Thursday, May 15, 2014

Face-Lift 1201

Guess the Plot

Death to All Spies!

1. Cold War espionage absurdities are brought to light in this mostly true story of Russian and American spies. Also, my sensational new theory about who really killed JFK.

2. Nine-year-old King Fredrey hates greens and allspice. When a new cook fixes the royal dinner, Fredrey spits out his food and shouts “Kale? Allspice?” But that is not the way his knights hear it. A purge of nosy people commences.

3. King Travers is sick and tired of all his best take-over-the-world plots being foiled before he's even gotten to the good parts. So, he institutes a "spy execution" program. Sounds great until his son, Prince Flanders, is arrested.

4. Sullivan was making a fair living, turning in his neighbors for their lustful thoughts and coveting. But the new Damchion has decreed that spying is a capital offense. And some of his neighbors are itching for payback.

5. Kayley loves Jason. Jason doesn't know. Bayley starts spying on him in Math to find out if he likes someone else. Turns out, he does. He loves Bayley. How will Kayley take this betrayal by her BFF?

6. From his secret hideout in the Andean volcano Lechugulla, evil mastermind Dr. Death plots the demise of the world's top spies by Tweeting them into insanity. Also, a talking white Persian cat.

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor,

I hope you will be interested in my historical novel called Death to All Spies!, which takes a wry, offbeat look at the world of Cold War espionage.

In the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, two KGB spies defect separately to the United States. Anatoly Golitsyn and Yuri Nosenko insist they want to help America. The only problem is that both of them say the other one is a fake. [Is that really the "only" problem?] Legendary CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton and his young colleague Pete Bagley have to figure out which one is telling the truth. [It's that old logic problem. Angleton can only ask one question to figure out who's the liar. Frankly, I think if you're gonna build a whole novel around a logic problem it should be the kind where you tell us the spy from Moscow prefers to eat at Borscht Bistro and the spy who drives a Yugo has never been to St. Petersburg, etc.] But the Americans quickly learn there’s more at stake than just feuding defectors. The escaped Russians bring sensational news about the Kennedy assassination and a mole in the CIA. [I'd go with "shocking" rather than "sensational." if you tell me the CIA killed JFK, I'm unlikely to say, "Why . . . that's sensational news!"]

Death to All Spies! explores the true story of a decade-long controversy that tore apart the American intelligence community. Based on extensive research into the work of Carlson and many others, the novel offers a possible solution to the still-unsolved mystery of which defector was lying. [So the defectors and Angleton and Bagley were real people. Are there also fictional characters in the book? Is it a novel rather than nonfiction only because this mystery wasn't solved? Maybe this is alternate history, a story about what might have happened if the solution to the mystery was . . . whatever you hypothesize it was? Novels are fiction. How much of your book is fiction?] By shifting perspective among the Russians and their handlers, the book reveals a tangle of personal motives and misplaced suspicions. What emerges is a quirky spy story about the absurdities of Cold War paranoia.

Anatoly Golitsyn is a hardworking intellectual who feels unappreciated in the KGB of the 1950s. In 1961 he abandons his cover job in Helsinki and flees to the West. Cerebral James Angleton, the spycatcher who quotes T.S. Eliot (and was the first to call espionage a “wilderness of mirrors”), is seduced by Golitsyn’s cabalistic vision of global Soviet deception. [When the KGB stations you in Helsinki, it's a good bet you aren't a good source of information about the KGB or anything else important. It's like if the CIA stationed an agent in  . . . Helsinki.] When Golitsyn reveals there is an unidentified mole in the CIA (code-named SASHA), Angleton falls deeper under his spell.

