Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Face-Lift 1204

Guess the Plot

The Downwinders' Secret

1. Seth Thomas Bulova's life-long fascination with horology led to his creation of a watch movement that could control time itself, simply by winding it backwards! Unfortunately, his discovery remained known but to him because no one knew what "winding a watch" meant anymore.

2. Everyone in town knows where Bleu is, at any given moment. You have to, if you want to live. Bleu’s renowned for his ability to cut one loose, to let her rip, to cut the cheese; and if you’re in the flight path, your life isn’t worth a toot. So they rigged the whole town to revolve, at a moments notice. Naturally, it was gas powered. Then the machinery broke. Also, fans. Lots of really big ones. And miles of extension cords.

3. Val owns a strip club that features windup women instead of real ones, and none of his patrons can tell the difference. When Marta, the only woman who knows how to wind the women down, is murdered, can Val figure out her secret to save his growing business?

4. Josh and Janet Downwinder buy the Barnett Funeral Home. They offer full services including headstones, burial service, and cremation. One day the police exhume a body previously declared as a suicide. The coffin contains bones but not human bones. They check cremated remains and find those, too, are not human. What happened to the human remains?

5. Suppose your great grandfather lived downwind from a nuclear test site in the 50s. Suppose he was later experimented on by a scientist using alien genetic material from Roswell, which gave him interesting powers. Suppose those powers were passed down to you on your 16th birthday. Could you bring down a secret military installation and save all the children in town? Okay, but what if you had a ghost helping you? 

6. When Johnny's dad decides his son is ready to hunt--it's time to load up the pickup with camo, shotguns and shells. It's killing time! The trick to a successful hunt is a sensitive nose and never walk upwind of the bean eaters. Bush's beans is excellent bait and a downwinder's secret for a good kill.

7. Aedan was a handsome enough lad, if a little thick. But he did have talent. He could cause the bearings on a self-winding wristwatch to freeze up, just by looking at it. Fishing reels were known to explode into an infinity of snarls, whenever he walked by. And every time he went to a game, baseball pitchers collapsed into quivering blobs of emotion before they could even release the ball towards the plate. Now if he could only figure a way to cash in on his power.

8. A lad from County Down wanted to throw a Frisbee around with his dad. His dad threw the Frisbee with the wind, and way too far. By the time the lad had returned, his dad was gone. The only things he’d left behind were a weather vane, and some moth-eaten sweaters. What was the Downwinders Secret? (And could it possibly be any more boring?)

9. In occupied France, a small band of resistance fighters, the Downwinders, using a device to intercept Nazi communications, discover that the Furher himself will be traveling through Alsace. An assassination mission will surely be a suicide mission, but Marcel is willing to take that risk. But when some of their band are captured, can he trust that they'll keep their secret?

Original Version

Dear Evil Agent:

I am currently seeking representation for my 80,000 word YA supernatural thriller, The Downwinders' Secret. The minute Charlie Pierce turns sixteen, strange things begin to happen. [How strange?] Really strange. [Such as?] A grueling run that normally takes her ten minutes only takes her two. [That's what happened to the Flash. Except there was a perfectly logical reason the Flash gained the ability to run impossibly fast. Turning sixteen doesn't do it for me.] She pulls an unconscious boy out of the local reservoir and revives him only to find out he drowned there over a hundred years ago. [At last his parents can get closure.] A Basque Goddess no one even remembers anymore shows up to warn her that the children of her town are in grave danger. [How does that go?

Charlie: What the--? Who are you?

Goddess: I'm a Basque Goddess.

Charlie: Which Basque Goddess?

Goddess: One of the more obscure ones. You wouldn't remember me. I came to tell you the children of your town are in grave danger. 

Charlie: As it happens, I'm one of the children of this town. Luckily I recently developed the ability to run a marathon in five minutes. See ya.]

And the man she's thought was her father her whole life commits suicide and tells her [--in his suicide note--that] she's part of some freaky government experiment – in a note. [Does Charlie have the power to bring the dead back to life? If not, does she have any power besides fleeing really fast?]

