Monday, September 10, 2012

Pitch Polish #108


Title of Manuscript: If a Butterfly
Genre: Mainstream Fiction
Word Count: 240,000 words (yes, it’s a long book)

Query: 

The mainstream novel, If a Butterfly, is like Six Degrees of Separation From Kevin Bacon, but with a butterfly. 
It’s 2003, the Iraq war is underway, gas is $1.60, and a married couple (an actress and a teacher) set off across country on a driving vacation. When they accidentally "kidnap" a Monarch butterfly and pull it out of its normal migration path, they set off a series of seemingly ordinary events which send them into the path of Hurricane Isabel, a near wreck with a grad student, and an actual wreck with a disgruntled radio disc jockey. Other events follow which provide connections between these characters and an astronaut, a scientist, a quilter, and a woman with multiple personality disorder (who becomes lost in the Grand Canyon). 
Will everyone survive these incidents? How will the connections affect their lives? 
Read If a Butterfly to find out.

First 150 Words:
The air was as still and cold as a winter graveyard, and the frost clinging to the needles of the oyamel fir trees showed no sign of melting in the crisp morning air. The sky was growing lighter, but the sun still hadn’t graced the expedition with an appearance yet. Worried, because this cold could be devastating for the Monarchs, Robert Meyers looked back at the small group of teachers following him up the mountain trail at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, wishing they would move a little faster. Earlier, anxious to reach the grove, he had accelerated the pace, but several group members had asked him to slow down.
            Laura Benson shivered in the February chill. The exhilaration she felt about finally seeing the butterflies in their winter refuge did nothing to dispel the effects of the cold and the fog that enveloped the Mexican mountaintop, but she was determined to not let the weather get in the way of this long-delayed pleasure.

13 comments:

Lauren said...

I think you've tried to put too much detail in your query, while at the same time providing too little.

Does the year matter? Does it matter to the book the price of gas or the war that's going on? On the other hand, I want to know more. Is it the butterfly's story, or someone else's? I assume the link to all of these people is the butterfly, but in reality I don't know.

I'm no expert on queries, but I'd start with "When a married couple accidentally 'kidnap' a Monarch butterfly..." then put the first paragraph (the mainstream novel...) as the last paragraph in the query.

As far as the excerpt, you may want to look at your POV. You have two POV characters in these two paragraphs.

Carrie-Anne said...

I agree about too many details making for not enough real meat. When you're querying a deliberately long saga, you want to emphasize huge, high stakes and very dramatic, pivotal events. Otherwise it looks like you're just querying a book that could be construed as overwritten. (I was also advised to leave word count out when it's up so high, so any potential rejections are based on opinion of the writing or story, NOT prejudice against supersized books.)

When you emphasize really important events that are up here instead of down there, you make it clear why a book requires a longer length, and that it's a sweeping, multi-layered saga. I was advised to look at blurbs for books like Gone with the Wind, The Thorn Birds, James Michener books, etc., to see how superlong sagas are concisely boiled down to a few paragraphs with a strong hook and emphasis on the really big things. My first attempts at queries for my superlong Russian historical novel made it seem like just some long historical romance or focused on some silly love triangle, but I finally got it to focus on the fact that it's a historical novel that just happens to include a love story.

myupsndowns said...

I think this is an interesting premise, but I can tell you that in my experience, 99% of agents are going to tell you that 240,000 words is way too long for a debut novel.

I also think your query has too many details, and too many thoughts in parentheses.

On a positive note, the first 150 words are beautifully written. If you could use that voice in the query, I think you'd have something wonderful!

Jessica Peterson said...

I would put the first sentence at the end, you want to start with your hook. Your title should be capitalized. I do like the idea of your first sentence but I think you could leave out "a married couple" and just put the actress and teacher. It is a lot of details and all in one sentence it seems. I feel like I don't really know what the plot is about. One thing that has helped me is answering these four questions:1. WHO is this story about? 2. WHAT does he/she want? 3. WHAT stands in her/his way? 4. WHAT is he/she willing to risk to get it?

Good luck :)

Tamara said...

