Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Face-Lift 915

Guess the Plot

Raise the Bar

1. It's the worst thing to happen on the Isle of Fergus since Cromwell leveled the church. Lenny's Barge, the only pub, sank. The secret agent MI5 sent from London is determined to find out why, but he can't get any cooperation -- the locals only want to raise the wreckage and refurbish the bar in time for Fiona's birthday.

2. With the world limbo championships fast approaching, all star Javier Rios suffers a horrific back injury. Can physiotherapist Nola Green get Javier back in shape before the contest with her unorthodox and highly erotic techniques? Also a grilled cheese sandwich spirit guide.

3. Disgusted by the smut his minions submit to his blog on a daily basis, Evil Editor decides to take a stand. He bans openings featuring blow jobs and flatulent mechanics, and restricts the blog to literary fiction . . . unaware that one mild mannered minion doubles as TrashMan, vigilante against good taste.

4. Understudy Natalie wants the lead role in Giselle, so she secretly raises the ballet bar an inch every day, hoping Vera will become flustered and quit. But Vera, convinced that she's shrinking, commits suicide. So it all works out for the best.

5. Helen Androvsky, the most ruthless defense attorney in the bar association, specializes in getting off parents accused of child abuse. But when Helen is herself accused of child abuse, she must decide whether to fight in court to keep her baby or drown her sorrows in another kind of bar.

6. Kent's dream has long been to win the all-around gymnastics gold medal. But ever since he belly-flopped the dismount on his high bar routine, he's been afraid to practice his signature double twisting triple somersault release. Will he have the guts to try it in the finals?

Original Version

Dear EE

I am submitting my query for a thriller, RAISE THE BAR. [As you provide the title and genre at the end, no need for this sentence.]

There are two kinds of bars Helen Androvsky is familiar with. As a star defence lawyer for parents accused of abuse or neglect of their children, she has a formidable reputation for utterly decimating the Child Welfare case in court.

But she has a fondness for the other type of bar, silencing her conscience [A lawyer with a conscience? Are you sure this is a thriller and not high fantasy?] with single malt whiskey. [As the topic sentence of the previous paragraph states that there are two kinds, I see no reason both kinds shouldn't be named in that paragraph. And because we're listing the two kinds, "and" is the conjunction we want, not "but." Also, I would change "silencing her conscience with" to "the type that serves."] [Okay, that's a big improvement, but I still don't like it. First of all, everyone's familiar with those two kinds of bar, so the first plot sentence is wasted. Assuming you are in love with the idea of spelling out the two kinds of bar for those readers who don't notice the clever dual meaning in the title, I think we want something like the following, which also allows you to keep your "but":

Helen Androvsky, a specialist in defending parents accused of child abuse, has earned a reputation as the most ruthless defence attorney in the bar association. But there's another kind of bar Helen has been known to frequent, the kind that serves single malt whiskey.]

[Note that I spelled "defence" with a "c" as you did, making the assumption this is intended for someone in the British empire.]

When she wins a high profile case returning a child to a fallen celebrity once accused of using child pornography, she starts to receive [Helen receives] threats and fears for her own infant daughter’s safety.

The welfare agency accuses her of child neglect on the strength of a babysitter’s false evidence, ["She's an effing lawyer and she pays me less than minimum wage! Obviously she's an unfit mother."] and footage of her stumbling around drunkenly is made public. [There's no transition into this paragraph. First add some specific elaboration to the previous paragraph to give it some closure. What kind of threats? Then you can open this paragraph with some cliche-ish phrase like "Just when Helen thinks circumstances can't get any worse..." or "Things go from bad to worse when..."]

Helen must fight to clear her own name and win custody of [her] baby, while her stalker seems to be getting closer and more threatening. [She has a stalker? Maybe that could be worked into the paragraph where she's getting threats.]

RAISE THE BAR is a 70,000-word thriller. I have a background in Child Welfare services.


