Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Face-Lift 318


Guess the Plot

A Home on Top of a Hill

1. A champion procrastinator. Nine decades of classic automobiles. A home on top of a hill. What do they have in common? Someday I'll get around to telling you.

2. Finally, after thirteen years of marriage, Sandy and Keith move into their dream home. The dream quickly becomes a nightmare, however, when the house's elevation leads to an infestation of mountain goats.

3. Dr. Webster disregards the precipices on three sides of Dead Man's Hill and builds Shady Rest Home on top. He's got a scheme, all right. But can private eye Shelby Shiply find out what it is before aging fashion model Butterfly Lee stumbles over the edge?

4. When his elder brother's straw house in the valley and his younger brother's stick-built house on the hillside are destroyed by a mysterious wind, Edgar Pig builds a brick house at the top of the hill.

5. Curly Hill, the best known bail bondsman of Munchkinland, was having a great day. Well, at least until the moment the wind kicked up, just as he was about to serve that summons on the Wicked Witch of the West.

6. The new mayor won the senior vote by pledging more high quality elder care facilities. When Halliburton offers to build a giant hill with an enormous rest home on top, the Mayor signs the contract. Twelve months later, the hill glows an eerie green at night and the residents are losing all their hair. And strangely, no one is arguing about where to store the nation's nuclear waste any more.


Original Version

Dear Mr. Evil:

I am seeking representation for my manuscript, a literary novel complete at 48,000 words in 9 chapters. I have enclosed the first 10 pages and an SASE, as suggested on the website. Although this is my initial attempt to market what I’ve written, I have other manuscripts in various stages of completion. [If there's an introductory paragraph like this, it may as well include the book's title.]

My mother never got anything done. To be precise, she never did anything that she planned to do; [Actually, that wasn't any more precise.] her tasks and duties were attended to (and rarely completed) [So, now you're admitting that she did occasionally get something done?] only when it was blatantly obvious that further neglect would result in disastrous consequences. For example: laundry was done when there were no clean clothes left in the closets and garments that had been thrown down the laundry chute formed a pile that reached the bottom of the chute, preventing further deposits; [A true procrastinator would have waited until the clothes reached to the top of the chute, not the bottom.] ingredients for daily meals were purchased and prepared an hour (or less) before dinnertime; school lunches, if they were available at all, were frequently delivered to the school moments before the lunch bell rang; permission slips and most other paperwork were submitted at the last possible moment. [Let me get this straight. Are we discussing your mother? As opposed to your book? On the one hand, I hope you haven't chosen laundry and school lunches as the highlights of your book. On the other hand, if this isn't your book, why is half the query letter devoted to it?] I have written this novel (working title: A Home on Top of a Hill) as a sort of cautionary tale on the dangers of procrastination. [I started it in 1952.] I also wrote it to prove to myself that I was not saddled with that genetic sequence. I’m sure I was supposed to get it; her DNA probably just didn’t get around to it.

[If you condensed that paragraph to something like . . .

I wrote my 48,000-word novel, A Home on Top of a Hill, to prove to myself that I was not saddled with my mother's life-long proclivity for procrastination. I’m sure I was supposed to get it; her DNA probably just didn’t get around to it.

. . . you'd have a lot more room to tell us what's in your book.]

[Readers may be interested to know that the paragraph above replaced what originally went . . .

The day after I helped my mother register and in settle into the local nursing home's Alzheimer’s unit I began writing her story. I have taken extensive liberties with the actual facts, but the resulting novel (working title: A Home on Top of a Hill) is essentially the story of her life. To put it bluntly, she lived her life in a perpetual state of procrastination. And when there was really nothing left of her but an empty shell of skin, it seemed like she was procrastinating death. Yet a lot of exciting and interesting things happened to her before those final years; she would be extremely happy to know that her struggles were put to good use.
. . . which, while not perfect, seems to me more personal and thus grabbier.]

The story is told in episodes; one chapter for each of the nine decades of her life. Each chapter relates an incident that builds on the procrastination theme and initiates or concludes one of three subplots concerning the dangers of driving, the need for self-fulfillment and the belief that life is what you make it. The main character, Maevis Daily, procrastinates her way through war, peace, love, birth, death and retirement. She is a tragic figure, but her life is by no means a tragedy. There are many comical dilemmas and humorous minor characters scattered throughout. A minor theme on the rewards of spontaneity is driven by the detailed descriptions (and obvious adoration) of several classic automobiles. [I think we learned more about Maevis in your 150-word opening (New Beginning 249) than we do here. Perhaps you could say, The book recounts many comical episodes from Maevis's life, including the time she drove her car into Bailey's market because she couldn't find a parking space outside, the time she mistook the police chief's Edsel for her DeSoto and drove it into Lake Pontchartrain, and the time her procrastination led to the United States entering WW II two years late.] [Doesn't that sound more interesting than themes and subplots?]

Thank you for the time you’ve already spent just reading this. I hope you enjoy the enclosed excerpt. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,


Notes

Your job is to convince us we want to read the book. You do this by telling us what happens and making it sound as fascinating as possible. This is too dry.

If each chapter initiates or concludes one of three subplots, I would expect there to be six chapters, rather than nine. Hey, I was a math major for a while.

While novels do sell better than themed short story collections or biographies of unknowns, I'm not sure a book that devotes an average of about 5000 words to each of nine decades or episodes is going to have the continuity expected of a novel. Maybe it's a novel, but if it isn't, call it what it is.

