Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Face-Lift 659

Guess the Plot

Beneath the Ashes

1. They all laughed at Professor Whittaker's insane theory explaining the global uptick in volcanic eruptions . . . until the dragons began emerging from the lava.

2. In the days of old, burning at the stake could kill a witch. But paranormal investigator Kate Hanson is learning the hard way that in modern times fire is not enough, and evil lurks . . . beneath the ashes.

3. Unemployed banker Francois Goibert spends a lot of time gazing out his attic window, so when Mrs. Nash dies in a mysterious explosion, he knows exactly who her sinister visitors were -- but only by sight. Now he must help Detective Cher Wooster identify the killers before these firebugs toast him!

4. Hans-Ruedi Senn's family has lived on the same alp for six generations. He's tolerated the tourists and accepted change, but when city slicker Sylvia Burkhalter launches her new crematory remains scattering service uphill and upwind of his house, he draws the line.

5. Mick Shedly thought he was brilliant to burn the factory, collect the insurance and save his fiscal ass. But he didn't know the scene would be scrutinized by ultra-thorough Fire Inspector Mary Quan, his ex-girlfriend from college --who knows he's a lazy lying cad.

6. Twelve years after committing a double murder by burning down an occupied house, Dondra is released from prison. She sues the state for wrongful imprisonment, then realizes it was probably a mistake to confess to the murders before filing her lawsuit.

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor:

RE: Beneath the Ashes

In a small neighborhood in the town of Briarcliff Manor, New York, a fire breaks out. The bodies of a very affluent couple, the Markos, are found. Their foster daughter, Dondra Williams, a young girl of seventeen is charged and later sentenced for their murder.

Twelve years later she is released from prison. [How many people do you have to murder before they give you, oh, say twenty years? I mean, if seventeen is old enough to be thrown in prison for twelve years, it oughta be old enough to be thrown in for any length of time.] Dondra wants revenge [She's out in twelve years after committing a double murder and she's complaining?] and plans to sue the State of New York and the Department of Social Services for wrongful imprisonment. Her allegation: she was physically abused by the Markos. She hires the law firm of Brown, Fisher, and Smalls and is represented by Sydney Taylor, one of the firm’s top lawyers. [I take it Brown, Fisher and Smalls were unavailable?]

Dondra admits to killing the Markos, but refuses to talk about the day of the fire. [When you went into prison at the age of seventeen, how do you have the funds to hire a law firm when you get out? I don't see them taking a wrongful imprisonment case on spec from a client who won't even talk about the day of the alleged murders.] Can Sydney find evidence of any physical abuse or was the motive something more sinister? [If there wasn't any evidence of physical abuse before she spent twelve years in prison, there is now. Do you have any idea how long the waiting list is for jobs as a guard in a women's prison?]

Beneath the Ashes, my 66,000-word novel, is a murder mystery in the same style as Mary Higgins Clark, but infused with social commentary in regards to today’s foster care system.

[Sydney: I've called you together to reveal the truth about the murder. But before I do, social worker Janet Garozzo, who hasn't been a character in the book up till now, would like to provide a brief info dump about the foster care system in the United States. Janet?]

My biological mother had me when she was thirteen. [I was gonna make a sarcastic crack like, Whose brilliant idea was that? Then I realized you might have a different take on it.] I became a ward of the court and was raised in the foster care system for seventeen years. While Beneath the Ashes is fiction, I was able to draw on my experiences living in [and burning down] several foster homes.

With a passion for storytelling, I am currently pursuing my BA in screenwriting at the School of Film and Television at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. My writing credits include: Rapport magazine; freelance writer for LA Focus and Turning Point magazine; ___________ weblog (relationship and dating advice website); copyeditor and writer for Dysonna, the Fashion magazine and co-writer for the fiction film-short Spin, which won the Global Art Film Festival award for outstanding screenplay 2007. [Remove the least impressive of these credits, starting with the dating advice weblog.]

I look forward to sending you sample chapters and discussing the project with you at your earliest convenience.

