Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Face-Lift 1066 (revised)

As we clearly won't have enough fake plots today to post the one remaining title in the query queue, I'm posting the rewrite from the author of the query just below this post.

Author here.

You guys are One.Tough.Crowd.

How deep to go into detail in a query seems to be a universal conundrum. People who follow Noah Lukeman’s advice to keep it minimal (“Robin Hood steals King John’s gold. Period.”) seemed to get slammed for not revealing causalities or motives, etc., essential or not. [How many people are going to fall for this Lukeman guy's spiel? Go to any other agent's site and click on "Books" and you get a listing of books by authors the agent represents. Do the same at Lukeman's site and you get a list of books written by Lukeman. Go to another agent's site and click on "News" and you get news about the agent's authors' books. At Lukeman's site you get news about Lukeman. "Robin Hood steals King John’s gold. Period." That's all I need to know. I'm phoning the Coen brothers to see if they want the film rights.] Those who let it all hang out get hooted for writing a synopsis instead of a query. Myself, I thought a query was supposed to pique sufficient interest so that the editor/agent/golum would want to read more, not that it was to answer every story question or reveal every motive or explain every setup. [How to pique my interest: Ten sentences that fit on one page and focus on the main character. Who he is, what he wants, what's stopping him from getting it, what he plans to do about it.]

FWIW, below is a revision. The issues raised in the critique comments are addressed in the full narrative; frankly, I did a clumsy job of selecting the story beats to reveal. [Aha! So it's not all our fault.] I hope the revision delves deep enough to satisfy without raising yet more questions. Query critiques really only work the first time around, but If anyone has a moment, please check it out and let me know what you think.

Thanks to everyone—and most humbly to Evil, the Editor!—for your time and willingness to comment; It’s been valuable. What I take away is, I should maybe write about vampires. (Is there an app for that?)


Dearest Editor:

Of Time and Chance is an 80,000-word thriller.

Jack Prior is a biker, recovering alcoholic, and PTSD victim; when he’s diagnosed with Margolin’s ulcer, he falls off the wagon, wrecks his Harley, and lands in a drunk tank. The CIA bails him out; they know who he is.

Decades ago in the Sahara oil fields, Jack was imprisoned for selling explosives to a Berber separatist. Police Captain Kareem al-Barasa tortured Jack mercilessly. At length, fueled by fear and desperation, Jack attacked Barasa with scissors, blinding him in one eye. The American consul spirited Jack out of the country. Barasa swore vengeance.

Now the CIA wants Jack’s help. Sheik Zuwari, a valuable Western asset, is being held in Libya’s Abu Salim prison. The commandant—Colonel Barasa—will sell Zuwari’s freedom for a million dollars cash—to be delivered by Jack Pryor. The CIA assures Jack that this will be a quick, low-risk mission; he’ll be well guarded, and well compensated.

Desperate for money, Jack accepts the CIA’s offer and travels to Tripoli, a city wracked by rebellion. Within hours of Jack’s arrival, a suicide bomber sent by Barasa wipes out the CIA team. Jack realizes that Barasa’s true prize is Jack himself, and that in this lawless country, unable even to radio for help, he must struggle alone to defeat his nemesis—if he is to save Zuwari and end the lifelong torment in his soul.

Thank you for your time.


That answers a lot of the questions. Except how Jack got out of the prison and into the American Consulate after stabbing Barasa in the eye. (Apparently there was no one else around to stop him, or the other police were afraid they might get stabbed with scissors too.) Although the plot's a little long, you make up for that by not wasting space telling me the book is like Tom Clancy's stuff but better. On the other hand, it's Jack's past with Barasa that's relevant, so we could probably do without his falling off the Harley and the wagon.

If Jack is "well-guarded" by the CIA team, and the bomb kills all of them and not him, presumably that was arranged by Barasa so he could be alone with Jack? Poor suicide bomber, probably was told he was acting for Allah, turns out he was just helping his boss exact revenge for the scissors incident. Reminds me of how Churchill talked Roosevelt into entering WWII claiming Germany had to be stopped, when it was really because Hitler once called Churchill a pussy.  

