Monday, September 09, 2013

Face-Lift 1152

Guess the Plot

A Cuckoo by the Window

1. General Mills waits, staring outside. His country's at war, his soldiers are starving and millions of hermetically packaged MREs that don't get soggy in milk and contain a full day's nutrition, remain uneaten. A mascot is needed, but whom? The clock strikes midnight.

2. The parrot in Martha's favorite shoe store shouts profanities when she shops there, so one night she breaks in, kills it, and replaces it with a more polite bird. Parrots and cuckoos sound the same anyway.

3. Oh, how positively inviting she looked--that bikini-clad cuckoo that statuesquely stood by the window on W. E. Coyote's porch. All that gave the ploy away was the return address on the discarded packaging that read "Acme Adult Novelties."

4. When Charles Radcliffe finds his wife and her lover in a motel room bathtub and kills them, he realizes he's at the top of the list of murder suspects. Can he convince the jury it was an accident? Or will the cuckoo who witnessed the whole thing rat him out?

5. Compared to tattoos and genital piercing, straitjackets don't hurt. Staring through the one-way window waiting for her mom to claim her from the psych ward, Yalta laments her life. Being thirteen shouldn't suck this bad.

6. How much is that Cuckoo by the Window
The one with pretty red eyes?
How much is that Cuckoo by the window
With the pinecones, chalet, and Swiss guy?

I must have that Cuckoo by the Window
I'll wind it all up every day
I'll buy that Cuckoo by the Window
I must hear what he has to say

I bought the Cuckoo by the Window
At home it gave me a fright
For out of that Cuckoo came a Swiss toe
And then came the rest of the guy

I keep my Cuckoo from the window
The one with the secret inside
My Cuckoo will never leave my home now
It keeps my Swiss lover inside.

Original Version

Dear Agent:

Two lovers lie upon one another, [A neat trick if you can pull it off. Usually if one is upon, the other is beneath.] the cold embrace of death making their tangled bodies white as they floated [We've switched from present tense to past already?] in the cooling waters of a bathtub, while a husband stumbles [Back to present, and still in sentence 1.] out of a dark motel room, his mind reeling with past guilt. [If, as I suspect, the husband has just killed his spouse and his spouse's lover as they were enjoying a hot bath, I doubt their bodies have already become noticeably whiter or that the water has become noticeably cooler. And the husband's mind would probably be reeling more with current guilt than past guilt.] [Actually, the thoughts with which my mind would be reeling are That'll show her. She never let me in the same room when she was taking a bath, but this asshole's in the tub with her? Hmm, I'm sure to be suspect number one, but no jury would convict me under these circumstances. Or would they? If it's a jury of my peers, they'll all be assholes. I better head for the airport and catch a flight to Addis Ababa before the maids find the bodies in the morning. But first I better cancel the TV Guide subscription.] [Note that not only was my mind not reeling with past guilt, (This never would have happened if I'd remembered to put the toilet seat down more often.), but it wasn't even reeling with present guilt. Step 1: Get away. Step 2: Pretend to feel guilty.] A Cuckoo by the Window, a dark literary drama of 35,186 words, [That's awfully short. 35,000 words will fill 140 pages, which will require 70 sheets of paper. If you pile 70 sheets of paper on top of each other, they'll reach all the way to the top of your mouse pad. In the bookstore your book will get lost between the surrounding books:

Fortunately, most books aren't bought in bookstores, and Amazon doesn't include spine width among a book's stats, but unfortunately, agents haven't caught on to this yet, and they will spot that "35,000" even if you bury it at the bottom of the page.] is a story where a life time [lifetime] of secrets are uttered to an almost-stranger, [I would never tell all my secrets to a stranger, but an almost-stranger is a different story.] lies are uncovered to the ones they hurt most, old and new betrayals are laid bare and a happy life is bought by an unacknowledged good deed. [That's all vague. We want specific information.]

