My Query: Before and After #PitchWars Prep

NovelAestheticsFor the past month and a half I’ve been putting long hours and copious amounts of caffeine into my middle grade fantasy manuscript. This book started as a tiny idea last July, and was drafted as a NaNoWriMo project in November 2015. Since then, most sections have been rewritten, sometimes twice, and the entire thing has changed dramatically. I learned more about the craft and structure of writing a novel in the past eight or so months of revision than I have in the past ten years I’ve been writing drafts.

I’m convinced, now, that the magic of writing happens during the revision process. That revelation takes a lot of pressure out of drafting, because now I know that I’ll just change everything when I revise anyway. Before this past year, I’d written a pile of drafts but never seriously revised them. But drafting, I realize now, isn’t even the hard part! Which makes me excited to draft my next project, because it’s truly just tossing around sand in the sandbox.

One of the exercises that revealed problems within my novel was writing the query letter. I’ve known since last year that I wanted to enter PitchWars, so the query letter wasn’t for actual querying but rather for the contest. Still, it follows the same conventions and can easily be used for either.

There’s a super secret potential mentee group on Facebook, and for the past few months we’ve been sharing query letters back and forth. I have to say, the feedback I’ve gotten from that group has been the BEST feedback I’ve ever gotten. The helpful potential mentees, plus the wonderful archives of the QueryShark blog, transformed my query letter from a blob of mush to something actually interesting.

More importantly, writing the query letter revealed problems with character motivation in my novel. Queries are all about character–what does your character want, what’s in their way, and what are the stakes. It sounds simple, but drawing out that thread from my 60,000 word novel was not easy. I kept getting bogged down by worldbuilding and other characters, and I realized that my main character’s motivation to simply “get home” was not enough.

I wanted to share a “before” and “after” of my query letter to show how much peer review helped me. I’m sure most others entering Pitch Wars this year have similar experiences; even if you’re not entering, this speaks to the value of having another set (or several other sets) of eyes looking over your work.

The First Draft:

When 12 year-old Gracia finds a dead man in her backyard, it’s up to her and Zoe — the dead man’s cyborg daughter — to find his killer before the killer finds them.

The duo find themselves stuck in the city of Splint, a mishmash of times and cultures that exists separate from the linear time stream. Everyone in Splint has a Kytherian Device — an amulet that works as a sort of magical multi-tool, allowing the user to pick locks, light fires, freeze enemies, travel time, and more. But the Department of Temporal Transactions has a lockdown on time travel functionality, preventing anyone from traveling unless they have authorization. Gracia and Zoe have to find the Key that will let them time travel freely — a Key that will get Gracia home to her own time, and give Zoe the freedom from Splint she’s always wanted. If they don’t find the Key before the killer does, time will be unlocked forever, an event that would wreak havoc on the time stream. But with a secret society out to stop them, an evil bureaucratic government agency out to kill them, and traitors among their friends, freedom seems a long way off.

SPLINT is a middle grade fantasy adventure complete at around 60,000 words. Think S.E. Grove’s THE GLASS SENTENCE meets Neil Gaiman’s INTERWORLD, with a little bit of DOCTOR WHO and FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST thrown in.

This was my first ever attempt at a query letter. I tried to just sum up my novel, but as you can see, I’m throwing around way too many aspects of the world that aren’t necessary. Also, Gracia’s motivation is dodgy–things are happening to her, but she’s not really driving any of the action herself.

I decided to make a big revision. Rather than get dragged along on Zoe’s adventure, I needed to give my main character, Gracia, a reason to want to go on the adventure. Even if she ends up regretting it, or things don’t go the way she expected. I needed to give her more agency, even if she is shy and awkward. I also needed to give her a reason to want it. And so, I re-purposed a throwaway character into a best friend she wants to make amends with. Going on the quest would give her a way to make up with her best friend. And this simple change (really, I only had to tweak a few scenes here and there) breathed new life into my manuscript.

