MG historical novel, query revised

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MHubbs
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MG historical novel, query revised

Post by MHubbs » December 21st, 2009, 10:38 pm

I'm new to Nathan's blog and to the forum. Both have taught me a great deal already and I appreciate all the time and effort he has put into it. I'll be the next to throw myself to the lions. I've been paring down a query letter for my middle grade historical novel for a couple of weeks. It started at about two pages and had slowly shrunk to a more manageable length. It is probably still too long, but I'm not sure what else should be removed at this point.

Most of the posts here have been for fantasy, so I feel a little out of place with historical fiction, but here goes with my latest:

Dear ___________

Ephraim Wright has kept a secret for seventy years. Half of the secret gives him regret, the other half gives satisfaction. Now seven decades after the Civil War he tells his story to a young writer conducting interviews for the Federal Government's Slave Narratives project.

Ep is thirteen at the beginning of the War and the only slave in a rural Arkansas Unionist family. Raised with the family since he was two years old, he is never once required to call Jonathan Wright, his benevolent owner, "master." His speech, manners and outlook on life are more akin to his white "siblings" than the other slaves in the community who chide him for being a “pet nigga.” He is stranded between two worlds, that of free whites and of enslaved blacks.

Most of the men are off to war and the country is plagued by lawless men. When Confederate conscript officers take the family's oldest son at gun point, Ep is beaten unconscious by the soldiers during the ensuing scuffle. The family is later terrorized by Charlie Spears and his bushwhacker gang who ransack the farm, steal their livestock and gun down Jonathan Wright. The responsibility of running the farm falls on Ep's young shoulders and his white "masters" come to rely on his steadfastness. The playfulness and joy in his life fades as he becomes obsessed with hatred for Charlie Spears and the Confederates who took his older "brother." New responsibilities and his burning hatred transform him from a carefree adolescent to a determined and vengeful young man.

The law forbids a slave to touch a firearm, for a Negro with a gun is a nervous thing to white folks. No matter what side of the law, Ep cannot raise his hand to any white man good or evil. Are the local history books wrong? Who really fired the shot that killed Charlie Spears?

When Freedom Come is a upper middle grade historical novel inspired by actual events. Much of the African American dialog is based on true accounts by ex-slaves in The Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. The novel is complete at 51,000 words. I am a historian and archaeologist and have had several non-fiction articles published in historical magazines and journals. This is my first work of fiction.

I look forward to hearing from you.
Last edited by MHubbs on December 23rd, 2009, 10:21 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Query critique for MG historical novel

Post by skottk » December 22nd, 2009, 12:14 am

MHubbs wrote:I'm new to Nathan's blog and to the forum. Both have taught me a great deal already and I appreciate all the time and effort he has put into it. I'll be the next to throw myself to the lions. I've been paring down a query letter for my middle grade historical novel for a couple of weeks. It started at about two pages and had slowly shrunk to a more manageable length. It is probably still too long, but I'm not sure what else should be removed at this point.

Most of the posts here have been for fantasy, so I feel a little out of place with historical fiction, but here goes with my latest:

Dear ___________

Ephraim Wright has kept a secret for seventy years. Half of the secret gives him regret, the other half gives satisfaction. Now seven decades after the Civil War he tells his story to a young writer conducting interviews for the Federal Government's Slave Narratives project.
I kind of like this, but I think it fits better after your description of the story.

Ep is thirteen at the beginning of the Civil War and the only slave in a rural Arkansas Unionist family. Raised with the family since he was two years old, he is never once required to call Jonathan Wright, his benevolent owner, "master." His speech, manners and outlook on life are more akin to his white "siblings" than the other slaves in the community who chide him for being a “pet nigga.” He is stranded between two worlds, that of free whites and of enslaved blacks.

Most of the men are off to war and the country is plagued by lawless men. When Confederate conscript officers take the family's oldest son at gun point, Ep is beaten unconscious by the soldiers during the ensuing scuffle. The family is later terrorized by Charlie Spears and his bushwhacker gang who ransack the farm, steal their livestock and gun down Jonathan Wright. The responsibility of running the farm falls on Ep's young shoulders and his white "masters" come to rely on his steadfastness. The playfulness and joy in his life fades as he becomes obsessed with hatred for Charlie Spears and the Confederates who took his older "brother." New responsibilities and his burning hatred transform him from a carefree adolescent to a determined and vengeful young man.
Through this point, all I can say is there's a little more passive voice than you might want - first three sentences in a row in this paragraph. A mere bagatelle, given how strong everything is.

