Thursday, March 03, 2011

Face-Lift 876

Guess the Plot
A Phony War

1. Navi and Dave's TechnoPhone stall used to be the busiest kiosk at the mall - until the Chin sisters arrived with their pink, glitter-covered electronics. Is there only coverage for one pay-as-you-go mobile sales team? Or are this foursome's problems just a question of miscommunication?

2. A boxer and a street performer become spies on opposite sides during WWII. When the two become trapped on a snowbound train, will their personal duel decide the outcome of the war? Or are they just two self-important egomaniacs whose antics will have no effect on history?

3. It seemed like a great idea: Get the eighth-grade history class involved in the Civil War by dividing them into North & South. Now that the bodies are piling up, is it too late to save the Spring Dance?

4. 2G. 3G. 4G 5G. Seems the cell phone wars will be won by the company that puts the highest number in front of the letter "G." Phil Jameson's start-up company may not have the range of the established big boys, but when he advertises his network as 9 billion G, customers flock to him. But will they abandon him when Floyd Jones starts his 2H phone network?

5. With budget cutbacks threatening to deprive the military of their fat appropriations, the joint chiefs fabricate a war in Afghanistan against actors playing a fictional enemy called the Taliban. Congress ups defense spending, and all is well--until reporter Liz Carlisle actually goes to Afghanistan and discovers there are no troops and no war. Can Liz get her story out before Haliburton's black ops team takes her out?

6. When soldiers in a black ops unit discover that their unit is a fabrication, and they've actually been starring in a reality TV show called War, half of them want to take out the producers for endangering their lives while the other half want to capitalize on their new fame. Soon a mini-war breaks out among the soldiers, leading to twelve deaths and the season's highest ratings.

Original Version

Dear Agent:

Please consider my suspense novel A PHONY WAR for representation (116k words). Your interest in character driven literary narratives prompted this query. [Is an agent interested in character-driven literary narratives really the best target when you're selling a suspense novel?]

Stubborn but bruised and no longer sure of his instincts, Richard Kast confronts a final chance to resurrect either his career or himself during the London Blitz. A working class policeman and visceral ex-boxer illogically recruited into military intelligence, [By which you mean that you couldn't think of any logical reason military intelligence would recruit this guy, so you decided to claim they had no logical reason.] [What is meant by a "visceral ex-boxer"? I can see describing a boxer as visceral, I guess; are you saying he was a visceral boxer but now that he's an ex-boxer he's still visceral? Do we need that word? If it means his success derives from his instincts rather than his intellect, you've already claimed he's no longer sure of his instincts.] he struggles against ambition, the endemic dishonesty of his work and machinations by rival superiors. [He hasn't seemed ambitious to me. He's been described as hanging on, trying to resurrect his career. How is he struggling against ambition? And is he really struggling against machinations by his superiors? Usually in the military you just do what you're told. You could just say he struggles with the endemic dishonesty of his work and endures machinations by rival superiors, but I might prefer you just got on with the actual story.] The dilemma deepens [What is the dilemma?] when pursuit of a German spy behind a series of stunning espionage attacks turns intensely personal and challenges Kast’s physical and emotional limits.

Beguiling but fractured soul carved by the cruel realities of street performing, the Spy enables treason through trickery and role playing and disappears, a wisp without a trace. [Your book may have literary aspirations, but your query needs to be clear. If you put the word "A" in front of that sentence it will actually become a sentence, and if you change "enables" to "achieves" the sentence will make sense. But really, the cruel realities of street performing? Beguiling but fractured soul? Let's not go overboard.] He fancies himself a modern day Prospero and pretends the performance is all [comma] but the required anonymity chafes and he craves recognition, applause and a worthy adversary. He chooses Kast. [A washed-up cop/ex-boxer with no espionage experience and no logical reason to be a spy, trying to resurrect his life, is a worthy adversary for Superspy? That's like Lex Luthor choosing Charlie Sheen as his adversary.]

Similar societal outcasts, one seeks redemption and the other retribution. Their duel, acumen against will and guile against strength, ends in a deadly confrontation aboard a snowbound train in which both are horribly deceived. As Kast’s best friend remarks after his betrayal, “Is not the purpose of humanity to amuse the Creator? How better than through mischief?” [I like the quote better without the second sentence.]

