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Hello folks -- agent pitch review

The typical agent pitch calls for an intro, tight synopsis and a few pages. I'm posting these below. Please crit on what you have inclination to read (ignore the rest).

My hope is to get 'general' feedback - does it grab you, how can it improve. I have an "A" and "B" intro letter and wondering which to go with.

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ELEVATOR PITCH

It’s 1795 and Chikunda is a slave owned by a madman hellbent on making him murder a government official. He’ll never see his pregnant wife again if he doesn’t do it. Then the madman tells him she’s sold to someone far away, and he has nothing left to lose.

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INTRO LETTER

A)

WHEN WE CRY TO THEE is a 77,300 word historical adventure in the tradition of Clive Cussler/Wilbur Smith.

In 1795, the Portuguese slave ship São José de Afrika wrecked near the Cape of Good Hope, the Dutch slave colony at the tip of Africa recently seized by Britain. The following day, two hundred survivors were marched into town, and re-sold.

By the time CHIKUNDA and pregnant wife, Mkiwa/FAITH, are re-captured, following a brief spell as fugitives in hiding, the BOSUN of the slaver has retired and become assistant to the town’s executioner. He lays claim to Faith as his concubine, while Chikunda, he locks in his basement by night and presses by day into his gristly profession.  But the Bosun is a man tumbling into syphilis-induced madness that manifests in self aggrandisement: His ambition is to become chief executioner. He sets Chikunda a daunting task—kill the man in that position, or never see Faith and unborn child again. Chikunda cannot bring himself to murder, but, when the drunken Bosun glibly mentions that Faith is sold to a distant farmer, Chikunda has nothing left to lose.

When We Cry To Thee, is a tale of devotion, tribulation, and the indomitable spirit humans possess in their urge to be free and retain dignity, soul, and protect their soul mate.

I’m a serial entrepreneur across a swathe of sectors. In the 1990s, Keller Literary sold 3 of my “how to” titles to Career Press and Adams Media.  

Semi-retired, I sharpened my fiction writing craft on five self-published novels—one sold over a thousand copies to the Department of Science alone and movie rights. Another has twice been #1 category Best Seller on Amazon and placed third out of 6,000 entries in competition.

*My interest in the São José de Afrika derives from my SCUBA discovery of the wreck (which lies not 100 yards from where I sit writing this). I will gladly provide details.

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B)

> I've chopped off the opening and closing lines.... this is the alternative body

In 1795, the Portuguese slave ship São José de Afrika wrecked near the Cape of Good Hope, the Dutch colony at the tip of Africa recently seized by Britain. The following day, two hundred survivors were marched into town, and re-sold.

Only two slaves evaded recapture: CHIKUNDA and his pregnant wife, Mkiwa/FAITH, made it to land and absconded to a hidden cove. Though free, prisoners they remain, two thousand miles of hostile wilderness from home. With the frigid South Atlantic at their backs, impenetrable mountain cliffs blocking the hinterland ahead, a redcoat garrison guarding their southern flank, and the town’s gallows to their north, their prospects are dismal. Yet, with all these perils, their greatest threat is a villain of terrifying proportions.

The BOSUN of the slaver—a man tumbling into madness from syphilis—has retired from sea and stayed on in the town, finding employment as assistant to the town’s executioner. While Chikunda is scouting a path for escape, Faith is seized from their hiding place, and the Bosun now has her as his plaything

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1 PARAGRAPH SYNOPSIS

Drifting into madness from syphilis, the slave ship’s BOSUN, now assistant to the executioner of a slave colony, ends up owning both CHIKUNDA and pregnant wife, FAITH. He pressures Chikunda to murder the executioner, to inherit the man’s position, threatening to never let Chikunda see Faith again if he doesn’t comply. On their way to fetch a rowing boat down the coast, the Bosun discloses to Chikunda that he’s sold Faith, Chikunda murders him in a rage. A pious man, Chikunda’s faith says he must turn himself in for murder. He rows the cadaver back to the colony. But fate intervenes, the boat gets rolled in waves, and Bosun is presumed drowned. Delirious from the near drowning, Chikunda sees between the crowded legs of his rescuers… his pregnant wife is approaching. The Bosun had bluffed, Faith was not sold.

