3rd SR Crapometer #12

Dear Miss Snark,

I’m seeking an agent for my novel SLEEPING INDOORS, adult literary fiction complete at 105,000 words. In many ways it’s a love story, exploring the complicated bonds of a friendship and a marriage. It’s also the story of three people struggling to stay employed and pay their mortgages. (yawn)

When schoolteacher Ellen Barnett moves back to New Haven, Connecticut, to keep an eye on her elderly father, she reconnects with her childhood best friend Leah Cluny, now a single mom with a rebellious eleven-year-old son, Sam. She also meets and marries Gilbert Stevenson, a self-employed computer engineer struggling to patent a new voice recognition software.

"You have a career," Leah tells Ellen. "I just work so I can sleep indoors." But Ellen, burned out, wants to quit teaching, so Leah finds her a job at the family-run Cluny Bookbindery. Soon Ellen is supporting both herself and Gilbert--to help keep his business afloat, he stops drawing a salary. He spends long hours at the lab; she feels abandoned and retaliates with equal time at the bindery, where she and Leah joke about crazy teens and absentee spouses. This fragile equilibrium shatters when Leah’s sister launches a child custody suit to get Sam.

The dispute closes the bindery, and Ellen follows Leah to a night job as a computer clerk at a nearby data center. Surrounded by machine noise and disgruntled "lifers" competing for a slot on days, the two friends unravel. Ellen wins a programming traineeship, and Leah takes a company transfer out of state. She and Sam leave without ever saying good bye. Ellen--alone, lonely, and struggling with a job that just might be over her head--must reexamine her definition of shelter. Like Leah, she’s working to sleep indoors, but when she gets home, she finds no comfort there.

I feel compelled and qualified to write about the many ways our jobs impact our psyches. In my own quest to sleep indoors, I’ve worked as a teacher, a bookbinder, a computer clerk and a programmer. Currently, I design speech recognition software. I’ve studied writing at W University, at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown with Alice Mattison, and at Southern Connecticut State University with Tim Parrish.

SLEEPING INDOORS is about frazzled, middle-class people with real problems--failing parents, a teenager who acts out, a marriage on the brink of collapse--who grapple with the high cost of making a living in the twenty-first century. May I send you the manuscript?


A. Devoted Snarkling

dog no.
I'd stop reading right here.
Is there ANYTHING remotely enticing here?
fun? zip? sex? passion? poodles?

Are you sure you didn't study with Theodore Dreiser?

In the three years since her mother Rose died, Ellen Barnett’s father Willis has done no housework. Ellen’s not sure how she missed this. Perhaps because their main contact has been when he drove up to her place for the holidays. With her in Boston and him down here in New Haven, it’s not like she could just drop in and look around.

Now Ellen stands barefoot at his kitchen sink and stares out the dingy window. The shadow of his run-down Victorian house streams across the backyard, pointing to the well-groomed playing fields of East Rock Park and the basalt backdrop of East Rock itself, cliff face ruddy in the early sun, foliage gleaming among its skirts.

She clangs an encrusted pot against an encrusted lid and wonders: how can out there be so pristine and in here so vile? Beside her on the counters, flies patrol a high-rise slum of dirty dishes. A thick blanket of grease and dust--what her mother used to call "gurry"--coats the appliances. On the floor next to the island where the family used to eat breakfast, a puddle shaped like the state of Vermont has coagulated. Is it coffee? Too thick. Soup? Not chunky enough. Chocolate ice cream? Maybe. If she’s lucky.

Why bother with a bucket? Ellen geysers water directly onto the linoleum with the hand spray. She rips off a string of paper towels, drops it, squishes with her toes, then shudders--bad idea! Hopping back, she thinks longingly of her former condo with its shining floors and immaculate cupboards.

Stop it, she commands herself. You made a decision. Get used to it.

Somewhere, the phone rings.

Ellen races into the living room and paws through the rising tide of books, letters, photo albums, magazines, greeting cards, bundled newspapers, used Kleenex and empty pizza boxes. She finds the cordless in a basket of dead staplers stashed behind the sofa.

"Hullo?" she asks, out-of-breath.

ack ack ack
I need to pause for a moment and take a shower.
ok, back now.

You can open with this if you want..but why?

Either Ellen is furious with herself for letting her father live in filth, or she's furious with her father for being filthy, or she's going to burn the house down. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that you MUST hook a reader very early. You've got 30 seconds or so to get me interested and long descriptions of filth, sans emotional framework, don't work for me. If there isn't a match (fire or shouting) in the next two sentences, I'm outta here. And I'm taking my SOS pads with me.


Anonymous said...

Hmm; might Miss Snark's aversion be a matter of taste? I wasn't wowed by the query letter either, but I did really like the excerpt. Miss Snark is right that this doesn't necessarily pull the reader into the story, but I thought it was very effectively written. The descriptions were great, and I don't mind that we only find out what the protagonist thinks about the mess through her actions and how the descriptions of what she sees are worded.

I think you've got some real talent, but that your writing wasn't a good match for Miss Snark's tastes. Take her advice to heart, but don't give up. I suspect that this is a really good book. Good luck with it.

Anonymous said...

I want a HEROINE, not a frustrated hausfrau. For that I can look in a mirror and think "Hm, I'll read a book that can take me OUT of this for a few hours." Give me Lora Croft, not a crabby June Cleaver having a meltdown.

The cover letter was awash with winky-blinky Dilbert-style computer stuff, which isn't nearly as interesting as it was in the 80's.

The writer had some tense problems, too. The only time I shift tense is when my MC gets whacked in the head and ain't thinking straight.

Anonymous said...

This may be just my personal quirk, but I dislike novels in the present tense. To me, using that tense feels like a fake grab for immediacy.

LorelieLong said...

Now Ellen stands barefoot at his kitchen sink

All I could think was: Why the hell is she standing in that filth barefooted???

December Quinn said...

Nope, anon, it isn't just you. I won't read present tense. It feels wrong.

McKoala said...

I liked the exerpt a lot - I thought that the writing was great. It would be great to see that level of skill reflected in your query letter.

I did think that it went on a little too long, though, would prefer to see the description interspersed with something else going on as well.

A. M. said...

Rubberboots - yes. Barefoot? Not in a million years. This really threw me off completely. Is she nuts?

I second the "why open with this?"

And I wonder, once again, why we're not there at the most important moment: when she finds her dad - in this kind of a mess. And of course she MUST and DOES take action. We'd be so with her. Right thing to do and all that.

Also we could get a sentence or two of what she gives up to do the right thing.

Starting with her in the kitchen I can't really relate all that well, not on an emotional level, anyway. Not to mention her bare feet...

Another thing:
"how can out there be so pristine and in here so vile?" I'd cut this completely. Show her taking in the view, getting lost in it, returning to the dirty pots and start scrubbing like mad or something. Juxtapose the images. Give the readers some credit and and something to think about.

Oh, and I'm also so over reading present tense by now. I can't say why but I stay away from reading it, too. A novel written in PT would have to have a totally amazing concept/premise for me to give it a shot.

Kit said...

To all the commenters who took the time to critique and especially to you, Miss Snark: thank you for the snarkasms and the suggestions! Miss Snark, I have no idea why you do this, but it's immensely helpful. Be well and give KY a kiss from me (well, OK, maybe a bone).