Friday, 21 October 2011

Synopsis Spotlight - The Girl on Winter's Hill

Introducing the second brave synopsis-spotlight-provider, Margaret Kirk. If you don't know how these spotlights work, please read the previous one here, and the post here in which I introduced both the task and my forthcoming book on how to write a synopsis. Which is what all this is leading up to. (And, by the way, I have - I think - chosen my title for the book. To be revealed soon!)

In your comments, you aren't necessarily meant to be saying whether you like the sound of the book, but whether the synopsis does a good job of making it clear and coherent and whether it follows the general guidelines of synopsis-writing.

The Girl on Winter's Hill - by Margaret Morton Kirk

Everybody’s got a past.  Just not one like Chrissie Fraser’s…

Chrissie can’t remember much about that summer afternoon in the hills above Rossan.  She knows what started as a lazy day with her boyfriend Rob and his fledgling rock group, ended [clunky phrasing there, Margaret, and the comma is wrong] in a car crash which left her fighting for her life.  She knows Rob, the driver, escaped unhurt, while her cousin died and her friend Liam was badly injured — Rob’s fault, according to the village rumour-mill.  What she doesn’t know is why Rob disappeared, leaving her to face the aftermath alone.  And scared.  And pregnant. [Nice effect.]

Sixteen years later and six hundred miles away, Chrissie’s made a new life for herself and her daughter [add Eve].  But when her mother’s serious illness forces a return to Rossan, she discovers the past isn’t so easily buried [perhaps be more specific? This is slightly vague. Needs better link to the “not coming to terms bit” in next para. Also burying the past is a bit of a cliché?]

When Chrissie’s mother dies, fragile fifteen year-old Eve, bullied at school, begs her to let them stay in the village she’s fallen in love with.  Realising she needs to come to terms with the events of sixteen years ago, [Better to hint earlier that she hasn’t come to terms with them, I think] Chrissie agrees. A tentative romance develops with Liam, and Chrissie hopes she’s finally laid the past to rest [Again, this is a somewhat vague phrase, not to mention being a cliché!]. She couldn’t be more wrong. [But]While she struggles with her re-emerging feelings [You are the mistress of the vague statement, tinged with cliché!]  for Rob, newly returned to Rossan, an older, darker past is reaching out to her.[Ahem.]

Fascinated by the photograph of an unknown woman she finds amongst her mother’s things, Chrissie determines to discover her identity.  But her search creates a rift with Liam, whose increasingly controlling behaviour masks a disturbing family secret. [You are actually about to say this anyway.] Unknown to Chrissie, Liam recognises the woman from the locket she’s wearing; she’s his great-grandfather Callum’s first wife, rumoured to have deserted him for her musician lover, leaving Callum vowing revenge.  Only Liam knows she never left the village.  [As an aside about the plot, I feel that this seems unlikely. How many of us know what our great-grandfather’s first wife looked like? I hope you make this credible in the actual book?]

On the day of the crash he’d stumbled on a woman’s skeletal remains hidden near his family’s farm, a locket round her neck and a knife between her ribs. Sickened [again, suspension of disbelief issue: would he really be that traumatised? This is some generations ago - I'd actually be somewhat fascinated, or at the most disturbed. Or is that just me?!] by the thought that Callum could have been the murderer, he’d panicked and covered all traces of his find.  But after the crash, his traumatised mind [For this to feel believable, we need much earlier hints in the synopsis of Liam’s a) instability and b) involvement in the crash] had started to merge past and present.  At the height of a devastating mental breakdown, Liam had believed he was Callum—when Chrissie returns to Rossan after sixteen years’ absence, she has no idea of the danger his reawakening delusions will pose. [I’m a bit confused as to when Liam’s delusion started – at the time of the crash or later? I could probably work it out but your synopsis needs to be clear on first reading.]

As Liam’s possessiveness worsens, Chrissie grows closer to Rob as he and Eve forge a strong bond.  As the bells chime for a New Year, he asks her to give their relationship another chance, and Chrissie admits she’s never stopped loving him.  [Too much detail – sometimes too much detail makes it *less* believable, not more.]

