Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Face-Lift 323

Guess the Plot

There Ain't No Free Lunch

1. Burger jockey Thingasa Such is a few fries short of a Happy Meal, but when he chews the fat with Candy, the beautiful new cashier, his co-workers think he’s nutty as a fruitcake and it’s dollars to donuts he’ll be eating humble pie before the cows come home. Turns out they’re two peas in a pod and pretty soon Thingasa’s hiding the salami, until he finds out Candy eats like a horse and likes to cut the cheese.

2. Carmella Jones was annoyed that her blind date with Ernie Fudge turned out to be a sales pitch luncheon at a timeshare. When Fudge claims they're Giovanni and Donna Ponti, they get shoved into a windowless van and driven to a remote forested location where mob boss Fat Bruno gives them ten minutes to sign over the Ponti fortune -- or die.

3. Someone ran an ad in the Beacon with a coupon for a free lunch at Buddy's Diner on Route 214. After setting about a hundred people straight on the matter, Buddy vows to beat the next coupon-bearing patron to a bloody pulp. But the next person in the shop is sultry, sexy Ivana . . . who claims to know where to find Buddy's long-lost, estranged daughter.

4. When the federal government cuts free school lunch programs yet again, first graders take over Washington . . . and teach Congress a thing or two in the process.

5. “Are you listening? I said there ain’t no free lunch. Now get outta here before I call the cops!” Join down-and-out tramp Artie McFink as he tours New York’s finest restaurants trying to get that damn Jedi mind trick to work.

6. Abandoned as an infant by his father, a Texas boy turns to his high school football coach for life's most important lessons. You know, like . . . "There Ain't No Free Lunch, boy." But will these life lessons do him any good when he's forced to move to Appalachia and live among hillbillies?

Original Version


What first reads like Confessions of a Hyperactive Child develops into a memoir of teenage self-reliance in the face of parental abandonment. In the opening chapter the infant protagonist is abducted by his father then returned nine months later to his young manic-depressive mother. [Unless you're going to dive right into the plot, you might mention the title fairly close to the beginning of the letter.] His father immediately disappears for fourteen years, [Nothing that lasts fourteen years is immediate. It's like saying, She immediately left the room and had nine children and a successful film career.] leaving his mother—who seemingly never recovers from the traumatic experience—to raise him and his half-sister with the help of Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, and a series of step-fathers whose last names she forces them to adopt.

The young boy lives in constant fear of his father returning to steal him. As he outgrows his father phobia, he becomes the toughest and most unruly kid in school, which makes for amusing accounts of his Tom Sawyer-like [Finally, the name of a character. Not yours, but at this point I'll settle for anything.] grade school antics. [The tough fourth-graders nowadays don't put frogs in Becky's desk; they beat up the teachers.] The brazen youth grows into an insecure endearing adolescent while at home his mother's moods swing between overbearing and apathetic.

In junior high the boy finds sanctuary in sports and a six-year sub-plot develops [A six-year subplot? Why, that's like going to a performance of Don Giovanni and having Zerlina sing a six-hour-long aria. (Every once in a while I like to provide a laugh for my more highly cultured minions.)] —the story of a marginal athlete who's sure he's going to make it big but never even comes close. The boy's obsession with becoming the next Bruce Jenner [Now there's a world-class athlete who made it big. Last time I saw Jenner he was losing on Skating with Celebrities.] helps the author develop two key characters. [The author? You're the author, right?] A psychotic head football coach—the most powerful man in a small east Texas town—on his way to becoming a member of the Texas High School Coaches Hall of Fame, who devises unimaginable ways to publicly bully him for his own amusement. [Apparently they weren't unimaginable for him.] A second coach becomes his mentor, then father figure and crams all of life's lessons into three years, including the value of self-determination that is the inspiration for book's title—There Ain't No Free Lunch. [That's an awfully big chunk of a query letter to devote to a subplot.]

