Saturday, June 25, 2016

Summer '16 YayYA Entry #19: AMERICANA INVOKED

Name: Rachel Stevenson (@whatshewrote)

Genre: Young Adult Urban Fantasy

Title: (working title) Americana Invoked

35-word pitch: A grammar nazi and a band geek must crown the next Lady Liberty, mistress of American Magic, before the Fourth of July. Otherwise, long-forgotten defenses collapse, leaving America vulnerable to European invasion once again.

First 500 words:

2:58 PM. Accident Township, Pennsylvania. Backed by the seventeen-year-old cicadas and whispering ash trees, Kaven “Smack” Kooshkikana set his glass bottle on the asphalt and took his weekday position.
But this time, he was watching for someone.
The upside-down bleach bucket jiggled back and forth under what weight he had as he spread his legs. Smack let his handful of honeysuckles fall to the hot pavement beside his bottle. Mostly the vanilla-white ones. He hooked his ear buds on, popped his lips in time with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and peeled honeysuckles apart. One thread at a time, he slid the rainbow-lit droplets onto the bottle’s lip.
3:00. Across the street, past where Route 218 and Beaver Street forked, Heidelberg College’s floral iron gates eased open. The cars came first. Never more expensive than a Lexus and never cheaper than a Honda, but the guys knocked off their mufflers for kicks.
Then came the students. Smack sorted through khaki shorts and polo shirts and gelled hair. There he was. As white and blonde as they come. Titus Ryan McKenzie. He put a IV at the end of his signature, but he wasn’t really the fourth, Smack knew. His dad was Titus Rudolf McKenzie III. Mrs. McKenzie wasn’t a fan of the Rudolf and swapped it for Ryan.
Smack knew all this. He never met the guy in his life. And he’d lived as long as the cicadas.
McKenzie darted around the traffic, raising an apologetic hand to each car until he finally spun his way to Kooshkikana Kwick Stop. He gazed up at the pollen-coated neon lights lining the gas station’s structure, pretending he didn’t see Smack. Smack flicked an ear bud out and waited.
They locked eyes. McKenzie’s were blue. Smack knew that, too. A battered bassoon case swung in his hand, and an Ohio State keychain dangled from his backpack.
“Uh, hi,” said McKenzie. “Are you, uh, Kaven?” He said Kay-vin. Like cave-in. The dude had no chill. His knees were locked. How did he survive choir?
            “You can call me Smack,” Smack said.
McKenzie’s face knotted in three different directions of confusion.
“Yanno, like, I talk smack,” Smack offered.
“Oh, okay, sorry. Um, I’m supposed to talk to you,” McKenzie said.
“Okay, hold on,” Kaven held up a hand, a honeysuckle tangled between his dark fingers. “You’re going to have to stop using ‘um’ and ‘uh’ as a punctuation mark. And I will correct your English.”
McKenzie’s face knots slid into a frown. “I did pass AP English, you know.”
“Then speak it. And come on. We can’t talk here. Not about magic.” Smack kicked his bucket aside, swept up his bottle, and started off.

He pushed the gas station’s glass door aside. The bells over its frame jingled, and the familiar stench of gasoline fumes and moldy freezers swept over him. His dad stood at the deli counter, tossing banana peppers on a sandwich. Smack didn’t look at him and marched to the back door, McKenzie following, apologizing for his existence.


  1. This is good. I really like the description, it's quite well done, detailed enough to let you picture the setting without lapsing into purple prose. Couple of notes though:

    "Backed by the seventeen-year-old cicadas"--are these actually cicadas, or a metaphor or chatty teens? Also, what POV is this? 3rd person limited or omniscient? If it's limited, how would he know the cicadas' age?

    "One thread at a time, he slid the rainbow-lit droplets onto the bottle’s lip."--I'm not sure what's going on here. Is he squeezing the nectar out? "droplets" implies liquid, but "thread" implies a thin, thread-like solid.

    "He put a IV at the end of his signature"--at first I read that as IV, like the nutrient drip in hospitals. But the next sentence clears it up, so there's only a second or two of confusion.

    "A battered bassoon case"--interesting. I would've expected a guy with an "IV" at the end of his name be a rich prep school student. Great characterization and detail here.

