Thursday, June 21, 2007
Guess the Plot
1. Okay, straw, wood, even bricks had already been used. But the Fourth Little Pig had a new idea. Let's see that wolf blow this one down!
2. Their lives have been ruined by violence, shattered marriages and prison. But these three men haven't forgotten the pact they made long ago as teenagers: to one day live out their fantasy of endless water fights in . . . The Waterhouse.
3. Not content with his 800-square-foot master bathroom, lottery winner Sven Olafsson decides to build a two-story, seven-room outhouse. Now he enjoys directing his guests there when they ask for the water closet.
4. How can young architect Colleen Tiblet convince land developers that water is a viable home building material? She has experimented with all sorts of ecology-friendly substances, and water is the best solution to global warming. But when Colleen actually constructs a house made of water, she is arrested and sentenced to burn at the stake.
5. The gas heater's drenched, the ceiling lights are zapping everyone within three blocks, and Bob Jameson is starting to think maybe a house made entirely of waterbeds filled with green Jell-O and '63 Red Burgundy wasn't such a bright idea after all.
6. Fabulous Twinky Waterhouse, sorority "princess," always uses the royal "we" in conversations on campus and is soooo popular--until her hometown nemesis arrives and blabs about "The Waterhouse" and her scandalous past. That's when Twinky realizes: Angel Jackson must die.
Jimmy Timberlake is the idealist, Marcus Gayle, the arrogant misogynist, and Copper, Marcus’s younger brother, lost, looking for a role model. [Together they form the supervillain organization known as . . . The Cult of Injustice.] As young teenagers, they form a pact: the first one to make a million dollars will purchase The Waterhouse, a place to live out their adolescent fantasy of endless water fights.
But much happens between water fights and adulthood -- shattered marriages, violence, and sexual abuse. As Timberlake deals with the death of his mother, and a difficult decision about putting down his mother’s ill horse, Copper tries to define himself as a DJ in Colorado, coming to grips with his older brother’s violence and his own guilt over a rape he witnessed his brother commit and did nothing about. Marcus, who’s in and out of jail, continues his ritual abuse of women with little respect for his wife and child. Finally, in an attempt to find himself, Marcus attends a Promise-Keepers rally, but ends up twisting their message until it fits his own destructive views of manhood. [This is a list of events connected to each other only by the fact that each happens to one of the Cult of Injustice. We need more than an outline, we need the connections.]
Since receiving my Ph.D. in creative writing from [That's it? You're done with the plot? That's a few events, but what happens? Do these guys still know each other as adults? Does Jimmy make a million dollars by inventing the Super Soaker Water Bazooka and buy the Waterhouse, only to discover Copper drowned while failing to save Marcus from being eaten by sharks? What ties this together after they're adults?] Oklahoma State University, I have published sections of this novel-in-stories in The Florida Review, Puerto del Sol, The Baltimore Review, Oxford Magazine, Weber Studies: Voices and Viewpoints of the Contemporary West, Midland Review, Unbound, The Jabberwock Review, and Moonshine Review. The manuscript itself placed in the top 25 out of 423 manuscripts in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship in 2001. [The query would be more impressive if James Earl Jones were reading it aloud.]
Follow these young men’s lives as they weave together through failed relationships, death, jail, adopted children, ritualistic basketball games, and life-affirming love on their journey to manhood and The Waterhouse. [Another list of stuff, mostly depressing. I need a better reason to follow these men's lives than the prospect of seeing them have a water fight in chapter 28.]
Enclosed for your consideration are three sample chapters (stories) and a synopsis. Thank you for your consideration.
Take out the shattered marriages, jail, rape, ritual abuse, death, and horse, and you've got a great middle grade book. Seriously. The mean and sinister neighbor, Mr. Grimball, goes on vacation. The Cult of Injustice break into his house and have water fights for two weeks. Squirt guns, hoses, water balloons. The carpeting, floorboards and walls are all waterlogged and rotting away. Eventually Grimball comes home, opens his front door, and whoooosh! Washed down the street on a tidal wave of his possessions.
