Saturday, March 23, 2013

#241-revised 3x

Third revision

 Dear Query Shark

At fifteen, Vani is forcibly married to a gardener and becomes a servant in a British household. Her childhood dreams of becoming a teacher are shattered. Robbed of her innocence but not her optimism, Vani clings to her dreams as she aims to be her bigoted employer’s best cleaner by day and endures her husband's depravity by night.

Unless her husband's depravity is a major plot point, leave it out of the query, particularly in this first paragraph. Depravity is sort of a hot button word and you don't want agents thinking this a book about that if it isn't.


At sixteen, Vani is widowed. Her position is made tenuous by her employer, Mem Lynette. Returning to her parents an unimaginable option, Mem Lynette’s daughter and the long-serving Chinese servants rally to Vani’s side. Soon after, Vani is seduced by a new arrival, Mem Lynette’s nephew, Thomas. He captivates the spirited Vani with the flavours of an intoxicating city and vivid tales about his family. She falls in love with Thomas, who releases feelings in her she never knew existed. When he gives her his most prized possession before leaving abruptly for England, Vani is sure she will see him again. She begins night school, juggling homework with cleaning while she waits for him, oblivious to Mem Lynette’s suspicion and wrath. 

this is a list of events. There's almost no sense of verve or excitement here. 

At seventeen, Vani is a single mother. An impulsive move forces her into a desperate situation. As her employer’s family history begins to unravel, Vani must make the most important decision of her young life. Keeping her baby can only mean a precarious life ahead, tainted with condemnation and scandal. Giving her baby up for adoption means misery but also the life she always dreamed of and good prospects for her child. Dare Vani believe she can have both her baby and the dream life?

Set in the sixties, spanning the early years of Singapore’s path to independence, JACARANDA is women’s fiction, complete at 124,000 words.

This is my first novel. My memoir, Praying to the Goddess of Mercy, was published by Monsoon Books in late 2012.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


You can condense all this stuff about Vani to a couple sentences, focusing on where things change, and she has choices to make.  That will give you some room to expound upon what will make your novel stand out: time and setting.  You also need to ratchet up the language and zest here.  Right now this is a list of things that happen to Vani. There's no verve or style. There's no voice. That's absolute death in a novel, and pretty bad in a query.

Revise, resend.


Revision #2

At fifteen, Vani’s bright future is snuffed out when she is forcibly married. This unholy union takes her from her small Malayan town to Jacaranda, a British colonial home in Singapore. By day, Vani aims to be her employer’s best cleaner and by night, she keeps alive her childhood dreams of being a teacher while enduring her husband’s acts of depravity. She plans to run away before lunacy sets in, unless her husband kills her first.

Does she really have a bright future or is it just what she dreams for herself?

At sixteen, Vani is a merry widow***. She befriends the Chinese servants. Soon after, she is seduced by a new arrival – her employer’s nephew, John. Vani is introduced to the sights, sounds, flavours and wonders of an intoxicating city. She falls in love with John, who releases feelings in her she never knew existed. If her employer found out about this affair, Vani would be sent back to her parents, who would rather see her dead than their family name ruined. When John gives her his most prized possession before leaving abruptly, Vani is sure she will see him again. While waiting, Vani begins night-school, determined to be a teacher. She soon learns she is pregnant.

At seventeen, Vani is a single mother who vows to keep her daughter’s paternity secret. When her suspicious employer tricks Vani into giving her baby up for adoption, Vani is desperate. Keeping her baby can only mean a precarious life ahead, tainted with condemnation and scandal. Giving her baby up for adoption means misery but also the life she always dreamed of and good prospects for her child. Dare Vani believe she can have both her baby and the dream life?

 If you stop here, it entices someone to read on.

With help from a motley group, especially her employer’s daughter, the Chinese servants and a teacher at her night school, Vani chooses a path which pushes her limits of trust, patience and confidence. In her pursuit of an education and self-reliance, Vani learns she can have much more than she ever allowed herself to dream.

By eighteen, Vani is beginning to live the dream.

If you stop here, you give away the entire plot=not enticing.

Set in the sixties, spanning Singapore’s early years of independence, JACARANDA traces Vani’s spectacular transformation from country bumpkin to shining star in a richly textured story of friendship, loyalty and love in a fledgling multi-racial nation.

Again, you're giving away too much story here.

JACARANDA is women’s fiction, complete at 87,000 words.
 You still don't have enough words but this is a lot more hopeful than what you had before. I still think you need to clock in at 120k to have a fully furnished world built. Remember, the sights, smells and sounds of Singapore are essential here or you've just got a plain old romance novel.  (I've said this every single time you've revised, but I fear my words are falling on deaf ears!)