When Charles Radcliffe, the richest man in Silver River, falls for his suspicions and tries to find out why his soon-to-be ex-wife was lying to him, [About what?] a series of inexplicable events lead to his killing both her and her lover by accident, and with almost no one to witness the deed. [Almost no one? How many witnesses do they need? Was the witness the almost-stranger? Or was the witness a cuckoo by the window?] [Actually, if he killed them in a motel room bathtub, it's hard to believe there was even one witness. Was there a fourth person in the bathroom, sitting on the john? Also hard to believe it was an accident. You walk into a motel bathroom, discover your wife in the tub with another guy, and you accidentally kill them both? Sure, I believe it was an accident, but I'm not on the jury.] Why did a wife who had long been separated from her husband feel the need to hide her lover from him? [If they're long-separated and soon-to-be ex, why would she feel the need to tell him about her lover? Unless it's to flaunt him in her husband's face.] And are the accidents that kept [keep] happening in the small, sleepy town truly what they seem? Or is there some shadow in the darkness pulling all the strings that lead to death? In this book, you will find the answers to these and more questions, [Will I find the answers to my questions? And will I like the answers?] [In any case, learning the answers to questions you ask about your plot is not an incentive to request your manuscript. So you may as well answer them in the query.] when secrets begin to uncover, spilling lives in their wake.

My name is Osman Walela, and I currently live in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

In closing, I want to thank you for your time and consideration. I chose to send you my query because you represent/represented Kaui Hart Hemmings who made me want to write this book in the first place and whom I like to think has influenced my work. And, at last, I want to remind you that the full manuscript of my book is available upon request.


Your grasp of the language is admirable if this is not your native language, but the subtleties of English can take an almost-lifetime to master, and you aren't there yet. I can tell this from the use of such phrases as "falls for his suspicions," "secrets begin to uncover," and "spilling lives." It's perfectly clear what you mean by these phrases, but they're slightly off. Thanks to Google and Google+ I was able to look at the opening paragraphs, which suffer from the same problem. If you were getting on in years I would recommend a reliable editor, but as you are still young, I recommend (assuming English is the language you wish to write in) reading as much as you can and perhaps taking some advanced classes and finding an online critique group.

As for the query, it needs to tell us the story, not just intrigue us with a few elements of the story. Possibly this means telling us how Radcliffe killed his wife and her lover, and what he and the authorities are doing as a result. Is he on the run? In jail? What are these accidents? Who bought a happy life, and with what good deed? If these are key plot points, tell us about them. If they aren't, don't mention them.


AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Hello, Osman. Your English is very good; better than that of many of the Ethiopians I've met in the US.

The thing is, though, that it's very good English for someone who lives in Ethiopia. If you lived in the US, or Canada, or one of those other English-speaking countries, you'd have a feel for English that you just can't get without living it.

I can well believe the Amharic fiction market isn't huge. The English-speaking fiction market probably looks appealingly large from where you're sitting. But it's also highly, highly competitive.

I can think of several immigrants who learned English and became successful English-language writers, but I can't think of one person who stayed in their own country and did so.

So my advice, if becoming an English-language author is really what you're determined to do, is to find a way to spend a few years living among native English speakers.

Good luck, and keep writing if it's really what you want to do.

(Others will say: Keep writing. I put in the qualification because if there's something else you want to do more, then you should go do that instead. Writing is a thankless business on the whole.)

Unknown said...

Hi Author,
Yes. Your English phrasing is a bit awkward. I never suspected you were a native speaker...

Also, how does a man 'accidentally' kill his wife and he lover in the bath of a motel? Did he drop a toaster in the water by mistake? It's not like he mistook the rat poison box for the Skinny & Sweet whilst sweetening the coffee... (Gold star for anyone who picks out the film reference there.)

You have the beginnings of a book here, but there is no doubt it will require editing...which will likely cut more words.

I wish I had some plot elements here to critique. The whole thing is vague, and, no offense, I'm not sure i want to spend my time learning more about an accidental murderer trying to shield himself from prosecution.

Go back to the manuscript and write more. Then, have it professionally edited. Then, when it's ready for the light of day, write a query that describes the plot and contains no vague statements or rhetorical questions.

Also, if the almost-witness is an actual bird, I'm going to go Matlock on your Perry-Mason-self. This melodrama is beyond the pale of today's standards.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Veronica, what's your thinking on the professional editing? I never advise people to go that route because 1. there are quality control issues and 2. you've either got it or you don't. No training wheels in the Tour de France.

