Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Face-Lift 649

Guess the Plot

Cyborg Harrow

1. For years Cyborgs had been quietly integrated into society. Now they're being terminated, their parts recycled for scrap metal--and the cyborg running the program doesn't know he's one himself.

2. When Steve Harrow wakes to find a psychopathic killer and a cop in his bedroom, he convinces them to settle their differences by playing video games while encased in rubber costumes. But Harrow's handler, General Ascot, has other ideas for the killer and the cop. He wants to convert them into human computers capable of controlling world finance, killer satellites and soulless assassins. Can Steve, who is part machine himself, prevent the General and his platoon of death-dealing cyborgs from enacting their plot for world domination?

3. Farmer Harrow chose to become a cyborg rather than live as a quadraplegic. Now he must defeat a zamboni in a cage match to win the love of a vending machine.

4. The teenage daughter of a mad scientist deals with school, homework, and figuring out how to attract a boy when she has to recharge her batteries every few hours. On the plus side, she has laser cannons in her eyes.

5. The boys of the Upper Fifth are in trouble! Molesworth hasn't downloaded his Latin prep, Derbyshire's titanium bowling arm is in for repairs, and now Potts Major has picked up a wetware cybervirus from one of the girls at Android Roedean. Will they be ready for the crucial cricket match against Bionic Eton?

6. In a dystopian future Britain, only those with technologically augmented brains and bodies can win a place at one of the country's top schools. Half-boy, half-machine Tom Brown struggles for an elite education in a society where a high metal content is a must.

Original Version

Dear Agent,

Steve Harrow is a man with a history, a man of parts. He writes computer war games, creates costumes for Sci-Fi movies, talks to computers and dreams of colonizing the galaxy. But that all might end today when one of his friends, a psychopathic killer nicknamed Jack the Sprat, surprises him with a wake-up gunshot and the crooked cop chasing Jack shows up wanting to split the loot -- one way. [What loot?] [Why doesn't the killer just call himself Jack Sprat? A sprat is a fish. Jack the Sprat sounds like Felix the Cat or Rocky the Flying Squirrel or Howard the Duck. But they were a cat and a flying squirrel and a duck. Is Jack a herring?] [Also, can Jack the Sprat eat fat, or just lean?]

But dying does not fit into Steve's plans. [Who said anything about dying? Why is Jack there?] He's planned in advance for occasions like this [What made him think occasions like this might arise? Who is this guy?] and the killer and the cop end up playing video games while completely encased in rubber costumes; no small recruiting feat. [Like most editors, I sometimes lie awake nights wondering what I would do if a gang of disgruntled authors were trying to get into my house to kill me. My plans range from pushing a dresser in front of the bedroom door to running up to the attic and cowering quietly behind forgotten boxes of slush. The chances that I might convince the intruders to let me encase them in rubber seems like a long shot.] Steve is definitely a man of more parts than any man alive. He is already part machine and must one day sacrifice his flesh and blood body to computer chips and metal. [Thus completing his conversion from cyborg to X-box.]

General Ascot, Steve's military handler, [Don't generals have better things to do than act as handlers for guys who write game programs? Can't the general delegate this to a colonel?] wants the killer and the cop converted to human computers capable of controlling worldwide finances, killer satellites and soulless assassins. Ascot has an entire Platoon ready to be transformed into death-dealing cyborgs and subhuman automatons, willing and able to do his bidding. [Willing? When you place an order for a terminator, you shouldn't have to specify whether you want it to be willing or unwilling to do your bidding. "Willing" should go without saying. I'm surprised they even make unwilling ones.]

[Hey pal, this cyborg you sold me just sits around all day watching soaps instead of killing my enemies.

Oh, did you want the kind willing to do your bidding?]
The only man standing between Ascot and his dream of hegemony is Steve Harrow.

CYBORG HARROW is a 21000 word SciFi novella of surprises, of cross and double cross. [SciFi is now known as SyFy. Supposedly this is less offensive to aliens and/or nerds.] A day when no man can be taken at face value and any man might lose his humanity and become a cyborg. [I don't mind that that's not a sentence, but it would be a better non-sentence if it started with "Of," so I suspect from the start that it's not gonna be a sentence.] In a world one step from the end of humanity as we know it, one man stands for human life and its future. [And that man, apparently, is a cyborg.]

The first 5000 words are attached. Thanks for your time and effort.