Of course you limit your potential markets when your book is this short. But if that's all you can come up with, so be it.

40 comments:

Janet said...

The way the novel is presented here, it sounds like an attempt to exorcise personal demons, take some posthumous digs at Mommy and be earnestly preachy about the whole thing. "My mother was a loser. Let me tell you about it in detail so that you can not be her." I sincerely hope the novel is radically different from this query, because who wants to read a finger-wagging exercise?

pjd said...

I learned the following things from this query as written:
1. You wrote the book to prove you could.
2. It's based on your mother's life.
3. It's a cautionary tale about the dangers of procrastination.
4. Procrastination leads to such dangers as almost missing school lunches, and large piles of unwashed clothes.

Not really that compelling, to be honest.

In all, the query reads like a first year English Composition book report. "She is a tragic figure..." "Each chapter relates an incident that builds on the procrastination theme..."

I missed your opening when it scrolled by, but I enjoyed reading it just now. It is far better than the query letter would indicate. Query letters (unlike blog comments, fortunately for me), must be extremely tight. It's a bit like writing poetry in that every word must earn its place on the page. Phrases like "seemed like she was procrastinating death" really work. Phrases like "For example: laundry was done when there were no clean clothes left in the closets and garments that had been thrown down the laundry chute formed a pile that reached the bottom of the chute, preventing further deposits" need to be eliminated. In six words you said FAR more than in the 38 of the laundry example. Reading those 38 words made me wonder if your entire 48,000 words were that loose, flabby, indirect, and boring. Reading the other six make me think that you may have done a good job taking a 60,000 word story and tightening it efficiently to 48,000 words.

Really study EE's comments. Then throw out what you have and begin all over. I might suggest starting with the idea of procrastinating death and then give nuggets of the humor and drama in the story, without any of the analysis of the chapter structure or the "cautionary tale" thing.

Robin S. said...

It seems to me that describing a novel like this one in a way that engages an agent’s interest would be difficult to do, especially as the author may well be given less than a minute to make an impact. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be well-thought out, well-organized, descriptive in tone, in voice, and in delineation of plot, etc. (No, mine hasn’t been redone. It still sucks. I’m talking about this one, and, in general, about quiet subject matter. Mine isn’t all that quiet.)

And I see your point, that…” the time she drove her car into Bailey's market because she couldn't find a parking space outside, the time she mistook the police chief's Edsel for her DeSoto and drove it into Lake Pontchartrain” holds more interest than “There are many comical dilemmas and humorous minor characters scattered throughout.”

But what if the subject matter and the query itself are, simply, quiet?

This novel may be very well-written and compel the reader forward, even if done in a quiet manner. Would it be rude to include the first five pages of the manuscript to an agent who has requested that he/she be sent, simply, a “query with SASE”? (So I guess I’m pretending that the excerpt remark at the end of the letter was not part of the submission guidelines from this agent).

Bernita said...

Author, PJD had just given you some golden advice.

pacatrue said...

I was stewing a little bit about Robin S.'s comments on the difficulties of writing a query for a very quiet novel. You can't mention space aliens or alpha males. Instead, you've chosen to write a novel about laundry hampers, so what do you do?

I think in such a case what you are selling above all else is voice and character. Not that those things are not always critcal, but there's not much else in a quiet novel like this one. We watch those quiet Irish comedies because the characters are utterly charming. Or, maybe a better example is the book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves." It's a book about punctuation. Most of us hate punctuation. If I was trying to come up with the most boring topic ever, I'd have to contemplate a book about punctuation. But somehow it gets turned into a best seller, and, not having read it, I understand it's because the author finds a killer voice. So if this is the laundry hamper and classic car novel, the query has to find that killer voice right off the bat.

I also do wonder about the mother's supposed failures. She's always last minute, but she appears to always show up. The child gets lunches and permission slips, and she even goes shopping every day for fresh ingredients. What's the great failure? Maybe it's just because I have a 4 year old. I show up at day care at 4:59 every day to pick him up, but I haven't yet forgotten to pick him up. Well, at least I get to be in a novel for something....

Anonymous said...

Janet, you nailed this one. Teresa Nielsen Hayden in her famous "Slushkiller" blog post listed the reasons she rejects manuscripts. This one sounds like Reason #8: "It's nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels." You haven't said anything in this query that makes it sound inviting, and the cautionary memoir aspects make me want to run and hide (and I bet would have the same effect on an editor or agent). I have enough of my own problems--why would I want to read about yours? And if I were an agent, would I really want to work with you while you work your personal problems out in books?

Consider re-writing this query pretending that it's straight fiction, and concentrate on the character of the protagonist and what she does. I bet it would come across as a lot more interesting and (dare I say it?) less off-putting.

ME said...

Thanks for all the suggestions, I have taken them to heart(and mind). Here's the new & improved version: PLEASE comment, again if applicable.

I am seeking representation for my manuscript, a novel complete at 50,000 words in 10 chapters. I have enclosed the first 10 pages and an SASE, as suggested on the website. Although this is my initial attempt to market what I’ve written, I have other manuscripts in various stages of completion.

