It was twenty years ago today that Nine Inch Nails'
second album, The Downward Spiral
, appeared in record stores.
Despite being an album of relentless nihilism, aggression, profanity, and self-hatred, it is an album I still consider to be among the most beautiful music I know. For a while, I liked really loud, industrial music, but I've grown awfully mellow in my old age, and these days I'm much more likely to listen to something acoustic. (Even ten years ago, a friend described my taste in pop music as boiling down to "songs by whiny white boys". Which was not really true, even then. Well, sort of.) Nonetheless, I still listen to NIN, and, especially, The Downward Spiral
I try to avoid explaining my musical tastes, since I spend much too much time analyzing most of my other tastes, and it's nice to have one analysis-free area of the brain. I haven't quite been able to escape an analysis of my love for this album, though. Because it's this album
When we don't understand the attraction of a particular item, we often psychologize the people who do in a way that explains them as aberrant to us. My dislike of X is my norm, and so I have to tell a story to explain to myself your embrace of X in a way that maintains my norm. Some items have enough built-in prestige that the story of why I don't like them might force me to have to make some excuses for myself, but we usually still maintain some sense of the appreciator as aberrant. I have no appreciation, for instance, for Mozart's operas, and so even though I feel to some extent that that is a failure of my education and a signal of my plebeian tastes, I also have a sneaking suspicion that people who like Mozart's operas are kind of frilly, effete, decadent, and will, in all likelihood, be the first to die in the revolution. (This is, of course, entirely untrue and a terrible prejudice that you should not emulate or give any credence to.) Items built from the most repulsive of human desires and actions especially call forth such judgments. Plenty of people who don't "get" NIN assume that people who do are one step away from tearing the heads off small children.
Perhaps we are, indeed, on the verge of psychopathy (at least some of us). But the same could be said for lovers of Thomas Kinkade
paintings. Personally, I feel a lot safer with lovers of the dark, repulsive, and nihilistic than with lovers of life-is-a-glorious-cycle-of-song kitsch, because I can't help but wonder when the pains and disappointments of life are going to cause such folks to snap. I assume that to be human means building up a lot of nastiness in our animalistic core, and art allows the structuring and expression of that nastiness, a filter for the excrement of consciousness.
It's no coincidence that I fell in love with The Downward Spiral
when it was released. I was a senior in high school that spring, and faced the excitement and terror of moving from rural New Hampshire to Manhattan for college. Everything was uncertain. I had begun to accept that my sexual identity was not entirely heterosexual, and though I knew ACT UP
said silence = death, I mostly believed sex = death, because what other fate could there be in the age of AIDS? I've never been comfortable with anger, and yet it was an emotion that continued to boil up in me because I felt no ability to be who I wanted to be, no ability to even quite know who the person I wanted to be even was, and while the great wide world was alluring, it was also overwhelming. Typical adolescent angst, but at its apex in those days for me, and something for which The Downward Spiral
could be a kind of soundtrack.
Adolescent angst goes away, and with it many of the talismans used as balms against it. But The Downward Spiral
, while powerfully capable of speaking to an adolescent on the precipice of terrifying adulthood, contains much more than that, and that's why it has stuck with me. The complexity of the soundscape, for one thing. That's where I keep finding the beauty in this music: there is a richness to it, a depth born of all the overlapping notes, chords, beats, and noise. That depth is given power through variety — there is a diversity to the sounds that remains beguiling. The power of the noise comes from the aching quiet that flows across it all. Trent Reznor's voice reaches points of absolute scream, certainly, but there are also moments of tenderness and exhaustion and even, perhaps, momentary peace. The imagery of the lyrics is often wretched, but there's also a defiance to the words, an acknowledgement of so much that is atrocious in life accompanied now and then by a stand against it. For instance, the end of "The Becoming"
, which still makes my heart skip a beat: "It won't give up, it wants me dead/ Goddamn this noise inside my head." The last words song on the album are from "Hurt"
and are at least somewhat hopeful: "If I could start again/ a million miles away/ I would keep myself/ I would find a way" — sure, you could interpret that as a suicidal moment, but back in 1994, faced with heading off to a place that at least felt
like it was a million miles away from where I'd spent the previous 18 years of my life, I didn't hear it that way at all. Céline Dion's recording of "The Power of Love"
made me want to kill myself; "Hurt" gave me reason to live.
One of the things I continue to appreciate about the album is that though the speakers in the songs are generally self-absorbed and sometimes utterly despicable, I find room to think about a world beyond them. This is most obvious with "Big Man with a Gun"
. I'd grown up in a gun shop, and I knew (and know) the macho allure of weaponry intimately. I don't know of another work of art that so succinctly gets at that allure, the psychopathic virility that is so often the masculine ideal. The song is not remotely subtle. Its lyrics'
blunt vulgarity is appropriate to the throbbing noise of its music. A copy of the song should be sent out with every NRA membership card.
