Thursday, January 04, 2007

Face-Lift 254

Guess the Plot

The Astrologer's Death

1. I was an innocent teenager when the astrologer forecast I would meet the last of the big-time spenders. Now I'm not, and I didn't, and someone's gonna pay.

2. An astrologer decides he wants to study the powers of the undead. But how? Then he hits upon an obvious solution. Step one: die.

3. On a United flight to LA, on the cusp of joining the Mile High Club, celebrity astrologer Mazel Tov learns that he was actually born an hour earlier than he thought. His corrected horoscope warns of an early demise in a plane crash. Hilarity ensues as he makes the most of his last minutes on earth.

4. Maxine Tuttle is shocked to read the date of her own demise. Monday! She buys a lot of skimpy clothes, a wig, and dark glasses, flies to Paris, and has a blast pretending to be a glamorous superspy. But Tuesday morning she wakes up next to a dead Saudi prince and realizes she was wrong about Venus and her troubles have only just begun.

5. After predicting his own early death, an astrologer seeks to become an astronaut so he can blow up the moon, thus rearranging his fatal starchart.

6. Emperor Myrmyx the Ever-Victorious has a secret weapon. His anonymous prisoner is the astrologer Goshdaarf the Unerring. When Goshdaarf is found slain in the palace privy, Myrmyx calls on his second most trusted adviser, Norroming the Nosy, to unravel the mysterious death.

Original Version

Dear Perfect Agent,

In early seventeenth-century England, magic is real, as are other, darker things. THE ASTROLOGER'S DEATH is an 80,000 word historical fantasy set in a passionate, fearful time, when witchfinders reigned and even a King's head was not secure. [You know, they probably wouldn't behead the King or Queen of England in modern times, but think about it: you can't buy the kind of publicity that would generate.]

Village midwife Nan Moray does her best to avoid trouble and the suspicion of witchcraft. When runaway apprentice Tom begs a night's shelter, her kind heart overrules her good sense and she lets him stay. [Her good sense is telling her, If you let this guy sleep in the barn, you'll be accused of witchcraft?] But Tom is pursued not only by his angry master--a secret magician--but by that master's new allies: undead revenants. [Undead revenants? No one knows what that means. Most people are going to read "undead revenants" and think "undead ruminants," aka zombie cows. In fact, while you'll probably think I'm joking, I have to say it anyway: Your book is guaranteed to be better if you change the undead revenants to zombie cows.]

Armed with Tom's half-learned sorcery and Nan's herb-lore, the two survive the first attacks [Nothing beats half-learned sorcery and herb-lore when it comes to thwarting a series of attacks by the undead:

Tom: The house is surrounded by zombie cows!
Nan: Quick, check the spice rack. I'll need some cumin and some figwort.
Tom: Abra ca . . . Hocus . . . Damn it!]

and learn the nature of their enemy. Tom returns to the home he fled, [The magician and the undead are attacking them in Nan's house, so Tom ditches her and goes home?] taking the battle to the revenant stronghold, and earns a brief respite. [How is taking the battle to the revenant stronghold a respite?] As witch-fever grows in England, [Salem had witch fever. I'm less inclined to call it a fever in a world that has powerful magicians, undead revenants, and zombie cows. Evil Editor would be burning witches and cows right and left if magic really existed.] Tom and Nan discover that the living can be crueler than the undead. When Nan is imprisoned for witchcraft, Tom makes the revenants his tool for vengeance, risking his life and soul. [This is where the zombie cow idea would be brilliant. Think Tom riding the foremost zombie cow as the herd stampedes through the witch hunters' stronghold. Let's turn this into a screenplay and get Oliver Stone interested.] [If you thought mad cow disease was bad, you should have been here when undead cow disease was around.] [British tabloid headline, 1618: Revenant Ruminants Running Rampant.]

I have attended ________ and have a story in _________ . I've been involved in Living History for several years, but this is my first foray into Undead History. Thank you for your time and consideration. SASE is enclosed.


my name

(Explanation of title: Tom's master, Gybbins, is ostensibly an astrologer, secretly a magician. He dies purposely, in order to gain and study the powers of the undead.)


I know you're not going to change the book so it has zombie cows, but as an experiment, send out a couple queries with zombie cows, and report back your results.

You can do without the first sentence. It's not clear what you mean by "other, darker things."

