Thursday, October 02, 2008

Face-Lift 571


Guess the Plot

Semiprecious

1. Jewell drifts from man to man: a Vietnam vet, a rock musician, a used car dealer, a right wing Christian. This may explain why her four daughters, Ruby, Emerald, Pearl and Jade, are so different. When Jewell is killed, can the girls draw on each other's strengths as they make their way into adulthood?

2. Habbard G'Lana, King of Huylandia, has four daughters: Opal, Jasper, Agate and Aventurine. He summons Princes of all lands to compete for their hands in marriage. But will an assassination attempt, a murder, and the sudden appearance of a dragon derail the happy event? Also, a hunchbacked wizard.

3. When all the other girls got assigned their jewel names for their coming of age, Heidelleine got Quartz. Not Beryl, or Lapis or some other respected semiprecious stone, but the common quartz...thus dooming her to a life of common labor in the high tech manufactory. But when she meets Jayson Obsidian, together they make...The Tool of Endor!

4. Daughter #1 was "Precious", so what nickname did dad come up with for daughter #2??? Semiprecious. And that is why 90 pound weakling Jane Melrose is slinking through the dark alleys of Brooklyn in search of a drug dealer, when voila! She meets a hunky dude in a bat suit! Will they get a burger and fries? Or heroin for two?

5. When Gollum's evil twin Gomer learns that the ring of power has been destroyed, he sets out to locate a plastic ring he once found in a Cracker Jack box, dubbing the trinket his . . . Semiprecious.

6. Open-road trucker Chuck Watson has always called his semi "Precious." But when the other truck drivers at Big Mama's Truck Stop see him talking to his rig and kissing its hood, Chuck gets a ribbing like never before. Can he regain his self-respect by winning the National Truck Roadeo?


Original Version

Dear NAME,

I am writing to introduce you to my literary novel, Semiprecious, for which I am currently seeking agency representation.

A family saga running from 1972 through 2004, Semiprecious is a journey into the blue-collar upper Midwest, where the paper industry steadily churns trees into noxious smoke and the corner bars are neon-lit havens of working class camaraderie though [through] the long, bleak winters. At the novel's center is freewheeling matriarch Jewell McQuinn, an irrepressible frizzy-haired blonde determined to live a life a million times bolder and happier than her mother's ever was. Often seeing herself as a the star of her own TV show, Jewell spends decades drifting across central Wisconsin with a cigarette in hand, hopping from adventure to adventure, job to job…and man to man. Over the years, she becomes involved with a haunted Vietnam vet, a local rock musician, a used car dealer, and even a right wing Christian keen on changing her sinful ways.

Out of these relationships come children: four daughters uniquely affected by their mother's unconventional lifestyle. Growing up inhaling her secondhand smoke, encountering her half-dressed boyfriends in the middle of the night, and exhilarated by the escapades they share with her, Jewell's daughters each develop their own methods of survival. Ruby, the eldest, is chronically embarrassed by her mother [yet exhilerated by her escapades?] and, in response, angrily champions all things traditional and conservative. Her sister Emerald, meanwhile, idolizes and emulates Jewell's rebellious spirit. Pearl, sensitive and pensive, retreats into quiet fantasy worlds--while Jade, the youngest, cultivates a cold, lovely aloofness that masks the painful secrets of her childhood. [Once you said they each developed their own method of survival, that was enough. We don't care who used which method. We want to know something that happens.] When Jewell is suddenly, violently removed from their lives one winter night in 1996, [Finally. An event.] the sisters must draw on each other's strengths as they each awkwardly stumble into adulthood.

But while Semiprecious is largely the story McQuinn girls' relationship to their mother, it is also very much the story of their relationship to the "mother" city they grow up inside. Most of the novel is set in Pawlaw, Wisconsin, a fictional city based on my hometown (Wausau, WI) and infused with just as much northern Fish Fry Friday culture and pioneer logging lore as the real place. [I don't care to read about the McQuinn girls' relationship to Pawlaw and its fish-fry culture. Not in the query anyway.] Like the McQuinn sisters, Pawlaw, too, experiences growing pains while moving toward the new millennium, as the Hmong immigration explosion of the mid-1980s forces a 99% white small town population to readjust its norms and attitudes. [If we put the first phrase last, this would make a great entry in our next bad analogy exercise: Pawlaw experiences growing pains while moving toward the new millennium as the Hmong immigration explosion of the mid-1980s forces a small town population to readjust its attitudes . . . like the McQuinn sisters.]

