Monday, January 24, 2011

Face-Lift 862

Guess the Plot

Sins of the Past

1. If having Vlad Tepes as a distant ancestor is wrong, I don't wanna be right.

2. An overzealous pastor stumbles across a time machine and sets out to convert every accursed heathen through history.

3. When a retired teacher of special needs students is murdered, police immediately suspect her former students were seeking revenge for all the past times she made them confess to being naughty, even when they weren't.

4. When the director of the Natural History Museum turns up half submerged in the La Brea Tar Pits, homicide Detective Zack Martinez knows two things: anthropology is a dirty business, and he'd better pick up a stuffed woolly mammoth from the gift shop for the kids.

5. In 2045 the Earth’s climate is wildly unpredictable because of decades of CO2 emissions. Ussiah, a Mennonite priest, can forecast the weather with meticulous accuracy. When a massive hurricane heads toward the US coast, the government asks Ussiah to predict its path, but he refuses to cooperate unless the country repents.

6. During a psychic reading, fashionista Tiffany learns the reason she can’t get a date; she was a heartless supermodel in her past life. To satisfy karma, Tiffany must transform Melvin, the nerdiest boy in high school, into a hunk. But can she do it before prom?

7. Devout youth turn to Father Kevin for confession. He understands their world and knows exactly what penance to prescribe for cyber-bullying or pirate downloads. But he's stymied when a mysterious stranger shows up to confess ox-coveting, regicide, obscene semaphores, and other . . . sins of the past.

8. Millie's mother was hung as a witch. Her aunt has been sheltering her ever since, trying to keep her from the prying eyes of the local law. But Millie can't stop playing with bones, cats and candles. Is she just a curious girl, or is she really her mother's daughter?

9. Jeb congratulates himself on getting away with murder – literally. But when the corpses of his victims rise up and threaten humanity’s future, Jeb must find a way to atone for his . . . Sins of the Past.

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor,

Teachers are being killed; brutally, systematically. Each murder more horrifying than the last. [I blame video games, rap music and the Internet.]

Detective Harry MacCormick hated working Saturday nights. [I see we've switched from present tense to past already.] All the garbage happened on Saturday nights, from teenagers wrapping their cars around trees, to alcohol fueled couple disputes; at least a dead body wouldn't hurl drunken slurs at him. [That last phrase would make sense if it came after Harry was called to a murder scene.] When he is called to investigate a retired teacher's murder, he hopes to clear the matter up quickly and get back to his loved ones, chips and beer. [Change that last comma to a colon so it's clear that he has no actual loved ones, or at least none he wants to get back to.] But Harry soon discovers that this is only the beginning. [To me, this implies that he's unable to get back to his chips and beer because of additional murders. I doubt the additional murders occur that soon.] [I recommend dumping the first paragraph and the first two sentences of the second. Open with the phone call, and it might go like this:

When he is called to investigate a retired teacher's murder, Detective Harry MacCormick hopes to clear the matter up quickly and get back to his loved ones: chips and beer. But Harry soon discovers that this is only the beginning, as over the next eight hours three more retired teachers are brutally slain, one with safety scissors thrust into her eye, one with colored pencils shoved up her nostrils, another battered to death with a Garfield lunchbox. The media dubs it all the work of the Kindergarten Killer, the Moppet Murderer, the Elementary School Executioner.]

Who has motive for such crimes? Is it one of the former students of the first murdered teacher, who Harry soon discovers were being forced to confess by the teachers and principal to incidents that they didn't do? [People don't "do" incidents.] [I want an example of whatever these children were forced to confess. Timmy, either you confess that you spilled my coffee, or I call in Borgo the Disemboweler.] Or perhaps the janitor, with his checkered past of involvement in sexual abuse scandals? [I told you we should have hired kindly old Mr. Goodfellow as school janitor instead of the guy with past involvement in sexual abuse scandals.] [How many sexual abuse scandals do you get before your past is no longer labeled "checkered"? This guy sounds more like he has a Sorry! past.]