The day after I helped my mother register and in settle into the local nursing home’s Alzheimer’s unit I began writing her story. I have taken extensive liberties with the actual facts, but the resulting novel (Henry, Harley and John Wrecked Her Life) is essentially the story of her life. To put it bluntly, she lived her life in a perpetual state of procrastination. And when there was really nothing left of her but an empty shell of skin, it seemed as though she was procrastinating death. Yet, a lot of exciting and interesting things happened to her before those final years; she would be extremely happy to know that her struggles were put to good use. I wrote this as a sort of cautionary tale on the dangers of procrastination. I also wrote it to prove to myself that I was not saddled with that genetic sequence. I’m sure I was supposed to get it; her DNA probably just didn’t get around to it.

The main character, Maevis Daily, witnesses a bizarre accident as a child in 1929 that makes her hesitant to participate in life for many years. She considers motorized vehicles to be death traps and refuses to ride in one until her older brother convinces her to give it a try. His unexpected death in December 1941 solidifies her belief that (for her) life should only be a spectator sport. Her habits of procrastination and self-denial deepen during the War years, but her deadline contribution of thousands of pounds of newspapers and crushed tin cans to the hometown war effort provides a new direction for her life. She finally learns to drive in 1955 (a used Buick purchased by her husband); by the end of the first week she must contact the local police and fill out a stolen vehicle report. By the end of that decade she is the recipient of electro-shock therapy.

Her oldest child is named Mikey, in honor of her late brother. Through the years, his constant demands for attention and assistance push her deeper into procrastination; she feels she must be ever-ready to meet his needs. His near-death experience in the 70s makes her vow to be a more vigilant mother. But her attentions are misplaced and he flits from one addiction (sex, gambling, drugs) to another. By the 1990s, Maevis is a victim of Alzheimer’s disease and can no longer help her son who has become a prescription drug addict. Her cognitive abilities and her eyesight are failing. The brief newspaper article describing her son’s erratic driving (that led to three different instances in which he drove his car into a ditch) is too small for her to read. She is able to make out the large headline above a picture of a dog with puppies: “Dead Dog Delivers Litter of Six”. Her story concludes with an incident at a local classic car show.

???!!!

Dave said...

The query doesn't live up to the opening (New Beginning 249). The Opening is interesting and attractive. There's lots of good advice here on making the query just as interesting.

functioning fruitcake said...

If I was an agent and this landed on my desk, I'd be confused as to what the author is trying to sell me. Is it a novel, or is it a memoir?

If a novel, then the fact that you mention it is based it on your real mother's life will probably be off-putting to an agent, as they will assume everything that the first poster Janet said. Leave this information out. Anything to do with everyday activities (such as laundry and school lunches) leave out, unless these actually have dramatic elements to them (such as the time everyone found the corpse of the family cat under last week's dirty laundry). And I don't see why making mention of the detailed descriptions of classic automobiles is any selling point - unless it's not a novel but a memoir, and more importantly, a car memoir.

2) if it is a memoir (hopefully not a car memoir but a person memoir) then the style you have written the query in is more appropriate, but you still need to give the agent a reason to care about the subject of the book enough to request pages. The details you have given us are mundane. You mention 'comical dilemmas' - I would suggest illustrating one or two, as well as providing more specifics about your mother's life other than the 'war, peace, love, birth' etc placeholder - surely there is more to it than that?

Dave said...

I hate to say this, Functioning Fruitcake, but Augusten Borroughs just had it both ways with his "Running With Scissors"...
He claims it's a memoir and a novel at the same time - depending on whether his Mother is nearby or not.

I dunno who'd ever read "Scissors" real, pause, but someone has.

You have a point well taken, though.

pacatrue said...

Hm. I don't have any great advice on the revised query, but I do have once concern I can spell out.

The ages of people are not clear here. Mikey has a near death experience in the 70s. In the 90s, Maevis "can no longer help her son" who is a prescription drug addict. It isn't clear how old the son is in the 90s, but he's at least 20 or so, and almost certainly older, because Maevis was a child in 1929. So I'm guessing that Mikey is in his 40s or so in the 90s. If so, well, I want Mikey to be handling his own problems. Sure adults need help too and parents in their 70s can sometimes offer it, but.... It really sounds like all of Mikey's problems, even when he is in his 20, 30s, and over are all his mom's fault, because she procrastinated too much.

Well, I'm not helping. It appears a lot of people love this stuff. Isn't "Postcards from the Edge" a lot about a mother's failings, even when the heroine is an adult? That sells apparently. So just focus on telling it in a captivating way. Did Mikey ever play Princess Leia?

Robin S. said...

Hi Author,

I've just read through your revisions. Quite a bit of your 3rd and 4th paragraphs read very well.

I leave it to those in the know to decide whether you want to mention, as your first paragraph does, that you have other work in progress. I've read that this is a good idea and a bad idea - on different literary agency websites - some like it, some don't. I guess you'll need to tweak this paragraph according to what you can find out about each agency/agent that you're querying.

The second paragraph is the problematic one, I'm guessing. Dave pointed out that books such as Running With Scissors are kind of a "fictionalized" memoir. My take is that how that works for you will depend upon the perceived "strength" of the subject matter.

And EE, if you were an agent, would you be OK with receiving the first five pages of the manuscript with the query letter?

Anonymous said...

I like the genre and like your beginning, but the queries--both versions--give me cotton mouth. What happens between your story and your query to suck the life out of your voice? Nerves, maybe.

I guess I've missed the true horror of Mommy Dearest's procrastination. She shows up and gets the work done. That's better than a whole lot of parents.

