Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Face-Lift 8

Guess the Plot

Little Rituals

1. The life of Randy Mills, an insurance agent of lilliputian proportions, is further complicated when he's diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

2. Pull out the filter. Scoop in the grounds. Pour water into the top. Press 'on'. Wait five minutes. Serve in a coffee mug with milk. Enjoy.

3. Marjorie arranges all the dishes and silverware exactly 1/8" from the table's edge. When she tries this at New York's finest restaurant, she soon finds herself using similar precision to arrange trays in the sanitarium's cafeteria.

4. Daphne's life is a series of rituals she performs for good luck. But when her luck turns sour, she tries to turn it around by chanting incantations she finds on the Internet.

5. French anthropologist Bob Birkbiglier spends a year with a group of Pygmies, recording their beliefs, customs, and power ballads.

6. Father O'Brien ministers to his flock at St. Timothy's. But the father is a dwarf, and mass is poorly attended, owing mainly to the fact that the communion rail is only 14 inches tall, and even on your knees you have to bend over and it really hurts your back and sometimes the wafer falls out of your open mouth, never mind trying to sip the wine.


I've had lots of success with this query. Everybody requests a partial. However, they never buy the book. [Allow Evil Editor to paraphrase your complaint, so that we can all more easily sympathize: I keep sending out this query letter asking editors if they'd like to see a partial, and they keep saying Yes. What in God's name is wrong with my query letter?] [Allow Evil Editor to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes: If the problem is either the query letter or the book, and it's not the query letter. . . Get the picture, Watson?]

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor:

Daphne Dilbeck's life is filled with little rituals. She doesn't remember when or how she invented them; she doesn't always rationally believe they work. (Like blowing a kiss for luck when she sees a black cat.) But wherever Daphne looks, she sees rituals--from birthday parties to weddings to interviews. Why not knock on wood? It has been working for years. [She invented knocking on wood?]

But now it seems Daphne has lost her lucky charm. She botched one of her lucky rituals, and everything's going wrong. Did she really hex herself, and can she get the hex off? Are there such things as hexes, or can one make one's own luck? [One of those questions would be more than enough.] Is her mother right when she says Daphne just has mild OCD, and most of this is in her imagination?

As she attempts to fix her luck by chanting incantations she finds on the Internet, burning candles from a New Age store, and even visiting a Mexican witch's "circle," her curse seems to worsen. Her ex swears out a restraining order against her, and her friends evaporate like soap bubbles. Events snowball until even Daphne's best ritual [which is?] can't extricate her. But she ultimately finds that her inner resources are up to the challenge of change (from a girl who depends on luck to a take-charge woman)--with a little help from her friends. [Her friends evaporated long ago. What really happened?]

My literary novel, [What you mean by the term "literary novel" is, I write better than all those other hacks. What the editor thinks is, God, not another writer who thinks she's gonna win the Nobel Prize for her crappy novel. ] Little Rituals, is complete at 110,000 words. Because I think the writing should speak for itself, I'm enclosing the first five pages with this query. May I send you the full manuscript or a partial?


It seems you've left Evil Editor with two choices:

1. Read your novel and explain why it doesn't sell.
2. Theorize wildly about why it doesn't sell.

Theory 1.
Every time you send out your query with the first five pages, you polish them up, until now they sound like Tolstoy on his best day. The rest of the book you haven't looked at since you wrote it twenty years ago at the age of 14.

Theory 2.
A hex is an ideal opportunity to inject humor into a book. Editors expect a hilarious romp, and instead find themselves slogging through 110,000 words about a character's abject misery.

Theory 3.
The book doesn't build toward a climax. Is there a defining moment, a crucial event at which point Daphne is forced to depend on more than luck? If so, it should be brought up in your letter. If not, if she merely comes to the same realization that your readers reached 75,000 words earlier, it's possible your book is lacking an important element: a plot.

Theory 4.
You're sending it to the wrong places. You're sending it to publishers of literary fiction, when in fact it's a romance. You're sending it to romance publishers when in fact you forgot to include a hunky guy who shows Daphne life's great truth: It's not luck that brings happiness; it's hunky guys.

Theory 5.
It's a tough business, and maybe editors are getting books they like more than yours. Set it aside and write a better one.


