Saturday, February 26, 2011

#197-Revised once

Dear Query Shark,

Neither of Susan’s parents were dentists, yet they molded their Southern belle to make a perfect impression. Translation……  (use a colon, not an ellipses here) she stifles raging hormones, marries within her class, pacifies her controlling manipulative hubby with Cordon Bleu dinners, and only needs the occasional dusting off as she emulates Jackie Kennedy.

Susan’s Stepford wife marriage goes to hell in a hand basket when she discovers her Rhett Butler spouse prefers Ashley Wilkes clad in leather Harley gear. She can’t run to Daddy; he’s bankrupted the family fortune and one phone call to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation from her vindictive husband will have Daddy wearing stripes.

Betrayal spreads Susan’s legs wide open as she steps down from her virtuous soapbox determined to put the ‘hell’ back in the ‘hath no fury.’ The former belle of the ball reinvents herself as the sultry redheaded Candice Collins, the in-house call girl occupying the penthouse suite at The Regal, a five star Manhattan landmark. Her alter-ego swells as her mattress grows lumpy with lavish tips for her Academy Award performances.

Candice opens her door to rock stars, politicians, CEO’s, athletes, leading men, and oh my God, a business associate of her conniving closet husband. Susan would have panicked and slammed the door, but Candice keeps her wits and turns discovery to her advantage. She’s tired of looking in the rear view mirror. Like any savvy woman, Candice has a few tricks up her sleeve. Only this time, she won’t be the one dropping to her knees.

VIRTUE is commercial fiction completed at 130,000 words.

There's no plot here.
I know you think there is, but what you're missing is what's at stake for Candice.

I know there's been a lot of talk lately about "likeable characters" and I come down solidly in the camp that chararactrs don't have to be likeable. They have to be interesting. 

What trips me up here is the assumption that Susan thinks the best option for revenge is becoming a call girl. 

This is the stuff of 70s Lifetime movies. It requires a suspension of disbelief that I just don't have. 


Dear Query Shark,

Sometimes between clients, Susan looks back on her life with a dazed bewilderment wondering what she could have done differently. How do you start out as a Georgia pedigreed peach and end up as one of Manhattan’s highest paid call girls?

Just lucky I guess.

Ok, no jokes (and that's an old one) but honestly this is so 70's Movie of the Week  I can't take it seriously.

She laughs at the irony of it all. All those years of charm school are finally paying off, she thinks. It really didn’t matter that Susan kept her reputation and knees unscathed, or that she married within her class. That WASPY white bread silver spooned world all goes to hell in a hand basket when the private investigator discovers that Susan’s southern gentleman of a husband is a controlling, powerful, and dangerous fraud.

We already know she's a call girl. This becomes backstory, not the start of the story. 

And you're using present tense even though you're talking about events that happen at two separate times: that's textbook confusing.

Susan tries to end the marriage with Jeff and he counters with a Sophie’s Choice ultimatum and swears to make her life a nightmarish hell if she were ever to leave him. In sheer panic, she changes her Grace Kelly spitting image identity and flees to Manhattan as the red headed Candice Collins with two thousand dollars and her wedding ring. (Surprise, surprise, even the diamond is filled with flaws.)

Sophie's Choice is about which of her children a desperate mother will save. Does Susan/Candace have children she's leaving behind? If so, do you expect us to sympathize with her? Very tricky to pull that off.

Freelance journalism just isn’t paying the rent and that is when Candice meets Mandy, the in-house call girl at one of Manhattan’s swanky five star hotels. Susan would never have given Mandy the time of day, but Candice accepts Mandy for who she is and they become friends. Mandy wants to retire after ten years in the oldest profession, and Candice reluctantly accepts and soon masters both the physical and psychological demands of prostitution with a colorful cast of clients.

