Sunday, January 20, 2019



I have written a manuscript “Baked Lunch” and I'm soliciting agents and publishers.

Brief Synopsis: I have written an update (2018) of the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. The manuscript has sex, drugs, and violence, which are clichés, when Burroughs wrote his novel these subjects were more controversial. We live in a more jaded age. The clichés mean that someone could read this manuscript while waiting for a plane in an airport and be reasonably entertained. People have shorter attention spans, we’re more distracted. I simply tried to write something I believe is marketable. Same titles from the same chapters as Burroughs novel, but the content is not the same.

(list of chapters redacted for space)

William Burroughs original novel was considered unpublishable because essentially it had no plot. The Chapter 22 Hauser and O'Brien did have a narrative arc, but the rest of the book was essentially a stream of consciousness. A better insight into a synopsis of the novel would be David Cronenberg who essentially re-wrote the entire plot in his screenplay when he did a film adaptation of the novel. But the movie did not follow the book at all and neither did I. I wrote the novel because I don’t particularly like Naked Lunch and thought I could do a better job of writing a novel about beat culture than Burroughs did. It’s subjective I admit, but I really gave it my best effort.

Bio: I am a retired English teacher who has been working in China for the last 15 years.

Thanks for your interest. I have had a professional edit the manuscript and I am confident there aren't any major errors in the manuscript. Approximate word count: 100,000. There are graphics in the manuscript.

You don't get to "update" other people's work and call it your own.
The warranties and indemnities section of a publishing contract requires you warrant that the Work (the book) "is original."

You may think it is; you might even make the case that it is, but that doesn't matter. Any publishing house with something to lose in litigation (ie they have money; they're not running a printing press in their basement) is going to eschew publishing anything remotely like this.

And if you think publishing it yourself will solve that problem, the agent representing the Estate of William Burroughs will probably disabuse you of that pretty quickly.

And honestly, saying you can do a better job of writing a novel about beat culture that is now considered a classic, no matter what people thought of it when published, is an assessment better left to reviewers.


nightsmusic said...

I don't know what to say about this that would be...kind.

Whether or not you liked the book, you're trying to rewrite something that was, at the time, a book that bucked all norms. It's history at this point, whether you look at it as a brilliant satire or a schizophrenic rambling of a shattered mind. Either way, it challenged obscenity laws for one thing, and the decision by the court changed those laws. It's also not that it wasn't publishable, most houses didn't want to touch it because of the ensuing backlash. But Olympia did and it was published so your comment to that is wrong.

Romeo and Juliet has been redone a thousand times, but that story is not iconic to an era. It's a tale that's been going on forever. Naked Lunch has no form or flow to rewrite. It's not a story, it's a collection of heroin induced ramblings according to the narrator. That's not something you can change and do justice to. There's no 'make it your own' retelling. Nothing in that novel, using the term loosely, is shocking in today's world. Putting all the legalities aside, you need to view it in that respect as well. There's very little left in this world to shock anyone unlike the era Naked Lunch was written in. The question is then, would people really pay to read it?

So what you didn't like it? Why try to rewrite something that's become a symbol of the beat generation? Even if you were able to do it justice, you'd be Sisyphus in the publishing world. Don't be. Write your own book. To presume you can do better than the original author on something like this is...wrong.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I'm with N nightsmusic--it's hard to find something in this query that didn't make me cringe. Don't get me wrong; the writing style wasn't the problem. The problem is the tone. Did you have any beta readers look over your query, as well as your book?

Just a few basic things:

1. Look at the percentage of the query you spend talking about your work vs talking about the original. Who are you querying for, exactly?

2. Don't have disdain for your readers. The 'shorter attention spans' bit gets me every time. People still read long books. People still read long books with long paragraphs. People still read long books with long paragraphs full of long sentences.

3. It sounds like you expect all your readers to have read Naked Lunch. If that's the case, you're shooting yourself in the foot even before you queried. That's a slice of the population, which severely limits the book's appeal.

