Friday, May 25, 2007

Face-Lift 341

Guess the Plot

Spartan Sunrise

1. This biography of the first man to be married to his partner on the steps of the Capitol building chronicles his rise from a humble small-town life to the sex, drug and techno-fueled lifestyle of New York City . . . followed by his plunge into the impoverished, Spartan lifestyle of the Bowery.

2. Buster Mordwell turned over. The sun was peeking through the curtainless windows. No alarm clock, no telephone, no coffee. No sheets, damn it. And he itched. Never mind the price, this was the last time he would stay in a Budget Inn.

3. When King Laonidas mixes his signature cocktail for King Xerxes, Xerxes just has to have the recipe. But when Laonidas refuses to give up the secret ingredient, Xerxes gives him a drunken shove. Laonidas shoves back and knocks over Xerxes’ drink. Several thousand dead soldiers later, both men agree: things got out of hand.

4. After watching his pirated copy of 300 for the 164th time, 35-year-old Joe Boxman glances out the window of his mother's basement and sees he's watched the movie until dawn again. Realizing he's an obsessive-compulsive loser, he degenerates into a very literary mental breakdown. Then he watches 300 again.

5. After a whirlwind romance, accountant Todd Abernathy-Flynn is happily married to glamorous superspy Mae Wong. All he wants is to settle into a honeymoon of subconscious bliss with the little woman. But Mae cracks her whip and puts him on a strenuous regimen. She knows her ex, Octopus McGee, the notorious fiend from Dublin, is on his way to pulverize Todd. Will her darling be ready?

6. Lucinda will sign over her yuppie pub to anyone who can name a mixed drink she’s never heard of—and biz at the bar is booming! Until a Greek from 631 BC arrives with the name of a cocktail that’s certain to stump her, made from the blood of massacred Visigoths.

Original Version

Dear Agent,

John Hayward is the first man to be married to his partner on the steps of the Capitol Building. [The last place you want to get married is on a flight of stairs. Do you know how many people (mostly men) faint during a wedding ceremony? Check out this compilation video.] Spartan Sunrise is a novel about the series of small moments that make up his life. [Uh oh. Small moments? How small?

One morning in 2005, William cooked breakfast for John. It was unusual, in that John was the better cook, but John had been up late the night before, working on their scrapbook. There was a tulip in a vase on John's tray, which touched John so much he didn't even make an issue of the slightly overcooked eggs. But that was the kind of man this fictional character was, the kind who would gladly choke down burnt eggs for his partner.]

Told from his perspective and the varied stories of people he's encountered along the way, traversing the many layers of society that make up New York, from impoverished to wealthy, from isolation to having many friends. [That sentence needs a predicate . . . Come to think of it, it also needs a subject.] Unified vignettes from many points of view, as people seamlessly enter and leave John's life Рtell the story of his journey. [That says what the previous sentence said, but even more vaguely. If you keep it, change the comma to a dash or the dash to a comma.] The fictional biography spans his life from his humble, clich̩ small town beginnings to the sex, drug and techno fueled lifestyle of New York. When John 'comes out' to his socialite girlfriend he's evicted from his Fifth Avenue apartment and needs to live in a SRO on the Bowery to finally realize his ability to accept himself. [Finally, a sentence that tells us something specific that happens in the book.] The story encompasses his quest for normal: career path, partner, children, divorce, then surreal death. [Are divorce and surreal death included as part of a "normal" quest?]

I'm greatly inspired by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and Jeanette Winterson (to name just a few). [If you're saying you admire them, the reader doesn't care; if you're saying you're in their league, the reader will be highly skeptical.] The novel is 58,000 words and about 230 pages in a word document.

I'm a contributing writer for Huffingtion Post; once penned the blog One Gay Date at a Time. [You'd have to be awfully sure the person you're writing to is familiar with it and impressed by it, before bragging that you once penned a blog.] My first play Three Tables was successfully produced this fall and listed in New York Magazine as an Off-Off Broadway pick. A short story was published in the online journal Fluent Ascension. I freelance, when possible as a slightly snarky blog writer for hire. [Wait a minute; you're Miss Snark?] [Wait a minute, people pay you to pen their blogs?] You can find out more about me and current work at _____________.

