Monday, June 01, 2009

Face-Lift 638

Guess the Plot


1. If you could go back in time and assassinate Lenin, would you? When a German "timesplasher" answers Yes, it falls to his girlfriend Sandra to go back to 1902 and prevent the alteration of history.

2. If you could go back in time and assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm, would you? Michael Brownkite answered Yes and now finds himself in pre-WWI Europe. Finishing his mission is the only way to return to 2009, but will he leave behind his new love, Gwendolyn?

3. Hanna Murphy, author of the scandalous I NEED A MAN RIGHT NOW! blog, disappears and everyone assumes a serial killer was responsible, but Inspector Joyce Raines realizes there's a paranormal air-sucking hole in the Murphy plumbing -- just as she, too, is transported through it to a swampy time-space warp full of evil wizards.

4. If you were a historian and could go back in time for hands-on research, would you? James Hargrove answers Yes, but when he meets Cleopatra and she falls in love with him, shunning other such suitors as Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, he finds that flings in the past can have grave consequences in the future.

5. If you could go back in time for one piece of gold, would you? Greg Carter answers Yes, but it's no ordinary piece of gold. Greg is a decent NCAA diver with dreams of, but not the talent for, Olympic gold. When a physics major friend shows Greg his time machine, Greg realizes he just might have what it takes to 1928.

6. It's been said that time is like a river. Noah Tempus learns that's true when he takes a dip in the swimming hole behind his new house and climbs out thirty years later. Lost in a future he can't understand, Noah must find the rumored other end of the time stream . . . before his actions bring about the end of the world.

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor,

I am seeking an agent for my 90,000-word science fiction thriller: TimeSplash.

Set in Europe in the near future, TimeSplash is the story of two young people, Jay and Sandra, both traumatised by their involvement in the youth cult of 'timesplashing' - jumping back in time to create temporal anomalies that cause wild disruptions in causality that flow through to the present.

Now, all Sandra wants is to see her former boyfriend, Sniper, dead. [I don't care how hard-up you are for a boyfriend, when a guy introduces himself as "Sniper," a red flag should go up. I also advise against dating guys who go by "Assassin," "Torpedo," and "The Butcher of Irkutsk."] [I personally once backed out of a blind date with an attractive woman after she introduced herself as: "I'll ram an ice pick in your eye if you touch me anywhere."] The glamorous German timesplasher dragged her back in time to witness an horrific killing spree which left her terrified and institutionalised. [When your boyfriend's idea of a good time is to witness the Boyd Massacre in person, it's time to pull out the old, "Not tonight, I have a headache" ruse.] The same timesplash caused a temporal anomaly that destroyed the Dutch town of Ommen and killed Jay's best friend, [That last part was Sandra's fault; she stepped on a butterfly while she was in the past.] leaving Jay happy to be recruited by MI5 who use him in undercover operations against the splashteams.

All Sniper wants is to cause a timesplash so big it will make him a legend. [A legend in his own time. Get it? His own time?] He doesn't care that his plans will wipe out central London as effectively as if the city had been nuked. To do it, he and his crew intend to go back to 1902 to murder Lenin at the Round Reading Room of the British Museum. [How do they know what effect killing Lenin will have on the future of central London?] Every intelligence agency and police force in Europe is after Sniper, but only Sandra and her new ally, Jay, know where to find him. [I'd start by looking on rooftops.] But Sniper has powerful backers with deep pockets - and they have a mole within MI5, keeping Sniper one step ahead of his enemies. [This sentence should come after the comma in the previous sentence, replacing that other "but" phrase.]

One by one, every plan to stop the coming timesplash fails until all that is left is to send Jay and Sandra back to Edwardian London to save Lenin's life. But just being there in the past is enough to cause deadly anomalies and this desperate last stand might be as dangerous as taking no action at all.

I attach a 3-page synopsis and the first three chapters of the manuscript.

I am a writer living in Queensland, Australia. In the past six months I have had five short stories published in anthologies and magazines.I also won third place in [a prestigious sci-fi writing contest][, losing out to a ripoff of Alien and a story about going back in time to kill Mussolini]. My previous novel Time and Tyde was chosen for the [Major Publisher] Manuscript Development Program in May last year. My writing credits also include three children's science books, and over a hundred magazine articles. My blogs currently attract over 500 unique visitors a month from around the world (mostly the USA, the UK and Australia). [A blog consisting of nothing but photographs of the same empty wall every day would attract 500 visitors a month. Get rid of that.]

