Friday, July 01, 2011

Face-Lift 922

Guess the Plot

The One at the Helm

1. The one at the helm could be the self. Or it could be madness (think Mr. Hyde). Or it could be God. You, the reader, decide in this story of a woman struggling with the darkness within, who visits a psychiatrist who goads her into physical combat during the session. Also, a terrifying angel.

2. The ship is full of wheel-shaped handles: steam valves, fuel cutoffs, the ones that shut the watertight doors. So as the ship plows towards the rocks and the injured captain yells, "Turn the wheel hard to starboard!," Festus has to think for a minute.

3. It's 1793, and Captain Andrew MacDougall of HMS Relentless navigates dangerous seas as his crew dies off man by man of a mysterious illness. Then they all rise as mer-zombies and force his ship to sail to various hellholes that zombies like.

4. In a world ruled by superstition and euphemisms, seaman Treller panics on his first voyage and calls the one at the helm 'Captain.' Penalty: the plank. Picked up by a ship full of people for whom a spade is a spade, can he stop talking around the subject before they toss him back into the sea?

5. The Helm is a biker bar on the outskirts of town. Jo is a waitress there. When blue-eyed Fritz starts hanging out, Jo is smitten. She never thought she'd fall for a white supremacist, but those eyes! Could Fritz be The One?

6. Leona will need that sharp eye and rough tongue of hers to pilot her hotel franchise business through the floating minefield of corporate takeovers and executive machinations. But if stepping all over the little guy brings success, the world will be singing the praises of Leona’s hotel empire long after she's gone.

Original Version

Dear Agent:

I read on your website that you are looking for strong writing and voice in the area of literary fiction and I think you will enjoy my interpretation of magical realism.

In a story that could be described as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde meets The Alchemist, a young woman finds herself grappling with an unruly mind. Dissociating from the darker parts of self has strengthened them against her so that we open on an island with a madman in control. He is an external counterpart of the developments within. [Within what?] [It's not clear what you're talking about. What is the madman controlling? The island? Is there a real island?] When she tries to destroy him, she ends up on a locked ward with a savior of her own design, an angel (yes, an angel—a terrifying one) who is also deviant for he comes from the same deranged mind. [As the madman? As the girl?] Whatever you focus on becomes your fate, he warns, [So she immediately focuses on being a billionaire with a freezer full of Ben & Jerry's and no annoying angels hanging around.] knowing himself the embodiment [I don't know what "knowing himself the embodiment" means.] and fearing his darkening moods. But her obsessions are drawing her deeper within. [Within what?] [What are her obsessions?]

Enter Sage, the voice of wisdom who surfaces in the form of an unorthodox therapist. [In the form of? So Sage is some magical being who she thinks is a therapist?] Goading Aurora [Finally we find out the main character's name.] by poisoning a child in her office [If this doesn't send up a red flag, nothing will. Did she research the therapist's credentials?] and resurrecting a rapist from her past, the doctor draws her into physical combat with the parts she has repressed. [Physical combat, like with weapons? Fists? In the therapist's office? You decide to see a therapist, and s/he goads you into physical combat? At your first session? Is it the same session she poisoned the child at? And you're still there?] But violence begets violence and instead of defeating anything Aurora finds herself in yet another hold, another pattern, [another holding pattern,] another Catch-22. Before Sage can guide her into awareness and lead her on the path to mastering her mind, modern medicine intervenes with its bandages and drugs. Aurora resists its diagnosis and cure. Caught up in her own experiment and quest for meaning, she finds she needs the darkness. But is it as valid as light? And with the angel’s devotions becoming punishing, [I don't know what that means. You're probably starting to think I'm a moron.] is it worth her life?

A novel of antitheses, THE ONE AT THE HELM explores what it is to be human from the inside out. At 65,000 words, it is a psychological journey into madness and health, control and relinquishment; a novel that asks what brings the darkness? And must we know it to know light?

[insert bio here]

Per your guidelines the first five pages follow. I am happy to send the complete novel at your request. In the meantime, I appreciate your attention.


