Sunday, March 22, 2015

Become an Agent 2015 Post #20

Title: THE SUMERLIN CURSE
Genre: YA Southern Gothic
Word count: 66,000

Query:

Sixteen-year-old George Sumerlin is a boy, no matter what he looks like.

Born under a wicked family curse, he has the wings of a bat, horns of a bull, and the scaly tail of a lizard. While it doesn’t stop him from dibbling a basketball, it does keep him caged on his family’s derelict plantation. He calls it prison. Mama calls it protection; the outside world would not understand him. It would kill him.

After botching an escape attempt, pictures of George surface online and he fears he’s proven Mama right. Grace, a hoodoo priestess, sneaks into his bedroom with the goal of killing the beast terrorizing her village, but all she finds is a scared teenager. George promises to help Grace track down the real monster—something she calls a Boo Hag, a skin-changer who haunts the marshes—even if it will suck his soul, or worse, take his skin. His scaly butt is worth risking for a chance to get close to Grace; even teenage shut-ins know that true loves’ kiss can break a curse.

When he flees the planation, George learns Mama isn’t wrong about the world; it’s dangerous for a creature like him. And Boo Hags and lip-action aren’t the only things standing between him and freedom: a closet full of human skins, a village of islanders who would peel the wings from his back, and a twisted family legacy more rotten than the Sumerlin Curse itself.

Complete at 66,000 words THE SUMERLIN CURSE is a YA Southern Gothic steeped in the Gullah/Geechee folklore of the Georgia Sea Islands. Featuring a diverse cast and mixed-race pairing, it should appeal to readers of Sally Green’s Half Bad and Martina Boone’s Compulsion.

I am a member of SCBWI and RWA. I am the associate producer for The Badger Sports Report and an editorial intern for Kate Brauning at Entangled Teen.

First 250:

Mama says the Lord punishes wicked boys who disobey their parents.

He will punish me if I cross the fence.

The fence circles the entire house. A wall of boards squeezed together, flat trees choking off my view of the outside world. Or the outside world’s view of me. The boards are taller than Clarence, with spaces between them just thick enough to wedge a fingernail through. When I smash my nose into their splinters, I catch a whiff of sulfurous marsh, salty ocean, and the hundreds of animals roaming the forest beyond—but that’s only on the outside.

Inside, the fence forms a giant ring around the gardens, reflection pools, and basketball court, with the manor house in its center; a much, much larger version of the wire fence Clarence put up around the pig pen.

But I am not a pig.

I am a boy. No matter what I look like.

---

Today, the third Wednesday of July, is a good day to run away.

Not a minute has deviated from the routine. This morning, Clarence drove here from the village, taking the dirt road I can just make out through the slits in the fence. I’ve never been to the village—I’ve never left the yard—but I know where the road leads because I’ve stared at its serpentine black line on the map pinned to my bedroom wall.

Clarence passes me the ball. We always play basketball after morning studies. Studies are okay. Today we covered graphing quadratic equations—snore—and finished our unit on Causes of the War of Northern Aggression.

Query:
Sixteen-year-old George Sumerlin is a boy, no matter what he looks like.

Born under a wicked family curse, he has the wings of a bat, horns of a bull, and the scaly tail of a lizard. While it doesn’t stop him from dribbling a basketball, it does keep him caged on his family’s derelict plantation. He calls it prison. Mama calls it protection. The outside world would not understand him; it would kill him.

After George botches an escape attempt, pictures of him surface online and catch the eye of Grace, a hoodoo priestess hell-bent on capturing the beast terrorizing her village. She sneaks into George’s bedroom thinking he might be it, but all she finds is a teenager who's as freaked out as he is freaky looking. George promises to help Grace track down the real monster—something she calls a Boo Hag, a skin-changer who haunts the marshes—even if it will suck his soul, or worse, take his skin. His scaly butt is worth risking for a chance to get close to Grace. Not only can she help him escape, she may have the power to break his curse.

With Grace’s help, George flees the plantation but finds more danger than he bargained for: a closet of human skins, a shrimper bearing an uncanny resemblance to his murdered uncle, a village of islanders who want him dead, and a twisted family secret that puts his loved ones’ souls in the Boo Hag’s sights.

Complete at 66,000 words THE SUMERLIN CURSE is a YA Southern Gothic steeped in the Gullah/Geechee folklore of the Georgia Sea Islands. Featuring a diverse cast and mixed-race pairing, it should appeal to readers of Sally Green’s Half Bad and Martina Boone’s Compulsion.

I am a member of SCBWI and RWA. I am the associate producer for The Badger Sports Report and an editorial intern for Kate Brauning at Entangled Teen.

250:

Today, the third Wednesday of July, is a good day to run away.

Not a minute has deviated from the routine. This morning, Clarence walked here from the village, taking the dirt road I can just make out through the slits in the fence. I’ve never been to the village—I’ve never left the yard—but I know where the road leads because I’ve stared at its serpentine black line on the map pinned to my bedroom wall.

Clarence passes me the ball. We always play basketball after morning studies. Studies are okay. Today we covered graphing quadratic equations—snore—and finished our unit on Causes of the War of Northern Aggression. Because even when time seems to be the only thing I have in unlimited quantities, there’s never enough to kill on learning about the South’s “glorious cause.”

I dribble the ball between my legs, masterfully avoiding my scaly tail, and roll a jump shot off my claws. Swish! The ball catches only the bottom of the net. Clarence claps and says something about how good I’m getting. It’s a small consolation to being trapped here like a rabid animal.

A magnolia-scented breeze picks up. It hits me like the air blowing out of Mama’s hair dryer. The million degrees of south Georgia heat and humidity bake the tips of my leathery wings. I sweat in buckets; the sour moisture pools on my brow, drenching my dark bangs and curling the hairs around my ears and horns.

24 comments:

  1. Yes.

    I liked the idea and set up and think you've created an interesting MC and predicament. I also thought you provided strong comps in the query. An FYI -- you've got a typo 'dibbling' instead of 'dribbling.'

    I liked the voice of the piece, but this came off a bit clunky to me 'The fence encircles the entire house.' While I get what you're saying, it took me out of the prose for a moment. Also, since the next paragraph describes the much larger area (than just the house) the fence walls off, is that line necessary? Loved the 'I am a boy. No matter what I look like' line. I had one other quibble -- the 'Not a minute has deviated from the routine' read oddly -- since minutes cannot deviate, they simply pass. But, that said, I was intrigued and wanted to read more of the MC's story.
    #1

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  2. Oh my God, yes.

    Two typos: "dibbling" instead of dribbling, and "planation" instead of plantation. I love this. The folklore, the character, the prose. Big yes for me.

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  3. No.

    Within the query and 250, there were grammar errors, typos, and clunky writing. "True love's kiss" is also Disney's new Big Thing, which isn't a unique concept. I would be worried about all those things being in the pages.

    When I got to the 250, I loved the voice. Then it jumped with a section break and I got completely confused. Who is Clarence? Where did he come from? What does he have to do with anything? Unclear writing, coupled with the other concerns, made this a no from me.

    Positives: Voice in the pages. Diversity (huge plus!). Uncommon premise/folklore.

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  4. No.

    While I loved the unique folklore in this query, there were several grammar errors and typos throughout. I was also a little thrown by the quick section break in the 250 which really broke up the flow. I'd love to see more of the George's differences, whether it be his horns scraping against the fence as he peers out or his tail kicking up dust behind him, rather than just being told "no matter what I look like." I also wasn't sure who Clarence was, so using him to compare against the height of the fence was problematic. For such an intriguing premise I was a little disappointed that the "answer" is true love's kiss. I feel like that's been done quite a lot, and doesn't live up to the rest of the plot.

    On the plus side, I did love the diversity of the characters, and as I said above, the uniqueness of the folklore. Great job!

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  5. Yes.

    I really like the concept. I think the Gullah/Geechee/Southern Gothic setting could be awesome, with all kinds of unexamined magic to explore. I like the idea of a monster boy as a main character.

    What I’m struggling with in both the query and the first 250 is a tendency toward flat description. The query is very, “this happens, then that happens, then that…”. I don’t think you need to tell everything that happens in the story in the query. I’d like a little more injection of voice and excitement. Given the awesome setting, I want to believe this story of full of interesting, fully fleshed out characters, and I want you to show me that in the query. Grace, in particular, needs to be fleshed out. She doesn’t get the benefit of being revealed in the first 250 words, so she sounds quite one-dimensional here which is inconsistent with being the main character’s guide and ultimate partner. Even if she’s not a point-of-view character she’s got to be crucial and come to life in the query.

    The break is in the first 250 words is confusing. First there’s fence, then there’s basketball. Is this the chapter break? This may be a case where the “first 250” format undersells your book. I’d almost prefer to have one chapter or the other, but not both, in the first 250. Alternately, I’d cut back on the description of the fence. It’s obviously symbolic, but pare it down to your best description and get the action going sooner.

    You describe the two main characters as a “mixed-race pairing”. I think you might want to be explicit about who is what. I read it, at first, as both main characters being mixed-race, and got quite excited. Then it occurred to me that it might not be the case and I felt disappointed, which is kind of a good sign because I was already invested enough to be disappointed. Still, you might be best off being straightforward about this from the beginning.

    #2

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  6. #3 Commenting…

    Dribbling typo in 1st p but other than that - super strong opening

    Some tightening needed in 2nd p - "After botching an escape attempt, pictures of George surface online and he fears he’s proven Mama right." Maybe... "After George botches an escape attempt, and pictures surface on line, he proves his Mama right." And as for "the beast terrorizing her village" but he isn't… and if she's really a priestess she should know this, so… "the beast she thinks must be terrorizing…" and then "When George convinces Grace he's not the Boo Hag she seeks…"

    As for the final paragraph - 1st line not needed and then… this sentence doesn't actually end. Instead I'd put:
    Boo Hags and lip-action aren’t the only things standing between him and freedom. A closet full of human skins, a village of islanders who would peel the wings from his back, and a twisted family legacy more rotten than the Sumerlin Curse itself (And then END the sentence!)

    As for the 250: Love the voice and so many of the images (serpentine black line on the map pinned to my bedroom wall) are spot on but the break doesn't seem needed and jars me. Why not connect these sections. A boy who deserves to be free, and today, the third Wednesday of July, seems as good a day to try as any. All I have to do is give Clarence, my tutor, the slip. (Or whatever, just connect 'em)

    I'm intrigued and this, and I think you're really close. This entry tied with one of my yes's, but I'm going with no here mostly because of personal preference.

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  7. This would be a yes!

    You have a wonderful query letter. It's strong, highlights all the right details, and clearly states the stakes and consequences. It's obvious you've done you're research here, and that's impressive.

    I love the voice in your 250, it's very authentic to the age range and delivers what's promised in the query, a southern feel. The bit about the war of northern aggression was a great touch and I would expect to see more of that flare throughout the story, which is why I would request a full (if I were an agent).

    Critiqued by #7

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  8. This is #6.

    This is a yes from but I was a little torn, mostly because of the typos. I think we've all done it though (I know I have! :X) and the voice in both the query and the pages are just so strong that I can't keep away. I'm intrigued by the folklore you're drawing from and the voice feels real and authentic to me. I might think about creating some more continuity between the two segments of your first 250 because they feel a little disjointed.

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  9. This is a No from me. I love the first paragraph of your Query! The second paragraph reads as thought the pictures made an escape attempt, not George, so that needs to be changed. And plantation is misspelled. But really, overall, the whole monster/curse premise just doesn't interest me. It seemed to change from a kid trying to fit in/figure out who he is to a catch-the-monster book, which doesn't capture my attention. Totally subjective, I know.

    The 250 didn't do it for me either. I'm not sure of the point of the first section. I think you can start with the second section, which mentions running away and the fence, and go from there just fine.

    Good luck!

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  10. This is a no from me. The premise is intriguing, but there were a few grammar and spelling errors that threw me off. That wouldn't have killed it for me, but the 250 didn't grab me. I like the description of the fence, but then you go into the rest of the compound, which didn't seem to flow naturally from George's focus on the fence and road.

    I was also surprised when I figured out Grace was a teenager. I assume anyone with the title of priestess has graduated some sort of training and thus should be a little bit older. That might just be me, but it really threw me off for a minute.

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  11. I'm a visitor and this would be a no but I'd like to comment. I did a complete read-through of all entries. Any with more than one typo or glaring grammar error got an auto no, which is what happened to yours. Using that method gave me three easy choices among the 20, presumably much like an agent would do. When SC mentioned yours as having fewer comments, I came back for a few more visits. It's a shame about the typos because the writing has much to love. You've gotten excellent feedback for change above. The biggest problem I had was the appearance of Clarence so prominently without understanding clearly (implied) who he is. Taking such prominence on page one makes it seem he might be important to the story, so I'm frustrated and thrown out of the story by wondering who he is. You have some great skills and that shows in your query and writing.

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  12. No
    The "I'm not a ____, I'm a boy." lines made me cringe. To me they read way to young to be the voice of a YA book. He is a person, he is a human, he is even a man. I doubt the point is to identify his specific gender, rather than his humanity, so i think human/person are the better choices.
    I love the concept. I love the setting/culture. I even love a good old Disney Princess "True loves kiss", especially in a more adult OUAT re-telling kind of way.
    A lot of little things about the voice in both the Query and the first 250 make me worry that this might be closer to upper MG than YA.
    The ?prologue? felt completely unnecessary and it has no hook for me. The short bit after that was pretty good and made me think that maybe the voice was YA after all, but was too short to really tell.