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.



I've gotten bored with all the time travel stories that involve going back to kill Hitler. Going back to kill Lenin just may be the breath of fresh air this genre needs.

If the mission is to go to Edwardian London and save Lenin's life, why do Jay and Sandra have to do it? Can't they send someone with experience at preventing disasters, like James Bond? Or The Terminator: "Vlad, my man, put down the book, and come with me if you want to live."

So, if you go to the past and do something that changes history, how does everyone know it was you who caused it? In other words, if Lenin dies in 1902, do we all remember how it originally happened? If not, why would Sniper become a legend? And wouldn't people try to become legends by claiming they went back in time and killed the man who assassinated Napoleon or whatever? How would we prove them wrong? So many people would be claiming credit for stuff they had nothing to do with, no one could become a legend.

But then, all time travel stories have plot problems we have to ignore, and this one sounds like it could be a good one. In fact the main problem may be convincing us that Sniper, wanting to become a legend, chooses murdering Lenin in a reading room as his launchpad to notoriety. If I can just arrange for Lenin to not be around after 1902, I'll be famous! There have to be bigger fish to fry.


BuffySquirrel said...

Sounds like it has potential, this one, writes the sqrl who is currently plot-bunnying a time-travel novel :D.

Tracey S. Rosenberg said...

Two amusing meta-riffs on the 'time travel to kill Hitler' theme:


A short story:

The latter is very unrealistic! Everyone writes in complete sentences! :)

Anyway, more to the point: I really like this trope and I'd definitely read a book about young people playing around with time travel. But I'm not sure this plot description gives me anything to care about. Why *should* I care that there's discontinuity in the space-time continuum?

Personally, I'd rather see more in this query about how young people are traumatized by the cult of timesplashing, which seems a lot more interesting and original than 'deadly anomalies'. Not that those might not be necessary for the plot, but I'm not sure that they're the center of the story.

Steve said...

Um. Yes. Time travel plots make my little brain hurt ...

The problem is, if time travel technology is so common, juvenile delinquents can get hold of it ... there have got to be dozens of ways to resolve any situation you can think of. Why is sending Jay and Sandra back to 1902 the only answer? What's wrong with sending them back a couple of days and hitting Sniper over the head before he gets into his time machine? Or going back a couple of decades and ruining Sniper's parents' first date, so they never get together and he's never born?

Like EE says, if Sniper goes back to the future and says to his fellow splashers, "Yo! Congratulate me! I just killed Lenin!" ... their response should be along the lines of "Who's Lenin?" "Dunno, mate, I'll Google him ... says here he's some obscure Russian political agitator. Huh. Whatever."

If Sniper kills Lenin in 1902, and afterwards another timesplasher goes back to 1898 and shoots Lenin while he's still in exile in Shushenskoye, what happens to Sniper's legend then?

... You can see why my little brain is hurting, can't you?

Matthew said...

If they fail to save Lenin, couldn't they just travel back in time to stop themselves from failing? And couldn't Sniper travel back again to stop them from stopping themselves from failing? And couldn't they travel back again to stop Sniper from stopping them from stopping themselves from failing? And what if they stop Sniper from stopping them to stop themselves from failing by killing him? Wouldn't one of his henchman travel back in time to prevent them from killing him?

This is called the Back to the Future conundrom.

Dave F. said...

One of the reasons I pick on STAR TREK so relentlessly and with such evil delight is TIME TRAVEL. They do it so poorly (most of the time).

Which is not to say that I don't like Time Travel as a plot line. I do if it is well done. Now the only way to do Time Travel well is to write a character story and make the time travel the background.

HG Wells "The Time Machine" only works because of the rescue of the Eloi.

The Terminator 1,2,3 only work because we identify with the characters (Sarah, her kid and the humanization of the Terminator) and not the time travel.

"Back To The Future" only works thanks to Michael Fox and Christopher Lloyd. The Delorean could have been a Beetle or an eggtimer and it still would have worked thanks to the characters.

The best Star Trek time travel "The City on the Edge of Forever" only works because Captain Kirk falls in love and Edith Keeler and it breaks our heart when he has to let her die.

The point being - time travel only works when we care about the characters. I just don't get that from your query. I think the query should focus on the characters and not the technical side of time travel. We need to care about one of the characters enough to overlook all the technical elements. Time travel isn't a story of awe and wonder. Time travel will always create "paradox" and destroy parts of the time line. What is left for the reader are characters.
That's the way to sell a time travel story.

Joseph Lewis said...