Which came first? The novel or the stories? If the agent thinks you wrote a bunch of stories, realized novels sell better, and tacked the opening with the teenagers onto the front to connect the characters, she's not going to be optimistic. Is there a connection that runs through the entire book? Do the story/chapters include all three men, or have they gone their separate ways?
I would limit my credits to the two or three most impressive, and call them excerpts, rather than stories/chapters. If you want to offer this as a novel you may have to rewrite the book to give it the feel of a novel rather than a collection of stories. And if you've already done so, just rewrite the query to give that impression by concentrating on the thread that unites the whole book. Possibly this will mean sticking with one main character (the most likable one) and how his life is affected by the others.
Posted by Evil Editor at 10:22 AM
Labels: Literary Fiction
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i don't think i can add anything to this. EE has said it all for me. Waterfights are great and all but i just don't see grown men sitting around thinking about having water fights with each other all day... unless it was beer in the water guns, and there were babes in soon-to-be wet t-shirts, and dogs playing cards...
Sorry, author, you lost me "water fights."
I assume these men still fantasize of owning the Waterhouse. Why? I can't fathom that it's because they still want to have waterfights. What appeal does the house have now? Tell me this isn't Fight Club with squirt guns?
(Truly, you lost me at Jimmy Timberlake. I'm assuming you substituted this name for the real one. If you did not, it's uncomfortably close to a pop icon. I got an immediate visual of N'Sync with waterguns...Aaaghh! Make it go away!)
LOL--Number 1 GTP!
I'm not understanding the whole concept of "The Waterhouse." Teenagers are too old to make such a pact.
I agree with EE, that if you remove all the sex and violence, you could have a fun MG.
I'm sorry, but this was one of the more confusing reads for me. Hopefully EE's advice makes sense given the story you've written.
My new goal in life is to be rich enough to hire James Earl Jones to read my query letters out loud.
I bet he could get in the door of any publishing house...and sell my books!
I'm confused about what is being pitched. If this is a novel-in-stories, then the query should probably give us a sense of a story arc. Over what time period does it take place? 6 years, 16 years, 60 years? Which characters change? Or do none of them grow? EE's suggestion of focusing on one of the guys and telling the story from his POV in the query is a really good one.
Or is this not really a "novel," but a collection of slice-of-life stories? With as little as you've given us about the book or characters, I think an agent would appreciate knowing something about the structure before taking a gamble with reading further.
Was being in the top 25 considered "finaling" in the James Jones contest? If so, I would go with that term rather than "top 25." That kind of dilutes the accomplishment. Also, I wouldn't mention the year. Makes it sound like you've been peddling the ms since 2001 and not found a home for it after 6 years. Maybe "The manuscript itself was a past finalist in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest." But I would only mention the contest if it carries more weight than "excerpts" being pub'd in various Reviews.
So... the moral of the story is that waterfights lead to rape and violence and a life of crime?
I think "League of Injustice" might be more likely than "Cult of Injustice." No one really calls themselves a cult, do they?
Once again, all the author really needs to know is in EE's comments. I might suggest shorter sentences in places. For example, the first sentence of the second paragraph is a whopping 55 words. And it begins with a conjunction. (But so did my last sentence. Shoot, and that one, too!)
I'm not an expert on lit fic, but I read it. I think your query would benefit by giving us a sense of your theme. These character's lives have been shattered by violence, sexual abuse and prison, yet they long to return to a house to have waterfights? (I'm making an assumption here becuase you didn't tell us what they want.) Is the theme of your book a return to innocence? An escalation of violence, from squirt gun to actual pistol? What does your book say about humanity that I might not have contemplated? Why was it important for you to write it?
Marcus, who’s in and out of jail, continues his ritual abuse of women with little respect for his wife and child.
Hey, Lupe, you disrespected my wife and child, so I'm going to ritually abuse you. Hold this candle...
I've heard that grad school is much more helpful for learning to write short stories than it is for writing novels and this query helps clarify why. Each phase of this letter is a list of apparently unrelated items which do not add up to A STORY, which is what your would-be agent is looking for. One coherent focused story, a novel. What you maximized here is Chaos. This could be the table of contents of a newspaper or a lit mag, but it sure doesn't sound like a novel.
I would leave off mentioning the Brand X contest runner-up booby prize. Nobody cares.
