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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Fragments and Feedback for Books » Query for *The Wonderful Instrument*

   
Author Topic: Query for *The Wonderful Instrument*
MattLeo
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I've revised the query to focus on the relationship between Hector and Maximilian. Does this feel less like "name soup"?

--- revision 1 ---

Sixteen year-old Hector Chin just might be the liberal arts' answer to Frankenstein's monster. If so, he's a thousand times more dangerous. His uncle and guardian, the mad scholar Dr. Chin, has not only equipped Hector with superhuman strength and intellect, he's also endowed him with a sophisticated understanding of the human heart that makes it easy for Hector to bend ordinary mortals to his will.

Unsure whether he has created a superman or a monster, Dr. Chin needs something to test Hector's mettle. And he's found just the thing: Maximilian, a new student at Hector's school. A dashing young refugee from the fascist upheavals in 1930s Europe, Maximilian is an insincere, manipulative troublemaker. Nonetheless, Maximilian always manages to attract the friendship of at least one decent person. He thinks this is because nobody can see through his charming facade, but that proves no challenge for the wily Dr. Chin, who wastes no time whipping Maximilian's insecurities up to comical proportions. The professor knows that such a high-strung, feckless boy is bound to draw his nephew's attention.

Maximilian at first thinks the quiet and apparently unassuming Hector must be feeble-minded. In an uncharacteristic act of charity Maximilian decides to take Hector under his wing, only to quickly find himself firmly planted under Hector's. Emboldened by Hector's protection, Maximilian sets out to seduce the beautiful Summer. When she proves too easy a conquest, sets his sights on the pugnacious Nellie, Summer's redoubtable self-appointed protector. Hector finds mentoring the mecurial boy challenging enough, but his job is complicated when he discovers his own feelings for Nellie.

By the time Maximilian's enemies catch up with him, he's a different, more formidable boy, ready to face the threat that has hounded his family out of Europe. Under Hector's guidance, Maximilian has learned to be brave and steadfast, but this comes at a price for Hector when this new and improved Maximilian finally wins Nellie over. But Hector has his own lesson to learn: a flesh-and-blood girl can't love an invulnerable superman.

--- original post ---


OK, I'm shopping *The Keystone* around, so I'm thinking about reworking *The Wonderful Instrument* into something that could be pitched to an agent. I've attached a new draft query below.

One problem I'm having is positioning this story in a recognizable genre. I intended the story to be a fantasy, but I also wanted to explore what fantasy *is*. To do that, I excluded all the conventional indicators of fantasy: elves and wizards; spells and enchanted objects; prophecy and destiny; monsters other than the human kind. Since a story that has any of these things is *automatically* fantasy, such a story can't tell us what fantasy is.

Instead I filled the story with marvelous things, searching for the exact point where "improbable" becomes "miraculous". The story is ultimately unequivocally magical -- it has to be for the experiment to work -- but I want the reader to form his own conclusion before that point, to draw a line for himself and say, "alright, this must be magic."

But how to peg the story? I could call it "Urban Fantasy" but it doesn't have vampires or any of the usual UF trappings. I *think* it might best be called "magical realist", but that sounds pretentious to me, as though catering to readers who simply want entertainment is beneath me.

Oh, yes, and it's chock full of humor. I'm a satirist but I'm leery of identifying myself that way. People usually assume I mean I write parody or burlesque, which I don't.

Any thoughts?

--- query ---


"A dashing but insecure young political refugee befriends a strange and friendless boy, not realizing that the boy is a modern Frankenstein's monster."

It is the 1930s. Fascism and “scientific racism” are intellectually respectable. Stalin and Mussolini are fashionable in polite circles, and even the monarchists scent opportunity in the air... For this is the golden age of humbug, and handsome young Maximilian is shaping up to be a man for the times. He enjoys shocking adults with his second-hand Bolshevism and seducing girls with his equally insincere gallantries.

