Friday, December 19, 2008

Face-Lift 586


Guess the Plot

Out of the Ice

1. Everything's hopping as Uvik and Druge inspire their fellow Greenlanders to play steel drums and reggae dance. The glaciers are melting and these citizens of the north must prepare to trade their dog sleds for surf boards. But will Rimba look as good in a bikini as she does in her seal parka? And what to do with all that mud?

2. In the late sixties, South African diamond mines produced millions of dollars of jewelry-grade stones. Ikthe N'kumbi, destitute, black and little more than a slave to the Rockwell Mining Company has a plan to escape his condition and cross the border into Mozambique a wealthy man. The only thing standing in his way is Rockwell's obsessive security, including an X-Ray machine and a team of inspectors with rubber gloves.

3. St. Angel, Quebec. Marc Bedard and his cousin Abel find a wooden box painted with strange writing in the pond ice where they play hockey. What will they unleash when it is opened?

4. When Chad Davies, lead singer of boy band, The Ice, breaks away in search of a solo career and commences his debut with the single "Girl, Just You" he doesn't expect success or people to hail him as a musical genius. Oddly, he gets both. And also a new horde of fans that breathe new life into the term "fanatical," including the conductor of an acclaimed symphony orchestra who begins to stalk Chad and make threats should Chad refuse a joint recording venture.

5. Dr. Norvitch & his colleague, Dr Gannen, have finally done the impossible: they've resurrected a baby wooly mammoth frozen in Siberia. Now they must protect their find from the government. Also, an autistic boy who speaks mammoth.

6. Anthropologist Dana West must become a detective when she finds herself at odds with the U.S. Navy and the government of Iceland. What is the deadly secret they don't want Dana to discover? Also, a police psychic.



Original Version

I hope you will consider my literary mystery set in Iceland, Out of the Ice, for publication. The novel emanates from my three years of anthropological fieldwork in Iceland [When it dawns on you that you've just blown three years digging up Iceland and have nothing to show for it but a few bones, you have no choice but to write a novel.] and experience as a journalist and science writer. It is about 87,000 words.

What anthropologists do is unravel secrets, but for Dana West in Iceland, the mystery surrounding a human body found by a reindeer hunting guide in the melting ice of the great glacier, Vatnajokull, is most impenetrable. [I seem to recall reindeer being declared an endangered species in Iceland, so I hope your character is a reindeer who's also a hunting guide.]

It may provide a definitive clue why the medieval Greenlanders disappeared, colleague Richard Eakin, lichenologist, tells her. But that doesn't explain why the Icelandic government and the US Navy are hiding the frozen corpse. Or why a notorious medical anthropological sleuth has approached Dana for Iceland information. [Editorial tip: When you've got a character who's a notorious medical anthropological sleuth, don't bury him in paragraph 3.] [In fact, dump Dana West from the book and make the notorious medical anthropological sleuth the main character. Why? Because when this book hits it big and you decide to write another anthropological mystery, this one set on a dig in Turkey, you're not going to want a main character whose only experience is as a field worker in Iceland. You're going to want a notorious medical anthropological sleuth.] But it may be her ticket for a journey into the heart of Icelandic society.

Eakin warns her that a larger storm is coming and then he vanishes. Dana follows Eakin's path in Iceland with help from his research assistant, Ragnar, [If that was supposed to be a palindrome, you screwed up.] and a police psychic, Asta. [Another carelessly constructed palindrome.] [Lichenologist, notorious medical anthropological sleuth, police psychic . . . does anyone in Iceland have a normal occupation?] Finally, a death on board an Icelandic fishing boat points her toward Eakin's location in Iceland. [Iceland? Did you mean to say Ireland? Because I had just formulated a theory that Eakin had gone to Ireland.]

[Ship captain: One of my crew members died.

Dana: That can mean only one thing: The lichenologist is in Seyðisfjörður.]

There she learns the significance of the body from the ice and why Eakin wanted her to have a role is in finding that out.

