Monday, September 15, 2008

Face-Lift 565


Guess the Plot

Cliquing on Time

1. Susan hates her high school, where everyone is organized into cliques. But in Dateline High, the clicks are organized by time, and somehow she got stuck with the 2 AM crowd, which means they are always, always asleep. But Susan has her sights set on high noon, and she won't stop until she's clawed her way out of the sleepers and into the lunch date crowd.

2. The popular girls torment Andrea about her relentless punctuality. Cute geek Dan breaks out in hives whenever she's near. High school is tough for an android. When a disaster hits, can Andrea save the day, put the cliques in their place, and win the love of a boy with a metal allergy?

3. Detective Morris Night of the Minneapolis Police Department has been handed a crucial assignment: find out why local teenagers are suddenly disappearing in droves. Night uncovers a new, memory-erasing designer drug, street-named "Time." In a troubled city, can Night stop Time before time runs out?

4. Unpopular band geek, Hermitrude, obsessed with cuckoo clocks and stopwatches, schemes and murders to secure herself a place in the popular clique at her elementary school.

5. At the Texas maximum security prison, the men doing hard time have formed cliques: murderers, rapists, drug dealers, gang members . . . Now they've suddenly found themselves on a raw new world where their survival depends on cooperation. Can these societal misfits choose a leader and work together, or will chaos reign?

6. Twelve-year-old Mefistia Wrench downloads an Internet computer game, Tiempo No Molestame. She and her girlfriends start playing the game together online, but each girl's world changes with each move. The game then announces that only one can return home. Will Mefistia return to her proper time? And what of her friends?



Original Version

No one at the Texas maximum security prison knew what happened in the small hours of New Year's Day as their regimented world spun into chaos. Murderers, rapists, gang members, drug dealers, and "freeworlders" collided with each other and with nature on a raw, new world. [Whattaya mean, a raw new world? Have they gone back in time to one million B.C. ? Or was there an earthquake that killed the guards and left the place in rubble? Tell us where they are.]

[Rapist: Where the hell are we?

Drug dealer: I don't know, but it smells bad, and there are strange noises emanating from that canyon.

Murderer: Isn't it obvious? We've somehow been transported to Uranus.]

Community would be redefined by the antisocial. Slowly, order, and even romance, emerged, stumbling amid dire setbacks in the tragicomedy of life. [Huh?]

Ultimately, does survival depend more on overcoming the brutality of nature or overcoming the nature of the brutal? [Trying too hard to be clever, I think. "Overcoming the nature of the brutal" is clunky.]

During my thirteen years as a volunteer in a Texas maximum security prison, [When you're doing twenty to life and you ask them to let you work in the prison library, does that make you a volunteer?] I have made a number of close friends; most, I pray will never come visit me. [Sounds kinda like me and my minions.] I have used composites of my friends to create characters who have captivated even skeptical readers. In showing these characters struggling to survive on an empty clone of Earth, I portrayed them positively but also realistically and honestly.

The positive responses to my first book surprised me. Looking for feedback from the maximum number of readers, I submitted it to Baen Book's unofficial slush pile. The response was so positive that mine was the first and perhaps the only unofficial submission to make it to Mr. Bean's desk. [Mr. Bean's desk?] [Thanks a lot. I just blew two hours watching Mr. Bean pantomime skits on Youtube.] He had asked to see the second book in my series before he would commit, but he died before I finished editing it. [Yep, that sounds like a Mr. Bean plot.] With Mr. Baen gone, I'm unwilling to submit the over 330K word series to anyone without an agent. [Are you saying your willingness to submit to a publisher was dependent on Mr. Baen's survival? Intriguing. But not as intriguing as if your willingness to submit to a publisher was dependent on Mr. Bean's survival.]

One last personal note: "a man's got to know his limitations," and I know that any competent agent could write a better query than I. I've researched you carefully; I understand and value the talents an agent of your caliber provides for a storyteller.

Thank you for your time and careful consideration.


Notes

Instead of concluding with a note about how your query sucks, why not improve it? You're writing a business letter to an agent. It needs to include a clear description of your book's plot. Your premise is that the inmates in a maximum security prison find themselves on an empty clone of Earth. I assume there's an explanation, so what is it?

Which prisoner is the main bad guy, the one who prevents anything from getting done? In what way is nature brutal here? Describe the hardships the "good guys" have to overcome with a couple specific examples.

An agent is unlikely to care that your book once made it out of an unofficial slush pile.

Drop the Baen paragraph and the following one and you'll have plenty of room to tell us what happens in your book in the plain language you would use if we were sitting on opposite sides of a bulletproof window on visitors day. What's the situation, who are the key characters, what's keeping them from attaining their goal?

