Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Face-Lift 602

Guess the Plot


1. The adopted child of two misfit astronomers searches for his mysterious birth parents, only to find that he must look up. Waaay up.

2. When the North Atlantic pirate who murdered his father on a New York bus turns out to be a ruthless Central American warlord, Cosmo Jones must decide whether or not to renounce his pacifism and seek revenge.

3. Omar Jesus Chinasky never had a successful audition until he changed his name to Hank Cosmo and became a super star overnight. Life is good on the set as Birdman, in sequel #4, but do the guys back home in Idaho still respect him? And did Whisky Joe really knock up Maryanne, or would she finally go out with Omar, if he asked again?

4. When the beautiful but chunky Tonka twins agree to be the poster girls for a diabolical weight reduction program, Nick Cosmo knows he must rescue them before they drink the "elixir of vermin," a concoction containing genetically altered parasite eggs. Can Nick get over his existential angst in time to take action?

5. It's been a bad year. A very bad year, actually. So, Abby Black decides to take matters into her own hands and start following all of the advice of the one source that always knows best: Cosmopolitan. This is the story of the woman who, for one year, took every single piece of advice the magazine had to offer.

6. A cute little space boy named Cosmo guides readers through the galaxy in this introduction to astronomy for early readers.

Original Version

Dear Evilest Editor:

Cosmo Jones's greatest disappointment is his shameful, cowardly father. But when the aging academic sacrifices his life to save a busload of strangers in 1930 New York, Cosmo is forced to re-examine his own life and moral viewpoint - and is thrust into a quest to track down his father's killer and a confrontation with the merciless incarnation of fate. [End that sentence at "killer"; paragraph 1 is way too early to mention the merciless incarnation of fate.]

At the age of ten, emigrating from London to America by ship, Cosmo witnesses his father betray a young woman passenger to a piratical gang of cutthroats,

[Pirate gang (boarding ship): Arrrgh! Be handin' over yon wench or we be sinkin' your ship.

Captain: Not a chance, scurvy dogs!

Cosmo's father: Whoa, cap'n, ever heard of negotiation? She's all yours, boys.]

led by a strangely charismatic figure who claims to remember the future but not the past. [He's living backwards. The curious case of Blackbeard Button.] [It's hard to envision the leader of a gang of cutthroats pausing his attack long enough to have a conversation in which he divulges that he remembers the future but not the past. It just doesn't seem like it would come up.

Pirate leader: Arrrrgh. Might as well turn over the wench, Cap'n. I remember us ravagin' her next week, so it be inevitable.

Captain: Well, when you put it like that . . .]

This propels him on a lifelong course of pacifism and self-sacrifice, set resolutely against his father's ruthless utilitarianism. [Better save the phrase "ruthless utilitarianism" for later too. Evil Editor's 4th Law: Get the editor hooked before you start tossing out samples of your pretentious vocabulary.] The conflict worsens when James - Cosmo's best friend and rival for the attention of childhood sweetheart, Angelica - is seduced by his father's philosophy and kills a man for the good of society. [Is it Hitler? Tell me it's not Hitler.] Unable to betray his friend, Cosmo leaves the country, vowing to cut both his father and friend out of his life forever.

He hears of his father's sudden death from afar but only returns home when Angelica – now married to James and expecting their first child – becomes seriously ill. He learns the extraordinary circumstances behind his father's death and persuades James to tell Angelica the truth about the killing [of Hitler]. [As you see, I changed my mind. I think he should kill Hitler. The guy who remembers the future but not the past tells him about the Holocaust, so he kills Hitler. Then at his murder trial he pleads not guilty by reason of the merciless incarnation of fate.] [I hope you authors don't find it annoying that my comical brainstorms always sound better than your actual books.] Before she dies, Angelica insists her husband must start to make amends, by aiding Cosmo in his search for his father's murderer.

Their journey takes them to Central America, where Cosmo battles with his own fear of cowardice and a corrupt police force who will do nothing to help them. When they finally track down the killer, they discover the reason: he is a powerful warlord who claims to be the physical incarnation of fate. [I'm starting to think that any time is too early to talk about the incarnation of fate.] And although younger, he is unmistakably the same man who led the pirate crew in their murderous attack over twenty years previously. [The pirate killed Cosmo's father? On a bus?]