She starts preparing dinner only one hour before mealtime? Call Child Protective Services! (Or hide the Rachael Ray 30-minute Meals book.) Shows up for events barely in the nick of time? Child abuse!

I've actually bought dinner instead of cooking it, and even missed a couple of junior high basketball games. How my (adult) children must hate me.

pulp

pjd said...

Author, I think the detail you added to the revised version is better, but it's still far from compelling to me. The events you lay out seem disjointed, and I completely lose the sense of how procrastination plays into the story. I've tried my hand at a revision (below), but I don't pretend it's a wonderful effort. I am quite pressed for time, so I've taken only about 15 minutes. I'm sure it misses many points you would want included, and I still don't feel I have the essence of the story. Also, you need to tell us what the conclusion is.

Here's my attempt:
The day after I settled my mother into the Alzheimer’s unit at the local rest home, I began writing a fictionalized version of her story titled, “Henry, Harley, and John Wrecked Her Life.” She was such a procrastinator that she even put off dying until there was nothing left but an empty shell of skin.

Maevis Daily’s procrastination began when she withdrew from life after witnessing a bizarre accident as a child in 1929. She wouldn’t get in a car for years, but when her older brother dies in December, 1941, Maevis becomes convinced that for her, life should be nothing more than a spectator sport. During the war years, she declines even more, but she finds new direction in tons of newspapers and crushed cans. A week fter she finally learns to drive in 1955, she finds herself filling out a stolen vehicle report. By 1960 she’s undergoing electro-shock therapy.

Meanwhile, her oldest son Mikey demands more than she can bear, and she declines into ever worse procrastination. When Mikey suffers a near-death experience in the 1970s, Maevis vows to be a more vigilant mother. Her vow goes unfulfilled, however, as Mikey flits from one addiction to another—sex, gambling, and drugs. Alzheimer’s begins to eat away at Maevis’ cognitive abilities and eyesight in the 1990s to the point where she can no longer help her son.


I'm not at all sure it's better. It only tries to illustrate the comments I made earlier about concentrating on what happens.

Evil Editor said...

Sure, send your five pages. If the agent doesn't want them, she can toss them.

Twill said...

Suggestion - it is none of the agent's business whether you've ever finished or submitted anything before. It doesn't really matter *why* you wrote this novel.

What matters is the novel itself. What the novel has to offer a reader. Pretend you just read the book and loved it.

Start a tape recorder and a three minute timer. Start talking.

Your first ten words should be "Listen up, this is soooo cool!!!! The book is about..."

Then do it again. Your first words should be "I love this book because..."

Then do it again. Do this one in the voice of the book, and say, "The book starts..."

Do it ten more times if you have to, but when you feel totally in love with the book *for what it is*, that's the time to take the best of what you think you said and write it down.

Good Luck!

Anonymous said...

Too much whining.

ME said...

Thank you all, once more, for the extremely helpful and direct comments. I will be putting this letter out of my mind for at least a week after this, but I've enjoyed the rush. For those of you who still have ANY interest in my journey, here's what I've come up with for that 2nd paragraph,(especially for those who objected to the whole Mommy-memoir angle) which Miss Snark would say has thus far been sadly lacking a hook.(She probably wouldn't say it quite that way:
Alternate Second Paragraph:

This novel wrote itself. All I had to do was sit in front of my computer and the words poured out of me. Sometimes I couldn’t get to the computer fast enough and wrote out entire scenes in longhand; later I copied them into the existing story. Some of the incidents are based in truth while others are cut from whole cloth. When I was almost finished, my real life intruded for a while and the manuscript sat neglected for more than a year. Then I sat down and read the story as if someone else had written it and I was the editor. I added and subtracted details and tried to cut out the crap. I think that now it’s ready to be read by someone else; someone who picks up (and puts down) the words of others with the same intensity that a lightning bolt has when it strikes its target or the random thoroughness of a rainstorm that manages to soak the ground without hitting every single square centimeter of earth. When I've received enough rejections, I'll let it sit another year.

The main character, Maevis Daily, witnesses a bizarre....

Janet said...

I agree with the commenters who said to eliminate why you wrote the novel. It doesn't matter to an agent, and it really makes the book sound bad. They also really don't need to hear that you have other manuscripts you're working on. Almost every author does. You might just as well tell them what word processor you use. It just doesn't matter. Remember, they are reading this with the constant refrain in their minds "What's in this for me? Can I sell it?"

What they are interested in (OK, I'm presuming, but bear with me) is humour, poignancy, new takes on familiar situations... Cautionary tales are something we all want our kids to read, but would never inflict upon ourselves. That phrase absolutely has to go; it has all the natural attraction of "dentist drill".

Apparently your beginning had potential, humour even. This has to show through in your query.

I would eliminate the entire paragraph about your mother. This query is not about your mother, it's about your book. You want to talk about your STORY, not your MOTHER. Yes, I know, the story is about your mother, but it's important you grasp the distinction. It might be important to re-read your book with that in mind, too. Readers don't really want to know about your mother, they want to read a good story. If your mother has provided one, great. But the nuts and bolts of how you got from your mother to the story have no place in a query for a novel. It is navel-gazing. It doesn't matter and it won't sell.

And that, I'm afraid, eliminates 90% of what you've written. Start over again, and tell us why we want to read this story, not why you wanted to write it.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

The alternate 2nd para is still not about the novel! Life and Query are too short to talk about anything but the novel's subject and voice in the query. Cut ALL the motivation for your writing from the query - it's not important to the agent at this point.