There's a kind of pathetic, aggressive, self-loathing masculinity to most of the songs on the album, and this, too, I find fascinating and powerful. From early on, I heard the album as telling the story of a man who aspired to masculine ideals that he couldn't attain. (I wouldn't have been able to say it that way 20 years ago, but it's basically how I was listening to the songs together.) I got a copy of the first NIN album, Pretty Hate Machine
, soon after Downward Spiral
, and quickly decided that the later album was a kind of sequel to the song "Something I Can Never Have"
— there, the speaker is "starting to scare myself", and in Downward Spiral
, song after song is all about that scare: trying to express it, trying to escape it, being consumed by it.
The songs on Downward Spiral
were, yes, sometimes pure catharsis, and loud enough to wipe out the wounding world beyond their noise. But they also invited, and still invite, a kind of analysis and narrativizing that are, I think, extremely healthy. I spent more hours than I'd like to admit wondering about the meaning of specific lines and even words in the songs, wondering why particular sounds appeared in particular places, analyzing whether I thought the narrator was admirable or disgusting, strong or weak, me or not. I built stories in my mind to justify what was going on in the songs, and entire epic tales to explain the world between them.
Now, 20 years later, I still respond to the musical choices on the album, to the often powerful lyrics, but I also have what those rare pieces of art we encounter at just the right time give us: the memory of vivid early experiences. The world of 1994 and its accompanying years comes back to me through the music I listened to so obsessively. I am not nostalgic for those years. I wouldn't want to live them again. I am vastly happier now. But it's good to have some contact with that lost self, to feel a bit of the way back to what I don't want to fully recover. It's easy, too, to feel that the person I was then — so young, naive, stupid, bewildered — is gone. But he's not. Some trace of him lives in my perception of these songs now as I listen to them yet again. Twenty years is a long time, and it is no time at all.
Guess the PlotA Sweet Disorder
1. After years of testing various formulas, Milla and Luke finally perfect their Candy Bar NummyBites and are set to make millions . . . if they can just figure out how to keep the secret ingredient from causing cannibalistic tendencies.
2. You know how a small flaw in an article of clothing can make it seem more beautiful than if it were perfect? Jack's flaw is that he thinks he can solve crimes better than the Cretins on the police force. He stumbles on a murder, investigates, calls the principles together, announces whodunnit . . . and gets it all wrong, eliminating any chance of this detective novel becoming a series.
3. Amy almost abandons her dream of becoming a pastry chef when a rare disorder leaves her unable to taste sweetness. Her best friend volunteers his tongue for an experimental transplant, and she realizes she loves him. But really, is there an upside to marrying a man with no tongue?
4. After Professor Sager genetically engineers sugar so that it fights cavities, the Anerican Dental Association kidnaps the professor and destroys the formula. Sager decides to drop his project and work on a cancer-curing cigarette.
5. When he discovers that someone is lacing the Bon Ton Bonbon Company's chocolate truffles with salmonella, Detective Zack Martinez knows two things: that disgruntled rival chocolatier Fifi LaRue is behind the sabotage, and that he'd better pick up a Whitman sampler for his wife on the way home from work.
6. Rhonda has a medical condition. It's called a sweet tooth, and if she can't get rid of it, she fears she won't fit into her wedding gown. Little does she know, Paul has the same affliction, and already can't button the pants of his tux. Will they spend the next two months dieting, and blame each other for their misery? Or will they fess up and elope to a hotel next to a bakery?Original Version
Dear Evil Editor,
Jack and Zoe have a special relationship. He’s the young American doctor, so strait-laced he should have been a mummy. [This makes sense only to those who know that mummies are notoriously strait-laced, a group which may include only yourself.] [It might be an amusing joke if mummies were wrapped in lace or if the strips of linen they were wrapped in were tied like shoe laces. As that isn't the case, I recommend one of the following jokes as a replacement: He’s the young American doctor, so strait-laced he should have been a shoe salesman; He’s the young American doctor, so strait-laced he moonlights as a doily.]
She’s the wild, spontaneous one, who chucked her nursing post in London to trek round the world. [It seems that they would have met because of their doctor/nurse professions, but if she chucked her post to trek around the world, how did they become a couple?]
Things happen around Zoe, and Jack had better get used to it.
Their honeymoon in Crete has hardly begun when they come across a handsome young corpse by the swimming pool. [If he's a zombie, call him a zombie. I'm not sure it's a good idea for a zombie to be by the pool. Sunlight and chlorine are bad enough for your skin when you're alive.]
Zoe hardly blinks. Like the police inspector says, sometimes even healthy young men die unexpectedly. That’s good enough for Zoe.
