Wednesday, January 19, 2011

#47 January Secret Agent

GENRE: Middle Grade Dark Fiction

A warm breeze blew drifts of sand across the stone floor. Maahes flicked his tail, anticipating his attack. He pounced. Sand washed under his paw, puffing into the morning air. Bounding and leaping, the cat followed the sand motes down the long corridor.

"Not much longer...
" The words wound through the pillared hall like
the whisper of a ghost.

Maahes' ears twitched, the swish of skirts and slap of bare feet filling the silence left by the priest's words made the cat's ears ache. Abandoning the sand motes, he padded down the hall, searching for sound to fill the uncomfortable silence in his heart.

"Have the servants prepare themselves for burial," young Thutmose ordered.

"Of course, " the priest assured the prince.

Maahes sat back on his haunches, just outside the pharaoh's bedchamber. Licking sand from his paw he watched young Thutmose and the priest file out of his master's room.

"You shall be crossing to the afterlife with my father as well," the prince told the priest. Maahes cocked his head, studying the young man. The sorrow that tugged at the prince's voice did not show on his face.

"I am to be buried with the pharaoh?" the priest asked.

The prince nodded. "My father desires your counsel when he takes his place as a god among the dead."

The priest's face lit with joy. "Thank you, I shall go prepare myself for death at once!" Gripping his skirts in his hands, the priest hurried away.


  1. Very interesting seeing the Pharaoh and this time period through the eyes of a cat. I wasn't sure about the beginning with the cat chasing the dust motes, but that ending--Wow! The joy at preparing to die, the sorrow the prince tried not to show...
    Good stuff.
    You hooked me.

  2. I was disappointed with the opening. You drew me in with the cat getting ready to attack, (it sounded sinister and dangerous) but lost me when I realized he was just playing with dust motes. Perhaps give it a more playful tone right from the start.

    You also tell us about the sounds he hears and how they hurt his ears, and then, instead of trying to get away from the noise, he's searching for sounds to fill his silent heart. Perhaps say he was looking for 'more pleasant' sounds. And why is his heart silent? It's an intriguing sentence, but there's no follow up.

    And the rest is just the cat listening. What is his reaction to what he hears? What does this death and burial mean to him? How does it affect him? Without his thoughts and reactions, it's just two guys talking. Adding his thoughts and reactions will give it meaning and add context.

  3. I'm not sure how I feel about a cat being the narrative. At first I actually thought that it was someone watching the cat and I had to read it over before realizing that, no, it was just the cat. But, I think the cat's narrative is what keeps this in MG because it sounds like more of an older concept. Remember that MG is around 8-12. And while my sister at 11 would do well with this, I think that an 8-9 year old might not get the reason why the priest is happy about death. Despite that, the imagery and the writing style are very good!

  4. The concept here grabbed me, about priests/slaves being happy to go to their deaths. But I don't feel like we have an MC to identify with, unless it's the cat, in which case I'd be a little confused.

    You list it as "dark middle grade" and while the concept is indeed chilling/sinister, the writing didn't strike me as dark. I think of "dark" books being as much about the tone and writing as premise. However, I would keep reading to find out where this is headed and who the MC is.

    Also, great job with historical feel. Not always easy to capture!

  5. I agree with the others that I'm nost sure about the cat being the narrator. I like cats and it is an original idea that fits the time/theme well but I wonder if it can be sustained throughout the story without making the people in the story seem so distant.

    But, I was pulled in and I'm not a big fan of Egyptian mythology, so maybe I should just trust you to pull it off. :)

    Nicely done.

  6. I am intrigued that the priest is excited to go to his death, but wonder what the servants and the cat think about this. I'm worried how the cat can sustain as mc throughout the story and if the subject matter is too dark for middle grade. I would definitely want to read more.

  7. I'm torn. The pov of a cat is interesting, but I don't know that I'd want to go through an entire story from a cat's eyes. I think you have strong writing, so I'd probably read more, if only to see what happens over the next few pages.

  8. I agree that the POV is a problem. In the first para, it is truly Cat. For cats, hunting dustmotes is just as serious a business as hunting mice. But after that, the cat is reduced to being an observer. There is no more "catishness" about the POV. I know it is difficult to show the cat's indifference to whatever the humans are up to, but I would have liked some more reactions. Is (s)he begging, trying to draw someone's attention, being a nuisance as only a true cat can be? Make it more Cat, and I'd read on.

  9. I like this concept and if it continues to be historically accurate I love that as well for MG, but I am not sure the story opens in the right place. It is a little abrupt jumping into the story right there (unless this is a prologue?) and I agree the pov of the cat is not yet compelling.

  10. I think the Cat POV is a cool idea. I worry about the action potentially feeling distant as other have mentioned, but with a setting of Egypt, the cat might end up being central to the action, and that could definitely work.

    Also, I think this is a great topic for middle grade. As a former middle school teacher, I can say that there's a lot of kids that love anything about Ancient Egypt (with all of it's focus on death), and while there's a ton of non-fiction resources out there, it's a lot harder to find fiction. I'd be great to have something like this to use with students.