Rei said...

Let me second what people said about how we don't need to hear about why you wrote the novel. Your query is about you. At this point, you don't matter. Your writing matters. Talking about yourself isn't an aid; it's a red flag that you're working out your personal issues with the paper. Not something I'd want to read.

If you can't seem to prune down your query, try this. Start out a query with a very small maximum length -- say, 50 words. It has to be a complete, compelling query within that length. Then let yourself have more words -- ten to fifteen at a time, until you either think it's perfect or you reach a reasonable maximum. Err on the side of too short.

Anonymous said...

I have written this novel (working title: A Home on Top of a Hill) as a sort of cautionary tale on the dangers of procrastination. [I started it in 1952.]

Anyone know the Heimlich Manoeuver? I'm choking up on this one. ROTFLMAO And I actually recommend that EE's insert be part of the query. That's got to get a few chuckles and attention.

BuffySquirrel said...

I think you need to rack up the humour. When I think of how many lunches I missed out on entirely at school, the thought of yours arriving almost-late doesn't fill me with empathy.

Anonymous said...

Author, each attempt at a decent query is worse than the one you're 'improving on'. You really need to learn what a query letter is all about. Nobody is interested in how easy it was to write, how good you think it is, or that you got busy and stopped working on it for a while. In fact, the sense of self importance that comes across probably turns agents off, in my opinion.

I'd suggest heading over to Miss Snark's and reading the Hook Crapometer, if it's still available. My queries sucked until I read those. Now I'm having much better success with a better query.

blogless_troll said...

If you changed the title to A Million Little Pauses, I bet you could get on Oprah.

AmyB said...

Not much has been said about the length, but 48,000 words isn't a novel. It's my impression most agents will auto-reject manuscripts that aren't novel-length (minimum 70k for most genres). I'm not an agent myself, but this is the number I've most commonly seen mentioned on agent blogs.

aemlw said...

Stop talking about how and why you wrote the novel! Stop it! Those parts are killing your query!

If you ABSOLUTELY MUST talk about the fact that it's a memoir, save it until the very very end where you say, "I must not have gotten my mother's genes. I started writing this book about her the day she died." Until then, ACT AS IF IT IS ALL FICTION. That will cut through all the book's history and get us to the story itself!

Anonymous said...

Let me get this straight...you wrote this book to prove you don't have the procrastination gene? Yet the letter never actually starts to tell the plot?

Redfox said...

As others have pointed out, the "improvements" (including the replacement title) are just making this query longer and more full of clanging alarm bells! Try this:

Dear Editor

I am seeking representation for my literary novel, "A Home on Top of a Hill", complete at 48,000 words.

In 1929, five-year-old Maevis Daily witnesses a bizarre accident that makes her hesitant to participate in life for many years. She considers motorized vehicles to be death traps and refuses to ride in one until her older brother convinces her to give it a try. She finally learns to drive in 1955. By the end of the first week the car - a gift from her husband - has been stolen and she slides back into complacency.

After three decades of struggling with her own failing mental health and the problems of her addict son, Mikey, she is eventually admitted to a residential home. And when there is really nothing left of her but an empty shell of skin, it seems as though she is procrastinating death. But Maevis has one last chance to participate, and at a local classic car show she holds the visitors entranced with her stories of cars long gone [replace with your incident!].

Maevis Daily (name changed) was my mother. I’m sure I was supposed to inherit her procrastinating tendencies; her DNA probably just didn’t get around to it.

Thank you for the time you’ve already spent just reading this. I hope you enjoy the enclosed excerpt. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely

Keep it short, keep it focused on the protagonist. And I do hope there are enough amusing or uplifting incidents to counteract the general depressing tone of the plot as described in the query!

ME said...

Final (thank dog?!) post from author:

Thank you all, again, very much for all the time and effort you've given to this post. There is a great deal of information here and I need a few days to sort it all out.

I did go read the Hooker Crapometer. The suggestions to describe my story out loud and to limit my description beginning with 50 words sound like something I might try.

Here's to hoping somebody here gets a book deal soon!!

ME said...

Dear Agent,

"A Home on Top of a Hill" begins with a whomp, when a young girl, Maevis Daily, a traveling-photographer, Cheesy Adams, and a custom-built Cadillac have a chaotic encounter and ends more than 70 years later, when the destinies of the three main characters fit together with a thoroughly satisfying click. I am seeking an agent willing to provide enthusiastic representation for this 50,000 word offbeat novel that gathers perspectives from genres such as Women’s Lit, Historical Fiction/Family Saga, and blends them into solid fiction.

Maevis Daily, the main character in "A Home on Top of a Hill", is a scatterbrained, quirky, manic-depressive, procrastinating member of a barely-assimilated Hungarian family in a Central Ohio mining town. “Stock Market Crash” reads the huge, black letter headline on the newspaper the day she witnesses a bizarre auto accident in front of the small market in her hometown. The two “market crashes” are linked together in her mind ever after. Her struggles to achieve emotional equilibrium, adapt to ever-changing technology, raise her children to be productive members of society and get a good deal on a used car play out over the eight decades of her life in amusing and often unbelievable ways. “To know her is to love her” is a phrase frequently used by Maevis herself when all other attempts at self-characterization seem too harsh.

