Thursday, May 31, 2007

Face-Lift 345

Guess the Plot

Needs of the Minute

1. Turn off the tea kettle. Stop the three-year-old from dunking the cat's head in the toilet. Pay the mailman the postage due on the SASE without the stamp. Stop the one-year-old from smushing strained carrots into the DVD player.

2. The "little people" have needs, too, and when a midget evil scientist creates a shrinking ray to reduce every elected official in the world to pint-size, hunky Spade McDade and voluptuous Isley Pitfall team up to stop his nefarious plan.

3. With time bombs ticking away, an enemy of millions attacking, a spaceship orbiting the planet, and doomsday approaching, Semelon Semse must balance his planet's long-term needs against its . . . Needs of the Minute.

4. Cockroaches take over the world, only to be set upon by a pestilence of mites which cannot reproduce without nutrients supplied by the XGSXU1-054 bacterium, which only thrives in the presence of caffeine, so once Starbucks ceases to function, life on earth is basically back to the Precambrian.

5. Hilarity ensues when Herbert Bumple installs pay toilets in his Dollar Store, but refuses to make change.

6. After Gulliver departs, the Lilliputians find themselves needing intensive therapy sessions to deal with new-found issues of inadequacy.

Original Version

NEEDS OF THE MINUTE is a complete science fiction novel of 100,001 words. [No way I'm rounding off my word count, not when I worked so hard to make it a palindrome.]

When the primitive enemy in an ancient war suddenly brings new weapons and tactics to the front, SEMELON SEMSE traces the innovations to a shocking source and discovers a fast-approaching doomsday for his world.

The enemy is a horde of savage, unschooled Tachba who are contained -- just barely -- by a thousand miles of trenches, barbed wire, and machine guns. [A thousand miles of trenches? The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long. I'd hate to have to dig a trench four times the length of the Grand Canyon.] Semelon is a Tachba officer who was born on the Haphan side of the front and forcibly “civilized.” Fighting with the Haphans against his own people, he watches ambivalently as his brethren attack the trenches and die in their thousands and millions. [He watches as they attack the trenches and die in millions? These trenches must be as deep as the Grand Canyon.]

It’s an abysmal war which hasn’t changed for centuries -- [Centuries? If you've been sending millions of your people at enemy trenches for centuries, and you've made no headway, it's time to come up with a new strategy. Tunnels. Or turning around and circling the entire planet. Are they Tachba or lemmings?] [Have they considered just settling down on their side of the trench?] until now. Orbiting above the planet is the LUCKY STRIKE, an independent prospecting starship [whose naming rights were bought by the American Tobacco Company,] that is subtly orchestrating the Tachba victory by supplying heavy artillery, [planks to lay over the trenches,] tactical advice and new weapons. If the the front line collapses, the Haphans’ “mid-level” civilization will be destroyed, and the ship can stake a claim on the planet for re-colonization. It plants doomsday bombs at the front to cover its tracks. [What plants doomsday bombs? The ship? The Haphan civilization? If somebody has doomsday bombs, shouldn't they just use them and avoid the trench warfare?]

To defuse the ticking bombs and stave off a holocaust, Semelon must elude Haphan secret police who have him pegged as a mutineer. At the same time, the Tachba finally overwhelm the trenches. [Overwhelm is an exaggeration; actually, with millions of Tachba bodies in the trenches, the few remaining Tachba merely walk across.] Caught between colossal forces, fighting an unreachable enemy, Semelon, at long last, begins to . . . enjoy himself. Sure, it’s nice being civilized, but the only solution he can see calls for violence. Semelon, being Tachba, is very good at that. [All he has to do now is decide which army of millions he's going to single-handedly defeat.]

I've been writing professionally for several years, namely articles and product reviews for print and online. This is my first novel. I would be delighted to send you a full or partial manuscript for your review.


Why is this war going on? Who wants what?

What are the new tactics the Tachba employ? They still go at the trenches.

I don't see how the Tachba manage to maintain a population. You can throw millions of soldiers into trenches only so long before you start running low. And don't you need living Tachba to parent new warriors?

So is this military science fiction? Is the entire book focused on the war? Does Semelon have a life outside the military? If this is Military SF, my main concern is that the miles, armies and years seem overly high. When your enemy has machine guns, you eventually learn not to line up and charge their trenches. If it isn't military SF, if there's more to the book than the war, you might want to bring that into the query.

I should point out that the Guess the Plots I didn't use, like several I did, overwhelmingly went with the "tiny" definition of "minute." That may indicate that it's not clear which definition you're going for, and that you should get that word out of the title. Even knowing which "minute" you mean, the title is nothing to write home about.


jjdebenedictis said...

