Thursday, March 27, 2008

Face-Lift 507

Guess the Plot

An American in London

1. This edgy travel memoir is loaded with fascinating anecdotes about British vs. American culture, like when the author goes grocery shopping and when she samples England's gourmet foods. Also, traveling with children.

2. This traveler's dictionary provides useful translations of the phrases the American tourist is most likely to hear when interacting with the people of London, alphabetically arranged, from Arsehole to Wanker.

3. Set to the plaintive strains of Hayden's London Trio, a pack of plaid shorts, Hawaiian shirts, gartered socks and flabby arms in muscle tees invades Piccadilly Circus while the new Minister for Cultural Sensitivity quietly climbs to the top of Big Ben and blows his brains out.

4. After years of dreaming and saving, Mabel Abeline from Houston is able to realize her dream -- a two week trip to London, England. At first, though, she is disappointed. Everything is so much smaller than back home, yet so expensive. Then, visiting Trafalgar Square, she finds Nelson and is mighty impressed by the size of his column.

5. Don Liebnitz is overweight and looks ridiculous in his Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts. His camera lens is way too big, he wears sunglasses even though it's raining and he tries to start conversations in the tube (I mean, really!). He goes to expensive restaurants, talks too loudly to the waiters and orders with everything "on the side". Why can't he go back to Yankee-land where he belongs? Wanker.

6. Jovial American tourist Hoagy Williams Jr. mistakes the Queen for a hooker he bedded in college and is sentenced to twenty years in prison for thrusting his tongue into her ear as she presides over the opening of a new branch of Shoppers' Nirvana in East Acton.

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor,

Two years ago my husband, our two small children, and I moved from Kansas (98% culture-free) to London (diverse metropolis) and I was eager to experience a different country's culture. However, I was surprised that in the process of learning about British culture, I also made a few discoveries about my own.

[Things I learned about British culture and my own:

1. Once you leave London, the place is just like Kansas, except they call it moors and we call it a wasteland.

2. Steak tastes better on a grill than in kidney pie.

3. Counter to assumptions I made thanks to Hugh Grant and Sean Connery, most guys with British accents are not sexy.]

I have completed a 44,000-word manuscript, titled An American in London, describing the joys, surprises and frustrations I encountered as we adjusted to our new European home. Instead of a day-to-day account of our tenure overseas, my travel memoir is more of a collection of essays that lovingly compare and contrast American and British cultures. Humorous, irreverent, and sometimes edgy, [(Did you know they call an eraser a rubber?!)] think of David Sedaris meets Bill Bryson, and then they get into a death match and are coached by Elizabeth Gilbert and Rebecca Ramsey, respectively, and Frances Mayes is the referee. [If that was supposed to give me a better idea of what you meant by "humorous, irreverent, and sometimes edgy," it failed. Right now all I'm thinking about is Elizabeth Gilbert, Rebecca Ramsey, and Frances Mayes mud wrestling.] In fact, this book will rock your world…okay, maybe not. But you will enjoy the journey I take you on and perhaps even laugh out loud. You will walk with me as I learn to do grocery shopping without a car, [I was about to suggest you provide some specifics, but if that's the best you've got, forget it.] taste blood pudding (two words that shouldn't even be in the same sentence let alone describe something you eat),

[Wrong. Sentences that include the words "blood" and "pudding":

"Eat your pudding, Bobby, and then we'll get to your daily blood-letting."

"I don't know what that was, but it tasted like blood and had the consistency of pudding; can I have some more?"

"Mommy, there's the blood of a Chinese man in my tapioca pudding."]

travel around Europe with an infant and a four-year old (a task not for the faint of heart), and ponder the question at the forefront of every Brit's mind: Is James Hewitt Prince Harry's real biological father? [You don't need "real" there . . . unless there are imaginary biological fathers.]

I chose you as the first agent to solicit (you lucky bastard) [Yes, I was just thinking that myself.] for numerous reasons (okay, two):

1) I thoroughly enjoy your blog and have learned from it.
2) You represent Iwanna Beyou, the author of Expat Fever, which is similar to my manuscript (yet different; see above comments).

Thank you for your time and consideration.



Is your audience people who love to travel, or people who never travel? The former group might not find your experiences any more interesting than their own, unless you're holding back your best stuff. And it might be hard to find an agent who handles travel books and wants to handle one for the latter group.

Even if this is going to someone who mainly handles travel writers and is thus familiar with all the authors you name, that space would be better utilized making your adventures sound exciting and hilarious. Tasting blood pudding may be amusing in the book, but in the query it's no big deal unless you also puked it up on David Beckham.