When Chrissie tells Liam she and Rob are back together, he becomes increasingly unstable.  He blames Eve’s growing bond with Rob for Chrissie’s decision to end things with him.  With ‘Callum’ more and more in control, he mounts a campaign of terror, staging a break-in at Chrissie’s house and terrorising her friends.  In a final desperate act, he abducts Eve, hoping to rewrite history[Eh?]— with Eve out of the way, he believes Chrissie will realise she belongs with him.  But Chrissie’s learned enough of what happened that day to work out where he’s taken Eve.  Back where it all began, on the Winter’s Hill above Rossan, Chrissie and Rob confront Liam.  As the police close in, Liam’s mind disintegrates and he undergoes a complete mental and physical collapse.  Eve is found, suffering from hypothermia and badly traumatised, but alive.

As Eve recovers, Chrissie’s life is at a crossroads. [Make stronger – crisis, dilemma etc] She must decide whether to give her relationship with Rob another chance, or stay in Ceann Aird, the house she’s grown to love again.  At first she tells Rob their lives are too different for things ever to work out between them.  But with time comes a measure of healing for them all, and [cliché and feels far too vague] when Rob returns to Rossan in the spring, Chrissie’s ready to give him a different answer. [Need to find a way to make that ending feel stronger and more specific.]
In my opinion this is a well written synopsis, which flows well and ticks most boxes Margaret said: “It's succinct, but at the moment that's pretty much all that's in its favour. Women's fiction, non-linear plot, interwoven time periods. Synopsis feels flat and one-dimensional, but I think the novel is a better and more sophisticated mystery than this makes it sound.” I disagree – I think it feels pretty rounded and multi-dimensional. I think it nicely weaves the strands and time-scales together in a way that gives me a good sense of the book. (Well, I assume so, as I haven’t read the book, but that’s the point, as the agent hasn’t either.)

My only criticisms, as you’ll see from my comments within the synopsis, are as follows:

1. You have a strong tendency to use clichéd and rather “wet” (sorry!) phrases to explain a situation.
2. We need more hint of Liam’s problems earlier.
3. You’ve made a couple of aspects seems unbelievable – even if they are not so in the book itself. It’s a good example of how sometimes giving too much detail makes a synopsis seem less believable – counter-intuitive, I know, but the inevitable loss of context causes problems. The knack is to find the phrase that conveys authority, without detail.

Nice work, Margaret. What do you think of my suggestions? Anyone else got any comments?


Rebecca Brown said...

Bearing in mind that I've only ever written one synopsis and I'm still not sure if I'm brave enough to put myself forward here as Margaret has, I'd like to start by applauding her!

I agree with what Nicola says about the use of cliché, and some bits felt to me rather vague. I wouldn't have been able to put it into words but I think Nicola's point about more detail out of context making it seem less believable was well worth taking on board. Personally I'd have liked to see a tiny bit more of Eve?

But I have to say I really liked the sound of Chrissie. I thought her character came over well and I wanted to know what happens to her and why.

Hope this helps a tiny bit.

Margaret Morton Kirk said...

Ouch! I was trying so hard to make the synopsis more readable, I didn't see the cliches sneaking up on me *slaps wrist*.

This version was written for the RNA's New Writer Scheme, so it's slightly tweaked to play up the romantic element for my free appraisal(didn't work, by the way-the reader loved the writing but said the romance wasn't central enough for her, which is absolutely fair comment. Also, it had to fit on one page, which means I had to be really ruthless with which elements I included in this version.

Highlanders have a near-obsession with family and the past, and the novel tries to explore this, and in this context within the book, Liam's fascination with his great-grandfather is made more believable than the synopsis suggests. Also, Eve features more heavily and has her own voice in the story. And so has Liam, although the reader doesn't realise the disturbing 'man on the hill' voice is his until quite late on.

The theme, if there is one, is the way secrets can lie still, until a chance event brings them to life again...Help! I need a Synopsis Writer!

Dan Holloway said...

I sort of agree about the believability of recognising such a distant relative, but the synopsis makes the scandal associated with her clear, and with a vow of revenge so well-knwon about within the family (as opposed to the kind of shame that's swept under the carpet), it sounds quite plausible that a showing of the photo would be a family rite of passage.
I do agree about his reaction to the discovery of the skeleton - why would you cover something like that up? Finding a skeleton might freak you out, but the thought that a great-grandfather was a murderer? I don't buy that would make you that icked out. On the other hand, the connection he feels to Callum I can see would disturb him, and the ambivalence that would result from his fear that the past was playing itself out in the present and the resulting conflict - that he has to have Chrissie back, yet he is frigtened of the violence he feels capable of yet at the same time feels driven to - all that is fascinating

Neal... said...

