Monday, July 10, 2006

Face-Lift 108


Guess the Plot

Graves at Windward

1. Everyone's a suspect when a murder is committed at the Windward Estate. Can cynical Inspector Graves solve the case? Or is he a suspect himself?

2. For ship captain James Riker, nothing symbolizes the personal storms he faces each time he comes into harbor like the smell coming off the recent burials at Kathryn's Point.

3. When four graves at Windward Cemetery are found to be empty, the tabloid headline reads: Pranksters? Or Zombies? But Constable Edgar Charleton has his own theory.

4. Several suspicious accidents at Windward Motor Speedway have upended the NASCAR championship standings. New points leader Jake Corbett must race against time to find the killer, before his beloved #88 car becomes another metal grave.

5. The compelling story of one family's fight to be allowed to turn their backyard into their eventual final resting place.

6. All of the students at Windward Junior High swore they felt a chill on their necks at 10:13 AM on Thursday--the exact time when the crew digging the foundation for the new cafeteria found seven shallow graves.


Original Version

Dear God-Like Literary Agent,

I'm seeking representation for Graves at Windward, a character-driven, 119,000 word mystery set in Cornwall.

"Wolf" Macdougal is a Canadian wildlife biologist steeped in the study of carnivores, with a secret life as a bad writer [Let's hope you didn't model him after yourself.] and a first name he won't reveal. [It's Rumpelstiltskin.] He's sent to oversee the final solution to a cryptic will. One of England's wealthiest citizens is dead, and to inherit the estate her family must solve a series of puzzles. [Including guessing Wolf's real name.] If they fail, Windward will go to the habitat conservancy that Wolf represents.

Wolf soon learns that everyone is united in dislike of the eldest son, George Fairchild, whose love of filthy lucre is exceeded only by his desire to control his wife. She is pregnant. George hates children. He's in the middle of arranging an abortion when he is poisoned. Rasputin-like, George survives, only to be stabbed to death the next night. [Spoiler alert. His wife poisoned him. I'm leaning toward Wolf as the stabber, but only because he's the only other character mentioned.]

Inspector Graves, a cynical local constable once suspected of killing his wife, is called in. Family secrets start to ooze to the surface, and Graves' own murky past becomes the subject of gossip and speculation as he draws nearer to the truth.

This book is one of a series involving Inspector Graves. The second is nearly complete. I'm a member of a literary critique group and have authored a number of biology reports; [If you're a biology expert, maybe your series should be about Wolf instead of Graves. He solves each case through his knowledge of biology:

Wolf: The murderer had to be . . . Mrs. White, the cook! Only she had the opportunity to put lethal castor beans into the victim's stew.

Wolf: Only a trained botanist would have known rhododendrons are fatal. And you, Doctor Wilson, were a Biology major before embarking on your career as a concert pianist!

Of course, if Wolf is the killer in this book, you'll have to rewrite it with a new villain, or the idea won't work.] [You'll also have to change the title to Wolf at Windward.] [Actually, you'll need a name besides Wolf if he's to be your recurring character in a detective series.]

other than that, I've got no writing credentials whatsoever. [Could you be a little more emphatic about your lack of qualifications?]

If this interests you I'd be pleased to send you sample chapters.

Just in case this query letter isn't compelling enough, here is an excerpt from Graves at Windward:

Ms. Rayne's strong tanned hands gripped the smooth, leather-covered poetry anthology like a herpetologist grappling with a recalcitrant snake. Her blue eyes were the color of ice on the Canadian tundra as she scanned the snowy pages and dark text, an expression of contempt on her face. Suddenly she flung down the book in disgust and stomped on it, the hard heel of her rafting sandal grinding it into the carpet like neeps being hackit with balmagowry. [Possibly the greatest metaphor in literary history. May Evil Editor and his minions use this as the next phrase we run into the ground?] She looked about the room. It was crowded with handsome, overly intellectual people and one hairy, pragmatic biologist. Her penetrating orbs landed on the man with the scar, the man they called… Wolf.

"You. Macdougal. Recite me some lines of love," she said imperiously.

He knew in that moment that this was a test. All his fortunes rested on what he would say next. He must rise to the occasion or be forever dismissed as an intellectual lightweight. He locked his steely gaze on hers and in his deep voice began, "Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, great chieftain o' the pudding race! Aboon them a' ye take your place, painch, tripe, or thairm…"

"Address to a Haggis," she said huskily. "Oh, Wolf. That is my favorite poem too." [Take me now!] And suddenly she was melting in his arms like les neiges d'antan, the cold proud beauty transformed into a warm, albeit somewhat damp proud beauty, as she raised her Burns-loving lips to his and….

