Monday, July 25, 2016

Query Critique (+ First Page) Winner

Tabitha Bird is the winner of the Independence Day query critique + first page!  Here is her original query and first page:


Dear Agent,
 

I am seeking representation for THE EXQUISITENESS OF SEEING, upmarket women’s fiction dusted with magical realism and complete at 88,000 words. Readers of Joanne Harris and Alice Hoffman may enjoy the irrepressible magic in this novel, which explores a woman’s struggle to become herself in light of her past and ultimately what it means to bear witness to and validate herself.
 

The ocean arrives in a box, asking to be planted. From it grows a magical garden that brings brings Willa Waters face to face with her younger and older selves to learn that, in running from her childhood trauma, she has left herself behind.
 

33-year-old Middle Willa, mother and wife, has left behind her country home and the memories of her father’s abuse. But when her current house transforms into her childhood home and the magical garden re-grows, she is confronted with her past in the form of 8-year-old Little Girl and with the consequences of her choices in the form of 103-year-old Silver Willa. 
 

With the help of Little Girl and Silver Willa, Middle Willa begins to see herself as a loveable child who was not at fault and as a woman who has the power to confront her father. But the healing process is halted when her father reveals a painful, long-forgotten secret. And when Willa’s grandmother dies, all hope, magic, and possibility seem to die with her. Then Silver Willa finds Middle Willa’s grave, and she knows that time is running out. If Middle Willa can’t face the secrets of her abusive past and embrace Little Girl, there will be no future.
 

THE EXQUISITENESS OF SEEING is set in Boonah, Australia, where I reside, and draws from my own experiences of healing from trauma by nurturing and embracing the little girl I once was. As a winner of the March 2016 Pitch to Publication Twitter contest, this novel has benefited from working with professional editor Sione Aeschliman. My writing has appeared in Mused Literary Review and MOPS Australia, among other markets.
 

My sincere thanks for your consideration,Tabitha Bird

 
Chapter One
 
Willa Waters
 
Before
 
8           
 
The ocean arrives in a box
 
Moon sees it in my backyard, so do I. The cardboard is soggy where it sits in the dirt, dead leaves clinging to the sides. A white card the size of postcard is stuck on top. Waves that look a bit like storm clouds where they froth are drawn in swirls on one side; the blues and greens like bruises. On the other side in loopy handwriting it reads,
 
One Ocean: Plant in the backyard.
 
 Dig too deep and the roots suffocate.
 
Too shallow and the roots won't anchor.
 
Standing over the box, I tuck the card in my dressing gown. Mango Girl, my mango tree, stands behind me. Watching too. My breath curls in the cold making shape friends. Only me and Cold-air Friend huddled together in my backyard. And now this box with an ocean that wants to be planted.
 
There's no address, no stamps, no name on the box at all. The string falls off without much help. A bit of help. Okay, I pulled.
 
What kind of ocean arrives in a box?
 
You should be able to collect oceans. That's what I told Nannie. Then you could pour one into a jar and take it home. All the sand between your toes and the way Mummy is laughing and pushing your sister on the swing, you could catch that moment and keep it. But oceans being delivered? Thats some kind of magic job.
 
I open the lid. One cardboard flap at a time. It doesn't seem like a thing you should rush, although there's this rushing feeling in the air. Inside me.
 
My fingers begin to tingle. Like I let loose a jar of fireflies and want to catch them all. The air wraps around me, suddenly warm. It's Nannie's kitchen and we're sitting on stools giggling over a bowl of Cream Chicken soup. It's a Midnight Tea Party and Jam Drop biscuits on Nannie's back deck. It's possums twitching their noses while they inspect the bread and honey we have left for them.
 
The air now smells of Jam Drops baking in the oven. But that's silly. It's only me, a dandelion cartwheeling across the dirt, and the moon, its big frown in the sky. Tired moon. Tired night.
 
And oceans are salty, right?
 
Peering into the box, I see it. Something.
 
"There you are," I whisper.
 
Lifting it out, I hold it up to the moon. The moon and I look.
 
A glass jar. Greyish liquid at the bottom. Dirty water? It's nothing much at all. It sits in my hand staring at us. I think it might be staring.

I wait.

An ocean that asks to be planted should do stuff. Flap, hum, rattle, sparkle, glow or something. It should at least be full of water and it isn't even that. 

