First Impact: JUMPING ANTS by Lori Goldstein

— November 28, 2012 (10 comments)
It's time for another First Impact Critique, where I take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who offers their comments is eligible for either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me.

Here, in Lori's own words: I'm submitting two takes on a pitch that would go in my query letter for my upmarket novel, Jumping Ants.

These posts aren't usually double-pitches, but I did say anything under 300 words, so let's get to it! Remember, this is all just my opinion, so take it or leave it, as you will.

Query Pitch #1
If he was already unpaid and broke
anyway, why do his parents suddenly
get fed up just because he's fired?

I get lost at the "older, rounder
version of himself." Can't tell if it's
literal or not.
At twenty-nine, the charming but aimless Max Walker is too old to be an unpaid intern at a Manhattan advertising agency. He’s also too old to be single, broke, and living with his parents. But he is. When a raunchy photo of a drunken night between the sheets with the busty HR assistant gets him fired, Max’s formerly indulgent parents kick him out onto their suburban New Jersey lawn. A chance stop at a fast-food drive-thru presents Max with a much bigger problem when a stranger opens his car door, puts a gun to his head, and orders him to drive. The weekend-long adventure with this desperate, older, rounder version of himself leaves Max with a black eye, a crush on a feisty bartender, and the truth that the unfazed grin he’s been honing hasn’t fooled anyone, least of all himself.

Query Pitch #2
The opening question made me laugh
(though maybe because I just read
Pitch #1).
Who gets fired from an unpaid internship? The charming but aimless Max whose has a talent for self-sabotage that gets him hired, fired, and evicted from his parents’ house in the same week. The twenty-nine-year-old is waiting in line at a fast-food drive-thru assessing which friend’s couch he’ll now call home when a stranger opens his car door, points a gun at him, and orders him to drive. The weekend-long journey with this older, rounder, more desperate version of himself leaves Max with a black eye, a crush on a feisty bartender, and the truth that the unfazed grin he’s been honing hasn’t been fooling anyone, least of all himself.

Adam's Thoughts
First, a query basic: paragraph breaks. These both need some.

So, personally, I like the second pitch better, primarily because it doesn't raise the question of why his previously-indulgent parents suddenly get fed up with him. (Remember that, guys: When people have problems with your plot or your world, sometimes the best solution is to cut whatever raised questions.)

But both of them have the same last sentence, which is where I have a couple problems. A minor problem is the one I mentioned in my comment: I can't tell if the "older, rounder version of himself" is meant to be taken literally or figuratively. Likely this is due to all the spec fic I read, so you might be able to ignore it.

The more major problem is that this is all setup. His firing and eviction is the inciting incident, with the gun to his head as the turning point. But that leaves 3/4 of the novel that we know almost nothing about.

I've noted before this is a common problem. The solution is to get to, and through, your turning point as fast as possible, then use the rest of the space to lead up to a sadistic choice -- two compelling things Max must choose between that will make the reader go, "What will he do?!!!"

What do the rest of you guys think?

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  1. The second one works better in getting to the events of the story, and I like the last line. Though I too wondered if this was a future self getting him on track.

    The second one would also work better with a comma before "whose" if you keep the whose (which is making me think of Whos in Whoville).

    So yeah, sounds good, but would like to know more.

  2. Thanks all! Just to clarify: Not future self. The stranger is an older, rounder version of who Max could become if he doesn't change. Great head's up to know that's not clear. Question though: I have been told many times by many writers and agents to only go through Act 1 in the query. Seems like the advice here is to go further?

  3. Conflicting query advice never ends, does it ;-)

    What I usually hear is you need to go far enough to give a sense of what the story's about. Like here, I don't know if this "weekend-long journey" is a tense thrill ride like Collateral or a hilarious string of mix-ups like Meet the Parents.

    And I usually push people to go past that: to a sadistic choice or at least the stakes. Because even after you tell what kind of story it is, you still have to show what makes it different from every other hilarious-string-of-mix-ups story, you know?

  4. Yeah what Adam said. I also preferred the second one. I thought it was cleaner and less confusing. But also like Adam (and again, i read A LOT of spec fic so take this with a grain of salt) i didn't know if the older, rounder version was literally him, or just a guy who could be him if he kept on the same path.
    But yes, tell us what choice he'll face and tell us the consequences for each, or if he doesn't choose. That's your conflict rght there.

    As for the first act bit in a query, it's good advice, generally, but don't feel restricted by it. I've written a query that went only to the first half, and another that went all the way to the climax and both had great success rates. So as long as the query does it's job (focuses on the 4 Cs, and, Most importantly, gets the agent to read your pages and request more) you're fine with however you write it.

  5. I read lots of general fiction as well as spec fic , and it never crossed my mind that the "older version of himself" might be literal, so (depending on your target audience) that may not be an issue.

    I liked the second version, especially the starting sentence. Its a great premise, but (like the others already said) I'm not sure what the central conflict is.

  6. Okay. Back now.

    This is really interesting to me, because I'm normally totally in agreement with peeps like Adam and Sarah.

    For me, it was quite clear that the car-jacker was the metaphoric symbol of what Max could become if he didn't get his life together.

    However, the fact that it confused many readers is more important than the fact that it didn't confuse this one.

    Also, re: Acts in queries. I've personally never heard any advice saying to stick to Act 1. I've definitely heard not to give away the ending, but as far as how much of the story to share, it depends on how long it takes to cover the three keys: Character, Conflict, and Choice.

    In my own query (for my first book) it actually takes mentioning a moment that is 90% through the story to get all that across. But the way the query is written, you can't really tell it's part of the climax.

    Anyway, point is, what the query needs is different for every manuscript, but I would agree with the consensus here that this one needs more.

  7. Thank you everyone, that's very very helpful. Matthew, glad you like the title. And your comment is spot on. I think it's easy to get stuck in the order of the story, but those reading a query won't know when something comes. They are just looking for that conflict. You are absolutely correct.

    And if half are confused about the carjacker line, I do have to fix.

    Thanks for the feedback everyone and thanks to Adam for taking a somewhat unusual proposal for critique!

  8. I like the second version. I agree that it needs to be taken a bit further. What major decision does Max have to face at the end?

  9. I'm going to agree with most of the above comments. I understood the car jacker comment, but agree it could be clearer.

    My suggestion would be to ditch the descriptive phrases like "the charming but aimless Max" That sort of 'tell' in a query just gets me (personally) on the back foot straight away.

    I'd also like to see the last sentence changed to give more idea of what is at stake here. Your round-up is vague and doesn't really give me any reason to want to read on.