First Impact: CHRYSALIS by Melissa Grebeleski

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who offers their comments this month is eligible for either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me. I will draw a winner for January in just a few days, so get commenting.

This week we have a query for a YA fantasy. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. As always, this is all just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

UPDATE (1/31, 9 AM): Melissa has posted a revised version of her query in the comments. Take a look and let her know what you think.

How can an archangel be seventeen?
Seventeen year-old Ivy Chapel, an archangel with amnesia, unknowingly possesses the healing power for all mankind. While trying to remember her past, Ivy must guard her heart and soul against the enemies standing in her way.

I'd move this to the top or the bottom
of the query.
I am searching for representation for my completed 107,074-word 107,000-word young adult novel, titled Chrysalis. The book is about a girl discovering the incredible truth about her destiny. The story entwines love, loyalty, betrayal and sacrifice.

Long paragraph. Maybe split it up.

At first I thought this meant that
archangels have parents.

If she wasn't returned, does that
Lucifer's rebellion is over?

Lucian feels like he comes out of the
blue to me. And his secrets are too
vague for me to follow.
Fairy tales and folklore. T, that’s what it sounds like to Ivy. Who would ever believe that she’s an archangel with amnesia, let alone the sole guardian of God’s power to heal everything for all mankind? One person does—her parents’ new tenant, handsome and arrogant William. He tells Ivy the strangest story about an angel being hidden on Earth in the form of a baby, a child forced by her spiritual parents to remain human until the rebellion of Lucifer ended, making it safe for her to come home. But something went terribly wrong. Ivy was never returned to heaven and now that she’s all grown up she finds herself the target of every demonic being. After two attempts on her life, Ivy realizes there might be more to William’s story and that truth can be far stranger than fiction. Her new boyfriend, Lucian, is charming and sophisticated. But there’s something about him she can’t quite figure out. As she slowly regains her spiritual abilities, Ivy finds herself caught between love and loyalty. William and Lucian hold the secrets of her past and the outcome of her future. One wants her heart. One wants her soul. Will she be able to survive them both and save the world?

Chrysalis is my first novel. I’m a stay at home mother and have been writing privately for friends and family for many years.

It's up to you whether you want to
write a sequel for a story that hasn't
sold, but as far as the query goes,
just say it has series potential.
Although Chrysalis stands alone as a novel, I have started on its sequel ideas for a sequel. I look forward to the opportunity to send you a few chapters, or the entire manuscript, of Chrysalis at your request. The finished manuscript is available on request. Please feel free to contact me using the email address. Please know that I have submitted queries to other agencies. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Adam's Thoughts
I think there's an intriguing story here (if you're not sick of angel stories, which I'm not; but I've heard agents tire of it in the past so watch out). But I think it gets lost behind what looks to me like an amateur query (sorry).

Lots of these problems are structural and easily fixed. For example:
  • The logline paragraph that repeats information stated later in the query. I've talked about this before.
  • Citing word count down to the exact word (generally round to the neareast thousand).
  • Telling what the story's about instead of letting the query show it (e.g. "[It's] about a girl discovering the incredible truth," etc).
  • Big Block of Text.
  • Superfluous information in the conclusion paragraph (mostly stuff that agents assume is true).
Fix all of that, and this will already look a lot better. Now let's talk about the meat of the query.

I like the concept of a teenager who doesn't realize she's really an archangel (and it makes a lot more sense than a 17-year-old archangel :-). That's your hook. And I guess William's arrival and the attempts on her life are the inciting incident.

But then the query gets a bit vague. It brings up a character that sounds like he's always been there, but feels like he came out of nowhere. And this character has a secret, but we don't get to know what it is.

Now, you don't necessarily need to tell us the secret, but the way this is written now, not knowing the secrets makes her sadistic choice meaningless to us. She has to choose between "love and loyalty," but who's love? And loyalty to whom? "One wants her heart. One wants her soul." But which is which? And why?

This is where you need to get specific. If we don't understand the protagonist's choice, then we can't care, no matter how much we want to. What makes a choice really sadistic is when the reader understands what goes into the choice, and they still have no idea what they would choose if it were them.

That's my opinion, anyway. What do the rest of you guys think?

First Impact: RACHEL ON FIRE by Vanessa Shields

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who offers their comments this month is eligible for either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me.

This week we have a logline and first page for a YA Contemporary from Vanessa Shields. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. As always, this is all just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

The bit about him killing his parents
hooked me. I wonder if that couldn't
come sooner.

I'm less sure about the last line.
On the bus out of town, it takes one kiss with Tom to ignite sixteen-year-old Rachel’s love. She’s ready to uncover the truth about Tom, the blue-eyed loner, who is rumored to have killed his parents in a house fire. Through a series of fiery firsts that uncover Tom’s scarred story, Rachel falls courageously in love. True love is real.

First Page
I was following this until the last
line. Then I felt out of the loop. Why
does she feel like something's up?