Along with detectives John Defazio, his best friend on the force for ten years, who is about to be a father for the second time with his fiancee, and Jennifer Reed, a detective for only five years, but headstrong and determined to make a name for herself, Harry races against time to stop this madman before he kills again. [The brief tidbits of information about John and Jen are interfering with whatever tension has been built up.] [Also, as this is clearly the same book as our recent New Beginning, it becomes even stranger that Harry never seems to have any down time now that we know there are at least two other detectives in this small town.]

SINS OF THE PAST is a griping tale [The tale is gripping; griping is what Evil Editor has been doing.] of murder, revenge, and suspense that will keep you guessing about the identity of the killer to the end. [Not me; I've already deduced that the murderer is actor Paul Sorvino.] It is complete at 55,000 words. The full manuscript is available upon request.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Note to EE: The title comes from the first suspects the police have for the murders, the former students of the first murdered teacher, who was a special ed teacher.

[Who do you like for the murder, detective?

Former students is my guess.

But the former students are autistic.

Yeah but their teacher once got them to confess to writing on the walls, so I figure we can get them to confess to this and be done with it.]

She, along with the principal of the school, conspired to blame incidents on the students that they didn't do. And also of one of the other suspects in the murders, the janitor at the school, who was involved in sexual abuse scandals earlier in his life and may have abused some of the students.


I don't see why the police would suspect one of the students of the first murdered teacher, unless that person was also a student of the other murdered teachers. The motive for killing your teacher is not the same as the motive for killing random teachers.

Focus on the case. We don't need to know what happens on Saturday nights or that John's girlfriend is pregnant.


BuffySquirrel said...

How many sex abuse scandals before you become persona non grata at the school gate?

Well, Ian Huntley racked up quite a few before murdering two twelve-year-old girlswho attended the school he and his girlfriend worked for. Seems the police didn't pursue the cases with particular vigour or even bother to pass on information to other forces, hence the incidents never appeared on Huntley's record. His past never even got so far through the system as to be labelled 'chequered'.

Which does go to show it can happen, even in a country as paranoid about child abuse as this one.

Time and again I've seen agents say, 'don't tell me in the query that your story is x; show me that your story is x' where x, in this case, would be gripping. This query is a bit wordy in my opinion, and that isn't really the soul of gripping. It needs to be a lot tighter and faster-moving.

Gayle Carline said...

May I also add, just for giggles, that 55,000 words is WAAAAAAYYYYYY too short for a novel, especially one with as much going on as this one advertises. Murder, pregnancy, chips, beer...

Anonymous said...

>>at least a dead body wouldn't hurl drunken slurs at him.

As if investigating a murder won't bring him into contact with someone who might cuss him out? As if there's no "garbage" to sort through in a murder case?

I sense that you're trying to convey hard-boiled and cynical, but either you've miscategorized things or you've given me a cop who is annoyed with his job of protecting and serving, who actually dreads the streets -- someone who would rather be a pathologist at the city morgue. I'd change that wording.

Anonymous said...

Seems too short for a novel. Maybe you can add some depth and complexity to bring it up to the usual length. Also it sounds like you don't know anything about being a detective and thought it would be edgy and original to make your fictional detective be lazy & apathetic, since the popular ones all seem to be so hyperactive and obsessive about their work. This might be a good time to rethink that.

Anonymous said...

How do you know it's not a griping tale?

EE, please advise. I have been reading you FOREVER, for entertainment mostly, as my novel was "in progress" or "being beta-read" or "undergoing revisions. You know, keeping me blessedly removed from the actual querying process.

But now, it is "done" and I am ready to get serious about this querying business. So I'm paying careful attention. I've read Query Shark from start to finish (well actually from finish to start, but you get the idea.) I'm rereading your little tutorial here. I'm reading, damn it.

Enter Noah Lukeman. NOAH EFFING LUKEMAN. Some little 99 cent kindle download.


Three sentences for plot. Do NOT mention protags name. Call him protag. Call his enemy antag. But mother of God do not call either of them Jim or Bill or Marissa or Kate.

One sentence can talk about the time and place. So you've got TWO f&^ing sentences to tell your, you know, actual PLOT.

Again, I say, WTMFF???


Is he trying to f*&k with me?