Dana is a naïve, but well-intended person—acting at the insistent demand of a respected scholarly figure—who discovers (along with why Eakin disappeared) realities under the realities (such as why the romantic heart never replaced the intellectual liver in Iceland). [Get rid of that sentence before you're accused of causing editors' heads to explode.] As a detective, she is led around Hrobin's barn [You say that as if we know what you're talking about. There's been no mention of Hrobin.] by Asta, Ragnar, and Yngvar, the Reykjavik police chief. [If you can't walk around a barn without three people to guide you, I suggest investing in a good GPS.] Nothing is ever what it seems in the actions that take place in the darkest days of winter, December 1-25 in this northern corner of the planet. [I've never read the line "Nothing is ever what it seems" in a query and found myself unable to easily prove the author wrong.]

As she gradually discovers the deadly secret they are concealing (the body is infectious with a fifteenth century smallpox virus for which there is no vaccine), Dana becomes more and more of an insider there, something she achieves as a detective rather than as an anthropologist. [She's gradually morphing into a notorious medical anthropological sleuth.] This work tries to do for Iceland what Susanna Kaysen's Far Afield did for the Faroe Islands in presenting a picture of the present day country. [Am I showing my ignorance if I admit that not only have I never heard of that book, I've never heard of the Faroe Islands?] I note that you have published one novel on medieval Iceland, Saga, by Jeff Janoda and I am hoping you will also be interested in a novel on the country today (Some people claim nothing has changed, but I would not go that far...) I think Out of the Ice would be popular with suspense/mystery fans who like exotic settings, book club readers, and the ever-growing number of Icelandophiles. [The number is now up to 23.]

I am an anthropologist who has published articles on my work in Iceland ________. My work there was supported by a Fulbright-Hays research grant and the Arctic Institute of North America. I have a doctorate in anthropology from SUNY, Stony Brook and I also have a graduate degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley. I have done public health research at Brown University, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of the Health Sciences of the Uniformed Services in Bethesda, Maryland.

I worked as a science writer for The American Museum of Natural History and Scholastic Magazines (New York, New York) and Science Service (Washington, DC). I was a newspaper reporter for The Record in Bergen County, New Jersey.

I have a short story, "Hibernal Onding" in the online journal, A Long Story Short, August 2008. It will be print published in The Taj Mahal Review, December 2008 (with slight revision).

I thank you your attention and look forward to hearing from you.


Notes

This is too long; it needs to fit on one page. Most of your credits can go. You've worked as an anthropologist in Iceland, and have a graduate degree in public health. Those are your credentials. If you're also a notorious sleuth, you can add that.

Get rid of the psychic and the police chief and Hrobin's barn. Dana is the first scientist to examine the frozen guy. The government and the navy take him away before she's done with him, and she wants to know why. Teaming up with Eakin, she discovers that the body had smallpox.

Is that the mystery? Is there a murder? Who are the bad guys? We need bad guys and danger. Is the navy risking the release of the smallpox? Is it up to Dana to prevent this? What are these things that aren't as they seem?

Of course you did call it a "literary" mystery, but if you can get us unsophisticated mystery fans to want to read the book (which means you need to convince us there's an exciting mystery) you'll sell more copies than if your audience is just Icelandophiles.

20 comments:

writtenwyrdd said...

I have to second EE's comments. We need to be intrigued by the story, not your experiences or the characters. If this is a mystery, the query should state what the problem is your character has to solve.

benwah said...

I'm puzzled as to how the body is discovered to have smallpox (unless it's quite well preserved and the lesions are visible). I wouldn't think it routine to test several hundred year old remains for such things.

Dave F. said...

This is not so much mystery as thriller. The government and the military wants the smallpox as a weapon. Think of sending on of those "smart bombs" off and having it spray weaponized virulent smallpox on an unsuspecting town. People would die right and left and cause chaos. That's a first class terror weapon. And that is the obvious reason they whisk the body away.

Jennifer said...

Benwah, if the person had smallpox, isn't it likely that he died from it? So if the body has been frozen and is only visible now because of the melting ice (is there a global warming element, too?) would the sores be preserved?

This query was hard to follow (and the copious, though hilarious, comments from EE didn't make it easier for me!) I am sure the query does not do the story justice. Right now it sounds interesting but convoluted.

I assume the MC becomes more proactive and that is part of the story, but right now she reads as dull and mousy to me.

Some of the writing needs tightening. Things like "What anthropologists do is unravel secrets..." Why not just, "Anthropologists unravel secrets, but..."

