Sunday, January 25, 2009

#97-revision

Revision:

Dear Query Shark:

Good Mother Lizard, a literary coming-of-age novel set in the late 1970’s in New York and Montana, centers on Phoebe Gray, an imaginative paleontology student, who wants nothing more than to be a scientist, like her grandmother. She chose science over art, despite her mother’s artistic influence, not realizing that what she picked up from her mother, the painter, has made her an exceptionally observant scientist. Phoebe is socially awkward, more comfortable with nature than people, relating to the natural world in an intensely personal way. She is strong, quirky, and combines the two streaks of mothering influences, science and art, in her experience of the world. Securely on the path to academic success, Phoebe is almost derailed by her relationship with a once-brilliant professor, Elliott Brown.


This is a HUGE block of text on the screen if you're querying by email. Don't do this. Email queries need LOTS of white space, even if you end up breaking paragraphs.

Here's how it should look:


Good Mother Lizard, a literary coming-of-age novel set in the late 1970’s in New York and Montana, centers on Phoebe Gray, an imaginative paleontology student, who wants nothing more than to be a scientist, like her grandmother.

She chose science over art, despite her mother’s artistic influence, not realizing that what she picked up from her mother, the painter, has made her an exceptionally observant scientist.

Phoebe is socially awkward, more comfortable with nature than people, relating to the natural world in an intensely personal way. She is strong, quirky, and combines the two streaks of mothering influences, science and art, in her experience of the world.

Securely on the path to academic success, Phoebe is almost derailed by her relationship with a once-brilliant professor, Elliott Brown.

And here's some further paring suggestions:

Good Mother Lizard, a literary coming-of-age novel set in the late 1970’s in New York and Montana, centers on Phoebe Gray, an imaginative paleontology student, who wants nothing more than to be a scientist, like her grandmother.

She chose science over art, despite her mother’s artistic influence, not realizing that what she picked up from her mother, the painter, has made her an exceptionally observant scientist.


Phoebe is socially awkward, more comfortable with nature than people, relating to the natural world in an intensely personal way. She is strong, quirky, and combines the two streaks of mothering influences, science and art, in her experience of the world.


You don't need all this description. Get to the story!

Securely on the path to academic success, Phoebe is almost derailed by her relationship with a once-brilliant professor, Elliott Brown.




Professor Brown, in decline and under academic pressure to discover and publish or lose his job, seduces Phoebe, seeing in her the imaginative thinking he desperately needs. Over their eight-month affair, he proceeds to not only sabotage her work, but use her ruminations to enhance his lectures and research. Phoebe is slow to challenge Brown, but when he humiliates her in public by accusing her of “thinking with her ovaries,” it’s the last straw and she kicks him out.

You'll need a bit more in that paragraph after I've pared out most of it, but do you see my point here? Focus on ACTION, not description.

Also, I know you've described the professor as once-brilliant, but his actions here are those of an idiot. If he needs her work, why would he purposely alienate her? Stupid and self-defeating characters are boring, and worse, they're uninteresting as villains.

Four months later, needing to move forward in her field, Phoebe is convinced by Brown to go with a crew of students on his annual dig in Montana. Using her unique way of seeing, part scientist, part artist, Phoebe makes the discovery that will save Brown’s career: dinosaur eggshells, juvenile bones and what will become Maisaurus or “good mother lizard.” (Note: this is a composite of actual discoveries made in Montana during that time.) (excellent info to include in the query!) Brown tries to take credit for the find, but when Phoebe refuses he rapes her in her tent, flaunting his power, frightening her. Traumatized, Phoebe must reach out to people for help, instead of retreating to nature, and when she does she finds not only justice, but friendship and love.

and again with the big ass chunk of text.


I am a graduate of (redacted)

Good Mother Lizard is complete at 85,000 words. Please let me know if you would like to review the complete manuscript.


Aside from the formatting problems and the over abundance of description, the problem here is that you're describing a coming of age story that's been told before. A lot. The academic setting is almost a cliche for this kind of problem. Your challenge here is to take an old trope and liven it up. You might start by making the professor more than a one-dimensional cipher for misogyny.






----------------------------


ORIGINAL
Fulton Street
San Francisco, CA 94118

January 26, 2009

Literary Agent
Literary Agency
New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco


Dear Query Shark:


In Good Mother Lizard, Phoebe Gray, a gifted and socially awkward paleontology student, almost six feet tall with unruly red hair and poor posture, attracts a seducer, Professor Elliott Brown.

Is what she looks like the most important thing to know about her? That she's socially awkward?

Middle-aged, in decline and under academic pressure, Brown sees in Phoebe the imaginative thinking he desperately needs in order to make brilliant discoveries in the field and keep his job.

aha. He wants to steal her work. This is more interesting now.