Narrated in a third person omniscient voice with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor throughout, the full manuscript of Semiprecious runs 54 chapters, 584 pages. I have enclosed the first chapter ("Opening Credits") for your review. If you are interested in reading further sample chapters or the entire manuscript, please contact me and I will happily forward you additional material. I have enclosed an SASE for your response.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,


Notes

There's some nice writing in the query, which can't hurt your cause, but the query is too long. I'd dump the Pawlaw paragraph entirely. You can also eliminate the following paragraph. Add the word count to your first paragraph. Page and chapter count don't matter. Word count shouldn't matter either, as 50,000 words that are mostly dialogue will fill more pages than 60,000 words that are mostly action and description, but word count is what everyone hitches their wagon to.

Using your page count, I conclude that your book is over 140,000 words. I don't see how you can hold our attention that long without leaving central Wisconsin, but if you can, some mighty interesting stuff must happen to these characters, and you need to provide some examples in the query instead of the lengthy descriptions of each daughter's personality.

Perhaps the book should end when Jewell dies, and the story of the gems can be the sequel. That'll shorten it considerably, and if we cut out the growing pains of Pawlaw, that's another 20,000 words saved. See how easy that is?

I would choose a main character and focus on her. Not Jewell if the book runs eight years after her death. One of the daughters. The one who's you, if one of them is you. Otherwise maybe the eldest.

I'm not sure how we reconcile the claim that Jewell spends decades drifting across central Wisconsin with the statement that most of the novel is set in one city.

I'm not crazy about Jewell naming all her daughters after gems. Possibly I'm the only person who would find it hard to like a character who found that idea cute.

The two references to Jewell's smoking aren't needed in the query.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Uh...since all the characters are female, could the author go out on a limb and say EACH finds HER own way...? Just a thought...

dualis said...

Most of the literary fiction tropes seem to be accounted for. I would probably ditch the list of quirly menfolk that Jewell gets involved with -- looks trite when listed like that. I would also riff on EE's point and say that the title "Semiprecious", together with all the women's names, seems a little too self-concious and makes me feel under-estimated as a reader of lit-fic.

Xenith said...

*muses on the old days when word count was a reflection of how much space the story took up and everyone had their favourite formula for finding it, before all these whippersnippers turned up with their fancy word processors and inability to round off*

No comment on the query. It's so not something I would read that I started to skim it.

Jeb said...

584 pages??? Zounds.

Some inconsistencies in the query might not be a problem in the novel itself. But at first glance, they raise questions about the novel's inner cohesion. Drifting across central Wisconsin isn't compatible with the daughters living most of their lives in the same city, and the daughters being exhilarated at their mother's peripatetic lifestyle seems incompatible with their stated characteristics of anger, rigidity, retreat to fantasy, cold aloofness and painful secrets... not to mention all that is known about basic childhood needs for stability.

Rather than cutting the novel short at Mom's death, why not start it there, and only flash back to her freewheeling lifestyle and multiple men where a particular experience impacted one or more of the daughters particularly hard?

Is the city's adjustment to Hmong influx a meaningful parallel to the girls' adjustments, or mainly the background against which their adjustments to adulthood develop?

Also, I don't get a sense where these girls, or this story, are really going. In the query, at least, can you focus us on one or two characters and give us a sense of their ultimate end point (the living charcters that is)?

December/Stacia said...

Yes, I think the book itself sounds interesting and there's some good writing in the query, but it's too long. The story seems to be how Jewell McQuinn drags her daughters through the twists and turns of her hard-living, unconventional life, but when she's murdered the girls have to find a way to build their own lives rather than simply orbiting around their mother. Do they try to solve the murder? Is the book about them learning to forgive him? Is it about them learning to forgive their mother? That sort of thing.

writtenwyrdd said...

The query reads well and makes me interested in the story, but it is also confusing. The first (huge) section is about Jewel and her life and choices. But then you spend another (huge) paragraph discussing the four daughters and tell me the story is about them, not Jewel. The final (huge) paragraph tells me that the story isn't about the travelling because it takes place in one city.

This letter basically shows three focuses for you book: Jewel, the daughters, and the city. If it's really about the girls, you need to omit the other two paragraphs and blend the details regarding Jewel and the setting into the description of the girls' story.

Tracey S. Rosenberg said...

If the novel is about the daughters, Jewell's life is backstory, and I don't think you need much more than:

Freewheeling Jewell McQuinn is a frizzy-haired blonde who changes jobs and men as often as she buys a new pack of cigarettes.