Xenith said...

I read too many agent & editors blogs I think. Somewhere along the way (Miss Snark?) I picked up the idea that the query should be based around the following formula:

This is the main character
This is their problem.
This is what's at stake if they fail.

We get the first in this query, but the other two get lost. Suggest focusing on them.

Other thoughts I had:

I hope you will consider my literary mystery set in Iceland, Out of the Ice, for publication. The novel emanates from my three years of anthropological fieldwork in Iceland and experience as a journalist and science writer. It is about 87,000 words.

Emanates? Not usually a word used in this context so it looks like the query writer is trying just a little too hard to impress the query reader. By itself it's not necessarily a problem, but I do wonder if the whole novel is written like that esp. as journalists & science writers have a tendency to that sort of writing (what works in non-fiction don't necessarily work in fiction).

It's probably better to move the writer's background to the end too & get to heart of the matter as quickly as possible. Also, 'about' can go. The odds of having a novel come in exactly as a round number are quite high, so 'about' is assumed. This leaves:

I hope you will consider Out of the Ice, my 87,000 word literary mystery set in Iceland.

Next paragraph

What anthropologists do is unravel secrets, but for Dana West in Iceland, the mystery surrounding a human body found by a reindeer hunting guide in the melting ice of the great glacier, Vatnajokull, is most impenetrable.

Too many words. Which ones matter? Vatnajokull doesn't. Great doesn't. We've just been told it's in Iceland.

What anthropologists do is unravel secrets, but for Dana West, the mystery surrounding a human body found in the melting ice of a glacier is impenetrable.

Next:

It may provide a definitive clue why the medieval Greenlanders disappeared, colleague Richard Eakin, lichenologist, tells her.

The important part of the sentence should be at the end, so it has the most impact, so:

Her colleague, lichenologist Richard Eakin, tell her it may provide a definitive clue why the medieval Greenlanders disappeared.

But that doesn't explain why the Icelandic government and the US Navy are hiding the frozen corpse.

Considering the number of books about them, I guess some people get excited government conspiracies. My eyes tend to glaze over. I have no idea of us form the majority, but is it possible to word this is so it's not so conspiratable sounding?

Or why a notorious medical anthropological sleuth has approached Dana for Iceland information.

For Iceland information? "Excuse me, are there any public libraries?"

But it may be her ticket for a journey into the heart of Icelandic society.

Bold = cliche warning. If you're trying to make your novel sound original and interesting, it's a good idea to avoid cliches & unoriginal wording in the query.

Eakin warns her that a larger storm is coming and then he vanishes.

Disappears might be better. Vanishes makes me think he disappeared in front of her eyes. Of course, that might just be me that thinks that way :)

Finally, a death on board an Icelandic fishing boat points her toward Eakin's location in Iceland.

I don't get this. She's following Eakin's path in Iceland, and then find out he's in Iceland? If she's already there, that last 'in Iceland' isn't needed. If she's left at some point, either mention this or don't confuse the situation by mention the location. If you're trying to remind us that the novel is set in Iceland, we know so please stop it :)

Dana is a naïve, but well-intended person—acting at the insistent demand of a respected scholarly figure—who discovers (along with why Eakin disappeared) realities under the realities (such as why the romantic heart never replaced the intellectual liver in Iceland).

Agree with EE here. Please that sentence out the back and shoot it.

Nothing is ever what it seems in the actions that take place in the darkest days of winter, December 1-25 in this northern corner of the planet.

Yes, it's set in Iceland. We got that.

I'll stop here because it's more of the same but hoping that my comments will help.

(I also have this strange desire to set a story in this southern corner of the planet. Must go like down until that goes away.)

BuffySquirrel said...

Being cautious about pathogens is a routine part of archaeological work. I remember a case here in the UK when it was decided not to proceed with a dig because of a risk of plague. So testing the body for smallpox doesn't seem that unreasonable to me.

150 said...

I'm glad you sent this in; now I know what was going on in your opening. Giving your Icelander a first name (...or last name? A second name, anyway) and some recognizable equipment will do a lot to fix the story in time and space.

Honestly? If an ancient corpse turns up with smallpox, I WANT my government to spring into action, contain it, and hide it from our enemies. So I sort of fail to see where they're acting improperly here.

talpianna said...

