Friday, February 05, 2010

Face-Lift 727

Guess the Plot

Ballad of a Gutter Punk

1. Yeah, it's my autobiography. What do you mean, you don't like the title? Listen, I was CEO of Halliburton and Vice-President of the United States, I don't take lip from the likes of you.

2. Abandoned by her parents, her friends, even her social worker, a teen turns to drugs and prostitution. But through grit and determination she manages to turn her life around completely, getting a minimum-wage job and food stamps.

3. What do you do when you’re born in a gutter, live in a gutter and will probably die in a gutter? Well if you’re Jeffrey Einhorn, you compose the most amazing and perfect ballad ever written. A ballad that brings world peace.

4. On his 18th birthday, Faerie Prince Aureon lost all his powers. With the most recent Guide to Being Mortal in hand, he sets off to spend the year until his powers return in the human world. Chaos ensues.

5. Geoffrey thinks nothing speaks louder than words, but Prucilla takes one look at his new neon mohawk and disagrees. Will the poet's mother kick his up-and-coming behind into the gutter, or will she have a good rest home in her old age?

6. Homeless teen Charlie Coffee pulls himself up by his bootstraps and becomes the top bowler in the United States. But when he starts rolling too many gutter balls, only sports psychologist Barry Childs can keep Charlie from falling back into the gutter.

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor:

Baby comes from nothing and is going nowhere. Or at least, that’s what she’s been raised to believe. [It's what she's been named to believe. Naming your baby "Baby" is like naming your dog "Dog." Doesn't show much imagination or effort.] So it comes as no surprise to Baby when, at the age of seventeen, she’s dumped unceremoniously into the gutter.

At 119,000 words, Ballad of a Gutter Punk is the tale of a troubled young woman becoming fractured and then putting herself back together again through hardship and struggle. [Think feminist retelling of the classic "Humpty Dumpty."] Baby’s story begins the day she takes her little sister Emily by the hand and they run away from their father and stepmother to their now clean-and-sober mother’s house. Emily finds a comfortable new life there. Baby doesn’t. Within a few months her mother kicks her out, sending her on a two-year roller coaster ride bouncing from one foster home or group home to the next until, disgusted, Baby runs away to her girlfriend Deonya’s house, only to find that she isn’t exactly excited to see her. The next thing Baby knows, Deonya kicks her out and she’s told by both her mom and her social worker that they don’t want her back, either. [Getting dumped by friends and family is one thing, but when your social worker tells you she's letting you go, you start to wonder if the problem is you.] Baby has become a gutter punk. [What's the difference between a gutter punk and a guttersnipe? Actually, I imagine even the gutter has a social hierarchy of its residents, something like:

gutter punk
Amy Winehouse]

And she’s quickly devoured by homeless life. Baby leaves her hometown of San Jose, California for Santa Cruz, a liberal seaside town reputed to be more tolerant of homelessness, and befriends Rowdy [Yates], a pillar of the homeless community. Rowdy promises Baby adventure and protection [on his next cattle drive], and he lives up to his promises—at first. Unfortunately, Baby doesn’t know that Rowdy’s promises come with sexual strings attached. [How naive can you get?] When he attacks her at a shelter Baby’s illusions of protection are shattered and her humanity begins to erode. Over the next few months the daily trials of homelessness wear down Baby’s resistance and she plunges headlong into her new life of drugs, prostitution, and casual sex. [And then things get really bad.] Very little remains of who she was before she fell into the gutter.

Until Baby meets him—Corey McEwen, her flawed knight-in-shining-armor—at the soup kitchen. [He recommends the minestrone.] Corey gives Baby a reason to remember who she really is, [An untouchable.] the motivation and the ability to climb out of the gutter, and he gets her pregnant the very first time they have sex. [What a guy.] Baby follows Corey out of the gutter—albeit several weeks after him [Luckily he's made it only as far as the sidewalk.] —and across the country where they set up a new life in Pennsylvania with Emily. They get minimum-wage jobs and food stamps [Not exactly a Horatio Alger story.] and begin to eke out an existence together. But it’s not enough of an existence to support the life growing inside Baby, so she and Corey make a decision to give the baby up for adoption. It is a decision that puts Baby back in touch with the grieving child inside herself, the child she has been running from for so many years.

Thank you for your consideration of Ballad of a Gutter Punk. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


When you're pregnant and destitute, making your way from balmy California to Pennsylvania doesn't seem sensible. What made them decide to do this?

