Monday, May 08, 2006

Face-Lift 18

dear Evil Editor... don't know if it matters to you, but I'm writing all the way from Australia, and my query letter is generally (though not exclusively) going to Australian editors and agents.

[This makes no difference, except that when an editor balls up your manuscript pages and flushes them, they'll circle in the opposite direction.]

[Stop, minions. Evil Editor is well aware that the Coriolis effect does not impose its will upon toilets, that this is a myth; there's no need to write in, demanding a retraction. And there's certainly no need to write in now, declaring that you've witnessed the phenomenon, unless you are also claiming that your toilet is 200 miles wide.]

Guess the Plot


1. Deep in the Ozarks, an illiterate teenager decides that "Formaldehyde" would be an impressive name for her baby boy. The consequences reverberate down the ages, as little Formy grows up into a serial killer who learns to pickle his victims in order to prolong his perverse enjoyment.

2. In this heart-wrenching memoir, Ted Parker chronicles a gutsy life behind the scenes in the pathology department of a major hospital. But has it all been worth the sacrifice of friends, family and his sense of smell?

3. This latest cookbook in the Food Preservation for the Millennia Series documents the most extreme methods. Cook and pathologist Mercy Huggins describes ways to keep that milk long after the date on the carton.

4. Helena Ruben has found the Fountain of Youth. But will her cosmetics empire, Eternally Young, crash down in ruins when her secret ingredient is revealed?

5. Luke promised his mother he would “rescue” his sister from her chosen life as a stripper/call girl. But when a man wearing a 3,000-dollar suit and missing the pinky on his left hand presses a knife against his gut, he realizes he's in over his head.

6. Searching for the father he never knew, Paul makes a startling discovery: his mother inexplicably became pregnant with her lesbian lover, and Paul's father is a woman.

Original Version

Benjamin lost her arm in a traffic accident [Her arm? Benjamin? Sounds like Benny-boy lost something a little more precious than an arm.] 22 years ago and hasn't aged a day since. Maybe it's because of the arm transplant she received— [Oh! I know! I know! It was a transplant from a vampire! Right?] a transplant that fills her dreams with maddeningly familiar stories about its former owner— [Which was who? I must know, was it a vampire? I was thinking it was just from an immortal guy, but they usually only transplant stuff from dead people, so it couldn't be an immortal guy.] [Well, I guess it could be an immortal guy who had an arm cut off, and they decided to put the arm on Benjamin instead of putting it back on the immortal guy. . . Or it could be a vampire.] or maybe it's just sheer good luck. Thanks to her missing arm [Missing arm? What about the transplant?] and an allergy to ink, [but mostly her missing arm,] Benjamin draws a disability pension at Social Security, where she meets Paul, a dot-commer of uncertain qualifications [What are the qualifications for being a dot-commer?] who has just been declared dead by the government. He needs answers; she needs someone cute to help fill in the time. When it turns out that Paul isn't related to his father (who sounds suspiciously like the nurse who cared for—and fell for—Benjamin after her accident) [You're lying in a hospital bed, morphine pumping through your system. Your left arm, having been severed from your body at the shoulder by a flying hubcap, is sitting on a table on the other side of the room. And your nurse has nothing better to do than hit on you?] and that his mother may have inexplicably become pregnant [Pregnant now? Or pregnant with Paul?] by her lesbian lover, [Whoa. They've examined all the possibilities, and this is the one they're going with?] Paul is just about ready to declare himself dead. That is, until he meets Benjamin's downstairs neighbour, a European émigré with an implausible accent [Not sure "implausible" is the best word there, though Evil Editor must admit the word has crossed his mind a few times in the past few minutes.] and a lopsided wig who has been reading Russian literature into Benjamin's heating ducts for the past 22 years. [Aha! It wasn't the new arm that made her immortal; it was the Pushkin.] What is his connection to Paul and Benjamin? And why does it seem like everyone is reading Dostoyevsky's 'The Idiot'? [Actually, Evil Editor does feel kind of like he's reading The Idiot.]

I am seeking representation for my popular fiction novel [Popular fiction? This isn't satire? Or science fiction? Or farce? Or comic opera? This is mainstream fiction?] 'Formaldehyde', complete at 54 600 words. If you are interested in seeing more I would love to send you my manuscript. The manuscript has been professionally assessed and I can also provide a review from that process. [How much does a good professional assessor make, down under?]

I have been working as a professional writer since 1991. Eight of those years were spent travelling and writing about travel—'Formaldehyde' was written during the four years I lived in San Francisco. [San Francisco? That explains at least some of this.] My travel literature has been published by Lonely Planet Publications, for whom I have also written guide books and web copy. I have had short fiction published in an Australian anthology, 'Normal Service Will Resume'. After stints in Prague and Phnom Penh I now live in Melbourne, where I work as a writer for a parenting website.

Thank you for considering my novel.

Revised Version

Margaret Benjamin lost her arm in a traffic accident 22 years ago, and hasn't aged a day since. Thanks to her missing arm, she draws a disability pension at Social Security, where she meets Paul, a dot-commer who has just been declared dead by the government. He needs answers; she needs someone cute to help fill the time. When Paul discovers that he isn't related to his father, and that his real father may inexplicably be his mother's lesbian lover, he's just about ready to declare himself dead. That is, until he meets Margaret's downstairs neighbour, a European émigré with a dubious accent and a lopsided wig, who has been reading Russian literature into Margaret's heating ducts for the past 22 years. What is his connection to Paul and Margaret? And why is everyone reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot?