    “I did pass AP English, you know.” “Then speak it."--minor point here, but I took AP English Language (one of 2 AP English classes, the other is Literature), and grammar wasn't emphasized at all. It was mostly reading comprehension and analysis questions. Like the ACT reading section, not the English/grammar section, which is closer to what I think you want. And while I haven't taken it, I would imagine AP English Literature is the same too.

    "moldy freezers swept over him"--moldy freezers in the shop? Should I be worried about a visit from the state health inspector?

    "McKenzie following, apologizing for his existence."--literally (actually saying the words) or metaphorically (shown by his stance, avoiding eye contact, other body signals, etc)?

    Also, not actually part of the 500 words, but I still couldn't help wondering:
    "leaving America vulnerable to European invasion once again"--is this *all* of Europe? Because last I heard we were getting along fine. Or just a select group of Europe? Like a secret magical cult or something?

    All in all, great work! I enjoyed reading.

  2. Pitch: Great stakes, very interesting! :)

    500 words: This sentence kinda threw me a little: Never more expensive than a Lexus and never cheaper than a Honda
    So what is cheaper than a Honda? I mean, not to nitpick too much, but Hondas, Toyotas, Chevys, they all have models that could be in an equal price range. So as for a cheap make of a car? I'd say they fall into the same category, so I don't know what could be cheaper.
    The details in this chapter were great though. You really paid attention to even little things going on, which really fleshed out the scene.
    This section concerned me a little:
    McKenzie’s face knots slid into a frown. “I did pass AP English, you know.”
    “Then speak it.
    First, AP English doesn't always deal with grammar and sentence structure. Usually it's about reading comprehension more than anything else, so that's an unfair assumption he made. Second, 'Then speak it.' sounds off to me. He's telling him to speak English, but the reference in McKenzie's sentence was about his English class. So I think his retort should be 'Then talk like it.' Or something like that. A little rude though, but that might be Smack's thing. Definitely a strong voice. I can hear it clearly.
    Great job! :)

  3. Pitch: This definitely sounds unique. 'Long-forgotten defenses' has me intrigued. I love that you've managed to squeeze character into your pitch.

    So much voice! I really like how you've given the opening paragraphs a stake-out feel. It definitely grabs the readers attention and kept me reading as I needed to know what this guy is waiting for.

    I actually like the Lexus/Honda reference. I thought it was a clever way of hinting this was an expensive school with well-paid staff without actually telling us that.
    The 'How did he survive choir?' line was a little lost on me, but that could be because choir is outside of my realm of experiences.

    I like the AP English reference. It gave me an insight into both characters. With a name like Smack I'm expecting the MC's banter to be sports or pop-culture focused. Smack being a grammar nazi gives it a great off-beat quality that feels really fresh.

    I felt frustrated when the excerpt ended!I wanted to see what happens next. That can only be a good thing :)

  4. Pitch:

    I get what you're trying to evoke here, but nazi may be too loaded a term for the story you want. At least in the agent/editor realm. Consider something less loaded like "nerd".

    Otherwise this is strong.

    Consider making it "American magic" because even if it's a defined term in your book it's stronger leaving magic lowercase.

    As always, with a 35 word pitch I'd suggest more concrete characters to attach to, but you may do well without it, I certainly did fine with it on CM.


    The term is "seventeen year cicada" unless you're making up your own term here.

    As for the rest... I'm going to have to beg off as a "not for me." It reads a bit Twain-esque (If that's what you're going for you hit pretty close!) I'm not catching the cadence I normally get drawn into so I'm having a hard time formatting strong feedback.

    This in NO WAY means it's bad, just not something I'm comfortable telling you how to nudge.

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  6. Wow this pitch is weird. But in a great way, because it sounds like nothing I've ever read before which is exciting.

    You have a really atmospheric style of writing. It reminds me a bit of Maggie Stiefvater, in that you both have a tendency to write around moments, rather than giving a concrete narrative.

    I was a little confused about what was physically happening with the bleach bucket and the honey suckle. I also don't find either character particularly likable yet. Not necessarily a problem, just a note.

    This is incredibly interesting and your prose is beautiful!