Thank you for taking the time to read this query, attached is an SASE; I look forward to hearing from you.



On the one hand, if the book consists of small moments in John's life, I can see how you would find it hard to come up with specifics worthy of the query letter. On the other hand, you have to come up with specifics worthy of the query letter. You have to make the query reader care about the character. Who wants to read about the small moments in a fictional character's life? I want to read about the defining moments. Which means I want the query to tell me what those moments are, and how John deals with them. What makes his life more interesting than the lives of the people you expect to buy the book?

That his girlfriend knows he's gay means he has to move out of his home and start living on Skid Row? Aren't 80% of the apartments on Fifth Avenue occupied by gay guys? Aren't there laws protecting people from being evicted for such reasons? Was he leeching off his girlfriend?

It's a biography (sort of). No need to drive it home with phrases like "moments that make up his life," "the story of his journey," "spans his life," "encompasses his quest." Instead of defining what a biography (sort of) is, tell us what happens in this biography (sort of).


Bernita said...

Lots of people choke down slightly over-cooked eggs for their partners without making a fuss.
Perhaps a more significant character reference?

Evil Editor said...

Um, those were my eggs. (Note the blue.) My supposedly amusing way of saying: Perhaps a more significant character reference?

the other rick said...

Yeah, what EE says. I want those defining moments that sets him apart from just another gay man seeking a normal life book. How does he end up being the first man married on the capital steps? Is that the end result of his life or one of the defining moments? The sequencing seems sort of random to me in this query. I can't quite seem to see the what is the climax to his life. It might not be the marriage if this is a biography.

If the story is told from his perspective, why are the vignettes "from many points of view"? Which is it?

What's an SRO? Never assume that someone is going to know accronyms or abbreviations with which you are familiar.

A thought that crossed my mind was that this seems a tad short for a biography of someone substantual who has something to say about life.

Bernita said...

Eeek! Sorry Author. Sorry EE.
~ wondering if I'm going colour blind!~

Dave said...

The book is about John Haywood as he grows up, marries, parties, comes out, gets divorced, and ends up asa the living poor. Only then does he come to grips with his life. Well, Gee Whizzies, Gosh Gollies - tell us why that is interesting or unique or insightful and make us care for John Haywood. It sounds as though youve got an interesting novel but your query doesn't convey that. It's a little dry.

phoenix said...

And why do I care about John? The book (novella? 58,000 words for adult fiction is awfully short) is about his quest for a normal life. I didn't see any mention of a career path; he goes from cliche (ouch) small town to sex, drugs and rock-n-roll in the big city without us knowing why or how. I daresay the majority of small towners who move into the big city don't wind up in the New York John seems to have found. I guess he's being supported by his girlfriend who kicks him out (did the socialite take in a bum just to displease mummy and daddy?) since he has no other options save for skid row. So obviously no career skills.

Stories about coming out and learning to accept one's orientation are a dime a dozen. Your query will need to show how John is different from all the other GLBTs that are finding themselves. And you'll need to connect some dots to give the reader a sense that the story really does have a purpose. The first sentence promises a groundmaking statement for the novel that the rest of the query sadly doesn't follow through on.

Try again with some specifics about motivation, obstacles and triumphs -- and try not to make them sound small.

Off Topic:
Don't miss reading December Quinn's deal-winning query at

Thanks for posting it, DQ!

pacatrue said...

I wanted to congratulate the author heartily on his off-off-broadway play. The first lengthy fiction I ever wrote was a play. On reflection, the first short fiction I ever wrote was also a play, a One Act, so having something produced is sort of a dream of mine. So congrats.

Now, redo your query. :)

BuffySquirrel said...

The ennobling effects of poverty are over-rated.

ME said...

Would those be the very same steps where J. Jenrette and his sweetie-pie had sex a while back? Is there some connection to be made here?
Just asking.

Xenith said...

he novel is 58,000 words and about 230 pages in a word document.

We want to know how many pages in a picture document?

If that's referring to MS Word, it seems a pointless detail to include. My 125,000 word novel is 12 pages in Word Perfect. So it's a bit hard to read, but at that size, it'll be easy to email!

Anonymous said...