With the discovery of the killer, Cosmo is forced to choose between his pacifist philosophy and the ruthless utilitarianism [You seem to think "utilitarianism" must always be preceded by "ruthless," sort of like "liberal" must always be preceded by "bleeding heart" and "atheist" must always be preceded by "militant."] of his dead father, a decision that brings to a head conflicting views of truth, self-sacrifice and morality, along with a final reconciliation with his best friend.

COSMO is a literary novel with elements of magical realism, complete at 85,000 words. I have written professionally since 1994, including work for national newspapers and newsstand magazines. I am currently the editor of a consumer magazine with a yearly readership of around 300,000 worldwide. [300,000? It's about time your readership became familiar with Evil Editor. Set up an interview. I'm thinking cover story here.]

Thank you for your time and consideration.


It doesn't necessarily follow that someone who sacrificed his life to save a busload of passengers was murdered. A bit more detail about that incident--like saying he was murdered--will make it clear what you're talking about later when you bring up the father's murder.

This is long enough to be a short synopsis; too long for a query. What can we get rid of? Let's see, Angelica, James . . . and except for the part about him being murdered, Dad. Also, the philosophical crap. That leaves this:
At the age of ten, emigrating from London to America by ship, Cosmo Jones watches his father betray a young woman to a piratical gang of cutthroats led by a charismatic figure who claims to remember the future but not the past.

Cosmo's disappointment in his father leads to their estrangement years later, but when Cosmo learns that his father was murdered while preventing a fully loaded bus from plunging over a cliff, he returns to New York from Yugoslavia and embarks on a quest to track down the killer. His search takes him to Honduras, where he battles his own fear and a corrupt police force that will do nothing to help him, having pledged their allegiance to the murderer himself, a powerful warlord who claims to be the merciless incarnation of fate--and who happens to be the same pirate leader Cosmo encountered on his voyage to America.

With the discovery of the killer, Cosmo is forced to choose between his pacifist philosophy and the ruthless utilitarianism of his dead father, a choice that brings to a head conflicting views of truth, self-sacrifice and morality.

Set in the 1920s and '30s, Cosmo is a literary novel with elements of magical realism etc. etc.
So this fate guy: Does he show up now and then in everyone's lives, or is there something special about Cosmo? Maybe we should capitalize "Fate."

It's hard to think of a book whose main character is an adult named Cosmo as anything but a comedy.

Having read over my own version, I realize it sounds as nuts as yours. Can we leave out the pirates and the fate guy and the warlord?


A said...

Thanks for your time, EE. Your ruthlessly utilitarian version is a hundred times better than my original. (Even if it is just as nuts.) And as always your comments - damn you - are more entertaining than the query.

I'm going to have to rethink that living backwards stuff now that 'The curious case of...' has come out. When I wrote that query, I hadn't heard of the film...

I was wondering how much of the philosophical crap to include, so thanks for putting me straight. Hopefully, it's well below the surface in the story, so should stay that way in the query.

150 said...

Hi, A. The living-backwards thing also appeared in Once and Future King, and the Benjamin Button short story is from 1921, so, you know. The idea's been around a while.

I can't really improve on EE's version other than to wonder whether things might be clearer if the pirate/warlord/incarnation had a name.

600! Congratulations! :)

A said...

Thanks, 150. I knew it had been used before somewhere. Just that the film means the idea is pretty much everywhere.

Oh, EE - no, it's not Hitler. Hell, why didn't I think of that. Hmm, maybe I could put in some time travelling, too.

Dave F. said...

I can't wrap my head around the conflict of pacifism versus ruthless utilitarianism. It just (as Spock says) doesn't compute. These are not dichotomies, at least not to the way I understand them. It might serve you better not to mention them as explicit philosophies and to concentrate on the conflict within Cosmo and the effort to find his father's killer.

I also don't understand the triangle of struggle between the merciless incarnation of Fate, Cosmo and his father. What is at risk besides bringing a murderer to justice?

Xiexie said...

Can I be honest and say that I couldn't finish it cos it was going in too many directions for me? (Well I guess I did just say that.)

Anywho, if EE's version is head-on (apply directly to the forehead), I say there you go. I got that, but I was lost once James popped in.

The story does sound interesting though (now having read the query again).

chelsea said...