My query is still nowhere near perfect, but I definitely think it’s much stronger than the original draft. Here’s the current version:

The day twelve-year-old Gracia gets slapped by her supposed-best-friend is the same day she finds a dead man in her backyard.

It isn’t the first time she’s been hit — or spit on, or shoved, or mocked for her vitiligo by the mean kids at school. But now even her best friend hates her, and Gracia would do anything to get her back.

The dead man changes everything. When his cyborg daughter, Zoe, shows up demanding answers, Gracia agrees to help her solve her father’s murder. In exchange, Zoe agrees to teach Gracia how to use a powerful amulet called a Kytherian Device. If Gracia can impress her best friend with the Device, then surely she’ll win her back — but things don’t go exactly as planned. If Gracia knew she’d be breaking into a police station, locked in an outhouse, and stuck in an extratemporal city, she never would’ve agreed to help.

Now Gracia’s trapped in Splint, a city outside of time where the line between science and magic is blurred. With a secret society out to get them, and an evil bureaucratic government with aggressive thugs at every turn, solving a murder is easier said than done. If she doesn’t find the killer soon, the time stream will be damaged forever. She’ll never get home to make amends with her best friend, and she’ll never prove to herself that strength is more than just skin-deep.

SPLINT is a middle grade fantasy novel complete at 60,000 words. It is a standalone novel with series potential.

Good luck to everyone who’s entering Pitch Wars!

My #PitchWars 2016 Bio

pitchwarsThis year, at the recommendation of some amazing author-friends, I’m submitting my manuscript to Pitch Wars. Pitch Wars is an annual contest held by Brenda Drake in which unagented, unpublished authors with finished manuscripts are mentored by agented and/or published authors. You can read more about Pitch Wars here on Brenda Drake’s website. 

In preparation for this year’s Pitch Wars competition, I’ve created a bio about myself and my writing. You can find more contestant bios here on Lana Pattinson’s website.

And so, without further ado…

About Me

My demonspawn daughter and I.

I’m a writer based in Southern California, though my heart truly belongs in the forest. I’ve been writing stories since elementary school, and in high school I went to Idyllwild Arts Academy where I studied creative writing. While I haven’t been published, my biggest writing achievement is making someone faint from a gruesome short story I read at my school’s annual creative writing reading. I’m currently a senior at California State University, Fullerton, where I study English. I also work as a library page at my local library.

I enjoy long walks at the renaissance fair, candlelight games of Settlers of Catan, and sipping hot mulled mead. Mostly the mead.
I enjoy long walks at the renaissance fair, candlelight games of Settlers of Catan, and sipping hot mulled mead. Mostly the mead.

I’m very active in my local writing community, O.C. Writers, where I host a weekly write-in, and every November I participate in National Novel Writing Month in the North Orange County region. I try to go to as many local author events as I can because I truly love the community of writers here, especially in the LA area. Festivals like YALLWEST and Ontario Teen Book Fest make my heart swell with joy. I love the writer community on Twitter, too, and you can find me at @atmorrell.

About My Book


When 12 year-old Gracia Boyd finds a dead man in her backyard, it’s up to her and Zoe, the dead man’s cyborg daughter, to find his killer before the killer finds them.

The duo find themselves stuck in the city of Splint, a strange mishmash of times and cultures that exists separate from the linear time stream. Everyone in the city of Splint has a Kytherian Device — a strange amulet that works as a sort of magical multi-tool, allowing the user to pick locks, light fires, freeze enemies, travel time, and more. But the Department of Temporal Transactions has a lockdown on time travel functionality, preventing anyone from traveling unless they have authorization. Gracia and Zoe have to find the Key that will let them time travel freely — a Key that will get Gracia home to her own time, and give Zoe the freedom from Splint she’s always wanted.

If they don’t find the Key before the killer does, time will be unlocked forever, an event that would wreak havoc on the time stream. But with a secret society out to stop them, an evil bureaucratic government agency out to kill them, and traitors among their friends, freedom seems a long way off.