The query struck me as being all setup. What's the actual story? Why should we care about Semelon? What happens in the book?


jfk said...

[planks to lay over the trenches,]

I think I need a new keyboard ... ;)

I'm not a big fan of hard sci-fi, but SS* does sound like he might be a pretty interesting character. Semelon is a Tachba officer who was born on the Haphan side of the front and forcibly “civilized.” - cool! Although if he's watching ambivalently, I don't know how much that character note is actually going to come into play.

I second (third, fourth, however minions have already said it) EE's comments on the centuries, miles, millions - is there any reason these numbers need to be quite so large? The twist at the end sound interesting though; enjoy himself huh? I'd like to know more about that.

*SS - for some reason, I can't stop reading "Semelon Semse" as "Salmon Sense" ...

Beth said...

Love the #1 guess the plot.

but the only solution he can see calls for violence. Semelon, being Tachba, is very good at that.

From your query, it seems the Haphan are no peaceniks themselves. The only difference I could see between the Haphan and the Tachba is that the Haphans have machine guns and are good at digging trenches. But not, apparently, any good at waging war, else they would have wiped out the more primitive and under-weaponed Tachba long since.

I can see the potential for some really good conflict in this novel and I don't just mean people shooting at each other. I like the notion of Semelon being from both worlds and having to choose. But as it stands, there are too many logic problems.

Dave said...

That was a minute or two of hyperbole.
Author, please bring this down to ground level.

And be careful, you might have the dreaded plot device that I call "Talked to death" syndrome. This is where the villian begins to expound his "Theory of Everything Including Why I Must Conquer the World" speech. That usually gives the good guys enough time to organize a proper attack and defeat the villian. The irony being that if the villian had kept his mouth shut and attacked, he would have won.

blogless_troll said...

*SS - for some reason, I can't stop reading "Semelon Semse" as "Salmon Sense" ...

I had the same problem. Also, I can't figure out if it's supposed to be pronounced some melon, see melon, or see me lon. I vote for Some Melon Sem Say.

Dave said...

I just remembered where I saw such a bizarre plot device: Dr. Strangelove.

American President Murton Muffly calls Soviet President Kissoff to tell him that a bomber has gone rogue. Kissoff tells Muffley about a Doomsday Machine of radioactive death. It is impossible to shut down and cannot be defeated. Muffley asked Kissoff what possible good is the device if no one knows about it and Kissoff says he was waiting for the big parade to announce it. Tempers flare, silliness intervenes and the world comes to an end in nuclear fire. There was no way to avoid the end.

In your own words, the doomsday bombs have been planted on the front lines. I guess that the bombs will permit the Tachba Hordes to overrun and slay the Haphan Hoop-de-doos. Thus destroying the strange bifurcated dystopia. I suppose that the Lucky Strike will then trigger the doomesday devices and since all that is left is stinking, rotting ruins (oops, too many adjectives), it claims the world and plunders it.

Now if we thwart this plot, what happens to the bifucated Tachba-Haphen arrangement? They continue trench warfare for another millenia? They realize the error of their ways and inter-marry living happily ever after? Or they rise from the ashes to rebuild their two societies giving peace a chance.

sign me, Long-winded and confused.

pjd said...

Is this an "abysmal war" because of the trenches? Was that an intended pun? Also, Semelon Semse is one of those names better written backwards.

I'm sorry, I just don't get the situation, for all the reasons EE pointed out. Maybe the Tachba are savage and unschooled, but the impression is that they are left pretty much to their own devices beyond the walls and trenches. If the war goes on for centuries, aren't they likely to have invented anything in that time? Are they basically mindless trolls with the singular purpose of attacking the Haphan?

If SS is born and raised on the Haphan side, would he really consider the rest of the Tachba his "brethren"? Wouldn't he consider them savages as well?

But then the conclusion of the query really made me say, "Big deal. So what?" (Maybe your story needs a girl named John.) After all this dramatic tension is built with war and doomsday bombs and secret police and holocaust and recolonization, we get... a guy who achieves happiness through violence?

I have mixed feelings on this query. On the one hand, I think it has the potential to be very interesting and disturbing in a "Heavy Metal" sort of way. On the other hand, it sounds like all setup for an excuse to have a badass dude go all Rambo on some aliens. Then again, I feel like I've completely missed the real story and misinterpreted everything. Apologies if I did.

phoenix said...

I would think any civilization that lists war as its #1 gross domestic product would have progressed beyond barbed wire and machine guns after centuries. Building bigger and better war machines would be #1 priority.

Conversely, think of the civilized war between Israel and Palestine that has been going on for a pretty long time by any standards other than those in your book. Certainly thousands and millions are not being lost along that border century in and century out.