What she can’t fathom is what gets into Jack. Suddenly her quiet, socially inept bumbler is sniffing about for clues and generally sticking his nose everywhere it doesn’t belong. Zoe can tell him exactly what he’ll find: a web of petty village jealousies, a coven of crooked British ex-pats, and a charming little fishing port where smuggling is the real catch of the day. It’s all a bit unsettling—what happened to the comfortably boring stick-in-the-mud she married?
The second body to turn up is so battered and bloody, even the police can’t look the other way. [I would think declaring this murder an "accident" would be a better example of the police "looking the other way" than the first murder, in which there apparently was no evidence of foul play.]
By now Jack’s way ahead of them. And way cleverer, too—if he got through med school, he smirks, then solving the odd murder or two will be easy. It’s one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent education. The solution he presents to the assembled local noteworthies is pure brilliance.
Too bad he gets it all wrong. And in front of all those people, too.
In A Sweet Disorder, a marriage divided by a common language gets a good dose of murder. Noir it’s not—a lot more ouzo’s spilled here than blood. [Excessive spilled blood is associated more with slasher flicks than film noir.]
Aimed at readers who look down their noses at whodunnits, [If you've written a whodunnit, your best bet is to aim it at people who don't look down their noses at whodunnits. I base this on the likelihood that the book will be shelved with the whodunnits, and the people who look down their noses at whodunnits won't even know where the whodunnit section is.]
this cozy mystery has enough literary pretensions to appeal to fans of Guillermo Martinez, Donna Tart, Josef Sforecky or Arturo Pérez-Reverte, without turning off those whose tastes run more towards Marian Keyes. [I'm starting to think it's the query that has literary pretensions. Which is not a good thing, even if you spell Donna Tartt's and Josef Skvorecky's names right.]
Now the personal bits. After sixteen years in a transatlantic marriage, I know exactly what Mr Churchill was on about. [No idea what that means, but here are some amusing Churchill quotes: "From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put." "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."]
For ten years I practiced medicine in the US, but [eventually they discovered I'd never been to med school, so]
eight years ago I moved to the UK to write reports for a Major Pharmaceutical Company. The stuff I churn out is meant to convince government agencies our products are safe, effective and absolutely crucial for the public health. No author could ask for a better way to exercise his imagination and creativity. [I applaud the way you cleverly cloak in humor the claim that writing pharmaceutical reports is relevant to writing a mystery. However, as the query is already too long, I would limit the "personal bits" to your medical practice, assuming your doctor and nurse make use of medical training in solving the case.] [Also, it's probably not a good idea to refer to your one example of getting published as "the stuff I churn out."
A Sweet Disorder, complete at 150,000 words, is my first novel. I’ve enclosed the first three chapters and would very much like to send you the rest of the manuscript.
Yours sincerely,[explanatory note for 'Guess the Plot' purposes: A Sweet Disorder is a Herrick poem about untied shoes.]Notes
I like the voice in paragraphs 2, 3, and 4. And there's just enough plot to draw me in. That plus an opening and a closing would be a fine query. Get rid of the personal bits and the name-dropping, which will cut about a third of the query, and then do the same to the book, because it's a rare first novel that sells at 150,000 words.
We're pretty accustomed to our fictional detectives getting it right. A detective who gets it all wrong may seem like a refreshing change, but an agent may want to infer that Jack or Zoe eventually solves the case, so it wouldn't hurt to so imply. Selected Comments
Anonymous said...What EE said. Overall the query creates an impression that there is reason to be optimistic about the book but you are presently a bit clueless about certain things, most notably the marketing of fiction.
alaskaravenclaw said...About the bio. So wait, is the writer saying the drugs he promotes are *not* safe, and not effective, and his job is to say they *are*?
That kind of humo(u)r's a little risky IMHO. You never know when the reader of your query may have a serious illness, or a family member w/same.
I was a little taken aback by the handsome corpse.
Eric said...I'd assume that a doctor and an (ex-)nurse would be pretty well qualified to diagnose the cause of death of Handsome Corpse. Why does Zoe take the police inspector's word for it if there's any medical evidence to the contrary? ("Sometimes people just drop dead." "Yes, but what about the bullet hole in his chest?)
For that matter, why doesn't the police inspector listen to the MD if he has anything medically relevant to say? And why is the doctor acting like a sleuth and sniffing for clues instead of acting like a doctor and analyzing the trauma and wounds on the bodies?
The plot actually sounds very good as a quirky whodunnit (take EE's advice and lose the pretentious bits in the query), but I'd like to see a bit more evidence that you're handling your characters consistently.
no-bull-steve said...150,000 words?!?!?! Is that a misprint? For this type of novel that's too long. Like TWICE as long as it should be.