Was the footage of Helen stumbling around drunkenly taken long ago, before she was a mother? If so, say so, so we don't suspect she is neglectful.

One assumes from the comment about Helen's conscience that some of the clients she gets off are guilty. This makes her a highly unsympathetic character, and I suspect that even if her baby were kidnapped readers would be thinking, Good, serves her right, maybe she'll learn her lesson the hard way. Unless you want readers cheering for the stalker, maybe Helen's clients should all be falsely accused. Do something to make us like her.

It doesn't feel like a thriller. It's the threats and the stalker that make it a thriller, but we don't know what the threats are, and saying the stalker "seems" to be getting closer and more threatening only makes me suspect that he isn't.

The summary needs to progress logically, just as the book does. All these one-sentence paragraphs make it sound like you're just listing a few events rather than telling a story. And each paragraph needs internal cohesion, with information building on other information, not so easy with one-sentence paragraphs.

I feel like the story arc would seem more logical (and salable) and the query would feel better organized if it went in this order: Helen, who normally defends people she thinks are innocent gets off someone she thinks is guilty. She goes to a bar to soothe her conscience; someone films her stumbling out drunk. Child Protective Services accuse her of neglect when the film goes public and the babysitter comes forward. Then the threats/stalker stuff starts.


Anonymous said...

I think it also needs to be clearer as to whether CPS actually takes the child, and if so what actual evidence there is? A video of her being drunk is fairly meaningless unless she is drunk and driving with her kid. The remarks from a babysitter are not evidence of neglect and will not generally result in a seizure of a child unless actual real evidence is found to back up the claims.

Also agree with EE...having a hard time having sympathy with someone who seems to take pride in "getting off" people she seems to know are actually child abusers.

Anonymous said...

This is not well informed about the perspective of defense attorneys. Defense attorneys check out their client's side of the story, find and present witnesses with exonerating evidence, scrutinize the stories and reliability of prosecution witnesses, and keep incriminating evidence that does not meet prevailing standards for reliability and objectivity out of the trial. When it looks like things are not likely to go well for the client in trial, they try to work out a deal.

No justice system can function fairly without someone performing this role. If the judge or jury finds someone not-guilty, that's because the incriminating evidence wasn't reliable or convincing enough to overwhelm their doubts.

It is not the defense attorney's role to start out by determining which clients are guilty and which are not guilty and then withhold competent defense from everyone who doesn't seem innocent. In the USA, at least, they're all presumed innocent until the verdict at the end of the trial. You remember hearing that somewhere, right? It's in the Constitution. And it was included there because having experienced the evils of a system in which the accused are presumed guilty, the people who wrote the Constitution determined a presumption of innocence would better serve society's need for justice, even though it means a few of the guilty go free.

Why do cases get thrown out? Usually the prosecution's evidence was crap. It's not the defense attorney's fault if the police procure their evidence illegally so the judge has to throw it out, or don't bother to collect it at all, or if the prosecution goes to trial with rumors and prejudice instead of reliable evidence.

Defense attorneys do not blame themselves if the prosecution doesn't have enough to get a guilty verdict. The outcomes they lose sleep over are the ones where someone they're pretty sure was innocent went to prison.

Evil Editor said...

Some good comments. I don't think the author implied that Helen withholds competent defense from everyone (or anyone) who doesn't seem innocent, as she's described as a "star defence lawyer [with] a formidable reputation for utterly decimating the Child Welfare case in court."

And while the possibility that your persuasive closing argument may have helped put a murderer back on the street isn't worth losing sleep over, helping return a child to parents you suspect (because of something they said in confidence) are abusive could weigh on the mind of the occasional attorney, at least until she downs a few shots of whiskey.

Adele said...

Your query letter must convince the agent that the plot is perfectly plausible in your world. Right now it doesn't sound that way.

You have a background in CWS, so I wonder if perhaps your plot is perfectly plausible, and you have just left too much out of your query - in which case all you have to do is re-write the query.

