Monday, January 11, 2016

Face-Lift 1295

Guess the Plot

The Mysterious Death of Mr. Phelps

1. I have no idea why Mr. Phelps is dead, why there's blood all over the room, or why the axe has my fingerprints all over it. It's a complete mystery.

2. A smoldering tape recorder is the only clue to Jim's mysterious demise, and all the usual suspects - Rollin, Cinnamon, Barney and Willy - have iron-clad alibis. Could the murderer be Lalo? Impossible!

3. It isn't too strange for a body to be found on the docks of 1870s New York City. But it's not everyday that the body is a merman.

4. Actually, his death isn't that mysterious;  you often die when someone shoots you. The mysterious part is how Lucy, Mr. Phelps's 15-year-old neighbor, is going to solve the crime before the police do. 

5. The rumors of Mr. Phelps's death are greatly exaggerated: true, his body is cold in a mortuary, but he is, after all, an immortal zombie, so despite head-injury-related amnesia, he should be fine. Now, with a friendly coroner, Mr. Phelps must find who wants him dead for good.

6. When Mr. Phelps dies under mysterious circumstances, ace homicide detective Zack Martinez knows two things: one, the over 5,000 members of the American pawn brokers association all hated Phelps; and two, the leg-work on just the first week of questioning all of them will fill the requirements for his health insurance discount.

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor,

High school sophomore Lucy Brown needs a new life. She remembers her happy childhood, but those days are long gone. Since her dad left when she was eleven, her mom has been treading water with low paying jobs. Lucy picks up the slack taking care of her twin brother and sister. [I took this to mean the brother was Lucy's twin. If you move the word "twin" in front of the word "siblings" below, it'll clear things up for idiots like me. Or you could just leave the kids' twin-ness out of the query.] ["Kids twin" is a great tongue twister. Say it five times fast.] Through her best friend’s eyes, Lucy sees the life she was supposed to have: two doting parents, a dinner table full of laughter, a college fund. But at Lucy’s house, her mom is never home for dinner and her six-year old siblings don’t even remember their dad. [If you're contrasting Lucy's life with her best friend's, I expect to hear what Lucy's college fund consists of, rather than that her siblings are too young to remember dad.] [Your entire summary should be about ten sentences long. You've spent six sentences telling us who your main character is, and nothing about the plot, which I assume has to do with how this Phelps guy died. You could get by with: 

Ever since Lucy Brown's dad left when she was eleven, her mom has been treading water with low paying jobs. Lucy's been picking up the slack taking care of her younger siblings, but now that she's fifteen, she's decided to become a coroner's assistant. Her first case: The mysterious death of Mr. Phelps.

Lucy has just begun to track down her father, when her neighbor, Mr. Phelps, is murdered. [Somehow the term "mysterious death" in the title led me to believe there was some question about how he died. He was murdered. Question answered.] On a quiet street inhabited by retirees, Lucy is the only one who hears the gun shots. [No need to mention it's a quiet street, since that would make it easier to hear the gunshots. A noisy street with jackhammers banging and sirens blaring would be worth mentioning if you want us to believe no one heard the shots. Also, are you suggesting that retirees are less likely to hear gunshots than people who still work? At least the retirees would be at home. And if their hearing is so bad they can't even hear gunshots, they'd have hearing aids.] The police think she heard firecrackers. [Of course they do. Retirees living on a quiet street are always setting off firecrackers.] [I don't get it. I assume Mr. Phelps's body has been found, as you've reported his murder. If the body had bullet holes in it, why are the police doubting that Lucy heard gunshots?] If Lucy just left things alone, the killer wouldn’t realize she had a clue that was key to the crime. [What clue does she have besides knowing when the shots were fired? And how does the killer know she has this clue?] But Lucy’s inquisitive mind can’t help puzzling out the circumstances of Mr. Phelps’ [Phelps's] death [The circumstances of his death are that he was somewhere within earshot of Lucy when someone shot him. The only thing that needs puzzling out is the identity of the killer.] as she searches for her dad. [He could be anywhere in the world. Is she searching the Internet or actually going out looking for him?] When her father resurfaces, [You can probably just say surfaces.] he is not quite like she remembered. [Either tell us what's different, or don't tell us he's different.] And there’s that murderer on the loose. As Lucy gets closer to unraveling what happened to Mr. Phelps, [How many times do I have to say it? Someone shot him.] the killer becomes desperate. If Lucy isn’t careful, he will strike again, this time killing Lucy and framing her disappointing dad for the murder. [How can anyone possibly know he'll do that?]