Rugen's Rules for Torture Chamber Success, #7: Never give the torturee scissors. Actually, that seems so obvious that I'm inclined to believe Barasa was injured while running with scissors, and blamed Jack because he was too embarrassed to admit the truth.


150 said...

I got stuck at "Jack realizes that Barasa’s true prize is Jack himself", which, durr, you don't ask that your old enemy deliver a ransom just because he's extra-good at handing over money. Otherwise, it's better. I agree that the first paragraph isn't useful. The title could be sharper. Sounds like something that could sell--if the writing's good.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

I read one of Noah Lukeman's books.

My reaction to it was "Damn, this man knows bupkis about writing and storytelling. From now on, the only books about writing I'm gonna read are books by writers. Preferably very good writers."

Anonymous said...

Your trouble's not just the query.

1] The guy is too lame for this mission. Period. You shackled him with enough maladies and hardships to carry a soap opera. James Bond, he is not.

2] Hints that you need to do more research abound. What EE said. Also, the bone between your eyeball and your frontal cortex is paper thin, which makes that an excellent place to stab someone if you're desperately wielding a pencil or some other not-generally-fatal weapon. Hard to figure why/how he stabbed the guy with a lovely sharp dangerous pair of metal scissors and only ruined his eyeball, which would surely set off a lot of hollering and noise and rage -- instead of disabling him. Any action hero worthy of the name in the circumstance you describe would have permanently shut the guy up by fatally jamming such a blade[s] a full inch or two or four into his head. So we think he's awful squeamish or else you don't know what you're talking about.

3] With all the chaos and violence and amazing heroism that happened in Libya during the revolution this plot seems incredibly egocentric and trivial. Which is why it seems misplaced. Especially with all those maladies and impairments. If he was being sent into a bank to convince his ex-wife to set her hostages free instead of blowing them up, maybe that would work. This does not.

sarahhawthorne said...

Don't despair, Author. If query writing were easy, this website wouldn't exist, now would it?

This is a huge improvement already. The plot is more credible - and more importantly, much more unique - than I had thought from your first query. Now it's just about arranging the details to best tell the story.

Since I was one of the mean ones yesterday, allow me to make it up to you with a rewrite:

Decades ago Jack Pryor was a globetrotting oil executive - until he was falsely arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by the Libyan army. Today he's a broke biker struggling with PTSD. When he falls off the wagon again, the last thing he expects is to be bailed out of the drunk tank by the CIA.

The CIA needs him to get a valuable asset out of Libya's infamous Abu Salim prison. The prison commandant will sell the man's freedom for a million dollars cash - but only if Jack Pryor personally delivers the ransom. Because the commandant is none other than Jack's old torturer, Col. Kareem al-Barasa, who hasn't forgotten the prisoner who fought back and took one of Barasa's eyes. The CIA swears they'll protect Jack and compensate him generously. But within hours of reaching rebellion-torn Tripoli, a suicide bomber wipes out Jack's entire protective detail, leaving Jack stranded in the middle of a revolution.

Here's where you still need to clarify what skills Jack has that will enable him to pull off this mission. For example... But Jack isn't giving up yet. After all, he does still have one million dollars. And if there's two things he knows how to do, it's making deals... and breaking heads.

You'll definitely want to rewrite this in your own voice, since I went pretty heavy on the cliches. But feel free to use this as a template.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Oh, I didn't bother with a query critique because the writer essentially said it wasn't worth it, so I believed him.

Writer, it's true. We are a tough crowd. We very seldom like anything. About the only crowd tougher than us is the publishing industry.

St0n3henge said...

I like Sarah's rewrite. I would use something like it. You want it to seem like the story of a single man bringing an entire war down to a human level, rather than the story of a single individual seeming trivial in the face of something as vast as war. That was the main problem, I think, with the first query.

Dave Fragments said...

A couple things...
First, the scissor in the eye thing isn't working. Try something like:
"After prolonged torture, Jack escaped to the safety of the American Consulate but not without blinding one of Barasa's eyes." and leave the scissors to the novel.

Second, the CIA wants Jack not because the know who he is but because of his past history in the Saharan Oil Fields. That would be better than your words in the first paragraph because it hints at a drunken biker being more than a drunken biker.

