Mar 22, 2009

Query- Underground

Dear Agent:

Ally’s little brother has been digging a hole in their back yard for months. Ally’s parents think digging is good for him; at least he doesn’t play video games all day. Ally thinks it’s weird… until she realizes that all the boys in the neighborhood, including the cutest boy in her class, also have mysterious infatuations with digging.

One evening she goes out to examine her brother’s “hide out” and realizes it’s not a hole, but a tunnel; a tunnel that connects to other tunnels that attach the yards of all the boys in the neighborhood.

Ally joins the tunnel diggers and in doing so she inadvertently trades in her set of movie watching, happily ever after planning, drama creating friends for a bunch of… well… boys.

Ally knows she shouldn’t go along when the boys decide to dig a tunnel that will lead to an abandoned steel mill. She doesn’t like steeling wood from an old barn to construct supports in the tunnels. And she definitely doesn’t feel comfortable lying to her parents about what she’s doing everyday. But she’s curious.

Underground is a middle grade novel and is complete at about 35,000 words.

Chapter One

I was two months away from my grade school graduation when the Gauze Men robbed the Carston First Memorial Bank. Some people worried Grantsville might be next. I was more worried about the massive mound of dirt taking over our back yard.

Eric was still digging. Mom and Dad were happy he didn’t play video games all day. They thought it was good for him to have a hobby that required going outside. Plus, Dad reasoned, the larger the mound grew, the less grass he’d have to mow. My parents weren’t big gardeners or anything.

I thought it was weird that Eric was so into digging. He’d done the same thing every day for the last six months: come home from school, grab a snack, and dig… for hours.

At first I thought it was kind of cute. He and his fourth grade friends wanted to build a fort. I thought maybe he’d dig for a few days or maybe even a week and then he’d get bored and do something else. But he didn’t get bored. He dug. The tiny pile of dirt beside his hole grew and grew until it engulfed the back corner of the yard from the lilac bush to the maple tree.

“I need a new shovel,” Eric announced at dinner as he bit into his taco. It was kind of gross to watch him eat. Mom made him take a bath everyday when he came in from the hole but he didn’t do a very good job because his fingernails were still caked with dirt.

“Another shovel?” Dad asked.

“Yeah,” Eric said, his mouth still full of taco.

“Are you sure you can’t fix the one you have?” Dad asked.

Eric got up from the table and walked to the sliding glass door, opened it, and reached for the pieces of his shovel. He held up them up so Dad could see. The place where the stick was supposed to attach to the head was bent pretty badly, the stick was broken in half, and the head was seriously beat up.

“What have you been digging in?” Dad asked, laughing.

“Just dirt, mostly, there are some rocks every now and then and they really mess up the shovel.” Eric said.

“Okay then,” Dad said with a shrug. “I’ll pick one up on my way home tomorrow.”

That was how it always was with Eric.

“I don’t think it’s fair that you buy Eric new shovels all the time.” I said. “You never buy me things.”

“Of course we do Ally. We pay for your piano lessons every week.” Mom said.

“But I hate piano lessons,” I said folding my arms and furrowing my brow.

“You’ll thank us for them when you’re older,” Mom said.

I doubted that. Sometimes my mom was ridiculous. She had it in her head that one of her children should be a famous pianist someday. And she decided I should be the one to do it. And I was fairly certain she picked me just because I was a girl. She pretended to be all progressive and feminist but deep down I think she clung to a belief that girls should be musical and boys should be athletic.

Unfortunately I stunk at the piano, regardless of my supposed feminine propensity for musical genius. I think it’s possible that Eric could have been good. He had big hands and his fingers were already longer than mine even though he was two years younger than me. But mom chose to put all her eggs in my basket…a basket, which I dropped repeatedly. And Eric was free to dig, and dig, and dig while I practiced the stupid piano.