And here is my critique:

Dear Agent,


I am seeking representation for THE EXQUISITENESS OF SEEING, upmarket women’s fiction dusted with magical realism and complete at 88,000 words. Readers of Joanne Harris and Alice Hoffman may will enjoy the irrepressible magic in this novel, which explores a woman’s struggle to become herself in light of her past and ultimately what it means to bear witness to and validate herself to come to terms with her past and accept herself. [I changed the wording here because the former was too run-on and confusing to read.]

 
The ocean arrives in a box, A box with the label "ocean" arrives at Willa Waters's door, asking to be planted. [When I read your first page later on, I understood what you were talking about, but starting out by saying the ocean arrives in a box is VERY confusing, especially without context!] From it grows a magical garden that brings brings Willa Waters face-to-face with her younger and older selves [Literally or figuratively?  Explain a little more here.] to learn that, in who show her that by running from her childhood trauma, she has left important parts of herself behind.

 
33Thirty-three-year-old Middle Willa, mother and wife, has left behind her country home and the memories of her father’s abuse. But when her current house transforms into her childhood home and the magical ocean garden re-grows, she is confronted with her past in the form of 8eight-year-old Little Girl and with the consequences of her choices in the form of 103one-hundred-and-three-year-old Silver Willa. [I would try to combine this paragraph with the previous one, since they both contain some repetitive information.]
 
 
With the help of Little Girl and Silver Willa, Middle Willa begins to see herself as a loveablelovable child who was not at fault and as a woman who has the power to confront her father. But the healing process is halted when her father reveals a painful, long-forgotten secret. And when Willa’s grandmother dies, all hope, magic, and possibility seem to die with her. Then Silver Willa finds Middle Willa’s grave, and she knows that time is running out. If Middle Willa can’t face the secrets of her abusive past and embrace Little Girl, there will be no future. [This entire paragraph needs to be rewritten.  The stakes don't feel high enough, and the writing is hard to follow--I don't know what happened to Willa as a child, what her grandmother has to do with anything, or how all three Willas are working together.  Clarify, but also let us know WHY we are investing ourselves in this story--what is at risk?]
 
 
THE EXQUISITENESS OF SEEING is set in Boonah, Australia, where I reside, and draws from my own experiences of healing from trauma by nurturing and embracing the little girl I once was. As a winner of the March 2016 Pitch to Publication Twitter contest, this novel has benefited from working with professional editor Sione Aeschliman. My writing has appeared in Mused Literary Review and MOPS Australia, among other markets.

 
My sincere thanks for your consideration,

 
Tabitha Bird

 
Chapter One
 
Willa Waters
 
Before
 
8

 
The ocean arrives in a box.
 
Moon sees it in my backyard, so do I. The cardboard is soggy where it sits in the dirt, dead leaves clinging to the sides. A white card the size of postcard is stuck on top. Waves that look a bit like storm clouds where they froth are drawn in swirls on one side; the blues and greens like bruises. On the other side in loopy handwriting it reads,
 
One Ocean: Plant in the backyard.
 
Dig too deep and the roots suffocate.
 
Too shallow and the roots won't anchor.
 
Standing over the box, I tuck the card in my dressing gown. Mango Girl, my mango tree, stands behind me. Watching too. My breath curls in the cold making shape friends. Only me and Cold-air Friend huddled together in my backyard. [This is confusing--cut]  And now this box with an ocean that wants to be planted.
 
There's no address, no stamps, no name on the box at all. The string falls off without much help. A bit of help. Okay, I pulled.
 
What kind of ocean arrives in a box?
 
You should be able to collect oceans. That's what I told Nannie once when I was a little girl. Then you could pour one into a jar and take it home, I'd said. All the sand between your toes and the way Mummy is laughing and pushing your sister on the swing, you could catch that moment and keep it. But oceans being delivered? Thats some kind of magic job. [Wouldn't collecting oceans be a magic job, too, though?]
 
I open the lid. One one cardboard flap at a time. It doesn't seem like a thing you should rush, although there's this rushing a rising feeling of anticipation in the air. Inside me.
 