SPLINT is a middle grade fantasy adventure complete at around 55,000 words. Think S.E. Grove’s THE GLASS SENTENCE meets Neil Gaiman’s INTERWORLD, with a little bit of DOCTOR WHO and FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST thrown in.

Diverse characters are very prominent in this novel. The main character, Gracia, is a biracial girl with vitiligo — a condition that affects the pigmentation of the skin on certain parts of the body. Gracia befriends Zoe, a girl whose arm and leg have been replaced by cybernetic pieces, and whose parents came from two different time periods. They bond over the parts of their bodies they’ve lost, and the parts of themselves they hold on to. While these aspects aren’t part of the main plot, they serve as a very important backdrop to the action.


  • 13339712_10208174283608054_2952190209367189207_n
    The line between magic and science is optional.

    My favorite authors are Neil Gaiman, V.E. Schwab, and Diana Wynne Jones.

  • I almost studied nanoengineering because I was obsessed with idea of one day creating a space elevator.
  • I minored in geography because I love to learn about the world, especially places and cultures we don’t see in fiction often.
  • On that note, I really want to travel to Madagascar. It’s my dream.
  • My clothes are black, my car is black, my coffee is black, and my soul is probably black, too.
  • I left my bones heart in Northern Idaho — one day I want to move to a farm and raise mini Pygmy goats. Because come on, have you SEEN those things?
  • I try not to watch too much TV — most of the TV I do watch is whatever my three-year-old watches. I’m basically a Daniel Tiger expert at this point. However, I do have a soft spot in my heart for Arrested Development, Parks & Rec, 30 Rock, and Archer. (If you wanted to know what my sense of humor is like, that pretty much defines it.)
  • Girls rule, boys drool.

UPDATE: Obligatory link to a gif. Promise me you’ll watch it. It’s funny.

Capitalism and Individualism in Magic Systems

Capitalism and Individualism in Magic Systems

Why is magic so focused on the individual?

This article was recently featured in The Aramchek Dispatch, a zine put together by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Club and Creative Writing Club at Cal State Fullerton. Unfortunately the block quotes around quoted material were omitted in that edition. Please note that full attribution of sources appears in the text below. 

The cover of The Aramchek Dispatch.
The cover of The Aramchek Dispatch.

Magic systems vary widely across the literary world, but almost all works of fiction that include magic have certain things in common. Usually, a character discovers that they have an innate ability to do magic, whether it’s through using wands or speaking words or some other method (or multiple methods). In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, not anyone can be chosen to go to Hogwarts–they are selected based on an inherent ability that exists within them and is detectable by the Ministry of Magic. In V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, magic users begin to learn their affinity for a certain type of magic by use of an elemental game board at a young age. In both of these worlds, and in many others besides, there are characters that are extremely skilled at magic–and some that have no magic at all. Even in worlds where magic is treated like a natural resource, such as the ley lines in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, the method used to tap into that source varies widely from character to character. Magic in these instances is inextricably tied to the individual and their own skills and abilities.

Why is magic so focused on the individual? First, let’s define magic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

magic, n.

The use of ritual activities or observances which are intended to influence the course of events or to manipulate the natural world, usually involving the use of an occult or secret body of knowledge; sorcery, witchcraft. Also: this practice as a subject of study.

Illustration by Evan Green opposite my article.
Illustration by Evan Green opposite my article.

In terms of fictional magic systems I would argue that this definition is incomplete. When magic is included in the world of a story it is used as a plot device–it will serve as a method to propel the characters forward in their goals or hold the characters back. It is the means by which the characters function in order to get what they want, whether it is used by the protagonist or the antagonist. Magic is a tool, often used in lieu of technology available to those in the real world, or as a way to supplement it. Think of Arthur Weasley from Harry Potter, a blustering wizard enamored with “Muggle” technology that was unnecessary for wizards, such as telephones and cars. In this sense, magic and technology are interchangeable–both are used as a means for humans to achieve their goals, whether they be small, mundane tasks or world-saving objectives.