"…What do you think, Wolf?" asked Callie. Her question brought him abruptly out of his reverie.

- Thanks for your time and consideration,

Sincerely, etc.


Notes

The query is fine. The excerpt is hilarious. Is there a way to eliminate the excerpt and convince the reader that the book is brilliant? The problems with including the excerpt are:

1. A lot of so-so writers can find a 20-line excerpt in their novels that, if the entire book were similar in quality, would indicate it's a masterpiece.

2. Including an excerpt is not what the agent is expecting. She starts to read the excerpt, thinking, An excerpt? Are you kidding me? She gets to the recalcitrant snake, the tundra, the balmagowry, the penetrating orbs, and, not realizing this is a daydream, intentionally overdone, decides the author is in love with metaphors and other figures of speech, and doesn't even make it to the end.

Wolf is clearly a cool character. After reading the excerpt I again wonder why Graves is the one you want to bring back. Or will they work together on future cases? One gets the impression Wolf is the main character in this book. It's highly unusual for the detective to not be the main character in a murder mystery, especially if it's one of a series.

Is the book as amusing as the excerpt? Or is that the funny part? Perhaps a query with an attached first two or three chapters would be better than a query with an out-of-context excerpt. Agents often want chapters included. I've yet to see an agent's submission guidelines that requested "20 to 25 lines of text from anywhere in the book."

If the book is basically a mystery, with one amusing character, and you want to concentrate on the mystery rather than the comedy, you might want to expand your query to include a couple more characters and why they hated the victim.

18 comments:

Poohba said...

After reading that query, Wolf is the character I'm interested in. I really don't care about this Inspector Graves guy who comes in mid-letter.

BuffySquirrel said...

Inspectors aren't constables.

Anonymous said...

I can tell from the query and exerpt that I am not educated enough to read this book. I am a victim of my own limited vocabulary. I guess that isn't the writer's fault. I'm off to study my Funk and Wagnall's. -JTC

Anonymous said...

According to Miss Snark, include the first five pages of the novel with your query letter. That gives the agent a chance to see your writing ability.

Erm, is that excerpt supposed to be funny? I sure hope so, because it was almost a cartoon of bad writing. I needed a beverage alert on the word "orbs".

oujpkcm said...

There's a lot of stuff going on in here that doesn't really fit. For one thing, if you're going to pull a secretive name (a la Columbo or the state of the Simpsons' Springfield), don't draw attention to your gimmick, just do it. EE is right about the detective's role in a mystery--is Wolf the sidekick? And if Wolf wants the family to fail at the puzzles so that his organization gets the land, wouldn't it be better to just leave them alone to figure it out themselves?

Scrap the purple excerpt and stick on the first five pages. You've got my interest, Wolf sounds fun, I think the title(s) are brilliant (but would be equally brilliant as "Wolf in ..."), and have you ever read the Haggis of Private McPhee? Best. Poem. Ever. Anyway, good luck with this. -A

Anonymous said...

Sounds, actually, rather interesting. I was all "yeah, yeah whatever" until we got to the exerpt. It'd definately include it, but as an "I've enclosed five sample pages for your convenience" instead of part of the letter.

I always remembered learning at school that that poem was called "To a Haggis" rather than "Address to a Haggis," but I guess I'll take your word on it.

On thing though... I'd reconsider the phrase "final solution" in the first paragraph. That's a phrase that has a stigma about it that goes back to when the Nazi final solution was to exterminate the jews... it doesn't usually apply to wills, and kinda give the wrong impression I think.

daniel said...

Am I missing something, or is there a reason to write a dream sequence using tortured metaphors and purple prose? I don't see a natural connection. Or is the idea that Wolf is a bad writer and therefore daydreams in bad prose?

Julie said...

Please ditch the penetrating orbs. I wasn't sure if you were talking about eyeballs or breasts.

Unless that was the point you were trying to make . . .

Anonymous said...

"If they fail, Windward will go to the habitat conservancy that Wolf represents." -- so his job is to ensure they fail?

The query seems to read that he's there to solve the puzzle, so the family gets the loot, which would be an obvious conflict of interest.

Kathleen said...

I'm with Anonymous at 4:42pm. that part needs to be explained better.

Evil Editor said...

It seems to me he's there to represent the conservancy's interests, that is, to make sure there's no cheating in the puzzle solving.

Anonymous said...

...other than that, I've got no writing credentials whatsoever.

If this interests you I'd be pleased to send you sample chapters.

Erm, perhaps those sentences shouldn't be next to each other. It looks like you say: "if you're interested in my lack of credentials, I'd be happy to send sample chapters." I'm pretty sure that's not what you mean.