Here's what I don't fully understand: Cosmo becomes a pacifist (thus, refusing to fight people) because he saw his father hand over a girl to a bunch of pirates (thus, refusing to fight pirates). Unless I am missing a piece of the puzzle, I don't understand why Comso would react to his father's action (or inaction) this way. If anything, it seems like watching his father refuse to defend the girl would make Cosmo swear to live his life defending people. I'm not knocking pacifism. It just seems like both he and his father chose a form of inaction, and thus aren't that different. Or am I misconstruing the trading-girl-to-pirates scene? Or are Cosmo's and his father's similarities actually the point?

erebusetnox said...

This actually was quite helpful...I wish more agents/editors had the time to slash through a query letter like this. The funny takes the sting out of it, obviously. It's hard to do queries when you don't really know what you're doing (as I think I could say in my case).

Evil Editor said...

I don't understand why Comso would react to his father's action (or inaction) this way.

Based on the use of the term "ruthless utilitarianism," I assume turning the one girl over to the pirates saved many more passengers. Similar to James killing one guy to benefit society. So Cosmo would spend his life defending individuals, while Dad would sacrifice one for the good of the many.

chelsea said...

I guess I don't get "spend his life defending individuals" from "lifelong course of pacifism and self-sacrifice".

Also, if Cosmo's problem with his dad was that he sacrificed one person for the good of many, why would hearing that his dad sacrificed himself for a busload of people change his perception? Granted, in one circumstance dad's sacrificing someone else, and in the other he's sacrificing himself, but the "one person dies for the sake of many" principle is the same.

If I knew what a lifelong of pacifism means for Cosmo specifically, and why exactly his dad gave the girl to the pirates, I would better understand why their lives are opposites.

Wes said...


You out-did yourself on this one. What a hoot! Thanks also for the effort you put into restructuring the query. I'm sure it helped many of us.

I'm with Chelsea. It seems to me Cosmo would not turn to pacifism given his father's unwillingness to protect the girl.

BuffySquirrel said...

If you can't separate defending people from acts of violence, then I guess it is hard to understand.

batgirl said...

My difficulty is with Cosmo seeing his father as 'cowardly' because of his dedication to a 'ruthless' principle. I'm not saying it can't be so, or work in the story, but in the confines of a query letter, having the concepts jostle against each other so closely is confusing.
I could believe that 10-yr-old Cosmo saw his father's action as cowardly, and grown-up Cosmo saw it as perhaps selfish, but maybe just go with one of those impressions?

Robin S. said...

The guy who remembers the future but not the past tells him about the Holocaust, so he kills Hitler. Then at his murder trial he pleads not guilty by reason of the merciless incarnation of fate.] [I hope you authors don't find it annoying that my comical brainstorms always sound better than your actual books.]

HA! This has to be the winner for 2009, and I don't care that I can't possibly have read the rest of them yet.

I snort-laughed all the way through this - my family looking at me like I'd lost my very last marble, and they were about to put me outside with the cat. (Thanks for that.)

Hi Author,

I don't get the pacifism and self-sacrifice thing here as a combo plan, to be honest (Gandhi aside).
I know a lot of not-pacifists who did a helluva lot of self-sacrificing, and also, if pacifists had ruled the earth during the late 1930s (and they came awfully damn close), a lot of Europe would be speaking German as a first language right now, and practicing the goose step with alacrity.

That said, I wouldn't mind understanding what you mean, to be honest.

Robin S. said...

Holy crap - 600 Face-Lifts - I just realized. Congrats!

chelsea said...

The query does not say "defending people". It says "pacifism," which might mean non-violently defending people. It might also mean doing nothing at all.

All I have to go on is the information in the query, and according to the query Cosmo literally leaves the country to avoid confronting his friend. So, based on the query, is this a guy I see organizing thousands of people in non-violent protests? Not so much.

Dave F. said...

"Utilitarianism" says the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome: put simply, the ends justify the means. Most of the times, the "utility" being determined is about pleasure or enjoyment. Thus if the girl gives pleasure to the pirates and saves the father some pain, it is ethical to turn her over to the pirates. (Don't throw brickbats at me, I don't believe in it.)

It is not an altruistic ethical system. Nor is it an ethical system that values the individual over the group. That's why it is so hard to grasp. Most of us have that huge streak of altruism.