77 comments:

Robin S. said...

I have made a number of close friends; most, I pray will never come visit me. [Sounds kinda like me and my minions.]

Hey.

Sarah Laurenson said...

This one is priceless, EE.

330K for the series? How many books? How many words in the first book? What genre is this?

Interesting thought that you are exempt from having to learn to write good queries because you once made it out of the slush pile.

Anonymous said...

I know you're making a point, EE, but I don't think these inmates move to another place or time. I think the author is trying to imply that it's a whole new world in a prison, what with all the rif-raf hanging out there. Not really the most original topic, but maybe this one brings something new.

The part about Mr. Bean dying before he could propel the book to the bestseller list is funny, but author, really, you should leave it out.

Kiersten said...

I wish Mr Bean was an editor.

writtenwyrdd said...

I had a difficult time separating your voice from the story information, Author. Reminds me of the time I experimented with "funny" application letters when I was job hunting. Amazingly (she says sarcastically) I did not get one interview out of that batch of humorous letters.

I think the same applies to your query tone of voice. Keep it a business letter in style and save the amusing voice for the book stuff.

Anonymous said...

I take it back, EE. I think you're right. After re-reading I agree that they ARE going to some new world.

Dave F. said...

As I understand your letter, Baen liked your first novel and wouldn't do a deal before he saw your second. Unfortunately, he died.

If you had an agent reading your first novel in place of Baen, and that agent passed away before you finished the second, what would you do?

Obviously, query another agent. You know you have a nice piece of writing. Don't be afraid of the query.

Besides, you need an agent anyway. I don't care what legal background you have. You need a dispassionate agent to do that publishing contract.

BTW - is this SCI-FI? Do the prisoners end up on another planet with only their wits to build and survive? That's a neat plot. Like Lord Of The Flies neat.

benwah said...

"I have used composites of my friends to create characters." So do many authors.

"The positive responses to my first book surprised me." This suggests that you expected lousy responses, implying you think your work isn't very good.

You have the prison experience, not me, but the word "clique" makes me think of high school, The Breakfast Club, etc. Not The Latin Kings vs. the child molesters in the prison yard.

This query lacks a couple of things. Protagonist. Antagonist. Plot. Specifics details. You've spelled out the themes, but I'm not even sure what genre this is.

What does "their regimented world spun into chaos" mean? I would think a new inmate would find his previously ordered world in chaos. Or to you mean a giant hurricane whipped through Texas, leaving the inmates to shift for themselves? Or is this sci-fi and the prison is beamed to Pluto?

Color me confused and, frankly, not at all interested in the provenance of your MS. What's the story?

Anonymous said...

"Slowly, order, and even romance, emerged, stumbling amid dire setbacks in the tragicomedy of life."

wtf??

My guess is that you are a lot smarter than this query, but as others have mentioned the tone/quirkiness forces one to take a large step back...

batgirl said...

This is actually an intriguing premise, and I can see why Baen would have been considering it. The fairly familiar sf trope of the deserted world and how to survive it, but with the twist that it isn't everyday folks or scientists surviving, but convicts.
But when you aren't able to have your manuscript on display for the agent, you need to tell what your story shows, especially the characters and the setting, because sf depends so much on worldbuilding and a believable setting.
So, yeah, what EE said. Cut the Baen info (maybe one sentence, like 'Jim Baen was considering the ms before his death', if you must) and pick a very few characters to centre your plot synopsis on. And be specific about the alternate-Earth they find themselves in, to avoid the more 'literary' interpretations of the brave new world.
-Barbara

Renee Collins said...

I think the premise is very interesting, but I too wanted to see more in the query. Who are these characters and what are the stakes?

Ditto dropping the whole paragraph about Baen. Also, I'd drop the lines on how great your responses have been and how "even the skeptical were captivated" by your characters.

One final nit, I don't see where you got the title. I think you were going for a play on words, but I didn't get it, at all.

WouldBe said...

There are 86 words about the story and 208 about your experience, Baen, and agent-kissing. At best, that's backwards.

Most of the 86 is about the prison community and setting. There is little to nothing about the story, and, unless I missed it, no main character was mentioned. Need more story.

Anonymous said...

Do you mean clicking on time, like the characters have to click?

Evil Editor said...

The author included a note that Cliquing is a prison term for a group attacking an individual.

Anonymous said...

I actually don't mind "does survival depend more on overcoming the brutality of nature or overcoming the nature of the brutal" but maybe put the brutal in quotes to make it clear you are referring to a subcategory of people (like "the meek" who shall inherit the earth. "The brutal" who are often in prison.) That kind of thing.

150 said...

Make this straightforward, and give us the actual plot and characters, and I'd probably give it a close look. I don't like the title at all.

