Monday, June 09, 2008

Face-Lift 533

Guess the Plot

The Emancipation of Bartholomew Benson

1. Now that Bartholomew had finally won his case, he was an emancipated minor. First thing on his to do list: change that ridiculous name. Second thing: see if being named James Bond really would get him more girls.

2. Benjamin had a flawless reputation as a valet on lush antebellum Magnolia Manor. Yet a single terrible night reduces him to less than the status of the lowest field hand. Subjected to the severest abuses, Benjamin endures them without comment, protecting the secret he shares with delicate Missy Patience Benson.

3. Upon growing up to marry a feminist, Bartholomew trades in "Cubbins," for his wife's last name, "Benson." During the media circus, he finds himself vowing to overthrow the King and set up a new People's Republic of Didd. But Bartholomew's old friend the King is calling on his loyalty. Can he break free of his wife's influence before the country is bathed in blood?

4. In the mid-1950’s, conservative Georgia politician Bartholomew Benson wakes up in the body of a mule – the lone work-animal on a 40-acre farm owned by a family of poor black sharecroppers. While Benson learns the values of a simple life of hard work, the mule (in the senator’s body) surprises his constituents with his newfound competence.

5. A midwestern farmer can't break free of his feuding neighbors and meddlesome ex-wife--until the government recruits him to save mankind from its newest and worst enemy, computer-spawned sentient artificial intelligences.

6. A 17th-century ghost is chained and forced to haunt various personages. One day he meets a free spirit who helps him to escape his chains and move on to hauntings of his own. Also, an invisible tower.

Original Version

Dear [Agent],

"My name is Bartholomew Benson, and I just killed twenty-one people." [But enough about me; let's talk about my middle-grade novel, which I'm hoping you'll represent.]

Clearly, Mr. Benson is a man with a problem.

At first pass, Bart seems like a normal guy. He's a farmer in the year 2017, [He seems like a normal guy with the ability to travel into the future.] trying to make ends meet in his small Midwestern American town. He struggles with mundane problems like a stormy marriage, feuding neighbors, [where to dispose of 21 corpses,] and a meddlesome ex-wife [who won't let him store the corpses in the guest room, even though they haven't had a guest in three years].

But Bart is far from normal. He's an ex-soldier who served extensively in the Middle East, and after military service, he was recruited for a much more difficult task: hunting humanity's worst enemy. [The Borg.] [If they ever recruit me to hunt the Borg, they're gonna have to come up with a better cover than barely making ends meet on a farm, with a bad marriage. I'm gonna want big money, a fabulous crib, and Penelope Cruz.

Recruiter: We need you to hunt the Borg.

Evil Editor: What's in it for me?

Recruiter: A small plot of land in Iowa and a mule.

Evil Editor: Enjoy your assimilation, pal.]

Bart has been entrusted with some very dark secrets. He knows about the world's first fully functioning quantum computer. He knows that this new quantum environment spawned life: sentient artificial intelligences. They've stayed quiet so far, hiding in the deep crevices of the technological jungle, so virtually no one even knows they exist. But Bart knows that, unless they're stopped, these new AIs will inevitably take control. Of everything. [I often feel there's a sentient artificial intelligence residing in my computer, mocking me, but I usually reboot rather than recruit some ex-marines. Perhaps when I upgrade to a better computer I'll put this one out in a field somewhere and heave a grenade at it, just for the satisfaction.]

That's something that he's not going to let happen.

The Emancipation of Bartholomew Benson is a 50,000-word novel that tells Bart's story through a series of journal entries,

[February 23.

Tried to post a lengthy blog entry and Blogger ate the whole thing. Then when I tried to write it again I got that picture of an hourglass on my screen, which wouldn't go away so I had to unplug everything. I got out my M-16 and blasted the monitor, even though the monitor wasn't the problem, because the monitor was the only part still under warranty. I'll tell them it exploded.]


[April 5.

I'm working at my computer station and suddenly I was back in Iraq and my computer was an insurgent so I grabbed my M-16 and blasted the printer because it's the only component I don't need to view porn.]

and first-person narration. The story is character-driven, focusing on Bart's ever-increasing difficulties of maintaining a normal life [and bringing in the meager barley crop], all while handling the daunting responsibility of saving mankind.

I currently reside in Lawrence, KS, where I teach IT in the KU Business School. This is my first novel, and I'd really appreciate the opportunity to share more of the story with you.



What about the 21 people? Do they want mankind's future in the hands of the guy who killed them? If you open with that line, you might give a hint of who they were and why Bart killed them.