Excuse my French but what has all that got to do with "Sparta" or "sunrise"??? I suggest you and the previous few authors swap words. You could use Below The Sartan and someone else could use Gift of the Thermocline, while the 3rd contestant takes Myrrh Sunrise -- you'd all still be pretty random but at least there'd be a little more imagery and less cliche happening.

Dave said...

I think the title refers to the fact that from his cardboard box or doorway in the bowery, he can see the sun rise through the buildings. (possibly even the window of the flophouse on good days)...
And spartan has nothing to do with the latest "300" epic but the - bald, bare, bare-bones, barren, bleak, clean, dour, plain, primitive, rustic, severe, simple, spare, stark, subdued, unadorned, unembellished -

Xenith said...

First I commented on the wrong post, then I missed off the start when I was cutting & pasting, and I put the ? on the wrong sentence. I really need to stop reading blogs first thing.

Now I'm awake, I've been thinking about fictional biographies. Are there many of these things about?

Evil Editor said...

They tend to be biographies of fictional characters who've become well-known. There are bios of Sherlock Holmes, Horatio Hornblower, James Bond, Miss Marple, etc. Most are written by authors cashing in on a character's popularity. It's a fine line between a novel and a "biography" of a fictional character no one's ever heard of. Those who enjoy reading biographies are unlikely to seek out those based on fictional characters, so you're likely to find such books in with the novels. Could David Copperfield, Emma, The World According to Garp be called biographies? Possibly, depending on how much of the subject's life constitutes a biography. Perhaps any novel that covers the many defining moments in a single character's life could be called a fictional biography.

Anonymous said...

Alternatively, you could use GIFT OF THE SPARTAN, leaving your friends to fight over THERMOCLINE SUNRISE and BELOW THE MYRRH.

BuffySquirrel said...

David Copperfield is probably a fictionalised autobiography, given that Dickens used his own life as source material, but at the same time changed a lot of the details or simply Made Stuff Up.

Kanani said...

Go through this and highlight those things that tell me the story, and the conflict this character is facing. Not what he does, but the one thing in the story that is going to change his life.

Watch the clichés and asides that show us you're not paying attention:

-"the varied stories of people he's encountered along the way,"
Who? The plumber who is a poet at night? The stripper who quotes Kafka?

-"The fictional biography spans his ..."

We assume that it is fictional, since you are submitting a novel. This set up seems cliche, though what happens might truly be exceptional. I'd find another way to write about his emergence on the Studio 56 scene.

-"The story encompasses his quest for normal: career path, partner, children, divorce, then surreal death."

As EE has pointed out: a divorce and surreal death aren't normally a quest.

This sounds like one of those cradle to grave epics. Narrow it down a bit. Think of what Edith Wharton did with Lily Bart.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

When you're talking about credits, the mention of your play is impressive enough. It would be one thing if your column in HufPo were syndicated and in wide distribution (a la "The Advice Goddess"). As for penning other people's "snarky" blogs, it's not enough to use as a credit, and you might have insulted someone or something the agent or slush pile reader cares very much about.

Author said...

Revised Query

Guess the Plot

The Life of a Steely-Eyed Man

Wake up. Brush teeth. Give self a steely-eyed stare in the mirror. Eat breakfast. Go to work. Give co-workers a steely-eyed stare. Go to dinner. Give McDonald's cashier a steely-eyed stare. Go home to bed. Repeat.

When a chemistry experiment goes badly wrong, teacher Chuck Chambers can only thank the innovative new contact lenses he invented a week earlier. It's just a pity that the same couldn't be said of his pupils and now they're hunting him down, with seeing eye dogs that are trained to kill.

After Dorothy leaves him, the Tin Woodman spends the rest of his life in a quest for artificial eyes that match his metallic sheen.

Cybernetics weren't the only thing that made Dirk Holodyne the baddest street fighter in Dallas. Kill 'em for breathing, that was Dirk's motto, until someone killed him. Now, he's a toy poodle; and he's got a month to make up for his useless life or spend eternity in Hell.

An accident changes Joseph's life dramatically when doctors must replace his damaged eye with a large ball bearing. The once ordinary industry worker becomes a crusader for the disabled and workplace safety, fighting apathy and poor accessibility until no one can turn a blind eye.

