Thursday, July 10, 2008

Face-Lift 542

Guess the Plot

Peyton and Isabelle

1. When their mother wearies of the 10-year-olds’ constant bickering, she sends Peyton and Isabelle away for a summer of “tough love”: three months aboard a 30-foot ketch with their eccentric aunt and uncle. Nothing but excruciating boredom looms on the horizon, until a freak squall leaves the boat dismasted and the adults disabled. Can the twins learn to cooperate? Also, an uncharacteristically aggressive pod of whales.

2. Fresh from their California wedding, brides Peyton and Isabelle arrive in Bunkyville, Kansas, to tend to Peyton’s ailing mother. Conservative locals are agog at the groom-less newlyweds. Soon a local sheriff and self-described hunk is convinced Isabelle is The One he’s been waiting for all his life, and sets out to convince her of same. Comic mayhem ensues.

3. Peyton and Isabelle
Went to Sea
In his beautiful sailing boat

They took all the money
From her murdered hubby
And left cops a suicide note

When cops come a'calling
With questions they're trawling
Will their alibi still float?

4. When painting prodigy Isabelle and football player Peyton accidentally start a fire on the fourth of July that kills four people, Isabelle believes they should turn themselves in, but Peyton guilts her into silence. Over the next two decades, Peyton finds himself haunted, not by the people he killed, but by Isabelle and her macabre paintings of burning, screaming people.

5. Peyton and Isabelle have kept their affair secret from their spouses and the nosy neighbors. But when Peyton’s brother (Isabelle’s husband) catches them in the act, Isabelle shoots him dead. Now Peyton and Isabelle are Out in the Country, On the Road to Sham-ba-la ,driving through a Canadian wilderness colder than a Three Dog Night, holding tight to the One thing they know for sure: Eli’s (not) Coming.

6. When Peyton, a pug, gets separated from his family in Hollywood, he worries about how he'll ever get home. That's when he meets Isabelle, a Latina tabby with a heart of gold and plenty of fire. Can they find his home--and will Isabelle be allowed to stay with him?

Original Version

Dear EE,

Peyton Ryder grows up coal-dust poor in the mountains of West Virginia, hunting, trapping and running wild in the woods. The summer he turns fourteen, he and his mother hitch a ride out of their dead-end hollow in her boyfriend's Dodge, hoping to find a better life in Boston.

Mad at the world for depriving him of wealth and a father, Peyton decides to climb out of poverty and never look back. When he wrangles himself a football scholarship to a private school, [With a name like Peyton Ryder, he was destined to attend a private prep school in Boston. Call it the second law of inevitability.] he works hard and fights anybody who gets in his way. To his surprise, he falls in love with a fellow scholarship student, a strangely innocent painting prodigy named Isabelle Woods. [I'm in love with Isabelle Woods, even though I know nothing about her except that she's a strangely innocent painting prodigy. And fictional . . . I gotta get a life.] [What does strangely innocent mean? Is it strange that she, in particular, is innocent? Or is there something about her particular innocence that's strange?]

When Isabelle and Peyton accidentally start a fire on the fourth of July after graduation—a fire that grows out of control and causes the death of four people—their relationship shatters. Isabelle believes they should turn themselves in, but intent on preserving his worldly ambitions, Peyton guilts her into silence. Over the next two decades, Peyton finds himself haunted less by the people he and Isabelle accidentally killed, and more by Isabelle, [and her macabre paintings of burning screaming people. Hey, I had to put it in the query or I couldn't have used it in the Guess the Plot.] who floats in and out of his life, unable to let him or her despair go.

PEYTON AND ISABELLE is a fast-paced literary novel [An oxymoron if ever I've heard one.] of 107,000 words, following the journey of a fearless boy as he becomes a successful, but constrained man, who in one moment, on the verge of adulthood, has to decide how much he is willing to give up in order to make something of himself.


Well-written, though you haven't made Peyton seem sympathetic. As the fire was an accident, I could see him as a sympathetic character who makes one bad decision, but because he's described as mad at the world, because he "wrangles" a scholarship, rather than earns it, because he fights anyone in his way, I don't care enough about him to feel sorry for him.

Two of the three plot paragraphs are background. We don't need to know about the hunting and trapping and the boyfriend's Dodge. Give a bit of background and get to the story. They start a fire that kills some people. Peyton talks Isabelle into keeping mum. And?

Don't use "mum" in your query.

What about the next two decades? Does Peyton realize his worldly ambitions, becoming rich and successful despite being haunted? Does his bad decision destroy him? Does he blame Isabelle for his ruined life? Do they finally come clean: Officer, remember the big July 4th fire that killed all those people twenty years ago? We're strangely guilty.


Anonymous said...