During 11th grade the boy, and his family move from Texas to the backwoods of the Appalachian Mountains. A few outrageous interactions with his hillbilly classmates [Hasn't "hillbilly" become politically incorrect yet? If not, it's the only derogatory term for a group of people that hasn't.] demonstrate why the boy is unable to assimilate. In an ironic turn of events, the 17 year-old, whom as an infant was the object of an epic parental tug-of-war contest, is kicked out of his mother's home in one of her drunken rages. Then, after a two thousand mile bus ride, he is turned away by his father. [Always phone ahead before spending 2000 miles in a bus. I'm surprised the coach who taught him all life's lessons in three years didn't mention that one.] He's invited to live with a series of friends but his presence in those households adds to some already dysfunctional dynamics. Before his senior year he finds himself almost penniless while riding a series of Greyhound buses across the country looking for a place to finish high school.

There Ain't No Free Lunch is more versatile than a simple biographical account of one boy's undeterred quest to graduate high school while enduring hunger, illness, and a host of other poverty-related problems. It offers compelling accounts of human righteousness as acquaintances, even strangers, step up in various ways to help nurture the boy. There's a sub-plot of Mommy Dearest, and several micro-plots of Pay it Forward. [Microplots, I assume, are like subplots, except they don't drag on for six years.] In the aspect of triumph-over-adversity the book is similar to The Pursuit of Happyness and the Glass Castle. [What have you got that's fresh and new? This one seems to be similar to an awful lot of other stuff.] But the situational humor and uplifting small victories carry the book between the dark chapters and prevent this from becoming a tale of serial despair with a predictable happy ending.

From 1970's childhood misconceptions that sparked defiant behavior to the nomadic student who spent his time between classes asking around for a place to sleep, this book gives open-access into the mind of a troubled boy who becomes a man with each turn of the page.
This 90,000 word memoir delivers a powerful message of perseverance and resolve while letting the reader laugh at the real life version of that mythical kid who really did walk barefoot six miles to school in the snow—uphill both ways.


The infant protagonist . . . the young boy . . . the brazen youth . . . the seventeen-year-old . . . Does he have a name? Does anyone? You've provided the names of more whiskeys than characters.

Instead of telling us the book has outrageous interactions, compelling accounts, situational humor, dysfunctional dynamics, uplifting victories . . . Give examples. Show us what sets this apart from other books, what makes his story more interesting than those of other kids growing up in poverty. Right now it does sound like a simple biographical account of one boy's quest to graduate high school while enduring poverty-related problems. And who wants to read that?

No one cares what books or movies an author thinks his own writing is like. Which is good news, because this could stand to be a lot shorter.

I see "There ain't no free lunch" meaning if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I'm not sure the connection between that phrase and "self-determination" will be obvious to everyone.

Have you considered setting the whole thing in Texas, making the six-year subplot your main plot, and bringing in the infant/child sections in conversations with the coach or flashbacks? Eighteen years is a lot of ground to cover, especially when much of a person's first eighteen years is dullsville.


CSInman said...

Author, you're giving us too many details! Try and limit yourself to three paragraphs. In the first, characterize Nameless Boy, so we care about him and want to read the next paragraph. Leave out the backstory about him being an infant, because hopefully that's not in your story anyway. Infants are not famously attention-grabbing main characters. They like, poop and make noise. That's kind of it.

The second paragraph is more about what he goes through--places he goes, maybe really important people he meets. Make sure to write it all in the same voice, and be sure you're representing how you wrote the novel in that voice. (This book practically demands third person limited, so do that--none of this boy stuff, use his name, and make sure we know how he feels about the events.)

The last paragraph should be short and sum up how the events you've described so far (which are very important events only, no subplots, and take up less than ~150 words per paragraph, please) melt into an ending.

I didn't care about your story at all until you mentioned it was true, so put that at the beginning. Is this your true story or are you writing someone else's memoirs? Tell us that too.