Phoebe wants nothing more than to be a scientist, like her grandmother, and to placate her temperamental mother, the artist. She falls in love with dogwood trees, cardinals, and bird wing fossils, changes her sleeping habits to coincide with the rising and setting sun, sees the world as a wonderland of past and present natural history in colors she memorized as a child from her mother’s palette. But she is na├»ve about relationships and blind to what is unique about herself as a woman.

What is unique? Not the unruly red hair I bet.


Jolted out of her dreamy world of prehistoric visions by Brown’s exploitative affair, her mother’s diagnosis of terminal illness, her grandmother’s touching senility, and a crime committed against her on a Montana dig site, Phoebe learns quickly about the ways of the world.

whoa. You've wasted three paragraphs with red hair, dogwoods and sunsets. NOW you get to a crime? My guess is this might be more germane to the plot than say unruly red hair.

Using New York’s major art and science museums as touchstones, Phoebe finds her strength, makes the mega-discovery of the bones of a new mothering dinosaur, the good mother lizard, and meets new love in a Jewish-Japanese lawyer and Special Olympics coach.

The good mother lizard? Um, no no no. Dinosaurs are reptiles. I know this personally cause I'm old. Mother is a fairly distinctly mammalian concept.

OK-update. I'm wrong. Here's a book review in the New York Times about "good mother lizard"

I stand by my comment that good mother lizard is not familiar enough to slackers anyone reading the query letter to be the best choice for describing this.

Now, if you want to persuade me about lizards being good mothers, you're going to need more than three sentences in a query letter. This is one of those places where you'll be LESS specific. Normally I'm beating y'all over the head to be more specific but in this case you'll want to couch this as "amazing find" "new interpretation" "career saver" something other than a phrase like good mother lizard that makes me thinks "huh??"

I am a graduate of the (redacted), where I received the (redacted). An early version of the first chapter of Good Mother Lizard won a (redacted)

Good Mother Lizard is complete at 90,000 words. Please let me know if you would like the complete manuscript of my novel for review.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

you're awash in description and short on plot. The description isn't compelling enough to make me want to read something without a plot.

The book is probably a lot better than the query, but people won't get to the book if the query doesn't work.

Form rejection.

10 comments:

Miriam S.Forster said...

Good mother lizard threw me too, but primarily because of the Maiasaura, a dinosaur discovered in the seventies whose name means "good mother lizard".

If your character is claiming to discover a dinosaur already on record as discovered, that's a problem. Unless you make it an alternate-reality or set the story in the actual archeologist's dig or something.

http://hoopermuseum.earthsci.carleton.ca/maiasaur/mother_page_1.htm

Scattercat said...

Thank you! I could not for the life of me remember the name Maiasaurus, though I recognized the phrase. My elementary school identity of hardcore dinosaur-lover is a sham! I'll turn in my badge immediately.

Perhaps the story is meant to be set in the seventies, when the "Good Mother Lizard" was first discovered?

BuffySquirrel said...

The predatory professor is interesting, but there seems to be a lot of stuff happening without much direction to the plot.

I'm also blanking about what's "unique to her as a woman". I'm hoping this isn't a brilliant mind or something, cos, yanno....

Miriam S.Forster said...

I totally agree that "good mother lizard" in this context is very confusing, especially to people who have not recently read "Jurassic Park." :-)

And don't feel bad, Scattercat. I didn't remember the specific name either. I had to google it.

talpianna said...

I believe that alligators also care for their young after they are hatched.

Shreela said...

@Author

I hope you continue to work on this, because it sounds like it could be interesting, if the paleo stuff is dumbed down to non-paleo types (like me). I hope the social awkwardness makes intriguing social interactions like NCIS, Bones, House, and Monk -- my favorite awkward social shows.

dmciii said...

Ok am I confused or did I miss something. Theres alot here but I can't tell is good mother lizard a coming of age book for Phoebe gray. Or is it a romance, chick lit., mystery, thriller Im somehow missing if its the character's life that drives the plot or a mystery. I cant get a feel for it.

Also is it plot important that the love of her life is a jewish japanese lawyer special olympics coach. I mean there is book in this guy alone. but does all that really matter as concerns phoebe grey (could he just be a caucasian sewer repairman but a really nice guy who loves her)

BuffySquirrel said...

Crocodiles do. They go back to the nest once the babies are hatched, and "swallow" them into a special pouch in their mouths. It looks like they're eating them!

Beth said...

This book seems to have a lot of elements, but I can't tell what it's about. The focus in this letter is scattered.

alice said...

This is a small point, but one that bugs me. Why do so many heroines have unruly red hair, mad red hair or a mane of red hair? Why is it almost always men who write about these heroines, with a faintly sleazy undertone? It's become as much of a cliche as "burning passion".