Nov 15, 2009


BECOMING THEM (121,000 words) is literary fiction.

In 1970 when Michael, a 26 year old American, wanders into an isolated valley in southeastern Europe, he believes he has only two problems: an abnormally thick-skinned face, leaving him expressionless, and an incomplete memory of the woman with whom he traveled over the preceding six months. He believes his face is likely a psychological condition rather than one of skin or muscle and embarks on a plan to soften it. Fingering through the broken images of his memory, Michael also finds a written invitation to rendezvous with the woman in two months time and is determined to be there.

In the town of Isti, Michael is welcomed and soon wants to become as they are: accepting, gregarious and communal. Yet he also learns of their secret three-hundred-year-old tradition, reenacted every fifty years, of sacrificing a newborn to live in the mountains and be raised by the previously sacrificed child, now grown. The townspeople of Isti are struggling with their tradition of sacrifice and debate whether to do it again. And if so, whose child to send. A benevolent Committee governs the town but as talk of democracy spreads through Eastern Europe in the late 1960s, Isti is not immune. Still, the townspeople are hesitant to take responsibility for a decision like this, preferring the safer course of following tradition, and their leaders.

BECOMING THEM is a far-fetched tale of sacrifices made to maintain membership in a group; of the unifying force of a well-kept secret; of change's flirtatious relationship with commitment; and of the townspeople's inability to see themselves as they truly are, insisting instead on seeing themselves as they hope to be.

Thanks for any comments.


Victoria Dixon said...

Okay, 1. 121K is a bit long. 2. the fact that he's got partial amnesia (how does he get it?) should be of primary concern. It's a difficult condition to live with. 3. I don't get this sacrifice. Why do they do it? 4. I'm concerned that a desire to be accepting, gregarious and communal is not enough motivation for a 120K novel. If he arrives in Isti two months after the book's beginning (which is what it sounds like) we should already know what his goals are and they should have nothing to do with Isti. 5. And why would he want to be like a bunch of people who abandon a child in the wilderness every 50 years? This is not great motivation for us to like him or them. I'm sure they HAVE good reason, but we need to know it in the query OR you need to gloss over it as a plot device and tell us only about Michael's goals, which is actually what I think an editor/agent will prefer to see. 6. Don't use your last paragraph to tell us everything that your first paragraph was supposed to tell us. This letter is your chance to show an editor rather than tell. Use it well. ;D Good luck!

wendy said...

This query has some very awkward expressions at times. I think it needs much fine-tuning. I doubted being abnormally thick-skinned would leave someone expressionless. I think, rather, that would cause the skin to wrinkle more than anything else. But perhaps it's the awkward way this assumption was expressed that made it seem over-the-top. Then there was the awkward phrase which followed the query saying he had plans to soften his skin: Fingering through the broken images of his memory... It just didn't flow on smoothly as it seemed to imply at first that he was going to massage his face to soften it.

I found the last paragraph the worst for awkward expressions. I don't think describing one's work as 'far-fetched' will do much to enhance it. It's the writer's job to give versimilitude to the ideas, no matter how out there they might be, and make the story seem real. This phrase didn't make sense: 'of change's flirtatious relationship with commitment'.

I think this query needs to be written in plain, simple language to give an editor, agent, every chance of understanding what the story is about.

You've got some intriguing and original ideas here that could really sing if they were expressed a little more clearly and sensitively. Every word counts in a query, especially.

The buzz on the publishing blogs these days is that no publisher is much interested in a ms over 100k as they're too expensive to produce and sell.

I think you've done a great deal of work on this story, and I wish you every success. It has much potential.

Jabez said...

This sounds like it could be a really good story, but I agree with the previous commenters that the query could use some fine-tuning.

First, your word count being so high is a weakness, though I doubt it's so high it would be an auto-reject for many agents. However, you don't want it to be the first thing an agent sees when they read your query. Make them fall in love with the story first, then see the word count.