Yuri Nosenko is the hard-drinking womanizer whose influential father got him a job in Soviet intelligence. Working as a security officer at the Geneva disarmament conference of 1962, he secretly contacts the CIA to exchange KGB data for much-needed cash. He returns to the Soviet Union but suddenly defects after the assassination of President Kennedy. He insists he has crucial information about Soviet involvement in the crime. Nosenko’s handler is Pete Bagley, an ambitious CIA man from a proud naval family. He is stunned by the defector’s claim that the Soviet Union was not involved in the assassination. [Wait, the "crucial information" Nosenko has about Soviet involvement in the crime is that the Soviets weren't involved in the crime? Presumably that's what everyone in the Russian government would have been saying, so why does this guy saying it make it crucial information?] [That's like a German spy defecting during WWII and claiming to have crucial information about Hitler: he has no aspirations toward world conquest.] When Nosenko’s story starts to unravel, Bagley fears the Soviets have sent a false defector to spread disinformation.

[Conversation at KGB headquarters:

--We did it. We killed Kennedy.

--But now if the Americans find out we were behind it, it could mean war.

--Hmm. Let's get one of our espionage agents to defect, and tell them we had nothing to do with it.

--Yes, those gullible Americans just might buy it and try to pin it on some chump.]

Golitsyn reinforces suspicions about Nosenko. But some CIA officers suggest the self-aggrandizing Golitsyn, with his complicated conspiracy theories, has an ulterior motive. Is it possible they are both false defectors, part of an elaborate Soviet deception? Angleton, who is revered in the Agency but known to over-indulge in Bourbon, comes to blindly trust the striving Golitsyn [A legendary espionage agent blindly trusts an enemy espionage agent? What was he "legendary" for? His naivete?] and oppose Nosenko. Then Angleton has the shock of his life when his old friend, the infamous Kim Philby, is revealed to be a Soviet double agent. Shattered, Angleton redoubles his efforts to find Golitsyn’s mole SASHA. The search turns into an Agency witch hunt that paralyzes operations for years and puts loyal officers under investigation. As a result, there is a groundswell of opposition to Angleton.

Meanwhile the Warren Commission, which is investigating Kennedy’s death, wants Nosenko’s testimony. But safely in America, Nosenko has once again become an unreliable carouser. Bagley is convinced he is still under Soviet control. The Agency, in large part due to Angleton’s doubts, decides Nosenko is too much of a risk and keeps him from testifying to the Commission. Now certain that Nosenko is on a secret mission from Moscow, Bagley imprisons him indefinitely under conditions of near-solitary confinement. But Nosenko insists he is not a double agent. [If your theory is that Bagley was behind the Kennedy assassination, I'm with you all the way.]

Just when Nosenko seems doomed, a new defector vouches for him.

[Conversation at KGB headquarters:

--The Americans haven't fallen for Nosenko's lies.

--It was a long shot at best.

--Hmm. What if we send over another "defector" to vouch for Nosenko?

--Now that's thinking outside the box. The American fools will never suspect.]
To test the source, and save his career, Angleton mounts a last-ditch espionage operation. The operation backfires [cementing Angleton's "legendary" status] and the hunt for SASHA comes to nothing. Angleton bitterly regrets his faith in the blustering Golitsyn and the damage he has done to the Agency. As a result of Angleton’s weakened position, Bagley loses his battle to break Nosenko. Thanks to new allies in the Agency, Nosenko at last goes free after years in prison. When the dust settles, it appears that the two defectors are not part of a Soviet monster plot; they are simply defectors. Paranoia has led the Cold Warriors to deceive themselves.

The novel is complete at 180,000 words. Though it has an ironic perspective, the espionage plot of Death to All Spies! should appeal to fans of John LeCarre. The historical setting taps into a current revival of interest in the Cold War, as seen in Young Philby by Robert Littel, Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathon Lethem. There is a similar trend in popular TV and film projects, such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Homeland; and The Americans.

I have an MFA in Film from Columbia College in Chicago. As a film and television editor I have cut several independent films, History Channel documentaries, and the nationally syndicated Judge Mathis Show. I have written a number of screenplays and I adapted a story by Patricia Highsmith, “The Barbarians,” for a short feature which I directed. As the son of Cuban exiles, I have had a lifelong fascination with the political and cultural context of the Cold War.

[Author's note: Here is how I got my title: Smert Shpionam was the Soviet counterintelligence unit during World War II. Usually abbreviated “Smersh,” in English it means “Death to spies.”]


