Thursday, August 7, 2014

Become an Agent #2

Title: Poison Pen
Genre: MG Literary Fiction/Coming of Age
Word Count: 54,000 words

Twelve year old Lydia already learned that popular girls have it easy when they picked on her at school for being a tattletale who dressed differently. But day camp is different because she is surrounded by a close-knit group of supportive friends.

She feels honored when her friend Jackie wants to share a secret with her—until she hears it. Jackie wrote a letter that says “I hate you. You must die,” to their friend Mindy. Lydia regrets promising not to tell anybody when Mindy misinterprets the letter as a prank, and sends off her own letter to someone else.

Lydia agonizes over making the right decision: she must choose whether to break her promise and risk losing Jackie’s friendship; to keep her promise and risk other friends she values; and whether if it’s even worth the trouble to stay friends with Jackie in the first place. She is still debating what to do when the camp director discovers the truth and kicks Jackie out of camp, on what happens to be the last day for the rest of their friends.

Now that she’s alone at camp, Lydia must learn to stand up for herself against a bully—something she realizes too late that she should have done with Jackie. She earns the bully’s respect, but rejects an offer of friendship. She realizes that it’s better to have a few reliable friends than a large group of who cannot be trusted.

POISON PEN is a 54,000 word work of middle grade literary fiction, with series potential. It’s set in Northern New Jersey in the early 1980’s.


“There’s a hole in the fence around here somewhere,” commented Mindy. We walked in silence along the length of the fence until she discovered the hole.

Mindy squeezed through the fence first, followed by Cecilia.

“He said he’d meet us at the pavilion,” said Mindy.

“Who?” I asked.

“Eddie from Boys 7.”

“Why Eddie?” I asked.

I’d known Eddie, as well as Mindy and Cecilia for the past three summers since I started at Camp Minnewaska, but we’d never really talked.

“He’s cute,” answered Cecilia.

I climbed through the hole in the fence carefully, and looked around. The asphalt paths of the abandoned camp were pitted with potholes, and littered with crushed beer cans, broken glass, and the occasional discarded mattress.

“Hi Eddie,” said Mindy and Cecilia together.

All I could manage was a simple, “Hey.”

“Is this your first time coming here?” he asked.

“This is the best part of camp, escaping and coming here,” said Mindy.

“Mindy was only here once last summer. Lydia and I have never been here but my brother has been here lots of times and told me all about it,” answered Cecilia.

We walked in silence to a small building with a sagging roof. Mindy and Cecilia walked on either side of Eddie, with me trailing behind. Eddie pushed the door, which made a loud groan and opened slightly.

It was mostly dark inside, with diagonal stripes of sunlight streaming in through gaps in the boarded windows. A powerful stink of mildew with a whiff of ammonia filled the dusty air.

Title: Poison Pen
Genre: MG Literary Fiction
Word Count: 54,000 words


Twelve-year-old Lydia would rather spend the afternoon reading in the bathroom than play field games, and that’s usually what starts her trouble with bullies. Camp is different though. For the first time in her life, she’s part of a close-knit group of friends who don’t like sports much either. Even better, the counselors don’t really seem to care if the campers slip away from the group to do their own thing, such as exploring the abandoned summer camp on the other side of the woods.

Lydia just can’t wait for her friend Jackie to come home from vacation and join her group of friends at Camp Minnewaska. The rest of the group is leaving soon, and without Jackie’s company, she’d have to deal with Melissa, an overly competitive bully, by herself. Plus Jackie’s famous pranks are just what Lydia needs to liven up the summer.

When Jackie asks Lydia to keep a secret, Lydia is thrilled—until she hears it. Jackie wrote a threatening, anonymous letter to a mutual friend. Lydia agonizes over the choice between breaking her promise to keep a secret she knows is wrong; losing Jackie’s friendship; or keeping the promise and losing the rest of her friends.

Completed at 54,000 words, POISON PEN is a middle grade literary novel with series potential. It’s set in Northern New Jersey in the early 1980’s, and is peppered with pranks, ghost stories, scavenger hunts, day trips, and a first kiss.

First 250:
“There’s a hole in the fence around here somewhere,” commented Mindy.

We walked in silence along the length of the fence until she discovered the hole. Mindy squeezed through the fence first, followed by Cecilia.

I climbed through the hole in the fence carefully, and looked around. The asphalt paths of the abandoned camp were pitted with potholes, and littered with crushed beer cans, broken glass, and the occasional discarded mattress.

“He said he’d meet us at the pavilion,” said Mindy, bending over and whipping her head back to fluff up her feathered hair.