- and this bit can be worked into a paragraph about *their* story rather than leading the query.

Having worked extensively on a novel about a large family, I wholeheartedly agree with EE about focusing on one character - though I think you could get away with two. The other two/three still have plot arcs, of course.

The problem I have with this query is that I don't know what happens in this book. The actual plot seems to be:

When Jewell is suddenly, violently removed from their lives one winter night in 1996, the sisters must draw on each other's strengths as they each awkwardly stumble into adulthood.

[You don't need 'suddenly' - 'violently' implies it, unless her violent death is due to being slow-roasted on a spit, in which case I definitely want to know that.]

('Stumbling into adulthood' begs the question - how old are they when Jewell dies? Even if Jewell gets knocked up as quickly as possible, we're still talking a couple of years between eldest and youngest. Are they all teenagers?)

I'd love to see a revision that explores the story, and that might also allow you to build in some of the 'each girl survives thusly' information *by showing them in action* rather than just giving a static description.

Tracey S. Rosenberg said...

I wrote a huge long comment but then EE boofed up his e-mail *wails, gnashes teeth*. Here's the digest version.

From what I see, here's what the story is about:

When Jewell is suddenly, violently removed from their lives one winter night in 1996, the sisters must draw on each other's strengths as they each awkwardly stumble into adulthood.

Jewell's freewheeling blond chain-smoking man-loving ways are backstory. THIS is what the query needs to discuss.

A few thoughts:

- 'suddenly, violently' is redundant; violently implies suddenly (unless Jewell is slow-roasted to death in which case I definitely want to know that).

- how old are these girls? If they're stumbling into adulthood then I'm thinking they're spread throughout the teens.

- having just worked extensively on a project which deals with a large family, I strongly suggest focusing on one of the girls - two at most. The others will of course have plot arcs, but four protagonists will clutter things up a lot. And don't feel that the other two or three have to get equal time in the query letter; they don't.

- if you can SHOW us in the query how the protagonist[s] respond to their mother's death, that will work much better than the list of static descriptions you currently have.

Hope this helps. I suspect the story is there, but just not showing in the query.

The author said...

I can't thank you all enough for the suggestions and critique. I knew this first draft of my letter wasn't hitting the mark, but I wasn't sure why not.

Now I know: I need to focus on plot instead of cramming in so much ineffective stuff about characters and setting. I'll do so in my revision.

Thanks again for the feedback!

writtenwyrdd said...

Post the revision when you get it written. And don't forget that the character stuff isn't all bad. The main point is clarity and getting people to want to read pages.

the author said...

OK, here's my attempt at a revision. Feedback is welcome; I know it still needs work!

Dear AGENT NAME,

I am writing to introduce you to my xxx, 000 word literary novel, Midnight Rambler.

A family saga running from 1972 through 2004, Midnight Rambler is a journey into the blue-collar upper Midwest, where the paper industry steadily churns trees into noxious smoke and the corner bars are neon-lit havens of working class camaraderie through the long, bleak winters. At the family's center is freewheeling matriarch Jewell McQuinn, a frizzy-haired blonde who changes jobs and men almost as often as she buys a new pack of cigarettes. Her four daughters--regrettably named Ruby, Emerald, Pearl, and Jade--each develop their own methods of survival as they grow up amidst their mother's chaotic lifestyle.

For Ruby, the eldest, the charm of Jewell's unconventionality wears off quickly. While still in elementary school, she's already struggling to separate herself from an embarrassing mother who dresses like a teenager and leaves many of her adult responsibilities for Ruby to handle. By the time she graduates from high school, Ruby has also distanced herself considerably from her sisters, who have, by turns, grown rebellious, odd, and cynical under Jewell's unstable influence.

Ruby believes she has finally escaped her family for good once she reaches her early twenties. Married and expecting her first child, her life is peaceful and conservative, exactly the way she wants it to be. It is, however, thrown off kilter once again when Jewell is brutally murdered one winter night in 1996. Ruby is now obligated to take in her younger sisters and fill her quiet home with conflict. She is also forced to live the next eight years under the constant specter of Jewell's unsolved murder, allying with her sisters as they come to terms with their mother's life and death.

I am currently seeking agency representation for Midnight Rambler and have enclosed the first chapter ("Opening Credits") for your review. Additional sample chapters and/or the entire manuscript are available upon request.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

Julie Weathers said...

Once you state the title, I don't think you need to do so again immediately.

