Sunday, February 19, 2012


Guess the Plot

Over Their Heads

1. Angus McPhee is inspired to teach partial differential equations, representation theory, and algebraic topology to fourth-graders. But is this quest too quixotic even for so dedicated an educator?

2. When he submerges in salt water, Garrett sprouts gills and a scaly tail and becomes a merman. What will his girlfriend say when she finds out?

3. When Professor Hanson spends the entire period spouting complete nonsense and nobody in his General Relativity course notices, it's just as he suspected -- the material is "over their heads."

4. Susan makes a dreadful mistake when she enrolls her "special" twins in a program she thought would help them with their learning disability. The other students, budding young astrophysicists all, are not amused.

5. Carol and Tim could never understand why their dinner guests always ran away screaming. Why didn't the guests just keep their eyes downcast, if it was so upsetting to see the mounted heads of Carol's deceased relatives?

6. The memoir of MIT professor-turned-comedian Stanley Menschowitz and how his career based on the humor of quantum physics never really took off.

Original Version

It's 1905 in a small seacoast town in Maine. Frances Schmidt, one of the few female graduate students of her era, has traveled north to read Garrett Hathaway's huge library of books about mermen and mermaids. [I'm not sure whether to express disbelief at the claim that a huge library of books about mermen and mermaids exists, or at the claim that someone wants to read it.] Armed with her grandmother's cookie recipes, she's ready to charm Garrett [She needs to charm Garrett why? Hasn't he invited her to read his library of books? Is she just showing up unannounced?] and to best her academic nemesis, Norbert. [Reading up on mermaids and mermen is going to help her best Norbert? What is this, a science project? I know where this is going, she shows up at the grad school science fair with a merman in a giant aquarium, figuring first place is in the bag, but then Norbert walks in with a minotaur in a giant maze.] [If the first woman graduate student at the University of Maine insists on writing her Masters thesis on mermen, I'm guessing they won't let another woman into graduate school for forty years.] But when she falls in love with Garrett, she doesn't realize that he's hiding a terrible secret. [Once you've revealed to a woman that you own an entire library of books about mermaids and mermen, chances are she can handle any other secret you're keeping.]

No one knows that Garrett Hathaway is a merman. [I would like to retract my previous statement.] When he touches salt water, he sprouts gills and a blue, scaly tail. [I always wondered how Aquaman could swim really fast without a fish tail. I mean, the guy had just feet. You'd think he would have had enough brains to put on swim fins.] Despite his growing love for Frances, he is certain that she will see him as a monster [She's not going to see him as a monster. She's going to see him as a guy who flops around on the floor whenever he's out of the bathtub.] [Hey, better that he has gills and a tail than a fish head.] if she ever learns the truth. [She'll learn the truth when he takes her home to meet his family and she discovers that his parents are a fisherman and a flounder.]

Over their Heads is a completed YA romance novel. [How many 15-year-olds are gonna read a book about a 22-year-old woman who's in love with a fish? Maybe Frances should be in high school. You're more likely to have a nemesis named Norbert in high school, anyway.] Under my pen name, my short stories have appeared the magazine Night to Dawn, the anthology In the Outposts of Beyond, and on a can of Story House Coffee. [I have the complete set of those. My library has one wall of books and three walls of coffee cans.] When I'm not writing fiction, I'm a historian with a PhD in the History of American Civilization from Harvard. I have published an essay in the Journal of the Early Republic, and I am under contract with ABC-Clio to write and edit a book about the Industrial Revolution. [I suggest you turn in that book before ABC-Clio gets wind of your obsession with mermen.]

I would be delighted to send you my sample chapters. Thank you very much for your time.


No need for that last sentence in paragraph 1 to begin with "But."

Not clear how reading books about mermaids will help her best Norbert.

Also, I'm not sure what the time frame is, but she seems to fall in love awfully fast with this guy, considering that she's probably spending most of her time in his merbrary.

Fortunately it's fairly brief, so you have space in which to expand your plot description with additional information, like what happens when she finds out he's half fish.

Selected Comments

Virginia Miss said...EE - is it a hard-and-fast rule that all YA protags should be teenagers?

Evil Editor said...I know of no such rule, but teens can handle adult vocabulary, and teens read adult books, so if the characters are adults, why call the book YA? I would expect to find teens in a book meant for teens. Any of you YA writers have a definitive answer?

Anonymous said...I agree with EE -- very few YA books have adult protagonists. Truth is, many teens read adult books all the time. If you want to market something as YA, there has to be something that's specific to the audience, which usually means it has to relate to their life experiences, not what "boring adults" are doing.

General advice for anyone who wants to write YA -- go to the bookstore or library and read a dozen YA books written in the last 5 years. You'll be surprised with what is out there.

McKoala said...I think 22 is too old for a YA heroine. The basic story might work if she were a teenager working on a project who somehow wangles her way into the library (via the cookies, which seem an unusual way to win over a grown man, unless...magic cookies?!)

HawkOwl said...I couldn't figure out which guess-the-plot was gonna be it, but this is the only one I didn't want to read. How young are "young adults"? I don't think the teenagers in my youth group would want to read this plot, but the nine-year-olds might.