“Who?” I asked.

“Eddie from Boys 7.”

“Why Eddie?” I asked.

I’d known Eddie, as well as Mindy and Cecilia for the past two summers since I started at Camp Minnewaska, but he and I had never really talked.

“He’s cute,” answered Cecilia. She was picking some leaves off of her shirt, and tucking it into her shorts in a way that emphasized her chest. “He’s over there, in the pavilion, alright.”

We went over to the center of the camp where Eddie sat on a low brick wall, idly tossing a tiny red ball into the air and catching it in his baseball hat.

“Hi Eddie,” said Mindy and Cecilia together.

All I could manage was a simple, “Hey.”

“Is this your first time coming here?” he asked.

“This is the best part of camp, escaping and coming here,” said Mindy.

“Mindy was only here once last summer. Lydia and I have never been here but my brother has been here lots of times and told me all about it,” answered Cecilia, trying not to be outdone.


  1. Query.
    I don’t read a lot of MG so take that into account with my comments.
    Firstly, this sounds more like a mini-synopsis than a query letter, especially the end, where you seem to summarize the novel and tell us how it ends.
    Also, I’d suggest looking at paras 1-2 and linking them together to make one tight paragraph.

    1st 250
    I think you could tighten this a little.
    For example, where your MC says “Why Eddy?” and then you go on to explain the back-story, I’d prefer if you left out the back-story and when on with “he’s cute” and perhaps have your MC roll her eyes, or do something physical/active to tell us she doesn’t agree and let us unravel Eddy later on.

    Also, there’s another example where you go ahead and list the broken glass etc. rather than list it, maybe have her side step the debris (or something like that) and I don’t think someone your MC’s age would say DISCARDED mattress, she’d more likely called it dumped or point to it, or say “eww” (etc)

    For me it’s a reluctant NO because I think it needs just a little bit more tightening.

    NO - #7

  2. Query- I don't really get your hook. What does the popular girls picking on her have to do with them having it easy? I also don't get the stakes. Does Jackie actually want Mindy to die? Is that why it's such a big deal? If she doesn't, then why is it a big deal if Mindy brushes it off as a joke? The rest reads like a synopsis. I feel like you are giving away most of the book. And you tell us the ending which isn't good for a query. Tell us who your main character is, what she wants, and what's stopping her.
    250- You start us off with a lot of talking but don't describe anything so I have no idea what's going on.

  3. The mc is twelve, but this reads like an early reader. The mc sounds too young just with words like tattletale. Even the premise sounds very young. Someone passes a note that says I hate you, you must die. That happened all the time in school. Friendships are fleeting. But unless she actually says I'm going to kill you, (taking action rather than the passive "you must die") I don't see how this one note can be the basis of the whole story. Perhaps it can if done well.

    For the 250, this sounds bland. kids are walking along and meet up with another kid. the language sounds too young for 12. My niece is 12 and she's immature, but more mature sounding than this. I think you might want to really focus on voice here. I see this mc as 7 or 8.

    No. (#11)

  4. For me the query is more like a synopsis as you tell the ending. I also think you should reword the first line, why do the popular girls have it easy? You also use too many names. I get very confused. Maybe cutting a name?
    I liked the first 250 though try to work on showing instead of telling, I have the same problem. Sadly I have to say:
    No (#4)

  5. I think you have too many details in your query. Short, teasy, and to the point is the ultimate goal of a query letter. Don't give away your ending, just tease with your MC's odds and consequences.

    I know 250 words is not much to get anything going, but I think your story starts in the wrong place. I have no idea who your MC is yet. I think readers, especially young readers, need to have a sense of who the main character is, whether through feelings, dialogue, or actions.

    No. (non-contestant)

  6. The query is a little long, and it's confusing, because it seems like the stakes are keep the secret or lose her best friend... oh, but wait! There are more stakes. I'd rework it more so it just says something like "Before she can decide what to do..." Also, the first sentence is a little clunky. Honestly, I want to hear more about these letters (isn't it a prank? Does Jackie actually intend to kill Mindy?), and then you can cut most of the third paragraph - reduce it to once sentence.

    You have the word "fence" three times in the first three sentences. I'd look for a way to rework that. And you have so much conversation between other people that it's hard to get a sense of the main character's voice - which is what i need before I know if I want to keep reading.

    I hate to say it, because there's a lot here that I like, but this version would have to be a no.

  7. I don't read much MG, so hope my comments aren't wide of the mark. I didn't see how the two ideas contained in the opening sentence of the query related to one another. Once I finished reading the query, I didn't see how that sentence connected with the story, so it didn't work as a hook for me. I was also puzzled by the line 'Mindy misinterprets the letter as a prank.' Do you mean Jackie actually wants Mindy to die? One other line threw me off -- you may want to rephrase '...on what happens to be the last day for the rest of her friends.' I think you're saying it's the last day of camp, but it sounds like they're all going to die.

    First 250
    Since this is the first thing a reader will see, I suggest looking at word repetitions and rephrasing to avoid three uses of 'fence' in the first three sentences. One other point, some of the dialogue felt more like a means to give us back story -- like when Celia explains who has been to the shack before. I think there's an important message here, but it felt like it needed another review.

    Another reluctant NO (#9)

  8. Before I begin, you should know I talk a whole lot. And I’m sorry if that’s overwhelming for you. D: I swear it’s all to help, in my own lengthy, noisy way.

    Before I get going: coming-of-age is not a genre. It’s a trope. Be wary of mixing up the two. It really grinds some agents’ gears when you can’t accurately identify your own genre.

    I’m not in love with your hook. :( I mention it because hooks are SO pivotal to this whole querying thing. This is your first impression on some total stranger, remember? A total stranger who sees hundreds of these things a week, sometimes thousands. When you start with such a long hook that’s kind of incongruous, it’s definitely not setting things in your favor. (I called it incongruous because I fail to see why Lydia violating basic twelve-year-old social rules of not tattling means that the popular girls have it easy.)

    Plus—I’m writing this as I go through your query, so you get my thoughts as I read, convoluted though they may be—the opening sentences don’t seem relevant to the rest of the query at all.

    BUT THEN YOU USED SERIAL COMMAS AND WON MY HEART. Haha, sorry, that’s a me-thing, not an agent-thing. I’m a grammar nerd. There’s nothing that warms my heart more than an uncommon and proper use of semicolons in the wild. :’) My only worry is that you use them in a sentence that’s super long. You might want to consider rewriting to avoid that paragraph of a sentence.

    Oh, I just got to the end of the query. Did you just tell us the whole story? :S I feel like I just read a synopsis. What’s the main conflict you want to focus on in this query? You should identify what Lydia wants, what’s stopping her from getting it, and what will happen if she doesn’t about ONE conflict. Is it the popular girls being mean? Jackie writing that letter? Lydia friendlessly standing up against a bully? I don’t know, but you do need to pick just one, sadly.

    250 words:
    This is a bit too in medias res for me. It’s a bit of a character soup. here’s Eddie, Mindy, Cecilia, and the narrator, all in a very tiny span, none of them really introduced. I think I’d be a bit more comfortable with all that if Lydia’s voice were stronger.

    I’d suggest you read ZOMBIE TAG by Hannah Moskowitz. It’s about a boy around your MC’s age who’s trying to come to terms with his older brother’s sudden death. Hannah has a staggeringly good grasp of voicey first person to begin with, but that’s a particularly strong example, and it’s MG to boot. :D Anyway, I recommend it because she writes a compelling and believable twelve-year-old and might help you see what we all mean when we say more voice.

    I’m sorry, but I have to pass. :(

    Good luck!

    - Audience Member @mostlytaylor

    (Feel free to message me on Twitter if you have any questions about ANY comment I made.)

    ((Also um this one is REALLY long. I’m sorry for the wall of text.))

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  10. I am a solid MG writer/reader. I love the title. But I wasn't hooked.

    At first I thought, "the story is slight." But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if the stakes just aren't clear in the query.

    If this is a lower MG (8-9 years old) then the story wouldn't be so bad. But I'd still be confused why Jackie got thrown out of camp for writing a silly - albiet mean - note? Was Jackie actually sent home, or just not allowed to participate in camp activities?

    As a story about a 12-year-old, the stakes did not seem believeable. If Jackie's secret was a plan to actually hurt someone, then your MG could work. But, from the query, it seemed that the hate-note was the reason Jackie got kicked out. Another possiblity that would make the stakes more believeable would be if there was a racist comment in the note. Jackie would definitely get kicked out for that. But none of this seems to be the case.

    So I don't know if you need to highten the stakes in your manuscript or clarify them in your query, but my vote is still

    NO (from a member of the audience)

  11. It feels like too much information is being squeezed into the first sentence. Also, there's a tense issue that breaks up the flow. And I'm not sure what popular girls has to do with the rest of the query. The mention of the friends is something that's pulling at me, because they're mentioned as a group while Jackie is mentioned individually. I'm wondering what about Jackie makes her important, but then she doesn't seem that important given the MC's own words "if it’s even worth the trouble to stay friends with Jackie in the first place."