Cheesy Adams travels the Midwest in a truck filled with camera equipment and thick black electrical cables taking photographs and selling them to newspapers and magazines when he can. When he can’t, he goes door-to-door with a Shetland pony, taking pictures of suburban kids dressed up like cowboys and cowgirls. He crosses paths with Maevis and the Cadillac enough times, over the years, to see the difference between fate and coincidence in their encounters.

The 16-cylinder 1929 Cadillac described in the opening and closing scenes is based on an actual automobile; a limited-production, labor of love concept car developed by Harley Earl and some other GM boys. To Maevis it’s a big noisy machine.

If you are interested in reading more about Maevis, I would be happy to send you the first 12 pages, which present a complete episode. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Crystal Charee said...

In your first paragraph, all you need it title, genre, word count. Don't try to make the paragraph longer or more interesting. Ditch Cheesy and the Caddy from your query. Use the space to speak more specifically about Maeve.

The main problem I see in your letters is that you're trying maintain a mystery. You don't want to spoil the interesting parts by describing them up front. Delete phrases like "chaotic encounter", "scatterbrained, quirky, manic-depressive, procrastinating" and "amusing and often unbelievable".

You spend too many words saying that she procrastinates, which is gimmicky, and you can SHOW rather than TELL this by describing how she deals with these events. The car wreck was bizarre because, what--? The people who wrecked were on their way from robbing a bank? The wreck killed how many people? After the car wreck in 1929, she--what? Goes back to live with her parents? Refuses to leave the house? Quits school? After her brother dies, she--what? Starts collecting newspapers and cans? Opens a business selling newspapers and cans? She's a procrastinater, so is she always the last person to buy a VCR, microwave, etc...? When her son turns out to be an addict, she--what? Cashes in the papers and cans, and enters a retirement home?

This could be a really compelling story. Very relatable. Maeve's story IS interesting. There were lots of people in the market the day the car crashed. There were tons of people in the world the day the stock market crashed. I wouldn't mind following one of those people around and seeing how life went for them.

Also, I wouldn't discount the son's POV. Make him more of a character in her story, rather than just background. He may have felt like scenery, but that's just one more aspect of writing about a self-involved, mentally ill, character. How she affects the people around her. Who better to say, than her son?

various writers said...

Anonymous said...
Nice job, author. I think you "get it" now. That's a pretty good query in my opinion. There sure are a lot of commas, though. Are there four people in the Cadillac (first sentence) or two?

Maybe a little too much synopsis, still. Remember, you don't need to wrap the whole thing up in the query. All you need to do is entice...

11:29 AM


phoenix said...
Hello ME:

Your voice is starting to show through on this query. That's good!

But, oh my, I still don't think it does the trick yet.

50K words, to begin with, is very slight. And the implication that you're blending a couple of very respectable genres into "solid" fiction is that those respectable genres aren't respectable and solid on their own. Since you've mentioned in the past that this is based on your mother's exploits, it now sounds like you're trying too hard to convince us it's fiction. (And family saga books are generally over 100K words.)

The market crashes get a lot of play here, but it's just one incident and seems to carry more weight than to illustrate her mind has its quirks. So what if the crashes continue to be linked? Show us what some of the "amusing" and "unbelievable" ways are. Raising kids and trying to get a good deal on a used car are pretty standard fare. And the "To know her" line is not only confusing, but why would I believe what the character thinks of herself?

All I get about Cheesy is that he's a struggling photog who crosses paths with Maevis. Is this a love story? Does she try to run him down every time he sees her? What's their emotional connection?

Why does the Caddy get a paragraph unto itself? Unless this car is like the title vehicle in Stephen King's "Christine," all I can say is "huh?"

And, if this is fiction now and not memoir, what's the payoff at the end?

Also, don't dictate to the agent how many pages you will be happy to send. They will dictate to you how many they want to see. If the book is "episodic" in nature, include that in the first paragraph where you're describing it.

This story may be cute as all get-out, but the query isn't quite as solid as you say your fiction is -- yet.

I am SO impressed, though, by how dedicated you are to getting this right! That speaks VOLUMES to how easy you will be for an agent or editor to work with when they ask for revisions to your work! Go get 'em!

11:35 AM


ME said...
Thank you EE: I was just trying to slip it in, under the radar, so I thought.
Thank you for the comments. I will only shed a few quiet tears over my inability to win your hearts so far, before I march on. I do so with an extra phrase or two to guide me, because of your willingness to share your thoughts and space/time on this. Really,Thanks!

11:31 PM


takoda said...
Have you read Anne Tyler's "Breathing Lessons?" It might give you a feel for how to write about quirky characters on a journey. And they're on a road trip, so the car figures into the story too.

I can't offer anything more than what's been said. The first paragraph sounds like a hard sell. Like the car salesman who follows you around the dealership. Keep it short and sweet. And I agree with Phoenix that your voice is coming through nicely. But get rid of many of those adjectives, and think "How can I show this, instead of telling it in one adjective?"

It's much improved, though. And kudos to you for your hard work and wanting to improve it!!

Cheers,

ME said...

Dear Minions,
I thank all of you for your previous efforts, suggestions and comments regarding my query letter(s). I'd like to impose my latest version on this forum again. I hope you are not too bored or burned out on Maevis to give her one more shot. I won't inflict her on you again. If you haven't already, please forget my other attempts at the query trough and give "fresh eyes" to this version.
Thanks in advance.