Respectfully yours,


Usually in a murder mystery the mystery is who committed the murder. If Dondra did it, and the book is about why, maybe it's literary fiction. If Dondra didn't do it, but is keeping a dark secret that might help reveal what really happened, why would she hire a lawyer to sue the state? Surely this has the potential to bring out the truth she wants to keep hidden.

If you sue someone, don't you have to talk about anything the judge who's deciding the case wants you to talk about?

If you hire a lawyer, he won't want you as a client if you refuse to give him all the relevant facts. And you won't want him as a lawyer if he goes behind your back and digs up facts you don't want him to have from other sources. She's not saying, I don't mind you knowing what happened the day of the fire, as long as you don't get it from me, is she?

Did Dondra claim at her trial that the Markos had abused her? If not, then even if abuse is an acceptable excuse for murder, how can she sue if she didn't tell anyone about the abuse? If she did claim she was abused, maybe that's why her sentence was light. Some people get life (or death) for double murder. Hey, who among us doesn't know two people they'd kill if they knew they'd get only twelve years?

I think we need a bigger hook than "Was the motive something more sinister?" to interest us in this as a mystery.


Anonymous said...

As described this is too implausible. With a plot like this you need to give us a legal theory and set of facts that would support 12 years for the fire and a major tort claim for whatever. But you didn't.

The query makes the book sound like a personal revenge tale that was gratifying to write, although it lacks the legal sophistication needed to make the project commercial enough for an agent.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little confused as to how she has a case for wrongful imprisonment. That's a really high bar to meet, and you need to be actually innocent to meet it.

As it is, what you describe is a premeditated murder that the victim admits she committed. If she didn't talk to her lawyer about the abuse at her first trial, he couldn't present the defense (which, incidentally, isn't even a defense in the majority of incidents. When it is a defense, there is usually a requirement of some kind of an imminent threat--and burning people to death requires a certain amount of quiescence on their part, like they're asleep or something, so no danger is imminent.)

As a substantive matter, it's not wrongful imprisonment if you didn't open your freaking mouth about a defense.

As a matter of procedure, it sounds like she was just let out of jail, and has not had her conviction overturned. Before she can get a judgment for wrongful imprisonment, she actually needs to attack the underlying conviction--either through a writ of habeas corpus (and that will be available only if she's sufficiently burdened by her release conditions that she's not really free) or through a writ of coram nobis to vacate her conviction or something similar. You can't just say, "I was wrongfully imprisoned." You will get dismissed from court instantly.

The standards to obtain either writ are extremely high--and what you need to make this come together is prosecutorial or police misconduct at the sentencing phase, not just abuse by foster parents.

I could go on and on (and I have), but you need to do a lot more legal research to make this viable. One of your characters is a lawyer. That means you need to know everything he knows.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I am so writing GTP#1. Some day...

Queries tend to sound like plot hole announcers. I think it's the nature of the beast. The story might not have these glaring faults, but they sure can show up in this condensed version.

Anonymous said...

Ok so I'm guessing the Secret is that she was raped on the day of the fire and that's why she burnt the bad people.

This doesn't work as a plot devise because a] as mentioned by another anon, it is many years too late to build a defense case using facts you always knew but even now don't care to mention; b] the law doesn't allow you to burn people, even if they are bad; c] I can't imagine why any client would pay an attorney to conduct an investigation to discover facts the client already knows but wants to keep secret.

Eric P. said...

I think there is a good story hidden in here: A 17-year-old girl is driven to commit a desperate double murder as the result of years of physical and social abuse.

The problem appears to be that you're trying to cast it as a legal thriller. It doesn't need to be one. To make matters worse (as the Anonymi have pointed out) your grasp of legal procedure appears too tenuous to pull off a procedural. That's dragging you down and you're in danger of losing the element that makes your story unique-- your own experience.

Lose the courtroom drama and the murder mystery, and tell Dondra's story on its own terms. Like a modern-day David Copperfield that ends badly. That's the one we want to read.

Sarah from Hawthorne said...

Something everyone seems to be missing: the query clearly says Dondra is suing SOCIAL SERVICES for wrongful imprisonment, not the NY Justice System.

