I'm going to kick off by putting my own comments here first. Mainly because I'm colossally under pressure with deadlines at the moment so I may not manage to comment again in the next couple of days. (But I will be watching, so please play nicely!)
Now, I happen to know that Dan is ruthless with his own words in one sense: he thinks about them all and knows how they each work. He loves words and he loves playing with them. But, he is not ruthless enough about getting rid of them.
What I've done is put in bold the most important bits, the bits which contain the most relevant info. Clearly, there's then a huge amount of story that I have not bolded, which Dan would need to find a way to squash to its barest bones in order to make the beginning and the end hang together. Also, the other characters, as long as not minor, need a sentence each at the most.
As two examples of details that should not be here, see the para beginning: "When Tommy discovers him..." You don't need to say what sort of wine it was, or that Becky had reurned from three months in Eastern Europe, or the details of the content of the papers Charles left. If Dan goes through and removes everything of that sort of level, it would probably cut about 400 words, which would be a good and easy start.
I also have a radical suggestion. There is no reason why you could not offer two synopses - the properly pared down one of no more than two sides, and then the fuller one (though still, I suggest, pared down). It is highly likely that that agent or publisher would only read the shorter one, but at least the longer one is there if they happen to want further clarificiation. This IS a radical suggestion and I've never heard it before. I cannot see how it would damage someone's chances - you are not giving the agent more work or asking them to read something, merely providing it, should they want it. But it would be essential that the short synopsis is properly short.
Oh, and by the way, I think the story sounds great! It deserves a much neater synopsis.
Here is Dan's synopsis:
The Company of Fellows
Thriller: 97,000 words
The search for an Oxford professor’s killer drives his former protégé back into the world that drove him to a breakdown 12 years earlier. The Company of Fellows takes place in contemporary Oxford, in the University and the affluent north of the city, at the end of September before the students return for the new academic year.
Tommy West, 35, atheist, turned his back on a brilliant academic career when he suffered a breakdown after finishing a doctorate in Theology twelve years ago. His health has forced him to lead a life that is comfortable and intellectually unchallenging. Now he lives in the sensual but impersonal world of luxury design, where a combination of taste and uncanny empathy has made him wealthy. Exquisite things shield him from the world outside and satisfy his need for instant pleasure. They are the sanctuary and the prison he has inhabited alone since college.
Emily Harris, 36, devout Christian, is a Detective Chief Inspector with Thames Valley CID, the job she wanted since she was a little girl. She has a happy but childless marriage to David, whom she met at church. Despite the terrible things she has seen at work and the bitter disappointments she has experienced at home, she has remained centred, and faithful, and good. David is the only man she has loved since Tommy left her eighteen years ago because she wouldn’t sleep with him. They haven’t seen each other since college.
Rosie Lu, 26, is Emily’s DS. She moved to England from Hong Kong as a teenager, on the eve of the handover to China in 1997. She is cultured and intelligent, a side of herself she is happy to hide behind lipstick, leather, and loud music; Rosie still lives the life of a Bohemian student in the rented flat that she shares with her pet chameleon, named Chris after Chris Patten, last governor of Hong Kong and Chancellor of Oxford University.
Charles Shaw, 53, is Professor of Ethics at Christ Church, wildly rich, and Tommy’s former supervisor. He has devoted his career to the study of pleasure, and devoted his life to its pursuit. He believes that the greatest pleasures are the ones for which we have to wait, like the pleasure of old wine. Haydn Shaw, 43, is his estranged wife. She married Charles at the very start of her academic career and is now a successful lecturer at the University, specialising in the Sociology of China. She has lived with Becky Shaw, her 18 year-old daughter, since the night Becky’s twin sister Carol was stillborn and Charles walked out on them.
Barnard Ellison and Hedley Sansom had been lecturers at Christ Church when the Shaws separated. Ellison remained there, with his wife Jane and their two children. He is now Professor of Old Testament History. Sansom, who moved abroad after his first wife Valerie committed suicide, returned with his second wife, Clarissa, to become College Dean.