The second paragraph of your first 150 words sounds more like a hook and opener for your book. The first paragraph takes too long to get me as the reader to a place where I want to keep reading. In your query I think more needs to be said about the stakes of your story.
Nice writing.

Stephsco said...

Some really great comments here. I agree on focusing on the larger story arcs and viewing it more like an epic saga; right now the word count seems too long based on the story presented.

I would suggest finding similar length books that you've enjoyed and read their back cover blurbs and Goodreads and Amazon descriptions. Back cover copy can be rather vague, so it's not always the best source, but you can at least see how an epic story is framed. Something like Middlesex which crosses several generations and is contemporary literary fiction. You'll want to round out the details though so agents can see what the stakes and core conflict are.

Best of luck to you!

Robin said...

Love the title and the concept-terrified by the word count, esp. if this is your 1st MS, I read agents rarely take a chance just because of the word count.

In the 1st 150 I'd be cautious of passive voice (the air was, the sky was) and adverbs (that would help with word count too)

yet and still not needed in "but the sun still hadn't graced the expedition with an appearance yet." I found multiple areas like this where tightening is possible. I'd encourage doing that to the novel and cutting down on word count. Make every single one count. (A search of ly, just, and only do wonders after my 1st draft)

Good luck!

I'm #51 if you get a chance to check it out that's be great.

Meagan said...

I'm immediately, without a doubt put off by the 240,000 words, and instead of looking at your query, went to your first 150 words to find out more. Without reading the query, I can tell you, from the first 150 words, you have a lot of cutting you can do. 240,000 is long for a debut, and I think you know that. But do you know how to cut?

Do a search in your manuscript for the following words: was, little, back, against, small, said, so, just, before, earlier, felt, heard, saw, realized, believed. Take stock of how many times you use each. Go through and eliminate as many as you can, rewording and cutting as you go. Often times, these words are unnecessary. Particularly take a look at your use of "was" and pay close attention to how you could cut passive phrases to active ones. This won't eliminate every instance of "was" or "were", and you shouldn't do that, but it will help. And trust me, it'll cut.

To help give you an example, I've cut some words:

The air was as still and cold as a winter graveyard --> I didn't cut anything, but I would cut the whole phrase.

and the frost clinging to the needles of the oyamel fir trees showed no sign of melting in the crisp morning air ---> Starting here instead: Frost clung to the needle of the fir trees, showing no sigh of melting.

The sky was growing lighter, --> The sky grew lighter, / The sky lightened,

but the sun still hadn’t graced the expedition with an appearance yet. --> but the sun hadn't yet graced the expedition.

Worried, because this cold could be devastating for the Monarchs, ---> Worried the cold would be devastating for the Monarchs,

Robert Meyers looked back at the small group of teachers following him up the mountain trail at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, --> Robert Meyers looked at the group of teachers following him up the mountain trail at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary.

wishing they would move a little faster. --> He wished they would move faster.

Earlier, anxious to reach the grove, he had accelerated the pace, but several group members had asked him to slow down. --> I might cut this too, because it doesn't advance us any.

Laura Benson shivered in the February chill. The exhilaration she felt about finally seeing the butterflies --> Laura Benson shivered. Her exhilarion from seeing the butterflies did not dispel the cold and fog enveloping the Mexican mountaintop, but she remained determined to not let the weather get in the way.

Pulling my edits together: Frost clung to the needle of the fir trees, showing no sign of melting. The sky lightened, but the sun hadn't yet graced the expedition. Worried the cold would be devastating for the Monarchs, Robert Meyers looked at the group of teachers following him up the mountain trail at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary. He wished they would move faster.

Laura Benson shivered. Her exhilaration from seeing the butterflies did not dispel the cold and fog enveloping the Mexican mountaintop, but she remained determined to not let the weather get in the way.

This brings you down from 164 words to 93. This is intended not to erase voice or style, but to tighten up some phrases, and keep the narrative on track.

Tamara said...

Before I say anything, I'd like to start with I'm not trying to be mean. In fact, my first novel was right around the length of yours before I realized I absolutely HAD to cut it down if I ever wanted to find an agent.