Does the freighter bring the actual heavy artillery and weapons, or just provide the intellect? Is the ship sentient? The query keeps saying the ship is orchestrating, supplying, staking the claim, etc.

Hmm... seems like setting off a doomsday bomb would do one of two things. Blow the world to smithereens (or otherwise make it inhospitable to colonization). Or, if the bomb left behind a nice fertile world ready to colonize, then it would no doubt leave behind telltale evidence, as well as a few witnesses, that something fishy was going down on this technologically unadvanced world that shouldn't have such weaponry.

And why does Semelon have to elude the Haphan secret police?

Sem: "The Tachba have a doomsday bomb that must be diffused!"

Police: "Let's go do it!"

Sem: "No. I'm the only one who can pass unnoticed through the Tachba camps. I should go alone."

Police: "You mutineer! No matter it was you who told us about the bomb in the first place. We won't allow you, a single man/beast/primitive savage, to go and possibly diffuse the bomb and save our world. No, because you might be a traitor and give away the Haphan's greatest secret. We call it a bazooka."

As others have pointed out, Semelon could be a cool character if the story were scaled down a bit.

Beth said...

WWI anyone?

I mean ...

Dying by the millions
Charging into machine gun fire
Hopeless, but can't quit
Even the outsiders "orchestrating" victory for one side (the US).

Reads like the Great War in outer space to me -- and just in time for Memorial Day, though it does seem like November ( Veterans, aka Armistice Day) would be more appropriate.

mutegi said...

for some reason, I never thought of heavy artillery as subtle

BuffySquirrel said...

Total British casualties in WWI: 704,208. Hardly millions. It didn't go on for centuries, either.

Anonymous said...

Tough guy Simian Sense and a billion nameless foes relive WW1 in space.

Sounds like short story material to me, but maybe your readers have a longer attention span.

Dave said...

Oh Buffy,
WW1 was indeed the war to end all wars. It wiped out a whole generation in England and Europe. Trench warfare with mustard gas, bad weather and troops stationed in them for months produced horrors that no one had ever scene before. Planes were new, submarines did not exist. Britain was still Ruler of the Seas.

I understand why the Author is using trench warfare. It was the most horrible war conceived. We don't think of war in those terms. we have planes and satellites and skirmishes. A vastly different war.

Take for granted that the War between the States was bloody almost beyond comprehension. The combantants literally saw each other's faces when they died. A war of pistols, swords, horse calvary and cannons.

WW1 was brutal and destructive and killed a generation. It introduced death and mutilation to the world on a scale never before scene. It was fought men against men in awkward machines. It was fought at a distance of yards of mud and for some periods over trenches. Men still faced men in this war. Battles were hand to hand. The armies were barely mechanized and the chief fodder of war was human bodies.

WW2 was a mechanized war against the Nazis and surprisingly civilized. It was fought with air power and machine power. It ended the dominion of the seas as buffer between nations. The armies moved apart and the nature of battle changed. War became impersonal and mechanized.

Modern war, as we see it today, is fought with electronic proxies. A soldier on a ship in the ocean watches ground movements using drones, he fires a missle and guides it to the target hundreds of miles away. Planes drop smart bombs and the missles navigate to the target using satellite tracking. Ground troups see the battle field on computers. At least that's what it was supposed to be.

A section of a world, cut off by trenches and besieged by hordes is the old war. We have to be careful not to look at their battles expecting modern warfare tactics. That's what the author tried to explain. I may have not captured the differences either. But the novel is describing war between nation states without flying machines, without tanks, without long-range cannons.

mutegi said...


WWII was roughly twice as bloody as WWI. 72 million (give or take) deaths vs. 40 million (give or take) on all sides including civilians. WWI just happened to be the first, and was a big shock.

It was the implementation of the machine gun that made WWI so devestating. Tactics were still rooted in decades / centuries past and as such, men literally ran across open fields to simply get mowed down without a chance.

WWII saw the maturity of modern combat. Air and mechanized power played its first big role, but just like every war since the dawn of time, the bulk of fighting was with infantry - which is still true today.

To quote a PC game "War. War never changes." We might get new toys, but its always savage and bloody.

BuffySquirrel said...

WW1 was indeed the war to end all wars. It wiped out a whole generation in England and Europe.

This simply isn't true. Sorry.

Also, trenches were used in the American Civil War/War Between the States. They didn't start with WWI.

-the other rick said...

Let's not stray too far away from the help we're trying to give.

Author...whether it's a few hundred, millions, or billions, the point is: there is some logic or plot aspect missing from the story that doesn't ring true with trench warfare intermixed with inter-planetary capabilities.

As has been pointed out by others, war is a great motivator for development of new weapons and new social constructs. How can the Tachba be so primitive and still be able to stalemate the Haphan? Doesn't make sense.