Dear Agent,

Sometimes a main character in a novel has so much internal conflict that conflict of the external kind is barely necessary. Sometimes the daily challenges of life seem insignificant in comparison with the character’s self-imposed antagonism. But this is not the case for Maevis Daily, the main character of my 60,000 word manuscript, A Home on Top of a Hill.
The story begins with a whomp, when 10 year old Maevis, a scatterbrained, quirky, manic-depressive, procrastinating member of a barely-assimilated Hungarian family in a Central Ohio mining town, witnesses a horrific auto accident that flings the local son of a butcher smack into a tree; the sights and sounds of his demise haunt Maevis for years. A traveling photographer records the event and the photo appears in the local newspaper a few days later. The photograph and the photographer make significant re-appearances several times throughout Maevis’ life.
When Maevis finally overcomes her fear of automobiles, (enough to ride in one anyway) what little progress she has made resolving her conflicts with machines and modern technology is stalled by the sudden death of her beloved older brother, Mikey. She finds love with a passionate auto worker in the 1950s, and names her first child Mikey, in honor of her late brother. This stubborn, strong-willed child grows into a selfish, self-destructive man who heaps alternate piles of conflict and compassion at his mother’s feet. Through the years, his constant demands for attention and assistance push her deeper into procrastination; she feels she must be ever-ready to meet his needs.
The photographer, Cheesy Adams, travels the Midwest in a truck filled with camera equipment and electrical cables taking photographs and selling them to newspapers and magazines when he can. When he can’t, he goes door-to-door with a Shetland pony, taking pictures of suburban kids dressed up like cowboys and cowgirls. He crosses paths with Maevis enough times over the years to see the difference between fate and coincidence in their encounters.
By the 1990s, Maevis is a victim of Alzheimer’s disease and can no longer help her son who has run the gamut of addictions. Her eyesight is failing, along with her cognitive abilities -- she no longer recognizes any of her children. Her decline is slow, progressive and irreversible. And when there is really nothing left of her but an empty shell of skin, it seems like she is procrastinating death. Her story concludes with an incident at a local classic car show that revisits the contrasts between boredom and excitement presented at the story’s beginning.
Thank your for your time and consideration.

sylvia said...

Ergh. I'm sorry ME but I really don't like the "false start". It's disconcerting and the initial phrases are hard to reverse. I'd much rather see it turned around:

"When you meet Maevis Dailey, the main character of ..., you'll find that the challenges of life seem ...

I'm not sure of the use of the present tense for the initial scene. It's not a huge issue but it is a bit confusing. The story begins with a womp seems fine, but then the continuing present tense starts to be noticeable, and by the time a photographer records the scene it's starting to grate. Then when they make re-appearances, the present shifts too fast for me to keep up. I would be tempted to move the photographer's name into this paragraph though, then repeating it in the penultimate one.
The story line seems pretty strong here and I am left with the feeling that I'm going to read the story of an amazing woman. But then, I feel let down by "her story concludes..." at the end. It seems to almost trivialise?

"It seems like she is procratinating death. Then, an incident at a classic car show reminds her of the benefits of boredom."

Even that sounds trite. "...brings us to the dramatic conclusion," if there is a dramatic conclusion, maybe?

I like this a lot and I've resisted the urge to revisit your previous phrasing but I know this is sharper. I think if you clean up the first and last paragraphs of the plot, you'll have a winner.

ME said...

Can't deny that I've been lurking and waiting for more comments to show up. Not that I didn't appreciate your positive and helpful prose, Sylvia. I did. Thank you very, very much for taking the time to point out the weak spots.When I wrote the first query, I DID NOT have a clue as to the nature of agents, specific or general. After a few months of EE's face-lifts, I have acquired at least a basic understanding of the beast to whom I write. Soon, I will go back to the keyboard and tighten. I wondered if the opening might be too smart-ass.

Anonymous said...

Dear Me, I think this could be a terrific story, depending on the writing. However, I think your new query is still long on words and superfluous details. For a query, I think you need to paint with the BIG brush, demonstrating conflict and/or potential conflict in a very small space, only touching the small brush to the canvas when it adds to conflict.

I know it is hard not to get caught up in the details of your own work, but try to consider your novel in the broadest sense. Let’s use the movie “War of the Worlds,” with Tom Cruise. What is that story about? Aliens attacking earth? NO. It’s about a man trying to save his family when aliens attack earth. All good stories, whether they have crossed-eyed zombies or mutant wombats, come down to human drama—greed, love, death, power, etc.—because we are all humans. That’s what we relate to. So when you’re writing your query, think in terms of human drama. Why should someone care about your characters? What situations are universal?

And watch you timelines, (I would leave the dates out) even if the story spans eighty years, you want to keep the “pressure” on in the query, as if events are happening one after the other. The agent will get the idea of the passage of time. Big strokes! You don’t want an agent wondering how you filled up the space between 1955 and 1975!

People have suggested on your previous versions cutting all the stuff before the title and word count. I agree wholeheartedly with that philosophy. KISS. Keep It Simple, Sweetheart! You want an agent to get to the meat of your query, so serve the meat hot and fast. (Sorry for the mixed metaphors of food and art!) You don’t want them to “pitch” your query before you’ve had a chance to pitch your novel!

