Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Face-Lift 171

Guess the Plot

Seasons of Mist

1. Althea loved the morning mist in the Highlands. It was the only reason she stayed. Well, that and the handsome Laird in the wind-whipped kilt.

2. Two young neighbors learn about a land over the mountains where people are corporeal throughout the entire year, and set off on the adventure of a lifetime to see this wonder for themselves.

3. Alisa floats on a cloud of Valium, hoping sedation will keep her from losing the baby. Maybe someone should point out to her that she's not pregnant.

4. Carolina Bupkus wants to see the leaves turn color in New England, but her husband has other ideas. His vacation plans include the steam turbine exhibits at several power plants.

5. Laura Grimble's stint as Channel 9 weather girl was rapidly going down the tubes. Even her topless reading couldn't overcome her monotonous forecasts.

6. In her quest for "Endless Damp," Gladys spends her springs in Cornwall, her summers in the Orkneys, her autumns in Seattle, and her winters in San Francisco. That is, until a sudden burst of sunshine forces her to confront her surfer-girl past.

Original Verson

Dear Agent,

Seasons of Mist is a 90,000 word novel of contemporary literary fiction.

Alisa BenSarai has tried 5 years for a baby. When the results of one more invasive fertility procedure are negative, she becomes furious at the world and her husband, Mickey, and drives away from Los Angeles. In a McDonald's parking lot, surrounded by children, Alisa has a chance meeting with a mother who [offers her three of her children.] gives her the number of an adoption facilitator. This will be the way to her baby. [Adoption! Why didn't I think of that? Thank God I stopped at McDonald's.]

Alisa begins her adoption process against the backdrop of 9-11. The events of that day give her an urgency, but unhinge her as well. As birth mother Missy goes through the various stages of pregnancy, Alisa goes through them, too, living in a trailer like the birth mother, [Living in a trailer is a highly underrated stage of pregnancy, possibly the most underrated.] making herself throw up to feel morning sickness, renting a pregnancy pillow from a make-up effects company to pretend to grow large. Using increasingly bizzare methods, Alisa induces other symptoms of pregnancy: sore breasts, heartburn, weight gain, dizziness and nausea. [I can induce three of those symptoms (heartburn, weight gain and nausea) just by going up the street and ordering the lasagna vindaloo at Ristorante Ranjudeep .] So consumed is she that toward the end of her "pregnancy," Alisa decides that she is a special case who must be sedated so she doesn't lose the child. Hiding from her husband, alone in a trailer park in Malibu, she floats on a cloud of Valium, [Doesn't she know she should be on placebos while she's pretending to be pregnant?] barely connected to the world. At last Mickey acts. He finds her near death, and rescues her. When she is recovered, together, they go to Georgia for the birth of their new baby. Missy gives up the baby because, "With you," Missy says, "this child has a chance." [I've got news for Missy: with Alisa, this child is doomed.]

I've enclosed a five page sample. A full manuscript is available upon request.


Revised Version

Dear Agent,

When the results of yet another invasive fertility procedure prove negative, Alisa BenSarai decides that five years is enough trying. Adoption is the only way to her baby.

Against the backdrop of 9-11, Alisa contacts an adoption facilitator. The events of that day fill her with a sense of urgency, but unhinge her as well. As birth mother Missy goes through the stages of pregnancy, Alisa goes through them too, making herself throw up to feel morning sickness, using a pregnancy pillow to pretend to grow large, and inducing symptoms of pregnancy: sore breasts, heartburn, weight gain, dizziness and nausea. She even starts living in a trailer, as the birth mother does.

So consumed is she that toward the end of her "pregnancy," Alisa decides that she is a special case who must be sedated so she doesn't lose the child. Hiding from her husband, alone in a trailer park in Malibu, she floats on a cloud of Valium, barely connected to the world.

Seasons of Mist is a 90,000-word novel of contemporary literary fiction. I've enclosed a five page sample. A full manuscript is available upon request.



I'm no expert, but I believe the amount of Valium that she would take to sedate herself, even if she overdoes it a bit, is not going to put her near death. Maybe you can come up with a stronger drug--unless she's trying to kill herself.

It wrapped up too neatly, so I removed the ending. I'm worried that the book wraps up too neatly as well. Hey, this is literary fiction. Either Alisa dies, or Missy finds out she's a nutcase and keeps the baby.

Apparently none of Alisa's unusual actions would have occurred if not for 9-11? When her husband rescues her, he tells her, "Hang on, honey, if you die, the terrorists win." Right?


Anonymous said...

Not to mention that if she really were pregnant and very concerned about not losing the baby, she'd probably avoid drugs like the plague.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...I don't know about this. I mean, if this was a backdrop of 9/11 in either New York or northern New Jersey, I might buy it.

I think there would be more urgency if the locale was changed to one of the ones I mentioned; L.A. during 9/11? I just don't know.

Of course, that could just be me.


Anonymous said...

Why would she give this kid to a headcase like Alisa? I guess I don't see either how 9/11 ties into all this.

Anonymous said...

Well, obviously Alisa is a nutcase, and Missy is stupid--both are symptoms of acute pregnitis. I believe they call it the "maternal lobotomy." Those hormones'll fuck you right up.

Brenda said...

Oh, and Endless Damp? Thought for sure it'd be erotica.

Brenda said...

Uh. Yeah. No way would she end up with a baby. She'd end up in a straight-jacket instead.

I've had the honor of finding my birth mother. If the one in this story is remotely aware of what this woman is doing, I highly doubt she'd hand over the child to someone so broken from reality. It's emotionally/psycologically hard enough to give your baby away (at least in all the cases I've researched) much less to someone like... that.

Bernita said...

The vallium is a wall-banger.

Now if she took it because she finally realized what a nut-case she had been, then it might fly.

And I think maternal lobotomy is a myth.

Anonymous said...

EE, your Guess the Plots are just too funny!

wind-shipped kilt, topless readings, and "corporeal throughout the entire year."

Thanks as always for the daily doses of humor.

Kathleen said...

I feel like this query lacked any guidance on the themes of the book. Sometimes the talk of themes can go overboard (like the "engaged" "disengaged" from the last query). However, for this one, I really need some hook as to why we should read it. Because I am not that interested in the story as it is laid out. Why should we care? I just feel like some mention of the theme of a book is important in a query.

anyone disagree?

Anonymous said...

To me, the query just seemed confussing. I couldn't follow the story well. I didn't understand why she all of a sudden pretended to be pregnant. We went from the parking lot to some trailer park, and where's her husband? However, I am not a mother and have no desire to have children, so maybe it's a book that wouldn't appeal to me anyway. I also, don't know why 9/11 matters, unless she lived in New York. I'm in Oregon, and even though I thought it was horrible, I KNOW New Yorkers had the worst time with it.
Side note: When Kathleen said, "why should we care?" it brought a shiver to me and reminded me of my senior seminar class in college. We'd write two dozen pages on something we cared about, and our professor would just look at us and ask "why should we care?"

Anonymous said...

I guessed fake plot # 2 (not that I wanted to read that, either).

When I got to the "With you...this child has a chance" sentence in the original query, I wanted to shred the query and throw it in the trash. jmho.

Unless Missy is more messed up than Alisa or there's a ton of money involved to explain Missy's decision, don't go there. Again, jmho.

From this query, I didn't like Alisa. Nothing made me want to root for her or read this.

But author, remember, I didn't much like any of the literary/Nobel winners' openings either.

comment offered fwiw (and strictly my own, without reading the others)

Anonymous said...

"lasagna vindaloo"?

The mind boggles.

Anonymous said...

I disliked this one so much that I am positive it will sell, probably at auction. It might make the cover of NYTBR.

Annie said...

Okay, there are quite a few problems here, but the first -- and most pressing -- is the fact that you clearly have done no research on the adoption process. One woman cannot simply give her child to another. Even in a case of private adoption where the potential birthmother commits to a couple without the placement services of a fascilitator, the adoptive couple still MUST meet certain state requirements, undergo a background check and have AT LEAST one homestudy, performed by a social workers from the department of children and family and services. (Some states require as many as three visits from a case worker.) I can GUARANTEE that this woman would not be approved to adopt. That is absolutely ludicrous. The woman clearly needs to be under psychiatric care. Possibly as an inpatient. No birthmother would ever choose her. Women who are placing their children with adoptive families agonize over the decision and make sure thier children get the best life possible. They do not place them with women who are emotionally unstable. And even if this birthmother DID choose this family, the government simply would not allow it.

I was also confused by the fact that she apparently never considered adoption until meeting some random woman at McDonald's. (Perhaps that is not how it happens in the book, but that is how it happens in the query.) And I could not for the life of me figure out what 9/11 had to do with any of this.

But those problems are far less crucial than this flaw in your premise. I highly recommend that you take a break from writing and do some serious research before going any further.

Daisy Bateman said...

This query could only have been redeemed for me if it ended with, 'And Missy took one look at her and said, "Hell no!"'

By the way I really hope there are other reasons why it is so bad for Missy to keep the baby other than that she lives in a trailer in the South.

HawkOwl said...

I was liking it until it came to the World Trade Center thing, and then once I got to the ending I was disappointed that it's all shiny-happy, with the husband doing the Knight in Shining Armour thing and Alisa going back to normal just like that.

Other than that, I thought the premise was actually fairly plausible, judging by my experience of women who are trying to have kids. Especially ones who are not succeeding. A lot of them are "unhinged" at the best of times. For any trauma you can think of, there is a small percentage of people who will be completely undone by it. Alisa's downfall, apparently, is infertility. There was no need for the WTC thing for her to come unglued.

Maybe it works on reading the whole novel, but I really don't trust the World Trade Center subplot. First, I wonder if it's a platform for some kind of opinion. Second, it makes the story a lot less relatable. Emotionally, the WTC is to me as Giant Mine might be to you - except I've heard of the WTC. Am I gonna feel for a woman who goes insane because of it? Not really. I thought your fellow Americans might, but apparently, neither do they. It also pins down the piece geographically and chronologically too much. I didn't think the basic concept needed a fancy backdrop, really.

Then, the part where the husband takes action is weird. Is it a coincidence that he decides to go looking for her just at the right moment to rescue her from a drug problem, or did he somehow know how she was doing all along and it took the drugs to make him intervene? The query made it sound like the drugs caused him to act. If it's a coincidence... Coincidences are not good for plots.

And the part where he "saves" her? The choice of words kinda makes the whole query fall flat on its face. Until then it seemed to be on a fairly adult level, but the guy "saving" her all of a sudden makes it feel very fairy tale. You could say he drags her to a shrink instead.

Her getting the baby didn't seem weird to me, partly because nothing surprises me as long as it's set in the US, and partly because one can indulge in some seriously weird behaviour before the authorities will notice. What I found dubious was where Missy says the baby has a chance with Alisa. I'd like to believe that this is ironic, as in Alisa is completely nuts and no one really noticed (except her man, whose name I forget), and Missy is making a terrible mistake handing her kid over to this lunatic. Then you could have a sequel showing what becomes of the kid. However, I fear the actual plot is much less grim.

I'd want to read more, but I don't know if I'd get through the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

I confused by why so many people are confused about the use of 9-11 as a backdrop. Did 9-11 only affect people in NY? Did the rest of us not in NY just simply go about our lives as if nothing happened? What's interesting to me is the possibility of the difference in experience between someone in another part of the country. As for the research aspect, it's a novel we're led to believe, not a nonfiction account of how the adoption system works. Why would a query explicitly tell us that "and she has three visits from social workers ordered by the court and none of them can tell she's losing it." I just think some of the comments are a bit heavy-handed.

Anonymous said...

Call me crazy, but I loved this premise, and would totally read this book. Like EE, however, I found the ending way too pat -- this needs to be a tragedy.

Anonymous said...

Uh, I'm sorry, but I just don't get it. Why would I want to root for this person? And why would 9/11 be a backdrop for a quest for a child? What makes her think she's so special? Oh, yeah... she's crazy. If it's literary fiction, what the HECK is the message supposed to be? What is our inspiration? How does it force us to use our grey matter? Okay, I'm being mean. I'll stop now.

Anonymous said...

Did the rest of us not in NY just simply go about our lives as if nothing happened?

Pretty much. I'd like half a sentence of why - maybe she had family in the area, even if they weren't hurt. Maybe she thinks the world's going to end and she has to have a baby *now*.

The unlikliness of the adoption procedure didn't really bother me.

Annie said...

Why would a query explicitly tell us that "and she has three visits from social workers ordered by the court and none of them can tell she's losing it.

She has run away from home and is living in a trailer inducing the signs of pregnancy and overdosing on valium. Her husband doesn't even know where she is. Clearly she is not having ANY visits from social workers. When he does find her, she is "near death", which I assume means she has to go to the hospital, where her doctors would document her drug use and psychosis.

I don't care that the query spell out the adoption process. I care that the book is well researched. Obviously this woman is not a candidate for adoption. Some research needs to be done to adapt the story to fit within the parameters of reality.

Anonymous said...

Weeeell... portions of this I think could be interesting. The hysterical pregnancy thing is compelling. I don't see the 9-11 connection, but I think it could be explained. I'd caution against it, though, because it dates the piece and feels like a ploy rather than a true plot point.

That said, the ending stretches my suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. It's hard enough to believe that Missy would give her baby up to Alisa, who is clearly in need of intervention, especially when Alisa starts drugging herself. But when she makes a point of saying that with Alisa the kid has a chance? Is that supposed to be irony? Well, maybe I can even swallow that much if it's done well. Maybe Missy has had no contact with Alisa and doesn't know what's been happening.

But when the husband shows up just in the nick of time? Big turn off. And he, seeing the state Alisa is in, takes her to Georgia to proceed with the adoption of the baby instead of immediately seeking medical and mental help for his wife???
What is he thinking?

Sorry, I'd pass.

HawkOwl said...

I don't think there is anything about the pregnancy symptoms that ought to be a red flag. A friend of mine is adopting a baby and she's on all kinds of drugs to make her lactate so she can breastfeed after she gets the baby. There is also such a thing as couvade, and nowadays a lot of people say "we're pregnant" when clearly only one person is (though I suppose same-sex couples might be pregnant simultaneously). So even if Alisa is on hormones and talking about "her" pregnancy all the time, that's not necessarily something the case worker would find alarming. And there's nothing wrong with being pregnant in a trailer. Nowhere does it say that the trailer is slovenly, unsafe, off the grid, or otherwise disturbing to behold. Valium is a problem, but what if she starts on it after she's had her home study? Case worker would never know.

And "running away from home," when done by an adult woman, is called "moving out" and is also not the end of the world. Single women can adopt. It sounds to me like Alisa left her man, then started on the adoption.

There is no reason she can't look perfectly normal long enough to get approved. It's almost weirder that she can go back to her man and not have to go through the screening again.

Crazy people and drug addicts can look disturbingly normal from the outside. Just look at Ted Bundy. That's the great thing, potentially, about this plot. This woman is going nuts and somebody thinks she's the perfect mother.

And really, she might yet turn out to be the perfect mother. After all, the fact that she desperately wants to experience pregnancy doesn't seem like it would pose a threat to the child afterwards. The drugs, yes, but the obsession, not so much.

Annie has a point on the near-death-by-Valium thing, though. If she has to be "rescued" by her ex and, presumably, treated by a health professional, that would definitely attract some attention. So maybe back off on the drugs. Actually, it would be even creepier if we see her starting on the drugs, and we know that but the other characters don't, so she still gets the baby. Now we don't know whether she'll get clean and be a great mother, or lose it and sell the child to her crack dealer in another few years. Fascinating.

I think it's definitely got potential. I'm just not sure it's gonna be realized.

Anonymous said...

When I first read the ending, I mentally switched the names, and thought the adoptive mother decided not to accept the child because she realized she wasn't mentally stable enough to raise it.

Kind of a Solomon-esque twist: The poor trailer-trash birth mother was offering to give up her child so it could have a better home, while the adoptive mother finally saw that in her greed she would be bringing a helpless child into an unstable home.

Pretty good ending, I thought.

Then I reread it, saw what it really said, and thought, "uh oh." I was so not rooting for Alisa to get that baby.

writtenwyrdd said...

If 9/11 unhinged her, her pregnancy delusions ought to have something to do with terrorists wanting to kidnap her baby or something, don't you think? Images of Kosovo are running through my head and what was done to young women there... (she shudders)

Slowly going crazy is a difficult thing to write, so I won't say this plot couldn't work; but based on what's here, it wouldn't entice me to even open the book. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

If 9/11 unhinged her, her pregnancy delusions ought to have something to do with terrorists wanting to kidnap her baby or something, don't you think?

Why would that be? To watch the television coverage first in real time -- because I was up that early and watched both towers go down -- and then the aftermath when the networks showed an endless loop of towers falling, falling, was to believe that every building was about to go down, was to put yourself in the place of the people in the towers and become part of that horrible grinding mass.

Out here, there are twin towers in Century City that look remarkably like the ones in NY. I avoided tall buildings for weeks, and when our company told us we were relocating to a tower elsewhere, all of us were filled with dread.

9-11 happened, and I think writers have to find a way to integrate the event. Is setting a story at a certain time dating it? Possibly but so what? In the reading, we reenter that time.

One thing about this site is it helps me think about a book I'm working on and how I might put together a query. So if I had written this novel, I think all the points brought up here are probably easily solved in the novel itself, though I can't speak for the query: She needs to be visited by a social worker, fine, when does that happen in the process? Right at the end, at the beginning, in the middle? Whenever it happens, she pulls herself together for a couple of hours and snows DSS. She needs a hospital plan, she does a hospital plan. Maybe she isn't "rescued" by the husband but merely brought back from the edge of the abyss and, after heavy Valium use under the care of a health professional which would go into a synopsis and not a query, she recovers.

I think the clearest comments are from hawkowl who seems to best understand here how fiction functions. Annie, on the other hand, gets caught up in the Reality Fallacy.

braun said...

One thing about using 9/11 - I'm a little skeptical, when I see it mentioned as a 'backdrop' and then never worked into the story, as to whether it's not just an 'emotional shortcut', a cheap grab for sympathy for the characters. Maybe it isn't, but that's not at all clear from the way it's brought into the query.

Anon 12:09 - see, being afraid of tall buildings is interesting and besides it clearly relates to 9/11. I don't see how hiding out in a trailer and pretending to be pregnant does. If the idea is simply to give Alisa a "life is short" mentality then maybe just have her survive a car crash. Use something a little simpler than 9/11.

Anonymous said...

I think the clearest comments are from hawkowl who seems to best understand here how fiction functions. Annie, on the other hand, gets caught up in the Reality Fallacy.

I think the problem here is that the anonymous poster and hawkowl are missing the distinction between fantasy fiction and realistic fiction. As a reader, creating a story that operates in the real, modern world EXCEPT for the rules that are convenient (ie, adoption procedures, time-space continuums, whatever) is extremely distracting. I don't think you can choose to set a book in the real world and just tweak minor details -- without acknowledgement that that's what you are doing.

Of course, perhaps the author has constructed a new set of adoption laws that will be clearly established in her book as some kind of plot-point. If so, by all means, go for it.

Anonymous said...

Contemporary literary

" . . . been trying to have a baby for 5 months."


Triple turn-off for me. -JTC

HawkOwl said...

Maybe neither Anonymi should speak for HawkOwl. HawkOwl doesn't know California or Georgia or any adoption laws and doesn't care. What I'm saying is that whatever the laws are, this woman can totally look normal enough to get approved, as long as her abuse of Valium doesn't come to light.

Anonymous said...

You can't freaking adopt if you're an obvious nutcase! The social workers would notice the trailer park and faux pregnancy and the estrangement from the intended father (and sorry, social workers are not stupid or blind no matter how convenient that is to the plot).

Besides domestic adoption is competitive. There are more parents than birthmothers, and the birthmothers are in control. So I guess Missy is just as crazy as Whackjob protagonist.

Then there's the state and mandated counseling plus parenting classes. And lawyers, even a private adoption requires paperwork.

You can't just go from a McDonald's parking lot to adopting a baby. Not in real life. You can try it in fiction, but no one will believe you.

If you want to write adoption /infertility fiction, at least try to make it believable. And unless this is alternate history or fantasy, you do have to at least try to follow the real adoption process. Otherwise you're going to get a lot of mail from irate adoptive parents.

Or do a SF version with Conehead Martians. Maybe outer space trailer parks are the way they do it.

With regards to this..."And "running away from home," when done by an adult woman, is called "moving out" and is also not the end of the world. Single women can adopt. It sounds to me like Alisa left her man, then started on the adoption."

Single women can adopt so long as they don't start their application as married women. You can't just change mid-stream. You've got to file paperwork. There has to be another homestudy. Your assets have to be distributed so you can prove your standalone income etc...

Anyone who thinks adoption is soooo simple has clearly never tried to adopt a child.


HawkOwl said...

See, nothing in the query actually says that she doesn't start the adoption process as a single woman, or that she intends for her (ex)-husband to be a father to the adopted child. So like I said, what's weird isn't her adopting after leaving him, it's her bringing him back in just before adopting.

And again, what's wrong with trailer parks? Have you ever lived in a trailer park, or do you just watch Trailer Park Boys a lot? There are some really lovely trailer parks full of really lovely people out there. Some of them may even be in California.

And again, the woman having pregnancy symptoms is not alarming, even if someone noticed, which isn't guaranteed. Not all women make a display of being pregnant.

Clearly the author doesn't know as much as s/he should about the legal process of adoption, but I think a lot of you commenters know very little about mental illness and/or the emotional side of adoption.

The great thing about it, though, is how many knee-jerk reactions this query is getting so far. Whether it flies or not, at least people care. LOL

Anonymous said...

Anyone who thinks social workers and the like are some kind of failsafe to keep sh!thead freaks from acquiring innocent children has clearly not heard about that poor little boy in Ohio. The one placed in foster care and murdered (tied up and left in a closet for a weekend) by his social-worker approved foster parents.

Addiction (in this story) and pure evil (in real life) are separate issues, but things get missed. Backgrounds are not thoroughly investigated and it is highly plausible that this plot could work as written in the query.

Anonymous said...

I'm the author of the query and I want to thank everyone for the many comments and the lively discussion. Also to Evil Editor for the site. Although you get a shot are ridicule / humor in your initial comments, your revisions were very helpful.

For the novel, I think that every troublesome plot point of how the mechanics of an adoption process works is easily solved. Any Realist work needs sufficient detail to create verisimilitude; but I'm not writing a primer on inter-state adoption.

Concerns that someone on drugs would never be found a fit mother are valid, but the character, if you read the query, is only on them at the very end of the (false) term. We have many many examples of people who function fully as addicts of one sort or another -- until they crash (Rush Limbaugh, Keith Richards, Congressman Kennedy of Rhode Island to name a few). So this point doesn't worry me either.

9-11 is integrated as a catalyst of sorts but background, too. This may bother some who think it should be primary. But its gravitational force is too great for that. It's not a 9-11 story. It's a story that happens around the time 9-11 happened. As a writer and a person, I want to figure out how to integrate the horror of that day. Our protagonist is in California so her experience -- like so many others who didn't live right in Manhattan or across the way in New Jersey -- is at a necessary remove.

The book is finally a story of madness, how desire can shade into action and action into excess -- and how we might pull back from that excess and go on, even though we can't go on, we will go on.

The query obviously stirred some things up and that gives me encouragement.

Kathleen said...

The book is finally a story of madness, how desire can shade into action and action into excess -- and how we might pull back from that excess and go on, even though we can't go on, we will go on.

even though everyone wanted to talk about the adoption process rather than my question about themes (which is cool), I really think something like this needs to go into the query letter. Otherwise, it is really difficult to figure out the "point" of the book. Good luck.

HawkOwl said...

Author - Your comment sounds so much more thoughtful and competent than your query! LOL Now I really think this can go somewhere... Although I still hope it's gonna be the ironic-dark ending and not the shiny-happy ending.

Good luck!