    Tobias Eaton (4)

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  13. #5 chiming in - as an agent, I probably would not request pages (but I'd think really hard about it).

    The first line in your query is terrific. The rest of it flows nicely and it has great voice. When you get down to the reasons why George flees with Grace, I would think it *probably* has more to do with him just wanting out rather than a chance to get close to her, a girl he doesn't even know. It would be nice if you tied the chance to escape together with his failed attempt - it was his failed attempt, after all, that seems to have really provided the opportunity to escape. And maybe he realizes this and reads something in about Grace herself? Not sure, but if these plot threads do tie together in any way, maybe you can find an interesting way to do that.

    When you refer to the "true love's kiss," it implies that George wants to be a regular boy, and of course, this makes perfect sense. But before you bring this up, some nod towards how he feels about being under this curse would be nice - all we get is that he wants to get out, not change. And, is it giving too much away to understand this curse? I'd like to know, but maybe if I'm an agent that gets me to request pages. Hmmm....

    The last paragraph of the query has a lot going on. It isn't necessarily confusing, but it's not particularly clear, either. And, one thing I always want to see in a query, is a reference to the personal choice that is at stake for the MC. I think it could be part of the twisted family legacy that he has to face? I'd like more specifics on that, if possible.

    In the 250, you do a great job of setting us right in the world of the character and introducing us to George. I saw on twitter you were concerned about the brevity of your first chapter, but I didn't find it problematic.

    I do find the phrasing confusing in places. First of all, I have no idea who Clarence is, let alone how tall he is, so if the height of the fence is going to impress me, I'd need either some other reference point or know more about Clarence. Also, the phrase - "but that's only on the outside." You're talking about the smell when you say it, so the next thing I expected to read was what he was smelling *inside* the fence.

    And this sentence: Inside, the fence forms a giant ring around the gardens, reflection pools, and basketball court, with the manor house in its center; a much, much larger version of the wire fence Clarence put up around the pig pen

    You're trying to compare the larger fence to the pig pen fence, and it sets up BEAUTIFULLY what is a very powerful ending to this chapter. However, I had to read the sentence a couple times to understand the analogy you were making because the first half of the sentence ends with a reference to the manor house - and then you say that it's a much, much larger version of the wire fence. When you're drawing a contrast like that, it helps to have the thing you want to compare be the last thing you reference, so that is what is in the reader's mind as you move forward to the comparison.

    That is really nit-picky stuff, but I do also think it's the difference between writing that sweeps you up and writing that makes you stop and think, wait, what?

    As the next chapter begins, still wondering who the heck Clarence is. And this one may make you laugh, but as a bona fide Aggressor, I had no idea what the War of Northern Aggression was. It was by reading through the comments that I realized you're talking about the Civil War, and then it kinda rang a bell. I even ran it past my husband, wondering if it was just me. Same reaction. Granted this is anecdotal and a sample size of 2, and I'm not at all saying you should change it, but realize that may only play with Southerners.

    Great story, though, with a strong premise and unique setting! I think you'll have much success with it!



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  14. I need more info about Clarence in the 250. You have an amazing voice running through both the query and the 250 and for that you get a yes! I love this premise. It reminded me of the movie Penelope but better.

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  15. This is a no for me, but I really had to think hard about it. There is so much to love that I went back and forth, but ultimately I believe it's just not quite there.
    Your query is very complicated -- I got tangled up with George, Mama, the Boo Hag, and Grace. It seems ultimately that you have a chimera here (even if you don't want to use the word) who is kept prisoner by his own mother - who says its for his protection. But he wants to be free - and with the help of a hoodoo priestess, he escapes, only to discover that maybe his mama was right about the world after all.
    Then what? What exactly is the conflict at this point? What is the cost for inaction? I wasn't clear about that from your query - and that's what I need to hook me.
    Your first 250 are lovely BUT - I think you can do without the prologue. It's very internal and while the descriptions are wonderful, it just isn't enough to keep me interested. Plus - your query names 4 people but not Clarence, who appears TWICE in your first 250 with no explanation of who he is. I'd start with the part after the break, work in the prologue elsewhere, and tell us who Clarence is.
    I'm rooting for this one - good luck!