Above ground nuclear testing was a real threat to the lives of and well being of those living in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico in the '40s and '50s. The wind blew radioactive fallout for hundreds of miles. Those unlucky enough to be in its path were called “Downwinders”. The government first denied conducting tests, then denied the possibility that the tests could be causing health problems, for decades. After years of court battles, they finally were forced to take responsibility. [What's going on? You need to focus on Charlie.] In Williams, Arizona, the setting for this story, there are still flyers in the local clinic offering free testing and medical care for Downwinder families.

It turns out that at [the] same time the nuclear testing was going on a renegade scientist stole genetic material he obtained from the investigation at Roswell New Mexico and used it to experiment on a bunch of hapless privates at the local army base. Charlie's great-grandfather, among others. It made him immune to the effects of the nuclear testing, [The whole second paragraph was an info-dump about the nuclear testing, and now you tell us the great grandfather was immune? Skip the fallout and jump to the aliens.] and also gave him some interesting abilities. Which he passed down. Turns out, there were five other local young men who were also experimented on. They formed a secret society. The Downwinders. It's been under Charlie's nose all along, just waiting for her to see. [Odd that they would call themselves the Downwinders when, of the thousands of actual downwinders, these six are the ones who were immune to the effects of being downwind.]

Now it's up to Charlie, her friends, a hundred year old ghost, and their great grandparents to defeat a secret military installation, a heartless doctor and figure out their own powers in time to save the town's children. All without letting anyone know they're part alien, of course.

Thanks for your time and consideration. I would be happy to send you sample chapters or the full manuscript at your request.


I expect some backstory in a query, but I expect it to be backstory about the main character, not her great grandfather.

You suggest that the man Charlie thought was her father wasn't really her father. Where's her father? If you're gonna pass "abilities" on to your daughter, you might at least stick around to help her learn to control them. If he's dead, why isn't Charlie in the care of her mother or her grandparents or her great grandparents or a foster family instead of this imposter?

Who is this guy who's been posing as Charlie's father all these years? Seems like after volunteering to raise the real father's kid, he could wait till she's gone off to college before killing himself. Or at least inform Charlie's living relatives that he's checking out.

It seems kind of odd that you put so much effort into providing a scientific basis for Charlie's powers in a world that includes ghosts and goddesses. Does this goddess do anything besides warn Charlie about the grave danger? Does she elaborate on what the danger is? Why can't the goddess save the children? Do we really need a long-forgotten Basque Goddess in this story?

You waste two paragraphs explaining how Charlie got her powers. You could have told us in the first sentence: Thanks to a government experiment involving alien genetic material, Charlie Pierce's great grandfather developed interesting powers, powers which have now been passed down to Charlie. That leaves plenty of room to tell us what Charlie's powers are, what's threatening the children, why Charlie and company need to take down this modern-day secret military installation, how they plan to do this, what happens if they fail...

Strange that I'm willing to buy the idea that having alien genetic material passed on to you can give you amazing powers, but not that those powers would remain dormant sixteen years and then appear on your birthday.


Mister Furkles said...

It is about twice too long. Cut out everything but the basics. Get it down to about 60 words. Then consider things that make it interesting. Bring it back to 250 or fewer words.

Here are a few things that are not critical to the query:
- You need not to say you seek representation—why else would you query?
- 'Strange things' is too vague; 'Really strange' is redundant.
- That her father isn't and commits suicide; that the experiment is 'freaky'.
- The whole paragraph about nuclear testing.
- The old ghost—and why not a young ghost?
- Dump the list of what they must do but do say what they must save the children from. (Do not keep secrets in the query.)
- You need not say that you can send the manuscript.

How is this for a query:
“My novel Fuddy Duddy is 100,000 words but I don't want your representation and don't ask for chapters 'cause I won't let you have them.”

Cil said...

The idea of a renegade scientist jars me slightly. The amount of money you need to have to run a research lab is huge. If the scientist is pulling the money out of his own pockets, I would suggest a mad scientist with plans for world domination (which isn't what I am getting from the query). If the scientist is working for an evil organization, then it might be better stated as an unscrupulous scientist stole genetic information and sold it to evil organization X for bundles of dollars and continued doing unethical experiments.

When you rewrite, if you simplify this bit to "she discovers her powers are due to unethical experiments carried out on her great grandfather," it would avoid the issue. Also spell out that it is aliens, if evil hadn't mentioned it I would have assumed it was mutant DNA from the fall out.

