Monday, December 05, 2016

Face-Lift 1335

Guess the Plot


1. Everything is perfect in Evelyn's life except for one thing: she has no soulmate. After meeting the perfect candidate, will she sacrifice everything for a chance to catch his eye? Including her soul?

2. Verrin, the keeper of the holy goats, is horrified to find  the animals have been slaughtered by a traitor, days before the annual sacrifice for the kingdom's prosperity. And he's even more horrified when the priests decide Verrin is a close-enough substitute.

3. Ray sells his Xbox to get money to buy Ellen a Netflix subscription, only to discover that Ellen sold her Roku to get money to buy Ray Assassins Creed III. It's like that other story, but for millennials.

4. Cremona wants to become a powerful wizard, so he's looking for clues to how. Marina keeps uncovering clues, but ignores them because she has no interest in magic. If only these two lovable kooks would meet, they might live happily ever after.

Original Version

Dear Ms. XXXXXXX [x7]

I’m a friend of YYYYY [one of the agent’s clients]. She thought you might like a first read of SACRIFICE, the mdieval [medieval] fantasy novel I’ve just completed, and recommended I email you directly.

Cremona [Cremona looks too much like Cremora. It's like calling a character Coffeenate or Nudella or Coca-cota. Also, there's no such name as Cremona in any language.] thought he’d [He'd? Cremona is a girl's name.] managed to spin his straw into gold. Problem is, magic doesn’t work more than one time in two. Or maybe one in five. It can’t bail you out of every scrape you blunder into. A little overconfidence, a couple of lapses in judgment, and Cremona’s payday slips though his grasp. [What do you mean he thought he'd spun straw into gold? Can't he tell whether his straw is still straw or has changed to gold? You suggest that he failed to spin his straw into gold, but you then say magic doesn't work more than half the time, which suggests he has spun straw into gold, but doesn't succeed every time he tries. So why doesn't he just keep trying until it works? Also, when you refer to his payday I can't tell whether you mean the gold itself or the money someone paid him to spin some gold. Also, what lapses in judgment contributed to his plight?]

Cereal Reversal

Now he’s stumbling through serial reversals and disasters. Nailed into a barrel and dropped off a dock. Mugged by thugs in uniform. [AKA police.] A nasty hangover. [Somehow that hangover doesn't seem to belong. It's like saying Jesus was whipped by Roman soldiers, nailed to a cross and left to die, and had an ingrown toenail.] And it’s downhill from there. A more plausible [familiar] fate for a hedge-wizard, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it.

Marina’s husband is a smuggler. Strictly small-time, as far as she knew, but his secrets have the Duke’s enforcers twitchy, and they try to grab her - and her kids. She sees no choice but to run. Worse, she must give up her young daughter to save her. [If a group of them try to grab one woman and a couple kids, and fail, they forfeit the right to call themselves Enforcers.]

She leaves Quirt in the hands of the monks of the Order, the only true masters of magic. Quirt will penetrate their mysteries, they promise. The girl is eager to learn, and she finds a friend or two among the monks. [What ever happened to whatshisname? Are we in the same book?]  But she’s alone, and there are hints of shadow in their power. [Penetrate their mysteries, hints of shadow: pretty vague.]

Marina bluffs her way from the smoky halls of the Order’s monastery to the sluggish backwaters of the great swamp, uncovering clues to the riddle of controlling power as she runs . [She'll be able to run faster if the Duke makes good on his campaign promise to drain the swamp.] She’s oblivious, though. Increasingly bitter over giving up her daughter, she’s got to figure out how she - and the son who remains to her - are going to survive in exile.

Someone like Cremona might fit the puzzle pieces together, if he heard her story. He’s a bit distracted just now, though. Someone’s cottoned on to his magical abilities. They want to catch him, exploit his power. [Wouldn't it be better to catch a monk, since the monks are the only true masters and Cremona is a bungler?] They’ve set some surly bastards on his trail, 

[We've cottoned on to a guy who sucks at magic. 

Great. But how do we catch him?

It's too big a job for us. Let's hire some bastards.

Good idea. But not just any bastards. Surly bastards.]

who are proving hard to shake. Along the way Cremona encounters magic of perceptive subtlety, and of lethal power. It’s more than he thought possible. So now, he’s looking for clues. [Clues to what? Is he looking for the same clues Marina uncovered in the previous paragraph? Too bad he's distracted and she's oblivious and they never meet.]