Good luck, and thanks for sharing with us.

pacatrue said...

This query letter sounds like a book review.

To be honest, I was uninterested in most of the story until we have the kid taking buses all over the country desperately trying to complete high school. That was really, really cool to me. What's noteworthy about this perception is this was the first place where a classic plot shined through in the query letter; i.e., the protagonist has a goal and he's doing everything he can think of to accomplish that goal with obstacles being thrown in his path.

Virtually, all of the life before that seemed like backstory at best - character formation stuff before the book's real plot started. Before this plot started we just had a really unlucky kid who endured crap. After the plot started, we got a kid who desparately wants something. I want to read about the latter.

I hate saying what book I'd like to read instead of just how to improve the query letter, but maybe my thoughts are still useful to you. Write a great query letter about the main character trying to get what he wants and then let us discover all that he had to go through to get there.

Really one chapter where he's trying to get to football practice or do his geometry while his mom is chucking Jim Beam bottles out of the window will make the point without the 15 years leading up to that very moment.

Rich Ochoa said...

Great feedback so far. Keep it coming friends. --Nameless Boy

Anonymous said...

"The Highly Cultured Minions" would be a really good name for a rock band.

The query letter was so packed with details I started skimming just for EE's comments. The only bit that really caught my eye was the whiskeys---because I listen to country music---and then the Appalachian hillbillies because, see above, I adore country music (and folk. And bluegrass. If it has a banjo, fiddle, washboard, or twangy voice, I am happy). Unfortunately then the kid took a bus away, and I lost interest again.

So, um, in actual relevant comments, you do need details---but the right ones. Like the kid's name, and what makes him a really sympathetic character we can root for through various adventures and misadventures. "Tom-Sawyer-like antics" sounded promising, as does the buses-around-the-country, but the query gets so lost in psychotic football coaches that we miss the more compelling story.

Dave Fragments said...

Now just a moment. I worked with a bunch of West Virginians (about 500 or thereabouts) after my company merged. And they were great to work with. Much more diverse than the Pennsylvanians and a whole helluva lot friendlier. And that goes for the ones that had that awful accent and one or two teeth ... left.

Appalachia exists if only for the wooden shacks, farm animals in the yard and satellite dishes pointed up to the sky. The real story is that their kids are going to college and learning more than most citified lazy assed kids. They ain't slackers nor should we think of them as unsophisticated (Even if they do think that the shrimp platter at Shoney's is gourmet food). They are good workers and kind-hearted.

Do you think that Senator Byrd would invest that much in his state without getting a return on invenstment? Hell no!.

And sign me - north of the Mason Dixon line - A Damn Yankee!

Anonymous said...

"Hillbilly" isn't a "group of people", it's a lifestyle choice.

Anonymous said...

I'm bummed. I wanted to read Plots 2 and 3, and the real one wasn't either.

As for the actual query, neither EE's version nor the actual query hooked me. The language isn't compelling, it's missing major voice, and most of the story is so relatable that it's boring.

SINCE, (and only since) it's a memoir, I am interested in the kid who bused himself around in order to finish high school. But the reason this kid wants to finish high school needs to be mentioned. What does he see for himself if he doesn't graduate? That he'll end up like his parents? If he does graduate, it's a stepping stone to--what?

Chris Eldin said...

Hi, I agree with the comments so far. And I would love to read a story about:

Before his senior year he finds himself almost penniless while riding a series of Greyhound buses across the country looking for a place to finish high school.

I think the backstory was too much, and I wasn't pulled in by the title (which is a minor issue). Can you focus on the year he's traveling on the Greyhound bus?

Good luck!


Evil Editor said...

As for the actual query, neither EE's version nor the actual query hooked me.

EE's version?

Sylvia said...

EE's version as in GTP#6, I think.

This one really didn't work for me. I think there's a novel in there somewhere but your book doesn't have to contain every actual occurrance. What happens if you start at the middle?