I watched my older brother Alex fidgeting with his university acceptance letter. He was speechless, for once. In fact, we all found ourselves happily silenced. My parents took a sip of their coffees. Then my mom put her hand on my dad’s shoulder. Suddenly, I felt so far out of the loop I couldn’t even see it.
“That’s great. Really great,” my dad said. He looked at my mom. We all looked at my mom. “Actually, we’ve got some news for you guys, too.”
A bad feeling in my guts stood at attention.
“We’re selling the house,” my mom said. A little sob slipped out of her mouth, which she quickly covered with her hand.
“What?!” I barely had enough breath to say the word.
“We don’t need to live in this big, old thing with Alex going off to school,” my mom said.
“Hey, Rachel, it’ll be okay,” Alex jumped in.
“Will it?” I glared at my mom. I couldn’t believe what my ears were hearing.
“Did you know about this?” I looked at Alex. His eyes found my mom’s, and then he nodded. Guilt shaded my family’s faces a bright hue of red. I pointed at them dramatically.  
“You all knew about this! How could you not tell me?” I was shouting. I wanted to run out of the room, but my legs were concrete heavy.
“We should have told you Rachel,” my dad said.
            I still felt like there was part of the loop that wasn’t being revealed.

Adam's Thoughts
I'm intrigued by the mystery, but I feel a little disconnected from the character. Nothing stands out to me as "wrong," but I think it's a combination of little things:
  • The sentence in the first paragraph where she feels out of the loop, but I don't even know what signals she picked up on that made her feel that way. I'm still trying to get grounded in these characters and the acceptance letter and what that means.
  • I think there's something lacking in her reaction to the news. Plenty of emotions are shown, but why is this so bad for her? What does this house mean for her? (Part of this might just be me: I don't personally identify with the issue because I've never felt that way about a house.)
  • It also might be that nobody else seems to have any emotions (with the exception of when her mom covers her sob -- that part's great).
  • Like the first "loop" sentence, I'm not sure what signals she's picking up on to make her think they're hiding more from her.
I'd read on, for sure, but if nothing changed, eventually the characters would be having All The Problems, and I would be like, "So?" And you don't want that.

What do the rest of you guys think?

Attention Blog Readers

I'm officially lowering my commitment to this blog, for obvious reasons. I will keep up the First Impact posts as long as I have submissions, and I'll post other things when I've got the time/inclination. But I need to give myself the freedom to back off my M/W/F schedule.

The new official schedule is "One to Three Times a Week and If I Miss a Week I'm Sorry." I highly recommend the RSS feed or an e-mail subscription if you are one of those who still checks websites on specific days.

I don't even need to read the comments to know you understand. I know you guys, and you are AWESOME. Three posts a week isn't even really hectic, but it does weigh on me as One More Thing. And when I've got too many Things weighing on me, the harder-but-more-important ones (like writing or playing games with my kids) get skipped.

And yes, playing games with my kids is hard. They have no attention span, so I have to triple mine to compensate.

Secret Hobbies

Name both these movies, and you win my eternal esteem.
Cross-posted from Anthdrawlogy's Heat week.

I am not a dancer, not by any twisted aerial of the imagination. But I do watch a lot of dance media: Shall We Dance, You Got Served, Stomp the Yard, all four Step Up movies, every single episode of So You Think You Can Dance...

I'm not sure how this happened (I married a dancer), but I regret nothing. Some of these guys are fricking superheroes with what they can do.

So what's your secret hobby?


It's time for another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who offers their comments this month is eligible for either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me.

This week we have the first page of a black comedy. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. As always, this is all just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

First Page
As I stared at the two little blue lines, my grandpa’s words from a few months before echoed in my head. Doped up and pregnant.

I think adrenaline is produced in the
brain. And it actually enhances your
The memory is a blur thanks to the massive dose of adrenaline my heart shot out when I asked to live with him while working at his competitor’s restaurant. I only remember snippets of conversation and images, like the half deer carcass over his shoulder.

No granddaughter of mine

The cleaver, gleaming in the afternoon sun as he lifted it above his head.

Forty years I’ve run this resort. I know what goes on.

His grey eyes boring into me from over his half moon glasses.

You’ll end up doped up and pregnant, just like all those other poor innocent small town girls

The cleaver again, this time coming down between ribs with a heavy thunk.

Looking at those blue lines,
I could feel adrenaline clouding my thoughts again. Two lines, I thought. Two beings, one body. Me and my baby. My fetus. My... embryo? Whatever. Two. One too many to prove my grandfather wrong.

I'm having trouble parsing this

I like the end line.
I sat down on my creaky twin bed, standard issue in the 50s motel now home to Bear Claw Brewhouse employees, and lit up the joint my roommate rolled for me. If I was going to fail, I was going to fail all the way.

Adam's Thoughts
There's a lot of good stuff here. There's some nice voice and a so-far-compelling character. I like how you intertwined her grandfather's words with his actions in the flashback. This feels like a good start to me.

Be careful you don't over-explain why you're doing things. You don't need to explain that her memory is blurred and in snippets in order to introduce that particular flashback. Most of the time, you can just jump into it. Keep things tight and snappy.