Author, what if you turn this around and tell the story from Sydney's perspective? i.e.:

"Sydney was on the fast track at Brown, Fisher, and Smalls - until ex-con Dondra Williams walked through her door with a bizarre idea for a lawsuit. Yet somehow Sydney can't say no to the pain in Dondra's eyes and takes her on pro bono... etc."

Then all the plot holes become mysteries for Sydney to solve about her reticent client and the hook is whether or not Sydney will ruin her career to get justice for Dondra.

Anonymous said...

I am writing Q#5 - a little revenge on the old exes sounds cathartic.

I am a former child protection caseworker. Former being the GLARING word. I know the system and it sucks - for everyone not just the children - judges, workers, foster parents, family, therapists. . . . .

Your character probably would have a much easier time suing the child protective services than overturning a wrongful conviction which she admits she did - that confession doesn't work in her favor. Her chance to scream "abuse" and "manslaughter" would be only relevant to her initial defense - unless she did scream it and her court appointed attorney was married to a child protective caseworker . . . or incompetent due to being an incumbent alcoholic and refused to present it.

Then she would get a "new trial" for improper representation not her conviction overturned.

And, hate to say it, most 13 years old who commit horendous crimes are sentenced to juevenile detention centers until they turn the ripe old age of 18 - in which case they are released or transferred to adult facilties.

However - make your character crazy give her Bi-Polar Disorder, PTSD and Borderline PD and then she can go to forensic psych unit for 13 years and released when she is "well".

Or through a 13 year long appeals trial she gets her conviction overturned because of improper representation and now gets a new trial.

Most foster children get some sort of psych diagnoses - so many good ones too: attachment disorder, adjustment disorder, conduct disorder, PTSD and a whole slew of personality disorders. I would elaborate why - but not my cause.

Actually conduct disorder sounds appropriate for your character - hands down, because even if she was abused this act is beyond reasonableness.

Wow - so many ways to make this work.

Anonymous said...

P.S. You can not sue child protective services for unlawful imprisonment. They did not imprison the murderer - the justice system did after giving her a fair trial. FAIR being the operant word here. The only grounds the girl has in improper representation - but that won't work if she did not tell her orginal lawyer what happened - how could someone be held responsible for information they did not know?

However, failure to provide a safe environment, falsifying documentation, procedural errors resulting in harm to a child, knowingly putting a juvenile in an unsafe environment, failing to investigate an abuse complaint, inadequate supervison, poorly written laws and interpretation, violation of procedures. . . all legal grounds for a lawsuit against social services.

Anonymous said...

Plus, the word count seems short.

Kings Falcon said...

Talking as a lawyer here with an attorney husband who defends capital murder cases - the plot is impossible not just implausible. If the conviction was valid - there is no "false imprisionment" and the state has immunity from that type of suit anyway. Even if there was a cause of action, the statute of limitations would have barred it years before she's released from jail.

Kings Falcon said...

Even if a negligence claim existed against social services after 13 years it is beyond barred.

Also, if she's relying on mommy & daddy's money to pay the lawyer, she doesn't get it under the "Slayer Statute." Once she's convicted of their murders she loses her inheritance rights and any insurance proceeds.

You're writing legal fiction and you need to talk to one of us who does this for a living about how it would work. Your target audience and agent will know you didn't do your research.

The hubby also does GAL (Guardian Et Litem) work where he's appointed by the court to represent the interest of a minor who is in the legal system. He and his partner have defended minors against capital murder charges where the death penalty was sought and represented their interests on abuse and neglect case. You need to find someone like him to talk to so you can deal with the plausibility problems. You can probably find a list of them (or you can email me) from your local Family or Domestic Relations Court (or that branch of the court since some states don't have dedicated Family Courts).

I think the story could be great if you changed the the time line.

Why wait until she's released? Why not have her trying to get the conviction overturned and sue SS while she's still in jail? Then the lawyer could be her court- appointed appellate attorney who is arguing "ineffective assistance of counsel" to overturn the conviction and suing SS civilly. Again, SS is going to have some immunity from suit because it's a part of the state.