Why would Sniper be famous for killing Lenin in 1902? Lenin was just a lecturing lawyer at the time. If he died (a nobody) then someone else would have led the Bolsheviks in 1903. A real coup would be killing Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show!

I agree with Dave. I need to care about the characters, or else I won't want to sit through the plot.

Evil Editor said...

I believe his fame comes from destroying London, not killing Lenin. But it's not clear how he knows the latter will lead to the former.

Steve said...

Dave F. - I'm not sure about that; I've seen a lot of time travel stories where the appeal mostly lies in the intellectual puzzle of working out how the disrupted causes and effects all fit together - the characters tend to be secondary, in these things.

Of course, a lot of those tend to play out like Greek tragedies - you know, where the efforts of the characters bring about the very events that they're trying to prevent.

(Examples? Um. The comic time travels of Stanislaw Lem. Michael Moorcock's "Behold the Man". Or, more recently, some of the plots on "Doctor Who" and "Torchwood" - the "Blink" episode of "Doctor Who" is a good one, I think.)

Anonymous said...

My gut reaction is eh? wha? scrambled eggs. so what? You'll have to start with the destruction of London and the discovery that it only happened because of this legendary meddling jerk and the realization the whole wreck can be prevented, but only if our dear heroes do x y z near-impossible things in the next six hours, which includes destroying the time gadget.

Although without Lenin all world history would have proceeded otherwise so why they'd focus on destruction of this wee bit of London as the Biggest Tragedy In The 20th Century is not clear. Maybe the heroes are there in some sort of true-love bliss and barely manage to beam out in the last second before dying spectacularly...

Dave F. said...

"Blink" is considered one of the scariest episodes of Doctor Who for children.

I think I've seen every Dr Who broadcast in the USA and have several episode guides about them. Back in the late 1989 or 90 there was a tour of a Dr Who exhibit through the USA and I hauled my friends to it. I saw Davros close up. The doors to the exhibit were Tardis doors. All sorts of neat junk, and a bumper sticker. You could see that bumper sticker 2 miles away on a flat road (exageration).

Dr Who uses time travel to set up each of his adventures.

Steve said...

Yes, "Blink" is a very good scary story ... it's also, though, a very good time-travel story; it answers all its own puzzles and ties up all its temporal loose ends in one neat four-dimensional knot.

I suppose I'm saying that there's an appeal, and a potential market, for this sort of clever time-travel story ... though, if there's any of that cleverness here, it's not coming through in the query as it stands. (It might come in the mechanics of the time travel - like, how does Lenin's assassination result in London's destruction?)

Of course, the best place to fiddle with Lenin's timeline - the neatest Jonbar Hinge, as it were - would lie in stopping the attempt on his life by Fanya Kaplan in 1918. But I bet the alternative-history guys have already been over all the possible ramifications of that one ...

BuffySquirrel said...

Time-travellers ate my comment!

chelsea said...

I'm not a huge SF buff - maybe that's why I'm not having causality-induced fits - but this appeals to me. I like the idea of a world where time travel has become normalized to the point of being trendy. Maybe there is an important allegory in here..?

A little more about Sandra and I'm sold :)

_*Rachel*_ said...

I think I followed your explanation of timesplash, but it felt like you dropped a piano from the second floor into your query.

She stepped on a butterfly? EE, I love you. Platonically, of course.

I would so not go for a guy called Sniper. Same goes for Torquemada.

I'd say: giving Jay good reason to join MI5's mission to sabotage(/whatever he specifically does) the splashteams. Now, I know MI5 and MI6 through some spy novels and a WWII memoir. Are you querying in Europe or America?

I'd get rid of the Now in the third paragraph.

I like it. I'm sure you take care of some of the possible time travel plot holes in your book; I'd suggest you shy away from them in the query, much like you have already. First, you could easily sink your query with them. Second, they're much easier to fix than a lame main character. Working Sandra in more sounds good to me. I like it!

Sarah Laurenson said...

Time travel has a lot of logic issues, but if you reach the 'suspend disbelief' point with your characters or some other strong aspect of your story, then the logic is not as critical.

I liked the idea of this being a fad that all the kids do - that playing with time is considered fun no matter how many people they wind up killing. It seems like there are no consequences for diddling with time.

I think you really have something here, but the query does get a bit caught up in logic problems rather than your stronger characters or psychological issues.

BuffySquirrel said...

I'm now pondering letting the younger minions in on the reference for the butterfly remark. Or should I let them find it for themselves?