SACRIFICE is 166k words. It’s the first book of a trilogy (AN UNCERTAIN POWER), and will appeal to adult readers of fantasy. It aspires to the tone, complexity, and moral ambivalence of KJ Parker or Joe Abercrombie. There’s considerably less mayhem, though – it’s more personal and political, as in Robin Hobb’s books. [Wait, you consider less mayhem a selling point?]

I’ve attached a synopsis and initial chapters as per your firm’s guidelines. YYYYY also suggested I mention I have other books planned. I’ve outlined the rest of the trilogy, and have ideas for additional projects, both independent and set in the same world as SACRIFICE. [I hate to disagree with YYYYY, as she seems wise, but telling us this is part of a trilogy is plenty; no need to bring up other books and projects.]

Thank you for your time and consideration.



The query and the book would both be better at half the length.

Specific examples are preferable to general statements.

If you are going to compare your book to someone else's I recommend choosing one author rather than three.

If Marina and Cremona are co-main characters, I'd open with Marina, as the gold-spinning/barrel/thugs/hangover paragraphs don't tell us what the book is about. Once you tell us what Marina's problem is, get to the part where they meet and what they hope to accomplish together and what's stopping them.


Chicory said...

The query's opening, involving the bumbling hedge wizard, makes the book sound like it's comic fantasy along the lines of Patricia Wrede's `Enchanted Forest Chronicles' or Robert Aspin's `Myth Adventures'. I haven't read any K j Parker or Joe Ambercrombie, but Robin Hobbs writes in a more serious vein, so I suspect fantasy/parody may not be what you're going for. You may want to consider centering your query around Marina instead of Cremona, even if they are co protagonists, because her problems sound more like the sort found in strait up adventure fantasy. Best of luck!

davefragments said...

Reading this is like being dropped in the middle of a lake, blindfolded. The author is too close to the story right now. I've done that before. IT takes a few weeks get out of the story world.

Marina gets in trouble with the Duke and flees with two children. She leaves her daughter with the Magician's Guild and keeps her son with her. As she heads to exile, she meets a part-time or moderately successful magician on the down and outs. They piece together something (How magic works or How to overthrow the evil Duke or how to save their lives) and live seemingly happily ever after. (not really because something more evil is knocking on their door and arrives in part 2) or they continue with their new-found knowledge into part 2 to do something better (save the world) or find some source of power.

I think that's what your story is about. That's what I can piece together from the original. Trilogies are patterned stories - v-1 is the discovery of some problem, v-2 is a quest of sorts, and v-3 is the defeat of the "face of ultimate" evil.

I just watched BATMAN V SUPERMAN And they failed at v3.
REBECCA has that three-part structure too. The dread we feel at murder/cancer is surpassed by fire.
The ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES steps through those three parts too. Very odd deaths, slow discovery of the reason and then not only a confrontation but the reveal of the true "face of ultimate evil" in a way that darkens the soul and turns hope to despair.

And that is your last paragraph in selling the novel - what turns hope to despair and how do Marina and Cremona survive?

Anonymous said...

I'll agree that Cremona sounds like a girl's name.

Most of what's here seems to be setup. You need more of the story arc. How does everything that's happening logically connect? Where's the story going?

You also need to have more specific details. 'shadows in their power' could mean a rogue monk trying to take over, summoned demons, the nature of the magic itself is evil, etc, etc, etc. All of those could make a very different book. The agent wants to know which book you've written. If they can't tell, they're going to err on the side of 'not right for me.'

If this is three separate stories (Cremona's, Marina's, Quirt's) that are only connected by being set in the same world, I would suggest you split them out into separate books. Your word count is large enough for at least two.

MVRJ said...

Thank you very much for the feedback, and for how promptly you gave it – both EE and commenters. I’m feeling lucky. I’ve already wrangled some follow-up queries and spasmodic defensive rebuttals. If any of you have the time and inclination to respond further, I would be most grateful. I’ll work on a revision and see how I go.

EE comments:

Cremona is in fact a name– it’s a town in northern Italy. And before you say it still isn’t a boy’s name, of course it is. Just like Andorra, or Melanoma. Or Dana, Luca, and Bubba.

The straw and gold thing is a metaphor. Maybe that’s too much for a query. Just as you suggested, Cremona did in fact stick with working his unreliable magic until he got results – creating some really super jewelry, which might have magical powers. The stuff is illegal though, and it’s the deal to turn the goods into cash money which goes sour. That’s what ruins his payday. Anyway, it’s clearly too much to follow.