Martha (and cat) said...

I have to say I'm jumping on the bandwagon with the other posters, I'd be hoping for the book to focus more on Wolf that anyone else. He sounds like a fun read, and I didn't really get a feel for the Graves-fellow.

By the way, who are we supposed to be rooting for? I got a little confused with the two sides on riddle contest, and then the murder mystery whodunit layer, and the introduction of a 'good guy' once everything else was on the table...

msjones said...

Neeps hackit with balmagowry is from Treasons’ Harbour (Patrick O'Brien).

Thank you, minionistas, and most especially thank you, E2. You are prescient: indeed, Wolf is there to watch out for the Conservancy’s interests, and as he is Canadian, he is the nicest character.

The whole book is funny, but I can’t figure out how to convey that in the query. Yes, I’ve tried telling literary agents that it’s witty. I’m sure they just roll their eyes. No, wait! Yes, yes it is funny! Wait, here’s more if you don’t believe me:

Pedal to the metal, Wolf gripped the steering wheel of the Rover with one hand and jounced through the deserted outback, expertly shifting from fourth to fifth. The cruel scar on his face throbbed like the final notes of a Puccini opera. It ran down the left side of his swarthy phiz, cutting a naked swath through his dark beard and ending at his temple, where the puckered tissue slanted one wicked eye upward. Some days it had a mind of its own, and would break into a tango. The old war wound gave him the appearance of evil insouciance.

He pulled his pack of cigarettes out of the rolled up sleeve of his t-shirt, which was emblazoned with the lyrics from “Sugar Magnolia.” His biceps bulged as he lit the unfiltered Camel and sucked in a dose of concentrated carcinogens. He didn’t care. He knew he was born to hang, not to die in a sterile hospital after repeated and futile chemotherapy and radiation treatments consisting of large doses of cisplatin and etoposide followed by a gamma knife to the brain and perhaps the occasional gefitinib pill thrown in for good measure.

He roared through town, scattering small English ladies before him like potato crisps in a hurricane, and banged to a stop in front of the stony old police station. It loomed ominously in the pulchritudinous afternoon, but he was not a man to eschew the uncomfortable. He strode through the doors to meet his nemesis, Inspector Graves.

“Have a seat,” said Graves menacingly. “Would you care for a cup of tea?”

So it was to be good cop first. Wolf barked a short laugh. “I’ll have some absinthe, if you’ve got it,” he retorted.

Graves produced a bottle of the evil green liquid, poured out a dose of wormwood elixir, and shoved it across the table. Wolf downed it in one gulp, set down the glass, and said, “Do your worst.”

“Very well,” said Graves. “Where were you on the night of the twenty-sixth?”

“Minding my own God-damned business.”

“I need you to be a little more specific.”

“You’ll get nothing out of me, copper,” Wolf sneered. He would go to hell and back for the lovely Ms. Rayne, and he was not about to betray the fact that they had spent the night coupled in eighty-eight of the sixty-nine positions of the Kama Sutra.

Graves reached into his pocket and pulled out brass knuckles. He slipped them over his massive hand and made a fist. “Now will you talk?”

He had transitioned from good cop to bad cop with remarkable ease, thought Wolf. “Okay, okay,” he said hastily. He would have to lie like a hairy bear rug. “I was writing a letter to my mother.”

“Oh?” said Graves suspiciously. “What was in it?”

What indeed? Wolf pulled up to the police station and parked. If he didn’t get a letter off to his parents soon they’d begin to think he was dead…

- The book’s opening pages are more lurid prose from Wolf, so all the literary agents who are like anonymous at 11:46 a.m. are going to flip it into the waste bin faster than Scarlett vomiting up a neep in that great scene where she swears she’ll never go hungry again.

Most of the lit agents I’ve queried don’t want to see opening pages or chapters, but I’ll try again with those who do.

In the meantime, I metaphorically kiss your feet. Thanks again, E2.

Robin L. said...

Do they actually tell you *not* to send pages? I think Miss Snark (if you don't read her blog - you should - misssnark.blogspot.com) says to always send pages.

If you think the opening doesn't represent the entire work well, maybe think about adding a page in the beginning to frame the book. You don't want a reader to have the same experience as an agent - looking at the beginning and not getting it and putting it down.

The book sounds hilarious, so I hope you get some traction. Good luck!

BuffySquirrel said...

What, no sugar cube?

Anonymous said...

If he's Canadian, he's not smoking Camels--an American cigarette. Stick an Export A or Players in his mouth instead.

Mel said...

Regarding Guess the Plot #4, everyone knows that Dale Jarrett drives the 88 car in the NASCAR Nextel cup series. Or they should. UPS rules.