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  16. Hi,
    This is a no from me, but mainly because of the 250. You have an amazing voice here, but the break in the excerpt threw me off. I don't think you need that prologue, if you could thread that information into the first chapter. I also had no idea who Clarence was.
    The voice is awesome, and that's the hardest to do. So, great job on that.
    #9

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  17. Revision critique from #16 here! :D

    So I didn't get the chance to comment the first time around. Oh my. The setting, the premise, everything, it's gorgeous. LOVE IT. WANT TO SAY YES.

    Except.

    The 250, while polished and a perfect opening, reads like a MG novel.

    So I have to say no, which is really sad because I love everything else! But age-appropriate voice is just soon important to me. And it's literally the only quibble I have with the whole shebang. So, maybe make it an upper-MG?? OR...

    I just realized something. Obviously, this kid has been locked up, so sort of like Disney's Rapunzel, he's probably a little behind socially, etc, and acts younger than he is. I'm only guessing here, but if this is the case, maybe hint at it somehow in the query. Because if so, then I'd totally say yes :D

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  18. Revision from #17
    You cleaned up your query nicely. MUCH better. I get a good feeling for things now and the part about Grace possibly being able to cure him was a VERY good addition. The 250 is better as well. So this still gets a yes from me!

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  19. Revision - No. (I wanted to say yes though because of your amazing query!) You really pack a lot of pertinent and inciting info (romance, creatures, a curse, etc) about your story in the query. And it's clear. Beyond the appeal of the setting and plot, the uniqueness of the main characters draws me in.

    My "no" has to do with the 250 words. I really love your comparison of the breeze to the hair dryer. Good intensity with the opening mention of him never having left the yard, and that map on his bedroom wall gives a sense of longing. The way you introduced his appearance, didn't work for me because it happened in segments that felt too purposeful in revealing his unique parts. In general, the reveal didn't feel natural and didn't paint the picture of your character's appearance (at least for me). This is who he is all the time, and I want to experience that as I read. One example, when the ball passed to him, his claws would have had interaction with the ball, and so the timing of the description (in the next paragraph) was off. Regardless, I'm still loving your story and wish you the best with it. (#10)

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    1. p.s. Your query is improved from the first version. There are things I like in the 250 words first draft--the sensory description, the pig pen, the setting description to orient the reader, as well as the sentiment about I am a boy. No matter what I look like.

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  20. Hi from #15! I remember critiquing this in round 1, but I don't see my comments! That's weird!

    Anyway, I love what you have done with this! The QL works for me, and the 250 has great voice! I love the way you describe the MC, with all of his wings and things, and the breeze. I makes me feel like I am there. I already feel a connection to your MC, and I really hope he finds a way to break the curse!

    This is a yes from me! I wish you lots of luck with it!

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  21. Revision from #1 here - a big ol' "Yes" from me. I think the opening works to settle me into the story and loses none of the wonderful voice from the first round. The query letter does a great job spelling out the MC's situation and what he wants, yet is never a dry recitation of facts. Great job.

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  22. Revision from #2 - Even more yes than last time. The query is much better and makes the characters and stakes much clearer while revealing more of your inventive southern gothic elements. I also like how the narrators voice has crept into the query now: "as freaked out as he is freaky looking" made me giggle.

    I would still work on your 250. I think you have the voice but it's sometimes getting drowned out by details you want to express but that wouldn't naturally be part of the main character's internal dialogue (he wouldn't think about the color of his own hair, just that it was dripping with sweat). Like some of the folks above in the comments, I struggle with the switch to playing basketball too. I think if you said "Now we're playing basketball like we always do after my morning studies" instead, and moved "Clarence passes me the ball." to the next paragraph, it might help the reader see the progression of activities that defines their day while keeping the basketball action.

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  23. Oh, I love the premise for this one! Can't believe I missed reading this last week! One minor point on the query: if the priestess is also a teenager and will be a love interest for George (which you imply later in the query), maybe point out her age--is she an apprentice priestess or something, because I was totally envisioning an older, more experienced lady and then was confused by the mixed-race pair comment at the end of the query.

    I think the first 250 still needs a little polishing though. I like your first line and the way that you use basketball to introduce George's rather unusual physique, but the part about the routine is clunky and unclear and I wasn't sure who Clarence was for a while. You can't have that sort of confusion on the first page. Maybe focus on that first line: what about this day makes it the day he's going to run away? Then if there's an undercurrent of him planning the get-away as you go through his typical routine of the day, it will have more tension AND we'll be learning about his internal thoughts even as you show us his tail and claws.

    Best of luck, this sounds like an awesome story!

    #13

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