Google tells me that Mr. Baen died in the summer of 2006. That makes me wonder what you've been doing with this manuscript for the past two years. It might be best just to leave all that out.

I'm really looking forward to a new version of the query letter, with big juicy skiffy details--I hope you give us one!

writtenwyrdd said...

If "cliquing" is prison jargon, and if the author is set on this being the title, I'd explain in the query. Or, for the purposes of the query, it might be a good idea to have a title that says something about the story that doesn't need to be explained.

But, regardless, more plot stuff please!

Julie Weathers said...

I have made a number of close friends; most, I pray will never come visit me. [Sounds kinda like me and my minions.]

I am wounded. Deeply wounded. Perhaps even mortally wounded.

Author, you spent very little time "selling" your story and most of your time selling yourself. Story first. Always.

A rejection is a rejection by any other name. If you must mention Baen, one sentence at most.

Give us the protag, villain, specific conflict. The premise is good now make the query match it in 250-350 words.

Dave F. said...

I know some people hate rhetorical questions, but you could start out:

Can the worst of society survive the brutality of nature? When the population of a prison is suddenly freed on a barren world, they must recreate society to survive. But what society would murderers, druggies, rapists and whatever else is in prison, create?

Or maybe something like:
Bubba and Otis find themselves not running the crips and bloods but organizing search parties for food and water.

writtenwyrdd said...

I rather like Dave's first offering, although the second might be pretty amusing.

BuffySquirrel said...

I'd be careful not to leave it open to interpretation that this novel killed Jim Baen.

Moth said...

See, I'm curious about the "romance" mentioned.

Author, I hope you put a revised version up with the actual plot and you know...some characters and stuff.

talpianna said...

EE, now look what you've done to poor Julie! She's delicate, you know, like a flower.

The idea is intriguing, but didn't it more or less happen in real life in Botany Bay in the 18th and 19th century?

And Ursula K. Le Guin has an interesting take on the concept in EYE OF THE HERON, where there are two societies formed on a mostly unexplored planet, one descended from the prisoners and the other from the guards and prison officials. The kicker is that the prisoners were peacenik civil-rights protesters, and the guards were brutal Fascist types. It's a very good book.

talpianna said...

I posted too soon. I wanted to add that the peaceniks have let themselves be bossed around by the authoritarians, but the story is about what happens when they finally decide to resist.

benwah said...

Dave, I believe the answer to your rhetorical question is Australia.

Xenith said...

"The positive responses to my first book surprised me." This suggests that you expected lousy responses, implying you think your work isn't very good.

Hey! Most of my ancestors were sheep stealers, thank you very much.

Xenith said...

"The positive responses to my first book surprised me." This suggests that you expected lousy responses, implying you think your work isn't very good.

There are two types of writers: those who know their work is good and it's just a matter of time until a publisher recognises it (or know that the reason they haven't been recognised is because of the System) and those who know their writing isn't really any good and think people are just being nice if they say otherwise.

I haven't notice any obvious correlation between the actually quality of writing and the author's belief in it :(

Dave F. said...

Curiously, I thought the answer to my rhetorical question was "The Wrath of Kahn" in Star Trek. They had a spaceship called "Botany Bay"... I'm a fan of Montalban's overacting.

"I am Legend" is possibly this plot, if you tel it from the zombies POV.
"Lost" can be considered this plot.

Australia was a sort-of penal colony. Not everyone was a criminal. They had to have guards and all that. Even Devil's Island (the one in Papillon) needed guards.

I really think more "Lord of the Flies" with adults. The descent into savagery balanced by an ascent to nobility. What is the individuals responsibility to society?

Of Course, SNL would do a Muppet musical of it.

Whirlochre said...

The wordy ending is bizarre — prune the slush refs and simplify.

What's left is an interesting premise, albeit minimally aired. More detail about the protag and the location of the prison is needed.

Julie Weathers said...

"EE, now look what you've done to poor Julie! She's delicate, you know, like a flower."

Yes, yes, I am. A wilted flower with petals dropping as we speak.

Tracey S. Rosenberg said...

Dave F. - he overacts AND he quotes Herman Melville. My hero.

writtenwyrdd said...

Timothy Zahn did an sf book that was sort of like this, only the aliens landed in the prison and took it over. How the prisoners reacted and such wasn't the focus of the book, but there was some Lord of the Flies action going on.

Anonymous said...

Xenith, I disagree. There are also writers who have a lot of confidence in their work yet who also are terrified inside themselves that they are just kidding themselves. We really like to get positive feedback, but have a difficult time trusting that it is a) sincere and b) accurate.

WouldBe said...

At the end of the universe lies the beginning of vengeance. Ricardo Montalban, William Shatner and DeForest Kelley: you can't do better than that.