I wondered about including the hangover. A hangover would certainly make the aftermath of a beating suck even worse. Not only that, apparently paper cuts hurt worse than having your finger chopped off, due to shock and other ‘coping strategies’ implemented by the human brain. So maybe Christ’s ingrown toenail was indeed top of mind while he was hanging there. But I can see how the hangover could ruin the flow.

The stuff about monks is vague, you’re right. Just a few adjectives making a futile effort to convey tone. But the damn query is already twice as long as it ought to be. Going to have to figure out how to do that better.

In this world I’ve dreamed up, people with political power target wizards for exploitation because the wizards can’t reliably control their magical power – not just Cremona, all of them. Except the monks – they can control it. So nobody fucks with them. Mostly, in fact, nobody even realizes they’re there. And magicians hide (to stop the bosses noticing them). For most people, magic is just a rumour, probably not even real.

Surly bastards – I was trying to inject tone and voice. Is my effort simply clumsy, or was that a misplaced instinct? I don’t mind being called clumsy. Just stuck my thumb in my own eye a couple of days ago.

As far as Cremona and Marina never meeting – of course they do. I thought the idea in a query was to describe ‘Act I,’ and I was trying to foreshadow them meeting as the book develops. The synopsis recounts how they meet. IT’S double the length it ought to be as well. Maybe I need to buy a really small font?

There’s really an awful lot of mayhem in Joe Abercrombie, so I was making a disclaimer. I suppose that at this stage in the process I’m not really about to disappoint a bunch of combat aficionados who want a swordsmanship lesson every three pages. I’ll dial it back to a reference to KJ Parker and move on.

“I have ideas for other projects” is pretty weak anyway. There’s a delete key on here somewhere.

I know the book is long. The fantasy I read often is (Robin Hobb gets up to 400k without breaking a sweat), but of course most of them are not first novels. The only reason I am doing a trilogy is that I’m only a third through my original concept! And I kicked my favorite character to book 2 to keep book 1 to a less ludicrous length. Maybe I write some short first person zelazny-style stuff, and once I’m a massive bestseller I start flogging the tomes.

I keep wondering if I should do this as a book on Marina, and another on Cremona, but I don’t know if the story arcs support that.

The book itself opens with Marina, not Cremona. She’s certainly got a more concrete problem than he does, so I’ll revisit how I did this.

MVRJ said...


Chicory – You’re right, the book is not a parody. There’s a fair bit of irony, detachment and sarcasm throughout, but it’s deployed more as “I’m laughing just to keep from crying.” I’m not trying to channel Pratchett. I’m attempting to capture that tone in the language of the query, but I’ve not handled it deftly.

I don’t mean to give the impression that Cremona is a bumbler – he’s just a normal guy (other than the magic-working, of course). Everybody makes mistakes - he just happened to make a few at inopportune times. I’ll work on presenting this more clearly.

Davefragments – the problem I’m wrestling with is that things are more complicated. For instance, the Duke’s not evil – he’s found evidence that Marina’s husband is mixed up in what appears to be initial steps by the Empire to take over his Duchy, and he’s scrambling to find out what is going on. There’s three stories, really, maybe I can sum up in soundbites:

- Marina’s family is torn apart; she flees for her life but then decides to reclaim her daughter
- Cremona’s efforts to get rich meet with disaster; as he struggles to survive he abandons selfish interests in favor of studying magic and helping those who need him – specifically, Marina and her son
- Quirt is abandoned by her mother and must adapt to life in the Order, who have great plans for her.

The bad guy is only hinted at in this book, but it is the Order – their hold on power is based on a parasitical model in which the monks at the top of the heirarchy exploit their own brothers.

Anonymous – You are onto something in your second comment, but it isn’t quite that I’m just giving setup . As I said to davefragments above – the book is complex. Three main POV characters, and one minor. Multiple conflict arcs – personal growth, survival, geopolitical conflict. There’s also world building, magic system, all that junk. When I try to get specific with the story arc, the query balloons out into something significantly longer than what I have now, which as has been noted is too much already.

Query Shark posted a example of dealing with this kind of complexity – she did a query (or stole one) for Game of Thones. It managed to be relatively short – but was completely devoid of any detail on the plot, or any of the logical connections you are (justifiably) looking for.