It could use more specificity and information. I know the opening situation, but I don't know enough of what happens.

What did Nan do that got her accused of witchcraft? Must be the old Catch 22: If the zombie cows can kill you, you must not be a witch. If you manage to thwart the zombie cows, you must be a witch, thus you must die.


Dave Fragments said...

ya know,
I've watched lots of silly comedy movies and most of them have LESS plot than GTP 3. On a United flight to LA...

If I were you I would start out the query from the initial problem -

"When Tom's Master and mentor, {name} kills himself to become one of the undead, Tom finds himself on the run not only for witchcraft but for murder."

That's only a start, but I think it would be the place to start.

Marissa Doyle said...

Does this mean Nan risks being burned at the steak?

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

I can see this needing both more and less specificity--making clearer who's behind the zombies (bovine or not) and why he's attacking while at the same time losing things like "Tom returns...earning a brief respite..." and that sort of thing. That's synopsis. Give a little more "why" and less "what".
In romance it's called GMC--telling the main characters' goals, motivations, and conflicts.

Speaking of which, is there a romance between Tom and Nan? Or are their relative ages different? You might clarify that.

Anonymous said...

But is Nan a crazed midwife?

Anonymous said...

this is the funniest thing i have read all year, and maybe last year too:

Tom: The house is surrounded by zombie cows!
Nan: Quick, check the spice rack. I'll need some cumin and some figwort.
Tom: Abra ca . . . Hocus . . . Damn it!

merper said...

It's good to see you back in full force, EE.

I think this one will be a new classic, with the zombie cows.

Your two points seem unlinked. First, they're fighting the revenants(and yes I've played enough RPGs to know what those are) then suddenly the MC runs back and starts using them to fight the king? Whatever happened to the master who was after him?

Clear up the connection.

Xenith said...

'Magic is real' in a historical fantasy? It usually is. Big deal.

That does not make for a very attention getting opening.

Stacia said...

Oh, EE, I laughed way harder than I deserve to.

I can't even focus enough to post a decent comment, so I'll have to do it in the morning.

Revenent Ruminants...oh...

Anonymous said...

The Zombie cow concept, I understand and find amusing. Undead remnants or whatever? I'm clueless. Did you find them in a book re 17th Century magic theory? Or some videogame?

If they're videogame characters, it might be time to go back to the drawing board or history and stay there until you have a horde of ghouls that are not covered with someone else's copyrights/trademarks. If they're historic, you might give the agent a few clues what they're like.

Anonymous said...

xenith makes a pretty good point.

pacatrue said...

I had a similar thought to xenith's after reading the line about 17th century england and magic being real. I read this as the author saying, "I've take Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and moved it back a couple centuries. Brilliant!" Maybe just saying it's a historical fantasy does the trick and stops the mistaken parallels to the other book?

If its historical setting is fundamental to the story (I started looking up places and people in the Strange and Norrell book, because I couldn't tell what was history and what was fiction), then you will want some sentence so that the agent gets this. However, as currently written, it seems the classic story of apprentice sorceror and herbologist fight undead revenants could be set in any century and any place.

Since the historical setting does seem relevant and you chose revenants and not zombies (which according to wikipedia are distinguished from zombies by their specificity, also here), maybe you could structure the query so that it sounds almost like a bit of English history for the first paragraph. I.e., name names. So instead of fighting undead revenants, have Magistrate Smithee and his cat Floofums come back from the dead and go after Tom.

Another thought was, "Wow, I've let my house get pretty messy some times, but I've never come home to find undead revenants lying about." The author should just ignore this thought. And probably the ones above, too.

I'm now going to go stock up on cumin - just in case. Great job, EE.

Anonymous said...

I thought GTP#4 sounded like a fun read!

When I read revenants, I thought of revenuers (or however that's spelled) and thought of hidden stills in Appalachia.


LOL at zombie cows.

Your story sounds very ordinary--woman with secrets helps young boy against impossible odds and life threatening battle. They succeed. All of the undead and setting don't change that much.

Ordinary plots can work, but you have to give us a reason to want to read them. Undead and revenants doesn't do it for me.

Good luck.

Evil Editor said...

By the way, isn't the term "undead revenants" redundant? Revenant can mean someone who returns after a long absence, but here it means someone who has returned from the dead. And all such revenants would, by definition, be undead.

