Thursday, September 03, 2009

Face-Lift 670

Guess the Plot

Whiz-Bang Fantastic

1. Dashiell Colourful is an extraordinary gentleman: charming, refined, affable, a sharp dresser . . . in a word, whiz-bang fantastic. Yet he's bored with his life--until he finally meets someone who's neither whiz-bang nor fantastic. Also, a talking fox.

2. Egbert Ostlethwaite's Family Fireworks Company has been failing for years. Now it's on the verge of bankruptcy, and everything hinges on whether Egbert's sons, Toby and Trevor, can rediscover the secret recipe for their best firework, the Whiz-Bang Fantastic, in time for Guy Fawkes Night.

3. As Guppy Tweed, the neighborhood pot dealer, makes his rounds, he notices all the cats on Mrs. Finch's porch staring at him with giant glowing red eyeballs. Is he having one of his hallucinations? Or has he discovered the secret hideout of the witches who keep Ferndale safe from zombies? Plus, a psychic albino watchmaker and his dog.

4. Brenda is skeptical when her dating service sends pictures of a guy in a wizard suit, complete with some kind of Harry Potter wand and funky broom! Get real! Grow up! But women over 33 are all desperate, so she meets the guy anyway, and whoa! Discovers a wiz bang is fantastic!

5. Terry wanted to be a superhero all his life, but when he tours their headquarters, he discovers that the heroes are some of the most manipulative and conniving people he's ever met. If he dons a suit, buys some fireworks, and becomes the masked man known only as Whiz-Bang, can he provide a better sort of hero for the city?

6. When Norma Small finds a genie in her bottle of Whiz-Bang soda she uses her wishes to break into the bottling company. There she joins four other intrepid teens who had the same idea. Together they will uncover a plot so mysterious even they can't understand the implications.

Original Version

Dear Agent,

Dashiell Colourful is an extraordinary gentleman. He's charming, refined, street-smart, handsome, and a sharp dresser. He's intelligent, affable, strong and agile. To put it succinctly, he is Whiz-Bang Fantastic. [Why didn't you put it succinctly in the first place?] As such, he is the protagonist of Whiz-Bang Fantastic, an 83,000-word fantasy novel of perfect worlds, thrilling adventures, and discoveries that could change virtually everything. ["Everything" is a big vague word. Could these discoveries change the gestation period of the wildebeest? The number of planets in the solar system? What's the most important thing these discoveries could change? That's all I care about.]

Dashiell leads a charmed life in the vibrant town of The City, a gilded place where everything [There's that word again.] is grand and amazing. He works as a haberdasher, selling the most chic wares the High Street has to offer, he has a loving wife and a talking fox for a pet, his best friend is a flamboyant stage actor, [So far this query is a series of lists. Anyone can make lists. Tell me a story.] and he is admired and respected by all.

And he finds it endlessly boring!

He tries to lash out against his walk in life however he can, from soaring through the air on his aluminum "Gull" glider, to exploring the vast, untamed forest in his backyard [to reading his beloved thesaurus]. He's still in a rut, however, and he thinks nothing will ever change… until he meets Raleigh.

Raleigh is a young woman that Dashiell found wandering in the forest, lost and injured. She's not grand and amazing, and we probably wouldn't notice her on the street. To Dashiell, however, and to his world, she's like nothing they've ever seen before! [Instead of telling us what she isn't (grand and amazing), tell us what she is. What is it about her that makes it obvious she isn't grand and amazing?]

Raleigh's arrival in The City causes an astounding stir, [It's not the stir that's astounding; the stir is perfectly natural and to be expected given the circumstances.] and sends Dashiell and everyone close to him on a journey of perspective, realization, and self-discovery. [Vague. What do they do, specifically?] Some, though, believe Raleigh to be a corruptive influence due to her being the complete opposite to the way of things, and no one can be sure what else may change… [This is all vague. What happens when Raleigh arrives in The City? Who's the bad guy?]

Whiz-Bang Fantastic is my first completed novel. I work primarily as an animator, with experience in both traditional and computer animation. As such, I have an extensive knowledge of modern media. [How is that relevant?] My writing has won me the Seamus Flynn Memorial Award, a local scholarship for creative achievement. I've enclosed the full manuscript for your consideration. Thank you in advance for your time.



