Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Face-Lift 818

Guess the Plot

The Burning of Issobell Key

1. The tragic story of how the first annual Pyromaniacs Anonymous meeting at Issobell Key went terribly, terribly wrong.

2. Issobell accepts fiance David's invitation to move to an island colony in his home state of Washington. But the religious sect he grew up in acts weird, all this talk of the "Burning Woman" festival. She's getting a baaad feeling.

3. Vacationing in Scotland, Lou takes an interest in the 300-year-old case of Issobell Key, who was burned as a witch. Lou tries to prove Issobell didn't commit all those murders. Not that exonerating her will bring her back to life . . . unless she really was a witch.

4. Salem-born Issobell has it tough. Saddled with illiterate parents, warts and a fondness for newt-eye soup, it was only a matter of time before the mob turned on her. As the flames rise, she wonders how life would have been different if only she'd preferred minestrone.

5. Hundreds of years ago, she was convicted of witchcraft as a teenager and burned at the stake. Now her ghost is back for revenge. The first thing she has to get used to in the American suburb where she's been reincarnated is 21st-century spelling. "Issobell"!? Now she feels like roasting someone.

6. When her neighbor in the tiny Cotswold village of Boring-on-End meets an untimely end as result of an exploding gas cooker, amateur sleuth Amelia Pettipants knows it wasn't just because Issobell made one mean curry. Or maybe it was, and someone's out for revenge . . . someone with a history of stomach problems. Which means 75% of the village are suspects.

Original Version

PLEASE be brutal! Thanks. [Sure, you say Be brutal, but later when you're in tears because I've suggested you give up this hopeless writing pipe dream and become a pole dancer in some skid row dive, how do I know you won't send your ex-con boyfriend over to teach me a little etiquette, Attica-style?] [On the other hand, how often do I get the opportunity to tell people, Be careful what you wish for?]

Dear Evil Editor,

The Scottish highlands have a rich history of magic and romance, but 26 year old Lou wasn’t looking for either when she traveled there with her best friend. Recently unemployed, Lou [Better to say "Unemployed"; if you call her "recently unemployed" we might think she is no longer unemployed. "Recently laid off" is okay, as is "recently fired." Even better, however, is to not mention her employment status at all, as it has nothing to do with the rest of the sentence or the rest of the query.] wasn’t really looking for anything in particular, [If you're gonna tell us in sentence 2 that she wasn't looking for anything in particular, there's no need to tell us in sentence 1 that she wasn't looking for magic or romance. However, I recommend keeping the romance and magic and ditching the anything, as I much prefer in particular to vague.] except perhaps some answers about her uncertain future. [You may argue that her joblessness is relevant because it's what makes her future uncertain. But I would argue that unless you can explain in the query how a vacation in Scotland is going to provide answers to her uncertain employment status, it's best to leave that out and let us believe she's just traveling.] [Some minions may now argue that maybe Lou isn't here on vacation, but is seeking a job. But I would argue that maybe you should read the next sentence before you open your big mouth.] But the past captivated her from the minute her vacation started, and Lou found herself digging for clues in a three-hundred year old murder mystery. [Queries are more interesting if they're in present tense. Like your next paragraph. Convert this one.] [Also, one could interpret that sentence to mean Lou started digging for clues the minute her vacation started.] [Also, are you sure murder was considered a crime 300 years ago in Scotland? I ask because my research into Scotland's history reveals:

14 April 1736: Efforts to quell a riot by the Captain of the City Guard in Edinburgh, Captain John Porteous, lead to six deaths. Porteous is later found guilty of murder.

7 September 1736: An Edinburgh crowd hear that Captain Porteous has been pardoned. That night they break into his cell and publicly lynch him. None of those responsible is caught.

As you see, the guy who was found guilty of murder was pardoned, and the authorities "claimed" they couldn't find anyone who was part of the lynch mob, even though the lynch mob was right there in the jailhouse.]

