Saturday, March 31, 2018

#303-revised once

Revision #1
 Dear QueryShark:

Thirty-nine-year-old Chicago bartender, Jesse Chasen, the self-sabotaging black sheep of her family, receives a call at work from a lawyer who informs her of the death of her birth mother. The catch is, she didn’t know she had a “birth mother”.
Everyone has a birth mother. What Jesse doesn't realize is she has two mothers.

She shows up on the doorstep of her estranged, emotionally repressed older sister, Jennifer McMahon, a doctor’s wife who lives a (seemingly) charmed, Brady-Bunch-on-steroids existence; because in order collect the inheritance, the terms of the Will force them on a journey through the Deep South to piece together their mother’s story, told in flashbacks.

What's missing here is what's at stake. What happens if they don't collect the inheritance? Life continues as it was? What prompts Jesse to undertake this journey?

Their road trip through the other Land Down Under leads them to the discovery of an ex-military Drag Queen brother, Jack Babineaux, who performs in New Orleans as "Jackie Oh!" After initially refusing to join them, he’s coerced. The Will states that their trip must be completed within one week and all children must be present or the money is donated to charity.  For some yet-unknown reason, Angie Hartley needed her children to understand why she made the choices in life that she did.
So, Jack is their brother? This mom gave up three children? Or had three children taken from her? This sure doesn't seem like the starting point of a comedy. Oh it's not a comedy? The tone of the query, and your comps sure make me think it is.

And, if they don't get the money it goes to a good cause? The stakes are getting lower by the minute here.  Do any of these characters need the money? Will it change their lives for the better? Save them from the leg breakers sent by their bookie? Let them pay off a house heading toward foreclosure. Without a sense of the money's value to them, there are no stakes.

Yeah, it’s a Dead-Mom Scavenger Hunt.

At each new stop, they’re given another piece of the Angie puzzle… a circus, a murder, an eighty-nine-year-old narcoleptic juke joint owner in Alabama, and Dead-Circus-Mom’s marriage to a wealthy, gay Savannah man twice her age. The underlying parallels with Jesse’s life unfold, and the initial anger inches toward understanding, though the one-week time constraint is under constant threat of implosion.

This isn't character soup, it's event soup.

I have no idea what "one-week time constraint is under constant threat of implosion" means.

If the tension between the sisters, Jesse’s newly discovered and unwanted pregnancy, Jennifer’s disintegrating marriage from 1000 miles away, and Jack’s PTSD medication-induced night wanderings don’t derail them… when their car breaks down in the 11th hour, the surprise detour taken just might.

The relationships between the siblings are constantly shifting as they discover the complexities of Angie’s story, and the strained relationships with each other give way to mutual support and a deeper understanding about their own lives (in spite of themselves). Then their trip is turned on its head at their final stop when they find their mother still alive.
Unless an agent specifically tells you to do that, never reveal the ending.
The purpose of a query is to entice your reader (me) to read the pages, and then the book. If I know what happens at the end, why would I want to? In other words: NO SPOILERS!

A coming-of-age story sometimes doesn’t happen until later in life. Then it’s about Second Chances, and about finding the people you choose to call family.
Why did you capitalize second chances? Odd capitalization is one of those things that drives me crazy.  It can be used to great effect for emphasis in very short form things like tweets or email (to wit: I don't want to be That Person) but here, it just looks sloppy.

Yeah. And alligators…

THE KEY TO THE HIGHWAY is character-driven commercial fiction. I think this book will appeal to someone who'd enjoy watching a Jonathan Tropper family move into a Carl Hiaasen neighborhood. The manuscript is complete at 53,000 words.

Thank you for your consideration.
Oh no no no, you do not get to skip having a plot by calling it character driven. Character driven books must still show me what the characters WANT and what's at stake for them.

You have no plot here. That's a problem with the book, not the query.

Dear QueryShark:
Thirty-nine-year-old Chicago strip club bartender and part-time tattoo artist, Jesse Chasen, is the whip-smart black sheep of her family. She’s cute, but an aging-tough-girl, you-wouldn’t-hire-her-to-babysit-your-kids kind of way. Like if Joan Jett and Reese Witherspoon had a lovechild.

This is a classic mistake in a query. You think telling me what she looks like is telling me about her. It's not.Nothing here tells me what she values, what she wants, what she cares about.

And strip clubs of any kind in the first sentence of a query is a big turn off. I don't want to read books about strip clubs, or people who work in them.  That might just be me, of course, but the days of Mickey Spillane are pretty much over.

