Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Face-Lift 1071

Guess the Plot

The Gone

1. We hear plenty about the experiences of teenaged mothers-- but this haunting, gritty non-fiction narrative chronicles the trials and tribulations of six teenaged fathers. 

2. A personalized review of your 401K and pension plan over the last decade.

3. Keeping a vow they made 45 years ago, six zoned-out stoners meet on Fisherman's Wharf and provide meandering accounts of their lives, loves, and drug experiences.

4. Professional bedtime story reader Lee Vipond suddenly finds his home gone when a real estate speculator buys his apartment building and evicts him.

5. Felipe, Hambone and Lucas all join Occupy San Bernardino, figuring they'll meet girls, score some pot, play drums, and camp in the park. Everything is fine, until some lady from TV interviews Hambone. Now Lucas's dad wants to know why he isn't in class, Baby Smiley wants to know why Felipe is with that gringa, and Hambone's mother has no idea who the hell he is.

6. In the darkened pantry of the old Moore house, naught but shadows and cobwebs can be found. The cupboards sit hollow on the walls, vacant as eyesockets in a rotted skull. The refrigerator ... also empty! Am I the only one who goes food shopping around here?!?

7. After a 3 day binge in celebration of the first request for her novel by an actual famous literary agent, Janice wakes up, has 6 cups of coffee, and prepares to email the manuscript. OMG. What happened? Some evil drunk went wild and replaced the file with X-rated smut.

8. In a post-apocalyptic world, three quarters of the world's population die from the go-away bombs of the Go-Away War. Their spirits remain in other dimensions. They see into the remaining real world but can only interact with each other. They quarrel then form into factions which make war on each other.

Original Version

Dear EE:

As a post-dotcom tale of working-class tenants caught in the crosshairs of real estate speculation, my debut literary novel THE GONE explores a topic woefully ignored in fiction. [Considering the vast quantity of fiction published every year, I don't see how anyone can know that a topic has been ignored. If anyone does know, it's probably the person to whom you're writing, so there's no need to state it.]

Ex-gardener Lee Vipond reads bedtime stories by the hour to pampered adults. [By the hour? If I'm reading you a bedtime story and you're still awake after ten minutes, I'm turning on the audiobook and going downstairs to watch The Daily Show.] His upstairs lifer girlfriend, Jane, puts herself through acupuncture school slinging hooch at the neighborhood dive, while her mumblecore teenaged son, Shaun, holes up with his formerly-homeless boyfriend, the obsequious Cody. [We once did a writing exercise whose challenge was to write a 250-word piece of fiction that used the words "Acupuncture," "hooch," "mumblecore," "obsequious," "upstairs," and "homeless." No one could do it. And you managed it in one sentence.] And everyone’s favorite abuela, Mrs. Padilla, manages a derelict corner store. [I don't see "derelict" as a good adjective to apply to a store. "Abuela" should be italicized to alert those who of us who don't know the meaning that we might need to use a foreign-language dictionary. My research reveals that "mumblecore" is a film genre. And I don't see that any of these words is improving the query. Never give me the choice between looking something up or moving on to another query.] But when their apartment building is sold out from under them and they’re faced with eviction, this cohesive band of neighbors find themselves in emotional freefall as they scramble to find new homes in a city they can no longer afford.

No one appears more impacted by the ticking clock than Lee. Accustomed to merely cracking storybooks in the bedrooms of strangers, urgency and need now place him between the sheets of “big tipper” clients. Meanwhile, he struggles to keep his unraveling neighbor family intact in the only true home he’s ever known, or be forced to leave town in a diasporic flight. ["Diasporic" seems a bit overboard to me. Like calling a dozen deaths from West Nile Virus a Holocaust.] Then he meets Arlo, and the growing intimacy between the two men triggers a seismic shift at the core of Lee’s identity, finally propelling him toward his uncertain future. [It seems to me that the loss of his home has already propelled him toward an uncertain future, while his new relationship might make his future a bit less uncertain, especially if Arlo has a stable life. Unfortunately, we don't know, as you tell us nothing about him, even though he seems to be the main force for change.]

As an urban dweller, and having myself weathered a no-fault eviction, I bring to THE GONE an insider’s view of what it’s like to unexpectedly lose one’s home in a financially challenging time. Not an uncommon modern story, I’ve yet to find this wrenching experience of loss and discovery given voice in literature. [With the possible exception of almost everything written by Charles Dickens. Also, The House of Sand and Fog.]

THE GONE is complete at 134, 000 words. Thanks for taking the time to review my query.

Kind Regards,


If Lee is your main character, focus on him. We don't need a tidbit of information about each of his neighbors. Just refer to his neighbors as his neighbors. The long paragraph could be condensed to something like:

When their apartment building is sold out from under them and they’re faced with eviction, a cohesive band of neighbors find themselves in emotional freefall as they scramble to find new homes in a city they can no longer afford. No one is more impacted by the ticking clock than professional bedtime story reader Lee Vipond.

Now you have plenty of room to tell us about Arlo and what happens after he shows up and after the evictions.

Few people will want to read an entire book about a character whose last name is Vipond. Come up with a better name. I suggest you choose from among Granger, Charles and Bandicoot.


Dave Fragments said...

I don't think that a writer can sell any novel in same voice and style that it was written. I think that Queries are a special, all to themselves, style of writing.