Xenith said...

This is what I was thinking, Anon :) You need confidence in your work to keep writing, but it often manifests as negative comments.

Reb said...

I want to thank everyone for your critiques. To say this business confuses me is... there must be a better word than understatement. While I'm tossing out clich├ęs, let me add that "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

I tried to follow the agent's guidelines with this letter. I did submit it with a synopsis, and I tried to write "One or two paragraphs that would be appropriate for the back of the book." I was also asked to explain why I should be considered instead of the two hundred or so queries received each week.

Please understand that I really, REALLY appreciate the critique of the EE and of the "minions." I can't believe that two of us missed the Baen/Bean mistake. I also appreciate that the back of the blurb needs to make it clear that they are on a clone of Earth. I'm not as certain about the Baen comments and would love to discuss it.

To my mind one of the strongest things I can say is that over a dozen of Baen's readers were so enthusiastic about the sample chapters I posted that the book was plucked from the UNOFFICIAL slush pile and I was accorded the "same treatment given an established author..." He said, "I'm not about to publish the first book of a series with no guarantee that there will be a second."

I'm also not sure how to talk about my thousands of hours as a volunteer chaplain. The experience has helped form the characters, but I don't want to give the impression that this is a religious or inspirational book. If I were to try to summarize it in one sentence (which an agent I have queried yet has requested) it would be: " This is not just a book about "convicts," but about men and women, who never expected to receive a second chance, given total freedom in a virgin new world."

I will re-work this query and will submit here again, this has been very helpful.

PS

Oh, I should also mention that agent in question has now requested the first ten pages.

Reb said...

I love the insight that so many of y'all show, especially with so little information. I tip my hat.

One of my fears is that folks will see this as a LORD OF THE FLIES or Botney Bay sort of story. It actually has more in common with SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON or Heinlein's TUNNEL IN THE SKY.

I think I'm widely read, and I love the work of Ursula K. Le Guin but I never read EYE OF THE HERON.

I'm grateful for the references, I know that there are no new plots, but I had thought I was more original than it seems.

There are just so many great comments, I very much appreciate your time and your insights.

Reb said...

150 noted that two years have passed since Mr. BAEN, ouch again, died. Making reference to that has bothered me. In a different query letter I mentioned that he showed great wisdom in demanding a second book because I realized when I got to the end of it that I needed to re-write the first to fix a dilemma. Of course that skirts the major reason for the delay.

It has been "the best of times and the worst of times." I've survived a sextuple by-pass two other major surgeries, a daughter's wedding, and a wife's retirement. I'll give you one guess which was the very worst of times. Now, I've finished the re-write and all the re-editing, I'm hale and hearty... and starting all over looking for the RIGHT agent.

I am trying to carefully follow each agent's guidelines, and most are emphasizing the need to be brief. My problem is how to be brief and still convey that my book is "different."

Let me give you an example. A NYT's bestselling author was kind enough to refer me to beta reader she uses. This reader is an officer at a prison in the mid-west. If there is anyone who is more skeptical of offenders than guard, I don't know who it would be. Yet this reader loved the book and commented that he found the characters believable... although he said he rarely sees the side of them I show. I can't use the author's name and I can't use the beta reader's name, so how do I get the idea across that my characters are "different?" Doesn’t everyone think their characters are different?

Sigh, I'm so misunderstood! ;-)

Sarah Laurenson said...

It's been a long time since I read The Four Lords of The Diamond series by Jack Chalker, but I think those are about prison planets. The beginning's a bit repetitive as it repeats almost word for word in each book. That's what I remember most about the series.

Do you have a main character you can focus on for the query?

In your e-mail to me, you mentioned the length of the first book. Planet Earth by L. Ron Hubbard is probably about the same length and I felt it could've ended several times while I was reading it. I wanted it to end long before it actually did. So there may be places where your first book could end that you can't see because you are too close to it.

Evil Editor said...

What your friends, family, beta readers, and other editors and agents who didn't buy your book thought of it won't matter to the person you're querying. What matters is whether they think they can make money off your book.

To convince them they can, give them a clear description of your story and your credentials (in this case, your experience with prisoners). You should have room on one page to include 8 to 10 sentences about your story.

Julie Weathers said...

Reb,

"150 noted that two years have passed since Mr. BAEN, ouch again, died. Making reference to that has bothered me. In a different query letter I mentioned that he showed great wisdom in demanding a second book because I realized when I got to the end of it that I needed to re-write the first to fix a dilemma. Of course that skirts the major reason for the delay."

I wouldn't worry about the delay. I had to put my fiction writing on hold twice. Crap happens.

Glad you are hale and hearty again. Undergoing that kind of surgery is scary.