But I'd be interested to hear what you're thinking.

khazar-khum said...

Author, I think you'd do well by finding a writing/critique partner from the Anglophone world. They could help you a great deal. The setup of your story is interesting. What you must do now is find someone who can help with the rough parts.

Unknown said...

As for professional editing, I have a friend whose self-pub works are phenomenal. She is an excellent writer, but hires a professional editor to catch what she may miss in the process.

Before anyone jumps on me for mentioning self-pubbers, this gal has sold so many books/serials through Amazon they are looking to contract her for more via their own publishing imprint. Not erotica. YA and NA sci-fi- and dystopian....

I have, myself, done freelance editing. Particularly for non-native English authors looking to publish in the US, both fiction and non-fiction. It's a word-of-mouth business for me. Still, if I chose to self-publish I'd seek a professional's opinion on the work. And, I won an editing job from that diabetes auction in May for that objective. Not EE, sadly. (Too rich for my blood.) I figured only good editors would be part of that operation. Plus, the tax-deductible benefit was a big factor.

Mister Furkles said...


Join an online critique group. If it doesn’t work for you, choose another one until you find one you like.

You should have at most one question in a query and it is best at the end of the plot.
Your median sentence, except the questions, is 51 words long. That is too long for a query.

Two people cannot get into a motel bathtub. One person cannot drown in a motel bathtub. But it can happen in an in-suite whirlpool at a luxury hotel.

Try to write about things you know. Or invent your own fantasy world. Try writing short stories. When you get magazines to pay you for your short stories, you’ll be there. The magazines will tell you what they look for in stories.

Keep writing. It is its own reward. If you sell something, that’s a bonus. Be certain to enjoy your writing; that is the biggest payoff.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Veronica, I can totally see the value of hiring an editor for a self-publisher. After all, if you don't hire an editor there, you have no editor. It's just not something I'd recommend to someone whose goal was "traditional" publication.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Keep writing. It is its own reward. If you sell something, that’s a bonus. Be certain to enjoy your writing; that is the biggest payoff.

Now that's good advice.

150 said...

It's just not something I'd recommend to someone whose goal was "traditional" publication.

I might recommend it if the goal is a one-off traditionally published book (like a memoir) and not a career. If the author only has one book in them and never cares to write a second.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Good point, 150. In that case, yes.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering what the connection with the cuckoo is.

Unknown said...

I think for someone who is not a native speaker a professional editor may be a good bridge whilst they become comfortable with the language. Even if they plan to traditionally publish.

Then again, there are so many people I have known here who never developed an ear for American turns of phrase. Mostly they came as adults. Two or three years is not usually enough an immersion for an adult to assimilate language. Many of my colleagues from China India and Japan, who spent decades learning English, are still flummoxed by our cadence and grammar construction. (Not to mention slang, or subtleties like implication and innuendo)

Then again, a six hour drive to Kentucky will leave ME at a loss...

When your livelihood is words, it is best to make sure you are using the right ones. I believe a good editor will help at that basic level.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Some adult immigrants have made the transfer and become successful English language writers, probably having already been excellent writers in their first language. Aleksandar Hemon and Abraham Verghese come to mind.

(Come to think of it, the latter grew up in Addis Ababa.)

As for traditional publishing, it's still training wheels in the Tour de France, water-wings in the Olympics. It doesn't matter how good those water-wings are, you're still going up against Ye Shiwen.

Or to drop all metaphors... in traditional publishing, new writers aren't required to be as good as the ones who are already being published. They're required to be better. And if a writer needs to hire an editor just to ready the manuscript for submission, then he or she is not going to make the grade. Not when there are thousands of people trying to get in the door, and hundreds of them are good, and dozens of them are excellent, and only a few are going to get in.

I haven't encountered exceptions, other than the one 150 mentioned. In that case the writer usually has some other selling point (eg they pitched in the World Series and/or were kidnapped by aliens).

Those are my admittedly discouraging but realistic thoughts.

CavalierdeNuit said...

Always great advice here. #8 has been making me laugh too much.