Maybe that's the way to go: embellish your mundane experiences. Like you go grocery shopping without a car, and buy so much you can't carry it, but then Clive Owen happens along and gives you a ride back to your flat and kisses you. And you puke blood pudding all over him.

Note that I said Clive Owen "gives you a ride" rather than "gives you a lift." To those crazy Brits, a lift is an elevator!

If you can prove James Hewitt knew Princess Di nine months before Prince Harry was born, you've got a bestseller. Otherwise you'd better enclose a couple of your essays with the query, as it's a better way to demonstrate your voice than through frequent use of parentheses.

Also, the title sounds too much like An American Werewolf in London. Either add a werewolf (recommended) or change the title to Blood Pudding? Am I in London or Transylvania?


Anonymous said...

Note that I said Clive Owen "gives you a ride" rather than "gives you a lift." To those crazy Brits, a lift is an elevator!

I beg to differ, kind sir. A lift is definitely what we crazy Brits would give to someone in need of transportational assistance. A ride is sexual intercourse. Misuse at your peril. Or otherwise.

Evil Editor said...

A lift is definitely what we crazy Brits would give to someone in need of transportational assistance.

Yes, vertical transportational assistance.

Anonymous said...

Vertical? Yes, could be vertical. Especially given we're not terribly good at the old GPS yet and our cars therefore have a tendency to plummet off those rather attractive chalk cliffs at the command "turn left immediately".

Otherwise, as a Brit, I respectfully back away from doing irrepairable harm to this query or its ego. Now, if you don't mind, I feel in need of a stiff one.

none said...

I was wondering what on earth blood pudding was, but apparently it's an alternative name for black pudding. Phew. For a moment there I was afraid you'd conflated bread-and-butter pudding with black pudding...and that would be Utterly Gross.

The whole Prince Harry parentage thing is possibly important to some Brits, but certainly not to all of us. What's more pertinent perhaps is why the heck Hewitt wasn't tried for treason, but even that only occurs to me once or twice a year--usually when I can't avoid hearing a mention of the guy.

EE, not all the wastelands are called moors. Some are called Tilbury.

none said...

Oh, and if I may leave a question for you happen to know of any British agents or editors who blog? at all?


Anonymous said...


There have been a couple, but they don't stay around long for some reason. by an anonymous British agent.

McKoala said...

I respectfully back away from doing irrepairable harm to this query or its ego.

Iago, always the gentleman. I, on the other hand, am female. Fortunately, I simply don't know where to start. However, I will say that this may have been done before.

Buffy, I've never found much in the way of British agents blogging, but this place is interesting:

Xenith said...

Getting groceries without a car is interesting enough to be an event in a travel tales book? And there I've been doing it for the last twelve years, in three different cities even. What a missed opportunity! (There was the time I was coming back through a park carrying a week's worth of groceries, with my Jack Russell on a lead & she saw a loose dog she wanted to play with. Hmm. That's probably as interesting as it gets.)

If that's as exicitng as it gets, you might have a problem :) For the query, can you pull out a specific example of an incident that was humorous, irreverent or edge? And make the tone of your query humorous or irreverent?

Anonymous said...


I think the problem you may face here is that lots of people have visited England and had similar experiences. Any American who has spent any amount of time there has probably been grocery shopping, forced to bag their own groceries while fishing around in their pocket for change, deciding instead to just use paper money, grimly accepting the change from the cashier to be added to the jingling mess already weighing down their pants...

I suspect that your book delves deeper into cultural differences and your personal experiences, raising American children in the UK, etc. I suggest you focus on these issues in your query.


Dave Fragments said...

The son of my one of my Mother's ladyfriend wrote a book of his family's travel in Europe. He had a small platform from which to launch it -- his Mother's friends and acquaintances. She was well known in a particular community (thanks to fundraising) around Pittsburgh and that created the platform.
It seemed successful enough.

I think rather than compare the story to other writers, perhaps a few sentences about the stories or situations. The book needs a gym dandy story to kick it off and a pleasant ending (resolution). You might start with those.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

An American Werewolf in London sprang to my mind first, too, on seeing this title. Then An American in Paris. Then I read the query and I, too, longed for a werewolfen appearance.

Your title, like your query, is descriptive and rather ho-hum, I feel. A book about a humorous culture clash should really have a catchy title, shouldn't it -- to catch an agent's interest?

The query spends a lot of time trying to convince the reader that the book is irreverent and edgy, and that it compares and contrasts American and British cultures. Strangely, it also says it makes that comparison lovingly. Seems a bit contradictory. But then we get a couple of anecdotes that don't give us any sense of that compare/contrast, irreverent or loving tone.

I don't see how the correlation between grocery shopping, snacking on blood pudding and sight-seeing with kids compares to a refereed death match or an edgy take on sociology. And the evidence you provide doesn't support the claim that it's a compare-and-contrast study or that you discovered anything about your own culture.

