Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Face-Lift 1071 Revisited

Thanks so very much for your comments and those of your minions re the query letter for my debut literary novel, THE GONE (Face-Lift 1071). I’ve noted at least one revised query on your site. I hope this means I’m allowed to resend mine for further comment. If not, well, slap my ass and call me Charlie. With the idea that less is more, the below is a stripped-down version. But if the less is too much less, or the more, superfluous, please lash me with your acid tongue. Thanks again.

Dear EE:

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.

Rent control will soon be history. The competition for housing in a rapidly gentrifying city is fierce. And no one is more impacted by the ticking clock than professional bedtime story reader, Lee Granger. If he scores new digs, he’ll be down to a diet of Ramen and toast. If he’s forced to leave town, he’ll be severing deep ties to his turf, relationships and singular work.

Then he meets Arlo, soon to be homeless as well and poised to move on. As intimacy grows between the men, Arlo understandably steers clear of attachment, while Lee copes with the implication the new friendship has for his sexual identity. But the two are helplessly drawn to each other, with little time left before launching into uncertain, and possibly separate, futures.

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 and face the repercussions of imposed decisions. (brief writing credits bio here).

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

Kind Regards,


AlaskaRavenclaw said...

This is better. Removing the cast of zany characters is a big improvement. But if I were the recipient of this query letter I'd be stopped by these three errors in succession:

1. "Emotional freefall"-- still doesn't mean anything.

2. "impacted"-- sounds like a wisdom tooth.

3. The comma between "reader" and "Lee". I blame wikipedia for that.

Reading on, I get to "singular work"-- isn't this story about community? He can work alone anywhere. (Maybe you mean original work. If so, say so. Nothing, but nothing, should snag.)

Now, as to your story... it still doesn't sound like one. The stakes are just going to be a hard sell. That apartments are getting too expensive and that this erodes community could be a subplot or the backdrop of your story, but as a plot... well, you would need to show us that this was really high stakes, and you haven't done that.

Is there perhaps a story in his relationship with Arlo?

I'm not sure if you've taken this novel to a workshop or a critique group. If you have, and they all said it was wonderful, then... well, I only suggest this because it's what I had to do myself. Find another critique group.

Anonymous said...

Better query structure, but the writing style needs polishing. Parts are passive(building is sold, rent control will be history, competition is fierce), there are throat-clearing words at the start of several sentences (Then, But), and some of the language seems forced ("no one is more impacted ... than ... Lee). He's just as impacted (an awkward word) as many other neighbors, no?
The relationship with Arlo -- to me that's the main stakes/choice/conflict, not whether to leave town or pay more rent. The real estate issue is the frying pan, not the meat, in my humble opinion.

Evil Editor said...

P1: Delete "find themselves in emotional freefall as they".

P2: Your explanation for why "no one is more impacted than Lee" is that he'll either have less money to spend on food, or he'll be separated from his turf. Isn't this true of everyone in the building? Why have we chosen Lee to focus the book on? Is his story the most fascinating one, or was he chosen at random? What happens? Possibly if he's forced between the sheets of his customers to stay in the city, as suggested in the original, that's worth mentioning.

If you don't mention his customers, you might consider leaving out the professional bedtime story reader line. It may be the most intriguing thing in the query, but it's distracting from the story if it's on an island by itself.

Mister Furkles said...

Something is missing in your query. My brother-in-law was evicted after an earthquake damaged the apartment building he lived in. It was rent controlled but he simply moved in with a friend until he found another situation. That's what people do. For 99 percent of us, it is a major annoyance.

You must show us why it is a life altering problem for Lee. I'm guessing that he suffers from something like metathesiophobia -- fear of change – or agoraphobia -- fear of angora sweaters. Okay, it's fear of open spaces, crowds, or leaving a safe place. This kind of thing can be traumatic and it can be a great story.

Trouser Pilot said...

Writer of THE GONE here. Thanks again for all the time and thoughtfulness put into your comments, folks. If anyone cares to reply to the below, I'm still all ears.

Guess I thought the idea of having your apartment building sold "out from under you" just might put you in emotional "freefall"--kind of like if someone kicked a ladder out from under you, you'd be SOMEthing--airborn, in freefall, what have you. But it doesn't sound like this bit of figurative language is working, so I'd be happy to send it on its naughty way.

Yes, Lee is the main character. How many people do you know read bedtime stories to "pampered adults" i.e yuppies (eliminated language from first draft) for a living? I dunno--thought it was something different enough to pull him into the lead as key player.

I was told I should also eliminate mention of the other characters who are "impacted"--not their wisdom teeth, but they themselves--by this turn of events and just focus on Lee, so I did. But now I'm hearing, "Why is his plight more important than the others who are losing their homes as well?" It isn't. He just happens to be the POV dude. Nonetheless, I get why making him seem more affected by this event begs further questions.