And I know the adrenaline thing is really nitpicky, but that's the kind of thing that can either gain or lose the reader's trust. You have to have the reader's trust, and it starts with the small details. You don't have to research every little thing (I mean, I do, but I'm slow and obsessive), but do get good critique partners who can catch this kind of thing. It's one thing we nerds are good at :-)

How do the rest of you feel about this opening?

Making Up Fantasy Languages

It's impossible (perhaps illegal, and certainly blasphemous) to talk about fantasy languages without mentioning the Godfather of Fantasy Language: Mr. John Tolkien. The guy invented languages for fun since he was thirteen years old. He wrote the most epic novel of all time just so he had a place to use those languages.

If that's you, read no further. You're fine.

Most of us, however, did not specialize in graduate-level English philology. So most of us don't really understand how language evolves or what it takes to create an artificial language that has the feel and depth of a real one. That's why a lot of amateur fantasy languages sound silly or made-up.

So how do you create a language that FEELS real, without spending years determining morphology, grammar, and syntax? I'll show you what I do. It's the same thing I do with most world-building: steal from real life, then obscure my sources.

Let's take the phrase "thank you." It's a common phrase, often borrowed between languages (e.g. the Japanese say "sankyu" as borrowed English; in California we say "gracias" as borrowed Spanish, etc).

STEAL FROM REAL LIFE. First I need a source -- some existing, real-world language I can base my fantasy language on. I want it to be somewhat obscure, and I want to show you how you can do this without even knowing the source language (which means no Thai), so I'll pick Malay.

There's lots of ways to find foreign words in a chosen language. If I wanted to be accurate, I'd use 2-3 sites to verify, but I'm making up a language, so Google Translate it is. It translates "thank you" as "terima kasih."

Now that's pretty cool on its own. It's pretty, easy to read, and sounds totally foreign. But despite the odds, somebody who speaks Malay will probably read my novel at some point. That's why we obscure the source. Two ways I do that: (1) alter the letters/sounds/word order of the existing phrase and (2) mix it with some other language.

OBSCURE YOUR SOURCES. For my second source language, I'll pick something from the same family in the hopes it will make my made-up language sound more real. A little Wikipediage tells me Malay is an Austronesian language, and lists the major languages of that branch. I'll use Filipino (just because it's also in Google Translate) and get "salamat."

Then I mish-mash for prettiness and obfuscation. Salamat + terima = salima or salama or, slightly more obscure, sarama. For kasih, I already used the "sala" part of salamat, so I'll take mat + kasih = matak. "Sarama matak." But that feels a bit long for a thank you phrase, so I'll shorten it to "Sarama tak."

And there you go. It was a little work, but a lot less work than it took Tolkien to invent Quenya. If I'm really serious about this fantasy culture/language, I'll keep a glossary of the phrases I make up in my notes, along with a note of what the source languages are (so I can repeat the process to create more phrases that sound like they could be from the same language) and links to the translation sites I used.

If the glossary gets big enough, I might (because I am a bit of a language geek) start converting the phrases into their constituent parts: individual words, verbs, maybe even conjugations. But that's breaching into Tolkien territory where I said I wouldn't go.

Anyway, now you know my secret. Go forth and make cool-sounding languages.

(remixed from an older post)

Top Secret Project is No Longer Secret

Let me tell you a story about a little boy and his dreams. This boy (we'll call him Adam) wanted to make video games since he was 11 years old and Nintendo Power ran a contest to design your own game.* Back then (the late 80's), the only career paths to video games were computer programming and art. Believing he was no good at the latter, he studied computers for the next twelve years.

But Adam wrote too. Oh, God, he wrote -- and designed, because for him it was always about creating the games. Programming was just a means to an end.

In early 1999, Adam got his wish. Feargus Urquhart, head of Black Isle Studios, took a chance on a rookie programmer not quite out of college, and Adam became a scripter on one of the greatest RPGs ever made. And he impressed some people. So much so that when he told them he wanted to be a designer on the next project, rather than a programmer, they happily obliged.

But it didn't last. Oh he loved the job, but the hours were many, and he was commuting 2.5+ hours a day on top of it. When Adam got married, he decided a less demanding (and possibly better paying) job would help ensure the longevity of his new family.

And then he went crazy and left it all for Thailand.

It was all good, though. He'd found a new creative outlet in his novels, and being a full-time dad actually gave him opportunity to write. Of course he missed game design, just like he missed steak houses and the ocean; it was just one of many sacrifices he'd made for the greater good.

But Adam, like so many of us, underestimated the power of the internet and social networking.

Now, this is happening. My old friend, Colin McComb, asked me to be one of the primary designers on a successor to our beloved Planescape: Torment. We're working with Monte Cook (one of the creators of my favorite edition of D&D) and other equally cool people that I can't even mention yet.

We're still in pre-production, and there's always a chance the game won't even happen: big publishers don't want this thing, so we have to go directly to the people who do (BTW, if you're one of those people, we'll talk later).

But just the fact that there's a chance I can do game design again is kind of blowing my mind. We're living in the future, guys. Next stop: teleporters and flying cars.

* Before 11, I wanted to be a jet fighter pilot. I blame Iron Eagle.