Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Query Revision 3

Face-Lift 740: The Milky Way: China's Tainted Milk Scandal

Dear Literary Agent:

Gillian Heath thinks the QC job in Shenzhen, China is far enough way to distance herself from the pain of her son's death and uncovers a profit scheme - cutting milk with melamine - that is killing infants. Adults get sick but babies are at high risk because of their smaller body mass. Gillian goes after the Party member who poisons for profit. He's in charge of selling raw milk to her company, a US food distributor.

Gillian frames him by publishing photos of him with a hooker and the article explaining how the construction compound built his personal wealth. He is arrested as Gillain is taken into custody trying to exit mainland China.

Tom Quinton, Gillian's boss, flies to China when he learns Gillian is being detained. Whistleblowers disappear in China. Beatings, starvation, rape, and torture are common treatment for prisoners. Tom is picked up inside the entry point. He's loved Gillian since he hired her and now he's in trouble and unable to get her out.

A US official can get Gillian and Tom out but risks political suicide if he gets involved doing the right thing. Prisoner exchanges are tricky and diffiuclt to keep quiet.

I was in China when the milk scandal broke, switched to black coffee and wrote The Milky Way; China's Tainted Milk Scandal, a 36,000 word commercial fiction manuscript. The West is curious about contemporary China and how it runs.

I wrote for the media in Canada in advertising. My next ms is woven around the Sichuan earthquake during the ramp up to the 2008 Olympics.

I appreciate your time reading my query. Thank you.
Bibi, I think you have all the right highlights in the query now; I would just rearrange them a little differently and add a little more motivation for the actions. I would also dump the subtitle "China's Tainted Milk Scandal" as that makes it sound like a nonfiction account.
Here's how I would rearrange the elements so they flow a bit more logically and build the tension.
Gillian Heath thought the loss of her only son was the worst thing that could happen. She was wrong.

Even Shenzen, China, isn't far enough to run from the pain of her son's death, but it's a start. Brick by brick, Gillian's building a new life in a new country. Then she uncovers a deadly profit scheme -- cutting milk with melamine -- that's killing infants. Stopping the guy who poisons for profit won't be easy. Whistleblowers disappear in China. Beatings, starvation, rape, and torture are common rewards for doing the right thing. Adding to the difficulty, the man in charge of selling raw milk to the US food distributor she's working for is a Party member -- a political untouchable.

But Gillian is determined not to let more babies die. First she publishes photos of the culprit with a hooker, then writes an exposé on how he exploited the construction industry to build his personal wealth -- and what he's doing now to maintain it. To her relief, her frame works and he's arrested. To her horror, when she tries to flee mainland China, she's taken into custody.

Her boss, Tom Quinton, has loved Gillian since he hired her. When he finds out she's being detained, he flies to China with intentions of a white knight rescue but no clue as to how to accomplish it. He makes it just inside the entry point before he, too, is picked up.

Their only hope now lies in the one US official who can arrange a prisoner exchange. But will his sense of morality be enough for him to risk political suicide to do it?

I was in China when the milk scandal broke. That's when I switched to black coffee and wrote "The Milky Way," a 36,000-word commercial fiction novella. I've also written advertising for the media in Canada.

I look forward to sending you the completed manuscript.


 UPDATE: Bibi sent a re-revision just prior to this post going up. That version is in the first comment. Feel free to comment on either version.


Phoenix said...

Oops, after I posted this, I see that Bibi sent a re-revision (Bibi: the failed email delivery was because the "o" and "e" in "phoenix" were transposed):

Dear Agent,

Gillian Heath, QC Inspector for a US food giant in Shenzhen China, spends her days inspecting milk and she spends her nights tossing and turning. Sleep doesn't come easily when you killed your son.

When Gillian finds a construction compound in the milk she has two choices: stop the poisoning of the milk or forget she found it. In China whistleblowers disappear. But melamine kills kids under two if they drink enough milk.

She's after the dirty player in the industry. The architect behind the scheme is making a ton of money by inflating milk volume by adding melanine and water. Gillian frames him and they both end up in custody. He's up up for endangering public health while she's charged with prostitution. Her boss, planning to grease whatever palm he has to to get her out, flies to Shenzhen. He is held as he enters the PRC. The police got lucky grabbing the GM of the company that exposed the Chinese diary industry. He comes to in Gillian's cell minus his cash, plastic, cell phone, and passport. Gillian is amazed at his stupidity.

One man can get them out but he risks political suicide if he gets involved. Prisoner exchanges are tricky, impossible to keep quiet and he's not sure he wants to help. Gillian should have kept their son safe.

The Milky Way; China's Tainted Milk Scandal is 36,000 words, commercial fiction. I worked in China when the milk scandal broke, my rash went away when I switched to black coffee and I wrote the story. I have completed two other novels. I wrote for the media when I worked in advertising. My next ms is set in Sichuan Province where the 2008 eathquake flattened mountains, villages and schools with incredible loss of life.

Thank you for reading my query, I stand at the ready.


Kiolia said...

Why does Gillian need to FRAME someone who's actually doing something wrong? If it's to get him arrested by a non-whistleblowing means, that could be clearer. Do *American* whistleblowers really disappear? I know American missionaries tend to...

Also, is the ultimate resolution of this situation in Gillian's hands at all? If so, that's not yet clear; if it's not, if Gillian has no choice to make or action to take to overcome being stuck a prisoner of the Chinese, she might not be as satisfying a protagonist as she could be.

Joe G said...