PS In case it isn't clear where I get my title, The One at the Helm could be god, the self, one of the personae that take control when we lose it (i.e., madness), all those things that we default to when we choose to give our power away. Oh yeah, and there is that ship into which the dominant persona shoves the repressed parts in the opening.


This is a bit better than the original version, which the author replaced at the last minute, having anticipated my complaint that there was no plot. Unfortunately, there's still no plot. I can't tell if there's an island or a locked ward or an angel or a madman, or a psychiatrist's office, or actual physical combat . . . or if it's all in Aurora's mind.

Start over. Does Aurora believe she's losing her mind? Why, what events/symptoms gave her a clue? Does the therapist she goes to have a name, or just go by Sage? Is most of the book set in the therapist's office? Where else is it set?

Try telling us what happens without mentioning one single thing that isn't real. Tell it as if the reader is nine years old. I'm confident that if you do those two things, you'll have a much better query, and then we can let Phoenix refine it into a winner.


vkw said...

Yeah what EE said. I've decided there is an "uh test?" for queries. If I read a query and I want to say "uh?", then there is a problem.


none said...

When I've managed to get my head around Jekyll and Hyde meets The Alchemist, I'll come back and critique the rest.

See you in a few years.

Anonymous said...

These items confused me initially:

1 - I thought the time-frame was 19th century because of Jekyll and Hyde and the time-ambiguous Alchemist.

2 - I wasn't sure whose "unruly mind" Aurora was grappling with.

I get the feeling that your novel is supposed to leave the reader with tons of questions. Was that encounter real, or imagined? Did she create that figment, or did one of the figments create it? etc. So do you really want to spell things out, as in "He is an external counterpart of the developments within"? When you do so, you make it hard to imagine just what this novel is, and not in the sense that it's intriguing -- more in the sense of WTF.

Don't these ingenious, multi-layered journeys into the inner darkness have to obey certain basic conventions of fiction, such as having a likeable protagonist and establishing themes we care about? Do I care whether the light needs the dark, who was at the helm, whether Aurora gets to the bottom of it, etc?

The answer is: Not in this query. You're throwing so many curves at me that the main character seems like a tiny dot floating around at the center of a hologram wrapped in a cloud inside a hall of mirrors. Can you make me care about Aurora? Can you show me that her problem is something I'd "get"?

Anonymous said...

I have no idea what I just read.

Is she really on some island in a ward? Why is she there? Is that where Sage is too?

150 said...

Step away from the LSD, Alice Sebold.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Can we get back to the poisoned child, please?

Is this an actual child, and real poison?

Because if so, that's quite a serious crime, at least in this state. It's worthy of at least its own sentence. And even a completely self-involved protag might feel an urge to call the police.

If it's a metaphorical child... well, that's the problem with the query.

Suzanne said...

Sounds a bit like a literary attempt at the recent movie 'Sucker Punch', only more confusing and without the added benefit of scantily clad women with machine guns.

none said...

The Alchemist is a revolting little New Age tome by Paolo Coelho that was published in 1993. It's kinda like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, only set in a desert, and without the cool photographs.

Aika said...

This was interesting to puzzle over. At first, I thought your problem was too much breaking the fourth wall, or whatever that phrase is. For litfic, I thought, you shouldn't have to explain that characters are symbolic, or what they symbolize. The agent will know this convention.

So I tried stripping out the explanations - but that didn't work either. It now sounded like a synopsis of strange events that don't fit together.

So, what arhooley said is my vote.

And good luck! I'm sure you can do it.

(here's what I got from stripping out the spelling out of the symbolism)

Aurora is nearly alone on the island. One by one, she'd eliminated the darker ones - only the madman was left. When she tries to destroy him, she wakes on a locked ward with a terrifying angel hovering above her bed. "Whatever you focus on becomes your fate," he warns.

