4. Comments on your first 250:

    The first line confused me right away. Why is the “last” thing he’s hearing his sister’s voice, right before he stirs? Makes more sense to me if the first thing he hears upon waking up is his sister’s voice. Especially since that’s what’s described immediately after.

    I don’t know why you tell us “but” Dad’s been gone. Especially if this isn’t unusual. The scene-setting here and all the way through needs to be more natural. Beginnings of books are hard—establishing characters’ everyday lives—but you’re narrating, and the way you’re presenting the exposition feels disconnected from the action.

    When he swings Tabitha in a circle all of a sudden, I did a double take. I’m picturing a family at breakfast. Suddenly he jumps up and swings a child in a circle? That seems especially odd when he’s just been described as “bleary.”

    When Tabitha explains that she is five years old and that that means she gets schooling, she’s telling everyone there something they already know. People don’t do this, so it makes everything about the scene ring false. We feel like they’re putting on a play for us and are aware we’re watching.

    Overall I can’t picture what’s happening very well and don’t feel connected to it because people seem to be doing things sort of randomly and throwing out lines that feel like they’re for our benefit, not for the benefit of their conversation. This is very rough right now and I don’t have any idea if it settles down once you’re past the difficult beginning with all the scene-setting, but keep writing and keep reading. Your voice will blossom if you let it go and try to avoid the self-consciousness and hesitance . . . which might sound hypocritical since I’m a judge telling you this when your work is on display to be critiqued publicly. Hard not to be self-conscious in that situation! But I feel like over-construction might be a hurdle for you, and you WILL get past it if you learn to write like no one’s watching.

    Language notes on the first 250:

    * “Sharon says cheerful as a lark.”—needs a comma after “says,” though you probably don’t need to explain her emotions since what she said sounded cheery by itself.

    * “I would, if you'd wake of a morning”—I’m not familiar with a dialect that uses this kind of phrase, but maybe that’s my ignorance?

    * “She teases me at every turn”—unclear whether this is more exposition or what, but we can see she’s teasing if she teases, so you don’t need to tell us that she does this.

    * “as the others get around for school”—get around what?

    Please feel free to reply or contact me privately if you have any questions about my feedback. I’m honest but I don’t bite. Good luck!

  5. I just wanted to chime in to say the original story concept sounds pretty cool. I like this idea of a fantasy twist in a Confederate post-war era. Julie gave a lot of detailed notes, so I won't repeat anything.

    This line: "She smiles like a skunk eating molasses in a snowstorm."
    I think this would be funny if a character said it since it doesn't really make sense. Maybe you can add that in later. I have a line in my own story about someone moving at the pace of a snail moving through molasses, so I know that molasses angle is some sort of southern colloquialism. Your characters have great voice already, it just sounds like the story needs some refining. Openings are tough. I wish you the best in your writing!

  6. I am with the consensus on the skunk. It was definitely a speedbump for me. I love randomness as a rule, but this was the type of random that made me actually sit and ponder a skunk eating molasses in a snowstorm and wondered if it'd be smiling or not. And then I pictured a skunk running (hilarious -- used to see them sometimes in Montana), and I was thoroughly out of the story.

    One thing that helped me get my query into a more solid punch of a format was (oddly enough) Nathan Bransford's Query Mad-Lib. You can find it on his website. It's not perfect, and you'll need to texture and deepen it, but it helped me to boil my story down to the essential elements: Character, Conflict, Crisis -- and to communicate it in an effective way. I tweaked it a little and I've gotten two requests this week -- even one full!

    What I've heard most from agents is that they want to know what a book is about. Go from Point A to B in the shortest, most direct route. Write loglines. If they can't read a query and state in one sentence what your book's about, they're not going to reach for pages. I've always thought it easier to start with the heart and build up as opposed to getting it all out and trimming down, so maybe the mad-lib will help you too. :)

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  8. A big thank you to everyone who read and everyone who commented! I have a revision in the GUTGAA contest and at Thanks, again!