Emily gives up a comfortable life with her mother to travel across the country with her destitute gutter punk sister and the homeless guy who knocked her up? How old is Emily?

We don't need this much information in a query letter. Three sentences of setup in which we learn Baby has been abandoned by everyone and has hit rock bottom. Three sentences in which she meets Cory, gets pregnant and they decide to drag Emily 3000 miles with no prospects. Then wrap it up with the happily ever after: food stamps.

People like to read about people whose lives are more exciting than their own. Baby's life is miserable and doesn't get a whole lot better. If there's something uplifting about her story, you might want to make it clear.


Anonymous said...

A little White Oleander-ish except possibly more depressing.

Does she need a knight in shining armor? My daughter has a tee shirt that says, "this princess saves herself." Is there any element of that in your story? Plus he doesn't really seem all that savoir-ish with the whole getting her pregnant right away thing.

I'm am sure there is some epiphany for her by the end of the stoey--can you share it?

Stephen Prosapio said...

Ironies of ironies, my word verification is "mulan," so I've had "A Whole New World" playing in my head as I write out my critique. Maybe when they make this film they can use that song as montage as she goes from gutter to food stamps.

Anyway, I went from bummed to full fledged depressed just reading this query. I'm not only into "happy happy joy joy" novels but I agree completely with EE on this. There needs to be some element of hope or enrichment in a story like this. I'd also question the use of "knight in shining armor" who knocks her up and gets her a min. wage job and foodstamps. Really?

Unknown said...

I'm a little confused about the use of the term "gutter punk" here. In my understanding, a "gutter punk" is typically considered a person that subscribes to the anarchist-punk mentality, and is voluntarily homeless/unemployed. It's more of a political statement than forced homelessness.

Which isn't to say that some gutter punks aren't unintentionally homeless, but that's my understanding of the term. Is there a reason why you're depicting her as a gutter punk, rather than a homeless/runaway teen? I know there are a lot of gutter punks in Santa Cruz and the Bay area - does she befriend other gutter punks and begin to subscribe to their way of thinking?

Shelley Sly said...

It might just be my interpretation, but I feel like this reads more like a synopsis than a query letter, possibly because of the length.

If I were an agent, I'd want to know what the main conflict is here. I understand that Baby is thrown from place to place and picks up some nasty habits along the way, but what is the ultimate test for her? What's the turning point? Is it when she meets Corey? Is it when they decide to put the baby up for adoption? You mention that she gets back in touch with the child inside herself -- if that's the major plot point here, it deserves a better place than just stuck in the last sentence of a long query.

With such a dark subject matter, I'd like to read something hopeful at the end. Sounds like a decent query, but it just needs some clarification.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Not PA - they should go to NY state for the higher paying welfare.

This is quite the heart wrencher and she has an interestingly skewed view of reality if this guy is her knight. And yeah, where's that glimmer of hope?

And yeah again, way too much detail and too long for a query.

Gutter punk is all that, really, maybe genius? That's fascinating and one I've missed out on until now. And here I thought the title was catchy and new.

Xiexie said...

As with Anonymous 12:13pm, this did remind me of White Oleander, but that reminder is mostly vestigial. I don't think Corey McEwen has to be her knight in shining armor (why isn't this term a hyphenate?). Baby would seem a stronger character IMHO pulling from her own strength. Not everything has to end in happily ever after, but a story as heavy as this wouldn't suffer from some hopefulness.

I also question why Emily is now with them.

Oh and lose paragraph one. We get it in the rest of the query tho I do like it.

(Word verif: intwit --> just this close to nitwit, but I guess it could be a synonym for former president G.W. Bush

Steve Wright said...

As things stand, the query's over-long, and the book sounds as if not much happens, and what does happen is utterly miserable. It's at times like this that I'm glad I write genre tat.

Is this actually supposed to be a picture of unrelenting misery? I mean, if it is, I suppose that's OK. there seems to be a market for it (or at least literary awards you can win with it.)
But if it isn't - is there any way you can play up whatever hopeful or uplifting elements there might be in it? That might make the query a bit more appealling.

(My word verification is "remella". Can't decide if this is some deficiency disease Baby comes down with in between prostitution and unplanned pregnancy, or if it's the name of the government-issue cheese she buys with her food stamps.)

Ellie said...

EE, you have been in top form lately. Brilliant comments!

Verification word: sting. Uh, well, okay then.

Literarygrrrl said...