Third, "wipes out the CIA team" those five words are giving you trouble. Now about "Wipes out an overconfident and second-rate CIA team" which means you might need a word or two to hint that the CIA is being duped in the previous paragraph.

You put some mystery and action into the revision. I think those changes will add to the selling of your book. Make no mistake, a query is a selling tool as much as a commercial on TV. Queries walk a careful line between underselling a book as bland and uninteresting to over hyping a book like a cheap streetwalker. (It's a lousy metaphor day)

Selling anything with lines from the 1950's like "You read the novel now see the movie" or "Thrill to the man who brought you Moses on the screen" or "From the directors of Godzilla and Y Tu Mama Tambien comes the heartwarming tale..." and things like that went out with the 1950's. Don't emulate their triteness.

The best selling of anything I've seen in decades was Alfred Hitchcock's trailer for THE BIRDS which is enthralling. OR the original trailer for MONSTERS INC. which is a delight. You have to find what makes your novel fascinating and irresistible. You're doing a better job with this revision. IT needs tweaking.

One more thing about reviews:
I remember the first time I got a review of a technical paper on my research project that said "This is garbage and doesn't deserve being published." in those words. We (meaning my workplace) had an editor that ran the internal review process. He came to me and showed me and then said "This fellow hates your boss and the next time, we won't let him review it." IT became a very successful technical paper at a national conference. The lesson to me was - I could accept or reject a critique and that I had to learn how. Of course, with the hurtful reviews, it is not a trivial task trying to see what is really wrong that caused the reviewer's reaction. But that's part of writing, part of your job as an author.

I don't know much about Noah Lukeman and quite frankly, I've followed EE's blog for several years. I know and understand the criticisms here and I know how to use them. It takes time to understand what that means. Even "this is trash" can be a great critique if from that you know what the reviewer meant and work to fix the problem. What they never told you in writing classes or college or wherever you learned writing was just that... It's just as hard to know what to accept as critique as it is to reject a critique. I don't know Noak Lukeman so I can't advise you about him.

Anonymous said...

This will be sort of a long post, but it’s all your fault: the multiple problems you’ve pointed out with Jack Pryor’s development as a character goes to a deeper problem I’ve wrestled with since I began this project, [Pacatrue caught a glimpse of this in his/her (?) comment on the other thread.] and that is, Jack’s age when we first meet him.

Here’s my dilemma: the story occurs in two time periods. The first in August of 1969, just before Khaddafi takes over. Jack is a 25-year-old oil field engineer, and Tripoli is a pretty cool place to be; there’s a strong Italian influence, restaurants, casinos, and Jack has a torrid affair with Evie Stiles, a cabaret dancer at the Mocambo nightclub. That’s how Jack and Zuwari al-Barasa first butt heads, when Evie spurns Barasa’s advances. Little does Jack know that Barasa is a stone psychopath.

The second part of the story occurs 42 years later, in August of 2011, when Tripoli falls to the rebels. This is when the Jack/Barasa conflict heightens and reaches its resolution.

By then, Jack is 67. For him to be younger, I would have to move the August ‘69 setting up, say, twenty or thirty years. But that would put it in a Tripoli that is vastly different from the one I know. So, I’m stuck with the age thing. (The only novel I can think of with a similar situation is Water for Elephants; it opens with an older man, but his story occurs almost totally as a younger character.)

I considered opening the story when Jack is in his younger years. (He’s not a CIA agent, but he’s not on Medicare, either.) But here’s my problem with that—and the question I need help with: If I open in 1969, how do I treat the 42-year gap that occurs before things heat up again between Jack and Barasa?

I don’t have problems working flashbacks into narrative, but how do you jump forward four decades when no story beats occur? I don’t want to wander off into Jack’s eventual marriage, kids, jobs, etc. Do I just write, “Chapter Twelve: Forty-two years later....” Or can I simply throw a page return in there and say, Part II or some such?

Any thoughts or examples would be gratefully accepted.

(And sarah, your idea is boss. Thanks.)

150 said...

