Wednesday, April 12, 2017

An Agent's Inbox #11

Query Letter for the Novel: Custodians of the Cosmos
Author: A.D., 60K Comedic Science Fiction: 

Dear Ms. Piraino:

Imagine a starship from the viewpoint of its custodians, those who boldly go, and clean up after those that boldly just went.

This is the story of those that wear the lime green jumpsuit and wield the reinforced rubber squeegee. The oddball collection of characters who divide their time between coddling arrogant officers, battling hostile aliens, and mopping up afterward. This light-hearted novel satirizes some of the well-known tropes of science fiction in a fun, fast-paced novel.

Kale Butterly’s dream of being a starship officer seems dead when he fails the entry exam for the academy. So he devises a fool-proof backup plan--get a custodian job on a starship, meet lots of officers, then impress and amaze them. He only needs one recommendation, but Kale underestimated the exceptional fools his fool-proof plan is up against.

Kale’s first clean-up job ends in a fight for his life, armed with only a vacuum cleaner. He survives that nightmare and earns the captain’s respect, and then immediately jeopardizes it. Things take a deadly turn when a ‘pirated’ Pirates of Penzance holovid infects the ship’s robots, causing the cyborg first officer to believe that he is The Pirate King, and it is a glorious thing. Glorious, until he conceives a method to weaponize the genre of musical theatre. Now, Kale and the custodians must save an audience from the first officer’s lethal overacting. When a fellow custodian is kidnaped by a spacefaring race of amazons whose feeble men cannot handle the rigors of space travel. Kale rescues him by posing as a despotic space tyrant. Now the dictator of the Dome Nebula has put a price on his head. Will Kale’s dream of the academy come true?

Background: Aside from working as a hotel night janitor as a student and spending time as a volunteer in Brooklyn, NY, I have spent decades as an electronics field engineer for a fortune 500 telecommunications & aerospace company. Over the last four years, I’ve published my first science fiction series of novels with three successful Kickstarter campaigns, on Amazon book one reached top ten in its subgenre. This spring I won a 42-word flash fiction contest with a Douglas Adams theme. I have an extensive public speaking background and enjoy being in front of an audience.

Thank You,
A.D.


CUSTODIANS OF THE COSMOS

A searing bolt of plasma struck the bulkhead ruining its postmodern contemporary finish. It left yet another smoking pockmark--one of dozens in the ship’s tastefully-decorated passageways. Most of the other blast holes smoldered and dripped, the plastic veneer still burning. Tendrils of acrid smoke drifted upward staining the wall with sooty smudges. A fine powder of pulverized chalk sprinkled the decks, shrouding each of the battle’s casualties in a thin sheet of silvery dust. The lifeless bodies of the battle’s victims lay waiting for its end. Each oozed assorted fluids, fluids that soak and stain. A human body can leak almost any of its thirty-four various fluids after being shot, fourteen of which were real nightmares to get out of carpeting. Especially with the current trend toward light colors and natural fibers.

It had been a terrific battle, as long as you consider “terrific” to imply both terrifying and horrific.

The aliens fired another barrage and slithered closer. The handful of surviving humans waited, hidden around a corner in the corridor. They couldn’t see the squidmen approaching, but the sound and smell of them were unmistakable. The deadly tentacles made ominous popping sounds. Hundreds of moist suction cups slapping walls and gripping ceilings.

The battle had been disastrous for the humans, and this section of the ship was almost overrun. A young red-haired ensign risked a peek around the corner and fired his blaster. His shot struck one creature, knocking it to the deck and rupturing a dark purple sac; it spewed ink in every direction.

A squidman’s body contains sixteen fluids all of which not only stain but stink, including a smelly outer coating of slime that dribbles on every surface they touch. In fact, the corridor behind them was now a jumble of slimy purple tentacle prints. Thousands of circular stains covered every surface.

The human defenders could wait no longer, they abandoned their cover, dashed out, exchanged fire, and retreated further down the passage. Standard Coalition training for repelling hostile boarding parties had not been revised for the unique challenge the squidmen posed. The old tactic of taking and holding cover, and pinning down the attackers with blaster fire would’ve been suicidal. Their feeder arms can extend to a length of twenty feet, probing around corners and behind barricades. The paddles on the ends of the feeder arms are covered with hooks. Anyone foolish enough to hold cover is easily found and pulled into the creature’s beaklike maw for a quick skull-crushing bite.

The air sizzled with myriad lethal colors as the humans made a desperate last stand in defense of their ship. Arcs of intense light surged between the contingents. They had fallen back as far as they dared. They must turn the tide now or face defeat.