Though Evil Editor does not recommend messing with a successful query letter, he has rewritten yours for the enlightenment of his other followers, who seem to enjoy the mystical morphing of a bloodworm into a butterfly:

Revised Version

Dear Evil Editor:

Daphne Dilbeck's life is ruled by rituals. She doesn't remember when she began to rely on them. She doesn't always believe they work. But she swears by them. She never fails to blow a kiss for luck when she sees a black cat, never fails to knock on wood. Hey, why not knock on wood? It's been working for years.

But now it seems Daphne has lost her lucky charm. She botched one of her lucky rituals, and suddenly everything's going wrong. Her ex swears out a restraining order against her. Her friends evaporate like soap bubbles.

Daphne tries everything to change her luck, from chanting incantations she finds on the Internet, to burning candles from a New Age store, to visiting a Mexican witch's "circle;" yet her curse only seems to worsen. She tries her best ritual, biting her toenails on the city bus. Nothing. Maybe it's not a hex at all; maybe her mother's right when she says Daphne just has mild OCD.

In the end, forced by [insert pivotal situation from book] to face life head-on and stop depending on luck, Daphne realizes that all along she's had what it takes to become a take-charge woman.

My novel, Little Rituals, is complete at 110,000 words. I'm enclosing the first five pages with this query. May I send you the full manuscript or a partial?

8 comments:

andrea said...

I am yet another Miss Snark reader who agrees that this advice is solid gold. As to the level of evil of EE, I can only quote Dr. Evil himself: "You're semi-evil. You're quasi-evil. You're the margarine of evil. You're the Diet Coke of evil. Just one calorie: not evil enough!"

Thanks again for this service.

Rhonda Stapleton said...

For some reason, I keep seeing this title as Little Richard.

E.E. - I greatly your explanation of why certain parts of the queries don't work. I'm glad Miss Snark referred her readers to you!

Patrice Michelle said...

I knew it wouldn't take people long to find you, EE. I hear your email groaning as the Evil Minions (EMs) grow... *g*

I like that better than Evilites, I think.

Jaye Wells said...

Wow, awesome blog. Thanks.

just Joan said...

oohh, I want to be an Evil Minion! This site is great! Miss Snark was wise and generous (like we didn't already know that) to send us here.

Thank you Evil Editor for sharing your knowledge with us. :-)

Shalanna Collins said...

Thank you! You tweaked and improved the letter, and now it can be a shining example for all mankind (grin).

The reason I started calling it a literary novel is that when I used to call it "chick lit," I would hear about the declining chick lit market--and was also told that my book is too "philosophical" for chick lit. I decided that even though it has a chicklitty voice, it may not deal with the same issues. Several agents told me that it seemed more literary than commercial. Hence the term.

You write that I've left you with a couple of choices, one of which is "read your novel and explain why it doesn't sell." Or maybe you could even buy it (I added that part). That's it! This is the choice I pick. How about it? *grin*

Well, couldn't hurt to try.

I think it's possible that your Theory 2 is at work here. The book is funny--Christopher Keeslar was kind enough to tell me that several lines were re-reads for him, and in many places the book made him laugh out loud. But maybe I should be a bit less "mean" to the character during Act II.

Another gem: "Is there a defining moment, a crucial event at which point Daphne is forced to depend on more than luck?"

Great insight. *I* thought there was, but possibly that's not coming across to the reader. I need to add that to the query. And work on that section of the book. I've got a plot, but it's of the variety "things keep getting worse until she hits bottom," which comes across as episodic to some readers.

My new book is going to be Something Completely Different. Let's hope it's more commercial.

Thanks!

Tawny Taylor said...

Hi Shalana,

Reading your comment, "I've got a plot, but it's of the variety "things keep getting worse until she hits bottom," which comes across as episodic to some readers." it sounds like you answered your own question.

Perhaps to a reader, it feels like your character is running a race, leaping hurdles as she encounters them, but there's no clear finish line in sight. I'm just finishing up reading Dan Brown's "Deception Point." That man can plot. It's a page-turner! Yes, there's one obstacle after another, but the book doesn't have an episodic feel because the reader still knows there's an end in sight. Sooner or later, the you-know-what is going to hit the fan, the bad guy is going to be conquered and the world is going to discover the truth.

Annie said...

"Her ex swears out a restraining order against her."

I'm amazed you didn't address this sentence. Makes "Lucky charm gal" sound dangerous or really nuts. Judges don't grant restraining orders lightly. The reality of what happened might be funny or silly in the manuscript, but with no explanation in the query, she loses empathy from this reader. I'd use a different example to highlight her recent misfortunes.