Thursday, July 19, 2007

Face-Lift 381

Guess the Plot

The Integral Path

1. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but what about that road painted with numbers and odd symbols? Fatal head wound or no fatal head wound, Donald Eager just has to find out where it goes.

2. Elizabeth's lifelong dream is a doctorate degree in mathematics, but because she's a woman her male adviser and instructors give her no respect . . . until she takes up karate.

3. After months of intestinal discomfort, exploratory surgery reveals that not only does Dara Spence's abdomen contain the usual organs, but also a gate, path and front door complete with doorbell. Weight Watchers is not up to the challenge, but handsome surgeon Ali Carruthers may have the solution--and it's not his scalpel.

4. The True Path to enlightenment is the sum of the steps leading to it. That was Mitzi's philosophy. Unable to break into the big-time world of philosophers, she settles for summing up the knowledge of mankind in short articles for Reader's Digest.

5. Isaac Newton may yet get this new math business down, but Vallomint the time-traveling astronaut is running out of patience in his drive to help Sir Isaac invent calculus. They've already gone down the road with derivatives, but will Newton lose his way when Vallomint sets off on . . . The Integral Path?

6. This fascinating book details the history of the humble path to your front door. Tiles, pavers, gravel, concrete - there's so much to consider when creating the right ambience in your front yard. With this book in hand, you'll never step wrong!

Original Version

Dear [agent],

Twenty-two year-old Elizabeth Harrington is pursuing her lifelong dream: obtaining a doctorate in Mathematics. But along the way she meets with obstacles that jeopardize her graduate school career, such as a learning environment hostile to women, a recalcitrant topologist [Talk about stereotypes; must every fictional topologist be recalcitrant?] who volunteers to serve on her exam committee for the sole purpose of failing her, [There's nothing worse than a duplicitous recalcitrant topologist.] and an adviser who selects his female students based on their "fuckability." [Which he determines using an extensive questionnaire known as the MMFI.]

As if the University environment is not sufficiently discouraging, the future Dr. Harrington's personal life threatens to destroy her resolve: her parents' seemingly rock-solid marriage ends in divorce, resulting in an estrangement from her mother and the weakening of Elizabeth's own marriage; the only other female graduate student and Elizabeth's unofficial mentor packs up and leaves with a master's degree; and her husband John's descent into mental illness endangers the couple's solvency as well as Elizabeth's own mental health. [Cut this guy loose now, Liz, and find someone with a higher fuckability quotient.]

Faced with these barriers, Elizabeth adjusts her tactics. She perseveres in the classroom through sheer strength of will, and takes actions to improve her situation, beginning with switching advisers. Outside of work she takes up karate, which helps to develop her missing confidence, and attends a mental illness support group, which offers her the tools to help her ill husband without damaging herself.

The Integral Path is the story of one woman's triumph over the roadblocks placed in her way. Along the journey to the elusive Ph.D., Elizabeth grows from an innocent girl to a strong woman and respected mathematical scholar. The novel is complete at roughly 80,000 words.

I am a woman with a doctorate in the mathematical sciences, and some elements of this book are based on my own experience as a graduate student. Although I have no literary credits, I am the author of several scholarly articles and my students have praised my clear explanations of complicated mathematical concepts. [Which comes in handy in my fascinating twelfth chapter, when Elizabeth attends Professor Metternich's lecture, Orthogonality of Eigenfunctions.] May I send you sample pages from The Integral Path?



I find it somewhat derivative. Get it? Derivative?

Don't worry about not having any literary credits; most agents choose their clients based on their fuckability.

The query is well-written, but let's face it: it's about a woman becoming a mathematics scholar. Have you considered having the lecherous adviser get murdered and the hunky and highly fuckable detective suspecting Elizabeth until he falls in love with her? It's the same book, but with a plot.


Anonymous said...

her husband John's descent into mental illness endangers the couple's solvency as well as Elizabeth's own mental health. So it's like a role-reversed A Beautiful Mind, is what you're saying.

I dunno. I'm a woman in mechanical engineering, and found few "roadblocks" beyond a couple of funny looks and some silly oversights--like no women's bathroom in the lab. Maybe discrimination increases as you rise in academia, I don't know. Or maybe your experiences were much earlier than mine. Either way, I wouldn't pick this up because 1) I've been there and 2) it wasn't that bad. As described in your query, it doesn't sound like very much happens.