I don't like following with Clearly, Mr. Benson is a man with a problem. I can't tell if that problem is mental, like he's an insane serial killer, or if it's escaping the cops, or getting rid of the bodies. Apparently it's none of the above. The only problems actually mentioned are his mundane farm/wife/neighbor problems and the crevice creatures, but you haven't connected those problems to the 21 people.

You might want to mention why this ex-soldier is qualified to deal with this situation.

If you'd refer to him as Bartholomew, I wouldn't keep thinking of him as Bart Simpson. It's hard to have hope for mankind's future when it's in the hands of Bart Simpson.

Why is it inevitable that the AIs will take over? So far they've done nothing. Maybe they like it in the deep crevices. Or maybe they'd like to be friends of mankind, like the dolphins (except the ones we eat).


Kiersten White said...

Wow, EE--a borg reference? That one made me smile.

Other than that, sorry author, nothing to add that EE didn't cover. He is a genius, after all.

Dave Fragments said...

...hiding in the deep crevices of the technological jungle, so virtually no one even knows they exist.
I found this line hysterically funny. I even laughed out loud.
I am guessing that it's an unintentionally humorous statement. Jungles might have deep crevices but that is the way one describes the places where sand gathers at the beach - in all my crevices. And the technological jungle seems like a mass of wires in a swamp with servers and routers as the monsters. Now "virtually no one" is fun because the AI are virtual and not real. A very subtle pun.

Bartholomew's biggest problem isn't the nagging wife or the feuding neighbors (we all have idiots for neighbors). It that he is retired superagent with lots of knowledge about bad things.

What is a dark secret? That the first quantum computer spawned offspring? And the offspring will turn into Terminators, violate the 3 Laws of Asimov, make us watch endless repeats of Forbidden Planet, or the worst - kill of humanity with a constant news stream about Madonna, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and OJ?

Bartholomew is a retired man with a past, a past that must remain secret. He fought in the war and was responsible for the first virtual battlefield run by a quantum computer, a computer that now wants to take over the world.

If I were in his situation, I'll tell the exwife to {blank} off (or something just as pithy), burn out the neighbors, and not worry that my fields filled with GM Maui Wowie might be found. I'd worry about the world falling into the hands (virtual hands) of robots or whatever those AI are planning. Perhaps the AI will block all porn on the internet. Then millions of nerds will have to leave their houses resulting in mass chaos and riots when they try to date.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, unfortunately it's not cool to have a character named Bart these days.

That was one of EEs best reviews in years but I liked the story anyway. Keep at it...

Anonymous said...

If he's all that competent, saving mankind doesn't sound like a problem; it sounds like a job.

E.D. Walker said...

"a 50,000-word novel" Well, we didn't think you were querying a picture book, dear. This sentence is not very helpful.

What's your genre? Some flavor of SF I'm guessing. And I'm assuming with the high body count adults are your intended audience. If that's the case then 50,000 is probably at least 20000 words too few.

I wouldn't recommend leading with the 21 dead people, but if you must then at least explain why he killed them.

Anonymous said...

I don't get the title. What's Bart emancipated from? Or is this more about the nagging wife than the author is letting on?

writtenwyrdd said...

What's the story, though? You tease with the mention of 21 dead, and then tell us all about him having secrets and there are sentient cyber beings. Not sure what the body count has to do with anything in the story, and that makes it work like an anti-hook for me, like you don't know what your own story is about, Author.

Since I read mostly SF and fantasy, I've read a good half dozen book with cyber people, sentient computers, cyber angels, and the like. I want to see how your world shapes up to this trope, whether it will be dystopic or post-apocalyptic, whether it will be dark or happy. And I want to know what the conflict is and what the guy Bart has to do about it, and why him.

Sounds like it might be a good story. Can't know till you tell us about it, though.

Stacy said...

Like writtenwyrd says, we need a better overview of the plot here. You use a lot of hook-y statements, but you don't really tell us what happens.

EB said...


To begin with, the title didn't seem to fit the story with me. I was expecting YA (the aliteration particularly makes it too cute) or perhaps some kind of historical/steam-punky story. But titles are easily changed.

Like many of the queries we see here (mine have been no exception), there's set up but not much plot. Here's this former solider who knows about this horrible, no good, very bad technology...but he's putting his military past behind him so he can till the soil. No problem except the problems you present us with at the beginning of the query are, by your own admission, mundane. If farming subsidies and a nagging wife are a "struggle" for him, what hope does he have against the sentient circuits?

