Wednesday, September 12, 2012

CAGI Entry #90

Genre: YA Adventure
Word Count: 76,000


If you told Caddy a week ago that she’d scale the side of a sixty-story prison with a reckless orphan boy, she’d laugh in your face and walk off with your wallet.

But that’s before a sandstorm rocks the seventeen-year-old pickpocket’s world. Before the vigilante boy, Twist, drags her into the secret ruins beneath the city. Before the Service—the civil police—starts pulling people off the streets in search of a stolen diamond. As tensions between the citizens and the Service grow to suffocating heights above ground, Caddy fights to keep herself from getting too close to Twist below. If there’s anything she’s learned on the streets—it’s to avoid attachment.

But when the Service arrest her brother after he lies to protect her, Caddy's desperate to save what little family she has left. And she knows there’s only one person who can help break her brother out of prison: Twist. But when her actions risk not only her life, but that of Twist, she is faced with a decision that could cost her everything.

DIVINE will appeal to readers of Marie Lu’s Legend and Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I have been a member of the Thurber House Young Writers’ Studio in Columbus, Ohio for four years. The first 250 words of DIVINE are below.

First 250:

Heat presses against me. I duck my head as I scan the swarm of bodies packed tight in the streets through the orange haze. People keep coughing as they move from one merchant to the other. The dust is high today. Another sand storm is coming.

Exhausted, I try to focus. I can’t let the heat get to my head. At this rate I’ll never bring home enough to support the four of us. I stick to the shade of the massive glass buildings. I would call them skyscrapers, but the name doesn’t do them justice. In Cidy, they all penetrate the indigo sea above me.

My head pounds from the cries of barterers, and I tuck a strand of red hair behind my ear. It’s Mercy – the third Wednesday of the month. Today, thousands of people will be on the streets to trade what they have for what they need. Meaning the Service will be on high alert for pickpockets.

I trudge down another block. Merchants carry sacks on their backs and chests, wandering aimlessly over the pavement. I scowl, watching as two men shove each other over a worn pair of shoes.

The fact that they’re squabbling over something so worthless means that Syd hasn’t done much for the economy over the last month. A golden plate in a man’s hand reflects the sunlight, a deadened tarnish in comparison to the glass around me, but I’m not searching for the worthless alloy.

I’m after something much brighter.


  1. I think your query is strong. It tells me everything I need to know.

    In the 250, I would change "from one merchant to the other" to "from one merchant to the next". You could combine the second and third paragraph. I would start it with "My head pounds..."then describe her exhaustion, cut the thing about the skyscrapers (saying they're massive is sufficient) then flip flop the end of the second paragraph by saying, "I have to be extra careful. The Service will be....because it's Mercy..." I think that will make it feel less like telling and focus more on her anxiety. Then, don't tell me she's scowling. Have her get shoved by the men and be like, if stupid Syd had done something to fix the economy in the past month people wouldn't be fighting over worthless old shoes. (Or something to bring in more voice.)

    I think your premise sounds interesting. I'm not getting a real feel for Caddy while she's telling me about everything she sees. If sand is blowing around making an orange haze, wouldn't she be keeping her head down and squinting? Make me feel that.

    The crowds, the barterers cries, the shade of the buildings, the fight, the golden plate, all of that puts me in the market. Everything else feels like telling.

    It just needs a little tightening in my opinion. Hope that helps! It sounds like an exciting story that I would enjoy. Good luck with it!

  2. I like the query. I feel like it's similar to other books out there, and need to see what makes it stand out, what makes it unique.

    For your 250: The first two paragraphs confused me. I feel like your showing me the world, but it's not coming through very well, if that makes sense. I like the second to paragraphs. :)

  3. Hi #90! This is your first-round judge comment.

    Comments on your query:

    I think your first line does a decent job of establishing a situation and introducing us to your character. I recommend deleting “the side of”—just scaling a prison is enough, and you don’t want to get too wordy in an already slightly long first sentence. I’m lukewarm on any phrase that suggests “rocking someone’s world” without being specific, because it feels a little bit like a buzzword vibe.

    There’s a lot of detail in the second half of the first paragraph. I think most of it is okay, but possibly look for places to pare down your words. I also wasn’t comfortable with “suffocating heights” as a metaphor for a level of tension, though I like the comparison between above-ground and below-ground conflicts. I like the idea of Caddy resisting attachment to Twist, though I find myself assuming she’ll give in eventually.

    The “this could cost her everything” wrap-up is considered a no-no by some agents. The whole “and the fate of the world hangs in the balance” type vague premises tend to feel unnecessarily dramatic if they’re not attached to the actual stakes. Even though in this case it’s clearly just Caddy’s world that’s dangling by a thread, I would suggest a different tactic to bring home the enormity of what she’s facing.