Anonymous said...

Thank you all for your kind words. (Yes, I'm the anonymous querier.) I want to say a couple of things:

1. As you supposed, Sandra is very screwed up - and that is central to the story - that's why she takes up with Sniper and why she ends up in a mental institution and why she then obsessively hunts him down.

2. The story doesn't open with the destruction of London but with a smaller town - Ommen in The Netherlands.

3. Picture time as a river flowing along. You lob a brick into it and there is a splash but this is quickly smoothed over as the river flows on, although a little turbulence passes downstream for a while. The physical reality of such a system is unlike the model we have from relativity or quantum mechanics but that's the basis for the book. Anomalies cause 'splashes' but they all get straightened out so that the future remains unchanged. However, when that 'turbulence' hits the present, it can be very destructive around the location where the anomaly originated. Kill your grandfather and a few buildings shake. Kill Lenin - before his impat on world affairs - and you might as well detonate a nuke in the present. It's not the usual sort of temporal anomaly thing.

4. The only reason Sandra and Jay have to go back is that every sensible plan to stop the timesplash has failed and (because of the premise about how temporal anomalies work) their very last chance is to intercept Sniper in the past. S & J just happen to be there with the equipment and the intel about what's going to happen.

5. I think 1902 is almost the last moment in time to kill Lenin (for my purposes) - he hasn't even met Stalin at that point, the Bolsheviks haven't formed, and, although most of his ideas about the Party he wants have been formed, he hasn't yet persuaded enough people to give his ideas any momentum. I think that if he were taken out in 1902, there would not have been the will in the Party to create the kind of revolution that came - if there would have been one at all.

6. I completely accept what several of you have said about emphasising the characters and their struggles. I had, in fact, tried to do that, but because I'm using unconventional approach to time, some kind of explanation is needed. Including what I thought was the barest minimum has led to lots of confusion judging by your comments.

So, thanks again everybody. This has been extremely useful (if perplexing). And thanks to you too, EE, for giving me the opportunity for all this great feedback.

Joseph Lewis said...

@Anon Author

Regarding #3 - So your time-travel story doesn't actually have anything to do with time travel, per se? It's simply the physical act of messing with time that causes physical explosions? It's not a matter of rewriting the timeline at all? I'm finding the premise much less compelling now.

Dave F. said...

I had, in fact, tried to do that, but because I'm using unconventional approach to time, some kind of explanation is needed. Good, now step away from the technical, sci-fi stuff and deal with character.

I's not impossible to infuse their characters into the story. Look at each time they speak (if you use a lot of dialog) and crank their personalities into the dialog. Or if you don't use a lot of dialog, check the character's actions and make those actions mirror the character. It might only be a word or two changed in a hundred words but that's all it takes sometimes. And if your characters change during the story, then make sure that change is apparent. This doesn't have to be cartoonish or one-dimensional, it just has to register on the reader. At key points make the characters just a bit more vivid.

Matthew said...

The first three points of your comment did a better job of intriguing me than the actual query did. If I were you, I would format your query like this:

Paragraph one--Tell us about Sarah. Detail her troubled past, how she fell in with nefarious characters and the negative effects the timesplash cult had on her.

Paragraph two--From the timesplash cult, segue into information about the unique aspects of time-travel in your universe. I loved the river analogy.

Paragraph three--Tell us about Sniper and how he wishes to manipulate time for personal gain.

Paragraph four--bio

That's how I would do it. But keep in mind that this is just the opinion of one minion and some of the others are better at this than I am. Good luck.

BuffySquirrel said...

Individuals like Lenin are just the tip of the iceberg of the forces that drive historical events. Taking him out might change what happens, change the face of the revolution, but not to the extent of preventing it happening at all.

Also, I still don't see the connection between Lenin's murder and the destruction of central London.

Steve said...

I have to agree with Joseph Lewis here ... seems to me that the story is about a supervillain trying to destroy London, only instead of a killer satellite/vial of deadly bacteria/army of killer wombats, he's got a time machine. I feel that's a let-down.

(Also, if we're talking "Doctor Who" ... apart from the villains' motivation, it's pretty much the plot of the Jon Pertwee-era story "Invasion of the Dinosaurs".)

Well. I guess, if the time travel aspect of the story isn't that compelling, you could do a lot worse than follow Dave F.'s advice and focus hard on the characters.

_*Rachel*_ said...

If Sandra is obsessively hunting Sniper down, you might want to make that more obvious. It'll make everything more exciting.