Make it lean cuisine! (uugghh, sorry. I can’t stop)

I just messed around with what you had on a previous post:



Dear Ms. Agent,

“A Home on Top of a Hill,” is a literary novel that runs 60,000 words

Maevis Daily witnesses a bizarre automobile accident as a child in 1929 that makes her hesitant to participate in life. She considers motorized vehicles to be death traps and refuses to ride in one until her older brother convinces her to give it a try. His unexpected death in December 1941 solidifies her belief that (for her) life should only be a spectator sport.

Her ineffectiveness deepens during the War years, and when she gives birth to her first son, Mikey, it is thought by her husband, Henry, that her habits might change. But Mikey’s constant demands for attention push her deeper into apathy, and electro-shock therapy seems to be the only way out.

In the wake of ECT treatments, Maevis seems better and vows to be a more vigilant mother. But her attentions are misplaced (you might briefly state how they are misplaced) and Mikey flits [find a stronger word than “flits”] from one addiction to another—sex, gambling, drugs. When Maevis falls victim to Alzheimer’s disease, she is no longer able to recognize Mikey, who is now a prescription drug addict. But Mikey, even though he has never felt his mother’s support, feels compelled to battle his addictions and come to her aid in her final years.

Sincerely,

ME (YOU) (Whatever)

Think spar. Show conflict. Show how people react to conflict, and how their reactions create more conflict. I have no idea how your novel ends so I threw in the part about overcoming his addictions and taking care of dear old ma. But don’t make your ending ambiguous and uninteresting, which I kind of think it is now in your most recent post. That last sentence should be like the “tink” of a spoon on fine crystal. And no need to add anything about it being a memoir, unless that’s how you want to market it, which it doesn’t sound like you do. I wouldn’t even refer to this as “your” story, for fear the agent might think this is the only one you have in your arsenal if you are drawing on personal experiences.

Just my thoughts. Hope they help.


All the best.

Anon the Barbarian

phoenix said...

And here's my shot at it, Me. Still a bit long, but it does fit on a single page. Guess it just seems so much easier to show you what we think we mean than to try to tell you :o)

Ten-year-old Maevis Daily witnesses a horrific auto accident that flings the local son of a butcher smack into a tree. That 1929 event continues to haunt Maevis, and it's years before she overcomes her fear of cars. When she finally finds the nerve to buy one, wouldn't you know, it's stolen only one week later.

But that's how Maevis' life seems to go. She can't get ahead, can't get a break. At last she decides, "Why bother?" and falls into a pattern of procrastination that will last the rest of her life. Ironically, she also falls for an auto worker in the 1950s, who promptly (quits his job, has an affair, dies, - hubby disappears from your query). To top it off, her long-dreamed-for son lives up to her worst expectations, degenerating into a selfish, self-destructive man unable to cut the apron strings yet chastising her for her lack of "motherly love" [or whatever].

The only constant in her life is Cheesy Adams, a traveling photographer who records the auto accident in 1929, and turns up unexpectedly many times over the years. Whether their encounters are fate or coincidence, when Maevis sees Cheesy, she knows things will soon be [looking up / falling apart -- still unclear what their relationship is]. Like the time [relate an amusing anecdote that illustrates their relationship].

In the 1990s, Maevis falls victim to Alzheimer’s disease. Her decline is slow as she clings tenaciously to life, proving she can procrastinate anything -- even death. Until, at a local car show her nursing home residents are attending, the driver of a 1929 Caddy just like the one that killed the butcher's son loses control and runs her down. Dying, Maevis sees a camera's bright flash -- and Cheesy Adams takes his final picture.

My mother is Maevis Davis, and the completed 60,000-word A HOME ON TOP OF THE HILL is, mostly, her story.

writtenwyrdd said...

This isn't my sort of read, so bear that in mind in case I misunderstand how these literary novels work.

Anyhow, what strikes me is that the story doesn't start until she has Alzheimers. All the rest is backstory. But apparently you wrote the novel of her entire life. So what I found myself asking as I reread was what, exactly, is the story? What thread runs through all these years that makes this book special? I don't see that in the query.

It is possible the problem with the query is a problem with the book. It's semi- or wholly biographical, and that means you are probably sticking to reality when it doesn't serve the novel. The problem may be that you don't have a story. You might consider mapping out the plot to see.

Also, why the mention of Cheesy the photographer? Why does he get a mention at all? I think he can be left out of the query.

Good luck with this!

ME said...

Thanks anon! I know what you mean about lean cuisine. It has taken me a long time to learn when to bite my tongue, and now I see I must learn to do it in my writing as well. I thought my last previous effort had strayed too close to synopsis territory, so I just tried to go with character development. RE: the big brush v small brush balance is something I need to investigate further. One of the most helpful (I relate to poetic analogies) part of your comments is the "tink" reference. I'm fomenting at the mouth over it. I want a "tink" in my query.

Phoenix (You've been so helpful on ALL of my attempts and your opinion is important to me.) It took me so long to "get" that I needed to reveal more of the actual action, and I see that you included the "smack into a tree" and that warms my cockels. I want to have that in the query (I was so stuck on the "market crash" stuff in earlier q's) and I'm glad your example included it. And you are very close to figuring out the ending. But Maevis, remember, is just a shell at that point. After 10 years of Alzheimer's, there is not much functioning going on.

Writtenwyrd -- Thanks for making the stretch into unfamiliar fiction. Good point about getting mired in reality when it's not adding to the story.

Thanks again.

I hope to (eventually) have a positive result to report on this here blog. Hell, I'll report my first snail mail rejection. I've already had two via e-mail. No surprise there, eh?