Here's the real-life crux of the matter, folks. Where I live, thousands of people have been forced from the city--that means, from their families, friends, jobs--because they can no longer afford to live in a city with a dizzying rise in the cost of living, and where they've been suddenly faced with losing their homes. That's right--just like Lee and his neighbors. I thought I expressed that conflict in the first sentence of the query, without over-explaining. But if I'm still getting responses like, "What's the big deal? Just get another apartment," I'm failing to relay the enormity of this event for these roman a clef characters. If it doesn't feel like there's inherent drama or conflict in this situation, then I'd better get my heinie to the dictionary and revisit these words.

So, I've over-explained here just to set up the idea of the conflict in the story--that includes, by the way, falling in love in the middle of a huge life upheaval, just as sometimes happens in real life (see Arlo). All this set-up is obviously something I can't do in a brief query. I admit to being not a stellar letter writer, but I do write a pretty darned good book. Quandary? You tell me. That's why I've come here. You're all great. Well, and, I have a bright red masochistic streak.

So, to wrap it up (cue deafening applause), here's what I'm inferring from you-all: My stripped-down query letter is technically a better query structure. But I've stripped it down so much I'm not getting across fundamental ideas. Ditto the quandary.

Thanks again, if anyone's still out there (cue chirping crickets).

Mister Furkles said...


If the story takes place in a city where people are emotionally bound to their neighborhood, you should include that place in the query. Americans have no qualms about moving for jobs or cultural opportunities. For Europeans, it is a little more difficult but only a little. I've known people who get culture shock when leaving Texas for Oklahoma – but it's not a crisis.

If the city or neighborhood is inhabited by people who can't bear the thought of moving away, then the locale is a 'character' in the story and should be included in the query. It might make all the difference in selling your novel because readers love learning about other places and cultures.

We 'Murikans relate to stories about murder, war, or romance. But moving to another neighborhood or city is no big deal. Please show us why it's a big deal for Lee and his friends.

150 said...

This might be good or bad, TrouserPilot*, but everything you explained in your last comment came through more-or-less intact in the query. The problem is, like, AK said, low stakes. Lee loses an apartment that he used to be able to afford...so he moves somewhere he can still afford and finds a new bunch of neighbors. New love comes at the wrong time...so the two work it out and make sacrifices, or he finds love again in a couple months or a year. Lee's not losing anything he can't replace in kind. I get that it's a quiet novel, but I don't see a character arc worth following.

Since "professional bedtime story reader" has no bearing whatsoever on the eviction plot, it's totally uninteresting to me. So he'll have to either commute farther or get a different boring job. Okay.

So what does Lee do to save his house? Anything?

Fairly often, you'll see an agent blog mention how rare it is they'll take on cancer survivor memoirs and how hard they are to sell. Obviously, cancer is a huge thing to overcome. In the survivor's life, it's got all the inherent drama and conflict and enormity you'd want--and then some. But they don't usually make good, salable books because they're such a common story in real life. Gorgeous writing or an additional interesting element can save them (and this), but I don't see it in the query.

*"Cap'n, there a wheel sticking out of your trousers?" "Aye, and it's drivin' me nuts!"

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Trouser P., speaking to you here as a lifelong liberal, off-and-on p'litical activist, and author.

What you just described in your last comment sounds like it'd make a great essay. Mother Jones might buy it; if not, perhaps In These Times. Or it could make a terrific blog.

Not a novel.

Most of the novelists I know are lefties. But that's true of the entertainment industry as a whole. Nonetheless, you have to follow the loose "rules" of your art form or you aren't entertaining, you're just making noise.

Sure, political concerns get into our stuff. The more we care about an issue, the more likely it is to get in.

But it's not plot.

Yes, the problem may be that you've failed to convey why this is high stakes. But more likely the problem is that it isn't high stakes, in fictional terms. Nor, probably, in personal terms in the life experience of the people who are commenting. We've all had much worse things happen to us.

A novel isn't really the right medium to draw attention to a socio-political concern. If said concern is in the novel at all, it has to take a backseat to character and plot.

(Btw, the only political novel in American history that has ever had a noticeable impact on the issue it addressed was Uncle Tom's Cabin. Some people would argue for The Jungle, but food safety laws weren't what the author was shooting for. At all. They were just what he got.

Uncle Tom's Cabin had sky-high stakes.)

150 said...

And my comment is full of typos. >:( I blame the strain of trying to guess the Captcha correctly.

Trouser Pilot said...

Thanks again, ya Minions ya...