I had almost dismissed Eric’s digging as a weird eight-year-old boy obsession, but one day the gigantic mound where he’d been dumping his dirt stopped growing. It settled between the lilac bush and the maple tree and never gained another inch up or out. Mom and Dad didn’t seem to notice, and I may not have noticed at first either. But when it stayed that way for a month I noticed. Eric was still coming in every evening exhausted and dirty but there wasn’t any more dirt coming out of the hole.


Rick Daley said...

Try to make a stronger point of the conflict in the book. Is it just Ally's inner concern about theft and hanging out with boys instead of girls? Does danger await them at the Steel Mill? What happens in the end, does Ally save the boys from danger at the mill, or just become one of the guys?

Addressing the deeper conflict and giving a sense of how it plays out will make me more excited to read more.

The sample pages have a lot of passive voice. Look for how many times the word "was" is used. Sometimes it will be necessary because you are telling the story in the first person, but make sure you minimize it.

Example where it is pervasive:
"The place where the stick was supposed to attach to the head was bent pretty badly, the stick was broken in half, and the head was seriously beat up."

"Eric's constant digging bent the part of the shovel that the stick goes into, folded the edge of the blade backward, and even broke the stick in half."

Anonymous said...

This query leads me to believe that the book is going to be a dud. I can't believe that middle-school boys, no matter how ingenuous and determined, would be able to build a network of tunnels (especially with support beams) without killing themselves, getting lost, or just plain giving up after about 5 feet. If there's a more practical reason, it should be explained in the query... but this is just too far out.

PurpleClover said...

Well I personally thought the whole book was going to be about Ally's brother. I couldn't understand why he didn't have a name untill the next paragraph.

I think you need to switch your focus in the query to Ally right off the bat. If you reference her brother, say his name is Eric so there is no confusion so you can call him "Eric" instead of "her brother".

I do think it sounds like an interesting book. I think kids LOVE the idea of other worlds and even though this is in their world its just like that fort or clubhouse in the backyard...only better. Parents *may* be concerned with the safety of kids crawling into holes or tunnels even though they are getting support beams. But this could go either way with the agents. As for the lying, does she get caught? Does she learn her lesson? If she gets away with lying and/or doesn't come clean, parents won't like it. I take it though that she probably does...I'm just not sure an agent will read past that. You may want to leave out the lying part. Or mention that she has to "struggle with deciding to lie to her parents or coming clean..." that way it sounds like a true struggle.

Okay thats all I have. I noticed a couple grammatical errors with spelling but nothing that really stood out too bad.

Rick Daley said...

Suspend your disbelief in considering the story's merits. This is for middle-grade. Trust me, the target audience is suspending their disbelief also.

I think the premise has promise, to put it in a highly alliterative perspective. The query just needs to present the conflict more succinctly.

PurpleClover said...

Thumbtack4k - I think they are asking for "constructive" criticism...not necessarily you telling them it's a lost cause.

When I was about 11 years old I helped my friends (boys ages 7 and 10) construct a fort in their oak tree with 2x4's, rope, and REAL stud nails and hammers. It is still there (now supported & safer due to their dad's help) but the original platforms and levels (tri-level) are still there and in place (20 yrs later)

So who cares if it's believable. 8 year olds have blogs and websites and if I was building a tree fort in the 80's then lord knows what the kids are building now.

However, if the author feels he needs to add believeability to it...maybe they can discover (during the digging) an old abandoned sewer system or mining shaft? There is potential either way.

pulp said...

I love the premise! I dug a big old hole in my back yard when I was a kid. I wanted a swimming pool. We were so poor we couldn't even afford a little plastic pool. Sniff. The hole we dug was less a swimming pool than a mudhole which ruined my swimsuit.

Anyhow, I liked the start of your query, but felt disappointed when it just...stopped. What happens in the story? Anything? The beginning of the story has so much promise. If your novel goes somewhere, with actions and conflicts and danger and whatnot, do outline those in your query.