  11. I agree with what most people have said about the pov—I don’t know how I feel about reading an entire story from the pov of a cat. But then, I don’t read much middle-grade, so take that with a grain of salt (actually, do that with everything I say). As for the tone/genre question, I agree with what Megan said—the writing doesn’t strike me as “dark”. Quite the opposite, actually; my first reaction to that opening paragraph was—“Awwww, cute kitty!” :) And then you start talking about death which is…perhaps not as cute. I think it’s important to establish tone right away (and maybe later you can throw in a cute cat scene), so maybe you’ve just started in the wrong place, if that makes sense?

    Overall though, I think the concept seems really interesting, and that last part definitely made me read on.

    And now, because my middle name is “nitpick”, I feel compelled to point out a couple line-by-line things… :)

    Sand washed under his paw, puffing into the morning air. Bounding and leaping, the cat followed the sand motes down the long corridor.

    Two things here. One: the image of sand washing doesn’t work for me, because I think of sand as dry and grainy. Two: this is a totally a stylistic thing, but I think your prose will sound more active if you get rid of “—ing” verbs whenever you can (you have a lot of them in these 250 words). Consider this: “The cat bounded and leapt, following the sand motes down the long corridor.”

    "Have the servants prepare themselves for burial," young Thutmose ordered.
    "Of course," the priest assured the prince.

    This applies to the excerpt (and novel) as a whole—when dealing with dialogue tags, the simple, unobtrusive “said” is usually the way to go. It’s easy to ignore, and therefore makes your dialogue flow more naturally. Also, as in this case, it’s all you really need—you don’t need to tell us that Thutmose “ordered”—we can infer that from the dialogue. Same goes for “of course”. We know that these words are meant to “assure” the prince; we don’t need you to tell us. Trust your reader, and write dialogue that shows (which yours does here) what we need to understand. If your dialogue needs something other than the word “said” to get your point across, then chances are you need to rework the dialogue itself so that it’s strong enough to show.

    That’s about all I’ve got. Like I said, I really liked those last couple paragraphs—they made me want to read on for sure. Thanks for sharing, and good luck!

  12. I'm afraid the cat perspective doesn't work for me. Is this cat going to last throughout the MS? Why? And if not, then it seems gimmicky and pointless. I think we should understand why you're doing what you're doing fairly early on or you might risk losing us.

    I think the writing could use a little more work, as well. For example, the first sentence of the third paragraph doesn't work that well, either grammatically or flow-wise.

    Because I was so caught up with the question of the cat PoV, the rest didn't grab me either. Sorry!

  13. Just from what is here, I want to say that this is the prologue and that the prince is the MC. If not, then we get into all the problems people listed above. The most important of those, to my mind, is "Why does the cat care?"

    There is an attempt to anthropomorphize the cat with "the uncomfortable silence in his heart", but that doesn't work for me because there isn't much else given in the way of cat "thoughts" or intentions.

    I don't find the priest's reaction much of a draw because I've known since I was a kid reading about Egypt that servants, priests, and wives were regularly buried with Pharaohs. Without that hook, though, what is the driving force of this book?

    Again, from what we have I'd guess it is the story of a young prince (MG age) assuming his role of Pharaoh. But if that's the case, why the cat?

    Okay, I'm assuming a whole lot here so I better stop. In general, neither the language nor the plot captured my attention. I wouldn't read on.

  14. This piece is fabulous! Going with the cat's perspective results in am omniscient POV because the cat can be anywhere, day or night, silently. It's my personal feeling that the biggest factor in securing an agent or selling a manuscript is writing something different or unique...something that will stand out in a sea of books. I think this does, and it's a topic MG readers can't get enough of. Good job!

  15. Really strong images! Having the cat POV all the way through the book might be daunting, but he works as a great frame for whatever action is to come. I'm a longtime fan of Egyptian art, myth, and history since I was 7 (and aunt to some equally-Egyptomaniac kids.) I think this would be a sure thing.

    I found one problem that threw me out of the reading, and I know you're writing fantasy. If this is a human sacrifice it's probably very early in Egyptian history. Retainer sacrifice seems to have been abandoned by the 2nd Dynasty, and servants began to symbolized by cool little statues that were supposed to come to life and help their master's soul. If your Thutmose is Thutmose I, then he's 18th Dynasty. Not a big thing, but as a middle-grade writer, it's always good to weave some truth into the fantasy. At the very least, you can alleviate some of the popular falsehoods about ancient Egypt, while your readers are still young.

    I'd read more of this, certainly.


  16. Hey, Secret Agent here! Well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an exclamation point after the sentence “I shall go prepare myself for death at once” before. I like the immersion in the Egyptian setting right away, though I find the people more interesting than the cat, who seems to be the POV character. The dialogue tags can be simplified. Fancy “said” synonyms like “ordered” and “assured” are a sign of trying too hard. Make the dialogue carry these qualities of ordering or assurance across, don’t let a verb do the heavy lifting.

  17. I would keep reading - because I like the idea but I don't understand the cat's POV. I think this would be better played out from someone else's eyes.