Somebody up above put that ninety-nine percent of agents would turn this down as a debut novel. I'd go so far as saying one hundred percent.

It's not going to matter how great your query is. You could have the best query/sample pages in the world. The word count is going to get the query tossed aside without ever being looked at.

I would hate to see that happen. There has to be a way to cut this down, or turn it into two books. that's what I ended up doing with my first. I changed the ending and turned it into two books.

I queried it at 100,000 and I can't tell you how many agents told me THAT was too long for them. Mine book was YA, so the cut off is a little lower. I don't know what it would be for mainstream fiction, but I'd google it and try to cut it down to the suggested length.

I wish you the best of luck with this!!

Jane Ann McLachlan said...

Query: Cut this into 2 or even 3 books, if there is enough plot to do so.This sounds like a cool concept, but what is the story? A story involves someone or ones who need to do 'X' for a reason that has high stakes involved (if they fail something terrible will happen to them or their family/country/world) and who must overcome 'y' to accomplish 'x'. I think you might have that here, but you haven't shown us that.In your query, it sounds like your characters simply drift or are pulled from one bad situation to the next without ever actually doing anything themselves.
150 words: beautifully written. Only one problem that I noticed, that is you jump from the leader's POV in para 1 to the woman's POV in para 2. I would prefer you pick one POV and stick with it. If you feel you must switch, you have to leave a blank line between the paragraphs to indicate a switch in Point of View.Even better, if you want to alternate POV, do so in alternate chapters.

Michael Sirois said...

Hi, Everybody--

I'm the author, and I just wanted to respond to thank all of you for your comments, kind and critical alike. Every bit of input is valuable to me.

I know 240,000 words is a lot, and it may put me out of the running with most or all agents, so I should start by letting you know that this is the shortened version (down from 280,000 words) after a couple of serious edits.

Yes, I think there's still a lot I can do to rework the language, and I'll probably take another pass at it early next year, after I've finished the second draft of my thriller, The Jagged Man.

The plot has always been difficult for me to describe, partly because it does meander in the sense that it follows ordinary people doing ordinary things (driving across the country on a vacation), people doing their jobs (attending business conferences, orbiting Earth on the International Space Station, etc.), and the intersection of these "ordinary things" with other characters' journeys. If the couple hadn't given the butterfly an unwanted ride in their car, they wouldn't have met the scientist, who wouldn't have ... (you get the idea). It's a confluence of events which places some characters in danger, and changes other characters' perspectives on their lives, but (in one way or another) connects all these people together.

As far as the POV comments, I understand where you're coming from, and it's the only part I'll try to defend. I know it's supposedly taboo to switch in the middle of a chapter, but writers do it all the time. There actually was a space between paragraphs to indicate the shift from Laura to Robert, but it didn't translate to the web page. This chapter, the prologue, is the only chapter in which these two characters appear until the end of the book, so I feel it's necessary to show how both of them feel about each other before the novel gets underway. Past the first 150 words, the POV shifts again to Robert, then back to Laura to close the chapter.

And I should add, that I have considered splitting it into two or even three books, and have done a little work writing plot synopses for the novels as two companion books, but I do have two agents (from the Writer's League of Texas Agent's conference earlier this year) who are interested in seeing the big version. If I get similar comments from them about the length, that would be my next move (separating the plot into two books, taking place during the same time frame, running parallel to each other chronologically).

Anyway, thank you all. I am listening.

Michael

Cynthia said...

I often hear about how agents try to sell a two or three book deal at once so perhaps you could split up your novel into two or three larger stories. How nice for you to have not one, but two agents!

Mia Celeste said...

Your book sounds really intriguing and very unique. I'd read it. I like the way random events will weave together and I'm a fan of butterflies.

Just my opinion, I'd start your 150 words with the third sentence where Michael is worried. This brings action and character front and center immediately and I believe action and character are what pulls readers in.

I don't have a problem with the POV switch--it works for me.

Well, all the best, and thank you for your helpful feedback with my entry.