The query reads more like an historical account than a summary of a story. I just finished a novel by David Morrell (The Brotherhood of the Rose) that includes some historical reporting about Kim Philby et al, but the main characters are fictional. The TV show The Americans has some actual people as characters, but not as the main characters. Choosing to tell a fictional story using actual people as the main characters is tricky. We don't know what's fact and what's fiction. (Actually, what's fact is a matter of record, and some readers will call you out if your characters aren't where they were when they were there.) Going to the trouble of getting the facts right and using real people may suggest this isn't a novel so much as somewhat speculative nonfiction.

The query and the book are too long. To shorten the query, choose a main character and focus on what he wants, what he must overcome to get it, what goes wrong, and what he plans to do about it. And what happens if he fails. If this is a novel, you want us to care about the main character, not about Cold War politics. Give yourself ten sentences to set up his situation and tell us his story. First the setup:

At the height of the Cold War, two KGB spies, one a hardworking intellectual who feels unappreciated in the KGB and the other a womanizer whose influential father got him a job in Soviet intelligence, defect separately to the United States. Each claims the other is no true defector, but is working a mission. It falls upon legendary CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton to determine who is lying.

Then your story: how Angleton plans to solve the mystery, what obstacles get in the way (for instance, an underling with the gall to insist Angleton is wrong), keeping the focus on Angleton.

Most of your 3rd paragraph, preceded by "Based on a true story," would work well as a wrapup to the query.

As for the book, if you're spending a lot of words rehashing the work of "Carlson and many others," you can probably dump most of that. An historical novel starring George Washington or Claudius should get the facts about the time and setting right, but if they turn into history books about the American revolution or the Roman Empire, they may lose their appeal to novel readers. If this is all story, and not a ton of info-dumping, try to find a place near the middle that would be a satisfying ending to book 1, and make the 2nd half a sequel.


AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Writer, raise your hands slowly, and step away from the research.

This query reads as though the appeal of your novel is supposed to be all the careful research you've done. The thing is, if your potential readers wanted to know all these details, they'd go read the same books you've read.

What they want is a story. Story = character + situation/obstacle. Give us one character we can root for.

Veronica Rundell said...

Mmmph! That's one heck of a doorstop!

Too long. Book and query. Cut both. A lot.

I really couldn't tell if this was a novel, or some nifty non-fiction. It sounded very much like non-fiction from this query. Please clarify while trimming.

Maybe it's me, but I can't figure out what benefit exists in determining which of these trained liars LIED to the CIA.

In any case, you gave me FOUR dudes that carry this story, and none of them sound like a guy I'd like to spend any time knowing. So, that's a problem.

If this IS a novel, pick a protag and tell us what he does, how and why...

khazar-khum said...

After reading through that impenetrable maze of words, I've come to the conclusion that the author shot JFK.

Jorge Busot said...

I appreciate all your comments and I know, as I always feared, that the query and book are too long. The book really is not a data-dump, although the query makes it sound like that. I was going on the premise that a literary agent wants to know how the story ends. It really is a novel, in the sense that events are dramatized, but, like you, anyone I show it to wants to know how much is 'real.' I appreciate all the comments especially the one to break it up into two books. Thanks!

Cil said...

I am not really following the logic behind the name of the book. It sounds like the book is about lying spies that are just making up nonsense to save themselves. A name that reflects that instead of killing them all would suit better.

Also I thought the first two paragraphs were the query and then was confused why you started again in the third paragraph. At the moment the Query is 900 words, from my understanding it should be a third of that.

Cil said...

Oops, I read this in several parts as I was at work and missed the note on the name. So you can decide to take or leave my comment as you wish.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

It does not take a lot of words to tell how a story ends. Examples:

He dies.

They get married.

She's guilty.

They lose the war.

Anyway, the only thing you have to do in a query is make the reader want to read more. You haven't accomplished that yet.

InkAndPixelClub said...