The law forbids a slave to touch a firearm, for a Negro with a gun is a nervous thing to white folks. No matter what side of the law, Ep cannot raise his hand to any white man good or evil. Are the local history books wrong? Who really fired the shot that killed Charlie Spears?
Whoops - I have no idea how to get from the prior paragraph to this one. When was Charile Spears shot? What do the history books say? It's almost like there's a sentence or two missing.

Ephraim Wright has kept a the secret for seventy years. Half of the secret gives him regret, the other half gives satisfaction. Now seven decades after the Civil War he tells his story to a young writer conducting interviews for the Federal Government's Slave Narratives project.
Take the "law forbids a slave to touch" paragraph a little further to explain more of what actually happened, then this paragraph teases the rest of the story instead of delaying it.

When Freedom Come is a upper middle grade historical novel inspired by actual events. Much of the African American dialog is based on true accounts by ex-slaves in The Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. The novel is complete at 51,000 words. I am a historian and archaeologist and have had several non-fiction articles published in historical magazines and journals. [List a few magazine and journal titles - I mean, wow! Prior publishing credits!] This is my first work of fiction.

I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your time and consideration.
This is one-half great, one half almost there. Write a third paragraph (fourth, your current layout) as good as the one before and start shipping the sucker out.

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Re: Query critique for MG historical novel

Post by Jaime » December 22nd, 2009, 12:27 am

Hi MHubbs,
Welcome to Nathan's blog :) I think you'll find that nearly everyone here is in the same boat as you, so I'm sure you'll feel quite at home in no time - and hardly any of us bite! It appears to me that this book will probably appeal to readers older than middle grade, too, just as Harry Potter does. I also like that it's a historical fiction for this age group. Keep in mind that I'm new at queries, too!
Here goes:
MHubbs wrote:I'm new to Nathan's blog and to the forum. Both have taught me a great deal already and I appreciate all the time and effort he has put into it. I'll be the next to throw myself to the lions. I've been paring down a query letter for my middle grade historical novel for a couple of weeks. It started at about two pages and had slowly shrunk to a more manageable length. It is probably still too long, but I'm not sure what else should be removed at this point.

Most of the posts here have been for fantasy, so I feel a little out of place with historical fiction, but here goes with my latest:

Dear ___________

Ephraim Wright has kept a secret for seventy years. Half of the secret gives him regret, the other half gives satisfaction. Now seven decades after the Civil War he tells his story to a young writer conducting interviews for the Federal Government's Slave Narratives project. I would put some commas in there: Now, seven decades after the Civil War, he tells his story to . . . OR, reword to add more of a hook: But when a young writer requests an interview about the Civil War for the Federal Government's Slave Narratives project, Ep feels it is time to lay his ghosts to rest (or set the record straight).

Ep is thirteen at the beginning of the War or - was thirteen years old when the War began - the first paragraph starts off as a reflection, so I would keep this as past tense - not is thirteen, and the only slave in a rural Arkansas Unionist family. Raised with the family since he was two years old, he is never once required to call Jonathan Wright, his benevolent owner, "master." His speech, manners and outlook on life are more akin to his white "siblings" than the other slaves in the community who chide him for being a “pet nigga.” I'm an Aussie, so I'm not as close to these terms as people who live in the U.S. would be, but I would imagine that the use of 'nigga' would be quite controversial, especially in an upper middle grade novel. I don't know if this is a term used in the novel itself, but I would consider rewording to 'white man's pet', or something of the like. But, it's your novel. Go with your gut. He is stranded between two worlds, (I would use a hyphen or colon instead of a comma) that of free whites (comma) and of enslaved blacks.

Most of the men are off to war and the country is plagued by lawless men - I would probably leave this out. When Confederate conscript officers take the family's oldest son at gun point, Ep is beaten unconscious by the soldiers during the ensuing scuffle. The family is later terrorized by Charlie Spears and his bushwhacker gang who ransack the farm, steal their livestock (comma) and gun down Jonathan Wright. I would imagine they're already terrorised by the War and the removal of their son and brother at gunpoint, and Ep being beaten unconscious! Maybe reword - "But Ep's life is irreversibly changed when outlaw Charlie Spears . . .

The responsibility of running the farm falls on Ep's young shoulders (comma) and his white "masters" come to rely on his steadfastness (I know his family treated him well, but wouldn't this have been his main responsibility, anyway, considering he is still "enslaved"?). The playfulness and joy in his life fades as he becomes obsessed with hatred for Charlie Spears and the Confederates who took his older "brother." New responsibilities and his burning hatred transform him from a carefree adolescent to a determined and vengeful young man. Try rewording this paragraph to one sentence. His responsibilities are mentioned twice, as are the loss of his carefree and joyful life, and his hatred for those who have changed his life.