    The first 250 introduces a bunch of characters via names and action, but little description or interaction that paints clear pictures of them as more than names. I'm not able to for an attachment to anyone before someone else is introduced, and amongst all the names we don't get the MC's, so if it wasn't for the query, I'd have no idea who I'm following.

    It'd be a no.

  12. I don't see how your query really stands out. I know, that's horrible to say, but I've read a lot of stories that sound like this. I've seen a lot of movies that sound like this. And because it is so familiar, and your first page doesn't yank me out of my socks, I'm on the no side of the fence.

    Part of the problem with the query is that it sounds didactic, so I wonder if there's something more to the conflict of your story than the "must choose between doing what is right and losing a friend." We see that conflict all the time. If you have a different conflict, maybe you could emphasize that instead.

    As for the first 250:

    I have a hard time whenever the first lines are dialogue. I'm not grounded, I don't know who's speaking, I don't have a scene. I've got nothing. And then you keep going without any hints about the scene. Is it hot outside? Cold? Morning? What kind of fence? the cyclone at the back of a school or a white picket fence? I know all these details don't need to be there, but small hints could give us so much more to this scene.

    I'm sorry, but it's a no. (I hate being on this side of the words)


  13. Query:

    Your query is very well written, but a bit long for me. It also reads like a summary. Query's should have the stakes and any conflict, a brief intro of characters and what they stand to lose. I don't get a sense of any of this. It also reads very young. Of course, this is my opinion.


    I understand that the mc is 12, but this reads really young. You may want to consider making this an early reader. There isn't much description either so I don't get a feel for the world.

  14. The query is good, but at the same time the second paragraph feels unnecessary. I can't help but think the first three paragraphs could be tightened into one. The idea is good though. The opening 250 words do not connect me with any of the characters however, and the voice feels too mature for a 12 year old ; I know people rag on about how MG and YA voices can be more mature, but it still reads like an adult voice. I like the premise, it's definitely something that feels like a topic for kids that age.

    No. (#5)

  15. Revision Crit -

    First off, I think this revision is definitely an improvement! The query is more like a query and less like a synopsis, presenting the conflict rather than telling the ending. You added some good details to the first 250 on the revision, too. Good job!

    I didn't vote on the first one, but this one is unfortunately still a no for me despite the improvement, though it's much closer than it would have been on the first draft. I think you're getting close, though. These are the things still holding me back from a yes:

    Voice - Right now, the voice in both query & first 250 is distant, and also doesn't feel like a MG voice. I want to really get inside the MC's head! I don't get a good sense of her from this. Can you pick out the details that she in particular would notice in such a way that we can tell what she thinks of them? I had no idea what she thought of her friend's preening or of the place they were sneaking into -- even whether she was excited or dubious. I'd love more of a window into her thoughts and feelings, and I'd love to see it conveyed through a strong MG voice.

    Age category - This didn't read like MG to me. The voice and the way the characters act in the first 250 seem more like young YA. Again, you can probably solve this with a stronger, more MG-ish voice that conveys a 12-year-old character.

    Good luck!


  16. Rats! I lost power as I completed my previous entry here. Long story short, I think the revision works. The new opening for the query engaged me immediately. I think it's much more clear why you're including the information about the bullies since it's now connected with Lydia's new feeling of belonging. In the first 250, it would be nice if you could give us more of Lydia's feelings about sneaking out of camp with her friends so the reader connects with her from the get-go. A 'Yes' from me. (#9)

  17. The revision is much better! I'm a little confused about the bullies. You say camp is different for Lydia, and I got the impression that it was because she didn't have to deal with the bullies. But then she has to deal with Melissa, so I got confused. Maybe it's clearer to other readers.

    Also, in the last sentence you have three choices listed, separated by semicolons, but it kind of looks like one of the choices is a repeat.

    Even though I think your query is an improvement, I still wasn't hooked by your 250. I don't connect with Lydia. Since it's first person POV, I want to know what Lydia's thinking and what she's feeling about this adventure. So, unfortunately, it's still a NO from me (Member of the audience)

  18. Your query has improved a lot. I think for the first 250 add a tad bit more description to really set the scene more. Overall it's good, but still a no #4

  19. The query is much better now. I can see where your story is going and what's at risk for your main character.

    Unfortunately, I still think the story's beginning is wrong. Maybe it's just me, but I don't care for the dialogue at the beginning. I think the paragraph when the kids go through the fence should be your first. Let your readers get a sense of the setting before you give them that dialogue.

    It is better, though!

    Best of luck!