Human first officer, Commander Horatio Frakes, foolheartedly stood in the open and took careful aim at the creature he’d identified as their leader. He had a perfect shot and pulled his trigger. However, at that moment, a small dome-top maintenance robot entered the passage from a side door, directly into Frakes’s line of fire. The plasma bolt struck the side of the little robot and exploded. The five-foot tall robot made a loud screeching noise, spun in a tight circle for a moment, and toppled over spewing sparks, oil, and smoke. Laying on its side, still spinning, it gained momentum, propelled by the jet of a ruptured coolant tank. A blue-green fog of refrigerant swirled into a tornado-shaped cloud. This went on for a full minute until the droid’s scream faded followed by a loud “Pop!” The battle paused as the combatants on both sides watched the droid’s entertaining demise. Steam, fog, and smoke now filled the hallway, blocking the view of the passage.

With the enemy distracted, the remaining humans regrouped and secured their section bulkhead. A handful of them were all that stood between the slathering aliens and the ship’s family living quarters. Then, as if on cue, somewhere in the rooms behind them a baby cried, followed by the mother’s frantic attempts to sooth it. Concern lined the foreheads of these brave men as they stared into the grim face of slithering death and inhaled the gagging stench of murderous seafood.

One man, a quick-thinking young engineer, pulled out a handheld device and aimed it at the nexus of the bulkhead control emitters. He tapped out a code, and a temporary force field snapped into existence, securing the hallway. It isolated them from the invaders, at least for the moment. Energy from the aliens’ weapons struck the glimmering field and sizzled away in bursts of orange and violet. His concentration focused, the engineer entered a second complex code into the device, but nothing seemed to happen. He gave the others a worried look, but a moment later, with a whoosh and a splat, the area opposite them depressurized. The soft-tissued alien boarding party, now exposed to zero pressure, exploded—splattering chunks of tentacles, body fluids, and organs in every direction. A gruesome coat of alien tissue covered the formerly beige walls, fawn ceiling, and cappuccino brown floor.

“Good show! Nicely done, lieutenant,” the first officer said, commending the man for his quick actions. He took a moment to scrape a glob of squid mucus off his shoes on to the red shirt of a nearby crewman.

“Commander, did you see how my shot nailed the big one with the purple tissue sac?” the red-haired ensign asked. He reeked of insecurity and was worried they’d missed his contribution to the battle. “Did you guys see it? I got a kill,” he repeated, trying to get confirmation from the other crewmen.

“Yes, Ensign. We saw, it’s confirmed,” Frakes said.

“Good shooting everyone,” Lieutenant Commander Nord said. “It was a noble battle bravely won. Our fallen comrades will feast in the Great Hall of Heroes tonight!”

Nord is a member of the species known as the Warfians. Warfians are strong and large with craggy blue skin. The Warfian people are a warrior race that believes dying in battle is the highest honor a mortal can achieve. This was unlike the more clever race of people known as the Tinters. The Tinters believe dyeing during a battle can save your life, particularly if you dye your uniform the same color as the enemy.

“Yes, sir, Commander Nord, Great Hall of Heroes. Yes, indeed,” the engineer said. He lived by the rule: Always agree with a Warfian. Which was a good rule to follow if you enjoyed keeping your head in its current location.

“Can anyone explain why a blasted maintenance robot was dancing around in the middle of battle?” Commander Frakes asked. “It cut in front of my shot, just as I was about to kill their leader. I was robbed of that kill.”

“Yes, sir. I saw that,” Ensign redhead said. “I think you should count it as a kill regardless,”

Everyone knew Frakes would count the kill, anyway. No one, it seemed, could shoot that poorly even if he tried. How he gained rank as commander was a mystery. Because, despite his cheating, Frakes still had the worst kill ratio on the ship. Yet, none of his underlings ever disputed his claims.

“I say we all have a drink to honor our dead,” Lieutenant Commander Nord said.

“Attention everyone! Nord is buying.” Frakes laughed.

The Warfian commander wasn’t amused. He made a snarling noise under his breath and dug the clawlike nails of his right hand into his thigh as he fought the urge to relocate Frakes’s head.

13 comments:

Jeffery said...

You know, I really didn't want to like this. But I did. :) I'm a sucker for science fiction and for comedy, and I love the premise you've given for your story. I don't recall anyone having done a treatment of intergalactic spaceship janitors, let alone one that plays around with some of our favorite genre concepts. I noticed a few things that can be cleaned up with further editing, such as some comma splices and such, but I loved it and wish you the best of luck! :)

Ellie Firestone said...

I love, love, LOVE this idea. It's about time that the janitors got their own sci-fi adventure! I also love how the pages kept referencing how hard alien slime is to clean off of starship carpets.