This is similar to the September book chat book. It's a book about the far-reaching effects of one little change on a community. Except you're not showing us any concrete effects. Does someone try to run Raleigh out of town? Who? Does it lead to conflict between the townspeople? Is there danger to anyone? You're giving us the set-up, and we can infer the theme, but you don't tell us anything that happens.

It's usually a waste of paper and postage to enclose the full manuscript at the query stage. If guidelines are available, send what they request. If not, hold off until they request the manuscript.

You say that Dashiell is the protagonist of Whiz-Bang Fantastic because he is Whiz-Bang Fantastic. But everyone else is also Whiz-Bang Fantastic, right? Dashiell is actually the protagonist because he's the first one to see Raleigh.

Which leads me to ask, as The City is just one town, why hasn't anyone in this town ever seen anyone who wasn't amazing? Is the town totally isolated and self-sufficient, or are all the delivery people who bring goods/mail/news from other towns also whiz-bang fantastic? Hasn't anyone ever visited another town? Is Raleigh the only person in the world who isn't amazing? In a children's book this wouldn't be an issue, and perhaps it isn't in yours, but if there's an explanation in the book, maybe slipping it into the query would be helpful. I'm not sure why people would consider themselves whiz-bang fantastic if they are no more amazing than the only people they've ever had to compare themselves to.


Adam Heine said...

I don't have a sense of the world this takes place in. Part of that would probably be fixed by being more specific about things. What is so grand and amazing about this city? What changes in the city when Raleigh comes to town?

"I've enclosed the full manuscript for your consideration."

This is potentially worse than a waste of paper and postage. I've seen a lot of agents say they throw out unsolicited materials without even looking at them.

Mame said...

I have no problem with the premise, but I don't know enough to request that the manuscript be slapped down on my desk. Too much fluff in the opening, and not enough "why should I care?" in the rest.

The world building wasn't an issue for me because of the word Haberdasher and the "fantastical awesomeness" of everyone in this particular reality (I actually liked finding out about the talking fox, I think it helps), and I understand what "happens" overall, but you need to be much more specific about the ennui this guy feels and what REALLY changes for him. Not crap about a glider.

I think you might have a fun book, but it's not a good query. You can't waste your precious words on "charming, refined, street-smart, handsome, a sharp dresser, intelligent, affable, strong and agile"....*snooooooze*...when this guy thinks it's all stale crumbs anyway.

Wes said...

Excellent critique, EE.

Author, he's given you a great roadmap for a fix.

Steve Wright said...

I recall reading an extract from this one on the NaNoWriMo boards - the title stuck in my mind, which may or may not be a good thing.

Mostly, what I remember is reading an extensive description of the protagonist, and thinking to myself, "I want to shove this guy face-first through a cheese grater".

See, the problem - to me - is that your protagonist's main problem is that he's finding it hard to come to terms with how utterly wonderful he is. Me, I'm middle-aged, overweight, have various other mundane difficulties, and can't escape from them on a glider, or even a number nine bus. Why, and how, would I sympathize with this guy? And your protagonist needs to be sympathetic.

So I fear you're falling victim to what I call (after an early sufferer) the Charles Grandison Effect; the more the writer thinks a character is wonderful and cool and "whiz-bang fantastic", the more the reader wants to get to work with the cheese grater.

I suppose, though, the premise of the setting - a world where everyone is a Mary Sue - could be interesting, if you can carry it off. Trouble is, the query is so vague, it's hard to tell whether you can or not.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Too vague = boring. There's nothing in the query that really grabs my attention and says - you must read this book (although the pet talking fox comes close).

I agree with Steve. I'm not interested in Mr. Perfect. Now, if this is written from Raliegh's POV - then I'm getting more curious.

I like to have a character that I can identify with. That being said - a lot of people out there are bored with their lives and maybe there's your identification.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a plot for kids. Was it meant for adults?

Eric P. said...

The number one rule of writing, according to C. S. Lewis at least, is: Don't ever say that something is wonderful, or amazing, or tragic, or any other such adjectives. Describe it in such a way that the reader will say, "That's wonderful!" or "That's amazing!" or "That's tragic!"

