Friday, August 25, 2006

Face-Lift 167


Guess the Plot


Until Death Do Us Part

1. The wedding is over. All the planning, the excitement, the spectacle is over. Mrs. Cynthia Lin wonders what to do now.

2. Conjoined twins James and Joseph share a liver, a pancreas -- and a girlfriend. But when Lily is found murdered, they vow to find a doctor to separate them, so they can fight a duel to the death.

3. True accounts of divorces from the most bizarre and hilarious period in the long and illustrious history of matrimonial failure: the late 19th century.

4. Wieder Braun has been married to nagging, thrifty, boring Frau Rosa for more than 50 years. And he's not waiting one more day for freedom.

5. Reverend L. J. Jones tires of the hypocrisy of young love. The divorce rate among couples he's married is 70%. So now he helps newlyweds keep their vows by parting them with death, mafia-style.

6. Tom and Larry couldn't get jobs at the circus... until they had themselves surgically conjoined to become the first Latvian Siamese Twins.


Original Version

Dear Name of Agent: (Evil Editor in this case)

I am a recent graduate of North Dakota State University and have had the opportunity to write a proposal for an almost entirely unique book. I am confident with this statement because the book’s historical source has never before been read or written about. These original historical documents contain the bizarre and fascinating stories of America’s earliest known divorces. I would like to invite you to review my proposal and consider representing Until Death Do Us Part: The Strange True Stories of America's First Divorces. [Framing American Divorce is a boldly innovative exploration of the multiple meanings of divorce in American life during the formative years of both the nation and its law, roughly 1770 to 1870. --Description of a book available at Amazon.com, which also offers The Road to Reno: A History of Divorce in the United States, and A History of Divorce. Which is not to say that these books are similar to yours, merely that "unique" and "America's first divorces" may be overstating it, insofar as your history begins in the 1880's.]

I have easy and unlimited access to many of the oldest divorce court records in American history. They range from the 1880’s to the early 1900’s and are all original documents that have never before been searched through. [I stole them from the basement of the Stutsman County courthouse.] The proposed book is to be a compilation of entertaining and fluent retellings of the most unique, interesting, emotionally striking, humorous, and strange of these divorce cases. The book will also contain brief discussions of early American divorce and an overview of modern divorce. I searched through approximately 100 of the divorce cases for a historical research paper and discovered that many resemble micro soap operas. [That's true even today; the difference is, today you can file citing irreconcilable differences, whereas in the old days you needed specific reasons like He's sleeping with both my sisters, or She poisoned my stew.] The divorce stories in my small sampling from the 1890’s are tales peppered with exotic locales such as Australia, Europe, and India, humor, emotional and physical abuse committed by husbands and wives, adultery, shootings, crime, alcoholism, tragedy, family and class disputes, decadence, and any other such element of resonant storytelling.

The book will be, simply put, a veritable pantheon of intimate human-interest stories from America’s past. The stories have all certainly never been told before, and are arguably some of the first well-documented cases of domestic dysfunction in American history. [All right already. At least write the book before gushing over its magnificence.] They are narratives involving people from a wide variety of geographical regions, in particular the east coast. In addition, the book, although drawn from the country’s past, is still quite relevant today, given the current debates and discussions surrounding marriage, divorce, and the “American family.”

I graduated from Minot High School in 2001 and labored in choosing a profession to pursue. [I narrowed it down to historian, divorce lawyer, and scandalmonger. Then I realized I could have my cake and eat it too.] This was difficult because I have too many interests, the most immediate being literature, history, popular culture, and art. I decided upon a career in history education, as art and writing can both be enjoyed in my leisure time, therefore avoiding the suffocation of my creativity with career pressure. [Which is exactly the reason Stephen King and Nora Roberts have never quit their day jobs as a bag boy and a laundress.] My qualifications to write this book include first and foremost a B.S. in History Education from North Dakota State University. The degree, however, serves only as documentation of my interest and knowledge of history. My true qualifications for writing this book are my undying and undeniable passion for history, literature, writing, and the human experience. I also have easy access to the divorce files [You said that at the beginning of paragraph 2.] and a strong desire to pour myself into researching the files, with or without a book. Quite simply, I just enjoy reading them. [Quite simply, you are stark, raving mad.] [Seriously. The guy who ate 35 pancakes a day for 13 years in the last query had nothing on you, obsession-wise.]