4. "I'm confident there aren't any major errors" is not reassuring. It's like a chef saying, "I'm confident there are no cigarettes in your mac-n-cheese." I mean, great, but... I would've felt better without that reassurance.

Julie Weathers said...

I try not to be harsh about queries because I have a tough time writing them. I hates them, I do, Precious.

However, I find no redeeming qualities here.

"I wrote the novel because I don’t particularly like Naked Lunch and thought I could do a better job of writing a novel about beat culture than Burroughs did. It’s subjective I admit, but I really gave it my best effort."

I think this is going to turn off most agents and publishers even if they felt like fighting legal battles they were destined to lose. They won't be so inclined. If you think you can write a better novel about the beat generation, then write it. Write something new.

I have no idea what Naked Lunch is, so this is of no use to me. I'm sure most agents know what it is or would look it up if they were interested. Still, you say your book is different, better. How? We hear nothing, nothing, nothing about your book except it's this book only better.

I don't know. I think I need tea after this. My heart is aflutter.

Unknown said...

I'm a the query writer. Thanks for the critique. I know I'm going into unknown territory here. The model I was thinking of Jean Rhys sequel to Jane Eyre "Sargasso Sea" (not too many examples I can think of). I have wondered about the legal ramifications, how would I find out if what I'm doing is plagiarism (can you plagiarise an idea or concept)? Is what I'm endeavoring toward illegal?

Chiang Mai

The Sleepy One said...

Unknown, while Jean Rhys wrote a prequel to Jane Eyre--she didn't rewrite Jane Eyre. She focused on the woman locked in the attic and wrote her story. Look up Tina Connolly's Ironskin or Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair. Both use Jane Eyre extensively--Ironskin is basically Jane Eyre with fairies, while in The Eyre Affair, Jane Eyre is kidnapped from her novel--and both can exist in the literary marketplace because they're not a rewrite and they're not trying to claim they're better than the original.

It's fine to dislike Naked Lunch--it wasn't my favorite Beat novel, either, and a scene from the movie still freaks me out even though it's been at least twenty years since I watched it--but it's still significant as a voice of its time.

Dellcartoons said...

Jane Eyre was published in 1847. No question of copyright. Naked Lunch was published 1959. Copyright is probably still an issue. Best talk to a copyright lawyer

If you can write a better Beat Culture novel, then write that novel. From what you say you made major changes anyway

It looks like your target market is people who read Naked Lunch and hated it. That's probably a small target there

And you wrote a 100,000 word novel for people w/ short attention spans?

Irene Troy said...

Whoa! This drips with hubris. Sorry, but that is what struck me while reading and re-reading the query. I doubt this is what you intend, but this comes across as if you are discounting modern readers as lazy and somehow deficient intellectually. No agent, no publisher, no reader will appreciate that attitude. A) It's untrue that people are reading less or that they are reading less serious books. b) You are attempting to sell a rather long-ish novel while suggesting people are disinterested in reading longer novels. As others have stated, suggesting that you can out-do a well-respected, well-known and, to some, a great writer, is...always a huge mistake.

Although it is important for would-be-publisher authors to learn about the market for their book, writing just to appeal to a market is generally a mistake. It is much better, I believe, to write a story that moves YOU - the writer. A story that you need to share. In my albeit limited experience, such novels tend to be better written and more successful. Don't re-write someone else's ideas or novel. Develop your own ideas and your own story.

Laina said...

You wrote fanfiction. Possibly not very good fanfiction with the disdain for the novel and its readers, but... this is pretty much fanfiction. Might be better to treat is as such tbh.

Kelli Mahan said...

You're not "going into unknown territory here." You're going into someone else's territory, declaring you can develop it better than the owner, and claiming it now belongs to you. In my opinion, it's one thing to use someone else's work as a springboard for your own ideas. It's something else entirely to tweak someone else's work, slap a (barely) different title on it, and claim it as your own. This feels akin to painting horns and a mustache on the Mona Lisa, re-titling it the Mina Liza, and saying you are the artist (with the right to sell the painting) because you like your version better.