Far too many of your adjectives here are of that variety-- "extraordinary, grand, amazing, admired, astounding..." and even the contrasting character is "not grand and amazing!" Of course. As CSL said, these kinds of words are simply describing the effect something has on its viewers, which is like saying to the reader, "Won't you please do my job for me?"

Think of it this way-- if you were an animator designing these characters and their setting, what would you do to make them appear extraordinary, amazing, etc. (or the opposite)? Then describe them that way in your story and query and you'll be pretty well set.

Dave Fragments said...

This reminded me of "The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse" initially... (but I can't remember the ending of...) But I enjoyed reading it.
Reading the comments made me think of "The Shroud of the Thwacker" which I only read halfway through and gave up in disgust. Way too over the top.

However, don't be dismayed at my feelings because the blurbs and descriptions did interest me enough to buy the books. So I suggest that if this manuscript is anywhere near those novels, go read their descriptions on Amazon, B&N and the other services to get an idea of how to sell the novel.

none said...

If everything's amazing, then nothing is--amazing is the norm. It's a bit like expecting everyone to be excited because they have air to breathe.

Everything's relative.

Sarah from Hawthorne said...

I really like the premise and the story, but I too thought this was a kids' book. It reminds me of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, or actually any Roald Dahl book in that it takes place in an over-the-top world where things are weird but it's never explained why.

More than that, the voice in the query is rather child-like - in a good way, I hasten to add. If you asked a 10 year old to describe Disneyland, it would sound like this query: "It was awesome! We had the most fantastic time and everybody was smiling and the food was amazing and there were parades all the time and shows and everything was just so... awesome!"

Everything is exaggerated and there's just one sustained emotion: excitement. Everything that doesn't fit that feeling just gets skimmed over. For an adult book I feel like you need to dig a little deeper into the emotional spectrum and be more specific as to what's at stake.

_*rachel*_ said...

Mrs. Incredible: Everyone's special, Dash.

Dash: Which is another way of saying nobody is.

There are issues with this and with the way you wrote the query, and I'm sure they're all going to be picked to death. I just want to say that I really like the voice of the query. While Dashiell isn't narrating the query, I do get a good sense of your writing, and I like it. Though it would work better for a younger audience.

pacatrue said...

I like the premise and voice very much. I'd pick up the book and look at the front page. That said, and following others, this could all be even better in the query by describing this amazing world of gliders and talking foxes and haberdasheries itself and not telling us it's amazing. Then tell us what the protag does. Right now all we've got is that he meets someone without a talking fox.

Unknown said...

Details will make this work, but right not it doesn't. It seems to me the story is less about Dashiell and more about Raliegh and the City's reaction to her. Also, naming a city "The City" to me feels like a cop out.

The names give it a YA feel, but the word count is probably too high for it and your nomial MC - Dashiell - isn't the right age.

What are the stakes?
What does Raleigh's arrival change?
Is there an antagonist?
What makes Dashiell someone I care about?

Anonymous said...

I was actually reminded of the Truman Show with Jim Carrey or maybe the Matrix. Man living a relatively perfect life, relatively happy and uneventful, perhaps a bit bored at times, before realizing it is all made up. Jim Carrey learns he is living a tv show and Keanue Reeves finds out he is a battery. Dashiell finds out that life is not what it seems when he meets Raleigh. But how and why?

I guess that is my way of saying I don't really "get it". I don't find it alarming that Dashiell is perfect in a perfect world (Madonna says she is materilistic in a material world, after all), but I do care I don't know what the antagonist is. How exactly is Raleigh not perfect? Clutzy vs. Graceful. Dumb as a doornail vs. super intelligent . . or are her values different? or how she looks or how she thinks. . .

Here is what you told us - a unique woman shows up to rock the boat and status quo, people get a bit upset because of this and other people are enlightened. That is to be expected. Happens all the time. But why does she show up, how, who is responsible, why did it happen and ultimately what is the outcome.

Can you give us a plot please?


Uberman said...

The author here, popping in to respond to the comments so far.

