Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Face-Lift 404

Guess the Plot

Claire's Delusion

1. Claire thinks she's sure to get published, if she writes a good book, goes to conferences and persistently tries to interest a publisher.

2. Claire was born with everything -- looks, brains, a mansion in Bevery Hills, a complete set of Spode china. Pursued hotly by both a handsome prince and a business tycoon worth billions, she is a recipient of a MacArthur grant, a Tony and the Nobel Prize for Physics. So why does she live in an Airstream and eat off Chinet?

3. I know there's a market for first-person fiction dictated to me by my vagina, and this book proves it.

4. Claire and her boyfriend, Blaine, are happy. Or so she thinks. When Claire discovers she's got the clap, she's forced to wonder: is it too much to ask for a girl to have a happy relationship with a nymphomaniac?

5. Patrick is horrified when his wife, Claire, announces that her mind is now occupied by both her own consciousness and that of another woman named Joy . . . until he realizes that he actually likes Joy better than Claire.

6. Claire just wasn't herself today. She looked in the mirror and saw Eleanor Roosevelt. She looked in her bed and saw Bill Clinton. Then she figured it out: she was in Hell.

Original Version

Dear Agent or Editor,

Patrick Becker returns to university life for his second doctorate to apply his electrical engineering expertise to the study of consciousness with his doctoral advisor, Dr. Dylan Freedman, a renowned Philosopher of mind. [Wake me up when this one's over and we'll move on.] While Patrick's wife Claire serves as a “reference brain” to test his specialized EEG equipment, she decides to experiment on her own, in a way for which it was not intended. After awaking several times from periods of unconsciousness in which she hears voices, [It's the voices of her doctors and nurses arguing over who's to blame.] Claire decides that she is now plural...Claire and Joy. [I don't see this as a decision. If she's not plural, or it's unknown, she "claims" or "declares" that she's plural. If Claire is plural, she--or rather they--"realize" that they're plural.]

Patrick is devastated. [Devastated? How many married guys get a shot at a threesome without all the baggage?] He and Dr. Freedman study Claire's condition feverishly and postulate that the normal left/right brain communication has been interfered with (much like a clinical condition associated with an exotic surgery used for severe epilepsy patients), [Thanks, I was wondering what the medical explanation was for this interference.] stranding Claire in the right brain and an “over-achieving” remnant of Claire, Joy, in the left brain. [Doctor House would test the theory by removing the left side of the brain; fortunately he's on his summer hiatus.] Claire's family and friends are skeptical of Claire's claims, especially when an MRI reveals a tiny brain lesion in an area of the brain frequently associated with the aphasic speech pattern that Claire presented for a while. Medical gravity leans towards the lesion despite its size. [The MRI found the lesion that was created by the EEG. Now they need to do a CT scan to find out what the MRI did to her. No wonder no one ever leaves a hospital alive.] Claire insists that Joy has grown, mentally, from a child to a fully functioning adult and she does not want to give up Joy. Claire's sister Abby, a nurse, presses hard for a surgical solution. [Not surprisingly, Joy is firmly on Claire's side in this argument.]

Based on separate interviews, both the neurologist and Dr. Freedman are impressed by the completeness of Joy's personality. Dr. Freedman, an expert theoretician on consciousness, decides Joy is not a personality, but is a person, equal to Claire [, a decision Patrick is forced to accept when he notices that Claire and Joy are conjoined twins]. Abby wants to use a court hearing to force her sister into surgery. [I don't have a sister, but those of you who do can tell me how you would react if your sister dropped by to tell you she and her lawyer had arranged with the courts for you to undergo brain surgery.] Patrick has no interest in forcing Claire into surgery, but sees the hearing as a sort of Socratic moot court to hear the ethical and scientific arguments of the future that will attend artificial life. [I think it's Patrick who needs brain surgery. His brain seems to be stuck up his ass.]