With your query, I'd recommend cutting the first two paragraphs of the pitch and jumping straight to Kale. Nearly always, the best way to begin a query is with the main character. I would also recommend cutting the thing about the race of Amazons -- introducing a new conflict in the last couple of sentences just gets a little confusing. I do love the rest of the query, though -- it's like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy crossed with Star Trek. But, you know, with janitors.

L.A. said...

Okay, GREAT concept. My only suggestion would be to cut the second paragraph and jump straight to Kale.

Nathan Stockbridge said...

Some of the Best science fiction I've read yet. A perfect blend of comedy and Sci-Fi.

RobRoy McCandless said...

I love, love, love your query letter. It drew me immediately, and I had no trouble reading it all the way to the end. The only critique I can offer is that it feels a little long. I think you could tighten it up, lose some of the specifics, and you would have a stronger letter than you already have—and it’s a very strong letter right now.

I see where you’re going with the first paragraph, but it doesn’t grab me. The underlying concern of your protagonist would certainly center on damage and stains, which makes a great deal of sense, but this would be stronger if you started with one of the later paragraphs as a semi-unreliable narrator. Let the focus be on the desperate battle, with a few clues as to the actual concern of clean up. Your “The aliens fired another barrage . . .” or “The battle had been disastrous . . .” are both stronger first lines, which really hooked me.

I’m not certain about the use of “humans” throughout. The first mention is fine, but the default of your readers is likely going to be that the protagonist’s side are human, so this description isn’t necessary. Any of the characters who are non-human, like Nord, can be handled similarly to the introduction you provided for him.

You have some very clever lines in here. I especially laughed at the “Tinters” explanation about “dyeing in battle”. Funny!

Frakes and Warfian are fun character names. I assume you’re making allusions to “Star Trek” here, and that’s great. Your audience will most likely be scifi knowledgeable, and these little jokes will help sell the work.

Gea said...

This is hilarious! I enjoyed reading your pages a little too much :) Would've definitely kept on reading if there was more to read. I will never look at seafood the same way again. I don't have much to contribute to your pages, but I feel your QL would be much stronger if you removed the first 2 paragraphs and started with Kale Butterly... (and now I'm craving kale chips) The first 2 paragraphs read like a prologue, which you don't really need in your query. Yes, they are witty and funny, but your query works just fine without them. Best of luck to you! Well done!

Becki said...

QUERY:

Oh my lordie, your hook made me LAUGH. XD I'm seriously dying right now.

I love the introduction paragraph, but I feel like it might drag a little. If you could take out the middle sentence, "oddball collection," I think it would flow faster and keep an agent engaged. Also, that's where we should hear the genre, word count, and title! :)

I loved the into pitch paragraph; it was excellently worded and clearly states Kale's goals and expectations! But the second paragraph lost me... it has a LOT of info about things that seem to have no stake in achieving his actual goal, and some of the sentences are fragmented ("When a fellow custodian is kidnaped by a spacefaring race of amazons whose feeble men cannot handle the rigors of space travel. Kale rescues him by posing as a despotic space tyrant.")

I love satire stories, and this one seems hilarious, but don't forget a story still needs to follow an MC (Kale) through various trials while he strives to reach his goal. You stated the trials, but not how they directly relate to Kale's quest. It almost seems as if Kale wound up on this spaceship, and events occur... Does the race of amazons give him a position on one of their starships? Does the Pirate King offer him a recommendation? To bring home the impact of the story, tie these events directly into Kale's quest. :D

Your credentials are awesome! I was confused about the night janitor thing, since you mentioned you were a student, but also have decades of experience as a field engineer. Maybe clarify that decades ago, you acted as a janitor, and then moved into your appropriate field. :) Otherwise, there's no question you're qualified!! Awesome! <3

FIRST PAGES:

The description in the first paragraph is great, but I almost think "It had been a terrific battle, as long as you consider “terrific” to imply both terrifying and horrific" would be a much better opening line. It's FANTASTIC!! What a hook. :D Maybe reorganize them to start with that, give us some context before leading into descriptions of the battle?

Those squidmen sound terrifying. O.O Great job describing them; they're incredibly unique for aliens!! Yikes. Poor Kale.

And LOL, the difference between the Warfians and the Tinters. Omg. Your humor is perfectly timed and so very clever. <3 This seriously was my favorite line. XD XD

Overall, loved this sample! You're incredibly creative with spaceships and alien anatomy, and the humor of your writing is palpable!! Perfect for a satire story ala Douglas Adams. :D I will say that I think this sample would be stronger if you could incorporate Kale. We need to know who the MC is by 1200 words, I think. Otherwise we don't know who to root for. But that could easily be fixed by adding Kale watching the violence on a video feed, complaining about how yes, whoo, they survived, but OMFG LOOK AT THE MESS THEY MADE. :P Just a thought!