I really want to know what happens - and that means, what happens after they set the fire, have guilt, paint paints with screamy burny people, etc. You have 107,000 words and I don't see how the part up to the fire is going to take even half of that - so what's in the rest? Do they know these four people they killed? Do they stalk their friends and relations? Does Peyton think the paintings are talking to (or screaming at) him?

WRT 'strangely innocent painting prodigy' - as long as she isn't a complete ditz like Phoebe in Friends, I'm happy.

Also, just a thought - be really careful about that 'dirt poor in the backwater' background. It's way too easy to turn into a cliche; I remember Tom Wolfe getting some criticism for cluelessness.

Anyway, nitpicks aside, I like it.

Chris Eldin said...

I laughed out loud at EE's comment regarding Peyton's name--it *does* sound prep school!!
I liked this one though. Good luck with it.

WouldBe said... a fast-paced literary novel.

I think you're leaving that to the query reader to accept on faith, because just before that paragraph, you say, "over the next two decades, Peyton finds himself haunted less by the people he and Isabelle accidentally killed, and more by Isabelle...who floats in and out of his life, unable to let him or her despair go." That sounds like a substantial part of the story, and not fast-paced.

I wanted something more in the close of the query not to push it aside. If they die old and miserable in their sleep, then maybe you've said enough, but if not, give a little more.

EB said...

Whoa. Huge flag on the play. You cannot name a football player Peyton. Particularly in Boston. The Rindge & Latin kids would break his knees on general principle.

It sounds like Peyton's move to Boston and the early relationship with Isabell is all Act I stuff, culminating with the fire.

An interesting start, but then what? I fail to see how 20 yrs of smothered guilt is fast-paced.

Kiersten White said...

Also, that last paragraph has FIVE commas and one period. Break it up or simplify it.

Otherwise I agree with EE and everyone else, it's well-written but I'd like less backstory and more...front story?

Anonymous said...

Agreed that it needs more of what happens in the "twenty years," but I liked the backstory that set up *why* it was so important to him to not give up his chance at success.

This sounds terrific to me. I would read this book.

Ulysses said...

Er... 10700 words?
Isn't that a little long for a "fast paced literary" work?

It's about right for an epic fantasy, but unless you've neglected to mention Peyton's elfin family, I don't think that's where you're going...

Stacy said...

I'm a little bothered by the statement in the query that Peyton isn't as haunted by the dead people as he is by Isabelle—or even that the guilt of killing four people recedes over time. Coupled with his wrangling and fighting and ambitions to 'make it' at all costs, this makes him out to be a bit of a psychopath. It's hard to be sympathetic.

As far is the query is concerned, I think you could shrink the first two paragraphs into one. Your real story is what happens after the fire, and that's the part I think you should focus on. Doesn't Peyton learn anything from this? It doesn't sound, as the query is presented here, that he does. More like he's just plagued by vague feelings of guilt. Nothing a few beers wouldn't cure. Is there any redemption for Peyton? If there is, let's hear it.

Stacy said...

I thought from reading agent and editor blogs that 100,000 words was about the right length for a novel. You don't get into epic territory until you have to split the novel into a trilogy. ; )

Anonymous said...

I like the sailing ones...

Much has already been said of fast-paced/literary/107,000/two decades. I only add 'ditto' on that. And to the mega-dose of back story, which reads more like notes on character motivation than a story in itself. The rags-to-fire portion could be a YA novel in itself, but it would have to stop at graduation.

What exactly is the story here? Leaving home in a wagon and fighting your way to a football scholarship? Being haunted as an adult by a death-dealing act-of-stupidity done in your teens? Why should I care about this man's attempts to avoid consequences?

This story might intrigue me as an adult novel if it opened with the highly successful, wealthy, famous ex-football Bostonian paying cash for a painting of people screaming as they burn, with bonus points for smuggling it home in plain brown paper to stash it in a hidden room with a hundred other paintings of people screaming as they burn.

Under those circumstances, I'd immediately start to wonder whether he was an in-bred Brahmin with a fire fetish or a shrewd art collector setting up the eventual murder of a painter with a fire fetish, so as to enhance the value of his art collection. And, if the writing was good, I'd keep reading to find out.

As this query reads, I reiterate: why would I care?

Anonymous said...

The GTPs were terrific.

PJD said...

EE's comments are, of course, spot on. Everyone else hit on the "fast paced" aspect--I get the premise and believe it could make a really good story, but saying it's fast paced does not make it fast paced. There's not a lot of sense of the action in here.

Or did you mean it's a book you can read at a fast pace because you only used one-syllable words? Or you wrote it at a fast pace? Or perhaps because it can be thrown with great speed?