Robin S. said...

Wow. I read the notes first on this one, as I was scrolling up from reading comments on other posts, and I was well and truly shocked to see the fuckability sentence. Then, I saw why it was there. What a relief...

And the MMFI - that was pretty good- nice play on the MMPI - which I've taken, in graduate school. Being truthful on the MMPI is hard, very hard. I'm guessing the MMFI would be much the same, (on the telling the truth being the difficult know).

Anyway...sorry author, I need to reread your actual query now.

jjdebenedictis said...

Good grief - where (and when) did you go to grad school? I finished a Masters in Physics just a few years ago and the (mostly male) faculty were awesome.

I don't think sexist dinosaurs are well-tolerated these days unless the faculty involved is very small and insular. However, a math department certainly could be; just make sure your novel is believable for today's world.

Other than the above nitpick, I'll nod in agreement with EE - this query makes the novel seem like it doesn't have a plot. It reads like pseudo-memoir.

I'd suggest rewriting the query to make the plot sound more like a crisis (or two) overcome than a journey with an arbitrarily defined start and end point.


Bernita said...

I wondered about her age. At 22, most have just received their BA.

Dave Fragments said...

My first thoughts paralleled some of the comments here. I got my Bachelor's in 74 and back then, the four Engineerings and several Science departments were actively encouraging women. the only remotely sexist department was music and then one or two instruments. Even the killer Architecture department treated women fairly (that meant they treated women the same as men but they treated men like shit). And there were two colleges devoted to women, A state college, a catholic college, and a community college happy to teach women.

So where do we find these dinosaurs?

writtenwyrdd said...

My first job out of college was to work as secretary for a math department, and let me tell ya, 27 prima donnas!!! Wacky fun by way of office politics. Not for the faint hearted...

As far as the query goes, it does sound dry as a textbook and no real story. What is the point of the story? Someone does something or has something happen to them, and then they react in some fashion and end up in a different space at the ending. What is that part of your story???

pacatrue said...

Hmmm.... Well, I don't know if this comment is needed any longer, but I too worried about the believability of the obstacles our heroine faces. The entire time I was reading it, I was thinking, "if she doesn't say she was a math grad student, I'm not believing this at all." When I discovered that you are a math prof, it rescued the query, because you know what your experiences were and aren't making up clich├ęs of evil profs.

Anyway, since the reaction from several people has been about this stuff, we need to figure out a way to rephrase the query so that it is true to your experience and story, while at the same time not causing the reaction seen here.

One way is to make the issues more specific, if possible. For instance, the advisor who chooses students based upon fuckability. What does this a-hole do to Elizabeth particularly? If she simply hears rumors that he has a fuckability scale, that's offensive, but it's not a personal obstacle to her. Instead, we'd almost like her if she chooses the sexist but brilliant bio-informacist as advisor and then kicks him in the groin every time he steps close to her. Instead, we need to know what he does to her. Is he just smarmy? Or does he come on to her when she's trying to get some help with coding theory?

Also, we have the recalcitrant topologist. Why does this random guy try to fail her? Because he also tried to seduce her and she refused? Does her dissertation proposal make all of his work obsolete? Or does he try to fail everyone? (But if that's the case, all the profs will know this is his thing and ignore him.)

Perhaps you can tie all of this into her being 22, if you want to stick with that age. If she's 22 and already advancing to candidacy in a doctoral program, she's really advanced for her age. And maybe we can now see a story forming.

Elizabeth, a brilliant young woman, has been in love with mathematics all her life (or Elizabeth has been forced to do advanced math by her mother / father all her life; or both). She's particularly captivated by tensor geometry and what it reveals about [insert something non-math people like me find interesting]. She had expected to be one of the few women around when she started her doctoral program, but she never expected what really happened. When she makes one of her greastest discoveries in topology, a professor she had studied under tries to cover it up by failing her from the program. Her own advisor then invites her to his home for dinner as soon as his wife leaves town.

And then you have to work in there that she's married.