This is a LOT better format as well.

This is a workable query but I'm still worried that you don't have enough book yet.

***This is a clear misunderstanding of the vernacular. Merry Widow means a rich widow who is beset by suitors. Vani is a widow, but not a merry one. Relieved maybe.


Revision #1

Vani dreams of becoming an English teacher and marrying a kind man. Instead, she is forced into an avunculate marriage to an abusive uncle by her tradition-bound parents and becomes a live-in servant for a British family at Jacaranda, a magnificent colonial bungalow in Singapore.

This is all set up. You'll want the query to begin when Vani has to make a choice.  The way this is written there's no choice made, she simply obeys her parents even though she doesn't want to.

Vani is only fourteen. Bruised but not broken, she finds solace in the countless books at Jacaranda while her husband tends the garden. When a cobra kills him, Vani does not grieve; she flourishes. Soon, seduced by a new arrival - her employer’s freshly-graduated nephew, John - she experiences absolute delight for the first time. He creates a new world for her, one filled with love and secret rendezvous. Their blossoming relationship is disrupted when John is summoned home to attend to family matters. He gives Vani his prized possession, a first edition of Tagore’s Gitanjali, and promises to return soon.

And here's the problem: this is a series of events but there's no plot. Vani isn't making choices. She's just having experiences. That's what real life is but that's NOT what novels are.  Novels need a plot.

When Vani bears a light-skinned Eurasian girl and names her Gitanjali, her employer is suspicious and secretly plots to keep her unknowing nephew away from Singapore permanently. Meanwhile, with calls for Independence mounting and hopes for a reunion with John dimming, Vani plans her future while the Chinese live-in cook and his washer-woman wife help raise her child. She juggles work, motherhood and night classes in the hope of being a teacher, believing John would be proud of her.

Again, no plot. This is a recitation of events. There's no emotion here, no passion. I don't feel anything when I read this, and that is death in a query.

In the following years, chronic unemployment and a dire housing shortage rage outside, fuelling the servants’ fears of an unpredictable future without their British masters. Wanting the best for Gitanjali, Vani realizes their survival depends on unity with the Chinese servants. The spirited foursome, once cocooned in comfort and security at Jacaranda and still not ready for the freedom thrust upon them, rebuild their lives together with a mixture of anxiety and optimism in turbulent times.

JACARANDA weaves a story of loyalty and hope in a fledgling multi-ethnic nation ushering in new beginnings while struggling against all odds to become self-sufficient.

JACARANDA is women’s fiction, complete at 65,000 words.

And here's the second HUGE problem. You've described a book set in what would be an exotic, unfamiliar location for most US readers, set in a time most people are not familiar with, and spanning at least a dozen years. There's simply no way to do this in 65K words.  There just isn't. [And to make matters worse, this is 4k FEWER words than the 69K you had last time when I said pretty much the same thing--ARGH!!!]

You'll need at least twice this word count before I'd believe you'd gotten the story down on paper.

This is my first novel. My memoir,[title] was published by [publisher] late last year.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

No plot.

Short word count.

I'm thinking the problem here is not the query, it's the book. Don't revise the query. Revise the book then work on the query.


Original query

Dear QueryShark:

Vani is an avid reader whose favourite author is Jane Austen. She dreams of becoming a teacher and marrying a man like Mr. Darcy. Instead, she becomes a live-in servant for a British family at Jacaranda, a magnificent colonial bungalow in Singapore, after she is forcibly married to her abominable uncle according to an ancient South Indian tradition.

This is a nice set up. I wonder who forced her to marry her uncle: her parents or the social norms of her community. It seems odd to have a tradition to marry a close blood relative, but I'm willing to suspend my skepticism and read on.

For any blog readers tempted to jump on the juxtaposition of "magnificent" and "bungalow" remember the Brits use bungalow to mean something quite different than we do. 

Vani is only fourteen. In between cleaning, she finds solace every afternoon in the countless books which line the shelves of every room while her husband tends the tropical garden. Within months, she is widowed. Soon after, her employer’s nephew, John, arrives from England. Before long, he is summoned home to attend to family matters.

There's no connection between John and Vani. There's no followup to her being widowed. A lot happens but it's not the plot.

When the coffee-coloured Vani bears a coffee-with-lots-of-milk-coloured Eurasian girl, Vani’s employer is suspicious and secretly plots to keep her unknowing nephew away from Singapore. While waiting for John to return, Vani juggles work, motherhood and night classes in the hope of being a teacher.

