3rd SR Crapometer #55

Dear Miss Snark,

Eleven-year-old Grady Johnson is doing his best to understand the world. His father has died, and he, along with his younger sister Luanne, can’t do a thing to help their mother as she struggles to hold on to the family farm.

Times are tough, but when Gil, a stranded extraterrestrial, comes into their lives, the family’s fortunes begin to change. Trying to help, Gil takes a twig from an oak tree and a borrowed twenty dollar bill, and using his technology he creates a money tree. This, he is sure, will solve the family’s problems. But with a suspicious banker and a klutzy deputy lurking around, the family finds that money is the least of their troubles. Will the money change their lives for the better? Can Grady help Gil when it matters the most?

THE MONEY TREE is a 52,000 word middle grade novel. I admire authors like Louis Sachar and Richard Peck, who write novels with humor and adventure that pack an emotional punch. It’s my hope that this story will appeal to that same audience.

My first novel, XYZ, a thriller, was published by Berkley Books and won a Reader’s Choice Award at the ABC mystery festival.

I look forward to sending you sample chapters or the completed manuscript. I’ve enclosed a SASE for your reply. Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

Very truly yours,

oh yea, this is good.
I'm all over this one.


I turned eleven the summer after my father died, the year we lost the farm. I didn’t know it at the time, but small farms all across the country were being sold off and closed down at a record rate. I didn’t know anything about that, but I did know that my Ma looked scared like I’d never seen her before, and without Dad there to help, we, my sister Luanne and me, knew
something bad was going to happen.

That summer was hot, and there were nights where the air was so still that lying in bed with just a sheet, I felt like I was covered with a thick blanket. Our house was an old wood frame three-story that had been in the family for generations. My room was up on the top floor in a space that had once been the attic. Even though there was space on the lower floors, I moved
up there because I had room to spread out, and up there, I was far enough away so that Luanne didn’t bother me with her whining. She was eight then, and sometimes she was funny, but most of the time she was a tattle tale and a brat.

That night, it was hotter than usual and even with the fan on high, I couldn’t get to sleep. The June bugs thumped against the screen on my window, and the crickets chirped so loud it sounded like they were right there in my room. Downstairs I could hear the TV, so I knew my Ma was still awake. Ever since Dad died, she hadn’t talked much about it, but she stayed up late most every night. One time I went downstairs and saw that she’d been crying. She didn’t see me, and I snuck back upstairs and never let on that I’d seen her like that, but it bothered me for the longest time. After that I stayed in my room after bed time. But that night it was so hot, and I couldn’t get to sleep, so I just stared out the window and looked at the
night sky.

Where we were, out in the country, there’s not a lot of light around, so the stars stand out more than they do in the city. I guess I looked up and tried to find the constellations my Dad had taught me, and just let my mind wander.

At some point I started to get sleepy. But before I fell asleep, I saw a shooting star. Actually, I didn’t remember seeing it until sometime later, but that was after Gil came around and our lives all changed. As I recall it now, I was nearly asleep when I saw the shooting star. And when I saw it, I made a wish. At least I think I did.

great query letter, then splat.
an 11 year old who sounds like my Uncle Actuary the driest and most tedious man in three zip codes (and on the Upper East Side that's saying somthing).

You get me all excited about aliens and Snidely Whiplash bankers and (fanning self) money growing on trees...and what do I get? Some sweaty morose kid in the attic.

Start with action. Start in the middle of the story. Start when the kid sees money growing on trees.


December Quinn said...

I'm confused...in the query you say Grady's Mom is struggling to hold on to the farm, and imply that the money tree will help them do that, but in the first line of the book the farm is lost. Are they ging to go through all the money tree stuff and still lose the farm?

Virginia Miss said...

What an awesome query -- a fun premise. I agree with Miss Snark that the opening was dull. I'm scratching my head cuz I think queries are harder to write!

Alexandra said...

"I admire authors like Louis Sachar and Richard Peck, who write novels with humor and adventure that pack an emotional punch. It’s my hope that this story will appeal to that same audience."

So is this okay to use in a query letter? I always thought comparisons were generally a no-no, but this one is comparing yet doing a better job at it.