Patrick shivers at the thought of Joy's presence in the “marital theater” of Claire's mind, but he can no longer force himself to hate Joy as a policy...she is a fetching and charming person who grows on him. [Interestingly, where Claire enjoys a minuet, the ballet Russes and crepe suzette, Joy loves to rock and roll, a hot dog makes her lose control — What a wild duet!] (And why not? She is a remnant of Claire.) How will Patrick and Claire (and Joy) resolve Patrick's love of the formerly singular Claire and Claire's love of her newfound 'sister'? [Not to mention Patrick's love of his newfound mistress.]

Claire's Delusion (alt. Mindbender) is a hard SF novel, with medical thriller aspects, of about 100,000 words. I think readers of The Time Traveler's Wife will enjoy this novel. Thank you for your time spent and I hope you will want to see the manuscript.



When you're a Philosopher of mind, and someone asks what you do for a living, do you say, "I'm a Philosopher of mind"? Because if someone said that to me, I would assume he was putting me on.

It's too long, and easily shortened by getting rid of the technical stuff. Also by limiting yourself to a maximum of ten three-syllable words.

Save the science for the book and focus on the people. It's the people who make the story, and it's the story that you're selling.


Robin S. said...

The idea of this sounds really, really interesting, but the query is too dry and too 'medical' to do it justice.

I'm not at all nuts about the first sentence. Do we have to know the amazing Patrick is going for his second doctorate?

And there's this:
"Patrick has no interest in forcing Claire into surgery, but sees the hearing as a sort of Socratic moot court to hear the ethical and scientific arguments of the future that will attend artificial life. [I think it's Patrick who needs brain surgery. His brain seems to be stuck up his ass.]"

I'd be royally, and I mean royally, pissed off if my husband thought it'd be just dandy if my brain were put on trial just for kicks. Maybe that's why I laughed out loud at EE's aside here.

I'm not saying thsi doesn;t work in your book - but I AM saying this explanation is too clinical to connote caring.

Anyway, I don't want to be mean-spirited here, because I like the idea of this - I hope you can rework the query to humanize it, in a way, and move it away from the medical to the, oh crap, I can't believe I'm gonna say this, but I am, the metaphysical.

Loved the GTPs by the way, especially #3. I really want to read that one.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...


Slurp, slurp, drool, slap!

Sorry, about that, for some unknown reason I fell asleep while reading that query. ;o)

Seriously, Robin S. is absolutely correct (have been agreeing with alot of your comments lately!) and I agree that the idea sounds absolutely fascinating. But you really need to spice up this query cause Oi! It's painful right now! Is this fiction or a nonfiction article for a medical journal. Your conflict seems really interesting, a woman experiments on herself and like the incredible hulk splits her personality and is faced with a husband that wants to put her brain on trial and a sister that wants to force brain surgery on her. Sounds fascinating! Now cut out all that clinical overwriting stuff that makes it so dry and condescending sounding and get to the good stuff.

I would love to see a spicy rewrite of this. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I think this is a very compelling idea but the query doesn't quite do it justice. Patrick does sound like a kind of pompous jerk but perhaps that's part of the story - he's taken an intellectual approach to all this and then is forced to deal with the complex emotional reality of having his wife become two people. I think that some medical stuff is needed - to show that the book is grounded in science - but it could be toned down.

none said...

If you're going to say "readers of book x will enjoy my book", shouldn't book x at least be in the same genre as the one you're pitching? The Time Traveller's Wife may or may not be SF (we can have that argument another time), but it was marketed as General (or Popular or what-have-you) Fiction. Referencing it seems like a big red flag hinting you haven't even looked at its back cover.

On a similar note...if I read TTW, and utterly loathed and detested it, will I still enjoy your book?

Anonymous said...

The book may well make a conclusive statement about the situation, but the query certainly doesn't. In fact, the title "Claire's Delusion" and the emphasis that Joy is a "remnant of Claire" (we're told that twice) lead me to conclude Claire IS delusional and that this is simply an extreme case of Sybil syndrome.

I'm curious how Claire's situation leads to the court hearing "the ethical and scientific arguments of the future that will attend artificial life." From my understanding, Joy, if she exists as her own person, is not an artificial life form. I don't get the connection.