When Maximilian is kicked out of his arch-conservative military school he ends up at Plumfield, a haven for the offspring of wealthy free-thinkers. He is out of his depth there: his politics shock nobody and the students are too busy running wild to pay attention to his phony manners. Worse, he runs afoul of the school's fascist contingent, dealing them a humiliating defeat. Maximilian is worried about payback, but in a fit of uncharacteristic charity he decides to take soft-spoken Hector Chin under his wing. The lone Oriental student must be an easy target for the fascists' tormenting.

Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. Hector was raised by his brilliant uncle Dr. Chin to be the *perfect* gentleman, and while Dr. Chin may be insane, he does nothing by halves. The school's nascent fascists pose no challenge to Hector's outlandish mental and physical powers. Maximilian is a different story. Buoyed by Hector's protection, Maximilian returns to his old tricks. First he seduces shy, beautiful Summer. When that proves too easy, he turns his attention to pugnacious Nellie, Summer's formidable self-appointed protector.

Soon Maximilian's enemies arrive from Europe to settle old scores. These aren't aspiring fascists, they're the real thing, backed by competent criminal henchmen. Hector must protect both the terrified Maximilian and the terrifyingly self-confident Nellie, a girl who literally fears no evil. Maximilian is straightforward: Hector will teach the moral coward the courage to face his enemies. Nellie on the other hand won't stand for any man protecting her; and when Hector discovers he has feelings for her, for the first time in his life he finds himself saying and doing exactly the wrong things...

[ December 14, 2012, 04:46 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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Jess
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This sounds like an interesting story. The hook at the end is cool and would make the reader want to reader more.
The problem I see is your query is name soup. I count at least five characters that we must keep straight for this query. Just when we start to get to know one character, the query begins to talk about another one. I'd say simplify. Stick with one character. Let the query reader get emotionally invested in him and his problems. Name only him, maybe the antagonist or the love interest, but don't put a ton of names in the query. Your book probably has an awesome cast of characters, but the query doesn't need it. Pick on that will most likely make the reader want to read the book.
I'm also not sure why the first line is in quotes. It's a great logline, but maybe tie it in to the rest of the query better and let us know how it relates to the character that you are making the query about.
Hope my little bit of advice helps.

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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:

"A dashing but insecure young political refugee befriends a strange and friendless boy, not realizing that the boy is a modern Frankenstein's monster."

Why is this first sentence in quotes? I personally don't like starting with tag lines. That could be because I'm no good at them. [Smile] If you're going to in this case, I think you need to make a smoother transition to the next paragraph.

quote:
It is the 1930s. Fascism and “scientific racism” are intellectually respectable. Stalin and Mussolini are fashionable in polite circles, and even the monarchists scent opportunity in the air... For this is the golden age of humbug, and handsome young Maximilian is shaping up to be a man for the times. He enjoys shocking adults with his second-hand Bolshevism and seducing girls with his equally insincere gallantries.
This is all back story. I'm not convinced you need any more than to indicate the 1930s as a backdrop. Oh, and maybe a hint at where it takes place. Especially in the 30s, geography would matter a lot.

quote:
When Maximilian is kicked out of his arch-conservative military school he ends up at Plumfield, a haven for the offspring of wealthy free-thinkers. He is out of his depth there: his politics shock nobody and the students are too busy running wild to pay attention to his phony manners. Worse, he runs afoul of the school's fascist contingent, dealing them a humiliating defeat. Maximilian is worried about payback, but in a fit of uncharacteristic charity he decides to take soft-spoken Hector Chin under his wing. The lone Oriental student must be an easy target for the fascists' tormenting.
Here's where the story starts. You can squeeze in his character here as the reason he got kicked out of his last school. I think I'd leave out the bit about the fascist element here.