The idea though is to make her goal very clear; reveal her exceptional ability and desire at the start; and then start throwing specific obstacles in her way which she can overcome on the path to glorious professordom -- at which point she discovers that the politics are even worse on the path towards tenure.

Brenda said...

Holy crap. That's how they pick their clients and I'm STILL not published?

Ignore that sound. It's just my ego deflating.

AmyB said...

A while back, we had an opening (which I liked) about a woman trying to get into a university that wouldn't admit her because of her sex. I believe it had an historical setting, not a modern one. I thought this query was for that opening, until the second paragraph where divorce was mentioned and I realized this was probably a modern setting.

I think the university part of the story would be more plausible if it was set in the past. Some women may encounter deeply-entrenched sexism even today, but I think it's the exception, not the rule (I have a B.S. in Computer Science and never encountered any gender bias while in college). Unless she's fixated on this particular university or determined to beat the system, I don't know why she doesn't just transfer to a better school.

The query is well written, but like other popele have said, it doesn't sound like much happens.

Anonymous said...

It also might be good to put this story to a specific time and place. "Elizabeth works toward her PhD in 1980's New York" or something.

Anonymous said...

There is no compelling story here as the query is written. I have to be honest in wondering if there is really a compelling story in your novel anywhere.

Perhaps you are too close to your story so for you of course it is compelling. But if you were to switch this to a woman climbing the corporate ladder and overcoming the old boy's network while dealing with personal crises, would it be compelling to you? Actually that is more compelling... hmmmmm maybe it is the math part that makes it seem so bor - I mean not so compelling.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to hear all these perspectives, which further underscore that I shouldn't quit my day job yet. ;)

Sadly, there's plenty of sexism that goes on even today in science and engineering. I am a recent graduate and have seen it in action, although not to the degree that Elizabeth experiences in the story. (My [male] adviser was totally awesome.) But there are some truly horrible things that happen to women, even in ostensibly welcoming departments. I could tell you some very chilling tales...

pacatrue said...

I'm not scared of it being a math story. "Proof" about a mathmatician, possibly with mental troubles, won a Pulitzer or Tony or something. A Beautiful Mind about a mathmatician with definite mental problems won Oscars or something. Maybe you need to make the main character have mental illness instead of her husband, since it seems to get people excited. (Just kidding on that). Just focus on mathematics for its applied importance, its aesthetic beauty, and its ability to capture the wonders of nature, and you'll be okay.

Or have her go insane and kill Mr. Fuckability. Whichever.

pacatrue said...

By the way, author, if you know probability theory decently, particularly in relationship to learning, inference, and biological modeling, I really need your help.

I'm serious.

I've got a bunch of papers on Bayesian inference and information theory that I need to know to advance to my own candidacy, and they are far beyond me. I'll critique your novel in entirety if you can explain this stuff to me. I'd bear your children, in fact -- if I had a womb.

"Where's he gonna keep the fetus? In a box?!"

Anonymous said...

Semi-autobiography can be a great place to start. No doubt grad school was your worst experience and greatest triumph so far, but we've all survived rotten difficult times and we're all a little narcissic so it's just plain hard to get other people to pay to read about your particular woes. That's what fiction is good for. Ya mix 8 or 9 parts fiction per dose of reality, and voila! A novel comes out.

Twill said...

Wow. If an advisor or committee member wanted me to drop my drawers, I'd be right there with a tape recorder --- errr, MP3 recorder or whatever they're called.

Anything this blatant is way too easy to deal with. Tenure doesn't protect from lawsuits.

Anonymous said...

It's the same book, but with a plot.

But then it wouldn't be Literary, would it?

Bonnie said...

I have a feeling the book is way more interesting than the query. I like stories of strong women overcoming obstacles.

It might help to focus on the obstacles rather than her success in the the query; tension is in the prospect of failure, not the successful outcome. The way you've written it, it sounds like the crisis with the adviser, the parents' divorce, etc., all happen up front, and then she takes up karate etc. and everything's hunky-dory. If that's the case, you might have a structural problem, not just a query problem.

I wonder whether it also needs a professional obstacle bigger than what can be solved by changing advisers.

Sorry, kind of rambling here. It sounds like a good story and I'd love to see more.

Anonymous said...

Paca: I hope this Bayes guide isn't too simplified; I've heard good things about it:

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