With this latest round of comments I can see even more clearly what's not coming across. Try this. Lee has lived in his apartment for 20+ years. His neighbors are all long-termers—one, even much longer. If this length of tenancy sounds freakish to you, it's the reality for many here. These are the very people who are targeted by real estate speculators to be given the heave-ho because of their rent-controlled tenancy. In other words, it's become somewhat of a crime to live as a tenant too long in one place. Many of these people are also low-income, like the characters in my book, which drastically limits their freedom of choice in finding new homes.

If you, like Lee, have put down deep roots in your 'hood, and the neighbors you have, including your decade-plus girlfriend, have become your found family, then it's not merely an annoyance to pick up and start fresh somewhere else and leave these people behind. This has happened to tons of folks I've known—“The Gone,” as it were. If you have no personal experience with being forced from your long-term home, consider yourself lucky. If you’re young (or better yet, wealthy) and not so attached to a place, or have freedom of mobility, you might not understand what it feels like to face profound separation anxiety with your home. Maybe these reasons are why this idea isn't resonating with you guys. But yes, I can see in my current bare-bones query why the stakes don't seem as high as they should. Back to the drawing board. If I’m able to inject this sense of urgency into a 250-word or so query letter, and no one still thinks this is the stuff of interesting drama, then it sounds like my story just isn’t for you (as a side-note, I have gotten a request for a full from one agent, but obviously my query letter could snag more interest than it has after submitting it to 10 or so agencies, which is why I’m here).

By the way, as one commenter seemed to suggest, the novel isn't just a polemic about housing rights, etc., though this issue is the background to character and plot. I could be wrong, but I thought literature's function was to either reflect our humanity back to us, or delve into social issues that are often ignored. Even better if it's a double-whammy, perhaps. My opinion. Novels that were mentioned, like Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Jungle (btw, a friend of mind became a vegetarian after reading this book) were needed for their times. Might I add The Grapes of Wrath, or "almost anything by Dickens," as EE pointed out? Dozens of others come to mind. I believe that literature should be thought-provoking, which doesn’t always = entertaining. Entertainment belongs most often to other worthy genres, like commercial fiction.

Once again, thanks for all your help and attention to detail, Minions. The tinkering sound you hear is me starting from scratch.

BuffySquirrel said...

If readers don't find your novel sufficiently entertaining actually to read it, no thoughts will be provoked. By and large, people don't read Dickens nowadays because they care passionately about the social issues of the C19th.

150 said...

Seriously, TP: we get it. We get that the forced move is devastating to Lee. Your last comment added nothing. You can keep adding modifiers to how very, very, VERY sad Lee is about moving, but it is not making the book sound any more interesting.

I repeat: What does he DO ABOUT IT?

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

TP, yeah, you are wrong about the purpose of literature. The purpose of literature is to entertain. It may provoke thoughts; that's one of the ways it entertains. But as BS says, if it doesn't entertain, no thoughts will be provoked.

%^$&, I can't see the number on the Captcha at all. I don't think there is a number there.

Trouser Pilot said...

I read John Dos Passos or Leo Tolstoy to learn something about social injustice or the human condition, not to be entertained. If I'm entertained along the way, great. If not, I've been educated.

I read Stephan King solely to be entertained, which is an equally wonderful experience.

Both of these inform my writing, with the former being primary. Since this isn't coming across in my query, I'm going back to the drawing board, as I've said.

After receiving your many thought-provoking, though not necessarily entertaining, comments, I've actually learned something that will help me proceed.

Thanks again, folks.

Mister Furkles said...


Show the inner conflict Lee must deal with. What choice does he face? Who or what (other than eviction) stands in his way? What consequences does he face in any choice he makes? Don't love your characters too much; make them suffer.

My guess is that it is in the novel. Now show it in the query.

BuffySquirrel said...

If I want to learn about social injustice, I read the paper. Of course, it's not invariably written by aristocrats. Maybe that's the problem.

Trouser Pilot said...

That's funny. I read the paper to be entertained--since it's filled with hilarious inaccuracies and stunning lies--but never to learn about social injustice.

Evil Editor said...

Some people may read Tolstoy to learn about social injustice, but are people going to purchase The Gone in hopes of learning about social injustice? Only if the publisher's back-cover copy says, If you want to learn something about social injustice, specifically how a guy is forced to move when his apartment building goes condo, this is the book for you.

Now if the building is bought by the Lord of the Vampires, and he wants everyone out so he can store his minions' coffins in the building, you get your social injustice plus an entertaining plot.

Trouser Pilot said...

Yes, EE, this is what I've begun to suspect. Since my book is free of vampires, aliens or corpses, that simply leaves a story about real life people going through real life upheavals. The stakes aren't high enough, as one Minion said. Vampires? Stakes? I get it.

So, off I go in search of my audience.

Thanks again.