Thursday, March 07, 2013

Face-Lift 1107

Guess the Plot


1. Non-fiction treatise examining the link between the decline in the IQ of American teens (as measured by standardized testing) and increases in 'reality' TV show ratings.

2. Food tasters are supposed to prove whether a monarch's dinner is poisoned. But when both the food taster and monarch die from a slow-acting poison, it's up to Jovan, the new food taster, to find the guilty party and prove it--before he becomes the next victim.

3. Fiona lives a life of confusion, constantly taking everything literally. When told the expression 'the proof is in the pudding' she goes on a frenzied hunt through bakeries and supermarkets, buying all the puddings she can find. Will she ever find the proof she needs, or will she be arrested as a public nuisance?

4. Mark drinks a whiskey drink, he drinks a vodka drink, he drinks a lager drink, he drinks a cider drink. But when will he find the drink with the right proof? Time, and a damaged liver will tell.

5. James and Nadia stumble on a meth lab in their grandmother's basement. Grandma's side project is funding their uncle's medical treatments, but now they've discovered she's selling to kids at their school. When the lab and all its equipment mysteriously disappear, they are left wondering how to accuse grandma when they haven't any... proof.

6. Motive, opportunity, weapon, eye witnesses, forensics . . . it's all part of proving who committed a crime. But detective Saul Durbun specializes in getting justice when there's no proof to be had. Not through torture, but through trickery. This is his first case.

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor,

Tasting food for poison might not sound like the most appealing job, but proofing for the ruling Fijoldo has been Jovan's family's secret duty for over a century. [Using the word "but" leads us to expect you're going to tell us the job is appealing in some way. You don't.] [How about: Tasting food for poison has been the duty of Jovan's family for over a century.] And it's easier to memorise characteristics and symptoms when you're driven to compulsive, repetitive behaviour by a frustrating mental illness. [Not clear what that sentence is doing for you. Get rid of it.]

But his years of preparation [Training.] seem inadequate when his uncle's trained palate fails [Are you talking about Jovan's years of preparation or his uncle's? It's not clear.] and the Fijoldo dies. [Is that how food tasting works? I always thought the taster ate some of everything, and if he didn't die a horrible convulsive death or at least get a tummy ache, the Fijoldo felt safe. You're saying he has to be able to detect the presence of arsenic in a pot of spaghetti sauce?] Suddenly Jovan is the only one standing between the Heir-his best friend, Tain-and a traitor [Assassin.] armed with an undetectable poison. [If the poison is undetectable, how can you say the uncle's palate failed?] Then the capital is besieged during the funeral by the country's native people, somehow incited to rebellion. [Somehow? Is this related to the death or is it a coincidence?] Even if the city can withstand the siege, racial tensions threaten to tear it apart from inside.

Jovan, his sister Chalina, and Tain can trust only each other as they search for their enemy. The more they investigate, the more they learn about the rotten core of their beloved country and their own families, and they begin to sympathise with the native rebels. Even if they can find and stop the poisoner, breaking the siege to save the city might come at too high a cost. [The poisoner has already accomplished his goal as far as I can tell. Is there reason to believe he's a serial poisoner?]

'Proof' is a 120,000 word novel that combines elements of fantasy and suspense. Based in a fantasy setting but without a supernatural element, [Any setting can be a fantasy setting. The elements of fantasy should be fantastical, not just made-up place names. If it were set in England or Persia or Rohan would it be different in any way, other than the king or sultan would be dead instead of the Fijoldo?] Proof is a story about how three people, bound by ties of family and friendship, are tested by tragedy, danger and betrayal.

I have attached [synopsis and/or chapters, consistently with agent's guidelines]. Thank you for your consideration; I would love to hear from you.

Kind regards


Has Jovan become the new food taster now that uncle is dead (I assume uncle died from the same poison that killed the Fijoldo, but it was slow-acting poison)? Did everyone at the table die, or just the Fijoldo? I ask because Wikipedia suggests that the food taster would be responsible for preparing and serving the Fijoldo's plate (having incentive to keep the plate poison-free), thus requiring the poisoner to poison the whole pot of Bouillabaisse rather than just the target's bowl of Bouillabaisse.

Is this a murder mystery, in which Jovan must figure out which suspect poisoned the Fijoldo, and how? I'm guessing not, as that would work fine without the backdrop of a revolution. On the other hand, if the main plot is the rebellion, we're spending too much of the query on the poisoning. You could just say:

After Bullwachia's monarch is poisoned, his heir Tain must deal with a rebellion and with knowing that the poisoner may target him next. So far the army is holding off the rebellion, and as for the poisoner, Tain's best friend happens to come from a long line of professional food tasters. So all is well.