Thinking of magic like a as a technological endeavor is not a new concept. Some scholars argue that magic was a precursor to modern scientific and technological thought, and that the reason was capitalism. Capitalism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the possession of capital or wealth; an economic system in which private capital or wealth is used in the production or distribution of goods and prices are determined mainly in a free market; the dominance of private owners of capital and of production for profit.” Greed and desire for profit, wealth, and control are what drove the industrial revolution, and so, too, drove the desire for magic. Magic was the bridge between desire and execution of achieving that desire. In his book Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford argues that “It was in magic that the general conquest of the external environment was decisively instituted.” Think of the alchemists and the occultists of the 15th and 16th centuries that aimed to turn lead into gold–to use magic for material and capitalistic means.

C.S. Lewis, writing in his 1943 book The Abolition of Man, argues that magic was not a precursor to science, but rather a concurrent practice.

There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak … There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages … For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.

When we think of magic like a machine, or as a tool for humanity to use to bend reality to their own wishes, it is impossible to separate it from the world of economics. Magic was born from capitalist desires and is still inextricably caught up in it in modern fantasy fiction. It makes sense, then, why so much fiction involving magic is based on individualistic ideals. If magic is predicated by a capitalist desire to acquire wealth and power for an individual, an individual’s skill and ability to do such things are valued above all else. Characters with better magical ability are seen as competitors, not co-conspirators. And those with no magical ability, like Mr. Filch from Harry Potter, fall into the cracks of the magical society. As readers we accept this. In fact, we almost applaud the way that he is allowed to remain at Hogwarts and at least hang out with the wizards we admire, even if he’ll never be one of them. His identity is synonymous with his individual ability to do magic, a handicap of which there is no way to overcome.

The pervasive characteristics of individuality and capitalism within fantasy fiction is extremely problematic. These values that are intrinsic to our society find their way into worlds that are supposed to be drastically different than our own. Even in dystopian novels and end-of-civilization zombie movies, capitalism persists despite irreversible global changes. In the 2005 documentary Zizek! about Slovenian sociologist and philosopher Slavoj Zizek, Zizek states that “it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.” Capitalism is inevitably laced through our fiction, even in worlds that are supposed to be decidedly not our contemporary society.

This dependence on individualism and capitalism is stunting the growth of fantasy as a genre. Of course most magic systems are bound by certain rules in order to maintain suspension of belief–but what if those rules were different than the rules of capitalism? Magic would be a very different thing if it was imagined outside the scope of greed and wealth accumulation, outside the ways that it can benefit the individual. Magic could take many new forms–like social magic, coming from a collective rather than one individual source. Magic could work like a choir, a melding of voices of all types, not just a solo. In its current form, assumptions about its purpose and usefulness are placed upon magic without regard to why it exists, only what we can do with it. To reimagine magic outside the constraints of individualism would be to reimagine fantasy fiction as a genre.

Staging the Story: Film Techniques to Engage YA Readers

AWP16ThumbnailTwo weeks ago I attended AWP 2016 in Los Angeles. This three day conference features panels, lectures, discussions, readings, and a huge exhibit hall filled with small presses and lit mags. I felt like a kid in a candy store, ready to gobble up as much delicious writing wisdom as I could fit in my mouth. I went to roughly a dozen panels and filled an entire notebook with notes. I can’t recapture the magic or the energy of the conference in a single blog post, but I will try to recount some of the wisdom I acquired. This will likely be the first in a series of posts, each one recounting a specific aspect of the conference.

This first post is about an amazing panel I attended on the second day called, “Staging the Story: Film Techniques to Engage YA Readers,” featuring authors Cori McCarthy, Ingrid Sundberg, Jennifer Bosworth, and Amy Rose Capetta. This captivating panel discussed using screenwriting techniques in order to create a tight, engaging work of fiction, especially in the realm of YA. Of all the panels I attended, this one featured the most thorough and in-depth craft talk and left me feeling like I had tangible, concrete tools to make my writing better. I couldn’t help but start scribbling down my new ideas while simultaneously trying to take detailed notes–it was that inspiring! Here are a few of the main points touched on in the panel and my major takeaways.