And here's where you lose me. This is such a cliche I don't know where to start. I don't believe the premise. The characters are straight out of a B-movie.  I don't care about any of them. And just to make it a real non-starter, there's no plot.  You have description, you have set up, but you don't have choices or stakes.  (Choosing to become a whore isn't the plot as you describe it here-it's the start of the story)

Although Candice finds her new profession surprisingly satisfying and lucrative, she will never enjoy tranquility; she knows all too well Jeff’s insatiable thirst for revenge. It’s not a question of will he find Susan, but rather when. Readers will be licking their fingers turning the pages cheering her on as she outsmarts her conniving husband and transforms from Susan, a soft crumbly biscuit, to Candice, a toasted everything bagel.

Yea, being a whore is satisfying and lucrative. I simply don't believe that, and there's nothing here that gets me to suspend my disbelief. 

Never EVER use the phrase "readers will" and tell me how readers will respond. It's telling not showing. I don't believe you of course, and when you write that in a query letter it's as if you're standing in front of the mirror in the ladies room and when I come in you tell me how beautiful you are.  I'm pretty sure you'd never do that. Don't do it here either.

VIRTUE is commercial fiction completed with 150,000 delicious words.

Words aren't delicious. Stories are.

Thank you for your time,

No plot. Cliche set up.
Form rejection.


Vivian said...

Isn't 150,000 words a bit long for commercial fiction, aside from the other issues?

A3Writer said...

Not only is there no plot, Susan/Candice is quite the Mary Sue as "a Georgia pedigreed peach" that is "one of Manhattan's highest paid call girls" who "soon masters both the physical and psychological demands of prostitution" and "finds her new profession surprisingly satisfying and lucrative". Finally, she will "outsmarts her conniving husband and transforms from Susan, a soft crumbly biscuit, to Candice, a toasted everything bagel." And I don't even know what that last bit about the bagel means.

The shark is right that these are B movie characters, and I don't care about what happens to any of them. Characters need to have flaws, and I can't imagine that prostitution would be physically or psychologically easier than journalism--though the fields are likely to be related (okay, so that's a dig at my brother who's in journalism).

Start over with your characters, and find a plot.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Wow, that's long for commercial fiction. Isn't 150K something like 600 pages?

If I want to spend that long on a hooker-makes-good story, I'll watch Pretty Woman.

You're not going to like this, but you've got something that reeks of an author self-insert character. "waspy, white bread, silver spoon", "Grace Kelly spitting image", "master" of her new profession right off the bat... she's too perfect. All of the "flaws" you think you've created are coming off as superficial.

"Colorful cast of clients" isn't just a cliche, it's insulting. You set this girl up as someone who becomes a prostitute out of desperation, but then end it like a fluff piece. Those two don't mesh.

Anonymous said...

Your opening suggests Susan has fallen to the status of call girl ("dazed bewilderment"), while the rest of the query tells me she has climbed to it.

As I understand it, the triggering incident, which should come early in the story, is Susan's escape from her marriage to an abusive fraud. Afterward comes the challenge of surviving and staying one jump ahead of her husband, which she manages by becoming a high-class call girl. Presumably, she outsmarts him in some decisive way in the end -- I'm guessing she sets him up for a sting and waltzes off rich. Your meanderings between tenses don't make it easy.

It's almost a lost cause, but the expectorating twin is a misspelling of "spit and image" or "spitten image."

Joel Brown said...

Have you seen “Hung” on Showtime? It’s the new version of this story. It’s an out-of-work man, an inept pimp, difficult teen children. Watch it.

And if it’s too uncomfortable, ask yourself why? Your character will endure attempted rape, beatings, brutality and vulgarity. Where does she live? Imagine your walk-in closet with a toilet. She has to change before she can get on the subway. She has a bag filled with moist-toilettes, pepper spray, and a cell phone with one and only one number: the answering service. Does she have to clean the hotel room herself or risk the maid’s ratting her out? Does she give them $10? Does she use the club soda and vodka from the mini-bar to get semen stains out of her dress? And if she calls home for Christmas to find her mother has cancer? If there’s a lump in *her* breast? Where does she go?