Ok, well, that is one way not to do plot: off the page. You've just skipped over the most important part of the story: John and Vani. Are they in love? He's part of her employer's family. I do NOT assume that she is in love with him at all.

It is the late fifties; anti-colonial sentiment is strong and Britain is losing her grip on Singapore. On the cusp of independence, with chronic unemployment and a dire housing shortage, the live-in servants, cocooned in comfort and security at Jacaranda, are not ready for an unpredictable future without their British employers. The impending reality is especially harrowing for Vani, who has a young child and does not know when, if ever, she will see John again.

That last sentence makes it sound like you're introducing Vani, when in fact the first two paragraphs are about her.  Suddenly introducing the wider world in paragraph three is jarring.  So far this has been a story about two people. Now it's about the end of colonial rule in Singapore.  You've got to blend these two aspects of the story.

Here's the description for UNDER THE BANYAN TREE which is about the changes wrought with the arrival of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia: 

For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours, bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, as the Khmer Rouge attempts to strip the population of every shred of individual identity, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her childhood— the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival.

Spanning two decades, from British rule to a young Singapore going through a sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll phase, JACARANDA weaves a story of friendship, loyalty and hope, drawing parallels with the tide of uncertainty in a fledgling nation struggling against all odds to become self-sufficient.

This is all tell and no show. Because there's no plot I'm afraid the first couple of chapters will be only a series of events.  This is where I'd stop reading and send a form rejection.

JACARANDA is women’s fiction, complete at 69,000 words.

There is NO way in the world you can write a fully developed novel that spans two decades and is set in colonial Singapore in 69,000 words. This is the kind of book that needs to clock in close to  120K.  Detail takes time, and if you've got twenty years of events, those too take time.  If I hadn't already said no after the paragraph above, I would here.

Most of the time word count is a problem on the other end: too many. But historical novels (like this), fantasy, family sagas, novels with a BIG story---those need more words than a thriller, or a romance.

This is my first novel. My memoir, (title redacted) was published late last year.

It's crucial you include the publisher if you've had a book published before. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Kind regards

There's not enough here to pique my interest, and what is here isn't plot. The characters are almost two dimensional.   We have no sense of what they think or feel, let alone the choices they have to make.


Deniselle said...

The query sounds interesting, but somewhat confusing. I'm not sure if I should expect a love story where Vani pines for John, or a story about how Vani can make it without him, and in a time of political upheaval, raising a son on her own.

Also, what did John feel for her? I find it disturbing that she is only fourteen, unless John is also a teenager. Was he abusing her, or was it love on both sides?

If you're not a person of color yourself, I'd consult a POC about descriptions like "coffee-colored" and "coffee-with-lots-of-milk-colored". I can't speak with any authority as I'm white, but I've heard that such skin tone descriptions can be seen as demeaning.

Stephsco said...

There are so many interesting elements to the story, it sounds like it has a lot of potential, but it isn't formulated quite right for a query. I hope the writer can find some good examples on this site, beyond the advice already given. Good luck!

Bonnie Shaljean said...

I think this story would entice me to venture inside, as long as an editor/publisher had tidied it up and done all the necessary work addressing the points Janet raised. But that's not an agent's job, and there isn't enough substance here to really judge the final product.

I can't find a sense of the plot, and too many loose ends don't join up with each other. We also need to care about the characters but haven't been allowed to get to know them as individuals. This doesn't mean the story has those faults; but the vagueness of the query is going to keep potential agents - and commercial publishers - from ever finding out.

One thing: Please PLEASE drop the "when the coffee-coloured Vani bears a coffee-with-lots-of-milk-coloured Eurasian girl". It really jars, and sends all the wrong signals. I think the tone is meant to be jaunty, but sooner or later (probably sooner) someone is going to interpret it as borderline racist.

I notice that Vani is a keen reader. Apart from fuelling her dreams of bettering herself and finding romance (not that those are unimportant) are there any specific ways in which the books that speak to her change her life? Jane Austen's world is such a contrast to the one Vani lives in - what impact does this have on the central story, how does it affect the course of her fate? (And it should: the last thing you need is more distractions!) That's probably more detail than you want to go into in a query, but it's worth considering.

Along the same lines, you must also get beyond the clichés of the Cinderella themes (especially if you're channelling Jane Austen). Shackling your youthful heroine to an awful old man who dies just in time to make way for the prince is well-worn ground. Ditto Mr. Darcy. Do take care that plot events arise naturally from the momentum of cause-&-effect. Right now you're courting stereotype, so make sure the characters grow, develop, and surprise us. And surprise *you* with some unexpected independence.