Dave Fragments said...

Or perhaps the janitor,

EEEK! In the State of Pennsylvania, all employees of schools, day care facilities, volunteers at schools, and anyone who wants to be left alone with a student, has to get two pieces of paper from the State. One says they aren't a child molester and the other says they've never been arrested or convicted. When I volunteered at one of the High Schools for a science project, the teacher handed me the forms and "go get them letters"...

You have no idea how ugly it gets when someone hands those two forms to you and says I need this.

I did that three times, one each year to keep on file. The teacher's job was on the line if I was anything other than a law abiding, upright citizen and was caught alone with a kid.

A Janitor with a history? The Principal would lose his/her job in seconds, without doubt. So make sure that part of the story is credible.

Joe G said...

I feel like generally, in a mystery, you don't really guess about the identity of the murderer if you don't have any suspects. The suspects you give are former students and the janitor.

This is too generic and your main character doesn't have a personal dilemma. It sounds like an episode of Law and Order (complete with sidekick detective and spunky girl detective). I'm sorry but you haven't made the story sound especially compelling to me.

You should read the Dexter books. Those are good murder mysteries, in my opinion. It may be helped by the fact that the protagonist is a murderer himself.

I dunno, though. There's always a market for this sort of story, isn't there?

BuffySquirrel said...

Anon, I think the advice I've seen is, when you're querying Noah Lukeman, do it his way. Otherwise, do it everyone else's way.

Phoenix said...

Anon 2:32, in case EE doesn't chime in:

First, you spent 99 cents too much. You can get the download FREE on the agency site or from his blog.

Second, you're not querying Noah. None of us are. He probably hasn't looked at a query since 2001 or whenever he first wrote his query manual, despite the update 3 or 4 years ago. He's likely pretty far removed from all of that these days. All his clients need to write is: I am "famous celebrity" and I've written a fiction/non-fiction book. Wanna look?

Third, true, there are other agents who want it short. That's why it's a great idea to have a traditional 250-300 word query ready along with a 1-paragraph pitch and a 2-sentence hook.

When you start querying, read each agent's preference and send them what they want. If they seem insistent on short, short, short, send that version. The vast majority, though, pretty much just ask for a standard query letter and you'll send them the one you've honed to perfection here.

How do I know? I've pretty much sent queries to the vast majority :o(

Anonymous said...

Pretty much agree with what everyone else is saying. Especially that 55k words is far too short for a mystery. Hook up with the lady last week who wrote the 120k word mystery and give us two regular-sized ones.

Also especially agree about "gripping". If you've gone through the query and I'm (or an agent is) gripped, then you don't need to say it. If s/he/we are not, then saying it makes your "telling" even worse.

I think you're on the right track with the opening. Stick with present tense. Focus on the case.

vkw said...

I had exactly the same problem as Dave about the janitor. In order to work for any school these days a criminal background check with fingerprints is necessary.

But then I backed up a bit and considered the janitor could have been investigated but as long as he was never charged. It could work.

I'm also wondering why three detectives are on the one case? Then I had the problem with who in their right mind would accuse a student with special needs with murdering a teacher? What kind of motive is, "because they forced the students to confess to things they didn't do."

It's a weak motive and the suspected students are unrealistic suspects.

Anyway, start with the case and leave the details out about the detective and his co-workers.

BuffySquirrel said...

This news story gives details of all the offences Ian Huntley was allegedly involved in before he took on a janitorial role at a school, two of whose pupils he later murdered.

The idea that such a man could never become a janitor is, sadly, mere wishful thinking.

Anonymous said...

Wishful thinking, perhaps. But realistic thinking, if the story is set in the U.S. The Ian Huntley case was British.

Here in the U.S., anyone who wants to work in the public schools has to have a background check. If the police officer in the story, Harry, has access to the data that the janitor has a record, then, ipso facto, the janitor would never have passed the background check.

But that's not really the point. The point is that the query raised the question. Take it in combination with all the other questions raised (eg Why are there three detectives?). The net effect is a lack of confidence in the story. No willing suspension of disbelief.

As I said before, this author needs to practice, practice, practice.