Interesting concept. I like the EE joke suggestion of "could moonlight as a doiley."
I thought for sure reading the GTP that this one was a joke, and then thought it could work if done cleverly. Great concept! From the marketing perspective it's going to be a tough sell because EE's right, people who'd learn about it would likely be *fans* of whodunits rather than people who detest them. If it's tongue-in-cheek humor then it still might appeal to them as well as to general fans of comedy novels.
Good luck with this. You're really gonna need to do something with that word count. Most fantasy novels aren't even that long.
Dave F. said...There's a nice query here, IMO. It starts at:
Their honeymoon in Crete...
and it ends at:
Too bad he gets it all wrong
Work on that portion and make it better. The rest of the current version repels me. No other words come to mind... Once you start talking about other authors like you do, I think "high pressure new car salesman" and turn off to the book. And that last paragraph about the Pharm indie makes me think that you are a disgruntled employee who is writing a rant and screed about the evils of your bosses. Which puts me off. Even in a discussion when someone starts the moans and whines about their boss and job, I turn on the male ear (ignore all noise) and start thinking about anything else.
BuffySquirrel said...Telling us Zoe quit her nursing post in London isn't enough to tell us she's British, so the common-language joke comes as a surprise. There are lots of foreign nationals working in the NHS, some of them probably called Zoe.
Working back from that language joke, I was then able to figure out the 'special relationship' comment. This t/a humour just doesn't work unless you make it clearer Zack is American and Zoe British.
Seems to me there's a lot of query to come after the query's effectively ended, which makes me wonder if there's a lot of novel after the novel's ended. Would explain that huge wordcount.
Anonymous said...I can see you're hearkening back to the great screwball comedies and it sounds like something I'd probably like to read, but you need to edit more carefully and consider how someone who doesn't know your characters will interpret what you say.
"Jack and Zoe have a special relationship" suggests to me that there is some hidden tie between them that makes their relationship extraordinary. Then you describe two people who have different personalities, which doesn't make their relationship particularly special. I didn't even know they were a couple until you mentioned the honeymoon in the second para.
Plus, the relationship sounds doomed. "Things happen around Zoe, and Jack had better get used to it." Wow. Sounds like there is no relationship - there is only the Zoe show and Jack's just bought a lifetime seat in the audience. Then, she 'can't fathom' Jack's investigation - I can see her being surprised by it, but 'can't fathom' suggests that she isn't capable of understanding it. She sounds tremendously self-centred and uncaring.
Lucky Jack, huh. Then we're told Jack's solution is all wrong. Now I really feel sorry for this poor sod. And you don't mention the denouement, but if Zoe solves it Jack sounds like a poor pitiable creature.
I've brought all this up to show what Jack and Zoe's relationship might sound like when the agent reads the query letter. If that isn't what you intended, you should do a careful edit. If that is what you intended, the book doesn't sound like a cozy mystery.
Oh, and the mention of literary pretensions and the various other authors puts me off.
vkw said...This isn't bad. It's kind of cute. I hope Zoe solves the murder.
There are a few nits. Like everyone else said, the personal bits needs to be pruned because they can be perceived as offensive. "I was a doctor now I am a editor for marketing drugs in the UK."
That tells the editor - one, you should be able write and you have medical experience.
The first paragraph needs to go.
Sarah from Hawthorne said...I think you want to be careful not to make your characters seem too unlikable. Flawed is good, but almost every descriptor of Jack is negative: he's straight-laced, socially inept, smirking, and he thinks he's cleverer than he really is.
Zoe comes off a little better, but despite your claim that she's the wild one, her action in the query seems to suggest she's not - instead she's pining for the days when her husband was a boring stick in the mud. It would make more sense if she were bored and wanted to move on - or if she were jealous that suddenly Jack is the center of attention. As it is, she sounds passive while Jack runs around solving mysteries.
And yeah, it's never a good idea to bad mouth an entire genre in a query. Call it a literary mystery or a tongue-in-cheek cozy, but don't imply that you look down your nose at whodunnits.
All that said, I'd still be totally down for a mystery featuring a mismatched globetrotting husband and wife.
Marissa Doyle said...What everyone else said--this just isn't working, and while it may have sounded clever and witty at the time you wrote it, it's just making me wince.
I also feel like you've only covered half the plot here: so Jack gets it wrong...does anyone get it right? What's the personal upshot for your characters?
Jo-Ann said...Author, the query made me smile, 'coz it reminded me of the first novel I wrote.
It was a send-up of the Enid Blyton Famous Five series, and in my story, my kiddie detectives utterly failed to solve the crime they set out to (but in the process, stumbled on another mystery and nailed the crooks - who happened to discuss their MO within ear-shot of my intrepid sleuths).