Also, the generalizations are perhaps too generalized. I'm sure shopping without a car was a new experience for someone from Kansas, and someone from Kansas reading the book might get a giggle. But someone from New York who routinely walks to the corner grocer (the agent you query, perhaps?) might wonder what the big deal is.

So first order of business is likely to establish what type of life you came from in Kansas (rural, small town, Kansas City) and where in London you wound up (country manor or the London equivalent of Greenwich Village). You might even be able to establish that simply by your choice of title. And then hook the reader right at the beginning with one of the funny comparisons in your book:

Little did I know the man standing in the rain near Picadilly Circus was an undercover bobby when I offered him a ride. Six hours and the closest I ever want to be to the inside of a London prison later I convinced a magistrate I wasn't offering sexual favors but my brand of American hospitality. Thank God for a Midwest twang.

That was just the first in a long series of misunderstandings this Kansas rube blundered into on moving to downtown London. From Cow Chips to Fish Chips (or How to Successfully Transplant a Kansian Farmer into the Heart of London) journals my misadventures in a country where the only difference between their queens and ours is how big the hats -- and adam's apples -- are...

Whirlochre said...

This is all very humdrum.

There is nothing about the way the query is written to suggest your book will contain the spice required to elevate the tedious business of grocery shopping beyond...the tedious business of grocery shopping.

This means that:

a) Anyone born south of John O Groats and north of Land's End will already know what you're going to say. And if you're saying it over their heads to an American audience, you'll annoy them.

b) Anyone who can ride a horse, shoot their neighbour and change their facial appearance at will (apols - this is my attempt to be 'humourous, irreverant and sometimes edgy') isn't going to care.

Given that the rest of the English-speaking world now speaks Chinese, that's your audience.

The examples you've given aren't vivid enough and I can imagine lots of Americans going home with similar tales. Why are yours any different?

So - yes, you either need something on Harry, Beckham or Simon Cowell (cheese rolling in Gloucestershire in snazzy lycra would be a godsend) or a delicious round of yarns about black pudding.

And as for jokingly referring to your would-be advocate as a 'lucky bastard'...

Stacia said...

Hmmm. On the one hand, I feel compelled to point out this isn't mine. On the other, I feel compelled to say I would probably look at this, simply because I'm in the same boat. (Of course, if it turns into yet another "Haha the English sure have all the answers and we Americans are just silly in comparison" books I would put it right back down again, because I'm sick of those.)

But I echo what others have said. None of this stuff sounds interesting. Grocery shopping without a car? How about "Grocery shopping with a cart that slide around like it's on ice because none of the wheels are fixed"? How about "trying to feed a family for over a year on the huge selection of seven or eight edible foods available at the grocery store"? How about going to the doctor when your husband has bronchitis and having the doctor say to him, "You seem like a strong, healthy man. Try and fight it off on your own, and come back if you start coughing up blood." Or to take a page from what iago said, describe a drive where you're, say, picking up your husband from a meeting, and the GPS keeps telling you to "bear right" at the roundabout, but what the heck is "bear right" supposed to mean, and you end up driving down a bunch of one-way roads while GPS shouts "Turn right! Turn right!" when there is no right turn available, and into somebody's pasture because the GPS lady is deliberately trying to get you lost so she can make fun of you from wherever she's hiding, which is probably in the bushes, and in the end it turns out that when she said "bear right" she actually meant "go straight" but nothing can ever be as straightfroward as "go straight" to the GPS lady so she invents other ways to say that simply in order to confuse people. I believe this is related to the people who protest drivers taking shortcuts through their villages because GPS tells them to. I think those people have hacked the system and now randomly choose drivers to confuse so they'll stop trusting the GPS altogether.

(Sorry. I need to stop now, as I am getting quite warmed up with examples.)

Point is, while I might laugh at some of your living experiences, this would have to be very different to interest me. Oh, and I have no sympathy for your adventure traveling Europe with a baby, because A) You can afford to travel Europe; and B)You're the one who decided to do it with a baby, which means you deserved whatever problems you got.

I think if you give a better idea of where the book is going, I'd be more interested. As it is I'd definitely pick this up in a book store, but it would have to really stand out from the several other books of this type I have to make me buy it. Good luck, though, absolutely.

amy said...

From Cow Chips to Fish Chips (or How to Successfully Transplant a Kansian Farmer into the Heart of London) journals my misadventures in a country where the only difference between their queens and ours is how big the hats -- and adam's apples -- are...

Okay, I would totally read this.

Stacia said...

And by the way EE, lol on the Golden Child reference!

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Maybe the key is to figure out who you want to buy this book. And then rewrite the query giving the best sales job you can to that specific audience.