Mysterious dreams and bizarre coincidences begin to propel Lou [They propel her. If you tell us they propel her, we can deduce that at some point the propulsion began.] towards the fragments of truth [The truth. The truth is the truth; it doesn't come in fragments. It used to. Nowadays we have to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth because in the old days the oath was, Do you swear the testimony you're about to give contains at least a few fragments of the truth? And even the guilty could safely say yes to that.] surrounding Issobell Key, a woman condemned as a witch in the seventeenth century. [As the 17th century was 310 to 410 years ago, I'll assume you were rounding off when you said the murder trial was 300 years ago. Which is okay, though I see no harm in calling it a 320-year-old murder trial, assuming the date of the trial is known to Lou.] As Lou blindly tries to follow her intuition, [She follows. If you say she follows, we'll deduce that she tried to follow. And "blindly" isn't needed unless she's blind, as that's understood when you follow your intuition instead of your senses.] she uncovers the grisly circumstances of Issobell’s trial and conviction: witnesses claimed that she murdered her sister, nephew, and brother-in-law in cold blood. [Those are the grisly circumstances of the crime, not of the trial and conviction.] [More proof that murder wasn't a crime:

Procurator: The woman murdered three people in cold blood. We have eyewitnesses.
Assistant: I know, sir, but what can we do?
Procurator: You're right, without a law against mur--Wait, we can charge her with witchcraft!
Assistant: Ah, Old Reliable. Brilliant, sir.]

With the help of Brian, the gorgeous native tour guide, and Tammy, her skeptical best friend, [If you'd told us the best friend's name the first time you mentioned her, you could just name her now without having to repeat that she's Lou's best friend.] Lou begins to delve [She delves.] into the tragedies of the distant past. But what she learns about her own past may be enough to completely change her life. [That's pretty vague. If she learns that she was Issobell in a past life, and has been summoned here to take revenge on all the descendants of the witnesses responsible for her first death, give us a hint.]

Complete at 60,000 words, The Burning of Issobell Key blends modern and historical settings in a truly unique work of women’s fiction. [1. Everything that's unique is, by definition, truly unique. 2. If you mean no other book is identical to it, that's true, but it's true of every book. 3. If you mean something a bit less absolute, you need a word other than "unique." In any case, if you show the book's fabulosity with a compelling plot description, there's no need to declare it, so let the agent/editor decide if it's truly increduloso.]

Okay, what we've boiled this down to is something like:

The Scottish highlands have a rich history of magic and romance, but 26-year-old Lou is looking for neither when she books her vacation. Still, the past captivates her from the moment she arrives, and it's not long before Lou finds herself digging for clues in a 333-year-old murder mystery.

Mysterious dreams and bizarre coincidences propel Lou toward the truth surrounding Issobell Key, a woman condemned as a witch in the seventeenth century. Following her intuition, Lou uncovers the grisly details of Issobell’s crime: witnesses claimed that she murdered her sister, nephew, and brother-in-law in cold blood.

Complete at 60,000 words, The Burning of Issobell Key is women's fiction that blends modern and historical settings.

That won't be the complete query; first you'll want to smoothly slip in some (or all) of the following: Does Lou find info that suggests or proves Issobell was innocent? Is Lou investigating old records, or basing everything on dreams and supernatural visitations? How do you dig for clues in a 300-year-old murder in a foreign country? How does delving into this case specifically change Lou's life?

Is this a ghost story or a mystery? Is it Brian's hunkiness that makes this women's fiction? Because I don't see why women are the expected audience. Guys like grisly murders and people being burned alive almost as much as women do.


Angela Robbins said...

I believe EE's query was more solid, to the point, catchier. But I'm still skeptical of the premise. How is some average American girl on a vacation in Scotland qualified or capable of solving some 300+ year-old murder mystery? How is she getting her information/leads, and who is going to cooperate with her in a county with which she is not even remotely familiar? I could see if she was a cop or reporter or someone used to digging up info, but if she's was just fired from the local coffee house...

Also, EE, you cracked me up on your first set of blue text.

the word verification was only _table_ and not some crazy uncomprehensible babble (kind of like this response...)

Anonymous said...

More specifics are needed to really distinguish this plot in the query pile. Too much hinting instead of wowing us with the intrigue. Reminds me of the time I was on an arduous desert hike with a former boyfriend and he announced he had brought along a delicious secret snack that would be marvelously refreshing for all. Which turned out to be a raw onion.

Sarah from Hawthorne said...