The law forbids a slave to touch a firearm, for a Negro with a gun is a nervous thing to white folks (here, you're referring to a Negro as a 'thing'. Perhaps 'for a Negro with a gun makes white folk nervous' - or something like that). No matter what side of the law, Ep cannot raise his hand to any white man (comma) good or evil. Are the local history books wrong? Who really fired the shot that killed Charlie Spears?

Most agents aren't too fond of rhetorical questions, but I think the use of them here is okay. This last paragraph leaves me with questions, though - did Ep go in seach of Charlie Spears while he was supposed to be looking after the farm? How did he get from Point A to Point B? He was obviously present if he knows who shot Charlie, but the query leaves out some decision making processes on Ep's part. What danger does this impose on both Ep and his family if he seeks revenge or goes in search of his "brother"? How did he know where Charlie Spears was? This info would help hook the reader.

When Freedom Come is a upper middle grade historical novel inspired by actual events. Much of the African American dialog is based on true accounts by ex-slaves in The Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. The novel is complete at 51,000 words. I am a historian and archaeologist and have had several non-fiction articles published in historical magazines and journals. This is my first work of fiction - leave this out.

I look forward to hearing from you.
I think you've got a really interesting novel here, which would no doubt be both entertaining and informative for kids of this age. It seems like there would be a lot of challenges for Ep to face, and I would have loved to see them in the query. I'll keep my eye out for a revision. I hope I haven't come across as too picky!!!

Jaime

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Re: Query critique for MG historical novel

Post by Ryan » December 22nd, 2009, 3:20 am

Sounds great. After the first breeze through I'm intrigued by the conflict of EP. I bet he kicks some ass, defends his white family and shows his black peers what honor and loyalty is all about. Will give it a careful read tomorrow evening and comment some more. It's a good start for sure. You should definitely list the exact journals and publications.
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Re: Query critique for MG historical novel

Post by c.ska » December 22nd, 2009, 7:48 am

MHubbs, this sounds very interesting. Now let's see what I can do to help...
MHubbs wrote:I'm new to Nathan's blog and to the forum. Both have taught me a great deal already and I appreciate all the time and effort he has put into it. I'll be the next to throw myself to the lions. I've been paring down a query letter for my middle grade historical novel for a couple of weeks. It started at about two pages and had slowly shrunk to a more manageable length. It is probably still too long, but I'm not sure what else should be removed at this point.

Most of the posts here have been for fantasy, so I feel a little out of place with historical fiction, but here goes with my latest:

Dear ___________

Ephraim Wright has kept a secret for seventy years. Half of the secret gives him regret, the other half gives satisfaction. Now seven decades after the Civil War he tells his story to a young writer conducting interviews for the Federal Government's Slave Narratives project. agree that this paragraph could be successfully moved to the end of query, though to me it works as a 'hook' too. It definitely pulled me in. actually, keep it!

Ep is thirteen at the beginning of the War and the only slave in a rural Arkansas Unionist family. Raised with the family since he was two years old, he is never once required to call Jonathan Wright, his benevolent owner, "master." His speech, manners and outlook on life are more akin to his white "siblings" than the other slaves in the community who chide him for being a “pet nigga.” He is stranded between two worlds, that of free whites and of enslaved blacks. great last sentence, however if you aim to shrink query as proposed, I would work on simplifying a few sentences, cutting out any unnecessary words.

Most of the men are off to war and the country is plagued by lawless men. I would change this sentence, it doesn't measure up to the rest of your writing somehow. When Confederate conscript officers take the family's oldest son at gun point, Ep is beaten unconscious by the soldiers during the ensuing scuffle. Might be an idea to start with this sentence and work the other in somehow. The family is later terrorized by Charlie Spears and his bushwhacker gang who ransack the farm, steal their livestock and gun down Jonathan Wright. The responsibility of running the farm falls on Ep's young shoulders and his white "masters" come to rely on his steadfastness. don't like the word steadfastness here, sounds like you're talking about an animal... The playfulness and joy in his life fades as CUT he becomes obsessed with hatred for Charlie Spears and the Confederates who took his older "brother." New responsibilities and his burning hatred transform him from a carefree adolescent to a determined and vengeful young man. Actually I'd probably put the two last sentences together. Ex: He becomes obsessed with hatred for Charlie Spears and the Confederates who took his older "brother" , transforming him from a carefree adolescent to a determined and vengeful young man. Or something along those lines...