The comment from all who read it was "But... so who DID steal the diamonds?" Clearly, none of my friends were clever enough to get it. Ok, so I was twelve at the time.
So author, did the real detectives solve the crime, or did Jack's involvement ruin the forensics? Did poor Jack get sued for defamation by the innocent party he named publically? I like the idea of a bumbling Get Smart type detective, but they need some redeeming features to make them personable, otherwise why would we stick with them for 70,000words, let alone 150,000? Jack comes across as smug and bland - how can you show us he's actually interesting?
Finally, there's a shortage of nurses around the world. Many twentysomethings go on extended working holidays. Travelling, earning some dough for a few months with a nursing agency, then travelling more (makes me wish I'd considered nursing as a career). I'm sure Zoe is spontaneous and so on, but what you've said about her doesn't demonstrate this, as her peers are likely to be doing the same thing. How else can you show us her spontenaity?
Keep going, you'll get there!
chelsea said...The way it's written, it sounds like Zoe doesn't even blink at the discovery of the corpse, but what I think you mean is she doesn't blink at the police's explanation. Even if she is a nurse, discovering a dead body on her honeymoon would be jarring -- unless she's the killer, or a sociopath.
Then you go on to say she knows exactly what Jack will find in the village, but how does she know? The things you state seem a little too specific for her so guess, unless she's from Crete, or the killer.
Then again, looking back, you do say that things happen around her, so maybe she is the killer. If she isn't, I'm not sure why she knows certain things and reacts certain ways.
Otherwise, the premise sounds fun. A few tweaks and I think this will be really enticing :)
Zombie Deathfish said...I quite like quirky mystery stories, but the author's tone put me off this one. The bio section is rather pretentious and the jokes don't really work. I'd chop most of the bio unless it's really relevant to the pitch, and focus on tightening up the query.
Anonymous said...About the bio. So wait, is the writer saying the drugs he promotes are *not* safe, and not effective, and his job is to say they *are*?
Yup, and he/she is bang right (in some cases, at least). Don't look into the pharmaceutical industry unless you want a hell of a scare. However, I agree that this is a little too controversial for the about-me section.
Author: I love the tone and the idea of the cozy mystery protagonist who makes a hash of it, but I echo the general concern about word count. You need at least 50,000 off that, I'd say. I'd definitely be interested in the finished product.
alaskaravenclaw said...Anonymous, I know. We all know. It's not so much that it's controversial as that it suggests the writer is knowingly doing harm and, if not exactly boasting about it, certainly willing to discuss it gleefully.
arhooley said...Author, I think you've done a mostly fine job. I don't read cozies but I can see from your query why people do. In case you're trying to decide where to go with the conflicting advice here, I'll weigh some of the other points.
1 - Your bio -- Yes, cut it down. All we need to know is that you're a doctor who writes; you've got subject-matter expertise and a literary flair.
2 - All of EE's notes on awkward phrasing are right.
3 - It IS a non sequitur that Zoe "doesn't blink" because she knows of the corruption surrounding the death. It's disturbing that she wants to shrug it off and keep honeymooning. If this is really Zoe's reaction, you might want to rethink it. Sometimes when authors have two nice protagonists, they're forced to manufacture conflict with false psychology or dicey morality. Beware.
Anonymous said...(From the author) Pretentious, moi? Thanks to all for the comments.
Obviously this query is too long. I threw in quite a bit of dross to road-test reactions, and I’m glad I did (and that EE printed it in its entirety), because some of them surprised me....although the last few paragraphs were over the limit (not just the query length limit!)
One surprise: several commenters wanted to know more about the plot, particularly the ending. (Eg,—so who did solve it? Or even--how did they meet? ...which to me is getting into backstory). Even the esteemed EE hinted in these directions.
Well, I didn't want to degenerate into much plot summary, or try to sell the story on a clever ending (if it is clever--I doubt there's scope for a lot of originality in murder solutions these days.) But I recognise now there’s a danger that I’m trying to sell Jack’s failure to solve the mystery as the gimmick around which the book is based. It’s not.
If there’s a gimmick, it’s the language angle—miscommunication across the British/American and the female/male divides. (I may elaborate on the former in particular, if this thread stays alive—so please keep the comments coming! As for the latter, I didn’t even attempt to pull into the query. Maybe I should.)
So: how much more plot is really needed? I wanted to focus on voice rather than degenerate into summary or worse still, a laundry-list of characters and suspects. To me, that’s more important than who if anyone solves a crime, or whether the murderer gets away scot-free. On the other hand, the last thing I want is it to sound like a teaser (‘If you want to know what happens you’ll have to read the MS!’) Opinions welcome.
Character likeability—that’s an interesting one. Some people seem surprised a doctor would think he’s smarter than he really is. I’m afraid they do, every last one: to suggest anything else would be to cross the genre line into fantasy. But perhaps I should allow Jack one positive adjective, or at least a neutral one.