When Professor Shaw’s lawyer dies on Tommy’s doorstep, leaving him only a box of research papers for an unpublished book, £98,000, and a plea from the Professor to find someone who is trying to kill him and to take care of his daughter, Tommy has to choose between his sensual cocoon and a return to the old life that drove him to the edge of insanity. What follows for Tommy, from the moment he makes the choice not to call the police, and goes to see the Professor only to find him dead, is a pursuit of the truth that becomes a desperate battle to fend off another breakdown. Tommy’s safe new world is blown further apart when he finally calls the police to report the lawyer’s death, and opens the door only to find himself staring at Emily.
Tommy’s journey takes place in an Oxford darkened by the shadows not of its crumbling spires, but of irrevocable choices, of the prices people have paid for pursuing their own happiness, and the prices they have paid for sacrificing it.
When Tommy discovers him, Charles is dead, in his own house, at a table laid with a banquet for one, accompanied by bottles of two of the world’s finest wines opened and empty, and a suicide note that says only There is nothing left to wait for. Emily breaks the news to Haydn and to Becky, who has just returned from 3 months in Eastern Europe. Haydn’s reaction to his note is that he must finally have enjoyed the pleasure he spent his life and career anticipating. Emily is unable to tell if her coldness is a result of hate, indifference or an incapacity for emotion. The papers Charles left Tommy contain wine catalogues and academic articles, going back to a piece on iconography by Bulgarian scholar Krista Markova from 1989.
Amongst them he discovers what appears to be a drawing of a miniature torture instrument. Becky begs Tommy to help her find Charles’ killer. She goes with him to the Professor’s house to collect a bequest of wines, but refuses to help him fetch them from the cellar. They are even finer and rarer than those from Charles’ last meal, one of them being the second finest vintage ever made of the Hungarian pudding wine, Tokaji Eszencia. This convinces Tommy that the hedonist Charles, who had yet to taste his finest wine, didn’t kill himself but was murdered.
At Charles’ memorial service Ellison’s eulogy reveals that Charles’ book was about the theology of parenthood. At the wake, Becky introduces Tommy to Dr Knightley, Haydn’s obstetrician. Knightley tells Tommy about Charles’ obsession with conducting thought experiments about maximizing the pleasure of experiences, such as a perfect seduction lasting almost twenty years. Becky explains that her twin, Carol, was stillborn, and that Knightley blames himself for the death. She also tells Tommy about threatening letters Charles had received before he died, taunting him with the biblical verse Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated, a reference to God’s choice to redeem one of Isaac’s twin sons, and to condemn the other.
Tommy meets the Sansoms over dinner with Haydn and Becky. He discovers that grief over her own childlessness, compounded by Charles’ neglect of his own children, drove Hedley’s first wife, Valerie, to suicide shortly after Becky and Carol were born. After that Hedley left Oxford for the continent.
When Emily attends Knightley’s suicide at the Women’s Health Centre, memories of her own visits make her question both her faith and her feelings for David, and as she battles with her repressed anger towards the man who cannot give her a child she struggles to figure out what place Tommy now has in her life, and what kind of father he would have been.
Hedley reveals to Tommy that the reason for Dr Knightley’s suicide wasn’t remorse that he had failed to save Carol. “[He] didn’t kill himself because he let her die. He killed himself because he let her live.” From this moment Tommy knows Charles’ papers, including the drawing of the torture instrument, relate not to a warped thought experiment, but to a real experiment. Alone and frightened of his thoughts, Tommy calls the few people he knows, but the only person he reaches is Rosie, whose number Emily had given him to stop him calling her at home. He goes round and they bond at once. Despite increasing worries that his returning illness is blurring his behaviour, when Tommy wakes up with her he knows it feels right.