What's the deal with racial tension?

Seems like a family of food tasters would already be sympathizing with the rebel cause. It's not like food tasters are high in the hierarchy of the ruling class. It was often a job given to a slave.

I prefer "king" to "Fijoldo." And "Tain" doesn't thrill me. It sounds like a combination of stain and taint.

We can do without the sister. We can probably do without the rebellion, but I may be saying that because I like a good mystery. Or because local is more interesting than global.


Anonymous said...

I don't understand how a food taster becomes BFF with the crown prince.

I don't understand how a food taster is supposed to investigate court intrigue and unmask assassins. Isn't there a person who would serve this role--Man-at-Arms or, Grand Vizier, or something?

How old are the characters in this? (it sounds like they are youngish)

It doesn't sound like Fantasy.

Aren't the people being ruled the 'native' people, or did the Fijoldo somehow usurp the crown? If he did, why is there a revolt when the Fijoldo bites it? (Wouldn't the hordes be happy that the pretender is dead?)

Or, was he just a rotten Fijoldo and they are creating their own Arab Spring? If so, why not state that the masses revolt against the Fijoldo's oppressive regime and add more detail of how Jovan, Tain and company sympathize/change their world/unleash terror on a scale never previousy witnessed...

You might want to invest in a more descriptive title. Proof is kinda bland.

150 said...

This sounds promising, but I agree that its focus seems misplaced, and specifics are always more interesting than allusion.

BuffySquirrel said...

I have no idea what happens in this book beyond that some ruler gets poisoned. That suggests you need a different approach to your query.

Anonymous said...

Thanks EE and minions!

Ah, the challenges of explaining a very complex society in a few lines!

To clarify:

The country is ruled by a Fijoldo and a Council, and it's driven by complicated rules about honour. Having a slave or servant testing your food would look weak and dishonourable. Jovan's family is a noble family on the Council but has a secret duty binding them to protect the Fijoldo's family - they don't just eat his food and die, they train in poisons so they can detect tastes, smells, early symptoms etc. Jovan's uncle, and the Fijoldo, succumbed to a poison previously unknown to them. Jovan and Tain have reason to believe (because of the circumstances of the poisoning) that the poisoner was a member of the Council.

There are 2 racial groups in the country (I was trying to avoid using as many made up words as possible, so I didn't name them in the query). One fled their original homeland and settled on top of a less developed one, but peacefully, and built cities and the modern society, including setting up the Council etc. The indigenous people laregly now work the land, though some live in the cities (chiefly in servant type jobs). It's the indigenous farmers outside the city who are running the siege, and Jovan and Tain don't know why. The racial tension is between the two groups stuck IN the city.

I'd say the two big problems they face (someone trying to poison Tain, and the siege to the city) are equally important to the plot, and are related - ie it isn't a coincidence, the same person is behind them both, so solving the mystery and breaking the siege are kind of equal focuses.

They're not particularly young, no - late 20s. And Jovan's sister is in the query because she's a POV character so it seemed weird not to mention her, but I lacked space to say anything useful about her. Perhaps I'll just leave her out anyway.

I'm curious - is it really not OK to call it fantasy just because there's nothing supernatural in the plot? eg I'd still call say Guy Gavriel Kay's Lions of Al-Rassan fantasy, though there's no magic in it. What other genre would it be?

Thanks again for your feedback. I'll come back and try again!

Veronica Rundell said...

There's lots of conversational bits in the query that you could cut. Those words could describe the world--which hasn't been named, and the society, which is not well-defined.

If it's an honor to taste the king's food and what this family trains for--why is it a 'secret' duty? Seems everyone at court would know.

Whatever you call this work [fantasy, mystery etc] do it succinctly. 'PROOF (complete at 120,000 words) is adult [fiction or fantasy or whatever].' Save those wasted words for your plot summary.

Give us some specifics. Instead of "The more they investigate, the more they learn about the rotten core of their beloved country and their own families, and they begin to sympathise with the native rebels" give us a concrete example of A. the bad deal of the underclass and B. the reason Jovan and Tain change their minds
Example: 'Scouring the city for the poisoner, Jovan and Tain discover the brutal treament of the working class. When they are rescued from the maruading hordes by a slave girl, they witness the poverty of the ETC and begin to sympathize with their desire to be free.' I know this isn't what happens, but we shoudl understand how, logically, these two men stop being angry about the deaths of their uncle and father and the upheaval of their power, and begin to support a more egalitarian society.