After quitting her job then stealing the dog of her (newly-ex) boyfriend/boss, Jesse shows up on the doorstep of her estranged, emotionally repressed older sister, Jennifer McMahon, a doctor’s wife who lives a Brady-Bunch-on-steroids existence in the perfectly manicured suburb of Glenview.

Why? The reason is the first sentence of the NEXT paragraph (the call from the lawyer.)  That information needs to go BEFORE we hear she quits her job and steals a dog (which seems weird when it's out of context.)

They received a call from a lawyer that morning about the death of their birth mother. The catch is, they didn’t know they had a “birth mother”. To collect the inheritance, they’re forced on a journey together through the Deep South to piece together their mom's story, told in flashbacks. The unusual terms of the will state that their trip must be completed in one week and all children must be present or the money is donated to charity.

Unusual terms? This kind of set up has been fodder for novels since Agatha Christie invented Hercule Poirot.  And journey/quest/discover stories are as old as Chaucer.  It might be unusual for your characters, but for your readers, this isn't anything new. 

Which is not to say it's a poor choice, it's not. It's just not what you want to focus on in your query. Yes it's a quest novel. Show me what you did here that's new, fresh, a twist on the tales we've heard earlier. Show me how your novel contributes to and BUILDS ON the quest novel category. Otherwise it's same  old same old, and I'm not so interested in that.

Also you squandered a lot of your reader's enthusiasm with that description of Jesse, when it turns out the strip club and tattoo thing don't have much to do with the plot at all.

Focus on what's important: Sisters Jesse and Jennifer get a call from a lawyer about the death of their birth mother. The catch is, they didn't know they had one.

Yeah, it’s a Dead-Mom Scavenger Hunt.

Their journey through the other Land Down Under leads them to an ex-military Drag Queen brother with mild PTSD who performs in New Orleans as Jackie Oh! After he refuses to join them, they kidnap him at gunpoint (of course). Sure, it’s just a crappy, plastic reproduction of a Civil War revolver they found in a Bourbon St. tourist shop, but he doesn’t discover that until they’re halfway to Bayou Lafourche in Thibodaux, LA.

There's no plot here. There's nothing at stake. You're describing people and events. That's not the same as plot.

The rest of their story includes a circus; a murder; human-eating alligators; an eighty-nine-year-old narcoleptic juke joint owner in Alabama; a trucker with a penchant for TV theme songs from the 70’s, and his bloodhound Ronald Reagan; and Dead-Circus-Mom’s marriage to a wealthy, gay Savannah man twice her age. Then it’s all turned on its head at their final stop.

A coming-of-age story sometimes doesn’t happen until later in life. Then it’s about Second Chances, and about finding the people you choose to call family.

Yeah. And alligators…
Which is a funny line, and I'm totally in favor of having alligators in every book (Snappsy Forever!) but it's not as funny as it could be if you didn't mention alligators in line one of the paragraph starting "the rest of their story."

I think this book will appeal to someone who'd enjoy watching a Sue Monk Kidd family move into a Carl Hiason neighborhood. My manuscript is complete at 53,000 words.

Carl Hiaasen.
You've committed one of my all time biggest snarly prickle puss offenses by misspelling the name of the author you're using as a comp. It's REALLy easy to do, especially with a name like Hiaasen.  But you solve this problem by spell czeching every name. Every time. I feel your pain, I have a client with a name I need to verify Every Single Time, and yes, I've caught mistakes. She's got a double ff instead of a ph, and I always forget how many e's (three, in case you're wondering!)

If I see this in a query, it's not a deal breaker. It is however one less reason to say yes if I'm wavering, and that's NOT what you want.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The big problem here is there is no plot.
Colorful characters doing crazy things does not a plot make. This is not a plot driven novel (it's character driven) but you MUST have a plot here or there's no tension, and no narrative arc.

Plot is essential because it's the reason we care about what happens to the characters. Without a challenge (or having something at stake) there's no conflict. Without conflict, it's hard to care what happens. No plot is like a football game that doesn't keep score.  (I had to revise that from "no score" because yes, dear readers, I did attend a  football game where the score was 0-0 at the end of the 4th quarter. Of course it was raining.)

Go back and read Carl Hiaasen to see what his plots are. I'm a big fan of his novel Strip Tease.


nightsmusic said...

I'm going to be brutal here and say, if I was the agent you sent this to, I'd quit reading right after the word Glenview and hit the auto reply for 'no'. You have roughly 250 words, give or take, to grab an agent's attention and make them excited about reading your novel. You've wasted 80 words on flotsam that has little to nothing to do with the story. Then you proceed to mention everyone in the book but the kitchen sink, but nothing about how they figure into any kind of plot. Just that the sisters meet them.