And, a tip of the hat to you for your volunteer work. That takes a lot of dedication and fortitude.

batgirl said...

*waters Julie's fading petals*

Reb, congrats on the request for a partial! Good luck!

Who wrote GTP 6? I'd read that!
-Barbara

Reb said...

Thank you EE, I'll drop the Baen references. I assume you wouldn't put those extra sentences in if you are also sending a synopsis. That seems redundant to me.

However, I have a hard time understanding how anyone could read a hundred queries a week and not just want to find a quick reason to reject them, so perhaps I need to use the query to get them to read and think about the synopsis.

I've enjoyed xenith's comments, but I take issue with the "two kinds of author's" I think there's a third who know their writing is "merely adaquate, but their story is really good." For that hack, the real frustration is not being able to get the story read. ;-)

Reb Bacchus
---
Yes, I do know that Bacchus is the Roman god of debauchery and orgies; however, our side of the family never gets invited to his functions.

Reb said...

Yes Sarah, I do have a main character one based on three real people. He went to prison instead of Harvard because he was part of a drunken stunt that got a man killed. Once there he became a champion, racist, "gladiator." Just before the story starts he's had an epiphany and is trying to put that life behind him. He knows he's never going to get out, but wants to live as positive a life as is possible in prison.

When the "event" happens his determination to make the best of his second chance leads others to follow his example. While the convicts face the types of problems that almost doomed so many early European colonial efforts, the real problems are cultural and societal.

Here are a couple of examples. What sort of family structure should be established when an initial imbalance of males is projected to become an excess of females? What is the role of marriage and weddings in a society where the only Social Security is one's own children? How does a society deal with crime and punishment when they don't have the resources for any sort of incarceration?

Of course these are just part of the story. For example the hero is overmatched as a clueless man trying to prevent the "wedding industry" from getting started.

How does one say, I've got this great hero, but he's trying to avoid killing his fifth man in prison? ;-)

I have only sent out five queries at this point. Two were rejected in less than a day without looking at a single page of the story. A third only wanted a synopsis and gave me a "This isn't for me," in a couple of hours. The fifth just asked for pages.

150 said...

so how do I get the idea across that my characters are "different?"

Well, I was going to come here and tell you that giving them names and personalities is a good start. Then I see the last post where you've done that. What you wrote sounds like exactly the kind of thing your query letter should say.

How does one say, I've got this great hero, but he's trying to avoid killing his fifth man in prison? ;-)

You say, "Clifton Jailbird intended to go to Harvard; now he's trying to avoid killing his fifth man in prison. On another planet."

Details! Details details! And now, since apparently there are people who have never seen this: The Snark Formula for writing a successful hook.

X is the main guy; he wants to do:
Y is the bad guy; he wants to do:
they meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don’t resolve Q, then R starts and if they do it’s L squared.


Also, unless the agency specifically tells you not to, always send the first five pages along with the query letter.

Dave F. said...

Don't worry that you got five rejections. I don't think there is a writer here that hasn't gotten five rejections. And five is a small number...

And when they say, "this isn't for me" don't take that as saying that there is something wrong with your story. It might just be the truth that they don't represent this genre or sub-genre or however that agent parses/divides/nitpicks the world of books. Just bear in mind that it is not you. That agent not be able to market your book and is telling you honestly that they can't do a good job for you.

Julie Weathers said...

*waters Julie's fading petals*

Thank you, I needed that. Although I'm not sure there is any recovering from the knowledge EE prays his minions will never come visit him.

Perhaps he's just afraid of some of us? *Tries not to glance at Robin.*

No, he's probably afraid of all of us.

*wilts again in despair*

So goes my dream of kneeling on that inlay, caressing the wood.

Back to writing, the other impossible dream.

Dave F. said...

Sigh, I'm so misunderstood! ;-)

Oh hell no. Not at all. You're so like everyone else here that you wouldn't believe it.

Relax, the hard work is over. A query is a single page letter and you are more than capable of writing it. What you need then is lots of patience with a system that moves like arthritic snails.

Dave F. said...

EE's neighbor's might think that pup tents of adoring worshippers performing the literary equivalent of animal sacrifice on EE's lawn might lower property values.

Sorry, I being naughty. To Julie, With all my love (non-sexual that is).

Julie Weathers said...

"EE's neighbor's might think that pup tents of adoring worshippers performing the literary equivalent of animal sacrifice on EE's lawn might lower property values.

Sorry, I being naughty. To Julie, With all my love (non-sexual that is)."

It's ok. I didn't hear what you said. I'm, you know, wilted.

The neighbors would probably envy EE. I could entertain them with origami made from the slush pile. Even better, I could set up a Texas Lemonade stand. Everclear and lemonade. They really wouldn't care what was going on.

writtenwyrdd said...