Blogless Troll said...

So... if I understand pacatrue's links correctly, revenants are friends, but zombies are more like acquaintances? Friends, inasmuch as you might've been close to the guy once, but he still wants to eat you.

And which one's harder to kill? Or, rekill, or whatever?

Anonymous said...

To the Author, I have a suggestion based on my own fruitless attempts to construct a satisfying magical world. James H Schmitz suspended my disbelief with a never-ending unfolding of magical abilities, but everyone else needs to specify what can and cannot be done with magic. That is, incant spells? Or throw spells? Change into other species? Fly? Beam me up, Scotty? Cause warts by judicious application of toad sweat?

So instead of saying magic is real, why not give one or two examples of what different capabilities exist in your alternate reality.

And to GTP number 1, please, please, please write this novel. Your voice is luminous, even in those two short sentences. Actually, not exactly luminous, more like snarky and sarcastic. I love it. I want more.

batgirl said...

Evil, you are brilliant. Thank you. This size of precis is driving me mad. I can do a synopsis easily, but when I pull the focus back far enough to get the whole plot in a couple of paragraphs I lose all the detail. Gah!
The zombie cows are a wonderful concept. I wonder if I should add them to the alien-possessed sheep story, or just replace the alien sheep with zombie cows?
The revenants are dead people who don't stay dead. They're, um, kinda, vampires, but the word 'vampire' doesn't reach England for another century, and there's no English folk tradition of bloodsucking dead, though there are malevolent dead aplenty. So vampires as interpreted through 17th c. folklore. If that helps. This is a pathetically non-commercial book. The main characters are an overweight middle-aged woman and an ugly resentful teenager, there's a twenty-year break in the middle of the action (pt.1: revenants, pt.2, witchfinders) and it ends unhappily. Oh, and the dialogue uses a lot of archaic words.
The zombie cows stand a much better chance of selling - I'll credit you in the acknowledgements when I sell that one.

writtenwyrdd said...

A thought: Don't call this a historical fantasy, just call it a fantasy. So many are set in historical (sort of) worlds that you can have your cake (historical) and eat it too (anachronisms like the word vampire.) Yay! You can thus be less cryptic in your query AND the text.

Also, just a thought, but in a query, why worry about using the word vampire? You are not writing the backmatter, you are hooking an agent or editor. So use the words that work. I would recommend starting where Dave suggests (go Dave! another great idea!) and use a word that no one will misconstrue (vampires.)

I think the basic plot also comes across as a bit too commonplace the way you describe it, so I would try to find wording that sparks. (That's not to say that it sounds like a dull story.)

Unknown said...

I'd way rather read a fantasy about "an overweight middle-aged woman and an ugly resentful teenager" than about a gorgeous elf princess and a beefcake knight. Do these characters have distinctive voices? Are they funny? Do they help us see the impact of witch-hunting on ordinary people? Can you convey more about them in the query?

Also, witch-hunting does seem a bit more... sensible in a world where magic exists. Maybe the alternate-history aspect needs to be (briefly) addressed... witch-hunting arises from a justifiable fear, but it gets out of hand and makes no distinctions between good magic and bad, blah blah blah.

Angus Weeks said...

(#5 was my favourite. I couldn't guess which one was the real plot)

Zombie cows LOL. I wanna read about zombie cows. Who's going to write a zombie cow story?

For the author:
I agree with "fuchsia groan" that your characters sound much more interesting the way you have described them in the comments section. While it is true that in a novel you would tend to 'show not tell', in a query you can afford to be direct and say 'ugly resentful teenager' if that's what Tom is.

Revenants sound interesting, now that I have read the Wikipedia link someone provided. I think it would help if you spent a word or two describing what a revenant is (but don't say 'undead revenant' because it's clear that's a tautology). If the revenants have similarities with vampires, I'd add that detail, even if 'vampire' as you say doesn't become a term until later in history.

kiss-me-at-the-gate said...

EE, you are in top form. I forced my best friend to read this while I howled with laughter. (She thought it was pretty funny too).

Author, I think it has promise -- like some of the other commenters, I'd much rather read about an overweight middle-aged woman and a resentful ugly teenager than the gorgeous cliched characters that seem to populate fantasy these days -- but your query is a little too much synopsis and not enough "why should we care", I think. I know that doesn't help much, but maybe you could focus on why instead of what?