Also, according to what you have in the majority of your query, this has nothing to do with a coming of age story. You said it yourself. It's a 'dead mom scavenger hunt' but I've been on a lot of scavenger hunts. They're all a series of instructions. There's no plot in those either.

And what makes this a head-scratcher for me the most is, if there's no plot in the query, just a series of events, I'm guessing your story doesn't have one either.

Sam Mills said...

My eyebrows did raise at all that being packed into 53K. I like wacky ensemble casts and sister bonding (I assume??). But I wasn't sure why the unusual will terms were even necessary. Finding out I had a birth mom would be enough to get me on the road trip, tho I wouldn't quit my job till I had cash in hand (probate can take a while!). The tension between the sisters, esp if one got adopted into a life of luxury and the other didn't, should be enough to generate conflict if you can draw it out well.

Frankie said...

As Janet said your story is nothing completely new. It can be a good story of course, but from your query it seems you don’t have one just yet.

I have no idea about which sister I should care about, or why I should spend time reading about their trip.
It would have been more interested to know why Jesse left her job, especially if her situation makes her wanting to go on the trip at all costs.

Something must be at stake, as they now, in my opinion, your story is just a list of events.

I’d advise you to go back on the archive and work on the list of questions Janet gave and try to answer them, I think this will help you to look at your novel in a different way.

KariV said...

At 53k words, it strikes me as way too short. But, that's a good thing because it means you have 30k words to develop the plot. Hey, silver linings, right? Seems to me like you're querying too early. Get this script in front of beta readers and some cp's, then revise, revise, revise!

Lenora Rose said...

I got two impressions off this query. One is that when this book has been revised another time or two into the book it should become, I might want to read that book. The second is that based on this query, I suspect the book itself is not at the point where it is the story I'll want to read.

Various thoughts:
- If their mom's life was strange enough to scatter adopted children everywhere (without birth control?) it's usually not a rich life in the sense that it would leave a plump will.

- Unless the pot is extremely sweet - and even if it is - why do they care? It's a lot of work to fulfill the insane demands of someone they didn't even know, and people who will do anything for cash (not just go on a road trip, but also commit a kidnapping) without some higher motivation than "I want to be rich" don't tend to be sympathetic. Right now my sympathy is with the brother who tries to nope out of this.

- In particular, what does Jennifer get out of it? She has money, so it needs to be something else, and I am bored with bored housewives who find wealthy suburban life miserable. (The last bored housewife I cared about was Alison Hendrix in Orphan Black, and she has a lot more going for her as far as interesting motivations for doing crazy things).

- One week? Unless the names and addresses of all siblings are in the will, in which case it should be the lawyer calling them all up, not the sisters, tracking down birth siblings can be a years-long prospect. One week is pretty much impossible.

- You say that Jesse and Jennifer are estranged, but I mostly find them jarring - if they were adopted by the same parents, it seems unlikely they would have so extremely little in common; if they weren't, then how are they familiar enough to be estranged? I also want to know how they relate - their divergent career paths don't actually demonstrate what in their *personalities* clicks or clashes.

Mister Mxyzptlk said...

HI, all. A lot of good criticisms here. I was wondering about what may be a less central issue. Is is okay in queries to pile on the adjectives as this querier does:

"her estranged, emotionally repressed older sister, Jennifer McMahon, a doctor’s wife who lives a Brady-Bunch-on-steroids existence"

This description is certainly vivid, but uses a lot of hyphenated words. I was worrying that I do this too much in my query, so want to find out what people think.

Lenora Rose said...

Mister Mxyzptlk: Among other things, I think the pile of adjectives, while some of them seem clever writing, is part of what disguises the fact that Jennifer has no obvious motivation in the query for joining her sister in this road trip. And note that two of the most adjective laden paragraphs get the "There's no plot here" comment. Clever description is useful but also can be a mask for other lacks.

There was a query that I think got an FTW, in which the second half of the query is indeed a cast list with a lot of adjectives, but there was a lot more plot already shown, and a lot more motivation. I wanted to dig it up to show the difference but a quick search didn't find it.

MA Hudson said...

There's lots of suggestions here that I heartily agree with, but I just want to add; don't give up. Yes, this sounds like a red hot mess in terms of plot, but it also sounds like you've got lots of great ideas. I think you should write out a basic query - Who's your character, what does she want, what's stopping her from getting it etc etc. Once you've got the query sorted out, move onto the synopsis and make that coherent, and THEN reconfigure your novel. It'll be a fair bit of work but I really think this could be an awesome story. Good luck.