Chapter TWELVE, forty-two years later? Son, it ought to be chapter TWO, forty-two years later.

But yes, basically. "Jack hunched over his fifth shot of whiskey. The forty years since Tripoli hadn't been kind to him...." and get to the good stuff.

67 is insane for an action hero, but I could actually see it turning out badass if it was addressed in an Expendables or R.E.D. kind of way: be upfront, don't forget he's old, but give us a reason to believe he's got better odds than your typical sexagenarian. (I love Sarah's "skills" paragraph and hope you've got something fun to fill it up with.)

Could you move the present-day events back 20-30 years?

khazar-khum said...

Start with the Tripoli, the Barasa affair, Evie spurning him, a nasty fight that forces Jack out, etc.

Next chapter: Evie Pryor's funeral. Just six weeks after their 40th anniversary. His kids show up, even the ones estranged by his abusive behavior, wanting to at least try to talk things out.

The CIA rookie who helped get Jack & Evie out of Tripoli attends the funeral. He's been sort of keeping in touch with them ever since that case made him a rising star at the CIA. He needs Jack to deal with Barasa because of old ties, etc.

The funeral will be a good way to show the closing of a major chapter in his life and the major passage of time without endless backstory chapters.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, hmm. Casting a 67 year old guy with serious health & mental problems to go into a war zone and do daring deeds because using an elderly hero will save you the trouble of researching what Tripoli was like during a time you weren't there doesn't seem to be working so well.

Dave Fragments said...

I sense age discrimination here.

Angela Lansbury was old when she did MURDER SHE WROTE and even older when she did SWEENY TODD on Broadway and even older in Vidal's THE BEST MAN this past year.

Bruce Willis was old when he did LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD.

Liam Neeson is 60 and he did a sequel to TAKEN.

Sean Connery was 66 when he did THE ROCK and that was before THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN.

Michael Gambon is 72 (he was Dumbledore).
Alan Rickman is 66 (he's Snape)
Danny Radcliff is a mere babe in arms.

John Hurt is 72. He's in the remake of LABYRINTH.

Dare I mention Betty White who seems to be ageless.

Or how about Joan Rivers who still dishes the dirt on Red Carpet all over the world. SHe won THE APPRENTICE over everyone else who was younger.

Evil Editor said...

Harrison Ford is seventy. The last Indiana Jones movie came out in 2008; the next one has just been announced.

Evil Editor said...

The past could be a prologue. Of course if it's half the book, that would be a long prologue.

Mister Furkles said...

First off, almost all such novels have some kind of problem requiring suspension of disbelief.

Two other possibilities:
(1) Jack was thirteen in 69 when his dad worked for an oil company there. At eighteen, he could join the military and go into special ops. Afterward the CIA could send him in and then he is captured and escapes.

(2) Make the current time earlier and the revolution could be changed to some plot to overthrow the government.

It's fiction. Jack can be sixty and tough as nails as long as he had high skills and kept them up.

Anonymous said...

Author again:


Ha! The number TWELVE was totally random!


Wow! In the current narrative, in the melee of expatriates trying to get their families out of Tripoli on planes to Malta or on buses to the Tunisian border, Jack and Evie become separated. Jack is nabbed by Barasa, tortured, etc., etc., and by the time he gets sprung, Evie and her dance troupe have long gone. Jack never finds her.

But this!... Jack and Evie hooking up after Libya? and using your scenario as a way to fast-forward? Whoa! What great idea! Thank you, thank you!

@the biological age of action heroes.

In the narrative, Jack is never presented as an action hero; in the hyped context of a query letter, it may have come across that that was his role. That said (lot of thats), 67 is hardly “elderly”. Trust me.

During the “young” phase of the story, Jack has an action-hero moment or two, but throughout the story, he’s just an ordinary guy caught in extraordinary circumstances.

The same goes with the “elderly” phase. Jack doesn’t commandeer tanks or strap on SAWs, a la Stallone. He’s more cautious, considered... up until the closing scene sequence, when all the shit from all the years breaks loose. (Somebody’ll jump on that: “Cautious? Considered?... SNORE!!!)