Anonymous said...

Grady and Gil have names starting with the same letter.

Change one.

Make sure all your characters have names beginning with different letters.

Take out the word "even" when possible. Even though this has potential, even though I liked it, even if Miss Snark is right about starting this smack in the middle of some action.

A sweaty kid worrying about backstory doesn't grab, but that's a cool idea you have.

Sherry Decker said...

I think I would have started with Grady seeing a spaceship land, or a shooting star and an hour later an odd-looking man approaching across the field in moonlight.

december quinn is correct. It's confusing.

Intriguing query letter, though. Keep going. Try a new beginning. Good luck.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

I thought the writing about the kid in the attic was really good. Heat like a blanket, screaming crickets. It rings true. I would keep reading this.

BradyDale said...

I agree with Miss Snark but....
can I kill you for coming up with such a great plot? Because I hate you with jealousy?

I have to say... as a lover of all things impossible, my favorite impossible stories are where the impossible thing (some alien with crazy tech) is really more a side item, a part of the background, a CATALYST, but not the heart of the story.

If I were an agent I'd still hire you and make you rewrite the holy hanna-barbera out of it till we got this good stuff right.

Anonymous said...

I completely disagree.

The writing is lovely and the voice distinctive. It starts out relating to the lives of most kids (unease with parents, annoying sibling, vast amounts of boredom) then toward the end of this sample teases the reader, letting the reader know something different happened that day. There's intrigue.

I really like it.

BuffySquirrel said...

I don't think that I could get very interested in whether or not they save the farm if you tell me upfront they lose the farm. YMMV.

Maybe leave that open until nearer to the end.

I don't care that Grady and Gil both begin with G, as the words look and sound very different. Gil and Phil would be more problematic, imo. That piece of advice does remind me however of the questions my husband used to set his law students. Every character's name began with a different letter of the alphabet so the students could just write about A, B & C in their answers. Probably doesn't work as well in a novel.

Anonymous said...

I love this premise. The query is great, but I agree with Miss Snark and the other comments. Revise the start and keep the premise.

Anonymous said...

I'd read on. I wonder how they would hide the tree from prying eyes...

Miss Snark has a point about backstory, but I don't agree it's a complete SPLAT.

Elektra said...

Once when I was sick with the flu, my mom brought me a book from the library with a premise very similar to this. It was a poor kid. They had a farm. He found a leprechaun and wished for all the money in the world. Only problem was, he always had all the money, so he couldn't spend it. Very good read. I wish I could remember the title of the book.

blue pencil said...

Great query. I like the writing sample. It has a literary feel and it helps us sympathize with the main character. I'm all for starting with action, but I suspect that the falling star is going to provide that action. Change one of the two names.

The other Cathy said...

Elektra -- "All the Money in the World" by Bill Brittain

Anonymous said...

This whole blanket rejection of novels that start with backstory seems quite odd to me.

Loads of fantastic novels do just that - To Kill A Mockingbird - is just one well known example.

I completely disagree with Miss Snark on this - and hope that whoever wrote this doesn't get disheartened.

I think you're writing is fantastic - clear and smooth.And it is obvious, to me at least, that 'something' is about to happen and that you are just setting the mood -

The fact that this eleven yr old sounds older than eleven - is because.....well ...he is.... He is telling the story with the hindsight and wisdom of an older person!

I would certainly read this book ... and if I were an agent I would certainly ask to see more.

Well done.

Diana Peterfreund said...

Alexandra, this query writer used comparisons exactly the way you are supposed to. He or she did not say that he wrote like Sachar (which is bad and annoying). He/she said that readers who liked Sachar would like this. Giving your book a marketing frame of reference is not a bad thing.

For what it's worth, I loved the opening. A lot of sensory details. Put me right in his head.

Frainstorm said...

Loved the premise and the query, but I was thinking exactly the same as MS by the time I finished the opening. Way too many words for me, so it kind of dragged there.

I think you could say all that, and allude to how everything is about to change in a much shorter space. A critiquer could give you line edits, but in my mind there's not much to fix to make this sizzle. In fact, maybe it's not that you need to cut; maybe you just need to move up the anticipation that comes from the end of this piece so it's coming a little sooner.