If you have an original Beat Culture novel bouncing around in your head, by all means put it down on paper. But please do it without looking down your nose at the people you expect to buy your book, and without hiding behind someone else's established, iconic work.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Apart from the points already made above (with which I agree), this query gives me no idea at all of what your book IS, but simply what it is not. And - as others have said - since what it Is Not can be regarded as a classic of its period, nothing I see here entices me to want to read the "improvement".

Can you re-cast it as an original, without naming names or infringing on any copyright-protected elements? If done with skill, the WB references can still shine through, creating a vibrant subtext that is actually the stronger for not being too fully articulated.

I'll be interested to see a re-send of this submission, if only to find out what it's trying to convey!

farfromgruntled said...

Unknown query writer: You are not "going into unknown territory here," which may be part of the problem. It's hard to know what isn't working when you haven't done the reading to back up the work. There is a long, long tradition of writers critiquing/parodying/jumping off from each other. Pamela by Richardson (1740)(one of the first novels in English!) got that treatment in Shamela by Fielding in 1741. Jane Eyre adaptations and Pride and Prejudice adaptations grow like weeds these days. Ahab's Wife is a wonderful novel that takes a character from Moby Dick. Etc. Etc. Etc. If you are actually interested in a project that takes source material and makes it your own, you will want to do the reading and the research to understand what that even means. Your query didn't really sound like you wanted to do that work, but in case you do, putting together a serious reading list seems like a good first step.

Vaylianne said...

Honestly? Lack of tact in presenting this query aside, copyright law is understandably tricky. Consider how the 50 Shades of Grey series, which started out life as Twilight fanfiction, could be published with some revisions and the original characters' names changed. The difference being, the author and everyone else involved in professionally publishing 50 Shades did all they could to distance the books from the series that inspired it. They certainly don't flaunt it or openly use it as a selling point, because the books are skating a pretty fine line legally speaking.

Query writer, if you've written a completely different book about beat culture than the original (which, reading between the lines, you might have?), then try describing *your* characters, story, and plot in the query rather than focusing on Burroughs' work (or mentioning it at all, for that matter). Openly comparing the two, much less claiming you've rewritten it but better, is only going to elicit skepticism at best or outrage and questions about legality at worst. However, beat culture as a subject isn't copyrighted.

If, instead, you've rewritten the book (i.e. - same story, same characters), just in a way you personally feel is more coherent, that's where you're going to run into legal trouble. As Dellcartoons pointed out, characters/books like Jane Eyre are fair game because they've fallen out of copyright and are part of the public domain. That's not the case with Naked Lunch and its characters. Even still, the contemporary authors using Jane Eyre's characters or basic story line aren't claiming to have rewritten Charlotte Brontë's work, except better than she did (QOTKU forfend!)... Generally, they are writing because they LOVE the original and want to write a new book with a twist, such as setting the story in modern day, or writing from a different character's point of view, or adding a fantasy element that changes everything but the basic outline.

And, if your book is a rewrite, know that simply changing character names isn't going to be enough to keep most agents or publishing professionals from recognizing the story.

I certainly don't envy you here. Being bit by the Shark and her Reiders is a heck of a way to learn a little more about copyright!

Elissa M said...

I have to agree with those who suggest you write your own beat novel. Except, then I have to wonder what relevance a "beat" novel has to today's world. What connection can it make to readers right now, today?

What worked 60 years ago very likely isn't going to work today--but--a novel that has the same spirit, made relatable to modern audiences, could be intriguing.

OP, I think you'd be best off using "Naked Lunch" only as inspiration. Then write your own, completely new novel. Revisiting a theme is not the same as "rewriting" another author's work. You cannot plagiarize an idea, but from your query, it very much looks like you plagiarized an entire novel.