Isn't it a little unusual for someone who designs costumes for movies to have a military handler?

When you say any man might lose his humanity and become a cyborg, I get the impression it's something that just happens out of the blue. Someone has to do it to you, right? Do you lose your humanity when you become a cyborg, or do you become a cyborg when you lose your humanity?

I'm writing a book in which it's discovered that Barack Obama is a cyborg. Then the people have to decide whether to impeach him or to stick it out and hope he doesn't plan to destroy humanity.

Is one platoon of cyborgs really enough to doom humanity?

If Steve is a man of more parts than any man alive, does that mean he's the only cyborg?

The first sentence is too vague to make me care what it means.

Why is Steve the only man who can save humanity? Can't he go to the press or the government and blow the whistle?


writtenwyrdd said...

Wow. I don't know how to put this kindly, but this letter makes your plotting ability sound non-existant and your story a mess. Nothing you have describing your book sounds logical at all, and most of the events you focus on are either dull or confusing.

As an example is the opening, where you say "but all that might end today" after listing some random dude's job and interests. You could just say "Steve Harrow's life hangs in the balance when he's awakened by a gun battle in his bedroom between his friend Jack the Spratt and a crooked cop" because a life is much more to be valued than merely job/everyday things.

Best of luck with the rewrite.

Mame said...

Hey, I have parts, too. Steve and I would probably get along great.

*wanders away*

Wait, SyFy?

Matt said...

For some reason, I picture Bender(from Futurama) as Steve Harrow and the crazy, stabbing robot as Jack Sprat.

I can't tell from the tone of your query if this is supposed to be a light, breezy satire or a serious work of science-fiction.

150 said...

AFAIK, agents don't generally take on novellas. You'd send something of this length to short story markets, but I'm not sure many of them require an agent-type letter; you just get by on genre, title, word count and what else you've sold recently, and let the story do the talking. That's to your benefit. You could try Duotrope to find a place this might fit.

_*rachel*_ said...

3 is HILARIOUS!!! And most of the other GTPs would make good books, too.

Jack Sprat fell flat. Or your fist sentence did, anyway. A crooked cop chased Jack Sprat, Steve’s serial killer best friend, all the way into Steve’s beauty sleep, did he? Say it more simply. It sounds like you’ve got an interesting story in there, but the query sounds pretty garbled.

Do you even need a query? I don’t think this’ll make it in book publishing (too small), so it’ll be heading to a magazine or anthology, and I’m not sure how many of them want queries. I suppose some probably do, but that’s just a guess.

I’m picturing Jack Sprat as the Scarecrow from Batman.

Robin S. said...

[SciFi is now known as SyFy. Supposedly this is less offensive to aliens and/or nerds.]

Is that true, or were you teasing?

Steve Wright said...

Um. Er. Right.

So this Steve bloke (good name for a hero, I grant you that) is a cyborg with all sorts of super-powers ... why is he working as a games and costume designer? Why, if he's a military asset with a military handler, isn't he in the military?

If one of my friends turned out to be a psychopathic killer ... well, I wouldn't just drop him straight off the bat (I might offend him), but I'd definitely start, y'know, cooling things off a bit ... put some distance between us, that sort of thing.

I find the bit about getting the bent cop and the psychotic killer to play video games ... umm ... fairly difficult to swallow.

And I've never bought any of these plots where the evil military type is turning sociopaths into super-soldiers ... Military forces try to weed out sociopaths, for the most part, largely because soldiers have to take orders and put the welfare of their unit above themselves, and sociopaths are notoriously bad at those things.

So ... as presented, this story's got too much stuff in it that I just can't bring myself to believe. Is there any way you can change this query so that I can swallow it?

Anonymous said...

Does everything take place in the guy's bedroom? That's the impression I'm getting. Maybe you could try to enlarge the world a bit as you work on the plot coherence in subsequent drafts.

What 150 said. There's nothing agents could do with 21K words unless it's for children, or you're already famous for something. So you could clarify that it is for kids, or sub it to short story venues as is, or increase the scope and develop it into a novel.

Evil Editor said...

Well, the Sci-Fi Network on television has been changed to SyFy. Apparently they think this gives a better indicator of who they are.

Dave Fragments said...

This matches New Beginning 623

I write short stories with most less than 5K, usually never more than 10K. Those submissions are to editors and only need a one line introduction.