Is Bart (and yes, the name needs help. He's either Black Bart or Bart Simpson) hiding on the farm BECAUSE he killed those 21 people? Is this an Unforgiven type story where he tries to hide from his past by returning to the land only to have somebody ride up to his doorstep and say "Pack your plasma rifle, we need you again."

If you start with 21 dead folks, the problems of a farm mortgage don't amount to a hill of soybeans in this crazy, mixed-up near- future world.

"It's something he's not going to let happen." At what point in your MS does he make this decision? Is that the first act? If so, what you've given us is just set up. If it's near the end, his battle with the AI monsters is given short shrift. Either way, play up the soul of the conflict. I don't think you've shown it to us yet.

Wes said...

WW asks good questions and offers sound advice.

none said...

Interesting how people have translated "meddlesome" into "nagging".

Evil Editor said...

Actually, it's the ex-wife who's meddlesome; they're translating stormy marriage into nagging wife.

Anonymous said...

people shorten "artificial intelligences" to AI and it just might be me, or maybe it's the fact that I'm doing biology right now - but when I see AI i think "artificial insemination". Which isn't really good, considering...

talpianna said...

I've been assuming that he killed 21 VIRTUAL people--the evil AIs.

The computer problems remind me of J.D. Robb's Eve Dallas series. Homicide cop Dallas has an ongoing hate-hate relationship with her crappy office computer, which keeps bringing up her data in Chinese and suchlike. Eventually she gets a new one. She takes the old one home and is wondering what would be the most fun way to destroy it (axe? hammer? something humorous with boiling oil?) when her IT-genius husband comes in and takes it away from her because it's so damned weird that he wants the kid he's mentoring to play with it.

Julie Weathers said...

people shorten "artificial intelligences" to AI and it just might be me, or maybe it's the fact that I'm doing biology right now - but when I see AI i think "artificial insemination". Which isn't really good, considering...~

Me also, but then we inseminated a lot of cows on the ranch. Plus, I try not to associate overly with intelligence artificial or otherwise.

I will try to comment constructively on this tomorrow.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I get what most people here got. 21 dead people + problem - must be an insane serial killer. But no, he's the savior of humanity with, outside of that, very ordinary problems.

Loved this one, EE. The borg dialogue was fantastic!

none said...

Ah, thx, EE. Still weird.

If by people it does mean AIs, that's the sort of cheat readers really don't like. I still haven't forgiven one author for an exciting battle scene that turned out to be a drill.

Whirlochre said...

That's something that he's not going to let happen.

Great! But then — 50,000 words, yours sincerely.

It's a bit of a tease, this.

Bonnie said...

The plot sounds intriguing, but how does fighting in the Middle East qualify one to hunt killer quantum babies? Is it that sand-in-the=crevices trick?

Crittias said...

I'm the author of this letter, and I just wanted to say thanks to everyone that provided feedback. I knew my letter was far from what I really wanted, and your comments have really helped point me in a new and better direction.

If anyone wants to offer more specific help on the manuscript or query letter, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Hi Crittias! Welcome to a new delurker :o)

What we need from you now is either a new query taken in the direction you've been pointed or a couple of quick paragraphs or random thoughts answering some of the minions' questions about the relevance of the 21 bodies at the beginning, general plot, MC's qualifications for stopping a cyber threat, etc. If we get the latter, a couple of us will likely pound out examples that you can either rip to shreds or take to the bank.

Crittias said...

Okay, here's a more detailed summary of my story. Maybe it'll help people help me come up with a better query letter. Thanks in advance!

In Bart's first journal entry, he tells the reader that he killed twenty-one people. He doesn't say how or why, but he tells the reader that he feels the need to tell his story.

The story then jumps to a series of mundane scenes: Bart trying (and failing) to buy milk at the grocery store. Bart mowing his lawn. Bart arguing with his wife over money.

Bart's life seems boringly average, which makes his first journal entry that much more confusing. The reader gets to read more journal entries (the beginning of each chapter), where Bart gives some insight into his thought process: he's very frustrated by technology taking away the ability to make our own decisions (like buying dairy milk instead of soy, for instance).

Journal Entries:
Bart's a war vet, and proud of it. After serving on the front lines, he spent time in a covert task force fighting cybercrime and cyberterrorism. During his service as a covert operative, he learned about the first quantum computer, developed by the Chinese and used to crack codes and steal huge quantities of money and military/corporate secrets. More quantum computers quickly followed, and within a few years, every major nation had them.

The quantum computing environment serves as a technological "primordial soup." Give it enough time, and a quantum computer might spontaneously develop a sentient intelligence. In 2012, the first AI wakes up. Unlike what we've all seen in the movies, the newborn computer intelligence doesn't try to destroy the world. No, it runs and hides.