When you mentioned a Basque goddess I guessed the book was set in the Basque country. Are there possibly North American gods that would fit better? Or does the character have Basque lineage?

debhoag said...

Evil, once again, I worship at your Birkenstocks. Minions, thanks, so much! Thanks for helping me pare it down.
Gettin' busy

InkAndPixelClub said...


Something to focus on while you are reworking this query is connecting all or at least some of the elements in the story. Usually when I read a query which begins with a list of strange things that are happening to the protagonist, I expect it to all have a unified explanation that is key to the story: the main character is a wizard, the town is haunted, the annual weredingo migration is starting, or what have you. The way the query reads now, I don't see any connection between the forgotten Basque goddess, the ghost boy, Charlie's adoptive dad's suicide, and Charlie's ability to run really fast. (Is this her only power or the only one you mentioned? If it's the latter, you may want to lay out Charlie's other powers so it's clear you know what they are and won't just invent new ones to get her out of trouble.) This needs to feel less like a collection of weird things coincidentally happening around the same time and more like one interconnected story.

SB said...

So basically it's a story about a girl who has alien DNA that gives her superpowers because her great-grandfather was experimented on, and she has to fight an evil organization that's somehow threatening kids. I don't really get how the whole "downwind" thing is really very relevant to that.

debhoag said...

There are two plot lines that converge to create the present crisis in the book, one of which involves a local Basque family and an event that caused the the ghost to be 'ghosted' a while back and the other that involves the alien dna and the nuclear testing. It's the exposure to the nuclear fallout that activates the alien dna inside the subjects in the 1950s, after the government has already given up on the tests. And Charlie's powers are a general enhancement of all her physical abilities: speed, hearing, vision, strength, agility, along with an ability to connect the other effected Downwinders, each descended from one of the original test subjects. What makes it fun, and a challenge, is that Williams is actually my hometown, and I'm writing the fantasy bits (albeit really, really loosely) within the perimeters of reality. My own, twisted version. Mwah ha ha. I expect to be attacked with pitchforks and shovels anytime now. Actually, the local librarian and head of the historical society is helping me verify some of the background stuff. Cause she's cool like that. :)

K Hutton said...

"There are two plot lines that converge to create the present crisis in the of which involves (...) an event that caused the the ghost to be 'ghosted' a while back and the other that involves the alien dna and the nuclear testing. It's the exposure to the nuclear fallout that activates the alien dna inside the subjects in the 1950s."

I would actually interpret this as 3 storylines: one with ghosts/current threat to kids, one with nuclear fallout and one with genetic alien DNA that gives people powers. They may converge, but right now they don't NEED to be in the same story, which is why the query feels muddled to me.

Why does nuclear fallout have to trigger the alien powers? Your characters could just as easily have powers from simply being part-alien. That's enough of a premise. Unless aliens coming to Roswell is directly related to WHY there was nuclear fallout, you're smooshing together two topics that I'm sure you find very cool, but don't really need to go together. It's making the plot more complicated, but not necessarily better.

Also, are the ghosts and kids at threat directly tied to the nuclear fallout/alien powers, i.e. it's the ghosts of the dead aliens wreaking havoc (or something)? If Big Bad threatening kids doesn't have a direct correlation to the aliens (instead, Charlie just uses her alien powers to stop the Big Bad) then that's also going to make your subplots feel like they're competing against each other, rather than illuminating various aspects of the Main Plot.

If your plotlines do, in fact, all directly stem from the same single event, I would make that as clear as you can in the query, and make it clear what's the main story and what are the supporting subplots.

A good way to experiment might be to make the ratios in your novel mimic the ratios in your query. If your Main Plot takes up 60% of the scenes in your novel and the 2 subplots take up 30% and 10% respectively, try using roughly 150 out of 250 words in a query for your main plot, 75 words for the bigger subplot and 25 words for the smallest subplot. See where that gets you, and I'd suggest erring on the side of more words for the Main Plot over the other way around.

Good luck!

debhoag said...

Nice, K Hutton. Thanks

K Hutton said...

For the record, I'm hoping for dead alien ghosts.