However, for stories beyond 10K to 15K in length, very few editors read the story cold. I think most websites want to serialize longer stories. Their submission guidelines ask for the equivalent of a query letter and a few thousand words. Some have asked for an outline or synopsis. But the bottom line is most want a query or proposal or introductory letter before they read 21K.

I searched Ralan for markets (ezines, anthologies, etc...) to publish this story and found one that would publish it without a letter introducing it but that editor passed on it because he does another sub-genre of Sci Fi. It seems dystopic futures aren't his forte.

I learned years ago to get second opinions on letters such as this and I wasn't wrong.

writtenwyrdd said...

Robin, the SciFi Channel is officially changing its name to SyFy, and the rationale I heard was so that it would be more appealing to women. Apparently they already have the guys and nerds' interest.

Eric P. said...

The biggest difficulty for me is I'm not getting a clear tone. The whole picture--a cyborg working as a costume designer and managing to get a cop and a serial killer to wear rubber suits and play video games--is ludicrous, which is a point in its favor if (and only if) this is a comedy. But the query seems to be saying all this with a straight face (not even deadpan), and then sets serious stakes, stopping totalitarian robot armies and preventing "the end of humanity as we know it". Which is it? Farce or drama? Pick one.

Not that Sci-Fi and comedy can't work together--Douglas Adams, anyone?--but that the way it's written somehow makes me think you're taking some very silly stuff very seriously. Which does not work. How does all the silliness in the first two paragraphs set up the apocalyptic struggle of the last two? Or are two of the paragraphs giving the wrong impression--and if so, which two?

Also, what's up with "split the loot-- one way"? Isn't that like saying, "I'm going to take my scissors and cut this into one piece"? With the right setup I suppose that could be a good gag, but it's not doing it here on its own.

Dave Fragments said...

BTW - I think that the Sci-Fi TV channel was silly to change their name to SyFy.

none said...

GTP#1 sounds like a PKD novel. I almost suspect EE wrote it, as he sounds like a fan.

Do psychopathic killers have friends? I'd have thought not. Maybe make that psychotic instead. Then he and Steve could have been friends during a non-psychotic phase. Or something.

There are a lot of disconnects in this account of the story. Why does Steve have a military handler? Why has he planned for "occasions like this"? Most of us wouldn't, so he must have a reason. What is it? The story jumps from event to event without any logical connections.

(I'm also unconvinced that women have any particular affinity for "y")

Sephina said...

Like everyone else, I found the plot hard to follow and I too wondered if you needed a query letter for a novella. Although, the plot sounds so complex I wonder how it all fits into a small format.

Does anyone else have issues with using a phrase like "In a world..."? That's something that is often used in movie trailers and is often made fun of. I would take that out if it were me. Then again, some seem to think this might be a comedy story, so maybe it would work. But I didn't get the sense that this was a comedic piece of work.

writtenwyrdd said...

Yeah, as a gal I thought the change (for my sake of course) to SyFy was ludicrous and insulting. Like I haven't got the mind to appreciate sf. I'd appreciate the SyFy (bleh) channel more if they produced decent movies, not by a name change.

Dave Fragments said...

GTP #1 is real close to a famous short story and movie.

Hint: Vangelis did the soundtrack.
Hint: It's one degree away from Indiana Jones.
Hint: the original story is titled "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep"

Thus proving that there are only three good plots in the world -- and countless variations on them.

Robin S. said...

SyFy is supposed to appeal to me, even if I never watch the Channel except when something's on there that doesn't seem like it belongs on there?

Do they still do those Mystery Science (I guess it now's SY-ience)
Theater things? I actually love those dudes.

Anyway, author, sorry to piggyback on your query with the SyFy thing.

none said...

Actually I was thinking of The Electric Ant.

Anonymous said...

(I'm also unconvinced that women have any particular affinity for "y")

My wife says it all the time.

Dave Fragments said...

The only copy of The Electric Ant for sale on Amazon is priced at $200. If I read the story, it was years ago while I was in college and I don't remember it. It's due out as a Marvel Comic this year. Maybe.

Mystery Science Theater is not done anymore but is sold on DVD. Sci-Fi Channel might call it "unsophisticated." I alwas thought it was fun. Sci-Fi went into a paranormal mode and now believes in ghosts and steroidially enhanced, over-muscled wrestlers. The new "SyFy" is logo-rifically silly and brand-diculous. They crapped all over FARSIDE, and peed on FIREFLY. They tried to screw up Battlestar Galactica but the BG guys had control of their money.