What cost is too high to save the city? Their lives? Everyone's lives? Speak specifically.

AA said...

My main problem with this is, without any specifics I don't seem to care about the characters or what happens to them. It sounds very generic.

Specifics would be great, and some reason to care would be good too. The Grand Poobah dies from a new poison, and everybody believes it must be the Barbarosans because they seem to cause all the trouble, but Juvenal and his band of teen detectives think otherwise, because science.

In other words, less like a medieval episode of Scooby Doo.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

There are "fantasy" novels with no magical element, yes. The key to making them work is irresistible character- and world-building.

Also, don't tell us (or the query-recipient) that there's no magical element, because it's not really a selling point. (Picture your hypothetical agent on the phone with her favorite editor at Tor. "Yeah, it's a fantasy-- you'll love it! There's no magical element!")

In re the sister: doesn't matter if you have a dozen POV characters (well, actually it does: more than two will be a helluva tough sell). Your query only gets one.

Basically what I'm getting from this query:

Jovan is a taster, and the whatsit got killed along with J's uncle and now Jovan's friend Something is the new whatsit and Jovan has to protect him.

Jovan and Something need to find out who poisoned the old whatsit, before the culprits succeed in killing Something, too.

Meanwhile, there are ethnic tensions in the nation. An oppressed majority is planning to revolt. Jovan finds himself in sympathy with the majority. (Always a smart move.)

(Apologies for the Something and whatsit, but that's the trouble with unfamiliar names and words.)

So, as others said, we're not getting enough here to make us care. Give us a likable character with his back to the wall. The poisoning plot may do this better than the revolution does.

AA said...

Okay, look at your keyboard. I'm going to show you something.

Using T,G,V as the middle of your keyboard, look at the right side. Here are some words you can make using mostly letters on the right side:

Luminous, nominal, pillow, pollen, home, mumble, humble, pious, joining, gloaming, honey, holly, jumble, moon, book, joke, looking, lollipop, jump, human, opal, monkey.

Now, look at the left side and we'll do it again. Left-side words:

Death, fear, afraid, awed, create, wrest, two-faced, seedy, fazed, crazy, disease, dread, rave, rage, sear, raze, sweat, sex, bereave, creed, revel, distress, bested.

I bet you've never noticed that.

If you need words or names that are rogueish, regal, villianous, exciting, strong, or powerful, use letters mostly from the LEFT side of the keyboard.

Made-up words and names from the left side:
Revus, Destan, Treva, Questar, Radkor, Veridan, Zenas, Sendara, Gadzian.

If you need names that are childlike, innnocent, cute, friendly, sympathetic, or gentle use the RIGHT side primarily.

Made-up words and names from the right side:
Mijo, Molina, Pilony, Jo-Lynne, Inkho, Mikal, Nihl, Johni, Ponji.

Here are some left-side examples you've seen before: D'Artagnan, Vlad, Castle, Xena, Darth Vader.

And the right side: Ponyo, Pooh, Milo, Colin, Minnie, Lilo.

Evan said...

Whoa, cool naming trick, AA! I should try that out later.

I was all for this story when it was about poison-tasting, but when the revolution plot took over I was a bit disappointed. If the real core of the story is the revolution, then focus on that. If the poison-tasting thing is just set-up, then it really shouldn't take up more than 1-3 sentences.

If the protagonist needs to solve the poison mystery and break the siege simultaneously, because the problems are intertwined like you said, definitely make sure that's apparent in the query. As it is, there's nothing to let us know that the poisoner and the person orchestrating the siege are the same person.

You can leave out Jovan's friends, and the bit about racial tensions, and anything else not directly related to Jovan and his goals and choices. Trim down the query, and probably trim down the MS, too. Is there really 120K words worth of actual plot and character development in there? The plot's pretty sparse and there's a small cast, plus there's not all the world-building, traveling, discovery, un-Earthly concepts, etc., that usually come with a fantasy story (which this might not be).

Lastly, and this is less about the query and more about the querying process, but it's my understanding that most agents don't want you to attach anything with a query. They read the query first, then they tell you what they want (or not). And even if the agent's site clearly says to attach something with the query, you don't need to say you did that, 'cuz they can see the email has an attachment. "I would love to hear from you" is a no-brainer, why wouldn't you? Axe that stuff and you've got more words to focus on the story itself.

Mia said...