Cal_Darin said...

He's got 53 years. I believe US copyright law provides protection for 75 years after the death of the creator.

Unknown said...

Jane Eyre was published in 1847. It is in the public domain. Anyone could write their own version of it or a sequel. However, a book published in 1959 is not likely in the public domain unless someone really messed up when it was being published.

Unknown said...

Rewriting a masterpiece is not without precedent: there is a novel called "Lo's Diary" (by Pia Pera, published in 1995, originally in Italian) which is a retelling of "Lolita" from her point of view. I would imagine that it was authorized by the estate of Nabokov, but I don't know anything about its publishing history. It received poor reviews. Just saying.

SaraBeth said...

After reading the query I just couldn't wrap my head around this statement, "I wrote the novel because I don’t particularly like Naked Lunch"

If you didn't particularly like it, then why rewrite it? I have read plenty of books I did not particularly like, but they did not inspire me to re-write them.

So either:

A) There was something you did like that inspired those 100,000 words you wrote. If so, mention that. It doesn't fix the legalities of what you are querying, but at least it gives a little credit where it is due. Also, something written from a place of positive interest is more interesting than the speculative admission that you are a better writer


B) You spent a baffling amount of time and effort on something you don't like. Which I think the agent reading your query will find as baffling and off-putting as I did.

Writing a book is a tremendous amount of work. Effort better spent on something written from the heart. My point is, I don't think including that detail is going to inspire anyone reading the query. It isn't inspiring to hear the empty promise of, "I can do better than that," in every day conversation, and it isn't inspiring to hear in a query. It just comes off as arrogant and ignorant.

Lenora Rose said...

If your book is genuinely its own spin on Naked Lunch, a reaction and an alternative take rather than plagiarism, then why not remove the vast majority of the discussion of Naked Lunch from your query and describe your own book? From this query I know three things about your book:

1: it's about beat culture
2: you borrowed someone else's chapter titles and are using a spin in the title itself as a cutesy homage. you claim you wrote a different book despite these touches.
3: it has sex and drugs somewhere in it but even you don't think this is either shocking or sales-worthy or what makes it entertaining.

Things I don't know:
Any characters in it.
Any salient plot points
Why the person with a short attention span in an airport would see this book and want to read it.

Naked Lunch has no plot but here's what the comment on Goodreads tells us:

"The book is structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes. Burroughs stated that the chapters are intended to be read in any order. The reader follows the narration of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases, from the U.S. to Mexico, eventually to Tangier and the dreamlike Interzone. The vignettes are drawn from Burroughs' own experiences in these places and his addiction to drugs..." (list of specific drugs removed)

We have who, and where, and an idea of what. We have an idea of the book's structure and why there is no traditional plot. We have concrete details. Now this description wouldn't make a very good query letter either, but it does manage to tell us more than your query attempt. If you have some plot or even a character, a location or a concrete detail of any kind, hang your query around that. Save the "homage to Burroughs" comment for a single line and skip discussing the movie or Cronenberg entirely. Especially skip any disdain you have for your source.

Unknown said...

My initial thought was that QueryShark punked us...that she and her remoras became frustrated with the volume of fanfic queries and decided to offer an educational moment.

But then...

Mai used her name response to comments. I've lived in Asia for the past six years and do business in the PRC. While that doesn't make me an expert on the culture, it provides a framework understanding for this query. Through North American and European eyes, this might look like Asia, it's more an attempt to be not toot her own horn too loudly while conveying that she has a product to sell..."professionally edited so there probably will not be mistakes....some people might enjoy reading it...etc." It's full of the transparent language of assessment of others and of self that at first shocked me when I moved to Asia, but have since come to expect.

"How did you fit in a jet fighter when you are so fat?" or "You ordered two beers. Are you a drunkard?" or "My mother told me I am not pretty and will never find a husband." I can go on and on, though Amy Tan pretty much wrote the manual.

