Monday, July 09, 2007

Face-Lift 374

Guess the Plot

That's Dog with a Capital D

1. e.e. cummings' best friend breaks his silence in this startling tell-all that explains why he finally snapped and tore the annoying poet's throat out.

2. In this howling memoir, the pool hall pooch from "The Music Man" spills all. Get the real dirt on Marian, the Professor and what really went on in River City's notorious library.

3. Nilla with a capital N wants a dog with a capital D. Nilla's wimpy Pop, with a capital P, reneges on his promise to get her one, because her mom (with a small m) is worried Nilla's brother Arnie (capital A) will eat it.

4. Kermit tried telling his producers that three-year-olds were too stupid to understand the alphabet. But did he listen? Nooo. All he cared about was keeping Big Bird's feathers clean, and Grouch's trash can full. If they make me do one more letter, Kermit thought, I'm gonna kick some preschool ass.

5. It's not easy being the first Golden Retriever to attend Harvard Law School, but Scrappy McButtons is determined to make it work. But when a jealous human classmate shows up at a torts exam in a suit made of roast beef, can Scrappy overcome his primal urges long enough to gain the respect he deserves?

6. Dog Smith hates his name - especially when a mix-up at the Department of Motor Vehicles gets him sent to the pound. But when he gets adopted by a world-famous supermodel, he realizes: a dog's life isn't so bad after all.

Original Version

Dear Agent/Editor:

The summer Nilla Jeffers moves to Washington, D.C., she’s convinced that eleven years of wishing on birthday candles, dandelion seeds, and the first star in the night sky have paid off: she is finally getting a dog. [Nilla, Nilla, be careful what you wish for. Here's verse 2 from my poem, "I Hate My Pets:"

He sheds on the carpet;
He sheds on my clothing;
The whole house is knee-deep in hair.
He barks at the neighbors;

He bites the repairman;
And chases the cat everywhere.
He chews up my shoes;
He humps my guests' legs;
He nips at my heels when I jog.
So many animals get hit by cars;
Why doesn't . . . my friggin' dog?]

After all, her Pop promised. But even before all the boxes are unpacked, Mom makes it clear that Nilla’s dream won’t be coming true any time soon. [Ah, we have our hated villain.]

Life in the Jeffers family revolves around Nilla’s fifteen year-old handicapped brother, Arnie. Years of trying to deal with Arnie’s undiagnosed issues – an uncontrolled appetite, tantrums, learning disabilities – have left Mom emotionally unstable and the family fabric strained. Nonetheless, Nilla is hopeful. [At last a compromise is reached, as Nilla is given a birthday gift of a Chia pet.]

Undaunted by Mom’s refusal to get her a dog, Nilla persists in plotting and planning ways of trying to change her mom’s mind: She befriends the kind next door neighbor, Rosemary, and “practices” with her dog, Roger; she enlists the support of her Uncle Joe; [she puts arsenic in her mom's gin and has her brother hospitalized;] and she quotes from her favorite book, Caring for Your Dog.

Eventually, driven by frustration and desperation, Nilla lashes out, bungling, she thinks, any chance of getting a dog. Ultimately, though, a heroic act on her part helps Nilla realize her dream, but in a way she never would have expected. [She rescues a stray, and when she brings it to the pound, they give her a job there, as a dog euthanizer.]

That’s Dog with a capital D is the story of relationships in a family with a handicapped child, told from the perspective of a sibling who desperately wants to be normal.

The full 30,000-word Middle Grade manuscript is available on request. I have enclosed a SASE for your reply.

Thank you for your consideration.



I would just refer to dealing with Arnie's learning disabilities and tantrums. Leave out the uncontrolled appetite; it makes Arnie sound like Evil Editor.

It sounds a bit dull, and while the book could easily appeal to dog loving kids without much excitement, you might want to see how the query reads with more about Nilla's lashing out and her heroic act and the surprise ending.

Someone was bound to ask, so here's verse 1:

She pukes on my carpet,
She pukes on my sofa,
She pukes onto my TV set.
She coughs up huge hairballs
And her vet bills have left me
Ten thousand dollars in debt.
She claws all my chairs and my
Curtains, and each day
She brings in a dead mouse or rat.
Hey, the only dead animal I want to see
Inside my house . . . is my own friggin' cat.


Chris Eldin said...

From a "Friends" episode:

[Scene: Monica and Rachel's apartment. Phoebe enters to see
Monica, Richard, Ross, and Rachel tearfully watching TV.]

PHOEBE: Hey. Watcha guys doin?

