Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Query 56: Redux 2

Spirits of the Unknown

The author also asks a good question we can discuss in the comments (where I'm putting the advice I gave):
A writer suggested I change the names because long names like these slow the reader down. Should I start using 1 or 2 syllable names?

After an assassin kills his father and youngest brother, Tilvanau -- oldest son of the Family Government which rules three quarters of the planet Suvino -- faces a brutal civil war.

Tilvanau's second brother attempts to flee with his family, but the assassin hidden inside their ship kills everyone aboard, and escapes planet-side. Meanwhile, the ship, haunted by the ghosts of the murdered family, jumps to its programmed destination: Earth.

Amid rumors that he killed his own family to gain sole control of the government, and the rise of a powerful new dictator in the west, Tilvanau gets a grim reminder the assassin is still out there.

With conspiracies around every corner as the government crumbles, there's only one person Tilvanau might be able to trust to help: the secretary of state, who also happens to be the woman he loves. But she's now next in line to take command. She has motive and opportunity to see him dead, and Tilvanau is all too aware empires have fallen before because rulers trusted power-hungry lovers. She could well be his greatest enemy or his greatest ally.

Discovering the assassin's identity has become of paramount importance -- finding the killer may well be the key to suppressing the civil war and uniting the planet. Boarding his own ship, he follows his brother's ship to Earth where he'll either find the answers he needs -- or walk right into the assassin's trap.


I'm flattered you've riffed off my version. In this case, though, I think there might be a few missed cues and an opportunity for you to add the spice that will make it yours.

One of the previous commenters wanted clarity as to whether Til is human or alien. I think you inserted the planet's name to help clarify. But two things:

  1. The planet's name means nothing to the reader at this point. It's just another unfamiliar name to slow down our processing of the story, and by mentioning Earth later on, we know the most important point: the planet isn't Earth. (That Til's family rules 3/4 of the planet is a specific stat that also slows down the processing. If it bugs you, you could just say "dominant ruling family" with the objective to simplify as much as possible without tipping into the land of the truly vague.)
  2. We still don't know what the connection is between the inhabitants of Suvino and of Earth. Earlier versions mentioned Earth is the nearest inhabitable planet, but a civilization that has not just one but at least TWO available space-worthy ships gassed up and ready to take off for the nearest planet probably knows something about that planet. If not, why would the royal family risk escape? Just because a planet has a breathable atmosphere, moderate temperatures and appropriate gravity doesn't mean it's hospitable.
By moving the "amid rumors" sentence to after Til's family being killed, the "grim reminder" is now a dead end. I see why you moved it: Because you wanted it to refer to all the members of Til's family and the bro needed to be dead to do that (which is why I used "kin" rather than "family" in my version). So part of the logic is resolved by moving it, but part of the logic is now compromised.

My version was a little light on the specifics and that's where the opportunity comes for you to add the necessary spice. The paragraph on Til's lover was essentially all hand-waving and mis-direction in my version because I don't know your story. I'm assuming there is something the sec of state does, even if it's misinterpreted, to earn Til's distrust. By leaving it as is, we're left with Til being rather paranoid and perhaps unwise in his choice of bedfellows. By using the space to show us a reason why he might think his lover is conspiring against him and how he reacts to that, we get a glimpse not only of Til's personality but of his lover's as well. The reader is invested to distrust her, too. More bang for the buck.

Now, I'm also going on faith that what's here in the query is not all setup that takes place in the first 50 pages of the novel and that the bulk of the story doesn't take place on Earth. What YOUR take-away is from my assumption is the fact that I'm not sure. If in fact the query takes us through most of the novel's stakes, then just finessing it a bit to be sure the logic of the story is intact and adding some specifics about Til's lover should be enough to whet the reader's appetite. If it's only setup, then a re-envisioning of how the query is structured is probably in order. But only YOU know the story well enough to know which way to go next.


Phoenix said...

My opinion on the question of name length is:

I think most readers do appreciate shorter, pronounceable names. It doesn't mean your character can't have a longer official name, such as Tilvanau Sureno IV; just refer to him by that name a handful of times throughout the novel and for the majority of the time go with Til or Tilva or Van or something like that.

But really, names are soooo easy to edit. I think your agent/editor would guide you on which way to go with them. I can't imagine anyone rejecting something because the names are too long. There are examples of longer names everywhere.

vkw said...

I think shorter, pronounceable names are the way to proceed. I like the idea of going with a nickname.

I would just say, "Til's brother flees to the closest planet, but before they reach their destination Earth, they are killed by an assassin."

Til takes control of his country admist rumors that he was the responsible for his family's murder. He faces not only (why is it important for the reader to know Till is thought of as the assassin?) but threats, danger, concerns about a powerful new dictator rising in a neighboring country.

He has only one ally, the secretary of state and his lover. An ally he doesn't know he can trust, after all she is next to line to rule, if he dies and because of her propensity, history, secretive nature.