I must say raven’s reactions left me dumbfounded—it’s amazing what people can read into things. Raven, no drug’s completely safe and nothing works in everybody. Hell, people die from aspirin, or for that matter from eating prawns. And yes, you have to be imaginative if you’re going to find a way to distil a massive amount of data, some of it contradictory, into a coherent story. As for ‘gleefully boasting’, I’ve never done anything gleefully in my life. It’s not my nature. (And CC, if you really want a scare, then look into the medical profession!) But as I say these are moot points because I just wanted to throw some things up and see if they flew. The bio can go.
As she's from Old Blighty 'erself, Buffy Squirrel’s comments interest me a lot. It’s true that there are a lot of foreign nurses in the NHS, especially I imagine in the cities. If I wandered into Manchester (which I don't want to do) I’d probably find loads on the wards, compared to Macclesfield. Probably even more so down in London. But would your default assumption be this was a Phillipina or a Nigerian rather than someone home-grown? I initially had something about Zoe doing her nursing training in London (or Leeds or whatever) but I wanted to imply that she had enough real ward not to freak out over just another body...but it sounds like people may have trouble accepting that.
In fact, the reaction some (eg, Chelsea, arhooley) showed to “Zoe never blinked” really caught me unawares. You see, once you’ve seen enough dead bodies, they really do lose their shock value. I’ve seen more than I’ve had hot dinners—well, hot breakfasts, anyway—and Zoe’s seen even more. It really wouldn’t ruin her holiday. Whether the man on the Clapham omnibus can believe that, it seems, is another question.
Anonymous said...(From the author. Thanks to any who are still reading.)
I’m surprised no one complained about this: ‘smuggling is the real catch of the day’. The phrase bugs me, but I haven’t come up with a better alternative. Isn’t ‘catch of the day’ a bit cliché (even though here this restaurant term is applied to the port itself, and comes from a particular character’s POV)? And doesn’t this predicate cry out for a concrete noun, rather than a gerund? (Contraband…smuggled contraband…they just don’t do it for me.) Doesn’t this bother anyone else? Why not?
And no complaints about ‘It’s one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent education’? What about “a marriage…gets a good dose of murder”? How can you dose a marriage? And since when dose murder come in doses?
EE didn’t like ‘so straitlaced he should have been a mummy’, and I must admit that reaction caught me off-guard. ‘Strait’ is pretty obsolete as an adjective; the only place I can think of where it survives is ‘straitlaced’ and ‘straitjacket’, and of course ‘straitlaced’ is nearly always used in its metaphorical rather than its literal sense—‘humourless, conservative, inhibited’ rather than ‘tightly wound up’. Is the literal meaning of the word now so forgotten that the phrase I used doesn’t work? Opinions, please.
Anyway, those were the things I found surprising. Just a few other thoughts….
I had some misgivings about the first paragraph from the get-go. I certainly wouldn’t use the line were I to query American agents: the phrase ‘special relationship’ would go right over their heads. I think a Brit would get it (eg BuffySquirrel), but I’d appreciate any feedback from anyone else from the UK, especially in view of the sexual dynamic that’s inherent in this situation. But I am deliberating how to get rid of this paragraph without losing what it’s meant to communicate: the difference in nationalities and personalities. (BTW, I’m surprised no one complained about ‘telling, not showing’ here.)
Paragraphs 2-4 pass the EE test, but some commenters worried about inconsistency in characterisation. (eg, Why would a wild, spontaneous woman want her man to remain predictable?) CCC may be thinking too precisely on the issue, but I’ll give his points some thought.
‘Handsome corpse’ was a last-minute change that I regret. Too distracting, and I haven’t even got zombies on the brain.
I’m not worried about the word count. Like EE suggested, I can either round down instead of up (149K rounded to the nearest thousand is 100K, and if I don’t count all the really short words I’m at 149). Or I could just print the MS in teensy-weensy font so it looks a lot shorter than it is.
Again, thanks to all for ideas. As an exercise, I’m seeing what I come up with if I try to adjust to as many comments as I can.
Stick and Move said..."(149K rounded to the nearest thousand is 100K, and if I don’t count all the really short words I’m at 149)."
Uh, 149K rounded to the nearest thousand is 149K. 149K rounded to the nearest HUNDRED thousand is 100K. I'm no expert, but I don't think it's industry practice to round to the nearest hundred thousand.
Anonymous said...Author, stop playing with yourself in public. A query letter is a business letter designed to tell a potential agent or editor about your book, giving a concise precis of the plot, a taste of the writer's style, and accurate information about things like word count. Most agents prefer a letter of approximately 250 words. They don't have time to plow through verbal diarrhea-- there are another few hundred queries in their inboxes to choose from.
