Monday, October 25, 2010

Face-Lift 834

Guess the Plot


1. 1852. Lord Byron has come back from the grave as a vampire in Vienna. Can 14-year-old Franz perfect his steam-powered stake-throwing machine-gun in time to save the city?

2. When America entered WWI on the side of Germany, victory was assured. But not everyone is happy with the Kaiser. Neville Snodgrass, meek bookkeeper from London, is visiting Berlin for holiday. But instead of heading for the cabarets, by order of the King he's off to the beer halls, looking for some rabblerouser named Hitler.

3. William Collier works in London designing the large suits of steam powered armour known as Steamsteel. With Steamsteel manufacturers across England turning up murdered, the mysterious Inspector Boyle offers to hide William from the spies thought to be responsible. But is it spies . . . or vampires?

4. Liza feels trapped on Clay Island, so she and her brother Gus fly off in Gus's airship, The Gull. Unfortunately, Gus built the airship from steamsteel, a metal that gets violently hot when exposed to water, so . . . Whoa, are those rain clouds up ahead?

5. Matt Hemstead's future at his uncle's used car dealership seems guaranteed when he comes up with the term Steamsteel to describe 15-year-old rustbuckets . . . until he falls for sexy investigative reporter Madison Smart.

6. He took a wrong turn somewhere outside Fargo. And now Todd Jones is a prisoner of a madman who needs assistance in the diabolical effort to invent a new metal from water. Will Todd perish in this cellar? Or will he find a way to escape out the window with the help of Tina, the madman's beautiful daughter?

Original Version

I am seeking representation for Steamsteel, a young adult steampunk novel complete at 57,000 words. I come to you due to your experience with young adult author representation.

Liza Johnson feels trapped in her home on Clay Island, surrounded by the clouds. When her brother Gus shows blueprints to build an airship, she seizes the opportunity to leave her world of chauvinism and bureaucracy behind. What is the price of her decision, though? [No need to ask if you aren't going to answer.]

Steamsteel is the story of Liza Johnson, the caretaker of her family fortune. Her socially awkward brother Gus is the true heir, but Clay Island's Supreme Judge could rule him mentally unfit to receive the inheritance. Liza would receive the fortune unless she married, at which point her groom would own the estate. This means suitors are lined up at her door, trying to convince Liza to marry to "protect her family's wealth". [If the wealth goes to Gus if he's not unfit, and to Liza if Gus is unfit, how is the wealth in danger if Liza doesn't marry?]

Gus shares a set of blueprints with Liza, blueprints of a flying machine that makes use of steamsteel, an unusual metal that violently heats up when exposed to water. [The maiden flight was going great until it started raining and all the passengers were roasted alive.] Liza sees in the airship the opportunity for her and Gus to leave Clay Island, and all of the other inhabited islands in the clouds, behind in search of a new home. She hires a crew of people who won't be missed [Homeless guys and murderers.] and begins building The Gull. Among her crew is Fizz, a security guard who belongs to a race of people who live in the clouds that separate the islands. Oh, there's also a spy.

The crew take off as the Supreme Judge invades the estate [to demand that Liza marry him]. Knowing they'd be treated as criminals on any other island, they sail to Laurel Island, whose anti-technology Church severed all ties with the rest of society. There, they are tasked with finding mythical Harlan Island by the Archbishop of the Church. Liza, now the unwilling escort of the Archbishop and his mistrusting bodyguard, plots a course for the possible birthplace of their civilization. She instead encounters new threats and a secret that will shift the balance of power among the islands. [This is like a new plot. We're through with Clay Island, so we'll move to Laurel Island and stuff will happen there, and then we'll move to the birthplace of civilization and see what happens there. It's the format of a synopsis, but the brevity of the synopsis in a query letter makes that format sound like just a list of things that happen. We need to find the thread that holds everything together. Were they chased to Laurel Island by the authorities on Clay Island? If not, perhaps we should minimize Clay's role in the query, including the details about the family fortune and suitors: Disgusted with the chauvinism and bureaucracy of Clay Island, Liza Johnson and her brother Gus build an airship and fly off to seek a new home. That pretty much sums up three fourths of the query, leaving plenty of room to cover important points like Do they discover that every island has its problems, and realize that if they find the birthplace of civilization they can get to the bottom of how society went wrong and lead an army back to conquer Clay Island? Is Liza's goal throughout the book just to find a home she likes? If not, what does she ultimately want, and what's her plan to achieve it?]

Steamsteel is the first book in a trilogy, of which the other two volumes have been roughly outlined. Thank you for your consideration.