Amongst Charles’ things Tommy discovers a recording of the professor’s voice describing the torture instrument’s use in a trepanning procedure. He finds himself plagued by flashbacks of a dead girl, who looks like Becky, staring at him with harrowed, pleading eyes, a needle hanging from her arm. Then Tommy finds a file computer that shows the instrument was part of a sick sexual experiment involving a baby. It is only his flashbacks that drive him on, desperate to protect Becky from a truth he knows is pulling his sanity apart. As strongly as Becky seems drawn to Tommy as a surrogate father, he is drawn by the urge to look after her.
Tommy follows Charles’ movements after the twins’ birth to Spain, from where he discovers that Ellison took Carol to use in the experiment. On his return he takes Rosie to a concert where he hears the song that plays in his flashbacks; he remembers that after his breakdown he had watched a prostitute, the image of Becky, die from an overdose. Terrified, he had left her in her squalid room. Now helping Becky find her father’s killer is his only way of achieving expiation. Seeing from the presence of workers’ vans that Charles’ house is already being refurbished, he returns to the basement. The decorator, one of the contractors Tommy regularly uses, tells him the work is being done at Hedley’s request, and shows him proof in the stripped layers of paint that Carol didn’t die as a baby, but that Charles had raised her there until just a few months ago, before raping and killing her for his own pleasure.
Tommy confronts the Sansoms. Hedley, convinced Charles kept Carol alive before murdering her, and wanting evidence to take to the police, believed Clarissa had killed him out of revenge because Hedley’s obsession with Charles’ guilt for Valerie’s death that meant he had never been a proper husband to her. Clarissa had believed Hedley to be guilty, exacting revenge for Valerie’s suicide.
Jane Ellison reveals that she has always known about her husband’s sexual thought experiments but as long as they remained in his mind said nothing to protect their children.
As he prepares dinner for Haydn and Becky at their house, Tommy finds proof that Haydn killed Charles. Before taking it to Emily, he confesses his investigation to Rosie; she forgives him; they celebrate by opening a bottle of the wine Charles left him, but it is not the wine it should be. Tommy realises Charles has switched it with the wine he drank the day he died – now he believes Charles killed himself after all and framed Haydn. He goes to let Becky know but she tells him that she is, in fact, Carol; Charles raised her in secret for 18 years, giving her the best of everything; he intended her to be with Tommy – she has killed Becky and come back from Eastern Europe to take her place. Charles has indeed framed Haydn.
For Tommy, the journey has been one of slow descent towards breakdown. It is lightened by his growing relationship with Rosie, by the possibility of a new friendship with Emily, and by the reawakening of his academic brain as he works through Charles’ papers. At the same time his decline feels inevitable, presided over by the haunting figure of Becky and hastened by the journey deeper into the sickening thought experiments of the Professors, until he finds himself faced with a choice from which he cannot hide: to condemn Haydn or to condemn Carol? But he finally escapes his descent towards madness when his rediscovered friendship with Emily gives him the strength to face the choice, and its consequences, without collapsing under their weight. Tommy chooses Haydn’s freedom over Carol’s.
Weeks later, over dinner with the convalescing Tommy, Haydn admits she has known from the moment “Becky” returned from Eastern Europe that she was really Carol. She had made the choice never to let on – after all, Carol was her daughter too. After Haydn leaves, Tommy receives a letter from Charles that explains everything.. Charles had set out an experiment to be the perfect parent. He paid Knightley to fake Carol’s death and raised her alone. He selected Tommy as her future partner for his taste and his bipolar tendency; caused his breakdown so he wouldn’t start another relationship but gave him the tools to get well; then killed his own twin, from whom he had been separated when they were adopted, intending the hunt for his killer to trigger Tommy’s recovery and introduce him to Becky. Everything – from Becky’s red hair to Charteris’ heart attack – was part of his plan.
Shortly before Carol was born, Charles fell in love, but kept his obligation to Carol, the 18 year delay only enhancing his ultimate pleasure. Now he has discharged his duty to Carol he can finally pursue his own happiness.
Tommy faces his final choice – does he go after Charles, meaning Carol finds out she wasn’t the most important thing in her father’s life after all? He burns the letter and calls Rosie. Charles, with nothing left to wait for, begins his life in Bulgaria with Krista Markova.