I hope you will keep revising this interesting and attractive tale, and work for the prized FTW designation. And don't let the words "form rejection" discourage you. That's what we have query sharks for: to help us chew them into shape so it doesn't happen out on the high seas. And damn lucky we are too (even though it means keeping a bottle of iodine* nearby).

*or substitute bottle of choice

Unknown said...

As a Singaporean myself, this is interesting and uninteresting at the same time. I very much enjoy watching how others portray Singapore, but the plot here seems slightly vague. The prose is flowing, but there's not enough excitement, or oomph, to draw me into the story. On a side note, it's a little... trying to imagine the colonial Singapore you're portraying, but that's entirely my fault. Curse those boring History lessons!

Regarding the descriptions, coffee-coloured and all, I'd doubt that the average Singaporean would take offense. (The government is an entirely different story, well they're on the cautious side, because these things are sensitive) Most of us are rather neutral about coloured depictions, I'd say. Of course, if you're seeking to be published in the States, then that's a whole different context, so I can't say much about that.

All the best in your novel! I'd definitely love seeing Singapore through your eyes.

Jacaranda said...

Thank you all for your comments. So helpful!!

Regarding the skin colour, it is very common usage in one form or another all over Asia, not at all offensive in these parts. My friends, their kids and my family don't mind being called "kopi susu or kopi si" (translation in Malay and Chinese dialect respectively)at all. Probably because such terms are always used as a description, said as a matter of fact, never to offend. However, I see the need to be sensitive for a wider audience and will certainly address that.

I'll be reflecting on every post to work on revising the query. It will take a while, including the week to just think about Ms Reid's comments. I may also need to revise parts of the manuscript (eek!)

Thank you, once again :-)

Bonnie Shaljean said...

You'd be absolutely astonished at how sensitive people can be regarding descriptions!

Not just in America either. I once watched an arts review programme on the BBC (broadcasting from London) where the panel got their knickers in the most awful twist over the use of the word [. . . redacted] in a book or play title - even though this adjective did not refer to any racial matter whatsoever. But taken out of context it possibly "could" be perceived or interpreted as such, hence the fuss. Never mind that it had been part of our vocabulary for hundreds of years and had several meanings.

One of the critics was most righteously angry over the inclusion of this innocuous term, and she managed to derail the discussion away from the work itself. The others bent themselves into paperclips trying to take a politically correct stance, obviously too afraid of looking prejudiced to tackle her virtuous wrath.

Sorry for the hyperbole, but I hate it when perfectly neutral words are forced into a single context and hijacked to suit specific agendas. It's language-fascism, however liberal the values attached to it.

But: it can carry elephant-in-the-room-sized consequences. So you are better to be careful, if only to protect yourself. (I did the redacting above, BTW, not Janet. But I don't want the same thing to happen to her blog as happened to the TV programme. See what I mean? There's no censor like the one that lives inside your own head.)

Anyway, I'm so glad you're going to persevere, and address the various issues in your query/story. Watching a work of art develop is rewarding and educational for all of us. I'm looking forward to getting to know Vani better and learning more about her journey.

Theresa Milstein said...

Definitely too much hopping from one subject to another. I'm sure a 20-year span seems daunting, but queries are meant to go only so far into the plot anyway. First she's forcibly married, then the guy is dead, then there's another guy mentioned, then she has kids (whose kids?) and then you're referring to her as a child.

I think the description of the color skin is just too long.

Break this down to who is your protagonist, what does she want, what's stopping her from getting it, and what does she do to try to overcome the obstacle. You can add some background of time period and how it relates, I'm sure.

Sounds like you need to add words to this manuscript. Good luck!

Lanette said...

Jacaranda, I know you're excited about revising the query, but the best advice Ms. Shark gave concerned your word count. I strongly urge you to spend some more time with your novel exploring the areas that need more attention. Even the way you wrote the query suggests you have a tendency to gloss over plot details.

I have a tendency to write sparingly, so I understand the desire for fewer words and summarizing plot transitions. After I get the first few drafts written, I go through and expand on those summarizations into full scenes. Sometimes they even lead into other scenes you haven't thought of. Also, it's amazing how much characterization is built and mad stronger when you expand on the scenes that were rushed.

Good luck with this. There's much potential for a compelling novel, and the extra work you put into it will be worth it.

Steve Stubbs said...