May I send you the manuscript?



Are the islands floating above a planet or in outer space or what?

There's no need to tell us that among the crew of The Gull is Fizz, unless you're going to tell us what vital role he will play in the story. For instance does his power to carbonate liquids save the day over and over?

We don't know enough about the balance of power among the islands to appreciate how a shift in that balance would affect anyone.


Walter said...

Well, that was a kick in the gut, but one I needed. I'd succumbed to the classic problem of getting too invested in a story to see any of its flaws. So, thank you, I'm going to re-work this letter and get back to submitting. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

The first two paragraphs both sound like introductory paragraphs.

Steamsteel sounds like something you wouldn't want to build a flying machine out of. Only a fool would build a flying machine out of it, and only a fool would fly in it. Therefore, you're describing what's technically known as an idiot plot.

I'm not clear on whether the islands are surrounded by clouds because it's always foggy (making steamsteel an even worse idea for a flying machine) or whether they're actually floating in the clouds.

Your description of the plot is hodgepodge and crowded-- I think you recognize that yourself with such remarks as "Oh, there's also a spy." Trim it down. Remove all subplots and minor characters.

And if there's any logical reason at all to build a flying machine out of steamsteel, please say so.

_*rachel*_ said...

The bulk of your query should be about the bulk of your novel, and I'd like to know more about Liza's personality.

57K is a bit short.

Shorten the ending to: Steamsteel is the first of a potential trilogy. Thank you for your consideration.

The idea I got was that the ship wasn't wholly steamsteel; the steamsteel is merely an integral part of its design. (I'm guessing propulsion.)

Anyway, good luck! My NaNo this year is steampunk, so I've got a soft spot for it now more than ever.

Anonymous said...

My vote goes to GTP #2. Sounds like that would be tragicomedy at its best.

This other thing seems to be stuck in some kind horrible quagmire halfway between the Ladies' Victorian Romance and the Children's Sky Pirate genres. My only advice would be to choose your genre and ditch the interfering extraneous subplots. Clarity is a beautiful thing.

Dave F. said...

You must have left out something that tied the two parts of the story together. The solution to Liza and Gus's inheritance dilemma has to in some way be solved in the floating island balance of power. It seems that even if Liza and Gus found
Harlan's Island that their inheritance problem would still never be solved. That doesn't work.

Is it possible that you have too much story, or enough plot for two stories with the same characters? I"m a big fan of AVATAR and there will be a "director's cut" coming out on DVD or BluRay (whatever). Like the longest movie in recent history needs more footage. yeah, right, sure, (Sorry to digress).

My point is that James Cameron says there is a dynamite sequence where the wheelchair bound Jake Sully takes on a drunk in a bar for harassing a lady. Sully gets the crap beat out of him but the sequence shows Jake to be a good guy for defending a lsdy's honor. It was cut from the theater version because (to paraphrase the Director) the real story is between Neytiri and Jake on Pandora and everything before that is setup. AVATAR is a love story with great graphics, flying reptiles, and scifi mumbo-jumbo.

That's the impression I get about Liza and Gus's Inheritance.

Joe G said...

I was rooting for Lord Byron(whoever wrote that, I would totally read that book), but I actually don't think this is bad. It sounds like you have a story there somewhere and actual characters. It's too short, though. Odds are good that you haven't supplied a real central conflict for the book, especially if you're already outlining sequels. The set up is that she doesn't want to get married so she uses her inheritance to build a ship and run away. Does she take it with her? What good does an inheritance do her if she leaves the place where it's valuable? Is the inheritance something tangible? Who is this archbishop guy? Why does he task a random stranger to sail to the mythical Harlan islands?

It sounds like a cat and mouse story, where the mouse gets more than it bargained for and the plot veers, or expands. You should examine the logic in the story and don't be afraid to tell an agent HOW the plot expands instead of hinting at mystical and wonderful secrets revealed. Generally, details sell better than sketches, right?

Anonymous said...

Can I guess what Fizz does when he gets wet...?

vkw said...

Hi Walter,

The good news, I think there is a market for steampunk. (I saw one today . . . .not a market a steampunk person).

The second good news - I think you fell victim to the trap, (so what is the book about? and, you preceded to open up the book and began to summarize each chapter.)

Then in 300 words you ran out of space to tell us what the book is about and rushed to an ending that made no sense.