I had an acquaintance who was severely afflicted with Multiple Presonality Disorder (MPD). I never knew who she would be from one visit to the next. All her personalities were perfectly aware of the others that co-existed within her. That to say that this query doesn't give me enough to believe that Joy is a separate person. And if she isn't a separate person, this isn't science fiction.

This query will be a real challenge because you a) have to tell the human story, as EE says, but you also have to b) convince the agent of the "hardness" of the science. You have some flashes of (a) in here that you can capitalize on: Claire not wanting to give up Joy (why?) and Patrick's unease over being married to Claire and Joy (why was he forcing himself to hate Joy in the first place?). While you haven't focused enough on (a), to me, you really haven't fulfilled (b) either.

To get across the science, you don't need to tell us of the lesion found by MRI or assure us twice that Freedman is renowned philosopher and thoeretician of the mind or put in parenthetical remarks about specialized surgeries for epilepsy. Just tell us it was an experiment that went awry and the result has the experts questioning whether this is the first legitimate instance of someone moving beyond MPD - from multiple personalities to multiple persons. Then be sure to tell us what the consequences of that mean to Claire and Patrick personally, and what implications it has for humanity. And why Joy would fall under the definition of artificial intelligence (still scratching my head over that).

Overall, as it is, you still need to show me in the query why this is science fiction.

Unknown said...

I really like the idea, but it does need some work. I like hard scifi, so it's nice to see some medical backup, but don't let it impose on the query.

Instead of:
"He and Dr. Freedman study Claire's condition feverishly and postulate that the normal left/right brain communication has been interfered with (much like a clinical condition associated with an exotic surgery used for severe epilepsy patients)"

"Dr. Freedman hypothesizes that Claire's condition may be the result of a severed corpus callosum, cutting off communication between her left and right brains."

I don't think you need the epilepsy disclaimer. I'm not a med student, but I knew what you were talking about as soon as you mentioned the right/left split.

You may be better off simplifying the court battle in the query by just talking about the sister, rather than the strange response of the hubby.

Definitely focus more on the Claire/Joy division. It's much more interesting if you show us what they have in common and how they're different.

Good luck. It's a fun idea.

Anonymous said...

I'm of two minds about this query.
Smiles on Sunday

Pete said...

If this were Star Trek -- as the medical technical speak indicates -- then we should be able to fix this whole problem by transmogrifying the deflector dish to emit tachyon particles along a partial spectrum EM band, possibly altering the warp field of the ship.

Should we make it so?

Anonymous said...

Patrick is devastated. [Devastated? How many married guys get a shot at a threesome without all the baggage?]

That is freaking classic!

writtenwyrdd said...

I think what robin s says about this letter being clinical is the root of the problem. I have enjoyed a number of medically based thrillers and sf novels, but the letter is too dry, too clinical, and too much about the protagonist and the science.

We need a hook and information about the story that makes us care about it. I do not know why Claire's delusion is something that I should really care about, nor why it is the Big Thing that the story revolves around. The letter makes it sound like it's Patrick's research.

This could be a great story, so keep revising the letter!

pacatrue said...

I think you should rename the book, Corpus Collosum.

If that joke is slightly amusing to you, then you likely also followed the query.

The main thing about this query is that it sounds more like a philosophy thought experiment right now than a novel. It sounds like the main actions are the debates on personhood, relationship between mind and brain, the nature of consciousness, etc.

Now, I am a person who has several books on Consciousness littering my shelf, but I'm not the market I think you are trying to hit. As EE says, you need to focus more on the human emotions and less on the metaphysics of mind. In particular, Patrick and his actions as the protagonist are getting lost. He ends up on the outside of the story watching and debating, instead of trying to save Claire or Joy or his relationship.

Or is this a sort of Consciouness-focused version of Sophie's World?