I really don't understand the relevance of your post about naming AA. What point were you trying to make exactly??

As for the query, I agree that more detail is needed and that you make it clearer that the poisoning and the revolution are connected. Trying to deal with a war while avoiding a poisoner sounds like there's a lot to work with.

Perhaps refer to the 'native' people as indigenous or something so it's clearer what's happening here. Particularly then the line about racial tensions make more sense.

I would be interested to read something like this - I read heaps of fantasy that doesn't involve magic (so I also think that's the right genre to call it).

Anonymous said...

Hey all,

Since it's so quiet here lately I was wondering whether anyone would mind taking a look at a new version of this query? It never went out - for various reasons I held off querying until now - but I'm finally ready to actually take the plunge and start submitting. So I'd appreciate your thoughts if you have any!


Protect the family. Preserve your honour. Guard your secrets. For two centuries these rules have bound Jovan’s family; in a few short weeks, he will break them all.

Anxious and methodical, an outsider to his peers in Silastian high society, Jovan is an odd counterpart to the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Their lifelong friendship hides Jovan’s true role as a ‘proofer’: a food taster trained by his uncle to protect the ruling family from poison and treachery. His duty defines his life and his loyalty to the Heir is absolute.

Jovan’s structured world unravels when his uncle and the Chancellor succumb to an unknown poison and an army of indigenous peasants lays siege to the city. Trapped and desperate, unsure who to trust, he must protect the Heir from both threats. But as he hunts the poisoner, Jovan instead uncovers the ugly truth behind Silasta’s civilised fa├žade: their society was built on the deception and oppression of the indigenous people. His enemies aren’t who he thought they were, and a traitor on the Council is manipulating them all.

Betrayed by the Chancellor and the Council, the army rejects the Heir’s attempts to broker peace and Jovan is left in an impossible position. Defeating the rebels means cementing a terrible injustice, but if the city falls he may lose the things he’s always valued most – family, honour, and his only real friend.

Evil Editor said...

Well-written. Possible nitpicks:

P1: When reading the first paragraph, one would naturally assume both uses of the word "family" refer to the same family (Jovan's). Do they? Or does the first refer to the ruling family?

P3: Delete "instead." It suggests he uncovers instead of hunting, when in fact he uncovers while hunting.

Also, I could be wrong about all of this, but I believe Brits spell it "civilised while Americans spell it "civilized." But Brits would consider an army of peasants plural while in the US you can get away with calling it singular. If that's all true, you're being inconsistent.

P4: "Cementing" seems rather permanent, which is okay if they're wiping them out (though you can find a better word than"defeating" if they're wiping them out). Otherwise "perpetuating" or "prolonging" might be better.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

I like the first paragraph a lot.

The second paragraph kind of lost me. I don't know if it's just me, but I found it a little dull; can it all be restated in one sentence?

Also, is this a dangling modifier? I'm not sure:

"Betrayed by the Chancellor and the Council, the army rejects..."

(Reason I'm not sure is I don't know if the army is betrayed or the protagonist is.)

InkAndPixelClub said...

I feel like paragraph 1 is too vague to be as interesting as it should and undercuts the last paragraph. Since I don't see Jovan breaking these rules in the course of the query, I have to assume that he breaks them later, which probably means that he sides with the native peasants.

The first setence of paragraph 2 is long and awkward. I'd start with Jovan's job and then go on to the odd fact that he's actually friends with the Heir. Also, if the proofer's job is to taste minute amounts of the royals' food that and recognize the poison from those no lethal amounts rather than demonstrating whether or not the food is safe to be eaten by living or dying after eating it, you should mention that. Most people think of a royal food taster as beng the latter.

How is their friendship hiding the fact that Jovan is a proofer?

I'd make Jovan's options at the end clearer. Yes, he now knows that his society is built on the deception and exploration of the indigenous people, but how can he actually help them?

Anonymous said...

Overall better.

Another vote for reworking the second paragraph. Part of the problem might be with the first sentence. You start with a list of descriptors, bury the subject in the middle (with a weak verb), and end with talking about something else entirely. Too much effort to parse on low sleep and a busy schedule. Do we really (for the purpose of the query) need to know anything other than that he's the heir's friend?

Hope this helps

K Hutton said...

I think it's much better! And clearer. One thing though: is it truly that Jovan never knew anything about his society's history with the indigenous people? That's seems rather strange.