Reb, Just my opinion but I don't think it's needful to prove you know the subject for a fiction novel. We are supposed to be able to research and write without having lived it, and we aren't writing memoirs. If it mattered about real life experience, then me writing a male protagonist might be called into question because I don't pee standing up. So don't drive yourself crazy on that particular point when there are plenty more! :)

Seems like the main point of the novel is a bunch of prisoners end up on Planet X. I'd start there and get the main conflict and the main people involved in the first paragraph.

I think this is a skill that you get the hang of after a few tries. Not as simple as it looks.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Battlefield Earth (as if that makes a difference)

Anyway - you have an MC, tell his story with the query. Enough to hook the agent/editor to want to read the pages. Don't worry about other characters or trying to cover everything in your book. The main thing is to get your voice and your hook onto one page. And concentrating on the MC can help boil the story down without making it too general. Give us a feel for him and an idea of what he faces. You've got a good start going in these comments.

talpianna said...

Julie, moles dancing would attract people to your Texas Lemonade stand.

benwah said...

Reb,

Your story comes across much better when talking about it informally here as opposed to in your query. That's a common problem, I think. I'm much more interested in your story now that you've presented us with a main character.

W/r/t your experience as a prison volunteer giving you unique insights into constructing realistic characters, I think it is enough to say simply that you have years of such experience. Let the reader make the inference that your background will influence your work.

I think you've really got something here. Best of luck.

Oh, and Xenith...sorry for impugning your ancestors.

Robin S. said...

My guess is everyone's ancestors are impugnable.

My daughter's paternal ancestors fled the state of Georgis and moved into Texas in the 1800's, and changed the spelling of their last name (who would have thought simply inserting one letter woulda taken the Smokies off a person's trail/tail, but what the hell) because they were horse thieves on the run.

It's all good.

fairyhedgehog said...

"So goes my dream of kneeling on that inlay, caressing the wood."

Tries not to catch Robin's eye.

Reb said...

xenith, you've gone right to the heart of my dilemma. The line in my query where I admitted I couldn't write a good query letter is because I know I haven't been able to write a creditable brief one. There are just too many preconceptions I have to overcome.

It is not false modesty to say, with my English teacher wife's help, I'm a good journeyman writer, but I know that's all I am. I have an occasional good line, but Bartleby won't have to add a new chapter for anything I write. The writing flows, but it is the story that keeps the reader's interest. Hmm, okay, I confess that every few thousand words I'll let my vocabulary slip by using a word like chancre or ensorcelled

However when average reader hears I have a "book about prisoners on a virgin planet" they form a very different image than what I've produced. Yes, there is a big fight scene at the start, but even that is more about showing character growth than fighting.

Then there's the image of a prison chaplain. The only one's I've ever seen are shown as giving last rites to the condemned on their way to the chair. The ones I know are tough minded men who know that they aren't working with choirboys. They also know that they are the closest thing to a sympathetic voice a prisoner will hear. In the first year or so, you learn that even the "good inmates" are lying manipulators. I've heard the intimate details of the lives of hundreds of inmates, I've only heard two who claim to be innocent. One was a very wealthy CEO who murdered his wife, but tried to blame it on his mistress... all while serving as a pillar of his church. The other is a pastor convicted of child molestation. I actually look forward to seeing both men... as long as they're kept in prison!

Sorry, my point is that given time I know I can show that I really have written a very different book and that my characters while real, are very different. Given a few attempts, I can convince most folks that I have a book worth reading. I also know that my first ten pages aren't going wow anyone. I don't want them to. I want them to see a rather staid view of prison. I need to establish my credentials and to set a contrast of confinement to the freedom of the rest of the book. I can't show redemption and growth without showing where the characters start from. I just haven't figured out how to do all that agents are asking in a single page.
Hmm, how about this:

Hi, I've been a volunteer prison chaplain for the last thirteen years and I've written a very good book about a tiny group of maximum security prisoner trying to survive on a clone of Earth just after our last ice age. (whoo, pause for breath) However, the mysterious world isn't this virgin planet, but the world where over a million men and women live, our prisons.

The characters are murders, rapist, drug dealers and gang leaders, but trust me, you'll love them when you get to know them. Now, this might not sound like a great book, but if you'll just give me a half-dozen attempts, I'll convince you. ;-)

Reb said...

writtenwyrdd said...
Reb, Just my opinion but I don't think it's needful to prove you know the subject for a fiction novel.

I've been amazed at the willingness of world renowned experts to share their knowledge with a wannabe writer. One man, an expert in wind power, needed a whole paragraph just to list his degrees. He convinced me that solar power is worthless. It takes more energy to produce and safely dispose of solar panels than they will ever produce.