The Mysterious Death of Mr. Phelps is 66,000 words and directed at 13-15 year olds. It's the first book in a mystery series. The second book stars Lucy's best friend and her struggles as she moves into Lucy's all-white neighborhood and discovers a 60 year old secret. [We don't need to know what happens in your next book. Though I would assume it stars Lucy unless she got murdered in this book.]

Thank you for your time.


If the mystery isn't Who killed Mr. Phelps?, tell us what is it, and what Lucy is doing to get closer to unraveling it.

If the mystery is Who killed Mr. Phelps?, who had a motive? If Lucy doesn't know who the suspects are, the police are going to be way ahead of her, checking on which suspects owned weapons, which had alibis, which had secret grudges against Mr. Phelps from way back in the day. A murder mystery needs suspects so the detective can reach a brilliant conclusion. Your query needs suspects so we know there's a murder mystery.

If there's a connection between the Phelps plot and the father plot, what is it? If it's nothing stronger than the incredible theory that the killer might kill Lucy and frame her father for it (Does dad have any motive for killing Lucy that would make such a frame believable?), or the fact that Lucy is investigating both at the same time, then you probably should leave the father plot out of the query. 


Anonymous said...

Paragraph one sounds like angsty coming-of-age literary fiction. The plot bits you've given about finding her dad don't mesh well with the mystery plot. They either need to tie in better, as in give reasons her dad might be a suspect/target/to-be-framed victim, or decide which story you really want to tell. Pick either the mystery or dad plot, leave the other one out.

If this is supposed to be a mystery, tell us about the mystery. As EE said, we're not certain what the mystery is, who the suspects are, what motives they might have, or why the cops aren't perfectly capable of doing their job.

The genre for age 13-15 is YA. Call this a YA mystery complete at 66,000 words. Rephrase to taste.

Good Luck

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

This query looks as if you've gone through the manuscript, noted each thing that happens, and put a reference to it into the query.

The query shouldn't contain everything in the manuscript. It should contain the essential. The essential, I would guess, is that Lucy thinks her neighbor, Mr. Phelps, was murdered.

Leave out the dad and the twins and the mom at this point. They're not essential.

So, what we need:

Lucy wants to achieve X. Only one X. Since it's a mystery, X is solving the murder.

Lucy is impeded by obstacle X. (Could be: the police don't believe her; there's no evidence Mr. Phelps hasn't simply moved to the Bahamas, as he often said he would. She's only 15. She has to look after her younger siblings instead of hunting for clues.)

We also need stakes. What happens if Lucy doesn't solve the murder?

InkAndPixelClub said...

There's no clear reason why this is Lucy's case to solve, at least not until the murderer is planning to kill her and frame her long absent dad, which probably wouldn't be an issue if Lucy wasn't already involved in the case. Lucy has plenty of reasons to want to find her missing dad, but that problem seems to resolve itself. The murder mystery feels completely unconnected to Lucy. She has no connection to the victim, no special knowledge beyond hearing gunshots, and no obvious skills that would make her more capable of solving the case than the police would be.

You can rework the query so it's either about the murder mystery or about Lucy's missing dad. But if the two storylines feel as unrelated in the book as they do in the query, you may want to think about reworking the manuscript.

khazar-khum said...

Is Dad the main suspect? That's the underlying vibe I'm getting.

No, it's probably Mom who killed Phelps for hiding that cheating, no-good, low-life bastard all these years so he wouldn't have to pay child support.