The law forbids a slave to touch a firearm, for a Negro with a gun is a nervous thing to white folks. No matter what side of the law, Ep cannot raise his hand to any white man good or evil. Are the local history books wrong? Who really fired the shot that killed Charlie Spears? Not sure you need this paragraph.

When Freedom Come is a upper middle grade historical novel inspired by actual events. Much of the African American dialog is based on true accounts by ex-slaves in The Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. The novel is complete at 51,000 words. I am a historian and archaeologist and have had several non-fiction articles published in historical magazines and journals. This is my first work of fiction. I like the last paragraph.

I look forward to hearing from you.
Great premise, well written query, voice shines through - all in all leaving me wanting to read your story! good solid background as well. what I am missing is some more specific information concerning ep's emotional states / what he has to confront / obstacles etc - the things that would make the query really come alive. hard I know...but worth a shot! c.ska

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Re: Query critique for MG historical novel

Post by MHubbs » December 22nd, 2009, 11:30 am

Thanks folks,

There are some very valuable suggestions here. I'll clean this up and repost here with a new version as soon as I can.

Have a great holiday!

Mark Hubbs
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Re: Query critique for MG historical novel

Post by jayinhouston » December 22nd, 2009, 3:33 pm

I like the genre. After reading though, your query reads more like a synopsis than a query. The entire plot is spelled out in details which may make an agent think "Hmm. Interesting story, I bet that's a good book." But that's not the point.

If you subtract some of the details and replace them with cliffhangers that explain the stakes of the conflict without revealing too much of the plotline or the outcomes, the agent will think "Yes...yes...oh my god. What's Ephraim going to do? How is everyone going to react? Yes...yes...I need more. Partial, please."

I think it's important to view prospective agents as extremely informed consumers rather than literary overlords. They love reading or they would've picked a different profession. Put yourself in their position. Write something that will appeal to person you want to buy your book.

What makes you want to read a book on the shelf of a bookstore? Knowing the plotline and the ending in advance, or an well-written snippet of the conflict, the characters and cliffhanger?

If you know everything that happens, what's the incentive to read more?

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Re: Query critique for MG historical novel

Post by MHubbs » December 22nd, 2009, 3:58 pm

Jay,

I agree for the most part. Just as a synopsis should leave no cliff hangers, a Query should not reveal the climax. All of the comments here have been VERY helpful, I appreciate all of them and will use many of them.

But, there seems to be a little conflict in that some suggested I add more detail.

Stay tuned. I hope to put the revised version up soon.

Thanks again folks!

Mark Hubbs
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Re: Query critique for MG historical novel

Post by jayinhouston » December 22nd, 2009, 5:14 pm

hey mark, hopefully i helped. like i said, i love historical fiction. sounds like the book has potential for action and emotion. and of course (most importantly in my eyes), a heaping helping of good old-fashioned patriotism.

good luck!

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Re: Query critique for MG historical novel

Post by RebeccaKnight » December 22nd, 2009, 6:12 pm

Hi, Mark,

First off, your book sounds awesome--I love the plot you've laid out here! :)

I agree with the folks that say we need a little bit more detail, but also that more of a cliffhanger would leave us wanting more. I think a good way to add detail while still leaving the query at this length (or shorter) would be to watch out for where you use "had" or any kinds of passive voice. Make sure you replace things like "he decided he had to run away" with active verbs like "he fled" (made up example.) I know I had some of this in my query, and cutting out the passive voice left me lots of room to add more meat where it counted :).

I hope this helps, and best of luck!
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Re: MG historical novel, query revised

Post by MHubbs » December 22nd, 2009, 11:18 pm

Folks, thanks again for taking time to offer suggestions. I tried every one of them during the re-write. Some seemed to work, others didn't. It is till longer than I wanted at 403 words, but I think its a much better letter after being critiqued here.

Dear___________________


Ephraim Wright has kept a secret for seventy years. Half of the secret gives him regret, the other half gives satisfaction. When a young writer requests an interview for the Federal Government’s Slave Narrative Project during the Great Depression, Ep feels it is time to reveal what really happened at Wattensaw Bayou in 1863.

Ep is thirteen at the beginning of the Civil War and the only slave in a rural Arkansas Unionist family. Raised with the family since he was two years old, he is never once required to call Jonathan Wright, his benevolent owner, "master." His speech, manners and outlook on life are more akin to his white "siblings" than the other slaves in the community who chide him for being a “pet nigga” and “talkin’ like white folk.” He is stranded between two worlds; that of free whites, and of enslaved blacks.