Of course another man who needed a whole can of alphabet soup for his degrees and honors convinced they the first man didn't know what he was talking about. When I mentioned this to the first man, I got lost in his first equation!

Yes, if we have the background we can research almost anything. I'm not sure that applied to people. I'll give you an example from my book... loosely based on a true story. A man has a contract with a prostitute, and she... hmmm no, it took a whole chapter to tell that story. The point is that even some of my feminist friends agreed that this specific episode of forced sex wasn't rape. It was a crime, but not rape. However, several chapters later when the man dies, I try to show that he had managed to scam everyone. (that part needs work because most of the same feminist didn't pick up on the fact that it WAS rape.) It is very hard for someone with morals and standards to understand those that don't. I don't just mean sociopaths, a nearly useless label, but men and women who fully understand the effect of their actions on other and... the reactions are... different.

I tell every good of new volunteers that if they work in prison long enough they will be scammed. There are men who will spend years setting up and executing a scam. In many cases they might even know that the scam will work against their long term interest. They don't care, for them the most important element is the knowledge that they "won."

Perhaps others can learn to understand these sorts of people from research, but I've done a lot of reading on the topic and I know I that much of what I read doesn’t agree with what I've learned. first hand.

Bottom line, I agree, research is sufficient if you are going to go with "what everyone knows." However, if you are going to try to run against popular knowledge you need some "bonifides."

Reb said...

benwah said...

Oops! I replied to xenith instead of benwah. Sorry

Dave F. said...

Of your paragrpah or two in the response, this might be good as a start to the query letter:

A tiny group of maximum security prisoners trying to survive on a clone of Earth just after our last ice age. However, the mysterious world isn't this virgin planet, but the world where over a million men and women live, our prisons.
The characters are murders, rapist, drug dealers and gang leaders,


I would make it read:
A group of men abandoned to a violent world far from civilization. They might as well be colonists an alien planet but they aren't. They are the murders, rapists, drug dealers and gang leaders imprisoned in the Sequin Maximum Security prison in Texas.

Prisoner Alpha must adjust... etc...


I gather that the prison as prehistoric world is one of your big metaphors in the novel. However, you need a character for the reader to care about. This is the reason they will read the book. So it's either one of the prisoners or the entire prison system itself.

I think more than the alien world metaphor, you might think about the "Birdman of Alcatraz" as a model story for a description - Perhaps "Murder In The First" from 1995 (Although this isn't a novel) which is gritty.

Reb said...

Dave F. said...

I gather that the prison as prehistoric world is one of your big metaphors in the novel.

Gulp! Yeah, there are a few other metaphors in the book too, but they're not supposed to get in the way of a good fast read. Who, besides us scribblers and English majors wants to read a complicated book by a no one?

Then there's my hero... Just between us chickens, the alpha hero is what those of us who work with prisoner long to see. Someone who changed into someone we can admire. We all know that in a maximum security prison, about 30% of those released ARE new men, the rest we get to see again. We just don't know who the real good guys are. I'll never forget the man who, shortly before he was to be released, jacked (stole) half a can of sugar right in front of me. When he remembered I was a "freeworlder" he just grinned and held a finger to his lips for silence. He is now in his sixth year of a successful street ministry. He's not making any money, but he's helping a lot of people. I never would have guessed.

My hero is a man who was ruined by our prison system but who has made to decision to become a new man. A small part of the story is that no matter how sincere, no man can leave all his baggage behind.

Now, doesn't that sound like an easy character to sell in a portion of a paragraph?

I loved your paragraph and I'll probably steal part of it.

Reb said...

Sigh, now it is official, I just got a "Sorry, but this isn't right for my list" note from the agent to whom I sent the query discussed here. At least she requested pages and sent a personal reply and didn't wait a month to do it.

Now, I'll hunt for another candidate and try something else.

Dave F. said...

You say such nice things in those long comments. Think about how you can use them in the query:

This: My hero is a man who was ruined by our prison system but who has made to decision to become a new man. A small part of the story is that no matter how sincere, no man can leave all his baggage behind.

Can be this line in a query and present the character involvement. You have to fix this up, of course.
John Smith, driven to murder, sodomy and drug abuse by prison, decides to become a new man*. But, no matter how sincere, no man can leave all his baggage* behind.

*cliche alert (not necessarily bad, just cautionary)

Anonymous said...

can NOT get past your contention that some feminists thought any act of "forced sex" was not rape.

Defintion of rape: any act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person.

as a survivor, would say as politely as possible, tread carefully.

Reb said...

Annon said: Tread carefully..

I actually went to a survivor site to discuss this issue. It took a full chapter to set this up and believe me I do tread carefully. I really can't summarize it because like much of my book preconceptions get in the way.