quote:
Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. Hector was raised by his brilliant uncle Dr. Chin to be the *perfect* gentleman, and while Dr. Chin may be insane, he does nothing by halves. The school's nascent fascists pose no challenge to Hector's outlandish mental and physical powers. Maximilian is a different story. Buoyed by Hector's protection, Maximilian returns to his old tricks. First he seduces shy, beautiful Summer. When that proves too easy, he turns his attention to pugnacious Nellie, Summer's formidable self-appointed protector.
Here's where you start throwing in too many names. Three, tops, in a query. Usually, that's hero, love interest, and antagonist. In this case, though, I think you've got more of a friendship story, so I'd concentrate on Maximilian and Hector. You can simply refer to Hector's uncle as his uncle. Drop Summer altogether and only mention Nellie if she is central to the story (as in a wedge in the friendship).

quote:
Soon Maximilian's enemies arrive from Europe to settle old scores. These aren't aspiring fascists, they're the real thing, backed by competent criminal henchmen. Hector must protect both the terrified Maximilian and the terrifyingly self-confident Nellie, a girl who literally fears no evil. Maximilian is straightforward: Hector will teach the moral coward the courage to face his enemies. Nellie on the other hand won't stand for any man protecting her; and when Hector discovers he has feelings for her, for the first time in his life he finds himself saying and doing exactly the wrong things...
Okay. Now this sounds like it's more Hector's story than Max's. If that's the case, I suggest starting with Hector and then introducing Max as the boy that befriends him.

Try to keep it close to 250 words--no more than 400--and concentrate on who the main character is (and why we should care), what is the problem or choice he faces, and what are the consequences.

Good luck with this.

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Meredith
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Forgot to add: I think I'd go with magical realism.
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JoBird
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The small amount of research I've done regarding queries suggests concentrating on answering these three questions:

1. What does the main character want?
2. What does the main character do to get it?
3. What happens if the main character fails?

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Tryndakai
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I agree with all the comments so far---simplify!

Though I would say the description has got me rather intrigued, it's still a bit long and convoluted for a query, perhaps.

How important is it, really, to know the genre? Isn't that one of those details you let the marketing people work out later? [Wink] Throwing in the details about the Frankenstein's monster makes it pretty clear this isn't straight historical fiction. Anything else probably doesn't matter much, yet.

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MattLeo
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I've revised the query to focus on Hector and Maximilian's relationship (see above).

I can't say I'm happy with "Magical Realism" as a genre -- it sounds too literary and not funny enough.

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Grumpy old guy
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MattLeo, I'll share a piece of advice I received here:

Query Shark helpfully provided by a hatracker here, but I can't remember her handle.

The major piece of advice is to start your query where the story begins. Not the first chapter and the set-up or back-story, but where the action starts. Which, to my mind might be here:

quote:
When Maximilian is kicked out of his arch-conservative military
As she points out on her site, the query letter is meant to entice the prospective agent into wanting to read more, not explain the plot.

Phil.

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MattLeo
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Phil -- I am familiar with QueryShark, but I don't think it's terribly useful.

Take the advice you've cited. Start where the story starts, but don't retell the story? Isn't that inconsistent? In any case, I agree that the query should focus on the appeal of the story, leaving the plot retelling to the synopsis.

The appeal of TWI is that it is full of quirky, vivid, funny characters at an unique point in history -- truly the golden age of humbug. And it's a romantic story that satirizes romance, perhaps the Ur-humbug of humbugs, pointing out romance's pivotal role in fascism while acknowledging the human need for it.

Most of all, TWI is about the power of vulnerability, and how our efforts to protect ourselves blight our aspirations. "It is a truism," Hector says apparently unaware of the irony, "that where the defenses are strongest, the suffering is greatest."

The genesis of this story came from a recurring dream, one which I think is common among aspiring writers. In that dream I'd pick up a musical instrument and discover to my delight that I can play it beautifully. I think that dreams comes to people who have something inside them they feel they need to show the world. In the story I gave that dream to Hector. His wonderful instrument is his love for Nellie, and what the story offers the reader who makes it to the point where Hector reveals his feelings is a powerful, fairy tale catharsis.

[ December 14, 2012, 06:53 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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