As a person who's actually lead debates on the Turing / Searle debate on philosophy of mind, I did have a couple technical questions about the query that made me wonder if the author was qualified to write the story. First up, you describe Dr. Freedman as a philosopher and then describe the various neuro-imaging studies he and the hospital are conducting. While there are indeed neurologists (or cognitive neuroscientists) who are also philosophers of mind, they are first neurologists (Crick, Edelman, etc.). Since Freedman's main contribution is on the medical side and not on 'the nature of personhood' side (in the query at least), it needs to be clear that he is able to actually do these things. Few philosophers know what EEG equipment looks like much less have a specialized version of it. (I say this as a former philosophy grad.)

Similarly, is the lesion actually caused by the EEG work? That's not possible, right? Finally, what area related to speech aphasia are you referring to? Something related to Broca's or Wernicke's areas? How could various forms of aphasia be related to mutliple personalities? Is it the version of aphasia in which a person can speak but what they say doesn't make any sense (kind of like a politician)?

Of course, you don't want to answer these questions in your query letter. If you mention the frontal gyrus, you may get slapped. Instead, try to find a way to express the effects of all these conditions on people. If Claire's earlier aphasia relates directly to the emergence of Joy, discuss her pattern of speaking, not neuro-imaging or aggramatism.

Finally, if you are going to go into the technical stuff at all, it might be worth a sentence at the end about any qualifications you may be able to throw out, such as "I attended UCSD's cognitive science program for 3 years until I realized that connectionism is a dead-end. Now, whenever I think of back propogation, I laugh." I think it's better to have as little that you need to justify as possible, however.

As an exercise, try writing the entire story without a reference to the brain. And then add back in what you need.

Anonymous said...

Pacatrue admitted:

"(I say this as a former philosophy grad.)"

They took your degree away later? That'll teach you to back propagate.

jjdebenedictis said...

The world needs more hard science fiction, so do keep working on this very intriguing-sounding novel.

That said, I'm going to be quite critical here. Brace yourself, and please know that I'm not trying to be nasty - I really am trying to help by pointing out what I thought the weaknesses here were.

First, this doesn't sound like The Time Traveller's Wife at all. That book focused on a deeply human story, was bouncy and raunchy, and it had zero real science in it. I'm pretty sure you have a different kettle of mackerel here.

Some logic quibbles:
- Philosophers don't build EEGs because philosophers don't study the nitty-gritty details of human biology; they wouldn't know how to build a safe EEG. For that matter, neither would an electrical engineer.

- Philosophers don't do experimental science. Experimental science consists of taking data and analysing it dispassionately to extract very conservative conclusions about what that data shows. Philosophers play wild and brilliant "what if" games in their minds; it's almost the opposite of experimental science.

- Have you any idea how much trouble these boys would be in if anyone found out they were testing their equipment on a human being? Universities have VERY toothy rules about even using animals in research. I'm pretty sure what you're describing is illegal.

- If, to begin with, you had described Dr. Dylan as "an expert theoretician on consciousness" instead of a "Philosopher of mind", I'd be a little more likely to swallow him knowing something about how a brain works. All the same, if these two are going to build an experimental EEG that's safe enough to use on a human, I still think Patrick had better have some clinical background in medicine.


Queries can be misleading, but I have my doubts about whether the novel has a well-enough developed plot, based on this. Here's what the plot sounds like to me:

Patrick's problem is that his wife Claire has developed a second personality named Joy. Claire insists Joy is a real person who deserves to live. Patrick and Claire's family think Joy isn't real and want Claire restored to normal by medical means. Gradually, Patrick decides Joy is okay. Claire's sister uses the courts to try to force Claire into brain surgery. Patrick appears to think that's okay too, because hey; the philosophers will have a good time arguing with each other at the hearing. The end.

Based on this, Patrick's attempts to solve his problem don't appear very gripping because he doesn't really seem to do anything proactive.

I'd suggest you rewrite the query, but first, try summarising your novel using the following structure, so you firmly know what all your plot points are.

Basic structure of a plot:
- Protagonist has problem A.
- Protag does [?] to try to solve problem A.
- This results in problem B.
- Protag does [?] to try to solve problem B.
- This results in problem C.
- Protag does [?] to try to solve problem (n).
- This works and he finally has a life that is liveable, but which will never be the same again. The End.

pacatrue said...