The story should appeal to readers of Alan Furst and early Ken Follett. I appreciate your consideration and look forward to your response.


I actually find the German spy to be the more interesting character, but as he was on the losing side, I guess he'll have to play second fiddle.

I would cut most of the first two plot paragraphs and get to the story. It's Holmes vs. Moriarty. Bond vs. Goldfinger. Smart vs. The Craw The Claw. If you focus more on their duel and less on their individual characters the story will sound more interesting. Also, pretend you're writing for an audience with a sixth-grade vocabulary, as there's a good chance you are.


Anonymous said...

Totally different book, but since the other book was sort of fricking HUGE, your protag's name reminded me instantly of Richard Katz, fwiw.

150 said...



Ink and Pixel Club said...

If the characters' backgrounds are important, then you need to be less vague about them. Why does Kast have a choice between resurrecting either his career or "himself"? What are the ambition, endemic dishonesty, and machinations by rival superiors that he's struggling with? What turns his pursuit of the spy intensely personal? Aside from catching the spy, what does this guy want?

What cruel realities of street performing shaped the Spy? How does he become aware of Kast in order to pick him as his archnemesis?

Why are these two characters seeking redemption and retribution? (I think I know which is which, but the fact that I'm having doubts is further evidence that this query needs to get more specific.) Is Kast's best friend at all important, or is he just around to spout some philosophical dialogue and kill the momentum of the final confrontation on the train?

I don't love the title, but it's hard to judge whether or not it works with the story just from this query.

If you take EE's advice and refocus the query on the duel, then everything you say about the characters should relate to what they stand to win or lose and what assets each one has that make them worthy competitors.

Anonymous said...

Seems to be written in code. This is no mistake. You're working hard to declarify the message for a reason, right? Meet me behind the palm fronds. The password is RED RUM.

Adele said...

I have no idea what is going on. I therefore suspect that in the book nobody knows what's going on either. Like watching a tennis match in pitch darkness, that gets awfully tedious awfully fast.

I further suspect the recognition-craving modern Prospero explains everything in an insane outburst just before he loses the game. That's a tremendous cliche, and the fact that I have this suspicion does not bode well for your book.

A good query should tell me about your book in such a way that I want to read it. This doesn't.

You obviously enjoy using language, but your words should lead me down a path, and sometimes they throw me out of the scene entirely. "Richard Kast confronts a final chance to resurrect ..." Really? How can he know it's his final chance? He's still alive, he still has chances. And later, "machinations by rival superiors" and both characters being "horribly deceived" just made me want to laugh.

Anonymous said...

"Stubborn but bruised . . . Beguiling but fractured." I'd change these up. A person can be stubborn and bruised, beguiling and fractured. The "buts" have me doing unnecessary mental switchbacks. In addition, the front-loading of adjectives is tiresome by pass #2.

I guess I think in grooves, but I thought this beguiling creature was female until you got to the pronoun. Maybe that's your intention -- another mental switchback -- but I might make it clear up front.

Also, you say the Spy "disappears without a trace." Lo, there he is in the very next sentence, courtesy of an unannounced change in perspective.

I have the feeling the book is better than the query, and that you need to relax your pen and your brain and retell this in a more straightforward manner. As an exercise, try doing it without any non-essential adjectives, an essential one being, for instance, military intelligence. I'm mentally deleting the adjectives as I re-read it and that right there is an improvement.

none said...

It seems likely that agents who represent literary narratives will not be aware of Ken Follett, early or late. If it's litfic, sell it as litfic; if it's a thriller, sell it as a thriller.

Dave Fragments said...

I write a cover letter for each short story submission I send out and in it, I have a sentence to a paragraph about each story. It is very similar to a query letter but shorter. There's over a hundred of these letters on my hard drive.

Each time I send out a story, I try to condense what is special about the story to a few words. Sometimes it can be done in one line. Other times it takes four or five sentences.