My suggestion is start from the end of the book - (you get five words to answer each question below)

What goal was achieved? (How does the reader know "the end" is here.)
Who did it?
Why did she/he bother?
What was the biggest obstacle she had to overcome?
How did they do it?
Who did they defeat?
Did anyone realy important help her/him? Is he/she really worth mentioning? You have only 300 words. Add this person in only if have nothing else to say.

Now write a query using only that information.


stacy said...

I'm with alaskaravenclaw on the steamsteel part. If it's not integral to the plot, and you're just putting it there to heighten suspense, I'd take out that element.

Matt said...

I'm guessing steamsteel is a power source like coal.

If she doesn't want the inheritance, why doesn't she just forfeit it? Does she really have to build a ship and run away?

And since she does run away, why does the judge send an army after her? If you refused your family's inheritance, would the police come after you?

I think the government would appoint a new heir, no?

Anonymous said...

What kind of chauvinism is it that Liza's fed up with? Male chauvinism? She sits around dreading her fate until some male designs an escape module.

There's a lot I don't like about this query, but I'll confine myself to the first paragraph. There's no vivid sense of this world. Liza feels trapped on the island -- the clouds may have something to do with it. Or is it just that it's an island? Oh, it's not island fever; she wants to leave behind her world of "chauvinism and bureaucracy." Not smooth. Chauvinism and bureaucracy don't exactly go together. Do you mean institutionalized chauvinism? Or perhaps a hidebound bureaucracy packed with oppressive traditionalists? Not that I'd advise you to use editorial slang like that, but I need something to understand your world and Liza's predicament. A concrete detail or two might do -- but not that tedious setup in the second paragraph.

Red said...

I don't get the importance of steamsteel to the plot or how it would be useful in an airship.

If you decide to name your novel after a random part of the airship, I would suggest using the ropes as inspiration and selecting the title 'Hemp'. It should drastically increase sales of your novel.

Anonymous said...

I sounds like a novel I just read, a historical romance about a girl who has to find the right person to marry or the land will be lost to the overseer/dictator. Her brother is mentally challenged and so it lands on the girl's (Meg) shoulder to find someone to marry who won't take away Meg's birthright and dominate over her. Then she meets the man of her dreams, an outlaw! blah, blah, blah.
I've read this before, but with a lot of steamy sex scenes.

Stephen Prosapio said...

Thanks for sharing and opening yourself up. I think you realize some of the issues based on the feedback already.

I'll echo that the description had me completely scratching my head and echo that it seems somewhere between Victorian England and Fantasy/Sci Fi of Flash Gordon's city in the clouds. Problem is we get no sense of world from your query. I couldn't understand why they were fleeing together in the first place. Did they get the inheritance? Why is she guardian but he gets the money?

The other problem is, as arhooley points out, is your protaganist doesn't "protaginate". At least the query makes it seem that way. Everything is getting done for her or to her. Not a good thing.

Phoenix said...

your protaganist doesn't "protaginate"

Ha, Stephen! I LOVE that phrase. I may just need to borrow it sometime with your permission.

Walter said...

First, thank you to everyone who commented. There were a lot of good points that, while I certainly didn't want to take, I need to take into consideration.

Second, I was quite angry yesterday. I would read a comment and then say, "Well, that's not right, that's not what's in the novel at all." And it's true, the novel does answer many of the questions you had.

But agents don't read that novel first, do they? They read the query letter, and mine isn't very good. It doesn't show the good parts of the novel.

So, thanks to you all.

Angela Robbins said...

was anyone hoping for 1? oh yep i see there was someone!

agree with the others. you don't want your mc to be dragged through things passively, which it almost seems that is what we have, but maybe not... there has to be conflict and choices she makes to try to cure that conflict, and then consequences from those choices.
basically what stpehen p said.

Stephen Prosapio said...

Pretty much everything of worth that I say, I stole. LOL

Seriously, that one comes from a lady who used to come to our writers' group. I love it and repeat it often.

Walter -- that's a pretty common least for me! Taking a day or two and coming back to it really helps. I often find others' suggestions aren't right but the areas they are pointing out need to be shored up...often in other areas. Writing is a process. A long one!

Phoenix said...

Hi Walter. A perfectly natural reaction. We're all query blind when it comes to our own work. Heck, I KNOW how to write a good query -- as long as it's for someone else's story. My last query for my own work took 4 or 5 rewrites to get right.

EE, the Minions, and my crit partners all provided invaluable assistance along the way, helping to hone it after each revision. And when I looked back from where it was to where it had been, I could see how far it had come -- and all for the better.

You came to the right place! Hope you stick around and pay it forward. You sound like a great minion-in-the-making!