Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Pitch a classic! Would you read this novel?

Years ago, I entered a last-minute query contest from the DFW Writers Conference, to pitch a query for a classic work of fiction. My choice was Tarzan of the Apes, which I had read, with all its sequels, when I was what would now be called a middle-grade reader. I loved the adventure then, turning a blind eye to the racism of the early 20th century tale. However, I’m still sympathetic to author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ treatment of the “anthropoid ape” characters, finding them foils for all Burroughs believed was wrong in human societies, no matter what their race.

The DFW contest judges named me a winner in the query contest. Here’s my try at fitting that query into Annie Neugebauer’s query pitch framework from yesterday's post, followed by the original query. What should I change? What should I keep? 
Would this persuade you to read the classic story?
Query pitch for Tarzan of the Apes
Attention-grabber: Orphaned at birth, a scion of English aristocrats is raised by a pack of anthropoid ages, ignorant of his human origins.
Essential premise: Shortly before the birth of their first child, Lord and Lady Greystoke set out for a grand tour. Instead, their ship’s crew mutinies and maroons them on an unknown African shore. After the couple’s deaths, their infant son is saved when a she-ape bereaved of her own infant rears the strange orphaned child as her own.
Protagonist: Tarzan (the real Lord Greystoke)
Goal/motivation/obstacle/stakes: He falls in love with Jane Porter, and longs to be worthy of her, but she’s engaged to the antagonist. Revealing himself as the real Lord Greystoke would, Tarzan believes, destroy her chance for a successful marriage. 
Antagonist: William Cecil Clayton (presumptive Lord Greystoke)
Goal/motivation/stakes: He’s also in love with Jane and believes himself to be the true Lord Greystoke following the apparent death (without known heir) of the original Greystokes. Losing his standing would deprive both him and the woman he is engaged to of their social standing.
Supporting character: Jane Porter
Motivation: She’s too honorable to dump William, who she only agreed to marry to assure her elderly father’s wellbeing, but Tarzan is the man she truly loves. 
Closing hook: Once Tarzan has known love, will he be content to return to his ape companions?
“Celebrating the Classics” Query Contest entry:
April 1, 1912
Mr. Frank Munsey
The All-Story Magazine
New York City, New York
Dear Mr. Munsey:
I was delighted to hear about the enthusiastic response my story, “Under the Moons of Mars” received from readers of your magazine earlier this year.  I hope you and your readers will be equally delighted by a new tale with an exotic setting on planet Earth, my 86,000-word adventure story, “Tarzan of the Apes.”
The story begins more than twenty years ago, when the English Lord Greystoke and his wife set out for a tour of Africa, expecting it to be their last trip they would take together until after Lady Greystoke gave birth to their first child.  But before they reach their destination their ship’s crew mutinies, marooning the Greystokes on the darkest shores of the dark continent.
There John, Lord Greystoke, and Lady Alice, his wife, vanish from the eyes and from the knowledge of men.  They leave behind a hut with their few possessions and a young child, who would have been slain by jungle beasts but for the love of the she-ape Kala. Grieving for the death of her own infant, Kala rears the strange orphaned child as her own, naming him “Tarzan,” which means “white skin” in the language of the anthropoid apes.  Surrounded by Kala’s ape tribe, Tarzan grows to manhood derided by the apes for his strange appearance and ignorant of his human origins.  At last another ship arrives, marooned on the same shores as the parents Tarzan never knew.  And to the amazement of the young ape-man, it carries the lovely Jane Porter ashore, straight into the heart of Tarzan.
The ship also carries Jane Porter’s fiancĂ©, the same man who has inherited the title and estate left vacant by the death of Tarzan’s unknown father, Lord Greystoke.  Among the tribe of anthropoid apes Tarzan belongs to, a male will fight all comers to gain a mate.  But is a fight to the death the way to win the heart of a civilized young woman such as Jane Porter?  And once Tarzan has known love, can he be content to return to his ape companions?
As you know from our previous acquaintance, Mr. Munsey, I have proved myself able to provide the kind of exciting adventures with a romantic twist that readers of “All-Story” demand.  My contact information is the same as that previously furnished.  I look forward to your response to this new story, “Tarzan of the Apes.”
Yours sincerely, 
Edgar Rice Burroughs
First, remember this query is written by me posing as ER Burroughs. Its first and last paragraphs reflect Burroughs’ familiarity with Frank Munsey, then the editor of “All-Story” magazine, which had previously published the story that would become “A Princess of Mars” and spawn Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series. I’ve certainly spent a lot of space, possibly too much, dealing with the “attention-grabber” and “essential premise” portions of Annie Neugebauer’s pitch outline, and almost nothing on the antagonist.
In retrospect, I wonder if the real antagonist wasn’t Jane’s aristocratic fiancĂ©, but her elderly and impractical father, who she felt obliged to provide financial support for. I should also point out that many modern-day agents dislike phrasing the closing hook as a rhetorical question. 

And those long paragraphs? Maybe they were OK a hundred years ago, but nowadays, consider breaking them up!

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