Go find a copy of Robert McKee's book STORY and read it over a few times, then see ADAPTATION until you realize your mistake and try again.
Marcus, who’s in and out of jail, continues his ritual abuse of women with little respect for his wife and child.
Yeah, this is an easily misread sentence. I read it and wondered who he abused with the respect of this wife and child.
Frankly, this sort of summary: shattered marriages,ritual abuse, etc., always makes me want to go bathe.
Big non-sequitir between paras 1 and 2. No idea how these connect. Or if they both need to be in here. Is the Waterhouse dream relevant to the later story? Is the story retrospective and told from the viewpoints of the adults who once were these dreamers?
The letter doesn't interest me in this story in the tiniest way. Sorry.
Please find the enclosed chapter from my completed novel-in-stories, The Waterhouse, for consideration for publication, along with an SASE for your response.
When they were fifteen, friends Jimmy Lake, Copper Gale, and his brother, Marcus Gale make a pact: the first one to make their million will buy a house exclusively for the purpose of “water-fighting.” None of these boys from the town of Labette, Oklahoma, would ever succeed in their search for the money, that search superseded by a search for something much less tangible, much more transitory, along a road with eroding signposts and wrong turns – the search for what it is to be a man in today’s society.
We watch Marcus Gale, the violent traditional male, as he loses his wife and child, drives away his neighbors and friends, ritually abuses women, culminating at the local gym and an encounter with a female attendant with a bathroom sense of justice. Eventually Marcus becomes a Promise Keeper, distorting that group’s message into a reaffirmation of male dominance. Copper Gale staggers under the shadow of his brother, trying desperately to find a positive male role. He wanders from witnessing Marcus’s rape of a comatose girl at a party in high school to the Rocky Mountains to become a disc-jockey, years later finally finding a self-affirming relationship with an adopted daughter, Mercy, through an imaginary gunfight with the ghost of Mercy’s biological father. Finally, Jimmy Lake understands the difference between romantic love and its opposite -- reality – through the death of his mother, the crashing of several relationships, until finding his confident-but-non-dominant masculinity through his love for Cate Marrin, their child, Conner, and a group of people in Iron Mountain, Michigan, who are refashioning social norms to create real equality among a small (and eventually larger) group of people in the peninsula of Upper Michigan.
I have a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and have published 60% of this work in journals including The Florida Review, The Baltimore Review, Puerto del Sol, Weber Studies, Oxford Magazine, and others. Please notify me if you would like to see more.
I'd omit the description of your novel as "my completed novel in stories" because, firstly, we assume it's completed, and second, a novel in stories is going to stop the reader to puzzle out what you mean by that. "My novel" or "my manuscript" is sufficient, I should think. Also, it's sufficient to note at the bottom of the letter, "Encl: SASE" or similar business notation. (These vary.)
The revised version of this is much more clear, but it comes across as wholly unappealing to me. The reason is both content and the clinical way you describe your apparent protagonist, Marcus Gale. "We watch" is a clinical means of introducing Marcus' bad behavior. Then we have discussion of "ritual abuse of women" which is off-putting and vague at the same time. Then you list details that further put me off...and I see some indication that Marcus is, in fact, not your protagonist, but his brother is!
I don't have a problem with an abusive rapist as a character; but it is important to make me want to read about him. And I think the golden rule of queries is that you hook the reader of your letter on the protagonist. And if Marcus' brother Copper is the protagonist, I'd think you might want to start with him and his perspective, not Marcus.
There are a few things in here that confuse, like "Eventually Marcus becomes a Promise Keeper, distorting that group’s message into a reaffirmation of male dominance." This is without reference and confusing. What group? How does this relate to the story? It makes me suspect that a reference to a strange and twisted group without names or specifics might be in order instead of your very specific and yet undefined phrasing.
Overall, this still confuses, but it is a better letter.
"We watch Marcus Gale, the violent traditional male, as he loses his wife and child, drives away his neighbors and friends, ritually abuses women, culminating at the local gym and an encounter with a female attendant with a bathroom sense of justice."
Each of those maintains a parallel structure.
Then we get culminating. What is culminating? Marcus? These three actions? How about something like oh, I don't know, a new sentence with "His self-destruction culminates..." (If you must use culminates which is, frankly, as weak as "we watch Marcus..")