Second, your description of Michael's lack of expression is awkward to me. First, you describe it as being "abnormally thick-skinned," which suggests it's a skin condition. Then, second, you say Michael believe it is _not_ a skin condition. And third, you say he tries to "soften" his skin. None of these descriptions fit with the others. Soften would go with abnormally hard, not abnormally thick, and both the first and third suggest a phsyical rather than psychological condition. So I'm left really confused about what's going on here.

Second, your statement that Michael "finds a written invitation" while "fingering through the broken images of his memory" doesn't make sense to me. Do you mean that he remembers seeing a written invitation, or that he actually finds a written invitation and remembers something about it? But the larger point is that this construction seems needlessly elevated in diction and drama for what is really a mundane event that should be described simply and clearly: Michael finds an invitation to meet the woman he can barely remember.

Third, I echo Victoria's comment about your "far-fetched tale" paragraph. You not need it, because the query should suggest what the story is about in the way it tells what happens. And having a superfluous paragraph in the query for a manuscript with a large word count makes it seem to an agent like your book has a lot of superfluous stuff, too. Which, obviously, you don't want. I also agree with wendy that "far-fetched" isn't flattering. I suggest changing this paragraph to something simple, like "Becoming Them is literary fiction, complete at 121,000 words."

Finally, when I read your query, I found something in the story description felt incomplete, and now that I think about it I believe it's for two reasons: First of all you mention MIchael's memory and the woman he can barely remember, but then you don't get back to what happens on that front. And second, because the query doesn't show that the plot links Michael's conflict with the townspeople's. Michael is there at the town, he's got his issues; the townspeople have theirs. But how is Michael drawn in to their debate?

It seemed like there was more to the story, but you were reluctant to share it. Like, for instance, the woman Michael is seeking is from this town and (1) is or is related to one of the abandoned babies, or (2) is the mother of a child that is being considered as the next abandoned baby, or (3) something like that. If that's the case, if the story ties in Michael's amnesia and the townspeople's tradition, you need to say that it does, and how. Otherwise it feels like your query is hiding the ball.

mark Hollock said...

Thank you so much Victoria, Wendy and Jabez for reading and responding to my query. This isn't the first query for this book I have written but it is the shortest and your comments of needing more information is very useful. The problem I have been having is that when I bring to the query other characters, who tie Michael to the town, the query grows in length. But I think you are right, I need to answer some of the 'whys' you mention. Michael's thick-skinned face is not a strong element of the book, although his desire to be more open with others is. Meeting a few people in the town causes him to want to stay and become like them, even though they are about to do a terrible thing. How can that happen? Well, that is a lot of what the book is about.

Thanks again. If you follow this site I hope you will be willing to read another attempt in a few days (a week?) -

RC Writer Girl said...

I just read the query and the comments. Particularly the last comment from the query's author.

Based on the author's comment, almos all of the first paragraph is backstory that's not really needed. If the book is about this town, then let's talk about the town.

Start with: Michael, a 26 yo American with an expressionless face and partial amnesia, finds himself in the small town of Isti in southeastern Europe.

Then, go into your whole spiel about the town welcoming Michael and him wanting to be like the town. Then, move into your, "But everything isn't as great as it seems" mode. Micheal realizes the gregarious, accepting town hides a vile secret.

Finally, since Michael is the protagonist in this, you need to leave us with Michael's dilemma. What is his problem that will resolve at the end of the book. Is Michael's dilemma that he wants to be a part of this town but can't accept the sacrifice? Is it something else?

Also, I think it's been mentioned in a couple of other query posts not to describe the book for the agent. Telling them it's a story of sacrifice or change, or whatever is not what agent's want to hear. They want you to summarize the story in a way that they can see it's a story of change and sacrifice, and what have you. So, it would be a good idea to eliminate that last paragraph.

Victoria Dixon said...

Thanks, RC, for this: that they can see it's a story of change and sacrifice. No matter how well you KNOW something, it can help to hear it rephrased. Your words helped me realize how to make my query stronger. It's appreciated!