I would be more than thrilled to have you represent me. If you would like to view my proposal, please contact me as soon as your schedule permits. You may contact me anytime by phone at _________ or by email at ___________. I look forward to hearing from you and wish to extend my appreciation for your time and consideration.


Revised Version

Dear Name of Agent: (Evil Editor in this case)

I would like to invite you to review my proposal and consider representing Till Death Do Us Part: True Stories of America's First Divorces.

I have access to many of the oldest divorce court records in American history, dating from the 1880’s to the early 1900’s. My book will consist of entertaining retellings of the most emotionally striking, humorous, and bizarre of these divorce cases. It will also contain brief discussions of early American divorce and an overview of modern divorce.

I searched through approximately 100 divorce cases for a historical research paper and discovered that many resemble mini soap operas. The small sampling from the 1890’s, which I used for my paper, is peppered with more emotional and physical abuse, adultery, shootings, crime, alcoholism, tragedy, family and class disputes, and decadence than would be found in the most dissolute of fictional works.

The book will be, simply put, a compilation of intimate human-interest stories, arguably some of the first well-documented cases of domestic dysfunction in American history. These stories, although drawn from the country’s past, are relevant today, given the current debates and discussions surrounding marriage, divorce, and the “American family."

My qualifications to write this book include a B.S. in History Education from North Dakota State University, and an undying passion for history, literature, writing, and the human experience.
I would be more than thrilled to have you represent me. If you would like to view my proposal, please contact me as soon as your schedule permits. Thank you.


Notes

It sounds like it could be interesting, but there's way too much hyperbole and repetition in the query. If it's now so short you want to add something, you might explain (very briefly) how it is that you have unlimited access to these records. Or include an example of a fascinating case, rather than a list of causes for the divorces.

11 comments:

Dave said...

Dear EE:
AHEM! I am a twin, regarding gues the plot #2 - 2. Conjoined twins James and Joseph ...

WHAT YOU SAY? - It wouldn't take a doctor for me to beat him to death. HONEST! ! ! !

;)

HawkOwl said...

I totally wanted to read the book, until I started reading the query letter. For one thing, I'd have preferred to see British divorces rather than American ones, British mores being so much more entertaining. More importantly, I can't stand the style of the cover letter. It's so overstated. I'd love to read a micro-soap opera: a "veritable pantheon of intimate human-interest stories," no way.

Good luck with it.

In the Guess-the-Plots, the surgical conjoining of twins would have been funnier if I hadn't recently watched a documentary on a doctor doing exactly that at Auschwitz.

Anonymous said...

Having spent some time researching divorce cases from the 1830s-1860s in connection with studying the women's rights and free love movement of the 1840s, I think the emphasis on 1880s-1900s divorces being America's FIRST and OLDEST shows either a strange lack of knowledge, or overselling in hopes the editor/agent will lack knowledge. If the author actually thinks these are the oldest divorces, it makes me wonder how much historical context will be missing or misunderstood, in describing the cases.

Though admittedly there's some interesting stuff to be found, in a prurient tabloid sorta way. Like the 1863 divorce near where I live, where the wife was caught committing adultery numerous times in diverse places outdoors near her husband's residence, specifically Feb. 21 on the path from her husband's house to his father's house.

Anonymous said...

History interests me also, but I'm not sure this would qualify as history as I see it. You would have to demonstrate why and how these divorces are important to know about and the effect they have had on society, if any. -JTC

Bernita said...