Finally, if ritually abusing women means he routinely gets some ass without calling the woman the next day, rephrase. Because I read it as something much more nepharious, like men who carve symbols on women they rape, and that phrase alone would prevent me from even thinking about reading this book.
I am really hoping their lives coincide again at the end, so that the stories end up weaving together. Something like:
When they were fifteen, friends Jimmy Lake, Copper Gale, and his brother, Marcus Gale make a pact to look after each other once they are rich and successful. 20 years later, they come together again to find that they are all struggling with what it means to be a man in today's society.
Sorry, but I can't get excited about the Water House - it probably fits in the book but unless water and water fights are a continuing theme (which should come out in the query) then simply leave it that they were friends and they made a pact. What it is doesn't justify the amount of space you are giving it, in my opinion.
The next section, the balance feels off: Marcus is abusive, Copper can't get over his guilt at not intervening and Jimmy's upset because his mother has died. Two of them have lifetime issues, Jimmy's had some bad relationships and a single traumatic moment. I'm sure it's important for the epiphany but I'd really rather see how they react to each other. Jimmy doesn't have to be totally fucked up, he just has to be a part of helping the brothers do something.
Unfortunately, this query left me with the same questions posed after the first: what exactly is the STORY here, and what does it have to do with the Waterhouse. My guess is that the story is about three boys who, when they are young, believe the greatest thing they can accomplish is buying a water house, and later, when they grow up, realize the greatest thing they can accomplish is learning how to be men. Am I right so far? Honestly my advice is to take that theme and work it into a hook at the beginning of the query, because, as it seems the books is a series of snapshots into these boys' interweaving lives, it is going to be confusing for an agent to get the gist of the entire story without that anchor.
Secondly, as Marcus seems to be the least appealing character, I wouldn't put him front and center in the query. I didn't have an issue with "ritually abusing women" - I think anonymous was thinking of "ritualistically," but if it's a problem for several people you could always change "ritually" to "continuously" or something like that. As it is now, the query sounds like a story of a sex-offender's redemption, and I think it is actually much more than that.
It is my interpretation that Jimmy is sort of the protagonist, so I might start the character descriptions with him. Maybe consider something like this:
1. A hook, wherein you describe how the boys' desires transcend from wanting a water house to wanting to be decent men.
2. A description of where the boys' lives started to go off track: Jimmy's mother's death, Marcus' rape, and Coopers' witnessing of Marcus' rape . . . and then a description of where they are now (as adults).
3. Then, to wrap it up, a description of how their lives are intertwined and how each is allowed the possibility (or not) of redemption and capturing that elusive "real" masculinity.
In parts 2 and 3 we don't necessarily need three or four examples of Marcus' abuses, Coopers' trials, etc. Just a short, general idea of where each is coming from and struggles with. For example, you give many many instances of Marcus' assaults, but really I think mentioning the original rape (when he was younger), and mentioning the continued abuse against his wife (now that he's an adult) will suffice.
One technical note: The tense in your first descriptive sentence shifted:
You say: When they WERE fifteen, friends Jimmy Lake, Copper Gale, and his brother, Marcus Gale MAKE a pact.
I would change this to either: when they ARE fifteen . . . [they] MAKE a pact. OR
When they WERE fifteen . . . [they] MADE a pact.
I think if you are able to clarify to the reader what Exactly the Story is, and how the boys are connected, you'll be in good shape :)
Finally, Jimmy Lake understands the difference between romantic love and its opposite - reality – through the death of his mother, the crashing of several relationships, until finding his confident-but-non-dominant masculinity through his love for Cate Marrin, their child, Conner, and a group of people in Iron Mountain, Michigan, who are refashioning social norms to create real equality among a small (and eventually larger) group of people in the peninsula of Upper Michigan.
I've bolded the portion of this incredibly long sentence that I think is grammatically incorrect. I would suggest "and finds . .. " to correct the error. So far the Yoopers are the most interesting aspect(to me)of your story. I would give them their own sentence.
"a bathroom sense of justice."
Wow, chelsea, that's a brilliant rewrite. -Barbara (not the author)
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