I think you should send Phoenix 50 bucks and submit her rewrite, because she's done the best version of your query that I've seen yet. Succinct, interesting, well written. Both of your queries are overwritten. You spend too much time commenting on your own story, and the characters' states of mind. You're not far enough away from the material.

My only gripe with Phoenix is that it should be clear that she left the US to take a job with the company that she finds out sells the tainted milk. Easily remedied.

"Even taking a job in China with a milk company can't relieve the pain of her son's death."

To be totally frank, 36,000 words is REALLY short, especially for a fictional thriller. I can't imagine how an agent would sell it. Maybe you should couple this with your next China novel. I'd be more interested in reading a non-fiction novel about your time in China.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kiolia,
Publishing photos and the article outside of China was the only way to stop the poison milk. A foreigner can't walk in to a government office and say look at these test results. The foreign food companies by their swift action forced the PRC to react. It was the year of the Olympics and the government is sensitive to bad press. The medical community had been reporting high numbers of infants with kidney stones (hundreds of thouands) and infant deaths from renal failure. The reports were ignored by the authorities until the story broke internationally.

To answer your question, yes people disappear in China. People perceived to be a threat are at risk. A threat can be criticizing the status quo on the internet.

Divine Miss Pheonix, I'm sorry for the email botch - I'll get some new glasses, and will email you.

Thank you for your work on my query. It works so much better after your massage. Looking forward to comments from the people who have been following my circuitous learning curve.

Anonymous said...

Joe G,
Right you are. The Divine Miss Pheonix turned my awkward sentences into a beautifully written engaging query. Yes, I overwrite and have trouble with order and flow. Yes, the length is not there. I have a great query now. I need to fix a bunch of problems in the ms.

I did write "Adventures in China" and lost it when my apartment was broken into and my computer was stolen. Ouch, that taught me to back up on a flash and carry it with me. It likely wasn't very good but with the tutoring I've been getting I may re-write it.

China was a wild ride and I wouldn't trade those days for anything. I still miss it. My China Days. We'll see.
Thanks for commenting, how do you cure overwriting?

Joe G said...

Is your story set during the Olympics? Because that gives the story context and adds an air of excitement and real life connection. She's trying to save babies while Michael Phelps is winning medals.

I think Kiolia's specific question is whether or not high profile Americans would realistically disappear in China, but on reflection I once knew a guy who couldn't go back to China because he would be arrested upon setting foot there for running an illegal television station back in the states criticizing the Chinese government.

How do you cure purple prose? Read. Read read read. Read Phoenix's query, compare it to all the ones you have written, and see what the difference is. Read Hemingway, read Fitzgerald, read contemporary writers. Develop an ear. You can't be a writer without one.

Anonymous said...

Joe G,
Yes, the story broke during the ramp up to the Olympics. 2,000 reporters and thousands of competitors and spectators were arriving in Aug. The milk problem had to be solved asap. The international coverage spurred quick action by the gov't who can't lose face. All those people arriving in Beijing and the milk is rotten? Interestingly enough, the gov't milk inspectors/qc people faced no punishment when it was their responsibility to certify milk quality. The major players of Sanlu, China's largest diary producer have been executed and others imprisoned, one for life.

To answer K, you don't have to be a high profile person, American or otherwise to disappear. If you criticize publically you face serious trouble.

Joe G, thanks, appreciate your comments/advice. Bibi

Matthew said...

The best rewrite I've seen so far is the one EE did in his notes when this face-lift was first posted.

Kiola makes a good point about the ultimate resolution, and it jumped out at me as I read the query.

To be honest, the subject matter is heavy but the MC's action read like they're from the script of a sitcom. Instead of posing as a prostitute couldn't she do something more sensible like sending an anonymous email to a foreign reporter, or going on a vacation to Europe before leaking the scandal?

Anonymous said...

Hi Matthew,
I'm laughing and chuckling - a little over the top am I? I was going for DRAMA and hit COMEDY! By ACCDENT! That has to be a FIRST somewhere on the planet. Maybe it would be better as an off the wall China for Dummies. I tried to re-write EE's query in my words, flopped like a mackeral on the dock, more than once I'm sure you'll recall. Re-wrote the darn thing about a hundred times (but who's counting) and still messed it up. HOWEVER, being the eternal optimist whose hope springs eternal no matter how badly I embarrass myself, I pushed on. I stop here and will rip the Divine Miss Phoenix version unabashedly. Yeah, I'll try do it better too next time.
Thanks, as always, appreciate the comments and needed the chuckles.

Suggestion: Should all of us very poor query writers submit a query on one story/book we all know - The Old Man and the Sea, the Bible, East of Eden, or have a whack at the Da Vinci Code? (Kidding on the Bible!) Keep it to say 225 words or something? Just a thought.
Best from the land of a thousand smiles,

Phoenix said...

Should all of us very poor query writers submit a query on one story/book we all know

Always great practice! Might even be a good suggestion to EE for one of his weekend exercises.

Here's the thing, though. It's ALWAYS easier to perform the great query write or rewrite on work that isn't your own. We all get a little word-tied when faced with distilling down our own stuff. I've workshopped every one of my queries and come out better for it.

(OK, that makes it sound like I've had tons of books that I've written queries for that I can't get pubbed. There's been 3 for completed books and a handful for WIPs in various stages of completion/never-to-be-completed.)

Anonymous said...

Hi there,
It would be a good exercise for me. I'll try a few, to see if I can get a little closer to the mark. Find a rhythm and flow. My revisions didn't feel right, klunky, awkward, forced. Over done.