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OPENING PAGES.... *italics*

     Chapter One

*Pemba, Portuguese Mozambique, Africa.
Autumn, 1795*

Clamped in leg irons, just two shuffled steps on African soil remained for Chikunda.
With its stern touching the beach and awaiting the last of its human cargo, he could see his open seat on the bench of the ship’s cutter, already crammed with a dozen frightened slaves.
Two pairs of oarsmen sat amid the press of bodies, ready to row the boat.
A quarter-mile out across the gin-clear tropical lagoon waited the cutter’s destination—a slave ship—a dark and brooding hulk, her anchor six fathoms down on pristine coral reef.
Chikunda was a man of rangy proportions. Stark naked, as were all the captives, he stood tall and regal with a breadth and squareness to his shoulders that loaned him the likeness of a polished teak door.
Aboard that ship in the distance lay his last flicker of reason to stay alive. Mkiwa, his wife, would be there, somewhere in her holds.
She *would* be there… She *had* to be there. He forced all doubt about it out of his mind. It was the only hope he could cling to in this darkest hour.

#

Just five days, and already it felt like a lifetime since he’d seen her angelic face.
Kidnapped together, they’d spent countless days in chaffing neck-yokes on the long march, then sold to an enemy tribe’s stockade up the river. They’d fretted together for three days, praying for salvation.
Then, catastrophe.
An Arab trader plonked down a bolt of cloth, five flintlocks, and an ingot of lead, pointed at Chikunda, and they’d led him away at the point of a sword… onward, alone.
A premium price, the man had assured, even for a prime piece of flesh, “that can so fluently speak the language of the buyers.”
Seven more miles to the river’s mouth in a riveted neck collar, he’d trudged.
For five days, he’d suffered crippling loneliness penned in amid a stinking multitude of brethren. Mute with anguish, he’d waited for the next buyer, hoping it would be the same one who’d buy Faith.
*Faith*, the Christian name Mkiwa preferred, baptized to her as a child at the Mission orphanage.
Faith kept coming to him in fitful dreams. Waking was his nightmare, ripping her away.