With both the query and yor response, author, I'm left with the question of why this is a novel instead of of a work of non-fiction. You say that "events are dramatized," but I'm not sure what the benefit of doing that is here, or even quite what you mean by that. Is it dramatized in the sense that you're taking the facts and presenting them in the format of a novel? Are you adding in small details that improve the narrative flow, but don't necessarily contradict the real history, like a scene where one of the characters eats breakfast? Are you adding scenes that are not in the historical record but, based on your research and analysis of the available information, you believe to have happened? Or are you adding in some completely fictional elements to make a better story?

My big concern, aside from the length of both book and query, is that Evil Editor is correct and that calling this book fiction is primarily a shield against criticism of your theories about which spy might have been lying and the JFK assassination. If those are the only parts of your book that make it fiction and the rest is just the historical record with some embellishments t make it read like a novel, then it's really more of a theory dressed up as a novel.

I don't think it's impossible to present a theory about history in a historical novel. But usually it's done by introducing one or more fictional characters who can go places and observe things that the real people can't because we know they didn't. Then the fictional characters can piece together your theory about what really happened, though you then have to come up with a plausible reason why they didn't bring their findings to the attention of the real people in the story or why no one believed them if they did.

You use words like "wry," "offbeat," and "ironic" to describe your novel, but I don't get a sense of why it is any of those things. They all point to an element that I think is missing from this query, which is your voice as a writer. That's what's going to make this read like an exciting spy novel rather than just a regurgitation of facts and some neat theories about history. What is it that you're bringing to this story that the history books don't?

Whether you go with straight up non-fiction or historical fiction, your job in the query is to convince the editor that is is a great story, regardless of whether it is based in fact or not.

Wilkins MacQueen said...

Agree with the comments, way too long, reads hard. The query is your only sales pitch. Would you buy/pitch this if you were an editor/agent?

Good luck, rethink, carefully, a rewrite is in order.

Wilkins MacQueen

Jorge Busot said...

Thanks, InkandPixel, for a lot of good thoughts. I'm definitely working on shortening the book and improving the query which, as you said, does not really show any of the ironic aspects of my story. The other question of why this should be a novel and not non-fiction is also well-taken, because it sounds like I'm trying to refute some previous theory. But the truth is this controversy is somewhat obscure, and there are no authoritative accounts of who is right and wrong. It's all still up for debate, like a lot of CIA controversies. Given that, what fascinated me was that two defectors from the KGB arrived in America and tied the CIA in knots. That's historical but the characters involved moved things along: if Angleton hadn't been a crazy paranoid he wouldn't have believed in Golitsyn; if Nosenko hadn't been a reckless drunk maybe the CIA would have believed him. Those moments with the characters are what I'm dramatizing, and what I think will be entertaining for readers.

I realize my query does not convey all that and I have to work on it. I also realize I have to shorten the whole darn book. But I take comfort from the fact that some very satisfying historical fiction books follow the facts pretty closely. And then there is the question of "research." A lot of commenters disparaged research and putting too much of it into a book. But I kind of like reading the research in novels, and books like the Master and Commander Aubrey Maturin novels are full of it, and a lot of it is hard to follow, but it's still satisfying. Not for everyone, I know, but I think a lot of people like it.

Finally, I know (now) the query makes the issue of protagonist seem like a mess because there are four main characters. I know I have to render this better because none of them stands out, but I can't help thing about the many novels that follow several characters, telling the story without a central perspective, and leaving the reader to draw conclusions based on their interactions. A recent novel that does this is Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, which I mention in my query.

Finally (again), thank you for taking the time to think about my query. I feel like I've gotten a lot of perspective from the comments here, and I just wanted to follow up with my thoughts. Thanks again.

Evil Editor said...

There is, of course, much more room in a novel to follow several characters than there is in a one-page letter. In any case, try building your ten-sentence query around this: if Angleton hadn't been a crazy paranoid he wouldn't have believed in Golitsyn; if Nosenko hadn't been a reckless drunk maybe the CIA would have believed him.

Jorge Busot said...

Once again, good advice. Thank you Evil Editor and everyone else.