Women's fiction generally tends to be about a female protagonist on a journey of self-discovery. From what you've described, "Issobell Key" is about a female protagonist having visions that lead her to solve a 300 year old murder.

Are you sure you don't have a cozy mystery on your hands? Because that's a pretty popular genre.

Also, I agree with Angela and Anon above. We need more details on how Lou takes action to investigate, because right now it sounds a bit like she has a dream, wakes up, and says "I know who did it!"

_*rachel*_ said...

It's so vaaaaague, I almost think this query's about me....

Rewrite, and be specific this time. I need a clearer sense of what your characters actually do, as well as how the two stories tie into each other. Does Lou find a sense of fulfillment in solving the case? What's the point of solving it if it's so old? Is Issobell a character in flashbacks, a ghost, or what? I want to know why I should care about something that finished so long ago (and was, for all I know, historically unimportant).

What happens after Lou figures out the truth?

up so many floating bells down said...

I agree with all of the above comments, as well. There are really no plot details at all. We want to know how the story flows and what happens along the way, instead of words that don't really say much, such as: mysterious dreams, bizarre coincidences, and fragments of truth.

One other comment that I'd like to make is that the very first sentence of the query, which if I am correct should set us up for what follows, talks of the rich history of magic and romance in the Scottish Highlands; but neither of these is ever mentioned again. If the first sentence is about magic and romance, I'm disappointed at the end of the query that no magic or romance seems to be a part of the least, from what the query tells us.

Remember that it's your plot that we want to know about not just some nice sounding words! Good luck, author!

Dave F. said...

I suspect that Lou is a descendant of Issobell and discovers that in her research. By the way, any person with good library skills and a decent memory could credibly discover facts about a witch burning 300 years ago. It's a tried, true and respectable plot device.

However, that all seems to fit more of a mystery novel than a women's novel. The query makes this sound like a mystery. While I'm stepping on thin ice, the stageplay, AGNES OF GOD, is what I would call a women's story but it is told as a thrilling mystery. I've seen it both ways, live and film. (just my opinion)

Stephen Prosapio said...

EE's query is much better, but the story still needs detail. I agree with Angela, the MC needs someting pushing her or pulling her through the investigation other than "blindly trying to follow her intuition."

I don't buy the 60k words/women's fiction either. Sounds like a mysterry... which is a much easier sell than women's fiction-- which is apparently a redundant term these days anyway since men merely watch football and play video games.

vkw said...

Men watch football and play video games and read fantasy books.

I'm kind of counting on that, so don't ruin my delusions with facts or skeptism.

As for the query, yeah its been said, I'm not going to beat the author anymore with the idea that more facts are needed to set the query apart from the slush.

I actually would suggest that more details about the MC maybe nice. All we know about her is that she is unemployed and these days that doesn't set her apart from any other Jane Smith.

So if she's special, let us know. If Hunky tour guide is just eye candy, cut him out but if he plays an important part then let us know this as well.


Khazar-khum said...

If Hunky Mc TourGuide is a descendant of Issobell Key, you have a second reason to solve the crime. And maybe someone who can really help.

Chris Eldin said...

I like this. I'd read on. Query needs some tweaking, but I'm not that anal retentive. Good luck, author.
EE... waxing philosophical on this one.

M. G. E. said...

The sorts of style-points EE gave here are difficult for many writers to spot in their own work. It takes practice and a discerning eye.

Learning to remove excess words, stay on tense, vary sentence constructions, and make sure your language remains internally logical and consistent is a higher-order level of writing.

You can't just master grammar and punctuation and expect to write well, this is the next level of a thousand more.

Of course, many queries don't even display mastery of grammar and punctuation :P much less spelling :P

I wish EE would do this sort of close-reading critique more often.

Joe G said...

I guess I just don't really have a sense of Lou (although I love that her name is Lou) or of what consequence any of this is.

You compare it to, say, something like The Sixth Sense, which is also a relatively low key ghost story about people who must deal with the problems of the dead, where you have a highly compelling protagonist (a young boy who sees ghosts but is too young to emotionally handle it) and a great twist at the end. That movie was about something, it was about people.