Probably the most hysterical travel story I have involves attending a John Denver concert in Beijing, but when I usually tell it, people nod nicely, but rarely laugh. The problem isn't the story, but that I don't know how to tell it well. You need to find a way in your query to convince the agent that you know how to tell funny stories.

Anonymous said...

Pheonix -

Wow! That's a story!

none said...

Fish & chips, AND chips.

I'd read Stacia's book.

none said...

Thanks mckoala :).

And totally got me. I'm looking at that page thinking, "but what's this got to do with publishing?" Ya got me!

writtenwyrdd said...

Two things struck me as "off" in this letter. First, your title is too much like American Werewolf in London (which EE already pointed out). Second, your letter's voice isn't 'edgy' but snarky, and I found it annoying and distracting.

Perhaps make the tone of the letter a little bit more professional? Because the chatty tone/parenthesis overload + snark imply to me that this is how the book would read.

I am not a big fan of travelogs, but if they are interesting, I will read. I'm talking "Travels With Charlie" or "Sailing Alone Around the World" interesting. So find what sells that story a bit better than your current approach.

writtenwyrdd said...

"Little did I know the man standing in the rain near Picadilly Circus was an undercover bobby when I offered him a ride. Six hours and the closest I ever want to be to the inside of a London prison later I convinced a magistrate I wasn't offering sexual favors but my brand of American hospitality. Thank God for a Midwest twang."

Ooh. I'd totally read that one!

Wes said...

I agree with the general thrust of the comments. The title isn't a good hook to cause someone to examine the book in a bookstore. And rather than describe the work in abstract terms, briefly describe several essays and what the point of each is.

Best wishes.

Robin S. said...

Blood Pudding? Am I in London or Transylvania? This is one great title. Seriously.

I've been in and out of all-over-Britain two or three or more times a year for the past decade, and I have a complaint to lodge. I've never met buffy or iago or whirlochre. That just doesn't seem fair to me. So come ot Waled in August and visit me, please. Or to London and on down in Somerset in late May. Either one will do.

Anyway, I don't think most Americans travel outside the country much - sadly. And it shows - again, sadly. But a book like this would be a lot if fun, and maybe this one is, but you haven't really mentioned much more of a cultire shock than could be had here by going from living in large city to Podunk, USA. Or the reverse. I've been there neough to know, weird experiences ar there to be had. Or maybe I'm jyst weird and I draw weird experiences to me like a moth to a flame - but I don't think so. So- find a few truly unique happenings - and mention them. This could be a breezy, cute piece, for the right audience.

Polenth said...

The thing about black pudding is that most English people don't eat it. If it was a funny story where you visited someone English, and that's what they served up, you could say so. It isn't funny if you went and brought some from the supermarket.

Jamie Hall said...

To me, the query feels very descriptive: you describe what the book is like without giving a sense of what it is like. That's bad in a query. You've been unintentionally vague, which is the easiest mistake to make in a query. A lot of writers do this.

Furthermore, the few specific examples you've given don't have much punch. Either they aren't the best examples to put in your query, or you aren't describing them as well as you should.

And, be very careful about telling your query readers what emotions they will experience. If someone tried to tell you that you were going to like something, before you even tried it, wouldn't that be annoying? Or, if you went to see a stand-up comic and he spent most of the time telling you how funny he was going to be, wouldn't you be annoyed? Agents feel the same way.

The other problem I see is the use of parenthesis and that list at the end. Try to get rid of these if you can, since they interrupt the flow of your query.

Other than that, you've got something that sounds nice. Clean up the problems, tighten up the writing, and go for it!

Anonymous said...

Hey, Robin.

Next time you're in Wales, you should definitely come visit...

Whirlochre said...

Robin - thanks to an inadvertent typo, you've coined a great new phrase for a Welsh wally...


It's perfect!

Robin S. said...

Dammit - I'm the typo queen, WO. And finally, it's paid off! Hee hee.

Wait til I tell my husband what part of his body's new nickname is. (He's from 'the Gower'.)

Iago- no way in hell you're from Wales. You're just teasing, right?

I think you and WO should meet up with us in a pub or something. And you could wear your new blower, I mean, bowler. (Geez. Typo again.)

Sylvia said...

I think a big problem here is that "American living in London" was done excellently by Bill Bryson and you have to really add something new to the mix to get attention.

After all this time in the UK, I am suddenly listening to "Ticket to Ride" in a completely different way. And here I always thought she was just after a holiday on Wight...

Kanani said...

I have to agree, this has been done many a time and unless you're offering a very unique angle, it might be a hard sell. You might go through the books offered on Lonely Planet and see beyond the big names (Mayes, Bryson) already out there.