This is the author.
Thanks everyone for your helpful comments-especially ee. They've all been very enlightening, and I'm going to do some serious revisions to clear up confusing areas, like why they go to PA (Corey's brother lives there), and why Emily goes with them (their mom kicks her out, too, and Baby fears she'll end up like her).
Plus, I'll put Baby's evolution more front-and-center, and portray her as she definitely is but doesn't seem to be in this query: definitely troubled but also very proactive.

My question is: how do I simultaneously put MORE info into the query and make it shorter? Sheesh! I've got my work ahead of me!

This is a very dark story, but not hopeless, and I will have to make sure I get that across in my rewrite.

EE: I was so tremendously impressed and tickled that you managed to poke fun at Amy Winehouse through my query that I had to tell everyone at work!

When I get my revision done I'll post I here, and any further comments would be much appreciated!

Thanks again! I love that this blog exists!

Evil Editor said...

Instead of adding to explain why Emily goes along, just subtract Emily from the query entirely.

Sarah from Hawthorne said...

In terms of shortening this while adding more info, I would say take out the details and rephrase what you leave in in terms of the action Baby takes. You might rephrase your first two paragraph as follows:

A wild child determined not to let anyone tell her what to do, teenager Baby is kicked out by her mother, and then rejected by friends, foster homes, and finally the system itself.

It's the same information, but presented without the backstory or details about characters who pop up for a few pages and then disappear. It also provides a context of who Baby is and why terrible things are happening to her.

Good luck rewriting!

_*rachel*_ said...

You couldn't get me to read this if you added swords. Or death rays. But it is litfic, so what would I know?

Stephen--A Whole New World is from Aladdin, not Mulan. Perhaps you're thinking of I'll Make a Man Out of You?

WV: howpersh. How perish the writers? Not enough food stamps.

Marie Simas said...

"NOBODY puts Baby in a corner!"

Couldn't get past the name, seriously. I think it's becoming my pet peeve. And the storyline does seem really dark-- "slit-your-wrists," "Self-immolation" dark.

It needs something other than that to sell to a publisher. Nobody wants to read something that's a total bummer the whole time. Then what's the point? Our own lives suck-- that's why we read in the first place.

I'm not sayin' it needs rainbows and unicorns, but...

And I agree that it reads more like a synopsis than a query.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Between Sarah's excellent condensing of the first two 'graphs and EE's suggestion to delete Emily, you now have some space to discuss Baby's proactive redemption.

I would also caution you on your word length. That's going to be a tough sell for litfic by all indicators.

Also, IMO, I give the MC props for 1) taking the first step of a min wage job and food stamps (um, how realistic would it be for the MC to go from gutter punk to soccer mom?) and 2) for making the decision to give up the baby rather than considering it another $150/month (or whatever it is) in government subsidies. That to me shows a level of insight and maturity gained.

I look forward to seeing the shorter revised query!

Literarygrrl said...

This is the author again.
Here's my revision. Any and all comments would be greatly appreciated!

Also, I've got a question. I've been lurking in the archives of this blog for a few weeks, reading face lifts and such, and have noticed some mixed feelings about authors mentioning other books in their queries.
I'm thinking that the audience for my book is probably the same audience for Push by Sapphire, but wonder if that's something that should be mentioned?
What do you guys think?

So here's the revision:

Baby’s life sucks. At seventeen, Baby’s been abandoned by her parents and the child welfare system and lives in the gutter, where she fights with all of the other gutter punks for the necessities of daily life. Her life, she writes in her diary, has no more substance than that of a cockroach.

Ballad of a Gutter Punk is Baby’s story. At 119,000 words, it chronicles Baby’s evolution from a traumatized child to the angry teenager who runs away from every foster home her social worker finds for her, to the lost soul who trades sex for drugs in the gutter, and finally to the young woman who climbs out of the gutter to begin life anew.

And it’s not just Baby who’s beginning life anew. Baby meets Corey McEwen on the street. He seems different from the other gutter punks, and he and Baby quickly hook up and make plans to move to Pennsylvania, where Corey’s older brother lives. There they can finally start a regular life.

And Baby discovers that she’s pregnant with Corey’s child. Her pregnancy reconnects Baby to the grieving child inside her own soul, the one she’s been running from for so many years. It’s the impetus she needs to put her gutter punk life behind her for good. Sadly, the new life she and Corey manage to eke out for themselves isn’t enough to care for an infant, so they decide to put their baby up for adoption.