#

*“Mova isso!*” the man ahead of Chikunda rode an open-handed clout to the back of his head, a burly Portuguese sailor with a cocked pistol slapping him aboard.
Chikunda was next.
*This was the first slave ship of the season*, that was the whisper going about as he took his seated place aboard.
“They’ve already traded higher up the river’s course. We’re the last to be bought,” was the rumor.
*Up the river!!*
Up the river was where Faith was imprisoned. Hope soared within him,
Faith was the most beautiful woman Chikunda had ever seen—any buyer would pick her first. She, too, was fluent in Portuguese, the tongue of these strange people who owned people.
She was definitely aboard. He was sure he could feel her presence reaching out to him across the gulf.
Their keel sighed from the beach, and the surge from the oars began. Each dip and pull consigning Africa another boat length into his past.
With an iron will, he drove all dread and doubt out of his mind.
Chikunda—*The Chatterbox*, as his parents had named him in their Swahili tongue—was hatching a plan.
He always had a plan.
*This is the critical moment of a lifetime*, instinct whispered in his ear on this day.
The *bwana*—the headman—of that wooden vessel up ahead was the one man who could save him.
He looked at his fellow captives—all about him was defeat—despair—rounded shoulders, terrified eyes, heads hanging.
Salvation lay in standing out, and Chikunda realised that he had begun to wither from fear and tragedy.
In that instant, he commanded his attitude to change. He forced his shoulders back, his chest out, chin up. A calm serenity materialized in his eyes.
“What are you looking at, boy?” one of the oarsmen facing the stern saw the change.
He turned his gaze back toward the ship, pretending he didn’t understand.
“Shut your gob Rafael, and pull!” Growled the man with the cocked pistol lying across his lap.
A fisherman familiar with canoes and dhows, Chikunda had never seen a vessel so vast and sinister.
The closer they drew, the more daunting she became… a dhow on a scale and with proportions he could scarcely credit.
Twenty or more feet of hull planking rose sheer and vertical above the waterline. A towering bow with a bowsprit carrying addition canvas bragged of its capacity to face mighty ocean swells, and a low rail amidships strung with a netting ladder would provide access aboard. At her stern stood a castle for accommodation, portholes looking out.
Two masts jutted skyward, crawling with sailors preparing sails for departure.
The forward mast soared a hundred and more feet into the sky. It was dressed with cross-stays and strung with a web of taut ropes and stanchions to support it.
The ship’s hull was sooty black and yellow-brown stained from countless years of muck-buckets poured over her side.
Like tentacles of stench from an open latrine, the nightmare of that ship found them halfway out from the beach. The invisible fog of putrid corruption ahead grew more choking with each surge towards it.
There were two men at the rail. One short, bald, and meaty, the other taller, bearded and regal. Chikunda locked his eyes on the tall man—he was dressed like a king. Their eyes met, and something passed between them.
The meaty man saw the interaction and said something that the king seemed to ignore.
This was the headman for sure.
Manuel Joao Perreira was his name. The captain of his brother’s vessel, the *São José de Afrika* on a buying trip, bound for the slave markets of Brazil
She was a schooner with a broad-deck and a mainmast so thick two men could not touch fingers hugging around it.
The picture of ugliness by Perreira’s side, was Alfonso Oliveira, the boatswain—the ‘Bosun.’
The Bosun was charged with managing cargo and maintaining discipline aboard. Eyes bloodshot from a lifetime of grog and mean-thoughts, he was an ghastly toad of a man. Built like a fortress with a bald and scabby scalp, the mess that had once been his nose was swollen to a bulb at its vein-infested, yellow-pocked end. In those infected pits and broken veins was inscribed the story of near-death hangovers and whore-borne diseases gathered along the world’s sea lanes.
Amid a disheveled rabble of crew, all hung in rags that passed as clothing, Perreira certainly seemed a king. He was dressed like royalty; woolen black breaches, crisply starched silver buttoned up cotton shirt, achingly white under the tropical sun. Over it he wore a flamboyant brocade waistcoat richly woven with gold filigree threads, and each shoes glinted with a solid gold buckle. His features seemed chiseled, his body taught, his hair swept back and fashioned as a topknot in the samurai style, coal-black and glistening with fragrant oils. His close-cropped beard was teased to a sharp point jutting forward of his chin.
BUMP!
They were alongside.
Chikunda looked down. Below the waterline, the ship wore a skirt, a plume of grey effluent dumped and leaked from the holds.
“UP!” bellowed the order from the man with the pistol. A rope net was their ladder, a knotted rope cudgel their inducement to climb.
Into a line on the plank deck, they were clubbed.
“Next!” The smell of cooked meat infused through the stench.
“Next!” A puff of smoke and sounds… terrible sounds, animal growls of pain.
The bellows sighed and hissed into the brazier, blasting the coals within to a crackling red. The brand came out, glowing incandescent.
Chidunda’s heart was thundering—less for what he saw than for what he could not confirm.
Faith was not in sight. No slaves were.
She just *had* to be below. He convinced himself he could feel her presence below.
With that thought, his heart sank, knowing she must have been through this branding and would, even at this instant, be nursing the wicked blisters.
The yawning muzzle of a gun mounted on a swivel covering the deck spoke of no mercy given to insurrection.
This was no time for sentiment or fear. He kept his eyes on the headman. Seemingly, in reaction, the bald square block of inhumanity came over to the branding station. He shoved the sailor aside and began to work the bellows himself—*two, three, four* vicious blasts. The brand within went almost white with heat.
“Next!”
It was Chikunda’s call. He was prodded forward, a blade tip pricking his spine, allowing no retreat.
The Bosun stood ready, his right hand on the handle of the glowing brand still in the coals, a knotted leather scourge hanging limply in his left paw.
In the Bosun’s pitiless reptilian eyes, Chikunda saw a man suddenly warmed within to have found an interesting candidate for the long voyage ahead, on whom he could vent the demons that moved behind his expression.
The ship’s doctor gave Chikunda another cursory inspection—less thorough than at his purchase in the stockade. “Open,” he pointed to Chikunda’s mouth and looked inside, poking with a stick. He stepped back and appraised Chikunda’s form—the breadth of those shoulders, nodding with appreciation at the luster of good health on his skin. He peered and prodded at Chikunda’s genitals with the stick, evidently seeking a blemish. He tapped Chikunda’s foot to look under it as a farrier inspects a horse.
Satisfied, he lifted his quill and marked the details into the ledger.
The Bosun’s eyes smiled for the first time as he withdrew the brand from the coals and brought it toward Chikunda’s naked chest, stopping short of making contact. He peered into Chikunda’s eyes for a reaction.
The searing heat scorch for a moment across the small distance to the skin. Chikunda remained unflinching, his mind gone, thoughts locked only on Faith, seeing her smiling face behind his blank eyes. The Bosun gave a small grunt of disappointment before driving the glowing iron onto Chikunda, aiming to overlap the darkened areola of his nipple.
Chikunda winced from the assault, his knees buckled, and the Bosun smiled once more, pressing the brand harder to follow Chikunda’s fainting collapse.
“ENOUGH!” The Captain had been watching the exchange. He struck the brand away from Chikunda’s chest with the club that every crew member carried for self-defense.
“You have sympathy for a *kafir*?” The Bosun squinted confrontationally, opting for the label Moslem slave traders used to identify ‘the unbelievers.’
Chikunda’s legs gave way and he sank to the deck as if in prayer, the sweat-oiled muscles of his back palpitating and shuddering from the agony within.
“You and I are kafirs too, Bosun,” the Captain reminded him, “nonbelievers of Allah. Douse this man with seawater,” he instructed a nearby sailor.
The man turned and went to the rail to collect the bucket on a rope.
“It is your job, Bosun, to deliver my brother’s cargo unmolested and in a saleable condition. Until they are sold, they are the property of this ship and its owner, my family. Am I clear?”
Francisco Perreira, brother of the Captain back in Lisbon, owned the ship and all cargo upon her. Proud of their family merchandise, the brand insignia was a flourished “FP” signature. It was mark of quality indelibly sealed onto every slave they sold.
“To quench your precious cargo’s discomfort more thoroughly,” the Bosun suggested, wearing a smirk, “allow me to heave him overboard?”
“If anyone is thrown overboard on this voyage…” The Captain left the threat unfinished, and the Bosun looked to his shipmates, studying them carefully for their appetite for mutiny if it came to that. Only blank stares returned.
To break the deadlock, he looked down the ladder into the holds and some small commotion there.
“We have three more loads to cram, and these filthy kafirs are bunching at the companionway, pretending there’s no more space within. Get the hound.” The Bosun directed the instruction to the sailor he’d nominated as its handler.
The man disappeared toward the stern where the animal cowered in its cage.
Chikunda slowly raised his forehead off the deck. He was kneeling now, his chest heaving, and his eyelids fluttering with the effort of regaining a dignified pose.
“We won’t fill the holds more than half on this stop,” Perreira challenged his officer. “Let the wretches stretch out on the decks above. There is room enough without overcrowding the lowest decks at this stage. At the *Ilha de Moçambique* market you cram them.”
“The upper decks need swabbing first. Leave my job to me and look to your own obligations first,” The Bosun skirted the precipice of insurrection.
“My obligations are to see healthy and strong merchandise fit for market. Your obligations were to swab *all* decks before this loading began. Too drunk to care when it was an easy task, now it must be done above the heads of cargo already beginning to weaken in this sweltering heat.”
“Heat means nothing to them. They’re born to it.”
The sailor appeared with the bucket slopping water, and the Captain stood aside.
“On my deck?” the Bosun challenged. “You would foul my deck for this… *thing*?”
“May I go overboard, senhor…” Chikunda asked in perfect Portuguese.
Captain whirled with a start. The Bosun and crew looked as if they’d seen a ghost.
“…to reduce any further distress?”
“Where did you learn to speak?” the captain asked of Chikunda.
“At the Mission, senhor.” Chikunda’s face was a mask of pain, his words slurred, but his diction impeccable.
“Mission? What were you doing at a Mission?”
“Studying, senhor.”
“Studying what?”
“Of our Lord, senhor. To become a priest, senhor.”
“Hmmm… Writing too? You can use a quill?”
“Senhor, yes.”
“Interesting… You are already baptized?”
“Senhor,” he nodded affirmation.