For instance:

This is the story of two men, one a spy who depends on slick lies and deceptions to create chaos and terror in the enemy and the second a broke-down policeman and ex-boxer trying to reset his life. They play a cat a mouse game of spy versus spy as bombs fall in London during the Blitz.

That's the kernel of your story (I think. I'm not sure.) It's surely not enough to sell a novel but it's the basis what could be your query.

I"m also not sure what makes this a suspense novel. The Blitz is a well known historical episode. It was a horrific event and books have been written about it. It's a rich and story-filled event. However, I would have to read up more about the Blitz and Scapa Flow and the North Sea. (That was your opening, wasn't it?)

Let me say something more about how you might sell this. A number of years ago I read David L. Robbins's novel "The War of the Rats" and it was a duel between two snipers, one Russian, one German during the siege of Leningrad in 1942. It is a harrowing story of a very personal battle between two men. And the backdrop is one of the cruelest and most inhumane sieges of WW2. It's worth looking at how that novel is described for ideas.

Stephen Prosapio said...

"That's like Lex Luthor choosing Charlie Sheen as his adversary."

I've laughed so hard and long at this that my neighbors are likely calling a mental hospital as we speak.

I agree with 150. This query tries way too hard to try and sound intellugunt. Is this set in "modern day" (a term used in your query) or in WWII? Why are their German spies?

Start over. You told us who your character is. What does he want? What are his obsticles toward him attaining his goal/s? What happens if he doesn't achieve them?

BTW, I consider myself a modern-day Prospero but that's only because I have 7 of the 9 letters in my last name.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

OK, I get that the author wrote a literary suspense and might have two different queries for the novel: one that targets the suspense market, one the literary. This is the literary one, so the author is sacrificing the suspense to character and voice. I find (re)writing queries for literary works the most challenging.

In theory, the structure here, I think, works if the author substitutes a couple of concrete details: "kills his best buddy" instead of "turns intensely personal," for example.

In reality, though, while the structure may work, my presumption is that the voice and style of the query match that in the novel -- and the imprecision of the language is too off-putting in the query to entice me to want to read more of the same. Words are our friends. Let's treat them kindly.

EE and others have pointed out many of the confusions already, and I echo them, along with:

Why would anyone "confront" a chance?

Between the two careers Rich has had, why would he want to "resurrect" either? And what part of "himself" is he wanting to resurrect, since he is who he is now. As written, "resurrect himself" doesn't really make sense. And how does one resurrect a career while struggling against ambition? So, is "resurrect" being used imprecisely, or is it the things he might resurrect at fault?

Why is it an "either/or" option, rather than: "grasps at the chance to resurrect the humanity beaten out of him in the boxing ring a decade before and spat on by the petty criminals he's worked to take off the streets since"?

"Similar societal outcasts" implies they are outcasts for similar reasons.

I'm not clear which character seeks redemption and which retribution. Rich seems the logical choice for redemption, but nothing in the Spy's description cries retribution. If I rely on parallel sentence structure to help me out, the one seeking "redemption" is the same who possesses "acumen" and "guile" -- therefore, the Spy wants redemption and Rich wants retribution. Is that right?

GTP #6: Hehe.

batgirl said...

Was the Spy a street mime?

Okay, more seriously, what do these characters' pasts have to do with the story? I get that Kast being an ex-boxer means he's tough and used to taking punishment, but how does that feature in the events of the story? If he's like a Dick Francis hero who keeps going with multiple fractures, maybe you should bring out how he does that. And if the Spy's street performer background relates somehow to the plot (he wears whiteface to camouflage himself in the snowbound train?) you might want to bring that out somehow.
Their backgrounds are slightly interesting of themselves, but wasted words in the query if you don't follow up.

Anonymous said...

Do Alan and Ken know they write this way?

All kidding aside, it is dangerous to compare your writing to anyone who is published.

You love writing, you have energy. You need a little Ritalin to focus, then Valuum to take the edge off.

Seriously, I quite enjoyed being swept along once I figured out from the comments what was happening.

This was so not boring and lively. I suspect there's a writer buried in there under all those mixed up words somewhere.

Cheers, go directly to Phoenix when you're ready.