Despite "what everyone knows about 'Bubba'", most inmates don't face rape, but it is one reason that hard core rapist need protective custody.

I know a number of serial murders, but the scariest men I know are serial rapist.

Reb said...

Annon said: Tread carefully..

Response II

Please understand that I'm trying to condense a chapter to a paragraph, but ultimately the convict was able to convince everyone including the woman that not only didn't he intend to force anything, he didn't actually want sex. Instead he was looking for human comfort because he was knowingly sacrificing his life for the woman. He managed to convince everyone that he was too dumb to have done what he was accused of doing.

The hard part for me is after making all this convincing, I want to show that he wasn't what he presented. As one who has been burned so many times by people I thought I knew well, I think it's important to know just how clever/evil some can be. I hope this helps you understand.

I've been excused from several juries because of my volunteer work... always by the defense attorneys.

stick and move said...

Talk about coming in late to the party... Oh well, Reb, if you're still reading these comments:

Someone else noted that your first explanation of the story told more than the query. It did. It sounded a lot more like a query than your letter did. Start with that, take some of the advice here about details, and drop Mr. Bean from the query and you've got it. You're not that far away.

Always remember the main purpose of the query: to get them reading the pages. That's it. Two sentences on genre and word count and then the hook. If they pick up the first five pages that you've conveniently provided, the query did it's job.

Good luck with it.

Xenith said...

Now that you've unconfused me...

In my opinion, when it comes to commercial fiction, servicable prose + good storytelling is what you want. If you look at most popular authors, that's what you'll find. Servicable prose doesn't draw attention to itself but acts as the vehicle for the good story telling, and it's the story telling that brings readers back. (Now, some of them have good prose AND good storytelling but I do think they're the minority.)

Xenith said...

This post has a lot of comments.

I have been thinking about the idea of research vs pratical experience.

I'm reminded of a book I read late last year, a sequel to a very popular fantasy novel, where the main characters spend half the book at sea, on a sailing ship. The problem is, this part doesn't ring true. (And there is a note by the author in the back of the book apologising for this.).

Now, I don't have much experience with tall ships myself, about 6 months hands on and too many reference books, but that's enough for me to wonder why anyone would try to write about them with no experience. Some authors are able to create that ring of truth with mostly book learning. (Sometimes because the writers knows just a bit more than the typical reader, which is sufficient to get away with {g}.) I reckon real life experience is the best way to add verisimilitude, assuming you have the skills to make use of it, instead of falling back on cliches.

For that matter, visiting, doing, touching, seeing the real thing is always better than just reading books.

And on that subject, I could have done with some feedback from you Reb for my current WIP.

150 said...

Make the title "Freeworlders." Seriously.

Reb said...

Frankly, I'm not qualified to comment on query letters. However, I'm alway happy to give my never humble opinion about someone else's work

I do have to warn you that I try to be as frank as I want my beta readers to be. I never find things like, "great, I couldn't stop reading" helpful.

Julie Weathers said...

"So goes my dream of kneeling on that inlay, caressing the wood."

Tries not to catch Robin's eye.

Sheesh, can you tell how boring my life is? I didn't even think about that.

Tal, I don't know about EE's neighbors, but I would love to see dancing moles.

Reb said...

150 said:

I do like your idea for the title, it has depth. Ultimately, I'll let the publisher pick one.

Robin S. said...

I just read through this. 73 comments. All of 'em. And I stand by my initial comment, and add this one in...if anyone is gonna be seeing that inlay, I plan on it being me.

(I haven't decided on that kneeling part yet.)

Julie Weathers said...

and add this one in...if anyone is gonna be seeing that inlay, I plan on it being me.

Pfffft.

(I haven't decided on that kneeling part yet.)

The only way you can properly caress it is by kneeling. Unless you have very tactile toes, of course.

batgirl said...

A bit late and a minor point, but the term 'clone of our Earth' bothers me. Clone does have a specific meaning, and I'm fairly sure inorganic things (rocks, magma) don't clone that well.
What about that old standy 'alternate Earth'?
-Barbara

Reb said...

batgirl said...
A bit late and a minor point, but the term 'clone of our Earth' bothers me. Clone does have a specific meaning, and I'm fairly sure inorganic things (rocks, magma) don't clone that well.
What about that old standy 'alternate Earth'?

It isn't an alternate Earth... which also has special meaning in Sci-Fi... but a perhaps a 100% Earth Normal planet. The make up of the land masses are different but the precentage of land to wanter gravity and everything else is the same as Earth.

They quickly realize that they they are millions of light years from Earth, but the planet is normal. So, you're right, I shouldn't say clone... but I'll have to think of a new word.