I would respond more fully to Chinese roomies' post, but my guess is that he's not a real person, but just a clever computer program following clever input-output instructions, and therefore is not truly sentient. But he is clever.

And may be a she computer.

I will quible a tiny bit with jjdeben..., some philosophers are quite knowledgable about the brain. Patricia Churchland's Neurophilosophy would be an example. However, as you can see in my earlier comment as well, I basically agree with your point.

Anonymous said...

Author says: one more time

Dear Agent or Editor,

Instrumentation engineer Patrick Becker returns to university life to collaborate with Dr. Dylan Freedman, an expert in consciousness. Patrick's wife Claire volunteers to participate in a test at home of a prototype instrument. Claire subsequently suffers periods of incoherent speech or loss of consciousness. She stabilizes but continues hearing an internal voice. After a period of rich internal conversation in which they negotiate their claustrophobic sharing of Claire's body, Claire decides that she is now plural...Claire and "sister" Joy.

Patrick is devastated with grief and guilt. The symptoms baffle everyone, as Claire fits no standard mental health disease profile. Since this is the only way he can help, Patrick assumes his lab work is the culprit and takes Claire's claims seriously, enlisting Freedman's help. Freedman becomes increasingly impressed by the completeness of Joy, finally concluding that she is a substantial and different person from Claire. Claire is not surprised; she has said this all along. While Patrick camps out in his lab, Claire and Joy make a bumpy attempt to return to normalcy in their accounting career.

One of Claire's medical tests offers a weak explanation for Claire's condition. Claire's dear sister Abby is a nurse and presses Patrick to request a mental competency hearing to force Claire into corrective surgery. Patrick thinks Claire is functional and capable of making her own decisions, despite his wish to rid her of Joy. But because he and Dr. Freedman have begun to understand the mechanism leading to Joy's creation, they now consider Joy an artificial being, an artifact of Patrick's instrument, his "consciousness gun." Patrick sees the hearing as a platform to hear the ethical and scientific arguments of the future concerning artificial life. Can they ethically end Joy's life if they could do so without harm to Claire? The court's ruling would carry no practical weight for Patrick; he could withdraw the suit at any time. Claire doesn't understand Patrick's motives but trusts him. Yet, they both find ways to put the matter of Joy to rest in a way acceptable to both.

Claire's Delusion is a SF novel, with medical thriller aspects, of about 100,000 words. Thank you for your time spent and I hope you will want to see the manuscript.

Anonymous said...

robin s.--I'll bet #3 is kinda dry.

As for the query: if the focus of the plot is the trial, there's a big problem: her sister would have no right to force the issue. Only Patrick could do that. And if he's heartless enough to drag Claire through a trial, his head is even more firmly wedged than I thought.

Robin S. said...

Long ago and far away, well, not SO long ago, thanks, I read things like 'The Breakdown of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind' (I'm looking at this title on my bookshelf as I write this) and biographies of philosophers to incude the origins of their, well, philosophies - for light weekend reading.

Then I had two children.

Then I spent my weekends making stars and alphabet letter shapes out of strawberry jello, and sitting in the middle of the kiddie pool in the summer time...

For everything there is a season. (Yeah, I know, turn, turn, turn..)

Hi author,

Hope you don't mind the feedback - I guess you don't mind, or you wouldn't be here, would you?

I'm just saying, as important as theory and philosophy and the theory of philosophy and the study of the corpus callosum are (at leats to pacatrue) - the humanity behind it all is what, I think, will sell your work.

none said...

You're still choking the poor thing with backstory. Start with Claire and Joy.

Following unauthorised experimentation with her husband's specialised EEG equipment, Claire Becker develops a secondary personality: Joy.

And go on from there.

Anonymous said...

Author says:

Thanks to all for your comments (and the time spent making them). Even in the second version, Patrick seems a little cold, and the hearing is over-played so the query still needs work. There is so much backstory....

Not even mentioned is the considerable element of humor throughout the story that warms up all the MCs. So...you only get one page for a query, right?