RICHARD: Monica's making us watch Old Yeller.

PHOEBE: Why are you guys so upset? It's Old Yeller, it's a happy movie.


ROSS: What're you talkin' about?

PHOEBE: C'mon, happy family gets a dog, frontier fun.

ROSS: Yeah but Phoebs, what about the end?

PHOEBE: What when Yeller saves saves the family from the wolf and everyone's happy?

RACHEL: That's not the end.

PHOEBE: Yu-huh. That's when my mother would shut off the TV and say 'The end'.

MONICA: What about the part where he has rabies?

PHOEBE: He doesn't have rabies, he has babies. That's what my mom said.

RICHARD: Uh, Phoebe, I don't think your mom would want you to see what's about to happen.

PHOEBE: What, what's about to happen? [starts watching] I've never seen this part before. Hey, Travis, watcha doin' with that gun? Oh no, no no Travis, put down the gun. No no no no, he's your buddy, he's your Yeller, no, no no, the end,

THE END. [hear the gunshot from the TV]

(co-written by Evil Ed)

Dave Fragments said...

the story should be about the emotional stress that having a severly handicapped sibiling puts on a family. The mother who takes care of a handicapped shild while neglecting the other children is not unstable. She might be misguided but not mentally ill.

I know this story in real life and the Mother finally consented to place the handicapped child in a home when she realized just how much she was cheating her other children. I've also worked with disabled kids of all sort. From the merely deaf to the kids who need attendant care 24 hrs a day. This query doesn't describe any of my experiences.

As for EE - my favorite ee cummings poem is "She Being Brand". I won't comment on the two petulant "Paeans to Pets."

none said...

Seems to leave out the part where the cat kills a mouse, places it tenderly in your bed, you don't notice, and it's discovered the next day somewhat...flat.

Dave Kuzminski said...

Don't you all realize your cats have observed your puny hunting skills and are trying to prevent others from calling you "vegetarians" (which is an American native word for lousy hunter) by bringing you fresh prey which you can then process by cutting off the head for trophy use and cooking up the rest to share with the bountiful hunter who is trying to keep you from starving?

Chris Eldin said...

I agree with Dave's comments. I also want to know what you mean by Nilla lashing out. That sounds key, and it's glossed over in your query.


P.S. I'd retitle your story. How about "Nervous Rex"

I also have a bunch of other (unchosen) titles over at Nathan's blog. You could use "The Headless Stupid" if you like (if the dog is beheaded by a zombie in your story).

Anonymous said...

The disordered behaviors you describe are really unpleasant to witness and try to deal with in real life and I pretty much don't read about them for fun. They're not exactly popular topics for kids, either, are they? Very challenging material to include in a novel for any age group. I guess if you handle it brilliantly it can work, but I doubt the adolescent-having-tantrums is your best selling point. Probably best to minimize that, as EE suggests. Maybe it would work to just mention the name of his ailment[s] in the query and let the knowledgable agent fill in the blank.

Robin S. said...

Hi author,

I don't know anything about middle grade novels, but I think the idea of telling a story about the wishes of a sibling of a handicapped boy is a good one. The story doesn't sound boring to me - I've seen the impact a handicapped child can have on siblings, parents, etc., and I'd like to think a thoughtful book dealing with this would be welcome.

I would like to know more about Nilla's lashing out, as takoda mentioned. Is it that she's had to behave, to keep quiet in order to keep the peace - and she's decided enough is enough? Something like that?

Good luck with your book.

Evil Editor said...

Hey, I didn't say it was boring, I said to tell us about the lashing out and the heroic act and the surprise ending so we'd have what appears to be the most exciting part. The part that goes:

Nilla: Can I have a dog now Mom?

Arnie: More food! Gimme more food!

is okay, but less exciting. By the way, they named their daughter after a vanilla wafer?

Robin S. said...

Maybe they named her something Nordic, like Gunilla. Or maybe they really do like their wafers.

Hey EE, you're funny when you're playing at "up in arms".

writtenwyrdd said...

I think what bothered me was that the description of the plot more or less implied that Nilla resents her brother and it's going to be her acting out around that, not a pattern of grown and redemption or some kind of valuable change which might put her more at peace with the situation. For a mid-grade novel, I do not think the implication of an angst- or anger-ridden child and the resulting dysfunctional adult would work.

Which makes me think the letter isn't explaining the story well enough. :)

Anonymous said...