In the North American context, for example, I think most people kinda *know* that Christopher Columbus was actually not that nice of a guy and that current North American society did not treat the indigenous people well. Many people may not know the specifics of just how cruel and systemic European treatments of indigenous people really were, or maybe feel like that was a long time ago and things are different now, or it's simply uncomfortable to think about and so they don't. But... I doubt that many people still believe European settlement in North American was a happy, pleasant process.

So it seems strange that Jovan would have *no inkling* that their history had violence and discrimination in it. Unless he lives in a much more controlling and totalitarian society than I thought, that allows zero contact between the higher society and anyone indigenous and has gone to great lengths to control historical records. If that's the case, I'd love to see that hinted at more.

You just want to avoid anything in your query that may lead an agent or editor to wonder if you've really thought this through--instead you want to show them you have an excellent grasp of the subtleties of portraying a society that is actively oppressing indigenous peoples.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Author here. Thanks so much everyone for your helpful and speedy responses! I really appreciate it.

Para 2 has been giving me some trouble so this definitely confirms it's the biggest problem here. I'll have a go reworking it (again, ha!). I'm trying to get the setup clear enough that readers don't get bogged down in the same questions they did with my first attempt (eg how would a taster be friends with the heir, why would Jovan feel any loyalty to the family he tastes poison for, etc). I'll give it another try and run it by you again if you'll indulge me. Thanks.

K Hutton, re the racial stuff, it's a combination of factors - some of which Jovan should have noticed (bit of ignorance of privilege) and some which no-one knew (ie things one group did to the other which they successfully buried). I'll see if I can make some of the subtlety come through.

Alaska - it's the indigenous people who were betrayed so I think grammatically it's OK, but it's obviously not written well enough if that's not clear!

EE - I'm Australian, and we use the s rather than z, but (I think) the singular for collective nouns like army - I will check that though, thanks! Might need to adjust depending on where the query goes.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

OK, here's another try. I've focussed on that clunky para 2 for starters - haven't figured out how to deal with EE's point about the 2 families in para 1. Is this better?

Protect the family. Preserve your honour. Guard your secrets. For two centuries these rules have bound Jovan’s family; in a few short weeks, he will break them all.

Jovan wears two faces. To his peers he is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, Jovan is a ‘proofer’: a food taster trained by his uncle to protect the Chancellor’s family from poison and treachery. His duty defines his life and his loyalty to the Heir is absolute.

When his uncle and the Chancellor succumb to an unknown poison and an army of indigenous peasants lays siege to the city, Jovan’s structured world unravels. Trapped and desperate, unsure whom to trust, he must protect the Heir from both threats. But as he hunts the poisoner, Jovan discovers his country has two faces as well; behind the beauty and sophistication is an ugly past built on the oppression of the indigenous people. His enemies aren’t who he thought they were, and a traitor on the Council is manipulating them all.

Betrayed by the Chancellor and the Council, the peasant army rejects attempts to broker peace, leaving Jovan in an impossible position. Defeating the rebels means perpetuating a terrible injustice, but if the city falls he may lose the things he’s always valued most -- family, honour, and his only real friend.

As always, appreciate your thoughts. Thanks all.

Evil Editor said...

Sounds good to me.

I would change "the things he’s always valued most" to "everything he values most," as those don't strike me as "things."

I don't see why Jovan must protect the Heir from both threats. The poisoner, yes, but the army of indigenous people? Aren't there people whose job it is to protect the Heir from them?

If you care to solve the "family problem" in paragraph one you can make the first rule either Protect your family or Protect the ruling family.

K Hutton said...

Agreed that this is much stronger. You've addressed my concerns about Jovan seeming TOO clueless about the indigenous people simply by not focusing on it as much (which I think is fine, we can discover the nuances in the MS.)

I do agree though that the first parag. is still confusing. Although I think for me the hangup is mroe with the use of "your."

Protect the family. Preserve your honour. Guard your secrets.

I'm fine with "preserve your honour" since that's an internal character thing, but I think "guard your secrets" should be "guard their secrets" -- since I assume these are the ruling family's secrets? It seems kind of strange otherwise since everyone will guard their own secrets, but not everyone woudl risk themselves to guard other people's secrets.

Maybe when you wrote this you intended one piece of the slogan to mean the Ruling Family, another piece to mean Jovan's Family... but honestly, if it could be applied to either, I'd say just pick this to be about 1 family and go with it. Free yourself of your original intention if it's too confusing in the query. Again, the reader will learn all about the nuances in the book.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much EE and everyone else. A few wee tweeks and I think it's almost there. I greatly appreciate your help!