More AIs follow, and they spend the first few months of their existence hiding from humans and quietly siphoning physical resources to creat their own, safer infrastructure.

Eventually, however, they start meddling in human affairs. They introduce new technologies, they begin toyin with financial markets, they start steering public policy to serve their own ends.

Bart (and his military unit) are tasked with finding and destroying AIs before they get more aggressive. Unfortunately, the AIs are so tightly integrated into the information infrastructure, modern means of battling them won't work.

Instead, Bart is asked to "go deep." He returns to his family farm and resumes a normal life. He drops off the grid: no cellphones, no credit cards, no internet. His digital footprint is miniscule. And from his new, hidden position, he starts to coordinate attacks on the AIs.

The main chapters follows Bart as he takes a part-time job installing hydrogen conversion units around town. We learn about his wife, Anne, who recently became pregnant. We meet his ex-wife, Lauren, who is now married to a local business tycoon, Chester. Bart's relationship with these three people is complicated: Chester is his former best friend from high school, and Lauren, his ex, is also his sister-in-law (Anne's older sister).

After an argument at a holiday party at Chester & Lauren's house, Bart crashes his truck into a deer. No one is badly hurt, but Anne loses the baby. Bart's marriage begins to crumble.

Bart has been trying to buy a patch of land back from his neighbor, Andy. When the negotiation sours, the argument leads to an unfortunate "accident." Andy is found dead with a broken neck from a fall,and his will reveals that he's returning the land to Bart. Some folks are suspicious, especially Anne, but nothing comes of those suspicions.

Bart wants to use the new land to reopen his dairy. He wants to sell dairy milk at the local grocery store, now that they've stopped carrying it. He can't seem to get a bank loan for the venture without becoming a certified government supplier, but the government won't give him that status without proof of funding. Bart is convinced that AIs are behind the hopeless situation he's in.

In a night of too much drinking, Bart tells Chester all about the AIs and his plans to deal with them. Later, when he sobers up, he realizes his mistake. He visits Chester's house, knocks him out, and then takes him out to the same country road where he and Anne had their accident. he stages another deer accident with Chester's car, but this time he makes sure that Chester dies from the impact.

Anne is even more suspicious now, as are the local authorities, but Bart reveals that as long as he has another week of freedom, nothing else matters.

At a local town festival, Bart initiates his plan. He's been setting bombs in people's basements while installing the hydrogen conversion units. He simultaneous detonates them while the town celebrates. Most people are not at home, so very few people are hurt or killed, but the AI that had gotten itself installed in those basements is almost completely destroyed.

Bart has to visit a few remaining houses where his bombs failed to detonate. At the last house, he's confronted by his wife with a shotgun. He tries to explain everything to her, but she doesn't believe his story. They barely make it out of the house before the second bomb detonates.

In the final chapter, a newspaper article explains the events of the evening. Bart seems to have been suffering from paranoid delusions. There is no such thing as AI, and Bart's bombs did nothing but blow up cable boxes in people's basements. He killed 19 people (+ Andy + Chester = 21). The article also reports Bart as dead from the final explosion.

In the epilogue, Bart is in an empty cell, with a bed, a chair, and a newspaper. He reads the article (which we just read). He's questioned by a disembodied voice about his actions. He confesses to killing the people in town, and to earlier deaths that resulted from other attacks on AIs.

Bart's questioner reveals itself to be: an AI. The AI wants to work with Bart to hunt down other rogue AIs. Bart reluctantly agrees.

In his final journal entry, Bart admits that he's willing to work with the AI while it serves his interests, but if and when he needs to break free, his new companion will never see it coming.


batgirl said...

Hi, crittias.
This is just my impression, but I think the tension of your story is whether Bart is a nutcase or a hero - a sort of Blake's 7 situation.
Maybe that's your hook? And keep that to-and-fro going through the very short synopsis. Bart is fighting the AIs, but each step he takes brings him under more suspicion, until he's outcast and imprisoned, when he gets a new offer that changes everything that's gone before. (That's too vague to use, but maybe something following that process, with specific examples.)
I guess you're going for the gritty anti-hero thing with Bart killing innocent people because they've seen or guessed too much. It's probably okay with some readers (depending on how Bart reacts) but others will lose any sympathy for him at this point, unless the AIs are utterly evil. Just something to consider in your synopsis.

Crittias said...

Batgirl, this was very helpful advice. I think you're right, I need to do a better job of talking about the tug-of-war between Bart being normal and Bart being delusional in my letter.