The tone of the query

I'm glad for your help, as I, too, have noticed that the query is really quite garish. It uses an awful lot of "peacock words" that don't have much substance. What I was trying to do, I believe, was try and mimic the tone of the story it's selling, but the thing about the book is that it has more room to make all this dressiness work, whereas the query has to be more quick and slick. I really need to use more descriptive language in it. There are reasons it's "grand and astounding" and so on, and Raleigh does cause somewhat particular changes for particular reasons, I'd probably be better to describe them rather than just assuring the agent that they're "big".

The story's use of this tone is, I think, mildly satirical. It describes all these fabulous people in these fabulous settings and situations to kind of make light of our perceptions of idealism. When the book gets moving along, we see that these characters, these supposed Mary-Sues, can be as flawed as we are. They get bored, they get paranoid, they get irrational, just like us. It calls into question if anything is ever authentically perfect.

The protagonist being depressed about how great he is

Dashiell's conflict, though, is not that he bores of being perfect. I didn't write a male Bella Swan here. More so, he's bored of the world never changing. If this world is just so lovely, it kind of needs to keep itself to a narrow point of view. It kind of addresses the argument that "since everything's special, nothing is." They more so express contentment with it rather than constant, tedious wonderment. Dashiell tries to find something new in his life, but anything he might do to transcend his world's complacency would still be "from the world", so it's not going to help him break out. It's a bit like how a room can't get any warmer than the warmest thing in it.

And it's the reason that Raleigh, ordinary and mundane as she is, causes such a stir. She's the first thing that Dashiell's world would consider extraordinary in the strictest sense, which similarly plays off the satirical contrast of the book's gratuitously standout setting.

The protagonist a victim of the Charles Grandison Effect

I don't think I've fallen into a "Charles Grandiston effect" for him. His grandiose merits are sort of a pantomime he stages when there's people around to judge him. When he's around people he trusts or when he's alone, he's not a narcissist or still keeping up the act. I let him be himself; easily bored, depressed about mundanity, and even a bit naïve. I know how tedious a character that just can't get past how awesome he is; I have read "My Immortal". :P

There's a strong character balance, too. As the story goes on, it focuses on other characters, from Raleigh, to Dashiell's wife, to his other friends, and yes, to some extent, to the talking fox. Though she acts as more of a figure of wisdom, giving the others advice on their affairs and being ever so slightly annoyed that no one would take a little fox seriously, even if she can talk.

Raleigh's POV

I can't really tell the story from Raleigh's POV, though, since she's kind of the turning point of the story. If I made her the protagonist, nothing would really happen for the first half, then she would be abruptly dropped into this setting that we're suddenly supposed to care about.

Is it for kids?

It wasn't written specifically as a book for young people, though, but I think it would fit for people of all ages. The plot is pretty fantastical and inoffensive, but complex philosophical issues related to what's happening are discussed. That's kind of the thing about how I write. I take a simple idea, like a perfect world being intruded upon, reverse-engineer it to see all its bits and pieces to see what the actual implications of that are, then put it back together in another way.

Uberman said...

Why is the world like this?

As for the City itself, though most of the story is set in that town, it implies that there are other places. I kept the mechanics of it a bit open-ended, but what it basically is, is like our world filled mainly with things we like or find interesting. Sort of like the "Other World" in Coraline, but not created, not identical, and not intended for anything. I based the City a lot off of Victorian-era England, an era that I have quite a bit of affection for. Even its most downtrodden aspects were interesting, in a way. A lot of people that have read the book have described it as fairly "steampunk".

The forest, though, is sort of the crux to the whole thing. It's like a borderland between the world of the City and our own world. It's the place where the elements of the two worlds converge, so it's not much like one or the other. It's one reason Dashiell goes there so often; it's not of his world, so he's still surprised by it. It's not really like a dividing line between two worlds, though, it's more like a conductor that attracts them together.

Sending the manuscript

That bit of the query changes according to the agent's submission guidelines, the version I happened to send to the Evil Editor was the one for agents that want the manuscript. I'll change it to whatever agents would rather see.

As for me mentioning that I'm an animator and that I have experience in modern media, what I meant by that is that I know what's popular these days, which I think would help me be marketable. I changed the letter from an earlier version I sent that I have been writing for ten years, but since I'm not published, that didn't seem relevant.