Oh. Dear.
Please do not try to tell us there were no divorces before your dates.

ashni said...

I would want to see a short description of one of these micro soap operas in the query. Show don't tell, and all that.

pacatrue said...

It sounds like the author has found these really interesting documents that fascinate him or her and so wants to tell their story. I think there are possibilities here, but it will have to be pitched exactly right. The author's platform isn't huge. A B.A. is great, but there are probably a hundred doctorates or people with 20 years of journalism experience also trying to tell a story. That's the author's competition platform-wise. Since the platform doesn't bowl anyone over, the author is going to have to use the documents that are so wonderful to him / her to do the bowling.

So, as a couple people have suggested, use the query to really tell one or two great stories that an agent will just want to know more of, no matter what. Your ability to tell this great story in two paragraphs is what you are selling. I don't get the impression you are trying to write a seminal work on divorce in the 19th century. It's more popular non-fiction. Show us that you can make these 100 year old stories come alive and captivate our attention. (Without being hyperbolic).

Also as mentioned, people are really worried that you don't have the background to tell these stories yet. You are going to need to do more than select interesting documents and put them together. If you wish to do only that, then you might publish locally with a North Dakota historical society or the like. But if you want to have a nationally published book that someone has put $50,000 behind, you are going to need to help us understand what is special about these letters. This means that you have already read each work that EE found on Amazon (and Google Scholar and the Reader's Guide to Periodicals and the online databases at the U of ND), and are rolling your eyes right now about how obviously different what you are doing is.

One thing you might have going for you is in fact that you are in North Dakota. (You get to think now, "wow, being in North Dakota is actually going to help me finally?") This is because there might not yet be much research on divorce in the upper midwest or on the plain states or in late 19th century farming communities or the like. For instance, anonymous 1:35 did some work on divorce in the 1840s. But perhaps her work was all in New York or in Georgia or among seamstresses. Whatever. You get the idea. You need to know all of this stuff, know how your contribution is unique, and convince the editor in your query that you know all of this stuff. This doesn't mean a 4 paragraph lit review, it means being able to state that most work has focused on urban communities, while your work focuses on....

If none of this sounds like what you really want to do, I would argue for a local publisher where your service to the world is to gather important documents and publish them so that others can find them. Right now these papers might be lying in some court house somewhere and cannot be used in research. But if you can assemble them and make them more widely available, then the researcher who wants to study, say divorce among German immigrants in the Midwest, will be able to find them for the first time. She will bless you eternally for your work.

xiqay said...

I'm with Hawkowl on this. I wanted to read the book based on the plot summary, but when I read the original query, I wanted to run away as fast as possible. Too much hype and too much repetition.

I'm curious about the source of the stories. Divorce is granted by a court and court records are public. Also, court decisions, including divorce matters, were (and in some places still are) routinely published. These old court decisions are collected in volumes available at many law libraries. Even the "oldest" court decisions are included in some of these. They may not tell the story behind the story, they wouldn't include all the gory details of the trials (perhaps venerable author has original transcripts).

I like the suggestion to group the stories into immigrant classifications or other similar topics, for historical analysis and for interest.

Good luck.

Cathy said...

I'd actually read this, demented person that I am...

Sounds interesting.

Anonymous said...

My spouse and I are descended from families who were involved in the first divorce in Plymouth Colony--in 1669. It's well documented (and it's a very juicy story--and, yes, there's a book about it). So this zealous author doesn't even have his/her facts right.

Catja (green_knight) said...

a B.S. in History Education

I'm far more intrigued with the idea of getting a scientific bachelauriate in education than in this hodgepodge of 'ooh, look what I found' of someone whose historical qualifications appear to be somewhat limited.

If you edit a work of this nature, you need to have a clear concept, and one that goes beyond 'all of these are interesting and funny'. The query does not give me the sense that the writer knows what to do with sources other than to collect them.