Corey and Baby tell themselves and each other that this is the best decision they could have made for their baby, and they mean it, but that doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier. It is an especially bittersweet moment for Baby, for she finds that she is not only saying goodbye to her baby, she is also saying goodbye to Baby—that wounded part of herself that has haunted her her whole life.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

[EE, this Face-Lift is way down on the page now. Would it be possible for you to put a little pointer post in to let folks know there's a revision here?]

Much clearer, author. However, the query still does a lot of telling rather than showing. Plus, by devoting two full paragraphs to the baby at the end, it winds up sounding like the book is more about how Baby deals with the pregnancy and her decision rather than the life she's lived up to this point. That, I think, is a different story from what you described in the original query.

As this version is MUCH improved, I think one more iteration might give it just the balance it needs between plot, characterization and showing vs telling.

IMO, from what I've read on agent sites, it doesn't hurt to suggest your audience. What's mostly being cautioned against is a direct comparison between your book and a bestseller or yourself and an established author. If your book has similar themes or writing style, you could try something like: "In the vein of PUSH by Sapphire, BALLAD..." or "Like [the MC]in PUSH, Baby..."

However, if you write it in such a way that those themes or characterizations are very obvious, you'll bring to mind those comparisons without having to come out and say it. In the query I submitted here, I toyed with putting in a "In the vein of Michael Crichton..." comparison, decided to leave it out, and commenters themselves pointed out how it sounded Michael Crichton-esque.

Also, am I the only person who doesn't have a problem with the name "Baby", especially if it's a nickname or "handle"?

Shelley Sly said...

I think your revision reads better than the original.

I agree with Phoenix that the paragraphs about the pregnancy kind of detour the reader away from the main story, which I gather is Baby's revelations about herself through her experiences.

One little picky thing -- I would move the sentence with the word count and title (which should be in caps: BALLAD OF A GUTTER PUNK) to either the beginning or end of the query. Personally, I prefer the end, but it could go either way. The way this sentence is now, in the middle of the query, it kind of trips the momentum of the synopsis. Plus, it risks being overlooked. You want that sentence to be seen.

Anonymous said...

The new query is clearer, but I still have no sense of what happens in the story.

A girl ends up on the street, finds a boyfriend, moves to PA, and gives up a baby for adoption. It *sounds* like there is stress and conflict, but what is the conflict?

Fights with gangs? Drug overdoses? Attempts (and failures) to get jobs? Where is the compelling drama?

Stephen Prosapio said...

Did the same author write this revision??? It is head and shoulderblades above the original. It's not really MY kind of story, but it went from a novel that didn't interest me at all to one I would certainly consider reading. Brava!

PS - Rachel - thanks for ruining my "Whole New World" - LOL. You actually made me realize that I'd never even *seen* Mulan!

LASNC1 said...

You really made a lot of improvements from the original. I must admit that the first version seemed so depressing that it's not something I would be drawn to. By focusing more directly on Baby's journey and how she overcomes her circumstances, you've really improved the query and interested me in Baby's story.

I hope you don't mind, but I pasted a condensed version for you below, changing a word here and there and reorganizing a bit. I'm certainly no expert on queries, but I think yours is moving in the right direction. Good luck.

Baby’s life sucks. At seventeen, she’s been abandoned by her parents and the child welfare system and lives on the street, where she fights with all of the other gutter punks for the necessities of daily life. Her life, she writes in her diary, has no more substance than that of a cockroach.

Then Baby meets Corey McEwen, who seems different from all the other gutter punks. He and Baby hook up and make plans to move to Pennsylvania, where Corey’s older brother lives and where they can finally start a regular life. But when Baby discovers she’s pregnant, she must confront the grieving child inside her own soul, the one she’s been running from for so many years.

When Baby decides to put her baby up for adoption, she finds that she is not only saying goodbye to her baby, she is also saying goodbye to Baby—that wounded part of herself that has haunted her her whole life—and putting her gutter punk life behind her for good.

batgirl said...

I'm with maybe genius here in finding the term 'gutter punk' to be confusing. The author seems to be using it to mean 'lowest of the low', but it seems to have an established meaning related to the punk subculture.
Other than that, does anyone use 'gutter' unironically anymore? It's not as if streets have gutters with pigs rooting in them now (there's a gutter in the reconstructed old-timey street in the touristy part of downtown, but that's it that I've seen - and no pig).

Anyway, the rewritten query is heaps better.