I think this can be made to work in the writing. (Not comparing myself to him at all, but John le CarrĂ© had an “elderly” protagonist or two, didn’t he?... maybe not.)

@moving the goal post

Changing the story’s beginning point (1969—Khaddafi’s rise) is not the option for me that it might seem to be to others. It’s not that I don’t know what things were like 20 years later, it’s that the conditions that did exist were not amenable to the story I’ve created. After seizing power, Khaddafi expelled the Italians, the Jews, the Americans, and the British; he shut down restaurants and shops, banned alcohol, closed casinos—in short, radically altered the social landscape. (He once ordered that all the camels in Tripoli be shot because they were shitting on the streets in advance of some big Arab conference.) If I were writing a 1950s-cold-war-Bulgaria-type story, maybe. But this is not that story.

(continued on next post; didn't know there was a character limit.)

Anonymous said...

Author once more

@those damn scissors

Okay. Jack didn’t poke Barasa in the eye with scissors, he used a ball-point pen. But “a ball-point pen” is three words, and “scissors” is one, and since it didn’t seem like a big deal and I was trying to cram the query into 200 words or less, I exercised editorial license. BIG EFFING MISTAKE.

Also, for the record (if anyone is still following this), the poke in the eye happens this way:

• Barasa wants Jack to sign a confession that he’s a CIA agent. But Jack’s shackled to a stone wall, so Barasa’s men free his right arm.

• Jack takes the ball point pen, but he won’t sign: The confessions written in Arabic.

• Shackled to the wall next to Jack is his Libyan helper, Tariq. Tariq has also been tortured.

• Barasa presses the muzzle of his pistol against Jack’s forehead, telling him one last time to sign the confession.

• Jack refuses.

• Barasa swings the weapon toward Tariq and shoots him, boom!, point blank in the head.

• Jack goes berserk, swings his unshackled legs up, locking them around Barasa’s waist, and brings his free arm around, stabbing Barasa in the face, the head, once, twice, again, until the guards pull him off.

• Barasa, enraged and in pain, the pen stuck in his eye socket, fumbles with his pistol, intending now to shoot Jack, confession or not, when—

• The cell door opens, and there stands Barasa’s boss, the police commissioner, horrified by what he sees. Beside him stands Jack’s boss, who has been ladling out bribes to secure Jack’s release so he can get him out of the country, which he does later that night on a chartered DC-3 to Malta.

(That’s two hundred words. Hard to fit that into a query. One other thing: Jack’s helper? whom he has grown quite close to? having worked with him on desert rigs? is named Tariq Zuwari. He is Idus al-Zuwari’s father. Idus grows up to become a leader of the Berber people, whom Khaddafi suppresses, referring to them as “rats”. And that’s the prime reason Jack is later willing to risk traveling into a war zone. That story line, too, is difficult to work into a one-page query.)

@Dave Fragments

Thanks for you comments re criticisms. I once worked in a newsroom where every now and then they’d sit an older hand behind the city editor’s desk; the transformation was sometimes quite astonishing. Give some people the power to critique, especially anonymously, and...

@Lord Evil

Yes, as a prologue it would be a bit much. khazar-khum’s suggestion might be the way to go. That keeps it chronological, and avoids opening with a protag who is both wasted and elderly. :)

@Mister Furkles

Now, that’s thinking outside the box. It’s a radical change but it could work. Problem is, I have so much invested in the current story; I can shift chunks around, but I’m reluctant to tinker with the underpinnings. But you’re right. A man can be sixty and still tough. There’re some shrimp boat captains down here (I live on the Gulf Coast) who are seventy and hard as marble. (Or they could be forty, I don’t know; I’m afraid to talk to them, they’re so mean looking.)


Hurricane Isaac is knocking on my door. Thanks all.

Rachel6 said...

My only problem with Jack being 67 is he's a drunk wash-up. RED worked, because Bruce Willis still looked pretty fit.

That said, I get the feeling that this means Jack will a) toughen up fast, and b) turn out to be a pretty smart cookie who fights with his brains. Am I right, author?

And hey, don't feel bad about the critique. The first time EE and the Minions ravaged one of my pieces, it took me three weeks to pick it up again. You're doing much better, with an improved rewrite already submitted!