Author, I just finished reading "Al Capone Does My Shirts" which is an MG about a family living on Alcatraz in 1935. The main character is a boy whose older sister (15 years old) is autistic. But back then, they didn't know what to label the behaviors associated with autism. It's a really great book. It was awarded the Newbery Honor a few years ago. You might want to take a look, if you haven't already.

I like the premise of your book. I should have said that earlier, amidst all the jokes about dogs.

Good luck!


Anonymous said...

Author here.

Thanks, everyone, for your comments - very insightful. You've hit upon many of the issues I've struggled with: how to convey the emotional stress within a family - and for a sibling - of having a kid with a handicap; what it does to the parents; and why it would be of interest to 8-12 year old readers.

FYI what Arnie has is called Prader-Willi syndrome. People who have it never feel full, so, if allowed, they will eat themselves to death - literally. I struggled with putting a name to his "problem" in the query. Thoughts? In the story, Arnie is formally diagnosed mid-way through, allowing for a greater peace in the family.

Robin S. you were spot on. This is the story of a sibling who has lived in the background for 11 years and has had enough.

Despite the heavy themes, there are some light, even funny moments in the book. Not sure how to convey that in the query.

One final point: She thinks she's named Nilla cause her parents wanted her to be plain vanilla - as in normal, no trouble. The mom says she named her after her favorite ice cream flavor - vanilla.

Thanks again for your comments.

PS Takoda, I have read Al Capone Does My Shirts. It was excellent. There's another book for kids out now called Rules, won a Newberry Honor, also about autism.

Anonymous said...

Hi author! Whenever the submitter leaves a thoughtful response like that, I always get the urge to go back and look at the query here goes. :)

It seems to me that the most successful queries focus around what happens and what comes of it, with a hint of why it happens. This query is so heavy on the "why" that there's very little "what happens" and virtually nothing about "what comes of it." Many of the actions that you do mention don't seem to have important consequences. If you completely deleted your scenes about quoting from the dog book, would your plot hold up? I bet it would. I'd suggest only including the actions that CAN'T be deleted without serious effects on your plot. I agree with EE about including the lashing out and the ending.

Looking at what you've told us, a model for your query could be:

Nilla's moving, and she thinks she'll at least get a long-wished-for pet dog out of the deal, but because of (starting condition--crazy mother, handicapped brother) she can't. That makes her so mad that she (action). (Action) leads to (consequences), which prompt her to (action), which lead to (major thing to be overcome).

I grew up with a retarded younger brother, so I've got a little perspective about how he influenced our family even if I didn't notice it at the time. This is short and I enjoy middle grade books--want me to do a quick and dirty beta read? Fresh eyes might help suss out your main points and summarize them.

Just out of curiosity--what's the time frame when this book takes place?

Anonymous said...

From the author:

The time frame is the summer before Nilla enters Middle School. The story begins in early June and ends late July.

150, what a generous offer. Thank you! How can I contact you?

Dave Fragments said...

Robin S. you were spot on. This is the story of a sibling who has lived in the background for 11 years and has had enough.

In the situation I watched for several years, the youngest of several brothers when faced with giving up yet something else, looked directly at the Mother and confronted her with his feelings of unfairness. The Mother always wanted the youngest (a girl) and just couldn't care for the child and raise the older children. The parents placed the child in an excellent facility and raised several successful boys.

This sounds similar. "Nilla" has to learn a lesson and so do her parents. That's not coming through in the query. That's what you need to present to an editor. It's the story of a family learning to live with a handicapped child where unfortunately the Mother behaves badly.

Evil Editor said...

The time frame is the summer before Nilla enters Middle School.

If she hasn't started 7th grade, she should be 12 or 13, which makes me wonder about the claim that she's been wishing on stars and birthday cakes for 11 years. I wouldn't expect her to want a dog before she was four, though I'm sure there's the occasional exception.

Anonymous said...

I'm at 150words at gmail dot com. If you send it before tomorrow morning I can take it along on my long weekend without having to download it over my parents' dial-up. :P Anyway, it's no more generous than offering to read any published book. And half the time I pay for that privilege!

By "time frame" I meant recent years, the 80s, the 50s...but I guess I'll find that out soon enough. :)

EE, where I'm from, middle school starts in 5th grade, which would put Nilla in the 10/11 range...and if I recall right, anything I wanted back then, I was sure I'd wanted since birth. At least.

Anonymous said...

Middle School grades are all over the map, but around Washington, DC where this story takes place, they're from 6th - 8th.

There's some science to the choice of age. Most kids like to read "up" so MG books have protags age 11 or 12. 13 often marks the beginning of YA.

Liftplus said...

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