Comments
  •  l like option B because of the emotion and action that you convey.


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    • Thank you so much, Cat

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    • I'll give only a scattering of feedback here, not entirely answering any of the specific questions, but I hope that these hints will help you craft a better letter.

      Firstly, of the letter options, I would go with none of the above.

      A has two good elements: the two bits you chopped for B - "a 73k historical in the tradition of…" and "a tale of devotion, tribulation, and spirit". That, I beleive, is your opener, formed into a single sentence (and tightened). Basically, provide a baseline of style and a theme. Say "this is why you should be interested," before pitching what they should be interested in.

      However, reading those two options and the synopsis, I'm not seeing a significant difference between them, beyond your focus. In the letter options, you are dealing primarily with the setup, whereas the synopsis deals more with the resolution.

      Aside: a story issue I have with all of them is that Chikunda has no reaction to the syphilis-infected bosun using his wife as a sexual plaything. That should be enough to tip him into action. Also, the bosun's ambition rings pretty hollow.

      And back to the main subject, the summary in the letter should be focused more evenly across the entire story arc; say one sentence each for setup, inciting incident, mounting action, crisis, mounting tension, climax, and resolution. The synosis version should, therefore, be longer, say expanding each of those seven sentences to a (short) paragraph.

      Now, the key reason I am not going any further is what threw me out of the writing itself. In your second paragraph, a line that - putting on as brutal a reading cap as most agents will wear by default - told me to stop: "…already crammed with a dozen frightened slaves," (which, as it happens, also contradicts the prior half of its sentence, to wit, "he could see his open seat on the bench.")

      This is only the second paragraph, and you are already telling rather than showing.