The query may not be up to par (I am certainly not going to second guess a seasoned professional) but I like the book idea. So I want to encourage the author. Flesh it out as Ms. Reid said, put some meat on it, and for god’s sake get it published. I want to read it. A lot of other people do, too. You and your editor may be surprised how many.

And I have a very low opinion of novels in general. (English translation: I am hard to please. Most novels are pure-de-crap IMO.)

One point Ms Read made I would like to second: instead of “magnificent colonial bungalow” try just “colonial bungalow.” In the 1920s in the US it was OK to refer to a place like that as “a swell dump” but if you put that phrase in a query the reader might wince at it. In the mouth of a fictional character living in the 1920s it would be fine.

Ellipsis Flood said...

I feel like you wanted to leave out the love story aspect, which leads to leaving out a crucial part of Vani's (and John's) development as character(s). The low number of words indicates that the time skip in the query is also present in the ms itself, which fits with my first statement.

AKB said...

Vani being forced to marry her uncle isn't far-fetched in South India. First cousin marriages are far more common when it comes to marrying within the family, but it's still plausible for her to have to marry an uncle.

Purple Rose said...

Eeeek! Having read and digested Query Shark's comments, I have to admit the problem lies with the book. There will be some major edits, almost a re-write in parts and new chapters, too.

Thank you, all, especially Query Shark, for your comments. They were helpful before and even more so now.

See you back here, hopefully early next year :-)

Bonnie Shaljean said...

I agree totally with what Ellipsis Flood wrote above on March 28: "I feel like you wanted to leave out the love story aspect, which leads to leaving out a crucial part of Vani's (and John's) development as character(s). The low number of words indicates that the time skip in the query is also present in the manuscript itself…"

This missing element - the emotional one - bothers me too, and it may be part of the reason why the Shark can't work up more enthusiasm for the protagonist. Vani needs to be the engine of her own fate, not just someone that things happen TO. When characters are in a socially disadvantaged position, their personal victories over circumstances & adversaries are exciting for us. And "exciting" is the fuel that stories run on. But they must be mistresses of their own destinies, not simply victims or gals who got lucky. There's plenty of fascinating adventure here, in a wonderful setting, but Vani is far too passive. She should exert more of a hand in driving the plot.

Also, we're given a powerful Romeo-&-Juliet-style setup for a love story, and then one half of the pair just disappears. John leaves a void behind him which nothing ever quite fills. When I wrote above about being wary of the clichés inherent in the Cinderella theme, I didn't mean for the handsome prince to disappear entirely from the scene! He needs to engage with obstacles placed in his path, not be absent from them.

I do like the Chinese couple, a lot. I'd be very interested in getting a glimpse from their perspective, seeing their collective efforts to build lives for themselves in a changing, puzzling new world. I hope you'll develop this cook and laundress as much as possible, and take them beyond the downtrodden-servants image.

I like Vani, but need to know her better. She still doesn't step out from the exotic events that surround her, or show me an individual personality and spirit that I can grow to care about. This query is much clearer, but it remains a fairly dispassionate narrative which lacks a heartbeat. Vani must be that heartbeat, and John should either come back (maybe to do battle with his family over clashing goals) or take a much lower, more fleeting profile. I'd opt for the first choice. The historic changes that are occurring all around the lovers gives us plenty of "real life" to absorb the romantic sweetness.

I admire your lively spirit and positive attitude, and look forward to seeing Vani (and John!) in the future. Best of luck… we'll all still be here.

Ellipsis Flood said...

Somehow, I'm now more interested in the adventures of Vani, her daughter and the Chinese servants, and that only took up a tiny paragraph.

And you know why? Because it sounds like they're finally going to do something.

Purple Rose said...

Thank you BonnieShaljean and Ellipsis Flood. I began on my re-writing today, after reading your comments. I found them very, very helpful in a way that has given me the necessary encouragement and will to do so much more with what is now a weak story. You, and all the others who have posted comments, especially The Shark, cannot imagine how grateful I am. I plan to be back here in the New Year - enough time for a few cycles of write, rinse and repeat.

Theresa Milstein said...

Good luck, Purple Rose!

Caitlin Carrigan said...

So... completely unrelated comment, but I love you and if I were a lesbian, I would propose. I'm SO grateful to have found this blog and you are a gentle(wo)man and a scholar for writing it.

Thank you!

Theresa Milstein said...

This new version is reading like a synopsis instead of a query. This book might span many years and transformations, but it doesn't all need to be in the query.

What does she want? What stops her from getting it? What does she do to get around that obstacle? What is the next obstacle? That next obstacle should be what's at stake... and we don't know whether or not she resolves it in the query. The query should get you only partway through the book.