As a detective, she is led around Hrobin's barn [You say that as if we know what you're talking about. There's been no mention of Hrobin.]

I think this is the Icelandic version of "all around Robin Hood's barn." From THE PHRASE FINDER:

ALL AROUND ROBIN HOOD'S BARN - "Robin Hood (or 'Robert of the wood,' as some have explained the name) may have been altogether a legendary figure or may have actually existed. No one knows. The earliest literary reference to him is in Langland's 'Piers Plowman,' written about 1377. He may have lived, according to some light evidence, toward the latter part of the twelfth century. But Robin Hood's house was Sherwood Forest; its roof the leaves and branches. His dinner was the king's deer; his wealth the purses of hapless travelers. What need had he of a barn, and how was it laid out if to go around it means, as the use of the phrase implies, a rambling roundabout course? The explanation is simple. He had no barn. His granary, when he had need of one, was the cornfields of the neighborhood. To go around his barn was to make a circuitous route around the neighborhood fields." From "A Hog on Ice" (1948, Harper & Row) by Charles Earle Funk.

A "notorious" sleuth sounds like one with a dubious reputation--like Erich von Daniken, for example. Is that what you mean?

It may provide a definitive clue why the medieval Greenlanders disappeared.

Duh. Wouldn't it be more likely to find such a clue in Greenland? Besides, that's already known. A major cause was the Little Ice Age. I forget the rest of the details; I saw them on an educational TV special.

As for the disease, smallpox virus is preserved at both the CDC and, no doubt, Fort Detrick; and bubonic plague is still endemic in certain places (notably among the Kaibab squirrels on one rim of the Grand Canyon); so neither one is incurable. I know a smallpox vaccine exists, and plague is actually quite curable--the tricky part is diagnosing it, since it's so rarely seen.

[Lichenologist, notorious medical anthropological sleuth, police psychic . . . does anyone in Iceland have a normal occupation?]

My Icelandic friend Sirry is a medical records clerk. Happy now, EE?

Overall, this is MUCH too complicated, especially for a fairly short book. You need to lose a lot of the characters and simplify the plotline.

And take a sauna.

talpianna said...

Xenith said: (I also have this strange desire to set a story in this southern corner of the planet. Must go like down until that goes away.)

At the round earth's imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance, hath slain, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never taste death's woe.

--John Donne

Anonymous said...

Make the evil government British and the corpse a metaphor for the Icelandic economy and I think you'll have a bestseller on your hands. In Iceland, anyway.

Elissa M said...

The story sounds like it could work, but if the writing is even half as bloated as the query, it's going to need some major editing. Don't give up, author. Submitting here was a good idea. Learn from EE and the minions.

wendy said...

Enough already! I believe you. You're an expert!

I love your story! The idea that a "a notorious medical anthropological sleuth" may play a major role along with a setting I know almost nothing about with a bit of death and possibly impending world destruction thrown in lights up all my nerd buttons.

(And yes, I am enthralled with the space program too...like you couldn't already guess that.)

And I'm with Dave. Turn this into a thriller and sign me up for a copy. Btw, you're trying way too hard with your query, but the story looks great. Good luck!

Dave F. said...

Tal,
Get the library copy of Preston's THE HOT ZONE, it's slightly older but scary when it comes to infectious diseases.

You see, certain strains of infectious diseases are more virulent than others. The deadlier the disease, the easier it is to catch. Like flu. There are dozens of flu virus's but most are not fatal, just annoying. However H5N1, the so-called Bird Flu, has a high fatality rate. And where you might think that any virus would die in winter, H5N1 is exactly the opposite, it lasts 30 days in icy weather and 6 days at body temperature.

Now let me say a word about vaccines - they are specific to a strain of the virus. That means there could be two or three or a dozen unique strains (this is imprecise, so don't quote me) and only one or two that a vaccine PROTECTS against.

Once you get a virus, the vaccine is worthless.

The weaponized anthrax spores that hit the Federal Government in 2001 were one of the most deadly weapons invented. I know, I worked for the Feds at the time and that stuff killed people with very little effort. I will not tell anyone all of what I know about mailrooms, but there isn't a federal office in the USA that doesn't x-ray and open thicker envelopes and packages. Those people earn their pay in my opinion.