My fingers begin to tingle. Like I let loose a jar of fireflies and want to catch them all. The air wraps around me, suddenly warm. It's a warmth like my Nannie's kitchen and we're sitting when we sat on stools giggling over a bowl of Cream Chicken soup. It's a Or when we had a Midnight Tea Party and with Jjam Drop biscuits on Nannie's back deck in the summer. It's possums twitching their noses while they inspect the bread and honey we have left for them.
 
The air now smells of Jam Drops baking in the oven. But that's silly. It's only me, a dandelion cartwheeling across the dirt [I'm not sure how we are supposed to connect her with a dandelion here when she is opening a package?], and the moon, its big frown in the sky. Tired moon. Tired night.
 
And oceans are salty, right? [You use the word "and" here, but I'm not sure how oceans being salty connect to a tired moon and tired night. Explain.]
 
Peering into the box, I see it. Something.
 
"There you are," I whisper.
 
Lifting it out, I hold it up to the moon. The moon and I look.
 
A glass jar. Greyish liquid at the bottom. Dirty water? It's nothing much at all. It sits in my hand staring at us. I think it might be staring.
 
I wait.
 
An ocean that asks to be planted should do stuff. Flap, hum, rattle, sparkle, glow or something. It should at least be full of water and it isn't even that. 


The query is off to a great start!  I very much liked the description of the story being upmarket dusted with magical realism.  However, even though the author did a great job capturing the tone we see in the writing itself, she did not really get the point of the story across strongly enough.  An important thing to keep in mind when querying agents is that you want to show them what about your book is compelling and different from others in the the marketplace.  What will keep readers turning the page?  As it currently stands, I'm not sure the idea of finding self-validation is a high enough stake for readers.

As for the first page, I was very intrigued as I read!  The idea of the ocean arriving in a box had me interested in reading more and finding out what happens.  However, one issue I see often with books containing magical realism is a tendency to have events or descriptions be whimsical or strange for no reason--or at least for a reason that is very difficult to understand.  For instance, I'm not sure why Willa is described as a dandelion cartwheeling across the dirt when I am assume she is crouched down, slowly opening her package flap by flap. It doesn't really make sense to me. 

Just like when world building for full-on fantasy, magical realism needs to be crafted carefully and systematically in a way that will make sense and immerse readers.  It's definitely not the easiest thing in the world to do, but getting it perfect is essential to having a strong story.

Chime in with your thoughts in the comments section below!

5 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for your critique! I am so excited to rework according to your suggestions. It's so interesting how you can read and re-read your own query letter and think the stakes are clear, when in fact they are not. The stakes are actually very high. Willa is at risk of losing her life. Silver Willa finds the gravesite of her younger self, which means her younger self has ended her life. This event can only be changed if the older Willa (Silver Willa) can find a way to empower her younger self. Obviously none of this is clear enough in the letter. I WILL rework :) Also very excited to rework those opening pages. Willa isn't actually the one being described as a dandelion cartwheeling, but I can see how it reads like that now. What I was meaning is that Willa is alone in the backyard EXCEPT for the dandelion cartwheeling in the dirt and the tired moon in the sky. I can see how that isn't clear from my words though. Thank you so much for your time and comments. I will go back and look at all your comments and make myself clearer. I so appreciate this! Thank you again. :) (HUGE SMILE!)

    ReplyDelete
  2. As I was reading both the query and the opening page, I was thinking "This reads much more like literary."

    I found the query could use a little tightening. If it was me, I'd shift the opening paragraph to the end and dive right in. I'd also take the next paragraph ("The ocean arrives in a box") and try to fold it in to the one after that. To me, the way it's currently structured feels a little hitchy.

    The sample page is certainly interesting. It raises a lot of questions. And it's very graceful. I would certainly be interested in reading more. Nice job, Tabitha; good luck!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

    Love the voice, the ocean in a box, the dusting of magic realism...but I agree this is literary.

    One small note: Second sentence in the second paragraph of the query has "brings brings." I'd suggest getting rid of one of them.

    Blessings,

    Siri Kirpal

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you both for your comments. I have had trouble knowing how to classify this novel. I thought it was women's fiction because it follows a woman's journey and is about issues central to a woman's life. It is also magical realism. But yes, my writing has always had a literary feel. How do I qualify all of that? Thoughts most welcome :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

    I've seen several agents listing literary women's fiction as a specialty. So you could call it literary women's fiction dusted with magical realism.

    Blessings,

    Siri Kirpal

    ReplyDelete