And please... you're "not worried about the word count"? Hate to break it to you, but publishers are. Unless you're name is J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or (ahem) John Grisham, you'd better worry about word count...if you want even a slim chance of being published.
Not Normally Pretentious said...Author, if you think 149k is an acceptable length for a murder mystery, you are dreadfully uneducated or hopelessly misinformed.
Murder mysteries are half that length...not 100k words. Shorter.
Anonymous said...On rare occasions exceptionally long first novels are published without shortening. This happens when the plot and the prose are so remarkably gripping and magnetic everyone agrees the book's outstanding literary qualities would be diminished by shortening.
Our impression = you don't have one of those.
You could pitch this to agents as it is, with the hope of finding one who can help you figure how best to shorten it. Or you can try slimming it down on your own. Most important = avoid giving the impression you feel every detail is too precious to cut. Editing 150K words down to 80K or 100K is plenty of work with a cooperative author. Nobody will want the job if you're going to argue every deletion.
Joe G said...I'm amused by the author's comments criticizing his or her own work. It's good to be perceptive about your writing!
Strait-laced in its original meaning means "tightly laced", not "tightly wound", nor does it mean "tightly bandaged", so the mummy metaphor is a joke that misses the mark for all of us, British or no. Are mummies traditionally uptight? "Stuffy as a mummy" might be funny, but that's not accurate to the character, is it? It's not a matter of whether or not we can divine the meaning of the joke... it's just not a funny joke.
Anyway, I found your query riddled with dumb jokes and your writing a little impenetrable. At 150,000 words, I imagine the book itself is similar, but I hope not, if it's a page turning murder mystery.
My biggest complaint is that your hero is a doctor and your heroine is a nurse. That's not getting very far apart, is it?
Anonymous said...(Author again.) Hmm. Seeems hard to get comments on the bits I'm actually looking for feedback on. Forget word count--I can shorten. This book may not even exist as far as anyone knows. (But thanks for link, NNP--never seen that "ezine" site. There's even a section on car repairs!)
So if anyone has any thoughts on the questions I asked about some points in paragraphs 2-4 (and maybe 1), I'd really appreciate it.
Oh, and Anonymous at 12.15pm: sorry about that, I've turned off the webcam now.
Evil Editor said...You can open by introducing American doctor Jack and British nurse Zoe, who met at X hospital in London three years ago and are now on their honeymoon. Who cares if it's backstory? 99 percent of queries open with some backstory. You have to set up the situation. It's a problem only if the entire plot summary is backstory.
Isn’t ‘catch of the day’ a bit cliché? No, it's appropriate as this is a fishing village. And doesn’t this predicate cry out for a concrete noun, rather than a gerund? Yes, but as the author, you are the one who knows what they mainly smuggle. Just name it. Instead of "smuggling" is the catch of the day," "smuggled diamonds are..."
And no complaints about ‘It’s one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent education’? No. What about “a marriage…gets a good dose of murder”? How can you dose a marriage? And since when dose murder come in doses? No one is stupid enough to take those phrases literally. Are you saying you meant them literally?
Phoenix said...once you’ve seen enough dead bodies, they really do lose their shock value
Then why does Jack blink? You may blithely explain Zoe's reaction away, but it doesn't explain why she acts one way and Jack, who's a doctor, another. Also, I've seen lots of dead dogs -- even killed some in my old profession -- but I would still blink if I found one by the swimming pool or somewhere else dead dogs don't normally turn up.
Now, I know this is supposed to be sort of an anti-cozy, but I'd be looking for a couple of things in a cozy:
* Usually the amateur sleuth has a good (personal) reason to get involved in the mystery - something which appears to be lacking here. What's Jack's motivation?
* Usually the protag is female. Since you're purposefully going against the norm by setting the male half of the couple up as the sleuth and giving us a female whose sole purpose seems to be to rag on her counterpart, the reader doesn't know how to interpret this -- hence, the questions about how it ends. The POV character here is Zoe, but the action character is Jack, so the reader doesn't know if it's a true mystery or simply a character study.
* If you're doing a parody, it probably needs to be crystal clear from the story description that's what it is or else you're probably better served leading with that thought and putting the reader in the right frame of mind from the get-go.
Finally, I don't think people were commenting down to the word choice and punctuation level because the expectation is that this query will be worked over pretty thoroughly before it appears again and most of the quibbles likely won't even make it into the next version.
I certainly didn't "get" either of your "gimmicks" from this query -- neither language miscommunication nor male/female divide. If you expect those to be the selling points, they'll need to be worked in.
And many of us write queries for WIPs or to test the water before we even get started; but to put the attention on the query itself, we generally guestimate the final word count to be somewhere in the acceptable range so folk don't auto reject it the way many an agent would. No need to test an excessive word count. It'll get a knee-jerk reaction every time. So high word counts? Generally real.