Perhaps that’s your angle. She’s a surrogate. Men unpin her wig and run their hands across her downy scalp, don’t dare kiss the chemo tattoo but simply breathe against it, exhaling warmth onto her skin, their hands trembling against her the way they did 20 years ago. She takes the men and tells them what hurts and why and what they can do, and what they can’t do. And who is her pimp? Her doctor? Does she decide to get better? Or does she decide that she will die, if not loved then at least needed? And what if it’s not breast cancer (which is more common), but lung cancer (which kills more)? Then she is just a cancer victim, but not a marketable one.

Show not tell. Conflict and choices.

The critical thing is I’ve re-invented it. Just like #196. Get beyond the cliché.

Adam Heine said...

The last bit makes it sound like prostitution would be awesome if it weren't for that vengeful husband who's probably still after her. It almost glorifies the profession, and although it's only my opinion, that made me upset.

Theresa Milstein said...

This is another query that reads more like a synopsis. There's no way it's under 300 words.

I agree with A3Writer that I don't care what happens to any of the characters. Perhaps if we really understood the horror of what she was running away from and her desperation, there could be some appeal.

There are some odd phrases here. Instead of trying to be clever and using "Sophie's Choice" of all comparisons, give more about the woman and the hard choices she has to make. If this woman doesn't have to choose which child she must let die and which child she must save, don't use the comparison. It trivializes a horrible scenario.

And 150k seems long. Perhaps some editing is in order, just like with this query. Good luck with the rewrite.

Christine Tripp said...

>soon masters both the physical and psychological demands of prostitution with a colorful cast of clients. <

I'm sure it was pointed out in a past query where the phrase, "colorful cast of characters/clients" did not suit the serious nature of the manuscript. This line, for me, conquers up a comedy. I can imagine Johns being violent, kinky, weird, disgusting, perverted but "colorful"? nope.
I don't think I could like "Susan" and I need to feel some connection with the main character in a novel. I just don't see many readers being able to bond with a woman who finds the oldest profession even somewhat "satisfying".

and, though it was stroked out by QS, the "licking their fingers" to turn the pages and the "delicious" reference, given the content of the story... best I not go there.

Eric said...

"Although Candice finds her new profession surprisingly satisfying and lucrative...."

Because getting raped two dozen times per night is soooooo glamorous.

Sorry, but your worldview is astoundingly naive. Please do some reading on real-life prostitution before writing about it.

Also, no offense but I'm with those who suspect that Susan's first name might be Mary. "Her Grace Kelly spitting image identity"? But somehow the only job she can get is as a hooker? Seriously?

Karen said...

It's not just the set-up. The actual language here is too cliche-ridden.

Here's the first paragraph with the cliches removed:

Sometimes between clients, Susan ...with a dazed bewilderment... How do you start out as a Georgia pedigreed...?

second paragraph:

Susan... knees unscathed... when the private investigator discovers that Susan’s ...husband is a... dangerous fraud.

third paragraph:

Susan tries to end the marriage with Jeff and he counters with a Sophie’s Choice ultimatum and swears ...if she were ever to leave him. ...she changes her Grace Kelly ...identity and flees to Manhattan as the red headed Candice Collins with two thousand dollars and her wedding ring. (Surprise, surprise, even the diamond is filled with flaws.)

Fourth paragraph:

Freelance journalism... and that is when Candice meets Mandy, the in-house call girl at .... Susan... but Candice... and they become friends. Mandy wants to retire after ten years... and Candice... and soon masters both the physical and psychological demands of prostitution....

fifth paragraph:

Although Candice finds her new profession ...and lucrative, she ... she knows...

A cliche here and there is okay, but you don't want to find yourself writing in cliches. I'd go through those 150,000 delicious words with an eagle eye if I were you, root them out, avoid them like the plague, deep six them, etc.

Irene Troy said...

More years ago than I care to count, my creative writing professor gave us some excellent advice: if you want to write, the first step is to read – a lot. Obviously, this advice was not original, but it was and is important. This query is a prime example of the value of the “write-read” equation. As presented in the query, the theme of this story is one large cliché. Young woman moves to the big city in hopes of finding release from a troubled life. Instead, she finds life tougher in the city than back home. This “innocent” woman becomes tough and strong, meets a prostitute and decides to follow a similar career path. To add interest to this hackneyed tale, the ex-husband is still seeking revenge. YAWN.