Eureka sucks the hairy Van De Graf Lightning Generator.
I haven't seen Warehouse 13.
Primeval is too slow.
Stargate grew old and repetitive.
Sorry, I'm syfy-venting... Off-gassing fugitive emissions.
Enuf Sci-Fi diversion for me.

Mame said...

Every time I read this I think;

"Steve Harrow is a man with a history, a man of parts and stuff."

It feels like 'FX: Episode 12: Is it the Chad?'

I want to say something nice but I can't.

none said...

$200???? Someone's having a laugh.

It's in this collection.

Dave Fragments said...

Now that was painful in so many ways. But that's OK.

Trust me when I say that important letters need to be looked at by a second set of eyes.

This felt so good when I wrote it. That's my clue, you see. Years ago, I discovered that when I feel that "certain" way (ecstatic, thrilled, hyper, like I nailed it) then it's time to step back and wait a day or two. I know that I've just produced a pile of bad. I had that feeling in this case and since I had a couple weeks while EE processed other queries to sit and think about what I wrote, this was well worth getting the critique.
Bear in mind, I was a month past ending the story. And an editor read it and said nice things about it. This letter sounded so good when I wrote it. But tiny voices said stop, stop, stop, stop. If you can learn what that is in your mind -- I guess it is the feeling or emotion that makes you blind to all mistakes -- and then act opposite, you'll do yourself a service.

Also, if that little voice in your head says things like "Is this too light and breezy!" or "Will the reader understand that name of Jack the Sprat?" and more important, "Should I tell the editor in advance that Steve has split his personality in two and is double-crossing everyone, including his long-ago lover Ascot to get his two halves together again?" not to mention the bit of information the query lacks about Steve: "Steve is not a hero but a selfish, backstabbing rat-bastard who recruits teenage boys and turns them into cyborg controllers for military use."

Those phrases should be in the letter. So much for light and airy comedy. Nothing sucks more than poorly done satire. Worse than that, one Ming the Magnificent poorly done is hard to take (see Sci-Fi channel's series of Flash Gordon) but two Mings fighting each other are like lipstick on a pig -- to borrow a politically-incorrect phrase.

Steve is the bad guy with his lies and deceptions. He is a chameleon what will entrap suitable minds. He feeds Jack's mental illness. He seduces the Cop with war games. He's already got computer implants and has split his persona into two parts.

General Ascot is the bad, bad guy who cares for no one and nothing. Ascot wants to be the master puppeteer controlling the world. And why not? Ascot has the ultimate weapon but (let's wait a beat for this) he cannot control it. Steve Harrow can control it. It's a McGuffin. It's the people in the story we care about.

Steve's life is dystopic. His world is a sham. He becomes what the person in front of him needs the most and then presents temptation they can't resist -- think of Vito Corleone, a deal they can't refuse. I had all of the hints that those concepts should be part of the query but I fell in love with my own words and the query came out "not good." It is so easy to fall in love with your words and guess what, no matter how dispassionate you can be with someone else's writing, when you're in love, the words just gleam and glitter.

Now I have to decide if some of the suggestions will strengthen the story or if should I leave the story alone and just rewrite the query. New Beginning 623 changed the story for the better when it was critiqued. Can that happen again? That's a hard question. That's all my self doubt running rampant. It's never good enough. When do I stop.

I will admit one big doubt. I was uncertain of the name "Cyborg Harrow." It made me edgy and nervous. I thought it was chancy and perilous . . . But it turns out at least one other person liked the name Steve Harrow and so the title will remain Cyborg Harrow. Now Jack the Sprat, he might get a name change in the query.

I can see what I should have written.

Anonymous said...

I believe that the SciFi Channel changed itself to SyFy because it couldn't exclusively trademark "SciFi." It's a branding thing. Still stupid, whatever the motivation.

Anonymous said...

Your post-critique assessment was fascinating, Dave. I appreciate you sharing it.

Dave Fragments said...

Thanks Georgina. And to add a bit to that, Just writing the first sentence of the rewrite took me three days. It is completely different than anything here. Happy July 4th. Eat a hamburger for me ;)

enya said...

I think the SciFi channel was UTTERLY RIDICULOUS to change its name to SyFy. SciFi is short for science fiction! What is SyFy short for? Synesthetic Fyodor? Syzygium Fye?

"SyFy" makes this English nerd cringe.