In her fear, Aurora turns to Sage, her unorthodox therapist. Goading Aurora to confront her fears, Sage first poisons a child in her office, then resurrects a rapist from Aurora's past. Just as Aurora realizes she cannot master her mind, modern medicine intervenes with its bandages and drugs. But caught up in her own experiment and quest for meaning, Aurora retreats into her private darkness. Where the angel now demands her life.

A novel of antitheses, THE ONE AT THE HELM (complete at 65,000 words) explores what it is to be human from the inside out.

Anonymous said...

I think I put way too much thought into this.

Jo-Ann said...

Wow - we get to play guess the plot with the actual query in front of us. That's innovative!

My take on it - well, it could be interpreted in a classical Freudian framework, with the madman, Sage and the child representing the id, ego and superego. Or maybe the angel's part of that trinity, and the madman is just the outward mainfestation of the conflict beteeen the different parts of the psych? Hmm, tricky.

But that's the fun with those types of queries, we can project our own interpretations on the content. I guess it removes some of the onus from the writer of actually, you know, telling a coherant plot.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments. For the record, I thought I'd nailed it, thought it was so straight forward no one could be confused. It's not my intention to be dodgy or vague.

If it were as easy as describing the 'real' events, I could do it. But what is real is not as important here as what is felt to be real. Imagine everything in your head became the outside world, only you were manic depressive so your perceptions were skewed. Maybe I'll start there. 9 year old, 9 year old...

In the novel you just go with it. The writing engages the senses enough that you're emerged in Aurora's world as much as she is--or so I'm told. Suspension of disbelief. You take the ride. But how to make the query do that.

Evil Editor said...

I guess it's like this. Before I agree to spend eight hours in the head of a manic depressive woman, I'd like to know if she's gonna spend that day in Paris or at Disney World or lying in bed. What she perceives as real is more interesting if we examine it in the context of what IS real. Tell us who she is, tell us what actually happens and make us want to read about how she perceives it.

Xenith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wilkins MacQueen said...

Shutter Island.

Magical realism = oxymoron.

Aurora = Sleeping Beauty.

I get a sense of arrogance here. Hate to burst a bubble but it ain't J& H with Alchemist.

Rhetorical questions don't belong in a query.

With his Badness on this one. Start over.

Tip: read some archives here and other places.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

What does "suspension of disbelief mean'?

Suspension 1. The action of suspending someone or something or the condition of being suspended, in particular.
2. The temporary prevention of something from continuing or being in force or effect. From

Suspension of belief might be a better (read more accurate) phrase.

Can't wait to get Phoenix's take on this baby.

Xenith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer Don said...

It sounds a lot like an inner battle of the mind. Where there's so much conflict that seeing what's real and what's illusion becomes harder day by day.

Aurora battles with what she thinks is real - perception of herself without seeing it? Each question thrown is like another tangent of the mind and it's thoughts.

Is the therapist even real or someone that Aurora thinks is real?

Is Aurora one of these characters who is locked up and lives her live in a world where not what's real.?

For me there's too my questions and different roads this could take. All aspects that are being openly questioned in the query only begs more questions without a sense of direction on where it's going.

Anonymous said...

Your ps tells me more about the story than the query. Please change god to God.

If you work from the ps you'll be farther ahead in Queryville.

I know what's stopping the mc from getting what she wants. She's not well. I don't know what she wants.

"But is it as valid as light? And with the angel’s devotions becoming punishing, is it worth her life?"

Likely not but I don't know what this means so don't ask. Mumbo jumbo. Sentences starting with conjunctions make me nervous, as did this query.

batgirl said...

For what it's worth as a data point, I assumed that Sage was in Aurora's head, being a manifestation of one aspect of herself. That way she can easily resurrect a rapist - just haul out the memory of him.
But I drew this from Sage's actions - if I have it right, you might want to clarify that everything is taking place in Aurora's head, which is obviously a mansion of many rooms.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

I've been thinking about this, wondering if I've ever read a novel where the action takes place inside the character's head. (Which, AFAICT, is the case here.)

The answer is no.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I appreciate you helping me get my head twisted on straight. I get confused and you made sense.

Yeah, noon, come here at noon.