It’s entirely possible the complete novel offers a well-written and unique plot and engaging characters. The problem is that the query gives us no clue of anything other than the clichés in the work.

Lady Epsilon said...

Actually, the thing that threw me the most was her first attempt at a career. Freelance journalism? Really? That's the only thing she tried before turning to prostitution? Not working in a coffee shop or a bookstore or in retail? Waitress? No?

Because those jobs are pretty easy to get if you're a white Grace Kelly lookalike with the english skills required to write newspaper articles.

The people who truly can't make ends meet in the big city are they ones with significant employment barriers. They're recent immigrants who don't speak the language, people with mental health issues, people with physical or learning disabilities.

Being stalked by an ex is a very real and terrifying problem facing a lot of women. The rest, however, is coming across as a bit silly.

Nick said...

I couldn't help but see some pulp potential while reading this.

As the Shark noted, right now the query makes the plot sounds like a movie of the week. My suggestion? Take the sex, "Jeff's insatiable thirst for revenge" and Susan's resemblance to Grace Kelly... then turn everything up to 11 - Foxy Brown or Switchblade Sisters style.

(See below)

Susan's WASPY southern world goes to hell in a hand basket when she discovers her Rhett Butler has all the charm of a greasy car salesman and the dirty bank account to match.

But when she tries to leave him, hubby responds with a brutal ultimatum: honor her vows or the kids get .22 caliber kisses goodnight.

Some would get the cops - Susan prefers revenge.

Determined to put the "hell" back in "hath no fury," the former belle of the ball reinvents herself as the sultry Candice Collins, call girl to the stars.

Given her deadbeat ex's penchant for all things redheaded, it's only a matter of time before Candice gets him right where she wants him: on the business end of a loaded .45.

There's just one problem.

With each passing client Susan finds herself more and more attached to the sex, glitz and piles of cash that are her alter ego's stock-in-trade.

Even if she nails her scumbag ex to the wall, the seamier side of life threatens to swallow her whole.

(You get the idea)

Obviously a change of this magnitude would require a bit of "re-imagining" on your part but I think (hope?) it illustrates what you can do with criticism of cliche` just by jazzing up the voice.

Finally, Sophie's Choice is about a woman who a Nazi officer makes choose between her son and daughter.

Even if Jeff is threatening the kids' lives, comparing your plot to Sophie's Choice is like describing an action movie with the phrase "...bodies haven't stacked up this fast since Schindler's List."'s just not something you want to be doing.

Hope you find this helpful and good luck with your revisions!

Stephanie Barr said...

Ignoring, for the moment, the wall to wall cliches (already noted by others), the frequent allusions (that don't seem to work), and the cheery tone one wouldn't normally associate with a novel focused on prostitution, what about this book is supposed to appeal? What audience will appreciate it?

If you're aiming for women, I can't see a story that shows prostitution as the career of choice being effective. If it's men, well, I don't see it either.

What about this character could make a trip through the seamy world of sex-for-hire appealing? I can't readily imagine it, but whatever it might be, it needs to be here in the query.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Okay, speaking as one of your target market, I personally would dislike intensely reading an entire novel in which the female protagonist is a sex worker. It didn't work for me in "Pretty Woman" or "Strip Tease" either, so please don't be offended when I say that I could live with Susan/Candice sinking to any other level -- secret shopper, permanent temp/"job hopper," or, heaven forbid, even the cliched position of everyone's favorite diner waitress.

A plot such as this one *might* work if it were written in a bleak, edgy style -- sort of like "Precious" in retrograde inversion. Nick had the awesome idea of making it nice and pulpy (BTW, loved your comment, Nick), although this might require a total revision of style. But, I surmise from the tone of your query that the m.s. has a humorous/romantic element, yes? A million mea culpas, but a woman flogging her flesh isn't entertaining to me, and I'm your desired demographic, straight up. Depressing? Oh, yes. Indeed just that ...

P.S. Am a freelance writer, and I would write ad copy for terrible celebrity perfumes -- and actually have -- before I'd resort to prostitution. (Although some writers might argue that it's essentially just as bad.)

