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Note that there was a specific brief which was different from a "normal" submission: to write a covering letter and the first 500 words. Also, this is a UK-style covering letter, rather than a US-style query which would not be accompanied by any material and would therefore be longer. HOWEVER, on this occasion, I have also included the synopsis, because the author kindly sent* me one, and because I think it is worth your looking at. (*And don't criticise her for not following the brief - this came about slightly differently!)
Ignore any formatting issues - this was a function of me transferring the text to blogger. Assume we're looking at double-spaced type.
Dear Nicola Morgan
White Lies - by - Lynn Michell
I saw on your website that you are calling for synopses and outlines to critique. I very much appreciate this opportunity to send you the synopsis of my debut novel White Lies which begins in Liverpool as the second world war breaks out and moves to Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. It is a slow burning love story which is played out against the backdrop of the desperate, bloody attacks on white colonials by the land-hungry and dispossessed Kikuyu tribes of Kenya.
White Lies was short-listed as a work in preparation for Edinburgh's Robert Louis Stevenson Award in 2007 and again as a finished novel by an emerging writer in 2008. It is literary fiction and roughly 90,000 words.
I have published six non-fiction books with HarperCollins, Longman and The Women's Press and have won a number of prizes for short stories. This is my first novel.
I do hope that you want to read more.
(500 word sample)
From far away they look like a rock group posing for a publicity shoot, neither together nor apart, facing all ways. A tall middle-aged man with hair as wild as the wind. A woman holding the arm of an old man; a second fairer woman leaning in on his other side. A beautiful, skinny youth with a shaved head who remains a little apart, perhaps because he is young and feels things keenly. And a young man in his twenties holding the cardboard box as carefully as if he were carrying a child. Close to though, it is obvious that they are not posing at all. This is for real.
It was late afternoon when the two cars pulled up in the car park above the beach. Like other beaches on the stretch of English coastline between Folkestone and Dover, it was a chill grey, bleak and disheartening. In the front seat Eve's son Alex held a square cardboard box on his knee. It was Alex who had sat with his grandfather round the clock until the others had raced to him from motor-ways and airports. Alex who always wore jeans had bought a new black suit and a black tie and black shoes because he knew appearance meant a lot to his grandfather.
The old soldier, so much older now than five days ago, stumbled when he set foot on the cobbled stones above the beach. Eve grabbed him and held him steady as they squeezed their way two abreast down the pedestrian path which was wide enough only for one. A wet wind soaked their faces and stormy clouds whipped across the sky. Each one was thinking, How do I do this? I have never done this before.
It is hard enough to walk across shifting stacks of stones when fit and young, but how to manage when you are eighty-nine and giddy with grief? The old man comes to a halt too far from the sea and rests for a moment, wanting to shake off the two women who prop him up, wishing to be alone with his thoughts. Earlier that afternoon, walking behind the coffin over the strip of red carpet, he had reached out his hand to touch the wood and said, I want to see her again, and Eve had whispered, Father, you can't. It's too late now.
We are dressed inappropriately, thinks Eve. Here we are in our funeral finery when we need our wellies and waterproofs and hats. Glancing at her husband Max, she worries that the men will be frozen in their thin white shirts and suits. They gather together to wait for a lull but the sea has never-ending reserves of energy while they are drained of theirs. It scores each time it rushes up to froth around their ankles and shoes.
SYNOPSIS + PLOT
‘By 1950, Kenya was on the verge of one of the bloodiest and most protracted wars of decolonisation fought in Britain’s twentieth century empire.’ Britain’s Gulag. P 28.
White Lies is about different kinds of war and different kinds of loving. It explores the fragility and partiality of memory, the political and personal interpretation of history, and our need to re-write the past so that it does not jar with the stories we tell ourselves.
An army family is posted to Nairobi in 1952. The Mau Mau rebellion, currently in the news again, is both central and peripheral to the different family members who live through the Emergency. Looking back, the old soldier reflects on the differences between the conventional warfare of the second world war and the hit-and-run tactics of an invisible, unreadable enemy. His is the accepted colonial account. He experiences military action against the Mau Mau as dutiful service and personal fulfilment. His wife Mary’s story of the same period comes to light only after her death. While her husband finds satisfaction in being a leader of men, she falls in love with an Intelligence officer who understands Kenya’s history, sympathises with the country’s dispossessed tribes, and shows Mary a kind of loving she has never before experienced. While their father is out on armed patrol and their mother is keeping trysts with her lover, their two little girls recount fragments of their time in Nairobi as well as earlier memories of their safe days with their grandparents in a Dorset village. Their ghost-like voices break into the adult narrative, recalling images remembered with wide-eyed innocence.
This is a slow-burning love story set against a political backdrop. The plot twists and turns, gaining momentum, towards its unexpected ending.
When Mary Dell dies there is no-one left to mourn her except her husband, David, her two daughters, Eve and Clara, and their sons, yet amongst the flowers is a wreath from someone called Ann. Their father, giddy with grief, remains silent on the subject. When they clear their mother's room, Eve and Clara find a shoe-box of papers which Clara offers to take home.
Unable to look after himself, David Dell moves close to Eve. While as a child Eve found security in her father, now their roles are reversed as the old man leans on his daughter. While the present is a challenge, the past is vivid and sharp. He tells Eve his stories, over and over, until one day she suggests he writes his memoirs. And so they begin, David talking and Eve typing. Where do you want to start? Eve asks. Nairobi, he replies without hesitation.
Part way through his story David stuns Eve by telling her that something terrible happened to Mary one night when he was out on patrol. Too upset to continue, he walks out leaving Eve without further explanation. Why does she not remember? Nor Clara? They recall nights of fear locked in their bedroom while their mother barricaded herself in her room with a loaded revolver. But something worse?
While her father is talking, Eve recaptures images from the past and in remembering, questions his version of events, both the public and the private. Sometimes she interrupts him with fragments of her own story.
In London, Clara is caught up in the terrorist bombings of July 2005. Reminded of Nairobi and curious to know how her mother coped with a similar kind of fear, she opens the shoe-box of papers. There is a diary and a letter, recently dated, to Ann.
Now we hear Mary's story of her courtship and marriage, her war years followed by stultifying village life, and her time in Nairobi. In the background, colonials and Kikuyu are killing one another and David is out on patrol risking his life but Mary is lost in a passionate relationship that dominates the present and shapes the future.
David turns up on Eve’s doorstep one day to finish his memoir and to write about what happened to Mary one night in Nairobi. As Eve types, she discovers that her father's and her mother's accounts are different and irreconcilable.
A middle-aged woman boards a plane to Nairobi to trace her past and find her roots.
Comments, please! Lynn awaits eagerly ...