Again, thanks very much to the Evil Editor and to everybody. I think I have a pretty good idea on how to fix the query now, your advice has been invaluable. Here's to writing!

Anonymous said...

The plot is pretty fantastical and inoffensive, but complex philosophical issues related to what's happening are discussed.

Awesome! Does it have footnotes? I love books with footnotes; I hate being overestimated as a reader.

pacatrue said...

All very interesting, uberman. It would be nice to see a revision in a week or so if you are interested. When doing it, again don't forget to give the plot. Your comments still don't tell us what happens in a specific way (Raleigh causes quite a stir isn't it yet.) Does Dashiell DO anything to break out or does he just let changes happen? Does he fight to protect this woman he feels is important to him? I get the impression, yes, but how? Fight in court, get in arguments at cocktail parties with friends, take her flying, punch out Ms. Amazing, etc.?

What risks do these fights have for our hero? Can he be tossed from the City? Lose his haberdashery? The City and Protag are rather passive in the query. What's the wise fox giving advice about exactly?

Uberman said...

More comments to address, it seems.

The city is called "The City" because I think that's an amusing thing to call it, and it's also a bit isolated. Plus, it downplays its importance a bit, so the setting is more the world it's set in rather than this city with a name. Giving it one might suggest too much about its location. I didn't just not name it because I'm lazy. :P

The stakes are that, besides Raleigh's arrival shaking up things there maybe a little too much, she's actually lost there. She wandered to Dashiell's world through the forest, and nobody knows how to get her back, and they'd need to figure it out quickly, before things get too messed up. We later find out that she has a family, and becomes very homesick, and a mob eventually forms to try and "protect" her.

Raleigh's arrival shows Dashiell's world a perspective that they've never realized before. The thing about the citizens of the City is that they all have an Attribute (capitalized), one very particular word that describes what's unique about them. Whiz-Bang Fantastic is Dashiell's Attribute, and the other characters have their own, as well.

Raleigh, being completely ordinary, has no discernible Attribute, which no one thought was possible. She doesn't change the status quo in any way we might think she would. That she exists, and the idea that she exists, is a huge deal for them. It seems simple, but the simplest ideas are often the biggest. Her values are also different, I suppose, in that she was raised in a world that told her that places like Dashiell's world don't really exist, which would make you treat it differently if you found out that it does.

Her world also has many things that theirs doesn't, like TV, fast food, guns, and religion. None of those things are present in any way in Dashiell's world, so besides the larger philosophical implications, she can describe these things to this world.

She appears there mainly by chance. She's brought to Dashiell's world by the forest, which, as I mentioned, is kind of an in-between that connects Dashiell's world and Raleigh's.

There isn't so much an antagonist as there is a general conflict. Dashiell's wife emerges as somewhat of a villain towards the end, as she begins to distrust Raleigh's influence, but she's more of a voice of the conflict than a focused antagonist. The main conflict is more so that the City is coming apart at the seams from this rapid change. They start to cling to her and obsess about her as a figure of cultural change. It’s a bit like cult of celebrity.

The thing about Raleigh is that Dashiell kind of plays off her; she affects him the most. She represents what he's been looking for, what gets him out of his incredible rut. Dashiell's outlook is broadened considerably by meeting Raleigh, and he discovers that there is more - much more - to people than just their Attribute. This gives him a different view on life, and inevitably draws him out of his stupor.

Raleigh has a unique experience from this, too, being in a place she would have never believed and experiencing things she would have never imagined, she transcends her own transgressions, such as self-esteem issues that are so common in most women. Dashiell guides her through all of this, though, and she appreciates it to no end. He sacrifices a lot for her, but, sadly, doesn't quite cue in to what she's causing until it's too late.

So Raleigh doesn't really have any one thing that makes her less than the people in Dashiell's world (clutzy, slow, etc), she's just not like them because she's so much like us. Dashiell, though, has problems that we can identify with, even if he's not like us. That kind of makes us empathize with him on a more complex level, I think. He's someone unhappy with the way of things, which I think we can all relate to. I need to focus more on this in the query.

Mame said...