If what you've told us is indeed all the evidence your local CWS needs to take a child away from its home, you need to include enough detail to make the agent/reader understand that and accept that such an ill-judged and arbitrary system does exist.

But to me, right now, reading your query, it seems like you don't know much about the legalities of the system. A nasty story from a babysitter and a video of a drunk just isn't enough, and the cliche ruthless lawyer regretting what she's done also doesn't ring true.

batgirl said...

I always thought it was prosecutors who were ruthless, not defence attornies! Were all those seasons of Perry Mason lying to me?
Hope this book wasn't written as catharsis for the author, getting back at those damn lawyers who get in the way of Child Welfare Services' work.

Minor, minor, but annoying point - utterly decimate? Look, whether you go by the old measure of decimate being to kill one in ten, or the modern measure of decimate being to kill nine of ten, either way decimating is not _utter_, which means 'complete and total'.
"I completely destroyed nine-tenths of their case!" - is that what you mean?
Okay, language-geek signing off now.

Anonymous said...

Author's response:
Thanks for the comments. Looking again at the query, it's bvious I should cut the cute 2-types-of-bar thing and focus on Helen's motives.

She was raised in a few foster homes that (she felt) were worse than her neglectful/abusive family of origin. Her view is that even if a child's family was bad, it's ultimately worse for the child to be dumped in a foster home. So she is ruthless in her personal attacks on the CPU workers in court.

The defen(c/s)e's main tool is to make the investigation by welfare and police look flimsy and unsubstatiated. As mentioned, I have worked as an investigator with Child Protective Services, and I've been on the receiving end of some brutal cross-examinations in court (over a few days in the witness box!). These were designed to make me trip up and look foolish or become angry/ tearful/ unprofessional on the stand and ultimately cast doubt on how accurate my work was. And it worked - if we couldn't prove the case (that the child was at high risk of ongoing neglect and abuse), the kid was returned to the care of some fairly horrific families! One infant was returned to a large family were incest was rife, and the grandfather a convicted pedophile, on the basis that granddad was only attracted to adolescents and had never had sex with an infant!

On these occasions, the workers were all tempted to feed the attourney into a mincer, so it was a small leap of the imagination that a worker decided to fabricate a case against Helen.

It was hard for me to write from the POV of the lawyer, given my history with them. I tried to get sympathy for the Devil by making her personal life look like a train wreck.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Author, so it sounds like Batgirl was right and this was a cathartic book for you.

That sort of thing is great for one's mental health, a good thing to do, don't get me wrong, but damned hard to get published.

I'm a little surprised that you have a background working in child protection but that three different commenters felt the query showed a misunderstanding of some part of the child protective and/or legal system. This could be a difference in how things work in different countries, or worked at different times in the past vs now... but it's definitely a problem.

Here's why it's a problem even if you're right and all the commenters are wrong.

One of the most difficult parts of an author's job is conveying confidence. "I know how to tell a story. This story is 'true'. Dear reader, you're safe in my authorial hands."

I'm sure you know a lot about this subject. But your query hasn't conveyed confidence. So readers (and agents) aren't going to suspend disbelief.

My creative writing professor in college would probably have told you to rewrite the manuscript from the point of view of a different character.

He, alas, knew bugger-all about writing marketable fiction. I'm going to cautiously suggest you might try revising the query and letting us look at it again, but at the same time you might want to try writing something else. Something that doesn't spring from bad personal experience.

(Huh. I was about to say that though I've worked with abused children, I don't write about them. Then I realized that of the six child protags in my books, four were abused. I guess what that means is... let your experience inform your fiction, but not govern it.)

Anonymous said...

Another visit from the Grammar Nanny.

she starts to receive threats and fears for her own infant daughter’s safety.

I first read this as "Helen receives two things: threats and fears." Since it's a compound predicate or something like that, you could break the sentence with a comma. When she wins a high profile case returning a child to a fallen celebrity once accused of using child pornography, she receives threats, and she fears for her own infant daughter’s safety.