My thoughts anyway.

xiqay said...

Ooh, Miss Snark. You are hard to please.

I didn't think the opening was bad (but I was confused about whether the farm was lost and if so, how he could be sleeping in the family home).

I grew up on a farm. I remember those hot summer nights. No way would you have a sheet on. And we were too poor to have fans running in individual bedrooms at night.


writtenwyrdd said...

Author, the letter had me salivating.

I would suggest that you start with the boy interacting with his mother. Perhaps you have him say something like, "Mom, I saw a falling star last night and I made a wish on it to save the farm, blah blah blah."

This way, you work the nifty shooting star in as a good foreshadow for the alien's arrival without dumping a heap o' backstory on us.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, I think it's completely unnecessary to change one of the two names. Yes, it's aimed at kids, but credit them with a little intelligence. I'm sure there are kids at school with them whose names begin with the same letter and they deal with it well enough. The names are sufficiently different and too much playing around with that is going to read like the ABC book of baby names.

BJ Nemeth said...

I like the premise, and your writing works for me too. I think you've done a decent job of "starting where the action is," but you could still tighten it up with some editing.

I really like the last paragraph (though I'd trim a few words here and there). Right now it's the fifth paragraph; I'd probably make it the third. (Assuming the alien arrival or something equally exciting/mysterious happens next.)

I'd start with your second paragraph, and delete most of your first and third paragraphs. I'd focus the descriptions on that specific night rather than the entire summer. (I liked how you described the heat, but keep it in one paragraph rather than two.)

You don't need to explain why he's lying in bed (third paragraph). You're answering a question that nobody is asking. (It's obvious why he's in bed -- he's a kid, and it's past his bedtime.)

The only reason I offer this criticism is because I think you've got a great book in there. This is definitely one of my favorites from the Crapometer so far. (Unfortunately, I'm not an agent, editor, or publisher, so take my opinion for what it's worth.)

BuffySquirrel said...

Hmm, but novels written as a sort of memoir with an adult looking back on their childhood are books for adults, not children. Children, rightly or wrongly, are presumed to want books with child characters who think and act like children, not ones redacted by an adult self.

I would start with the kid seeing (from the attic) a family drive past in their pickup with all their worldly goods stowed in the back--a vision of his family's possible future. That way he doesn't need to talk about how he didn't know this stuff was happening (so how did it get into the story, exactly?).

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one bothered by the idea of an alien using "technology" to make a growing tree? It sounds more like magic to me than technology.

Anonymous said...

I loved this. I don't care that it doesn't start with slam bam action. It starts with a mood and threw me right back into my own hot summer nights as a kid.

I think this is purely wonderful.

And if we all had the same opinion, wouldn't life be boring? I can't tell you how many books I've NOT sold because one editor loved it but she couldn't get enough agreement at her house to buy it. (You're a better writer than me, though!)

Anonymous said...

I was trying to think of another starting point, a first scene that would bring us into the story, but then I read writtenwyrdd's suggestion (shooting star) and I think it was outstanding!

It's truly a fascinating story idea, a real winner IMO. Don't give up on this one. Rethink a little, maybe rewrite a little, certainly the beginning, but, don't set this one aside! Avoid backstory. Just give us a scene, and let things come out in the course of that scene, then fill us in on more later. Give us people, a situation, something compelling enough to care and wonder about. Get us into their lives and let us discover what is happening in their world.

As others have noticed, you write very well! It's clear and creates a strong sense of meaning and imagery. Fix this one up and send it out for consideration!

thraesja said...

Actually, with a healthy dose of pseudo-science an alien could use "advanced genetic engineering" and whip up a tree that produced leaves that looked just like money. But they'd be counterfeit. No wonder the banker is a bit uptight.

Natalia said...

Once again, great premise and an opening that suffers from too little action. If it helps at all, I am often plagued by the same sort of problems. Good luck!

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

The beginning reminds me of the beginning of A Wrinkle in Time, with Meg in the attic, so I was intrigued.