I feel less confident on your behalf than I did yesterday.

"As for me mentioning that I'm an animator and that I have experience in modern media, what I meant by that is that I know what's popular these days, which I think would help me be marketable."

Do you honestly think that statement is going to work for you?

And query letters don't change in particular by agent. You need one set up that conveys your plot and voice, etc. After THAT, you may change your hello, your credits, and your goodbye, to suit each agent in particular. That has little to do with the actual meat.

The fact you pointed out your philosophical bent makes me think you're one of those "world changers". Alas, I shiver on your behalf. It's a STORY in the end, not a new Bible or a philosophical treatise. Treat it like a story or face rejection.

My two cents.

none said...

The world's based on Victorian England and yet it's supposed to be perfect?

*head explodes*

Mame said...

Damn. Lost a talking squirrel.

Uberman said...

Wow Aimee, you had confidence in me to start with? Thanks!

What I was referring to that changes WAS the hello, goodbye and such. The meat of the query doesn't change, that would be like me changing the book for each agent. I was just telling you that I know not to send the manuscript to EVERY agent, and I'd change that one sentence accordingly.

Mentioning my occupation, too, was because it was recommended in "The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters", but I suppose only to show experience that would show that you know how to write this story. Well if my occupation isn't relevant and my fervent, long-time interest in writing isn't relevant, what do you suggest I put there?

And I know I'm not changing the world with this story; I'm hardly that pretentious. I know it's a story and not a philosophical treatise, I'm just saying the world in the story is changing. That's what it's about! The characters discuss why this is happening and what it could mean, and I think that would interest the reader, and give him other interesting ideas. I just enjoy reverse-engineering the plot and setting and thinking about it. If it does change the world, I'd actually be a little freaked out.

Uberman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Uberman said...

Mainly the ideal parts of it that I like, BuffySquirrel. There's a bit of seediness in it, too; Raleigh gets mugged at one point in the story. What I mainly mean is that Dashiell's world is far less drab and much more interesting than ours, even the seedy bits. That's probably part of what Dashiell finds so frustrating.

Though it's not ENTIRELY based on it, that's just the main aesthetic. There's bits of other eras in the world, too; one of the characters is a beatnik that works in a café, and another one is a Goth. It's also technically set in the "present", the City just kind of still keeps this kind of culture.

Uberman said...

I'll probably turn in a revised letter later, see what you chaps think of it then. Thanks for your help!

Anonymous said...

Re: authorial 'splainin'

Here's the cold harsh scoop: your 45 seconds of gratuitous agent attention don't include the chance to explain your query quirks or underlying logic. The query stands on its own and conveys your whole message all by itself so effectively the agent feels compelled to read actual pages -- or your material goes in the bin. So everything that you've got to explain and/or justify as having some terrific background logic or inapparent meaning or otherwise subtle value is just not working in the context of a query.

Translated into operational terms: time spent providing explanatory responses to comments here would likely be better spent revising the query. It matters not if 500 words later we understand why you said whatever. Because the agents won't be reading that.

Uberman said...

Well why I was so eager to explain, besides that I enjoy telling people about it, is I was wondering if anyone had any suggestions for what to do. I know that a query has to be succinct and punchy, and I think I can make it so on the second draft, I was just offering up the story's parameters to see if anyone had any insights on the story's biggest points that I should call attention to (besides the talking fox).

I suppose I also got my wires a bit crossed into thinking these comment were about my story rather than the note asking someone to read it. All this talk of my premise and my characters lead me to that conclusion.

What I have learned, certainly, is that the query is much too vague, and I really need it to put the story's idea across, straight and specific, for the agent. I think, then, it will really come into its own, for him and for you. I'll see if I can send in a new version of the query before too long. Thanks, everyone, for your help.

_*rachel*_ said...

I just love Anon, s/he's always so nice.

Uberman said...

It is one of the more affable Anonymouses I've encountered.

none said...

Ideal aspects of Victorian society? I'm going to need a list.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like the middle grade version of Brave New World.

Uberman said...

Is that a bad thing?

Uberman said...

Also, just throwing this out there, some of those Guess the Plots are inspired. Plots 2, 4 and 5 are my favourite. :D