Sorry to be so serious and somewhat off topic.

talpianna said...

Dave, that's the brother of Douglas Preston of the Preston/Childs writing team, isn't it? I know that they've used him as a source for medical stuff in some of their books.

I wasn't saying that the disease scenario was necessarily wrong--just that neither bubonic plague nor smallpox would work.

BuffySquirrel said...

Yeah, right, because when you turn to your medical dictionary, you'll find "plague" is a single disease with a known cure. Right.

There's still contention as to whether the Black Death was bubonic plague, or whether it was something more akin to Ebola and its fellow diseases, an idea that better fits the speed of its spread and its symptoms. Communication of Ebola is easily stopped once you know what you're dealing with, but in the meantime it causes horrific and incurable symptoms. So I think the caution in exposing a modern population to something that may be of its nature--something against which we have no vaccine and no natural defences--is more than justified. But you're welcome to go dig if you think you know better. Just don't come near me afterwards.

Also, the author made it clear in the query that the smallpox variant concerned is unaffected by the modern vaccine. That means--apart from the difficulty of vaccinating so many people when we have no significant stocks of vaccine--that people who had once been vaccinated would have no residual protection. So, yeah, the government may want it to protect people, or they may want it for a bioweapon, as when one bunch of socially-conscious scientists made smallpox something like twice as deadly. Purely an academic exercise, I'm sure.

Whirlochre said...

I'm guessing anthropological fieldwork demands a degree of academic writing and I detect something of that style in your query — esp para 2.

So, in addition to shortening this considerably, I think you have to watch out for that formal tone getting in the way of the fiction.

writtenwyrdd said...

On the argument of what the disease should/shouldn't be, I just have to say that for the query it may be better to leave the specifics out except for the fact that the body is carrying a germ/virus that can cause massive havoc. (Because you can see that some folks might pick at that point based on the posts here.) I'm sure the author has it all explained in the story itself.

BuffySquirrel said...

Pick at things? Us? You must be confusing us with some other set of Evil Minions!

Phoenix said...

Late to this and not sure if you're still checking here, author, but I'm in agreement with pretty much all the advice you've been given. (With the exception of nixing anything about the smallpox - just rewrite it more clearly, I think. It's a query, not a dissertation on virology.)

Based on what you've given us, this is how I would rewrite it to concentrate more on the story and less on your credentials (although the cred 'graph here is still, I think, a bit long).

Anthropologists unravel secrets -- it's what they're trained to do. But freshman researcher Dana West is having a tough time deciphering the mystery surrounding a human body found in the melting ice of Iceland's Vatnajokull glacier.

One minute Dana and her academic colleagues are examining the frozen body in hopes of discovering why medieval Greenlanders vanished from the area; the next, officials from the Icelandic government and the US Navy are flashing credentials and carting the corpse away. But that's only the beginning. Soon after a colleague, Richard Eakin, passes her a cryptic warning about an escalating government cover-up, he disappears.

Dana's search for the missing Eakin pits her against the Reykjavik police chief and her own university president as she battles Icelandic bureacracy for information. Then a suspicious death on board a fishing boat points her toward Eakin's whereabouts and reveals a deadly secret. The body from the glacier is carrying a 15th-century smallpox virus -- a virulent strain for which there's no vaccine. Can Dana trust the government to contain an outbreak or should she warn the populace? And has she herself been infected?

A gritty and realistic view of present-day Iceland in the vein of Susanna Kaysen's depiction of the Faroe Islands in
Far Afield, OUT OF THE ICE is a mystery suspense, complete at 87,000 words.

In addition to a doctorate in anthropology and a graduate degree in public health, I have three years of anthropological field experience in Iceland. I've been employed as a science writer for The American Museum of Natural History and Scholastic Magazines and as a newspaper reporter for The Record in Bergen County, New Jersey. My short story, "Hibernal Onding" appears in the December 2008 issue of the The Taj Mahal Review.

Thank you for your attention. I look forward to sending you more of OUT OF THE ICE.

Anonymous said...

Wow! EE and his minions are the greatest! Now all I have to do is get those bad guys up and running so you will read the book!