Anonymous said...(Author) Thanks Evil! Having run a blog myself--for about a week--I know what I time sink it can be; please know you're appreciated.
Also--Joe G, thanks for your feedback. Our posts crossed so I didn't see yours till after I'd already posted. If you could point out the 1 or 2 spots in paras 1-4 that you found most impenetrable, I'd really appreciate it.
Any other ideas or comments from others are very welcome, especially on the worries I identified a few posts ago.
Working on revision(s)...
BuffySquirrel said...With a name like Zoe, I'd assume she was Australian or a New Zealander. Possibly South African, although we don't get as many of those these days.
This country would collapse without our friends from the Commonwealth.
Anonymous said...(Author) Buffy, the one Zoe I know is the South African who painted our conservatory. And Google tells me that in Australia it's been among the top 10 most popular baby names for girls, whilst in England it's hasn't cracked no. 70.
I chose the name because its meaning fits the character's personality and because it's Greek. After reading your thoughts, I agree it's worth being more explicit about her nationality. I don't want to hit people over the head with things, but it looks like I've tried to be too subtle here.
Phoenix, thanks for your thoughts esp on Jack's motivation. I really didn't intend this to be a parody, just a story, but as that story violates the conventions you've identified I see your point about being more specific. (Anti-cozy may be a good term, actually. I like that.)
The plot actually turns on language a lot and the allusion to that was in the phrases ‘special relationship’ and ‘divided by a common language’. Also the explicit reference to Churchill but that bio para’s to be discarded (EE, you left out my favourite quote: in the morning I’ll be sober but you’ll still be ugly. Or the one about the poison in the coffee.) So maybe that needs to be emphasised a little more—again, I’m wary about being too blatant. One of the plot points turns on the phrase ‘the second storey’, which means something different in Europe to America (and it’s spoken by a Greek who learned his English in America). I didn’t want to pull the female/male thing in here as it’s been done to death, but maybe I should consider it. But obviously there’s only so much space to do the language thing…I can’t really go on about the character who likes to quote Cavafy and the Erotokritos.
Will continue to ponder these as I revise…Further ideas or comments very welcome
Anonymous said...Re: why no answers for questions embedded in your dissertation or two o' comments:
Twasn't gripping enough to read through. A writer's group might be just exactly the right thing for you.
Anonymous said...(Author again) Anonymous at 12.56: A writers' group--now that's a laugh! You've never been to Macclesfield, have you?
But I'm confused now--what wasn't gripping enough to read through? My query or the dissertation-length posts? Or both?
Thanks for your input...continuing to revise...
Phoenix said...A writers' group--now that's a laugh
I'm assuming you mean because Macclesfield is small and/or remote and/or backwater? My crit group is small, with members in Australia, Spain, and the UK. I live in a rural area in the US. The member nearest me -- on the same continent, at least -- is 1500 miles (2400 km) away. Many groups these days are virtual. Some even use exotic machinery like Macs and iPhones to participate. It's a brave new world, my friend.
Anonymous said...(Author) Phoenix, a small crit group—one you really fit in with—sounds wonderful. Personally, I like being in the same room as the people I’m talking to: always helps to know when they start rolling their eyes! But if you live in darkest Peru then I suppose the virtual world can be a godsend.
I’m not really looking for critique of my novel right now, so a writer’s group isn’t what I’m looking for, even though I’m sure that on balance there’s a lot to be said for them. I simply wanted to test-drive some ideas for a potential query letter, to gauge reactions, and that means coming to the Evil Editor. Again, I can’t emphasise enough what a star EE is to do this—it’s a hassle running a blog, and it’s no wonder people like Miss Snark throw in the towel. I’ve actually been following EE’s Guess the Plot query critiques for as long as I can remember—probably before you were born—though I’m pretty sure I’ve never commented on anyone’s query myself. I’m not an agent, and many queries relate to genres I’m not particularly interested in, so (like many others, I’m sure) I prefer to sit back and watch the commentary. There’s a few regular participants whose posts I watch for, and you’re among them. The comments you made on mine were insightful and I’m definitely considering them as I revise.
In retro, it was no doubt a mistake to give the actual rather than the projected wordcount—it proved too much of a distraction to some—and likewise it was silly to lead with a sentence that doesn’t mean anything in the US, since most readers of this blog are, I’m pretty sure, American. All the same, I’ve got a lot of useful reactions here, and even though inevitably some of them are contradictory, as Arhooley pointed out (another person whose comments I watch for), it’s been very useful to me—so thanks, all.
I’ve got a lot on in the short term but will definitely be revising. To quote a certina ex-governor, I’ll be back!