Jo-Ann said...

Hi Author -
Skin thickening yet?

Your query comes across having elements of both "Secret diary of a Call Girl" and "First Wives' Club". Sure, both have their flaws, but they sold well. The former had a strong voice; the latter, enough plot turns to conceal the fact that it was crap.

What does your's offer to make the query stand out? You stuck with it for 150,000 words, you must have liked it - show us its merits. I want to know more about how she stings the ex-... revenge always makes satisfying reading.

BTW- Candice and Mandy are very close to Candy and Mandy - makes them sound like a double act - did you intend this?

Unknown said...

Nick - That was brilliant! I was smiling the whole way through! You're on to something there.

And I think people may be getting a little too hung up on the rape thing. She's a high-class call girl, not a crack whore, and apparently a lot of professional women do it to turn a buck (if Betina from Play School can be believed - check out the book "There's a Bear in There (And he wants a Sweedish)" by Merridy Eastman).

But otherwise I can't help but agree. The Sophie's Choice comparison made me wonder about her children, but then she blithely packs up and goes off on a "satisfying" career of prositution. Did she just leave them behind? With a vengeful husband?? Really? I think it would have even had more of a hook if she had taken the kids and run, becoming a prostitute to keep them all fed, clothed and housed, while trying to keep her children from knowing what her job is.

At the end of the day, you've already got so much information to sort through here - and I think that even if you don't agree with it all, using some of it will make your book a whole lot stronger. Good luck with your rewrite!

Kim Kouski said...

I have to agree with the above posters. Why in the world would you even think prostitution is so wonderful? I suggest you take $50 and buy a prostitute's time. Ask her questions about her profession. I don't think she'll say, hey, this is wonderful. Everyone should do it. This query makes my skin crawl. Also what is the story ABOUT?

Unknown said...

a toasted everything bagel? (because nothing says, self-reliant badass, like multiple seasonings on one doughy surface) how many more of this sort of half-baked, flimsy metaphors and similes can we expect to find in the novel itself?

Also, when a pitch describes the central action with verbs that are actually non-actions, "she wonders how she got where she is today."or "she thinks about all the mistakes she made in her life" or "She laughs at the irony of it all." Much of the momentum is sucked out of the story. The 250 word limit should be restricting enough that you should only have room to discuss the central action(s). If in a page long query you have time to go into the inner musings and wondering s of the protagonist, it's a huge red flag.

Anonymous said...

I'm reluctant to comment on the plot of a novel I haven't read (and this is supposed to be a blog about queries anyway -- and I'm not the Query Shark, providing an agent's reaction), although I recognize the temptation... especially when the writer does not seem to have done her research.

The 150,000 words thing is a clue -- from everything I've read, no one will touch a novel that long, at least from an unknown.

On the other hand, that suggests plenty of room for revision ;-)

Starting with the query -- I wonder if it's possible to turn the query on its head, and provide an entirely different, and more engaging vision of the novel?

Because clearly something motivated the writer to turn out that many words.

It wouldn't be the first hackneyed novel to become a bestseller, you know.

smcc said...

I wanna read the Nick Lewandowski book! And watch the movie Quentin Tarantino could make out of it.

Author of Virtue, the good news is you can clearly string
two sentences together, which I think is the high hurdle. The plot sounds like something I'd find while rooting through the bookshelves on a long rainy day at my grandmother's house. I think you could execute a more modern concept quite well.

jesse said...

Having never met a prostitute, to my knowledge, I can't say for sure that it isn't a lucrative and fancy free lifestyle. In fact, I can imagine that under the right set of circumstances it is a possibility. However, there are two problems with that. First and foremost, stasis is boring. You have enough going on in the plot for me to look past this, but, and this is a big but, it still seems hard to swallow (no pun intended). I did have the, pleasure, of going to school with a few strippers. Let's just say there's a reason that "bad things happen to them," has become a cliche. Trouble seems an unavoidable part of the lifestyle. Even if that weren't the case, readers tend to look for that in a morality tale sort of way...