This query also leaves the reader with too many questions. For example: What is bedtime reading for adults? Why is the neighborhood dive a dive? Obsequious teen Cody is kind of Euuw! Derelict corner store (does it sell forbidden items? Is it trashed and lacking stock?), Impacted by a ticking clock (take Ex-lax), Between the sheets of big tippers (50 shades of diddling, a sex romp?), a wrenching experience of loss and discovery (packing and moving from one apartment to another? seriously?), a seismic shift (they have them in California all the time), and one last poke at ya -- propelled toward an uncertain future (a beanie hat with propeller or quite possibly the impossible propeller sticking out his butt, twirling away with him on skates.)

I apologize for the snarkiness. It's not how to win friends and influence people.

The query is a selling document that requires simple, plain and mostly declarative language.

Changing apartments and moving into another apartment or your own home is considered one of the most emotionally and mentally disruptive and angst-ridden tasks. Being forced to move is even more jarring. That's the driver for revealing the characters and their lives. EE has a good starting place for the query.

I don't believe in writing queries with opening questions or with introductory paragraphs. In this case, I like EE's line or something like it as the first line -- "Being forced to move from their apartment building by developers, five tenants scramble to maintain jobs, friendships, and reason in their daily routines." Then add specifics about how each person is changed by the event.

John Steinbeck said...

O Rly?

khazar-khum said...

The people in the apartments sound less like a cohesive group than a Collection of Colorful Characters. That seems to be required for these types of novels, along with the MC's quirky career.

Is this a rent-controlled building? A decaying mansion? A bunch of flats over a shabby downtown? Why are long-term tenants getting the boot?

And then there's Arlo, who is either a lover, a stablizer, or an enabler. Care to give us a hint?

sarahhawthorne said...

I like the idea of this - a community losing their homes in one fell swoop is a great starting point. But then... well, it just kind of disintegrates into confusion. I'm not even sure what the tone of the book is. Absurdist comedy? Sentimental coming-out story?

You also have some word use issues. I spend a longtime puzzling over 'upstairs lifer girlfriend' before I realized this was neither a Downtown Abbey reference not a New Age religion. And 'mumblecore' is a film genre which actually makes it a noun, not an adjective one can apply to a person. (You wouldn't say 'my noir neighbor' or 'my romantic comedy niece.')

Good luck...

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Actually, the plot sounds a lot like that of an earnest little play I saw in Pittsburgh circa 1989. It's best to accept from the git-go that no plot is new; what we can bring to what we write is a fresh voice and a new outlook.

Writer, I'm afraid this query is going to garner rejections because of the word choice and sentence structure, both of which snag the reader constantly like hangnails on flannel sheets. Here are a few examples (besides those mentioned by EE):

"pampered adults" -- to anyone who grew up with several younger siblings, the image conjured up by this phrase may not be what you intend.

"lifer girlfriend" -- my first thought was that she was a convict. (Sure, I figured out what you meant. But my *first* thought was the wrong one.)

"slinging hooch" -- Hash is slung. Hootch, if slung, splashes all over the walls and floor.

"emotional freefall" -- conjures up images of weightlessness.

"No one appears more impacted" -- appears to whom?

"seismic shift" -- conjures up images of earthquakes. (The problem with using excessive figurative language like this is it takes the reader away from the world you're trying to create in his/her head. Sure, maybe you wanted the comparison to an earthquake. But it sets me to thinking about earthquakes I've been in , earthquakes I've read about... I'm no longer thinking about your story.)

You also have a couple of dangling modifiers, to wit:

"Not an uncommon modern story, I’ve yet..."

"Accustomed to merely cracking storybooks in the bedrooms of strangers, urgency and need..."

Now it may be completely unfair to assume that this kind of error pervades the manuscript. But I'm afraid during the one minute (tops) that an agent spends on your letter, he or she will assume that.

I also second k-k's first paragraph.

Jo-Ann S said...

My sense is that you're trying to do too much in the query and cramming as much detail as possible, and the result is a confusing list of what you believe makes your story unique.
Your secondary characters sound like they're competing for attention, by trying to out-quirk each other. For this reason, its coming across as ahotch potch rather than a cohesive story. As the others have suggested, try to focus on a single plot thread.
And I had the same response to the 'lifer' girlfriend comment as Alaska did.

I think there's an interesting, muli-layered plot in there. Keep going!

Mister Furkles said...

Mostly I agree with the other minions.

Here are recommendations from agent Suzie Townsend's website.

-- Mention only two or three main characters. – You over did it with characters.

-- Avoid too many plot points. – You have too many and none is critical. There is no real risk in your story. It starts with an ordinary minor low point and appears to go nowhere. If anything happens you must tell us.

-- Leave character backstory out of the query. – Your query is mostly character backstory.

-- Don't use too many unfamiliar terms – Others already noted this problem.

-- Be concise.

-- Use short sentences. – You have some sentences that seem a bit large for a query.

-- Make it as easy to read as possible.

Also 133000 words is high for a first published novel.

Here are the things you should include:

Who is the main character? – I guess it is Vipond.

What does he want or need to do? – So far he just needs an apartment.

Who or what is preventing him from getting it?

What are the risks either way?

If it is just depressing but nothing really happens, nobody will want to read it. Make the story compelling.

Chicory said...

The query comes across as if you're trying a too hard to be literary. You say you lived through a forced evacuation and it was gut-wrenching. Tell us about hte story in YOUR words -not the dictionary's.