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      • Yikes.. .it sounds like I'd best give up entirely :-(

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        • > two good elements:
          ... WHEN WE CRY TO THEE is a 77,300 word historical adventure. A tale of devotion, tribulation, and the indomitable spirit humans possess in their urge to be free and retain their dignity, soul, and their soul mate.

          ... thanks


          However, reading those two options and the synopsis, I'm not seeing a significant difference between them, beyond your focus. In the letter options, you are dealing primarily with the setup, whereas the synopsis deals more with the resolution.

          > As I understood it, the pitch letter to agents needs to be the back cover of the book - so not giving the resolution but rather selling the sizzle. 


          Aside: a story issue I have with all of them is that Chikunda has no reaction to the syphilis-infected bosun

          > Being a tribal African circa 1795... Chikunda doesn't necessarily understand that the sores on the man are related to his madness. He's in no position to resist or complain. His life is under threat at any second, as is his wife's he has no option but to bide his time.


           using his wife as a sexual plaything. That should be enough to tip him into action. 

          > That part only occurs 1/3 of the way into the novel by which time there is a slew of story already told and the reader will understand that he is a broken man under extreme circumstances.


          Also, the bosun's ambition rings pretty hollow.

          > This only reveals 2/3 of the way through the book, by which time you understand the Bosun's back story and insanity.


          And back to the main subject, the summary in the letter should be focused more evenly across the entire story arc; 

          > I can re-look at it. I, of course, have a 500-word summary that does pretty much that.


          say one sentence each for setup, inciting incident, mounting action, crisis, mounting tension, climax, and resolution. The synosis version should, therefore, be longer, say expanding each of those seven sentences to a (short) paragraph.

          > Will try.


          Now, the key reason I am not going any further is what threw me out of the writing itself. In your second paragraph, a line that - putting on as brutal a reading cap as most agents will wear by default - told me to stop: "…already crammed with a dozen frightened slaves,"

          > I guess I've run out of talent by the second line then.  I don't know what to say. If you have a different way of putting it I'd love to learn. 


           (which, as it happens, also contradicts the prior half of its sentence, to wit, "he could see his open seat on the bench.")

          This is only the second paragraph, and you are already telling rather than showing.

          > Ditto... I guess it's my amateurishness on display. It's a bit disheartening, to tell the truth. 

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        • It's a bit disheartening… welcome to the world of dealing with (or putting off dealing with) agents.

          That said, I would rather induce this dispair in you than encourage you to send a letter - and writing sample - out to agents that will get you back a stack of stock rejections. (And also tarnish your name when you send something better, later. Yes, they keep records.)

          How to write a scene like that?

          To paraphrase and condense the slew of books and other material I have consumed on the subject, put yourself in your point-of-view character's shoes. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Notice what they notice. Make sure that picture is consistent within itself. How does he know the others are slaves? (collars, shackles, fresh, bloody welts) At this point, does he know any of them? Are they local or from tribes further afield whom he might recognise? How does he know they are frightened? (mirror of own emotions, posture, drooping jaws, eyes) But… might some still have a lingering ember of rebellion? Is there some hope that is available to you to crush?

          As an exercise, try writing that single moment as a 1500-word vignette. I'm not saying you'll use all of it. Or even most of it. But it'll give you ideas for how to show these detail. It will show you just how much detail there is in that moment to show.

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          • I'm about 300 rejections in 20 years of pitching and a gazillion articles on writing these bloody things under the belt. I must just be low IQ. 

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            • Now, now. It's far easier to see these things in other's work than one's own.

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            • I'm a debut non-fiction writer in the general public arena and not a professional critiquer. But have been writing technical reports and papers for years. Surprisingly, I found your text engaging. Surprising for me because I usually like to read of facts and reality. However, you have clearly done some real historical research which is exactly what I have to do for my historical biography and I found myself wanting to know where your story would take me.  I found your synopsis did not draw me into the story. It was somehow dry and unexciting.

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              • I would agree with Rick  about the showing and telling BUT please don’t take it as a knock back. It seems to me that you have an excellently researched and plotted novel which is a huge achievement and all you need now is to go through it and sprinkle in some magic? Edit each paragraph that doesn’t have dialogue and add in the five senses. What can the characters (physically) feel and smell? Instead of telling us what they emotionally feel can you add a scene that depicts this? If he is frightened can some dialogue show us this? Who are his friends? Are they near him? Talking to him? Don’t chop what you have just add some seasoning.

                I think you’ve done 95% of a tremendous job!

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                • Hi JJ
                  Of course, this is a sliver - my writing always seems to be slow and gain momentum.

                  I'll gladly send you more if you have the interest.

                  Michael

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