His country spirals closer to closer to a civil war and Til realizes that in order to save his sovereignty he must find the true killer. He tracks the assassin into space and to Earth where he . . . . does something really cool to make this plot interesting and plausiable.

Here's my opinion - the author has given us too many details that are not important like - his parents and younger brother are killed. rules three-quarters of the planet, (to gain sole-control of the government would be assumed I think), spirits land the space ship on earth. do they kill the assassin? Why didn't they turn back? Is the lover paramount to the plot? Or is it a backstory? Most assassins are hidden.

We don't have enough details about the ending and what happens on Earth. How does the earthlings react? Is this in the future, where his brother hoped to be protected by allies or modern day and he has to hide his space ship or maybe the ship landed during the time of the dinosaurs.

we should know this.


Matt said...

The length of a character's name is determined by the society he or she lives in. If they live in a strict, hierarchical society, where even a wife refers to her husband by his title, than the author must always call the character according to social norms (Prime Minister Kyun, etc.)

If the social laws of the land are relaxed, than it's more likely that people would shorten others' names for their own convenience. Bill is the ultimate short name because no one can be bothered to pronounce the longer W of Will.

And that's why it's important that we know whether or not these are aliens and what their cultural background is. Naming the planet does not relay this information because, for all we know, Suvino could be an earth colony. A person is shaped by his or her upbringing and the world around them.

It might sound like I'm asking you start with backstory, but I'm not. You can show culture through voice and/or details peppered throughout the query -- sometimes even a single word will suffice.

How is it that Tilvanau's family rules most of the planet? Did they take over by conducting business and forming a corporation that monopolizes Suvino's resources? If so, you could show Tilvanau approach and/or solve his problems through negotiation and bartering.

If they rule by force, show his aggression and war-like nature. If they usurped the throne, show him in a devious light. And so forth...

As it stands, I see this as an culture as identical to modern day earth, which breaks my suspension of disbelief. I can't accept that a culture light years away would grow up identical to earth (look at the difference of relatively close cultures such as Egypt and Greece). If we're talking about humans, it would more believable.

vkw said...

There is a timeline too, I think Matt. Isn't ancient Egypt 3000 B.C and Ancient Greece was 150 B.C.?

But we could compare United States' culture to China or Iraq or Africa and still have a valid argument.

But Matt is right, we need a clearer picture of the MC. Maybe he is tyrant and that explains not only the civil war but also fear of another tyrant.

We don't know. Author help us.


vkw said...

Matt is also correct about the names are made up by the culture. I think it's prudent to develop a world and culture that prefers names that are short and easily pronounced in English.

Sarah from Hawthorne said...

I think three syllables is a perfectly reasonable length for a name. The advantage of a nickname, though, is that it links us a little more closely to the character. But it's not necessary.

For the me the biggest problem is that I still don't really get how ghosts fit into what seems to be a politically driven sci fi thriller. What is the purpose of the ghosts? Are they a parallel plot? A function of how this universe works (i.e. everyone turns into ghosts after they die)?

Cool stuff can happen when you mix disparate genres, but you've got to give us a hint what you're trying to do here.

The second problem I have is that you're missing some key details about this world. In order to invest emotionally in the story, we need to know why we should root for Tilvanau to remain in power. And in order to do that, we need to know exactly what a "family government" is (a benevolent dictatorship? A monarchy?) and exactly who is the opposition (Freedom fighters? evil military industrial complex types?).

Good luck!

Matt said...

I chose Egypt and Greece at random and without deep thought (I think because I saw them in the headlines today), but if anyone is interested they can type something like 3rd millennium BC into wikipedia. It will list the cultures of the time and illustrate their differences.

As a writer, I'm obligated to call myself out for misusing than/then in the previous comment. Reason #384 why English is needlessly complicated.

Phoenix said...

No worries, Matt. We're all friends in the comments. Except if you violate reason #469. That's when you'll get the book* thrown at you.

*Either Strunk & White or The Chicago Manual of Style, whichever's handier.

Slush said...

I would agree with Matt on the thought process of the character's culture in regard to the naming convention.

As far as in general, I think shorter names are easier to pronounce and easier to remember.

There is definitely something missing from this query that makes you go hmmm. I think that I am in agreement with vkw and matt, looking for a little more understanding to who Tilva is. Or at least the world Tilva comes from.

The first sentence also confused me. I thought it was a little wordy (especially the part about the civil war, 3/4 planet). I got lost and had to read it 2 or 3 times before I grabbed it.

Paragraph 2 just leaves me wondering. I understand it may be important to mention that his entire family is dead, but the position of the paragraph seems off to me.

Orlando said...

Great stuff guys, thank you very much. I guess my biggest problem is trying to get as much info in without going over 250 words.

I will continue to brush it up and make it better. Once again, thank you all.

Thank you Phoenix for the opportunity of posting on your site.

Matt said...

I would never violate #469 again. I still have that bruise on my forehead from last time...