Don’t Be Afraid of Structure12417794_10207689812656583_6309576477689884822_n

A lot of writers are afraid that they are stifling their creativity or making a “cookie cutter” plot if they use traditional story structure. However, the rigid structure of screenplays can actually create a tighter novel–one where your audience anticipates the story in an engaging way. It’s not cheating on “falling back” on a cheap trick when you use structure, either. The panelists quoted the wise Joss Whedon on the issue of structure: “Anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.” Structure is a framework for keeping your writing–and yourself–under control.

Ingrid Sundberg noted in the importance of of “The Midpoint.” When we think of plot in the typical 3-act structure, most writers focus on the inciting incident and the climax as the most important plot points of the story. However, the midpoint–which serves as its own de facto act break in the middle of Act II–can be just as important.

Ingrid used a lot of famous movie examples to push this point: In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs escape at the midpoint; in The Hunger Games, the actual games start at the midpoint; in Back to the Future, Marty McFly ruins his parents’ relationship at the midpoint; in Toy Story, Buzz realizes that he’s a toy at the midpoint.

You get the idea. The midpoint is important. Ingrid says that by moving a major emotional revelation to the middle, you energize the rest of your novel. This is a great tip for avoiding the dreaded “murky middle.”

quote1Cinematic Motifs and Visual Imagery

While movies are very visual, it seems counterintuitive that books would be as well considering they’re just text. But there are actually a lot of cinematic techniques you can use in order to add important visual representation to your novel. Jennifer Bosworth suggested creating elaborate Pinterest boards for everything; adding concrete and specific details to your writing helps the reader visualize and fill in the blanks.

When we think of cinema we often think of action movies–big elaborate fight scenes and Michael Bay-level explosions. But the panelists urged writers to find the cinematic nature of the story beyond fights. Cori gave the example of using metaphors as emotional language–for example, in her novel Breaking Sky, she would describe the characters’ emotions as being “revved up” or “stalled out,” which fit in thematically with the novel’s overall theme (it’s a school for elite fighter pilots).

Another good tip is to use film cuts in your writing. This is knowing where to clip off emotional scenes in order to preserve tension. For example, instead of resolving a fight, clip off the scene before it’s finished. Leave bits and pieces in the subsequent scenes so that readers don’t know exactly what happened.

And if you need to reveal major information, don’t do a “walk and talk”–where characters simply word vomit all over each other while walking down a hallway. Make it more active. Show the reader more and tell them less–use visual and physical cues as well as objects to show what the characters are thinking and feeling and what they are trying to convey. And don’t resort to mundane actions, either: “shrugging” and “nodding” can almost always be cut because the actions are implied in the dialog.

Cinema in Genre and Contemporary Fiction

quote2When it comes to genre fiction, the panelists talked about the use of constraint and creative limitation. By limiting the magic, you carve the story. Don’t try to do everything at once. As Jennifer Bosworth suggests, don’t try to write, “Buffy meets The Ring meets the Bible meets Twilight.” Focusing in on one idea and confining yourself to its limitations will help create a stronger story.

But when it comes to contemporary, how do you make real life interesting? According to Cori, “Contemporary writing is cinematic in nature because memories are cinematic.” When we remember an important moment in our lives–our first boyfriend, senior prom–we remember very specific and vivid moments, not a play-by-play of everything that happened. Think about how the character will remember these moments fifteen years from now, and that should be the root of your scenes. And don’t forget that contemporary isn’t just straight real life–it can feel whimsical, too. “Fantasy has to be relatable, but contemporary can be fanciful.” (Cori’s one liners were totally on point during this panel.)

It’s hard to convey how amazing and informative this panel was, so I hope this post passes on some of the great tips I got from Cori, Ingrid, Jennifer, and Amy Rose. It was difficult trying to take detailed notes of everything they were saying while writing down all of the ideas for my own novel that were simultaneously whizzing through my head. Thank you so much to these amazing ladies for such a great panel!