  7. Pitch: Fabulous! Lots of personality, lots of uniqueness here. Two thumbs up! My only questions are historical in nature. (“…leaving America vulnerable to European invasion *once again*.”) In this AU, have Europeans invaded America since the Revolution? The only European invasion I can think of, barring musical, is the one where white people wiped out millions of actually indigenous people and stole their land. Framing this as a “protecting ourselves from the bad guys” story is rather ironic if the histories are similar. How contemporary is this story? Is the US friendly with Europe?

    500: Ahhh, Pennsyltucky. Home sweet home! Oak forests are the norm here, and the Emerald Ash Borer is busy decimating all the ashes on the east coast.

    “But this day,” can easily become “Today.” The “but” isn’t contradicting anything. Look out for pointless buts! (Must resist puns…must…resist…)

    Great descriptions and use of the honeysuckle. There’s a lot of creative energy in your writing and it comes across as a lot of energy in your story. Smack is a great vector for that energy with his personality too.

    The IV/middle name thing is really funny to me because my husband is eternally disappointed that his father didn’t give him the same middle name, which would have made him S.P.Y II. White dude problems.

    “And he’d lived as long as the cicadas.” *Applauds* That is how you convey information! Nicely done.

    So McKenzie is talking to Smack? I actually didn’t expect that.
    This opening is a little confusing because so little context is given. Smack is “watching for” McKenzie. That’s a key word choice, *watching*. Readers don’t know to expect a conversation—aka “waiting for McKenzie.” “Watching” sounds like Smack is a weird stalker, haha. McKenzie is “supposed to talk to” Smack. So there is some kind of conversation going on between the two in spite of the impression that Smack has merely been watching from a distance, but the reader wasn’t notified. Then Smack says “We can’t talk here. Not about magic.” Wait, what? There’s MAGIC?!

    Those three steps—wait, greet, discuss surprise magic—is the logistical purpose of this opening, but it’s confusing to follow right now. There’s lots of space devoted to the setting, but I think some of that space should be given to a hair more exposition. The magic will be surprise enough.

    Great banter between the two, very nice!

    I have to ask…is their relationship going to be purely friendship or will it become romantic? Their personality foil is full of chemistry.

    Overall, there’s some roughness around the edges here, but it’s minor, sentence level stuff. As I said earlier, you obviously have a lot of creative energy, and it pays off with your wonderful descriptions and daring ideas. My advice is to continue to develop your craft skills and put a nice polish on the story, but don’t let go of that energy! Great work!

  8. There's a lot of love in these 500 words - strong descriptions, interesting characters, tension that makes me want to read on.

    I did get tripped up a bit on that initial paragraph of description. The bleach bucket, honeysuckles, bottles, cars. It was a bit of a sensory overload. Consider adding a moment or two of introspection in between them - is he annoyed to have to wait for this kid? A bit more exposition would be great.

    Otherwise, cool start!

  9. Charis M. EllisonJune 29, 2016 at 10:40 PM

    Pitch--This is a personal hang-up, but I've started to flinch from using 'nazi' as a general term--I'd recommend 'grammar nerd' instead.
    I'm also wondering why Europe would be likely to invade America, and if this would specifically be a magical invasion?

    I felt like the first few paragraphs were a little overwhelming--there's a lot of detail to take in, and I think the opening would be stronger if it was more focused.

    I can't shake the feeling that these characters seem older than 17, although I can't put a finger on why.

    Not sure if the reference to AP English is meant to be a joke on McKenzie? it's a bit confusing. It also strikes me as a bit inconsistent for Smack to say 'Yanno, like' and then harp on correct English.

    My primary reaction to this is really sensory overload--I'm really intrigued by what's going on (why the honeysuckle, what magic) but there are a lot of distractions. There are some great details that tell us a lot, like the bit about Titus pretending to be the fourth, but they get a little lost in the shuffle, I'd love to see you zoom in on the picture, if that makes sense?

  10. Pitch: I'm with Lana on "nazi" maybe substitute grammar nerd instead? But I like the premise and the clear stakes.

    Writing style: I enjoy your details and imagery. I don't find them in the way and liked the creative use of honeysuckle...the only times the descriptions threw me off a little were the bleach bucket (maybe five gallon bucket? And maybe set the glass bottle down next to the bucket, and then the description of Smack's weight on it?) and the line about the mufflers on the cars.

    I liked what you conveyed about the gas station and the dad in the last paragraph but felt it wasn't as strong as your other writing. Maybe combining the first two sentences with a stronger verb? But I do love the tossing banana peppers part.