    Overall your query does make me want to meet Caddy, especially the opening. I like the thought of a spunky, street-hardened teen who doesn’t want to get attached and ends up having to do what’s right in the face of losing those who are important to her. It’s probably enough to get people to open the book. We just have to hope you deliver when Caddy shows up.

    Language notes on the query:

    * “If you told Caddy a week ago”—Use the past perfect here: “If you’d told Caddy.”

    * “If there’s anything she’s learned on the streets—it’s to avoid attachment.” The dash seems extraneous here. Use a comma?

    * “But when the Service arrest her brother”—Earlier in the query you used “Service” as a singular noun. Now you’re using it like a plural. It should be “arrests.”

    * I see a mixture of smart quotes and dumb quotes throughout your query. (Check out the first line of your second paragraph and you’ll see an apostrophe that is straight instead of curled.) You need to really watch this sort of thing because it makes it clear the text has been transferred between formats and has undergone revisions in more than one program. I recommend switching all dumb quotes to smart quotes.

  4. Comments on your first 250:

    One thing I noticed is that you paint a visual picture first, then go into attaching us to the character resisting succumbing to the heat once we hit the second paragraph. As soon as I saw her motivation—despite the uncomfortable situation, she’s expected to be a provider—I wanted to see what she would do. But though I also liked the visuals when you open on the marketplace and the idea of a sandstorm brewing, I wondered if you can connect us to the character FIRST. This may be a personal preference and I don’t feel overly strongly about it, so take this or leave this.

    “I tuck a strand of red hair behind my ear.”—I always cringe when authors choose behind-the-ear hair-tucking as the gesture to identify hair color or hair texture in first person on the first page. (I don’t mind it if characters are watching someone else and pointing it out, especially if it’s someone new to them, but when a protagonist does it and happens to point out that her hair is red, I immediately feel that this is here for my benefit and the character sort of knows she’s being watched. In first person, unless a character is connected to thinking about her own hair in the moment, describing it pulls me out to seeing the character observed rather than doing the observing.) I don’t really have a quick and dirty fix for this if you want to introduce us to Caddy’s hair color on page one, because there isn’t a super natural way to do it unless someone else is commenting on it or observing it. But if you do decide to keep the hair-tucking, do me one favor: have her retain this gesture. It drives me up the wall when a character has a hair-flicking or hair-fondling or hair-interaction gesture that exists in the beginning as an excuse to describe the hair, and then it just vanishes. If she’s about to get wind blown in her face in a sandstorm, her hair will be right in front of her eyes. That’d be a great time to describe it.

    I’d like the exposition about why the Service will be on high alert for pickpockets much more if it was more connected to Caddy. Hearing narration tell me this stuff is much less effective than having Caddy actively worrying/thinking about it would be. There’s a disconnection. Which is probably a direct result of that special difficulty most writers have in starting a book—how much information to give ASAP, and how to introduce it naturally. This strikes me as information we need to understand context, so if we must see it now, connecting it to your character shouldn’t be too much of a stretch, while doing so will make a big difference in keeping us in her head rather than alternately listening to narration and popping back to think with her. The same advice goes for some of the disconnected details about the economy you slide into the next bit.

    I like how you’ve told us that gold is worthless, though. And the ending sentence helps us wonder what Caddy’s looking for that would be “brighter.” (I get the sense that she’s looking to pickpocket, so I don’t know what “brighter” thing she’ll be looking for, but as a metaphor we can’t follow because the excerpt ends, I’ll have to trust that it connects.)

    The important worldbuilding details aren’t introduced quite as naturally as they could be, and I think that’s your only worry here. The present tense doesn’t slip and keeps us in the moment, and I can see and sense the mood even though honestly nothing happens in this excerpt except Caddy walks around looking for an opportunity to do something (we’re not sure quite what). I’m not one of those readers who demands an explosion on page one, so I think that’s okay, but I hope it doesn’t lose your more action-oriented readers because you spent most of the first page setting the scene.

  5. Language notes on the first 250:

    * “Another sand storm is coming.”—In the query, you used the compound word “sandstorm.” Here you’re making it two words: “sand storm.” I recommend the compound word version, and replacing it globally.

    * “It’s Mercy – the third Wednesday of the month.”— I recommend checking out a usage guide on the difference between hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes, and applying what you find globally. Here you are incorrectly using an en dash. It’s odd because you correctly used em dashes in your query.

    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!

  6. Your comparison titles sound appropriate; I've read both LEGEND and DIVERGENT and that adventure aspect is definitely prevalent. I'm wondering if calling this Adventure is defining enough as a genre if you aren't showing in the query that this is a future or fantasy; given the "Service" secret police stuff it seems this is some sort of "other" world. When I see YA Adventure I think of a present-day Adventure, not urban fantasy, dystopian, etc. Just a thought on genre :)

    Good luck with the CAGI selections!