Confederate conscript officers take the family's oldest son at gun point, and Ep is beaten unconscious by the soldiers during the ensuing scuffle. But Ep’s life is irreversibly changed when Charlie Spears and his bushwhacker gang ransack the farm, steal the livestock and gun down Jonathan Wright. Managing the farm falls on Ep's young shoulders and his white "masters" come to rely on him for strength and guidance as he plants the crops and covertly aids his older "brother", now a deserter from the Rebel Army.

New responsibilities and his burning hatred for Charlie Spears transform him from a carefree adolescent to a determined and vengeful young man. The law forbids a slave to touch a firearm, because a “Negro with a gun is a nervous thing to white folks.” Ep can't raise his hand to any white man good or evil. But where his family is concerned, Ep is never one to care about what the law says.

WHEN FREEDOM COME is a upper middle grade historical novel inspired by actual events. Much of the African American dialog is based on true accounts by ex-slaves in The Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. The novel is complete at 51,000 words.

I am a historian and archaeologist and have had several non-fiction articles published in: Army History Magazine, Naval History Magazine, The Army Space Journal, Military Historian and Collector Magazine, and On The Trail Magazine. I am a member of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Thank you for your time and consideration

Mark Hubbs
Last edited by MHubbs on December 23rd, 2009, 10:21 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Query critique for MG historical novel

Post by Jaime » December 22nd, 2009, 11:50 pm

MHubbs wrote:Folks, thanks again for taking time to offer suggestions. I tried every one of them during the re-write. Some seemed to work, others didn't. It is till longer than I wanted at 403 words, but I think its a much better letter after being critiqued here.

Dear___________________


Ephraim Wright has kept a secret for seventy years. Half of the secret gives him regret, the other half gives satisfaction. When a young writer requests an interview for the Federal Government’s Slave Narrative Project during the Great Depression, Ep feels it is time to reveal what really happened at Wattensaw Bayou in 1863.
Great! Now you've got a hook!
Ep is thirteen at the beginning of the Civil War and the only slave in a rural Arkansas Unionist family. Raised with the family since he was two years old, he is never once required to call Jonathan Wright, his benevolent owner, "master." His speech, manners and outlook on life are more akin to his white "siblings" than the other slaves in the community who chide him for being a “pet nigga” and “talkin’ like white folk.” He is stranded between two worlds; that of free whites, and of enslaved blacks.

When Confederate conscript officers take the family's oldest son at gun point, and Ep is beaten unconscious by the soldiers during the ensuing scuffle - I think you did a good job with wording this the first time. But Ep’s life is irreversibly changed when Charlie Spears and his bushwhacker gang ransack the farm, steal the livestock and gun down Jonathan Wright. Managing the farm falls on Ep's young shoulders and his white "masters" come to rely on him for strength and guidance as he plants the crops and covertly aids his older "brother", now a deserter from the Rebel Army.
We now get a sneak peak into Ep's challenges, without giving us the answers as to how his older "brother" escapes. This is great, because there's still intrigue as to how it will all end!
New responsibilities and his burning hatred for Charlie Spears transform him from a carefree adolescent to a determined and vengeful young man. The law forbids a slave to touch a firearm, because a “Negro with a gun is a nervous thing to white folks.” It makes more sense to use that phrase now that it has quotation marks! It gives it more reference. Ep can't raise his hand to any white man good or evil. But where his family is concerned, Ep is never one to care about what the law says.
I love that last line - it shows that he is going to stand up for what he believes in and take some chances! That one line gives us more insight into his character. In fact, the whole paragraph works much better now.
WHEN FREEDOM COME is a upper middle grade historical novel inspired by actual events. Much of the African American dialog is based on true accounts by ex-slaves in The Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. The novel is complete at 51,000 words.

I am a historian and archaeologist and have had several non-fiction articles published in: Army History Magazine, Naval History Magazine, The Army Space Journal, Military Historian and Collector Magazine, and On The Trail Magazine. I am a member of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Thank you for your time and consideration

Mark Hubbs
Great revision, Mark! This version gives us more obstacles and intrigue. I wish you luck with it!

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Re: MG historical novel, query revised

Post by casnow » December 26th, 2009, 8:22 am

I think instead of referring to Charlie Spears, you should be more generic and use his military title. That way you are introducing one less character. Sounds like an interesting story though.

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Re: MG historical novel, query revised

Post by c.ska » December 26th, 2009, 4:46 pm

Just to say - great revision - and best of luck! c.ska

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Re: MG historical novel, query revised

Post by MHubbs » December 28th, 2009, 11:55 am

Thanks everyone for great comments and suggestions. I think when the holiday work doldrums are over, it will be time to start sending out letters.

Mark
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