It was all character, atmosphere, fundamental mysteries, and Winter Is Coming, structured around the Starks. Mine is a story about little people, not great noble families, so I can’t do the exact same thing, but that’s why the query looks as it does.

As far as separating the three characters, as I said above, I’ve wrestled with that repeatedly. The reason I’ve stuck with keeping everything in one book is that the three stories contribute complementary bits of information, and only as you read all three do you piece together the nature and scope of the Order’s power, and why it is different or unusual.

Thanks again for your advice and comments, I appreciate the time you’ve taken.


AlaskaRavenclaw said...

MVRJ, the issue isn't whether you think Cremona is a boy's or a girl's name. The issue is how the reader perceives it. This is the essential difference between writing for one's own entertainment and writing for publication. If you're determined to name the character after a European city, I suggest you change it to Oslo or The Hague.

By the way, when you say you're a friend of writer YYYYY, know that that may not carry much weight with his or her agent. They may take it to mean you follow each other on twitter. If you can get YYYYY to read your 166,000 words and say "Wow, this is great! Let me tell my agent!" then you'll be talkin'.

Anonymous said...

The idea in the query is to sell the book. If you can do that with act 1, all you need is act 1. A lot of stories need more than that, especially when the entire book is essentially act 1 for a trilogy.

Is there a completed plot line in this book? If there is, that's what you need to describe in your query (and the phrase you're looking for is "stand alone novel with series potential"). All other plot lines are part of the larger story, and so aren't as important for selling this book.

If there isn't a completed plot, you are going to have a very difficult time selling this. My suggestion would be to find someplace near the end which looks like a landing stage/resolution (which obviously will continue but at least something was resolved) and edit/re-write so that the book forms a complete story with that at the end. Then describe that story line only in the query.

Good luck

Evil Editor said...

Not sure where the Act 1 idea originated, but you generally want to take us to the point in the book where the MC must choose the best path to her goal, knowing what's waiting down each possible path. If she goes right she might be too late to save her daughter, but if she takes the short cut to the left she'll have to fight off an army of orcs. What's her goal, what's her plan, who wants her to fail, what happens if she does fail, and finally, what choice/decision will determine whether she succeeds?

You're supposed to take Cremona is a girl's name as a joke, coming right after I claimed there is no such name in any language. In any case, it sounds a lot like Ramona.

It's the word "bastard" isn't working for me. You want a word that either means they're good at tracking or you want something like hired goons or mercenaries. That someone is a bastard doesn't tell me he's going to be able to find and subdue someone.

MVRJ said...

awesome, thanks to everyone.

and - yes girl's name was clearly a joke, that came through perfectly, hence my attempt at northern spanish, cancerous banter in response. I do think I'm going to go with The Hague now, though. Rolls off the tongue.

The inflection point you describe, EE, is indeed at the end of this book (as Book I in the trilogy) so I will proceed accordingly on the query

point taken on bastards, it's a useful word in some contexts, e.g. when referring to one's own offspring, but not here. Surly princesses, maybe.

Many thanks again


MVRJ said...

oh, and EE, do you encourage submitting revisions? I'm going to have a crack at it, but I don't want to waste your time. happy to leave you alone if that's what you'd prefer. thanks

Evil Editor said...

The minions are always happy to point out the deficiencies of their fellow authors' revisions. And re-revisions.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

I wasn't responding to EE, because why bother. I was responding to Anonymous, who thought that Cremona sounded like a girl's name. It doesn't sound like the name of either a girl or a boy, but if I had to pick one: girl.

Evil Editor said...

I wasn't responding to EE, because why bother. An insecure Evil Editor might interpret that to mean "Evil Editor never admits he's wrong", but I choose to interpret it as "Evil Editor is invariably right."

InkAndPixelClub said...

Starting a query with a metaphor is not a good idea. The problem is that your reader doesn't know enough about your book yet to understand what's literal and what's figurative. If all your potential agent knows is that this is a fantasy novel, it's hard to tell whether you're describing a person who thinks he has managed to turn the little he has in life into something valuable or a person who is spinning actual straw into actual gold. Since your next few sentences don't get specific on what Cremona is actually doing or trying to do, there's no reason to think he isn't spinning straw into gold.

CavalierdeNuit said...

Name the hedge-wizard Quirt. Quirt the magical flirt. I have never heard of anyone cottoning anything ("Someone’s cottoned on to his magical abilities.") I don't believe cotton is used much as a verb anymore.