At the family's center is freewheeling matriarch Jewell McQuinn, a frizzy-haired blonde who changes jobs and men almost as often as she buys a new pack of cigarettes. Her four daughters--regrettably named Ruby, Emerald, Pearl, and Jade--each develop their own methods of survival as they grow up amidst their mother's chaotic lifestyle.

Much better.

It is, however, thrown off kilter once again when Jewell is brutally murdered one winter night in 1996.

I'm glad you got specific with this.

I am currently seeking agency representation for Midnight Rambler and have enclosed the first chapter ("Opening Credits") for your review. Additional sample chapters and/or the entire manuscript are available upon request.

You're almost at 350 words with this, which is hitting on the long side. I would strike the last sentence. They assume you will send whatever they ask for. Also, I would read carefully what they will accept with a query. Most won't throw a tizzy fit about a few pages, but the first chapter might be pushing it if they haven't requested it.

I would also add something about why you are approaching that agency, though some say they don't care about that.

Much better this go round.

Good luck.

Julie

Anonymous said...

Let me preface my comment by saying that I generally find literary fiction to be in need of a plot. You have a plot but your protagonist is just a witness, and a self-pitying one, the worst kind. The harm that happens to others is really a problem for Ruby, because it means she has to grow up and can't have utopia. Ho hum. Like they say: life sucks and then you die. I just have to tell this character: Ok, so fine, troubles galore, but you live in fiction so go solve the frigging mystery of mom's murder if it bugs you so much, don't spend 300 pages telling me how much it ruined your sleep.

And if she actually does get off her poor-me theme long enough to take action and solve the mystery, you need to change the plot description to make it clear she's not just another beautiful whiner.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure the writing is up to lit fic standards in the query which doesn't mean that the book suffers similarly, but this is the first shot you get to show how you write. You still have an "each/their" coupling, you have some tense problems and you have a lot of passive writing--she "is obligated," she "is forced" etc. Maybe you are doing that purposefully to show her victimhood, but it doesn't read as compelling as it might. Also one sentence you send with as she wants it "to be" (her peaceful conservative life). Your strongest words should be at the beginning and the end of your sentences. Ending a sentence with "to be" is extremely weak.

You do depict the plot better this time. Although it sort of reminds me of a reverse "Missing Mom" by Joyce Carol Oates where the daughter was the rebel dealing with her traditional mother's murder and forging a relationship with her traditional sister.

Anonymous said...

Better. Focuses on one child only and how Mom's freewheeling life and sudden death affects her. I didn't get a strong sense of victimhood here.

"Married and expecting her first child, her life is peaceful and conservative"

AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!!!

Her LIFE is NOT married or expecting. SHE is the one married.

I see this abomination in blogs and on Facebook, even in published tomes these days, but that doesn't make it correct. Don't they teach this in Grade Seven any more?

"Married and expecting her first child, RUBY is building a peaceful and conservative life for herself until..."

That would be a bit long, but it's the only way to use your words while evading the grammar nazis (except me; I will be on your tail FOREVER!!!)

150 said...

This is loads better, nice job. My only comment is that the query spends a whole paragraph on Jewell, a whole paragraph on Ruby's childhood, and half of the last paragraph on the next eight years. If that's how the book is proportioned, cool; but if Jewell is murdered on page twelve, you might want the query to reflect that.

Anonymous said...

A dangling modifier in lit fic should be an automatic DQ.

the author said...

Yep, I definitely see your point(s) about the cloddy grammar/sentence structure, especially in the 4th paragraph. *flagellates self for that dangling modifier*

Glad to hear that focusing on one character's plot arc is working better for the query. My only issue with doing it this way is the problem Anonymous 5:43 AM brought up: "You have a plot but your protagonist is just a witness, and a self-pitying one, the worst kind." I actually couldn't agree more, Anonymous. I wonder if there's some graceful way of explaining that the novel is told from multiple points of view, not just Ruby's. The reader isn't necessarily supposed to find her a wholly sympathetic character. Hmmm.

Anonymous said...

Hi author,

I think you were just focused on fixing the plot; I am sure you would proof grammar etc better before actually submitting.

chelsea said...

I'm sorry to do this, but Francesca Lia Block writes a book (called Ruby) about a girl named Ruby and her sister Opal who have to escape their painful past of being abused by their father.

Granted, the name the "dealing-with-the-guys-mother-brings-home" are the only big similarities I can see between the two books, so it's not a big worry . . . but the name similarity might be enough to get some people talking. Maybe Crystal or Sapphire could work?