In any case, the query (to my amateur eye) seems good enough to warrant a request of pages by an agent who likes this sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

First, thanks very much for the post and comments! This is helpful. And, I am busted: at some point, Isabelle does paint burning buildings. :)

If anybody is willing to slog through more information, I’d like to say more about the structure of the book here and see if anyone has additional thoughts in light of this—particularly about the role of the West Virginia section in the query.

In the prologue (Boston, 1984) the fire occurs (the summer after they graduated from high school.) Part 1 (of 4) is Peyton growing up in West Virginia (1966-1980.) Part 2 is high school, and Part 3 and 4 are the 21 years following the fire.

Though the fire is the turning point for Peyton's life, his life before is very important to the book. He’s a wild, ambitious spirit, and that’s partly who he is innately, and it’s partly because he grows up on the mountainside without a father or any siblings. And with a young mother who tells him again and again that he is the one who is going to get them out of poverty.

When he arrives in Boston at 14, he’s fearless - and though some people are turned off by this, he is popular because of it. He sees the insecurities and machinations of society as frivolous, and he thinks and acts like he has nothing to lose, as well as working all the time to get ahead. He only realizes when it is too late that he does have something to lose—his future, and Isabelle. The accidental (but negligent) fire forces him to make a choice: his future or Isabelle, worldly success or an honest life. He chooses the former—because his mother expects him to save them from poverty, because he’s been surrounded by wealth for four years and his desire to make something of himself is strong, because he’s still a boy and perhaps, when pushed to the wall, he's too cowardly to do what’s right.

There’s a fatalistic undertone to the rest of the book—once he makes this choice, he can’t really find his way back.

Isabelle disappears after she agrees to remain silent about the fire, as she said she would, and she doesn’t come back to Peyton for ten years. Peyton tries to find her during the ten years, but can't, and when she does come back, he wants to be with her with his whole heart—in the ten years since the fire, he’s worked himself into a great financial position, but he hasn’t loved another woman. But he doesn’t want to be with Isabelle enough to undo what he did—to let himself see and recognize how wrong what he did was, to ask Isabelle for forgiveness, to talk with her honestly about what happened. He's had thoughts of guilt, but he's largely distanced himself from the fire because he felt like that was what he needed to do in order to move on. To some degree, he's funneled his guilt over the fire into his guilt over making Isabelle remain silent, which he does think about. When they are together again, he sees she needs him to "come clean," and yet afraid of what will happen if he does -- the whole life he's built might be shattered -- he can’t, and after two years of them living together, she leaves again, without a word of explanation.

Her leaving sends Peyton down a reckless path where he works all the time, and spirals more and more out of control - drinking, yelling, sleeping around, etc. After years of this, he is dried out, exhausted, and he starts over, and constructs a more reasonable, structured life. He ends up content, married to another woman with whom he has a son, but he occasionally sees his life as heartbreakingly mundane, tragically inferior to what he could have had.

Isabelle, who is an artist and is also a free spirited loner—she is driven by beauty and a kindness and generousity of spirit that arises from having something you love so purely, rather than being driven by what other people think of her, or any material motivations—is very much tied up with the man he could have been. Because she is not spurred on by a fear of poverty and has never faced the prospect of poverty, she is more honest and innocent than Peyton, and ultimately she cannot get over what they did. When she leaves the second time, he knows he is losing both her and his ability to live his life in a free spirited, genuine way. He can’t do that by himself - he is wrapped up in the life he has created - and he doesn’t believe he will meet anyone else like Isabelle, and even if he did, he doesn't believe anyone else could redeem him because she is the only one who knows and might understand the whole truth.

I realize my descriptions here are insufficient—free spirited, wild, strangely innocent, pure, etc.—but it is very hard for me to come up with better words to describe it. The book is about, among other things, the conflicting desire to escape society to something more freeing and true, and the desire to belong; also, it is about the fear and hardness that poverty (and the lack of a father) can create in someone, and the cost that can extract, as well as how bad luck can so thoroughly change the course of a life. It is not a happy book, but it also may be less depressing than I am making it sound.

In the end, Peyton accepts the choice he made and comes to terms with the life he has. He takes responsibility for what he chose, even though he sees it was the wrong choice. There is a more final resolution with Isabelle, but I feel like saying what happens there in a query would make reading the book less enjoyable. But nobody ever confesses to starting the fire, and after Isabelle leaves the second time, Peyton never speaks with her again.

I'm not sure if this clarified any or changed any advice for the query, but any thoughts welcome.

Anonymous said...

Really bad title. It would really have to be good for an agent to want to read something called that.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, you lost my attention halfway through that long long long long ol' soap opera. Just cover the most passionate, dangerous, beautiful, life-changing episodes and skip the rest.

talpianna said...

Jeb, you have just cited the plot of Elizabeth Lowell's DIE IN PLAIN SIGHT.