Otherwise, holy moley, this is awesome. Nice job!! :D

Audrey Dion said...

So I had to read this. HAD TO. Your query is golden. Yeah, it does feel a bit long. I see the query as mainly pitching your concept, and you've done that by paragraph three, to be honest. I think paragraph four - your long one - could actually summarize a bit more and go into fewer details.

1250:
AH THAT FIRST PARAGRAPH. Oh man. I LOVE when tropes are told from an unlikely point of view. I need more of it.

I'm having a bit of tense confusion as you switch from 'had been' to 'was' to 'is'. Maybe consolidate more of the tenses so you don't switch quite as much.

Also, this is a very distant point of view, a birds-eye view. I have such an interest in your janitor main character, I was a little disappointed not to be inside his head for the narrative.

So very well done - I hope I can read it in print someday!

Drayton Alan said...

Wow! Thank you so much, everyone! These critiques are immensely helpful. I have applied your suggestions and made a new shorter more concise query.
I need this level of feedback so much. I wish I had this input about the rest of the story Seriously, would any of you like to be a beta reader? www.draytonalan.com/contact

Ali L. said...

Hi!

The opening sentence of your query made me laugh haha nice! The entire voice of your query was a total home run, great job. However, there's a lot going on in the second paragraph. Maybe, instead of giving us a play-by-play, stick with the main conflict of the story and show us what's at stake for Kale / what will happen if he fails.

Your bio is super impressive! And it's pertinent to the content of your story.

Whoa. I have to admit, right off the bat I was intimidated by the use of big words in the first sentence of your query. For those of us unfamiliar with the layout of a space ship or outer-space stuff, I'd be careful with making that your opening sentence. Maybe start with, "The lifeless bodies of the battle's victims..." to start. :)

You say the squid men stink, but describe the smell, along with the fluids if you can. Make us feel like we're in the space ship experiencing this horrific take-over with the crew! If the squid men's tentacles are 20 feet long, is it really realistic to expect the Coalition to be able to fire and hit them from such a great distance? Something I noticed. Also, if the barrier protected them, why would the first officer get mucus on his shoes? Wouldn't the barrier repel it?

Overall, the set-up of the world itself and the progression of events was incredible! I loved it so much haha I want to keep reading. My only question: is this written in third person omniscient? If so, I'm intrigued! Seriously, you've done a fantastic job here.

Drayton Alan said...

Thanks for great feedback. I’m happy I could make you laugh. ALI L.
I shall answer you directly.
Yes, it is third person omniscient, which is very useful if you want the narrator to be funny. I can’t make jokes like the DYEING TINTERS without an omniscient narrator. I admit I love the styles of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Addams so I challenged myself to try to imitate their use of this POV while maintaining my own unique voice.
The redshirt thing is a running gag among fans of Star Trek, and the goop got on his shoe earlier in the battle, but you can’t trust the narrator he’s biased and unreliable. He is so crass he even started a webpage to profit from the widows and orphans of the fallen redshirted heroes (RSWOF.com)
The smarty-pants vocabulary fits the narrator's view of the world. The appearance and decor of the ship are of foremost importance in his mind. (The interior decorators of the ship work alongside the custodians.)
One other point in response to earlier comments about the main character not appearing in the first 1250 words. It is intentional. Part of the reason is comedic timing, but mainly it’s to set up the disconnect between the officers and the custodians. How many times during a space battle do the arrogant officers worry about what it’s doing to the carpet? The narrator felt you needed to see this wonton disregard for the ship’s appearance so you would appreciate all the hard work that goes into maintaining a stylish d├ęcor!
On a starship, there are those that make the mess, and those that must clean it up. That disconnect is the reason for the creation of the THREE LAWS OF CUSTODIOTICS the janitors must abide by. You learn about this in chapter 2. Did I mention this is parody?

The Agent [GP] said...

A.D., thank you so much for participating in the contest! Comedic sci-fi is an especially underserved sub-genre but also extremely difficult to do successfully. Kudos for taking on that hurdle!

That being said, your title and concept too closely mimicked GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and I immediately disengaged. Your development of another rag-tag, underdog team felt too similar for me to dip into your supplementary material in a meaningful way. Despite my concerns with the concept and plot, your writing was descriptive and applied to a different story, would certainly be something that I would happily take a look at.

Drayton Alan said...

Thank you, everyone, for looking! Obviously, my query is way off the mark since the agent tied it to something totally unrelated and disengaged before dipping into it. Now I understand better how not to craft a query.