John Jack said...

A Hobson's choice I would say. Allegorical allusions are even more problematic than metaphors and idioms though, from being more obscure.

flibgibbet said...

Dear author:

I can see this set-up working as a formula, fantasy, erotic romance---as long as you get real about the genre and query only those specific agents who handle this type of romance.

Citing Sophie's Choice couldn't be more inappropriate.

As far as the plot, in this genre, you probably don't need an absolutely believable one, but the query still needs to tell us what the MC actually wants, what stands in her way, and how she plans to go about getting it.

As written, it's hard to tell who the antagonist is. The a-hole husband, or or the MC who enjoys her new trade.

June said...

I laughed through all of this, but I snorted when I realized that going from a married woman to a whore was expressed metaphorically as a crumbly biscuit becoming a toasted everything bagel.

At least the writer got the 'everything' in there. God forbid it be an onion or salt bagel.

JS said...

I've written both fiction and non-fiction about sex work. I have interviewed dozens of sex workers. Although it may be the best professional opportunity available for some people--including some otherwise privileged people--I have never once heard from a sex worker that it was a pathway to personal growth, and have indeed heard from several sex workers that Pretty Woman was a highly toxic fantasy they wish had never been created.

Your mileage may vary. Also, the "society woman on the run from ex-husband changes her identity" has been done much better in Elaine van Viets's "Dead-End Job" series. The protagonist has taken under-the-table jobs as a waitress, dog groomer, hotel maid, and so on. It's a good series because it strikes the right note between comedy and suspense, and because the dead-end jobs are portrayed realistically.

Mandy said...

Hey folks, maybe do some research before piling on the prostitutes? There aren't many ladies going for $50 these days--even clogged markets like New York are still around $150/hour and up for white girls. And the clients would have to be awfully fast to see "two dozen" in one night. Maybe you mean massage parlor girls? You know that's a different line of sex work, right? Because we're all thinkers here, not people who lump others we don't know all in together?

"Prostitutes" are no more in the same basket than "black people" or "writers". There's a lot of variety in who they are, what they do and how they do it.

Your repugnance at the subject matter - totally valid. Nobody has to love every subject, and this writer's take doesn't seem very well-thought-through. But please, if she was writing cliches about plumbers, you wouldn't be getting into how downtrodden and unfortunate and terrible a plumber's life is, you'd be criticizing the writing. You'd say, "do some research." You wouldn't assume that you, the non-plumbs, know all there is to know about the lives of plumbers, and then spout it out like gospel.

Finally, I've been raped, and I've been a prostitute, and I gotta say I can tell the difference, and so can the other women I know who also have had those two experiences. But you know, making that distinction 1) isn't really what this blog is about, and 2) requires research and choosing one's words carefully like, say, a writer would.

Best wishes.

Christine Tripp said...

The writer states this pro is a high priced call girl and YES there is a huge difference in payment. To pay for a hp ladies time to talk with her wouldn't be $50 but more like $500 an hour. The 50 gals are down on the sidewalks below the hotel rooms. I have no problem with reading about the profession however but with the concept that she finds the work satisfying. There have been tons of books and movies produced using a prostitute as the main character but the recurring theme is, while they may like the money (and couldn't make that much in any other line of work) they do not profess to enjoy the job.
That's where I can't connect with the character.

wizardonskis22 said...

Hi! I have no idea if this is a good story, but the query confuses me. Trim down all the excess (your 150,000 words might also be a bit long for the market), and it might be clearer. Try to sum it up into a sentence, then a paragraph, and then write the query. It might help.
Good luck!

Vivian said...

I'm going to agree with Draconium that while a protagonist might think about her past or laugh about the irony in the book, it doesn't belong in the query. The query should be about what happens in the story, not one character's musings on what happens in the story.

You know, ever since I read this, I've wanted to go into a public ladies room, stand in front of the mirror, wait for someone else to walk in and announce, "I'm so beautiful!" Just to see the look on their face, you know? LOL.

Jen McQuiston said...

I want to read Joel's chemo version of whore.... that sounds interesting!