"Dammit Jim, I'm a mechanic, not a doctor...no wait, that's backwards."

"Just do the virtual commissurotomy, Bones."

"She'll die, Jim! She'll die!"

"Just do it Bones, or I'll give you another one."

Robin S. said...

Hi author,

Just saw you'd posted a revision. I like this one much better - but I'm no query pro. Hopefully others will chime in to lend you a hand.

I will say I like Patrick a lot more this time around, there's much more of a human quality rather than a clinical quality when reading, and I like your ending.."they both find ways to put the matter of Joy to rest in a way acceptable to both."

And I wouldn't expound on that - I'd want someone to want to read my manuscript to find out how that worked out, just as you have done.

Evil Editor said...

A shorter version of your latest version:

When instrumentation engineer Patrick Becker invents a new kind of EEG machine, his wife Claire volunteers to help test a home prototype of the instrument. Claire subsequently hears an internal voice and realizes that she is now plural--she shares her body with "sister" Joy.

Patrick is devastated with grief and guilt. Believing he has caused some new mental health condition, he enlists the aid of Dylan Freedman, an expert in consciousness. But Freedman, impressed by the completeness of Joy, concludes that she is a substantial and different person from Claire. Claire is not surprised; she has said this all along.

After studying the mechanism leading to Joy's creation, Patrick and Freedman now consider her an artificial being. Which creates a dilemma that could foreshadow future arguments concerning artificial life: Can they ethically end Joy's life if they could do so without harm to Claire? Also, does Joy get a vote?

Claire's Delusion is a SF novel, with medical thriller aspects, of about 100,000 words. Thank you for your time spent and I hope you will want to see the manuscript.

Anonymous said...

OK. I kow what's missing from both versions of the query and the story as laid out.

Yes, stories are about the human condition. Science fiction, though, often broadens the definition of humanity. What's the SF factor here: Joy.

In neither query do we get any indication of Joy's personality, of her hopes and dreams, of how she feels about going to trial or being surgically subsumed or killed.

Where's the character of Joy? If she's really an AI and NOT a product of the philosophy or theory of the mind, then that's a whole slant to the story that the query isn't really focused on.

The second thing the query seems to be missing is a point to the story. A lot of commenters seem to dismiss the trial aspect. Still, think about the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird. Heck, even think about the trial Data went through on the very subject of AI vs life in Star Trek: TNG. These trials elucidated the real questions at hand and forced the reader to think, both in terms of the characters involved and in the larger context of world opinion and our collective consciousnesses and matters of right and wrong.

The best of SF teaches. What is this story teaching us?

Anonymous said...

Well, shoot. Just saw the author's comment that the trial is overplayed in the query meaning that it's not a major part of the story after all. Still thinking the implications about what's decided about Joy's fate is far-reaching enough to embroil more people than just this little clique of folk. Macrocosm in the microcosm.

Robin S. said...

Hi author,

phonenix said "Where's the character of Joy? If she's really an AI and NOT a product of the philosophy or theory of the mind, then that's a whole slant to the story that the query isn't really focused on."

I think this is what part of me must have had in mind when I mentioned moving away from the medical to the metaphysical - only phoenix said it much better. What about Joy?

And, by the way, I don't have an extra woman residing in my head, but I'm pretty sure I've been inadvertently handing my husband a free ride on the threesome train (or at least a twosome train with a twist)for a while now. I change my hair color every year, at least once, blonde to brunette, and back again. It now occurs to me he sometimes asks when I'm planning on changing again, like he's looking forward to it. Hmmm.

Anonymous said...

Author says: Thanks, EE! Aw, he's not so evil . . . if you catch him after a meal.

jjdebenedictis said...

Awesome second version of the query, Author! That's an enormous improvement.

I'm still a bit "meh" about how you end it. The line about Patrick and Claire putting Joy to rest in a way they can both accept struck me as ending on a whimper - it's just too vague.

I liked EE's version of the ending much better, as it focuses on why the story's end could be very gripping and interesting.

Still, as I said, that second query was very strong and a marked improvement. Well done!