I'd also lose the part about "besting her academic nemesis." It doesn't seem to play a part in the book, it's not really relatable, and it doesn't seem like a good reason for her to be researching mermaids. Why can't you just say she's an English or Classics major and she's doing her thesis on "the mermaid myth in American literature" or something like that? And then move on? The why of her interest in mermaids doesn't seem really important to the story.

Annie said...Okay, I have to admit that as a young teen (12-14), I'd have been all over this plot. I was fascinated by mermaids. However, I would have wanted them to be teenagers, and the whole academic rivalry thing wouldn't have interested me in the least.

pacatrue said...I'm largely with Annie on this. Basic idea of a heroine going to research merfolk, falling in love with a guy, and he is a merman... sounds cool to me, and I might have read such a thing as a teen, though being a typical boy, I might have preferred the story of the merman who falls in love with a young college student while hiding his secret, i.e., from his perspective. Regardless of this, I think the story's got potential as long as it can fit the designated market - about which I have no knowledge.

Anonymous said...I would have liked a mermaid plot as a teen, and possibly even as an adult, if it were handled well. I agree that you should change the protag to a teen, and drop the academic angle. You need a much stronger reason for the girl to be there. Perhaps she is staying for the season in a cottage the prof rents out. Perhaps she observes things and forces herself into his life, and manages to get into his library to buy silence for knowing about him. Or she might be a sweet innocent and he is protecting her. Lots of workable romantic plots available here.

Even better, add a young man as the love interest. He might be related to the prof. The girl and the boy might save the prof.

Anonymous said...I write YA fiction -- and, more importantly, read a great deal of it. I have to say, I think you are all way too obsessed with the age of characters. Much of what is marketed as YA could easily be marketed as adult fiction, and vice versa. Like all "rules," the one about teen protagonists has many, many exceptions.
If you don't like the author's story, fine. But the age of the character alone is not a good reason to dismiss it.

Annie said...I don't think anyone is dismissing it purely based on the age of the characters. Quite a few of us have said that it sounds like an interesting plot, and have offered suggestions that might make it more appealing to the target readers. At 12-14 I was reading both YA and adult fiction. The reason I liked YA is because I was reading about characters who were like me -- especially in age. They don't need to be twelve, but 18-19 is much more relatable than 23-24. If I wanted to read about adults, I'd read an adult novel.

That said, I would not have ignored this book purely because of the age of the characters. If the age/academic plot is integral to the book, leave it. It doesn't ruin the story. But if it could be changed, I think there is room for improvement there.

Zombie Deathfish said...I love mermaids and I'd love to read a thoughtful, intelligent book about them, but this just doesn't seem to have that much solid plot to it. Why does Frances need to best Norbert? Who is Norbert, come to that? What's the significance of the era you've set it in? There doesn't seem to be any real threat to either character - okay, Garrett's afraid Frances will think he's a monster and Frances is ... I don't know ... afraid Norbert will steal her scholarship, but so what? I'm intrigued by the idea of mermen among us, but I'm not sure I care about this particular merman.

ello said...Reads like a romance novel to me instead of a YA. In fact, for all of the fantastic elements in it, it still reads as a generic and kind of boring storyline. This query needs to be spiced up. There would have to be a more serious plot line other than he's afraid that she won't like him cause he is a merman, in order for this to sound interesting. Perhaps there is and the author didn't include it, I hope?

Anonymous said...Hi, gang--Thank you very much for all your comments. You've inspired me to include more of the plot in my query letter-- though this is a romance novel. As for why I consider this to be YA-- The primary reason is that I spent a lot of time as a teenager thinking, "I am a monster and no one will ever love me." Not true, of course, but I think it's a real issue for the YA crowd. So this is YA not so much for the age of the protagonists, but because of the theme. Thanks again to all of you, especially EE.

McKoala said...I also read and write YA. Most heroes/heroines are teenagers. I agree that the 'i am a monster' message is completely bang on for that audience - it's what my current WIP is about, only without the mermaids (but there is another 'monster'...). It's just easier for teenagers to identify with their own age group, that's all. So given that your theme is right, why risk watering down the strength of the appeal with a hero/heroine who is not so easy for them to identify with? I'm not saying don't do it, I'm just saying please think about it very carefully, because it would be a shame to have the right theme and the right story, but a main character who is the wrong age - it might make it harder for you to sell the book.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like a wonderful story, especially if you include a moody, historic setting and details on the mythology of mermaids. I read "The Count of Monte Cristo" when I was 13 and LOVED it, so if it's well-written you'll have no problem.

The only issue I saw was the title. It is too vague. You need something that conveys passion, risk and saltwater in a short name.

Good Luck! I hope to read it some day....A Romance Fan

Mary said...

I"m truly impressed Evil Editor that you know about differential equations, (which we called diffy Q in school) AND that you then used the word quixotic in the next sentence! Now, if you can slip in something about Laplace Transform...

batgirl said...

Huh. Using the Fortunately ... Unfortunately ... format, here's the quick news:

Fortunately, this novella found a publisher, a reputable e-book house with gorgeous covers.
Unfortunately, that e-book house shut down not long ago.

But you can read a review here: