Sunday, December 03, 2006

Face-Lift 238

Guess the Plot

Oak and Stone

1. The Vicar's wife's interpretation of doughty spinster Amelia Pettipants' cake recipe stresses natural ingredients. But will the plucky sleuth be blamed for gastric distress or will she explain her cake is supposed to be heavy?

2. When you're busy fighting crime in Boring-on-End, you don't have time to perfect your baking. But Miss Amelia Pettipants is bound and determined to find out who is calling her "oaten scones" by a different name.

3. In this Socratic dialogue between an oak tree and a large rock, the main characters discuss the nature of man and his effects on the environment.

4. Noah and his brother Hirschel can never agree on anything -- not a good thing when the boatbuilders are in financial straits. One ark of oak, the other of stone, and control of the family business is riding on the flotation test.

5. Hot times are had by all when Lord Dinford starts working with Dame Katherine to update Lingus Castle -- until they remove a cracked wall, revealing the secret passage to the hidden chamber where the vampire dwells.

6. Spared from a massacre, a young man travels the world inspiring people to throw off the shackles of oppression and fight for freedom. Also, a mysterious archer.

Original Version

Dear­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ Evil Editor

I read on your website that your company represents authors in the fantasy genre, and I thought my book might appeal to you. I am seeking representation for my completed novel, "Oak and Stone", a 186,000-word fantasy adventure [in which an elf and a fairy play "Oak and Stone," a simplified version of Rock, Paper, Scissors, in which stone beats oak.] [How can a game of Oak and Stone last 186,000 pages? Easy. The elf and the fairy both keep going with stone.

Excerpt from Chapter 94

Kookah the elf decided to try a different strategy. "Look, he said, we've had three thousand consecutive ties with stone. Just for a little variety, how about we both go with oak?"

"Why not?" Hex Gobfilter agreed. "My hand is tired of making stones."

Kookah called, "One, two, three, go," and they both threw . . . stone.

Excerpt from Chapter 402

After 20,000 ties Kookah had finally grown tired of the game. Screw this, he thought, I'll throw oak, just to get it over with. Then I can go find that cute smurf I met at the lawn dart game.

"One, two, three, go!" he said, and formed the oak. But the fairy, Hex Gobfilter, had had the same idea, and they tied again. They laughed uncontrollably for several minutes. Then they resumed the game, both choosing stone 2000 times in a row.]

Tam's untroubled life with the merchant caravans ends in a bloody glen when invading warriors massacre his company. [I hate to tell you this, but you're one sentence into your plot and I already find myself wanting to get back to Kookah and Hex Gobfilter.]

[Excerpt from Chapter 541

"I think I see the problem," Kookah said. "We need something that beats stone."

"How about oak?" Hex Gobfilter suggested.

"Perfect," Kookah said, after which they both threw oak 3000 times.]

Saved from the slaughter by a mysterious archer, Tam travels a besieged land, clinging to hope he'll find some peace or refuge. But instead, he collides with the brutal [eunuchs of the Gohr prison planet Lycus IV, and must contend with the] realities of the conquerors' unjust rule. [Did you see how much more compelling that sentence became when I added a few pieces of specific information?] Thus follows the tale of a seemingly ordinary young man who inspires ordinary people to rise together in a desperate fight for freedom. In so doing, he stirs forgotten powers rooted in his kinship to the centuries-dead High Kings: powers linked to the very land he walks. In the final confrontation with their oppressors, king and country hang in the balance as Tam faces the price of his legacy: an ancient duty to defend his people at all costs - for a victory he may not live to see. [Those last three sentences are pretty general. I have to guess what they mean.] [Is the "ancient duty" his legacy, or the price of his legacy?]

I have been writing for over ten years, but this is my first novel for publication. [Actually, judging by its length, I'd say it's your first two or three novels for publication.] I am well along with a second, unrelated fantasy novel, as well as pursuing shorter projects. Previously I have had non-fiction articles published in genealogical newsletters, and two short stories and a handful of poems in small publications. [Your credits are no more specific than your plot summary.] I am a horsewoman, [AKA a female centaur.] border collie trainer, and self-taught longbow archer residing in rural northern Nevada. [Aren't all longbow archers self-taught? Or are there people who make their living teaching longbow archery? That's it, now pull back the arrow and . . . Release!]

Would you like to see "Oak and Stone"? Per your website instructions, I am enclosing a synopsis for your perusal, and I have included an SASE for your convenience. This is a multiple submission, but I will of course give you exclusive reading should you request further material. Thank you for the opportunity to submit my work to you. I look forward to your response. [Get rid of two or three of these sentences. The query is over; no need to prolong it ad nauseum.]



Shortening the last two paragraphs would add space to make the plot more specific. Where does this take place? When? Who are the oppressors? How do the good guys plan to defeat them? Is the archer Tam's partner throughout, or does he vanish after saving him?


Dave Fragments said...

Pseudolus is a member of the House of Lycus (Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the forum). Of course, in the movie, Jack Gifford played the eunuch, I think.

"Powers linked to the land" - Sounds like Donaldson and his white gold wielding hero bound to the land and doomed to die with the illearth tree (or something like that, please don't correct me if I'm wrong)...

And what of the mysterious archer who saves his life? I'll bet he's a long lost relative - father forced to abandon son at birth and go into commercial deer hunting? or if the archer i from the distaff side, she's Irma, prostitute with the heart of gold and swore to his mother as she died bearing the hero that she'd protect him. She takes him and flies away to a cursed forest guarded by a dragon adn his gold.

Or maybe Richard Hatch still looking for his star? Xena?

I'm a sucker for these stories, but I'd like to know the plot, really, honest, I wouldn't lie about that... But you left the archer's fate out of the story.

I'm watching Doctor Carter (Noah Wiley) playing Indiana Jones and Stewart Granger in the fifth remake of Beau Jest meets King Solomin's mines staring SPOT the wonder dog. AND, sadly, it's entertaining. So don't worry about the oditities of your plot, tell them all.

Anonymous said...

As EE pointed out, this query is very vague about what the plot is. What exactly does Tam do and what's his motivation for doing it? What exactly are his powers? Who exactly are the bad guys? (Oh yeah; the "oppressors". Those guys are everywhere.)

Also, 186,000 words?!? Yow. You're going to have trouble finding representation for a behemoth like that if it's your first novel.

GutterBall said...

Dadgum. I really, really wanted to see GTP#4. The family business, indeed.

Anonymous said...

and I thought my book might appeal to you

This bit made me cringe and it's right in the first sentence. I would suggest you remove it.

A query letter is a sales pitch. You need to sound positive and confident about your novel. Avoid using terms that come across as neutral or negative.

EE rightly points out your description isn't "punchy" enough and the last two paragraphs need surgery.

I get the impression you are trying too hard to be dispassionate and business-like in your approach. The end result is too neutral and invites rejection.

You don't need to be pushy but your letter needs a stronger tone.

Don't offer an exclusive in your query letter it's just creating an air of desperation.

Also -
Exclusives often cause problems for writers. For more info on that subject see the archives at Miss Snark.

Good luck with your novel.

HawkOwl said...

Yeah, I was so disappointed when the adventures of Kookah and Hex Gobfilter ended, I didn't even read the rest of the query. I'll try again tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest the author send the manuscript to dave and pay him a hefty fee to "trim the fat" and send back a 100k word novel.

Or, break it into a 90k word novel with a 90k word sequel. -JTC

Dave Fragments said...

I’m recycling my own post from another blog.

The synopsis they (reader, agent, editor) want is like a blurb on the inner leaf of the dust cover. It's a bit of advertising and plot summary - Like:

My Novel set in 1490, Crisotbal, a 123,456 word work of historical fiction traces the love of a poor sailor for his queen as they conspire together to discover the new world. Spain was a hotbed of infidelity, betrayal and deceit, travel with Cristobal and Isabel as they overcome murder, petty theft, diaper rash and the inquisition to prove that the earth is round and ships will not fall off the edge.

That's the type of hype (although I wrote about a fictional book) that you have to write to create some excitement about your novel in the reader, agent, editor. You have to transfer your enthusiasm for the story to the reader, agent, editor.

I have a copy of "In Other Words" by Chistopher Moore - its flap reads, "Take a trip around the world of words and unlock the meaning of some of the most insightful, intriguing, and satisfying expressions on the planet, for which there are no English equivalents." It’s a book about odd foreign words.

A good author to look at for book synopses is Simon Winchester. He writes on such mundane topics that you wonder how the book could sell – earthquakes, geology, the Oxford English Dictionary, etc… All of his book flaps are exciting. For instance: THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN is an extraordinary tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history. With riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary.

Simon Singh wrote a book on the mathematical proof of Fermat's Last Theorem and his first chapter is a lesson in how to make dull mathematics exciting - You see, the worlds best mathematicians gather every few years. This one particular year, they all went to a long lecture on obscure mathematics that, at its end, proved the truth of one of the holy grails of math – (almost a proof that God exists for mathematicians). Singh writes the first chapter to be exciting, so exciting that even those who have no chance of understanding the math (like me), understand how exciting that final equation was to write on the blackboard –- ten years of work alone in an attic, a career making result, a childhood dream achieved, a 350 year old mystery solved, history made before your very eyes in an equation of less than a dozen symbols.

Sell your book with enthusiasm.

Nancy Beck said...

I agree that the query is quite vague and needs some details in it (as whitemouse pointed out). Let your enthusiasm for the story show up in the query!

That said, even in SF/fantasy, 186,000 words is too long; trim about 80,000 words off it, or, as someone else suggested, see if there's a natural split at about 90,000 words, while the other 90,000 or so can be offered up as a sequel (a duology, in other words).

If this were my book, I think I would go with the first idea.

Whatever you decided, author, good luck!


Anonymous said...

Hi guys, this is me, your friendly victim! ;-)

I'm going to be ice-packing the bruises for a while, but ... I appreciate the candor (and irreverence) with which everyone has responded. Yeah, I know the damn thing is a beast. The novel I'm working on at present is also fantasy, but it's considerably shorter. I suspect if I'm ever to have a first novel, it will be that one, not the one I'm trying (badly) to shop here.

I wish I *could* cut the blasted thing in half. I'll ponder on it, but I just don't see a natural break anywhere near the middle. Maybe I'll find one, though, so I'll give it careful study. As for lopping half the words ... *sighh* I'm lopping, I'm lopping, but I can't find that many words to cut. Not without turning the novel into something completely different. But again, I'm not saying no!

Finally - gad, I wonder does everyone struggle over their first query letter as much as I've fought with this one? I've been all over the 'net trying to find how-to's and read examples of queries that worked, and just ... tied myself in knots. LOL, so it was with some surprise I heard my query is vague ... but it IS! So I'll try again. And again. And maybe I'll come back and tag a rewrite of the story description here, to see if anyone wants to offer further critique.

Finally ... how long CAN that descriptive blurb be? I've seen several sites say one should never devote more than 5 or 6 sentences! Does anyone here have thoughts on that? Is it physically possible for a new author to sell a book on the strength of just 5 or 6 sentences?

Meanwhile, thanks, Evil Editor, and thanks everyone else for all the help. I'm going to limp off back to work, now ... ;-)
Cheers ~

G. Atwater

Anonymous said...


Dave, thank you especially for recycling good advice for me. LOL, I wish I could pay someone hefty fees to help me edit, but I'm broke broke broke. So it's on me to figure out what the heck I'm doing.