The answer may be in your story, but it (the motivating factors) don't shine through in the query.

Frustrating? Absolutely, but keep looking for the key points that move the story and you'll get there.

Personally, I can see millions of deaths over several centuries. We killed more than 150M in the 20th century alone on this small planet.

Doomsday bombs seem a bit clichish to me. What would be more intriquing is if a solution was found to end the war.

Just some idle thoughts.

Evil Editor said...

Personally, I can see millions of deaths over several centuries.

Easily. However, the query states that Semelon "watches ambivalently as his brethren attack the trenches and die in their thousands and millions." This sounds like a matter of hours, not centuries.

anomalous said...

For what it’s worth, author. I thought the title was pretty good, relaying a sense of urgency, and I was one of the people who wrote a GTP based on the meaning of “minute” as being small, but I was trying to be clever. The truth is, I think the default reading of “minute” is exactly what you intended: sixty seconds. Whether the title fits with the book or not is your call.

wafla said...

Author writes:
Well, I might chuck the title. And I'll just call this character "Semelon" in the query, or change the name altogether. The novel itself plays down this character's name, acknowledges its doofy alliteration. I might shift the genre from "SF" to "Military SF".

I got a "not enough conflict!!!" review for a prior version of the query from a different reviewing website, so for this version I took out the backstory to see how the actual plot played; the feedback shows that some backstory/setting is, by duh, required.

The novel: it starts as "WWI in space" -- yep! The trenches span a continent -- been there! Millions dead -- done that! Lasting centuries -- erm. I can see how the query sounds "hyperbolous" and I'll correct that next.

FWIW, the high casualties are the result of an (artificially) high birthrate mixed with modern weapons... obviously this is critical to mention in the query, as the birthrate and the feeling of "expendability" is a huge social factor. There's a big romance, and a lot of rebellious pathos from the "factory mothers" feeding the war with their children -- all of which was left on the query's cutting room floor.

All the comments were wonderful. I overcompensated from my last feedback, and I'll do a course correction. Thanks for all your help!

Bernita said...

If I may comment on the "impersonality" and "distance" of warfare as characteristics of "old" vs. "new."
War has been waged from a "distance" ever since Grok heaved a stone at Grog, since a sleet of arrows decimated a rank, since catapults and trebuchets heaved boulders, dead horses,etc. over city walls.
Distance is relative to one's perception of it.
And it strikes me that the local fyrd facing a closed visor charge of mailed knights and horses would figure it decidely and monstrously impersonal.

Beth said...

FWIW, the high casualties are the result of an (artificially) high birthrate mixed with modern weapons... obviously this is critical to mention in the query

If I may offer an opinion...

No, I don't think it is. What's critical to mention in a query is a sense of who the characters are, what they want, and what will happen to them if they don't get it. The details that fuel the war--those are something to be revealed in the story, but in the query letter, the characters are what's important.

Dave said...

Author, it's not the number of casualties that make the reputation of the war, it's the effect on the lives and culture of the society.

The horror of the number of casualties is not the number, but the mother's forcd to choose the sex of their offspring and then giving birth over and over, time and again, knowing that their sons are mere fodder to the war machine.

The sheer numbers of dead don't tell that story.

pjd said...

No, I don't think it is. What's critical to mention in a query is a sense of who the characters are, what they want, and what will happen to them if they don't get it. The details that fuel the war--those are something to be revealed in the story...

Oh, yes beth, yes! I entirely agree that "less is more" in this case. Maybe I'm wrong, but I doubt Dan Brown's query went on and on about the meaning of the Rose Line or the origins of the Priory of Sion or the patriarchal nature of The Church. I bet it said something like "murder at the Louvre sends a famous professor and a French policewoman through a grueling chase of lies, deception, and religious tension that may lead them to a secret that's been kept hidden for two thousand years."

I really don't think your query needs to explain trench warfare, machine guns, or the fact that women are forced to create babies to feed a war machine.

But I've never sold a military science fiction book, so what do I know?

wafla said...

I really don't think your query needs to explain trench warfare, machine guns, or the fact that women are forced to create babies to feed a war machine.

Author writes:
I didn't think so, either, but I now believe there has to be something. I mean, check out the feedback. I wouldn't want my query tossed merely because "millions of causalties", "centuries of war", "trenches" and the concept of asymmetric conflict present like plot holes.

I'm with Dave on this one. We've all seen "millions of dead"; if the query is to gut-punch an agent, it will need a different approach. The 'expendability' issue is the biggest theme in my project anyway, apart from the fighting.

I'll find the proper balance eventually. The overall problem with the query is: there is no reader-confidence in the query's portrayal of the story, and no reader interest in answering the little mysteries which the query created. This is what has to be fixed.