Dave F. said...

I usually try to make plots work and give the author of the query the benefit of the doubt. But this plot is legally messed up. IMHO. the author has to fix it.

I don't care who she is suing for "wrongful imprisonment," she doesn't have a case unless she can overturn the entire guilty plea. Considering that she confessed, all legal matters she might file, look to that conviction and admission of guilt.

As a matter of law, she is guilty and therefore has no legal grounds to sue for wrongful imprisonment. The guilty verdict is the proof that she was not wrongfully imprisoned.

Also, if she was abused as a child and killed her foster parents, that is a matter that had to be raised in the original trial as a defense. The guilty verdict took away the line of defense that the murders were justifiable. It proclaims the act is murder and the sentence just (the jury was convinced of her guilt).

Now I can believe she might be hiding something, but the evidence has to be amazingly compelling for a court to reverse her conviction to find that Children and Youth Services is at fault for her act.

That is, unless, the author forgot to add crooked lawyers, bribed jurors and crooked judges and CYS people who neglected their jobs. Now all that can make the legal malfunction like a watercloset in a a white-rugged bathroom.

Clear up the legal points and the query will work better. I'm a big fan of courtroom drama.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you can shelve this until you finish law school and write some steamy romances in the meantime.

Anonymous said...

Just an extra note about the writing - your first paragraph is wordy and could lose an impatient agent/editor before they get to the plot questions. Maybe try this:

In the town of Briarcliff Manor, New York, a fire breaks out. After the bodies of an affluent couple, the Markos, are found in the ashes, their seventeen-year-old foster daughter Dondra Williams is found guilty of their murder.

Anonymous said...

"Again, SS is going to have some immunity from suit because it's a part of the state."

I have seen Social Services be successfully sued - usually there is a settlement before it gets to trial. There is some exemption factors but a lawsuit can go through if there is reasonable evidence procedures were not followed or disregarded or documentation falsefied (which is criminal)or other criminal activities.

And. . . hate to break it to everyone - the state is largely exempt except under SPECIAL cirumstances - state employees are not. You can sue individual caseworkers right up to administrators - of course, you're not going to get alot but it can be done and I've seen it done.

~Aimee States said...

Do what everyone else does, leave her in prison and make up an Innocence Project. I would focus on the lawyer, just make sure there's a hell of a twist.

Xenith said...

How many people do you have to murder before they give you, oh, say twenty years?

If you're 17 and you've served 20 yeears, you'll be Old and Unglamorous.

but infused with social commentary in regards to today’s foster care system.

I suspect as soon as a slush reader sees that, they'll be heading for the "close" button. Along with the following paragraph about your personal experience makes your novel sound like a thinly disguised attempt at exorcising personal demons. Which might be personally satisfying to write, but doesn't usually work in commercial fiction. "If you want to send a message, send a telegram."

Maybe make it less personal? And less like a rant against the Sytem. "--deals with issues of child abuse in the foster care system". Not very original but that might give you an idea?

Dave F. said...

Before I retired and because I was one of the researchers who bought and used chemicals that ended up in hazardous waste landfills, I was in the group of researchers who were briefed about groundwater pollution at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.

To make a long story short, the jury found that not only are federal agencies responsible for the pollution they create, all federal employees are individually responsible for any pollution they create and criminally prosecutable and financially liable. It was a hanging jury and as far as I know, the decision is still in effect. There is no Kingly shield that can be applied if a fed worker pollutes. That's where the prohibition of suing the state comes from. The King and his agents could not be sued. That jury trashed that precedent. It really was a hanging jury. Rightly so.

So if you think state or federal agencies are shielded from lawsuits, ask a lawyer first.

The case was Aberdeen Proving Ground back in 1989. I can't find a concise link. I think they are still monitoring and cleaning.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea the plague of minions was teeming with lawyers.

Actually that makes sense...

benwah said...

Goodness, what an interesting discussion. Counselors abound.

_*Rachel*_ said...

My main problems are with the logic here. Her sentence, her age, if she could sue at all, etc. Make it sound plausible.