Still amazed at learning my query is boring! I guess my inate fear of offending anybody leaked through - clearly I need to get over that! ;-) Thanks again!

~ G. Atwater

Anonymous said...

There is no need to state the glaringly obvious in a query letter. All you really need to open your letter is: "I am currently seeking representation for my 186 000 word fantasy novel, Oak and Stone." Or: "Please consider for publication my fantasy novel, Oak and Stone, complete at 186 000 words." Of course, a real improvement would be to change 186 000 words to 120 000 with some rigorous pruning.

I don't know about cutting it in half. Some stories just don't have a breakable mid-point. If you can, I would suggest it, but don't kill your book to do it.

On the other hand, you need to go back through it and cut or pare down anything that doesn't advance plot, character or setting.

You query letter seems wordy but vague. Concise and specific is what you want. If the book is equally as wordy, it will need a trim.

Dave Fragments said...

Dear author,
I sympathize with you about cutting words. It's not easy to delete those wonderful little words that we love so much.

And as far as I can tell, you are not alone in your struggle to write the query letter. It's not an easy task.

Anonymous said...

I think the query is a well-done framework that, with some more detail, could work well.

As far as lopping, I think your problem is that you're too close to the story. Put it away for a month, or maybe 6, and don't think about it. When you get back to it with fresh eyes, look for places that need to go. With a size like this, you're going to have to cut entire storylines and characters, whether or not you think they're vital to the main story.

Alternately, have an uninvolved reader give it a go-through. Doesn't have to be a professional editor. Just someone who can tell you what you can do without, or where you might be able to break it up.

Anonymous said...

"Or, break it into a 90k word novel with a 90k word sequel."

Or perhaps a 90k novel with a 90k prologue. Author, think hard where your story really begins and how much is back story that, while informative to the overall story of the characters, may not be essential to the book.

"I wonder does everyone struggle over their first query letter as much as I've fought with this one? I've been all over the 'net trying to find how-to's and read examples of queries that worked, and just ... tied myself in knots."

Have no fear. You are on the right track. And unlike some authors I've seen through here, it appears you have an attitude that speaks well of your potential to improve in your future efforts. I expect to see you in print one day for sure.

HawkOwl said...

Ok, now I read the whole thing and it says, "hello, I have a generic fantasy story using generic plot #2: ordinary man discovers he's king and leads his people to better times." And like any generic fantasy, it's a trilogy. Blah. Can you make it say "this is NOT a generic fantasy plot"?

Plus we never did find out what's behind the title. That's a pretty generic fantasy method too.

Good luck with it.

GutterBall said...

Finally - gad, I wonder does everyone struggle over their first query letter as much as I've fought with this one?

Yes. And I'm pretty sure it's not just the first one we struggle over, though I'm still pretty stuck on that one, too.

Anonymous said...

HawkOwl said...
Ok, now I read the whole thing and it says, "hello, I have a generic fantasy story using generic plot #2: ordinary man discovers he's king and leads his people to better times." And like any generic fantasy, it's a trilogy. Blah. Can you make it say "this is NOT a generic fantasy plot"?

Exactly! LOL! You hit it right on the head. :-)

I honestly don't think my story *is* a generic fantasy plot, or at least I think my handling of it is not the same old tired cliche. (One he's not a king, he's only distantly related to some old dead ones, and he's not particularly fond of the spot he's landed in, LOL!) BUT ... yeah. How do I shape a sales pitch that screams out, "This Is Not Generic Fantasy Plot #2"? The hardest thing for me is, simply, distilling the story down to its most integral, central ... thing. But at least now I have diagnosed my problems, so I can attempt to rectify it.

If I come up with a better pitch in the next while, I'll post it here for discection. Meanwhile ... thanks, guys. :-)
Cheers ~

G. Atwater

Anonymous said...

At least its not Mat.

Wait... Brutal Eunuchs! Again?

We are not brutal! I'll sue you all for discrimination!

Off to cry myself to sleep.