    Will you use the journal entry time device all the way through the novel? Or just for the intro?

    Overall, I'm intrigued by the meeting, why is it happening, and the idea of magic being connected to a dude who has to collect his own honeysuckle dew one drop at a time (I'm assuming a connection between the magic and the honeysuckle)

    Most of all, I would've kept reading. Good job.

  11. Your pitch: Good job setting up the characters and the conflict in just a few words! My main quibble is that I don’t like “grammar nazi.” Part of this comes from a general weariness with the word “nazi” being overused and part of it is because it gives me less of a feeling for this character than I want. After reading your first 500 words I get a strong feeling for Kavin’s wacky character that I don’t get from the pitch—grammar nazi makes me picture someone tamer. I’m tempted to suggest “grammar-conscious gangster” unless that puts you over the word limit.

    The first paragraph: I feel like your time and place stamp needs to be set off from the text. Italicized, perhaps a new paragraph. This may be a matter of formatting issues from posting online. Or if I’m wrong and this is part of his train of thought, then perhaps it shouldn’t be the first sentence.

    I love the name “Smack.” And Kaven Kooshkikana too. It’s so absurdly hilarious.

    By the third paragraph, I’m a bit confused about where Kaven is. I think he’s leaning against a tree across the street from a school. I don’t know where the bucket is. Hanging from a tree or is he carrying it? (I’m someone who likes to picture a scene very vividly in my head so a precise description brings me into a story.) I like the little details you have, such as the honeysuckle.

    4th paragraph: who are “the guys”? I’m a bit confused again about what’s going on. You certainly don’t have to explain everything in the first 500 words but a few hints from Kavin’s thoughts would help me ground myself in the story.

    Titus, another great name!

    “And he’d lived as long as the cicadas.” It took me a second read to figure out what this meant. Although it’s a clever way of introducing your character’s age, you’re so far from the first paragraph that I think a lot of people will miss it. If you wait to mention the seventeen-year-old-cicadas to later then I think it will work.

    This is very unique. I like the strong feeling I get from the characters the moment they’re introduced. I don’t know what’s going on but I’d keep reading just to find out.

  12. Hi, Rachel! I'm not at all familiar with any referrenc you've mentioned in your pitch and 500 words. I'm not an American. But I'll try to do my best.

    Pitch: Solid and concrete. Though not being familiar with the terms "Lady Liberty" and "American magic". But that's a disadvantage for me, not to those who are familiar with it. Since others understood the terms and praised for it, maybe it IS good! But Nazi is a bit throwing off. Maybe try, like others before me have stated, "grammer nerd" or "grammar guru".

    500 words: The first few paragraphs were a bit jarring. Too much sensory details. I had to read it several times to grab that Smack is sitting before his father's shop, eating and spying on people. Maybe trim that up.

    I didn't like and get Smack and McKenzie. Their dialogues were a bit puzzling. Maybe if I could get to read more of it, I might grasp the codewords.

    Best of luck with revisions!

  13. Pitch: I think your pitch does a great job of explaining what the book is about! Although, I’d like to see more of an explanation of the magical element of your story, rather than just the title of “mistress of American magic” alluding to its existence.
    Also, I’d maybe cut “once again.” I think it lessens the impact of the stakes.

    500 words:
    You are very descriptive with your writing, which is great! I can easily envision Smack sitting back, watching for McKenzie. However, I think too much space may be devoted to setting the scene, and not enough to building their world of magic. To me, it reads like everything is similar to today—except you just mention the magical element. Maybe try and show how the magic impacts everyday life.

    Also, I really like the Lexus and Honda line—I thought it a clever way to convey middle class (I hope that’s what you meant lol)

    I was a little confused about why McKenzie would pretend not to see Smack, since he was supposed to talk to him.

    The last line tripped me up a bit. “Smack didn’t look at him and marched to the back door, McKenzie following, apologizing for his existence.” --- Is Smack apologizing for his father’s existence, or is McKenzie apologizing for his own. I’m guessing from the way Smack didn’t look at his dad, it was the first. But, maybe make it clearer.

    Overall, I think you have a very strong writing style and a gift for conveying things without saying them outright, like with Smack’s age and the cicadas!
    Can’t wait to read the rewrite!