One of the challenges for Mai is that she is seeking an agent in North America. Therefore, she best serves herself by researching the norms for queries in that region. Abundant examples of queries and professional comments on those queries exist on QueryShark...orders of magnitude more on the internet. Take advantage of those. Humor and desserts don't translate between it seems that query letters don't either.

As far as fanfic and plagiarism rules...if she intends to publish outside of China (where they are lax), Mai should again research on the internet. I've had great online connection everywhere I've been in China.

Best of luck to Mai and gong xi fa cai!

Unknown said...


Since Mai is writing in English and seeking representation in North America...

She doesn't have to climb the hill by herself. I'm certain there are writers' groups in every major city in China. For her writing focus, I recommend finding a writers' group established by expats (we're everywhere, they can't stop us). That way, she can have fun with the English language she taught for many years, and have a number of people who will want to help her with editing and query-writing. My group is comprised of expats from North America, Australia and New Zealand, Europe, India, and locals. We have critique groups and any number of people are willing to read a query draft and make recommendations.

Mai would get a lot of such a group and her knowledge of Chinese culture would be a definite asset to any of the expats writing a story set in China.

If she can't find a local group, then many exist online. I was originally a member of Authonomy, HC's former writing community. When that shut down, a group of us established another site. It's well-attended, and though the international set mostly bash American politics, there are many--some published and therefore with greater expertise--hands who will jump in to help when assistance is asked.

One member read all my manuscripts and provided comments. He also wrote a synopsis for my latest. As far as my expat writers' club here in Asia, two members have read and commented on my manuscripts. Of course, it's not all take. I still am expected to contribute when asked.

While it's entirely possible what Mai has written is spectacular, there are a number of challenges she faces that a writers' group--local or online--would have helped avoid or overcome.

smoketree said...

You're really shooting yourself in the foot with this query. It's hard to comment on the copyright issues or even the appeal of the book itself because the query tells us basically nothing of the story--just the ways it's different from Naked Lunch. Retitle it and write a query that actually describes the book and you'll have a much better shot, if it is as different from the original as you say.

Amy Nuttall said...

The one example I've ever come across of someone doing this successfully is Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi, which is a reboot of H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy. I recommend both. The differences between that and this, as I see them, are:

1. John Scalzi is a (successful!) published author. You probably get to be more adventurous when you're a known quantity.

2. He asked for (and obtained) Piper's estate's permission before even approaching a publisher. Which he may not have even needed to do, since Little Fuzzy is out of copyright. Its sequels are not, though, and Scalzi wanted the estate's blessing regardless, because...

3. His intention was to celebrate and point to Piper's work, not one-up him.

That said, if you really want to publish fanfiction, people have made entire careers doing Pride and Prejudice sequels...

E.Maree said...

Writing a direct reimagining of a work when you didn't enjoy the work rarely ends well. The best parodies and reimaginings are done with love and respect to the source, and when you don't love what you're reimagining, there's an element of dislike and mean-spiritedness that will shine through in the end product.

It also creates a puzzle for marketing--you've basically written a book 'for people who didn't like Naked Lunch, but want to read it reimagined'.

You're pushing away the significantly larger audience of 'people who enjoyed this classic' and aiming for an odd niche of people who were interested enough to pick up Naked Lunch, read it, not enjoy it, but still want to read a different take on it...because of course, people who haven't read it will be entirely lost on what you're reimagining.

It's not an impossible niche, and there's a strong genre of YA contemporary or YA fantasy novels that reimagine Shakespeare or classic fairytales. But those books work hard to stand alone with worlds and characters distinct from the source, and reading experiences that are still enjoyable with no knowledge of the story they're reimagining. Considering this query says nothing about what makes Baked Lunch unique and interesting, I find it hard to imagine you've written those same strengths into your manuscript.

Karen said...

Chiang Mai is a city in Thailand. I don't think it's a name but a place of residence.