In a roundabout way, what I'm saying is that nothing at all is at stake in this query. Is Lou's life in danger, or is this witch burning story a means toward self renewal/discovery? What's the twist, hook, element of drama? The lack of plot details suggests that a lot of the book is Lou sitting in the library reading about the witch. Is anything happening in the present day to our ostensible protagonist besides a hunky tour guide? Isobell should be the spice and Lou the meat. Otherwise it's all white wash.

Adam Heine said...

Joe G (and Rachel, and others) points out the same thing that bothers me about this query. Why is it set in the present? How does the mystery matter at all to Lou?

The plot (as written in the query) is: Woman gets fired. Woman goes on vacation. Woman learns a lot about 17th-century Scotland witch trials.

The story would be a lot more exciting if it took place, say, 300 years ago and it was Issobel's daughter trying to prove her mother's innocence. Not that you have to do that. I'm sure your story IS about Lou, but we need to see how in the query.

What does Lou gain by solving the mystery? What does she lose if she fails? If the answer to either of those is "nothing," consider Issobel's daughter.

Sarah said...

Note of caution: Robin Cook wrote about a female protagonist who moves to Salem and ends up researching her female ancestor who was killed for supposedly being a witch. The protag identifies hugely with her ancestor and becomes obsessed (weird dreams and odd coincidences abound), while researching the "witch" through available historical documents. The "witch" turns out to have been innocent.

Now, it usually bugs the crap out of me that many queries get the "ah, but someone has written a story with a magic X/set in Y, so you can't do that". Normally it's quite obscure books that the writer almost certainly has never heard of. I'm just chipping in because Robin Cook is pretty popular, so there's a fair chance the agent you're writing to has come across it.

So, my suggestion is to focus more on the murders. I'm actually really interested in them, so I'd like to see them get more words. The blood and guts and witchcraft are the interesting selling-point of your story (presuming the romance takes a back seat), and it'll help differentiate your story from the Cook one.

batgirl said...

This sounds like something I would pick up from the shelf, at least. I'd actually caution against saying it's unique, and rather suggest you mention what it resembles. Would readers of Mary Stewart or Susan Kearsley like it, or is it darker, like Barbara Michaels? If you'll excuse me for being all 'ooh I have an agent' for a moment, now that Willow Knot is going out to editors, my agent asked me for titles of books that were like it, because that helps marketing.
(I know EE cautions against throwing names around, but if your potential agent can sell a particular genre, s/he should know some of the standard names in it)

Second - why does Lou need blind intuition to lead her to trial records? Anyone with college (senior high?) level research experience should be able to find those. It also makes her sound quite passive - she doesn't take action, she's led around by fate. Can you bring out what actions and decisions she makes herself?

writtenwyrdd said...

Procurator: The woman murdered three people in cold blood. We have eyewitnesses.
Assistant: I know, sir, but what can we do?
Procurator: You're right, without a law against mur--Wait, we can charge her with witchcraft!
Assistant: Ah, Old Reliable. Brilliant, sir.]

LOL! You've been watching Monty Python reruns again, haven't you, EE?

Author, EE's comments, as always, make the query much more lucid. However, I am finding the premise is DULL. This is because we need a hook that makes us care (and understand)why your protagonist is haring off to discover the answer to an ancient murder mystery.

You mention teh handsome tour guide, and that makes me think you are hinting there's a romance, but you allude to it rather unskillfully instead of saying it's a complication (or not) and why. "Aided by her handsome tourguide for whom she has a growing attraction" might be one means rather than relying on just mentioning he's good looking.

Additionally, you stop short of giving us a hint at what the ending is about. I think the crisis is left out here, and without that, the query lacks any enticement at all.

So, what does your protagonist want? To figure out an ancient murder mystery. Emotional hook is why would she want to solve this? and the conflict is unknown entirely. Also, we need an idea that something gets in the way of her reaching the goal (someone trying to kill her?)

A query needs to answer those sorts of questions because a query's job is to make the read sound enticing. And what makes a story enticing is generally stuff related to emotions and conflict.

Keep at it, practice makes perfect. (But do watch for extra words like 'begins to' as EE points out.)

Anonymous said...

Right there - you got it baby. So beautifully written. A gem for my wall.