Original Version

Dear Agent,

John Hayward comes from Capitol Hill Georgia, after a full scholarship to a highfalutin business college he's one of many, that's come to New York and is raised by city.

The Life of a Steely Eyed Man is about the experiences that make up John's life. The colorful people he encounters along the way propel him through a sex, drug and techno fueled lifestyle. As John traverses the many layers of society, he jigsaws New York, from impoverished to wealthy, from isolated to community, he finds balance in his life and constantly learns.

People seamlessly enter and leave John's life. He realizes his sexuality, comes out to his socialite girlfriend and is evicted from his Fifth Avenue apartment; in an SRO on the Bowery he finally finds the ability to accept himself and move forward. The reader follows his career path, partner, children, divorce, and finally surreal death.

I'm greatly inspired by writers like Toni Morrison and Jeanette Winterson (to name just a few). The novel is 63,000 words and about 230 pages in a word document.

I'm a contributing writer for Huffington Post; once penned the blog One Gay Date at a Time. My first play Three Tables was successfully produced this fall and listed in New York Magazine as an Off-Off Broadway pick. A short story was published in the online journal Fluent Ascension. I freelance, when possible as a slightly snarky blog writer for hire. You can find out more about me and current work at ________ .

Thank you for taking the time to read this query, attached is an SASE; I look forward to hearing from you.


phoenix said...

Oh my. Maybe the fault doesn't lie with the query. Author, for me, this revised version doesn't live up to the effort of the original. At least the original had a great first-line hook. What happened to getting married on the steps of the Capitol Building? THAT was the thing that gave the story even a glimmer of uniqueness.

More than a name change and a mere shuffling of words about the page, the original query needed a true revision -- as in re-vision, a fresh look at the story and how to tell it in 300 words or less.

To be frank, I read the words, but I have no idea what many of them mean. Your first sentence makes little sense. Then how does one "jigsaw New York"? How do "people seamlessly enter and leave" a life? And if they do it seamlessly, that sounds awfully boring. I want characters who rip through a life leaving seams everywhere. People who make an impression. People who make a story.

Then I read "he finally finds the ability to accept himself and move forward." I have no clue what he accepts himself as. The Bowery bum he's become? The sex/drug playboy he was? The gay guy he's really always been?

I think where you misinterpret things is right when you say the book "is about the experiences that make up John's life." Perhaps your book is. But that is not the book most people want to read. Especially in literary memoir or whatever this would be shelved as. We want to read about how those experiences affect John. Just listing the events does nothing to endear John to us. As it stands, the query reads very dry, very ho-hum/so what, and very difficult to understand in places.

Anonymous said...

Your first sentence/paragraph is a garbled mess and must go.

When I read it's about "the experiences that make up John's life" you've effectively told me there's not an actual plot, this is one literary "slice of life" episode after another. I think the sort of agent who won't mind the absence of a plot because they adore "slice of life" fiction, will want to hear that some of these brilliantly written episodes have already graced the pages of lit mags.

Personally, I require a plot and a guy bungling his way through life [gay, straight, whatever -- who cares?] will not substitute unless the prose has incredible charm and wit, which yours does not.

Twill said...

You don't seem to know what your book is about. (Unless it's just another "Gay Boy comes out in the Village story".)

Here's a suggestion:

Get a very good (but reasonable) friend to read the book, and break it into 40-100 scenes. Then have the friend ask you, for each scene
(1) Why is this here?
(2) What does it tell you about the story? (How does it support the theme, illuminate character, or move the story forward?)
(3) What would it change if you deleted this scene? Moved it?

Make each scene justify its existence, or shoot it in the head with a bullet. (You should do the same with each paragraph and then each word, but not until after you know what your story is about.)

You don't have to actually delete everything, but let's pretend that you do all that pruning, at least for the purposes of a query. Now you have a story that's just about what it's about.

Now tell the story quickly, and in the same voice, but without lists. That's your query.

150 said...

What in the world is going on with that first sentence?

There still doesn't seem to be much plot to speak of. Try framing it in a cause-effect way.

Elissa Abbott said...

I find it hard to believe the author has spent much time on this, given the overall mess. No matter how good your query, if it's this full of grammatical errors and confused sentences, no agent or editor will want to see any more of your work.