Anonymous said...

Turn Libya into an imaginary country. It's fiction, after all, and there are ways to establish that the country is 'based' on Libya. Gives you the freedom to change dates & make Jack younger (if you want to).

Anonymous said...

Your apparent problem is the crapped-out condition of the guy, not the age. Also, the set-up seems to indicate vigorous activity is called for. Now you say naw, he does nothing like that. So what does he do for 300 pages? And why will hordes of people want pay to read about it?

Also, Dave's list is a bunch of film and stage actors/actresses, some of whom have stunt men to do the acrobatics, while others deliver most of their lines from a chair. None of them are riddled with tumors, etc.

Also, if what happens in your query is not what happens in the book, why are you wasting our time?

Evil Editor said...

Dave's point is that we accept 60 year old actors as action heroes on the screen, not that they actually are action heroes. Characters in novels don't actually do their own stunts any more than actors do.

Dave Fragments said...

Thanks EE.

If this is convincing and entertaining on the page then people will believe it.

Just recently I watched (again) the silliest of all terrorist movies - THE ROCK - Each time, I think "33 years in prison and the guy still does all that stuff?" about the Sean Connery part. And yet, why do I watch that movie (or at least turn it on to act as background noise) Because it's a fun movie. I cheer the car chase like a little kid (it is a spectacular chase that throws every cliche possible into the wrecks) and the story is good. It delivers as entertainment. We like the heroes and accept the "bad guys as bad but misguided."

The math is that it the Connery "spy" was imprisoned in 1963 and the movie came out in 1996 which means that guy has got to be 27/30+33 or at least 60 to 63 years old.

SO my advice to the Author is not to junk everything and start over, it is fix the problems you have and above all, make the story enjoyable and exciting.

Anonymous said...

Author here:

@anon 10:33

Hmm... set the story in a fictional country. I'll have to ponder that. Thanks for the idea.


@anon 11:46

I never said he was “crapped out”. I said he went on a bender and woke up in jail.

sarahhawthorne said...

I thought 67 was an acceptable age, especially since Jack is a biker. I was picturing him like Ron Perlman (who's 62) in Sons of Anarchy. Plus, look at the success of the Expendables. Audiences will buy old guys still tough enough to kick ass.

Kelsey said...

Hi author,

It sounds like one of your biggest struggles is the balance between enough/too many details. Remember that some details are more important than others--it's picking out the details crucial to your story that matters, not finding the perfect number you can fit into 200 words.

I stuggle with this all the time, so don't be too discouraged. Go over your query and look at every piece of information you give us and ask yourself, "What is this communicating? Does it matter?" and if it isn't crucial to helping the agent/editor understand either the character's main motivation or how your story gets from A to Z, it can probably be cut.

For example, in your first paragraph you list 7 details about Jack. It seems to me that they're all doing about the same job: telling us he's in a rough place. Is this info crucial? Yes, because this tells us who the MC is and some motivation. Do you need all 7? Maybe not. Now you, as writer, can decide which of these details matter most: is it his alcoholism that screws up his attempts to beat the bad guys the most? Are the PTSD flashes making it hard for him to return to Libya? etc. and then cut the ones that are redundant.

Does the agent/editor need to know Jack blinded Barasa? Yes, because that's why Barasa is so intent on killing him. Does it matter what he used to do it? That's something you can decide as the person who knows the story best.

EE gave us a formula to help sort out with are the crucial details in his 10-sentence summary. Use that, too. Not all details are created equal.

One more note, about Jack's motivation: I think you should tie it more clearly to his sorry state you describe in the beginning (otherwise, what does it matter?). In the middle of your query you say that Jack takes the job because he needs the money (motivation #1) and then right at the end, he wants to end the torment in his soul (mot. #2). No. 2 sounds more interesting to me, and this is crucial information, but I don't see what has been tormenting him. Did he escape, but leave Evie behind in Barasa's hands? That would result in some torment, I bet. Or... etc.

Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

Kelsey said, "...some details are more important than others--it's picking out the details crucial to your story that matters...."

That's about the best query advice I've seen.