So if that gave you a headache, that's why I said earlier that it probably did no good for the query to mention utilitarianism versus pacifism. I'm not sure many people walking around understand much philosophy, let alone utilitarianism.

The villain of Fate suggest predetermination and inevitability. The bus is fated to crash and by saving it, an evil has been committed.
OR is it that the father gets no pleasure from dying to save the busload of strangers so his actions by his ethical system are nonsensical.

As Mozart once said: Zu Hilfe! Zu Hilfe!

talpianna said...

This doesn't appeal to me at all, but I might read it just to find out what a pirate is doing on a bus.

Oh! Is it perchance a PITTSBURGH bus???

Chris Eldin said...

For such a long query, the author has such a short name.

I also stopped reading because it was going in too many different directions. But I did read the blue text and enjoyed it very much.

A, would you interview EE for your magazine? I could help you dig up some photos....
It would only help your circulation and would not at all give us a chance to query EE directly.

pacatrue said...

The former philosophy guy has to jump in about utilitarianism. It's a school of ethics promoted by Bentham and more famously John Stuart Mill. The core idea is that the best thing to do is maximize happiness. Bentham had a very direct notion of happiness -- pleasure, while Mill attempted to refine happiness into various forms of higher and lower pleasures. As a school of ethics, it hangs in there pretty well still today. The main place it hits snags is indeed when the happiness of the many appears to overrule the happiness of the few. Many people think that there are certain moral rights we all have no matter how damned unhappy those rights make everyone else.

FYI, Mill thought you could derive rights-like things from the concepts of utilitarianism. He later wrote On Liberty, which is the classic English defense of the rights of autonomy and freedom to every human with the only limits being when that freedom harms another. Few works have so influenced political thought, particularly in America. He also wrote On the Subjection of Women, which was one of the first tracts in English (not the first) to argue that women were in fact subjected and deserved to be treated as equals.

Many modern philosophers have doubts as to whether you can get to these rights of freedom and equality from utilitarianism. Your paper on this topic is due at 9:00 AM on Monday. 12 point font, 1.5" margins. I'll be checking.

Robin S. said...

Hey paca,

In one of my (many) early-on majors, I majored in philosophy, and then read Mill's work again late in the 1970s - read Subjection of Women in a grad school class entitled "Modern Feminist Theory".

The whole utilitarian, libertarian thing flies out the window for me when I'm woken up at 3:00 am in a hotel room by some loud, selfish asshole feeling free to express himself, to be honest. Beause then I have to walk out into the hall and express myself, complete with colorful obscenities, and I'm left wondering after, something along the lines of 'What's it all about, Alfie?'

A said...

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to comment.

There's no doubt that I'm guilty of trying to pack way too much into the query - as EE says, it's really more of a short synopsis (however nuts!) than a query.

As someone suggested, Cosmo believes his father has acted in a cowardly fashion on the ship. The whole philosophy thing doesn't come up until much later. And, in fact, it's more of an underlying theme for most of the book.

The big thing I've learnt here, I think, is that story is everything in a query. Forget themes, forget any kind of vocabulary that might make the reader think you're a pretentious arse (guilty!) and get on with the meat of it.

The other thing, as EE suggests, is to ditch the pirate, the warlord and the fate guy. Trouble is, now everyone's just milling about, fighting over who gets the remote control... ;)

Sarah from Hawthorne said...

I am extremely late to the party, but I had to add I just read an article in Newsweek where they interview Andrew Sean Greer about the similarities between "Benjamin Button" and Greer's novel, "The Confessions of Max Tivoli", which also features a man living backwards. Greer comes up with a couple other examples from television. And I wanted to add there's also Merlin from T.H. White's "Once and Future King".

So as they say, if you have one source, it's stealing. If you have multiple sources, it's research!

Joanna said...

I'm beyond late, but was very impressed by this query--of the ones that have come through EE's blog in the months since started following, it's the one I'd most want to read. Largely because of the philosophical issues involved,. Hitting them a little more lightly n the query might be helpful. Still, Cosmo's internal conflict about whom to admire and how to act interests me more than his attempt to track down a murderer (obviously they go together, but plenty of books would have the former without the latter and therefore be much less interesting.)