I am seeking representation for my satirical farce, Formaldehyde, complete at 54,600 words. My travel literature has been published by Lonely Planet Publications, for whom I have also written guide books and web copy. Formaldehyde was written during the four years I lived in San Francisco. After later stints in Prague and Phnom Penh, I now live in Melbourne, where I work as a writer for a parenting website.

Thank you for considering my novel.


Soc. Sec. guy: Turns out you aren't related to your father.
Paul: So who is my father?
Soc. Sec. guy: Her name is . . .

The reason they don't do too many arm transplants is because if you look like Shaquille O'Neal, and you need a new arm, sometimes the only cadaver with the same blood type looks like Sasha Cohen.

No doubt there's a humorous explanation for why she's named Benjamin. I'd change it. It's distracting. If she's Benjamin, maybe he should be Pauline.

If you've written a brilliant, satirical farce, you need to make this clear somehow. Editors get plenty of serious queries that sound as insane as this one. The guy reading into the heating duct is intriguing, and the right editor might decide to take a look. But Evil Editor suspects that far more editors will be passing it around the office for a laugh.


Anonymous said...

From popular fiction to satirical farce!

Maybe this is the right time to ask: where can I find a list of genre types? I'm just getting a serious start on a dramatic novel, but am not sure how to categorize it for future submission. Dramatic Fiction? Popular Fiction? Desperately Hope it's Good Fiction? Are there standard categories that you would expect to see, or do people just make up their own? (scary thought!)

Patrice Michelle said...

I agree. The tone and circumstances in this query letter reads more like a comedy...maybe along the lines of a dark comedy?

Anonymous said...

howdy - or, as we allegedly say in my country, g'day. I'm the author of the above piece. You're right, it isn't really mainstream fiction - it's satire and comedy and it's a little bit speculative fiction, being set in the near future. But how do you describe such a thing? I'd hope that reading the first few pages would make it clear, but I guess it needs to come over better in the query letter.
Thanks very much for the suggestions. Unfortunately, Benjamin's name is integral to the plot, but maybe if I referred to her as Benji or some other diminutive in the letter it would avoid the distraction (or maybe not...). Anyway, yeah: thanks!

Anonymous said...

I laughed so loud my kids wanted to know what was funny from downstairs. This blog is great. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jane!

I say G'day on a regular basis - but then I live about 1000km north of where most people think Australia finishes.

What do professional manuscript assessors get paid in Oz? I can't quite reconcile the fact that I think it would be a great job for me, with the fact that I suspect 90% of the work they do involves taking money from people who haven't a hope of getting published.

You do realise that the print runs of the Australian publishers are typically a fraction of the OS ones, and it might be a sensible business decision to try international publishing houses and agents?

Unknown said...

I haven't laughed so heartily in quite some time. I do have to say, however, that the original version of this query letter is somewhat better than the letter I started out with in my own query journey, which read something like this: "To Whom It May Concern: I am a college dropout with no qualifications whatsoever to have written this hyperintellectual Victorian literary mystery. You'll probably hate it, but why not suffer through the first ten pages anyway?" Astonishingly, I got a pretty good agent this way. One never knows, do one?

Anonymous said...

I'm in an MFA program section (yes, I know that makes me pretentious by default, but how else was I supposed to get people to lend me money?) called "Popular fiction". It means "science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery & thriller." It is what literary fiction people call fiction that is not shelved under "literary fiction", regardless of its literary merit. Silly? I think so. But the people teaching and adminning the program are way more published than little ol' me, so maybe they're using a term common to their social circles.

It's certainly not being used to mean a genre, at my MFA program -- it's being used to mean a lump-together of several genres. So, Jane, maybe you should try "comedic SF" or "satirical SF."

Nothing wrong with gender-bendy naming, at least not if you're postulating that the current time period has occurred as normal. I regularly see babies of either sex being named "Taylor" and "Bailey" (an acquaintance of mine has kids named Sydney and Madison) and though this has only been a major trend in the last twenty years or so, it's perfectly reasonable to think that the kids being named by feminist parents right now will make it to the near future, unless you postulate a terrible plague that only takes out gender-bendy liberal kids. And Johnny Cash recorded "A Boy Named Sue" in 1969. :-)

Whether her friends call her Benji, Benjamin, or something else should have to do with her personality. How does SHE like having a boy's name? Does she love it or run from it?

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I would just be sure your plot doesn't align too much with the movie Body Parts. It sounds like it's on the way in that direction already.

Dayna_Hart said...


Why not Jami for a short form of Benjamin?

Sam said...

I'm still trying to figure out how one can draw with a missing arm.

I guess I'll have to read the book to find out!

Anonymous said...

I think the idea has potential, but like anything else, it's got to be done right.

Anonymous said...

anonymous of 11.42pm... if you want to have a look at the fees charged by one reputable assessor, have a look here She claims that most of her assesors are people already working in the field (writers, editors etc) and they do this as a kind of 'peer review' service - I'm not sure how many assessors, if any, are full-time. And yeah, I have also been pitching overseas, and will continue to. I have two versions of my manuscript - one with American spellings, one with Australian, just to make it easier on those US agents.
And thanks to all others for the excellent suggestions.