I'd introduce the stalker at the same time as the threats, since the stalker seems to come out of nowhere. Given that Helen keeps kids in abusive homes, the threats seem halfway reasonable; they could come from an overzealous activist who would actually never hurt her.

And yes, do lose the bar pun -- not even a mention of "the other kind." We get it from the title.

Anonymous said...

Author, with your background, you should be able to not only make the story credible, but the query progress logically. Right now it doesn't....your explanation below actually makes more sense than your query.

The worst example of this is: "But she has a fondness for the other type of bar, silencing her conscience with single malt whiskey."

Which gives us a pretty clear vision of her. I like that you use specifics...but ummmm, I presumed this wasn’t a one time event. And then you throw in that she has an *infant* child....ahhhhhh, do you see where I’m going with this? Let’s say she’s not breast feeding, that still means that she was either drinking while pregnant or wasn’t drinking during a 10 month period within the course of 20 months.

Maybe my math is off but this isn’t something you want people getting lost on. Logical leaps. Like....a babysitter is accusing her of child *neglect*? That’s nearly impossible. How can a babysitter witness neglect? Abuse maybe but if they babysitter is *there* then the child has someone caring for her. I’m sure it’s clearer in your book with your experience...but my brain goes HUH? when I read something like that. Gotta tighten it up.

Good luck.

none said...

We don't have Child Welfare Services in the Empire; they're known as Social Services here. So you can't blame us.

Also, we call the Empire the Commonwealth now. So much PCer.

Please get rid of 'utterly decimating' as decimating doesn't mean what you think it means (although it is coming to mean that, just as apparently the British are becoming the excuse for everyone's bad grammar....). Also, it's a hideous cliche.

I suppose it's a stupid question, but where's the baby's father in all this?

Ink and Pixel Club said...

I'm wondering if you might be a little too close to this subject matter to tell this story, at least right now. I admire you for wanting to write a story told from the perspective of a person you disagree with; it's no easy task. But as it stands, the fact that you don't like Helen or at least the work that she does is coming through loud and clear, to the point where readers of your query aren't seeing much reason to like her either. One of the main questions in your book is why someone would spend her life fighting to get children put back into possibly abusive homes. Even with your additional explanation of Helen's backstory, I don't feel like you have a great answer for that question. Speaking only for myself, I don't believe that all lawyers in cases like this have to be emotionally damaged to do what they do or that CPS is always in the right in wanting to remove a child from a family. I'm sure sometimes they are, maybe far more often than not, but I can't believe that these cases are all black and white and no one at CPS ever makes a mistake. You need to be open to the possibility that at least some of the people Helen is defending are capable parents who don't pose a danger to their children. If you can't, maybe you're not the best person to tell this story.

What I kept wondering while readin the query is why Helen stay at this job if it requires her to drink herself into a stupor to dull her conscience, which means she's spending even more time away from her infant daughter.

Anonymous said...

Your story sounds more like this? Making Helen sympathetic has got to be key. I think her childhood is more interesting than a stalker, but then that is not a thriller and may not be your book.

Every child welfare worker in town has heard of Helen Androvsky. The defence lawyer has a formidable reputation for brutal cross-examinations that reduce witnesses to tears. Helen's clients - parents accused of abuse or neglect of their children - always get to keep their kids.

Helen's own childhood in foster homes was horrific - far worse than her neglectful family of origin. She feels she's saving the children from an even worse fate.

Not everyone agrees. When Helen wins a high profile case that returns a child to a fallen celebrity once accused of using child pornography, she starts to receive threats. Footage of her drunk goes viral.

Helen thinks she just has one stalker to worry about, but then the welfare agency accuses her of child neglect. Helen is facing her worst fear - losing her own [son/daughter]. Clearing her name becomes about much more than saving her family or career, however. Her real enemies are the demons of the past.

RAISE THE BAR is a 70,000-word thriller. I have a background in Child Welfare services.

batgirl said...

Anonymous, that's a darned good rewrite! Hope the author sees it.