It's an interesting idea for a story and I'd heartily agree with all the nice things that have been said about it already.

One thing I noticed is the bits that have been crossed out seem to be those kind of 'teaser' sentences that you get on blurbs to try and draw readers in. I'm under the impression that that sort of thing is to be avoided in synopses, BUT they do achieve one effect -- and I've been wondering if it's important in a synopsis -- in that they build a bit of tension in the outline.

Something I've struggled with in the past is getting across the raising of the stakes that goes on in a story while also summarising it -- the bits that make a reader go 'ooh' or 'ahh...' or 'uh-oh'.

That's done well here with the 'And pregnant' kicker in the first paragraph. I think there's scope for more of it with the twists and revelations in this story.

Would you have any advice Nicola on building tension in a synopsis without turning to back of a paperback stand-bys?

David Griffin said...

The synopsis makes for interesting reading in my opinion, especially with the psychological aspects of Liam, which makes me want to read some chapters.

The aspect that jarred for me though was the same as has been pointed out: Liam's obsession with his great-grandfather's first wife. I understand your explanation that Highlanders have a near-obsession with the past, but for me, there needs to be more reason/explanation for the obsession.

Three other points that the plot hinges on are also rather unbelievable to me, namely that Liam of all people happens to find the skeleton of the person he's obsessed with (OK, perhaps it's a remote farm); after so much time no one else had discovered the remains; that he finds it exactly on the same day as the accident; and via Chrissie's mother's possessions, Chrissie happens to find a picture of the person Liam is obsessed about.

Sorry if this all sounds harsh, that's how these things struck me.

There are solutions to this though; some I can think of: if Liam is the obsessive type, why not have him obsessed with his great grandfather instead of his great-grandfather's wife? And the reason for this obsession could be a series of diaries Liam has been finding before the accident. In the diaries, his great-grandfather insinuates about the death of his wife, and even where the body is buried perhaps. And as for Chrissie's mother having a picture of Liam's distant relative, there could be the perfect opportunity for some sort of twist; having some family tie in the past with Chrissie's mother and Liam's great-grandmother.

Best of luck with your writing, synopsis-polishing and finding a publisher.


David Griffin said...

Sorry Margaret, forgot to add: "The Girl on Winter's Hill" – love the title!


Margaret Morton Kirk said...

Oops, I can see confusion arising-there's so much I couldn't fit into the synopsis on my first attempt.

Liam is fascinated by his rather mysterious great-grandfather, not the runaway wife. The accident comes about through his jealousy of Rob and Chrissie, and it's only through the resulting trauma that he's tipped into obsession.

His recovery enables him to live a more or less normal life,until Chrissie returns to Rossan with Eve. Then Rob learns he has a daughter and comes back to the village. This is the tipping point for Liam-he sees everything slipping away from him, and as Chrissie and Eve grow closer to Rob, Liam's mental state disintegrates, until he's unable to cope.

Does this help? I have no idea how to put it in the synopsis though :(

Margaret Morton Kirk said...

And finally...Callum's first wife was a relative of Chrissie's, air-brushed out of her family history because of the scandal. Chrissie has to do a lot of digging and deal with a family rift before she finally learns who the woman is.

David Griffin said...

Hi Margaret, thanks for your explanation; I understand now. I have the same trouble with my synopsis writing, how to boil down so much to a page or two.

I guess that's where Nicola's book on synopsis writing will come into its own!

Hope you don't think I was being picky by the way, I was trying to offer constructive criticism as I read it, but other people would read it differently, I'm sure.

Margaret Morton Kirk said...

Not picky at all, it just shows where I need to clarify things. The trick will be, as Nicola says, working out where too much detail out of context is counter-productive.

Jaxbee said...

Hi Margaret
I enjoyed your synopsis and have to say that I liked the 'duh, duh, duh' phrases, as my children call them. (But then I am struggling to keep to the plot instead of writing a more blurb type synopsis so not the best to advise.)
Having had my synopsis critiqued here, I would say that I've found Nicola and kind contributors' questions about the plot and subsequent suggestions particularly helpful. At first, I was thinking, 'Nooooh! That's not what it's about at all', however, it's been invaluable in helping me realise exactly how my story comes across. Now I feel that the accuracy in how you convey the story is the most important aspect of the synopsis, with the style a very close second, because you just don't want that agent/ publisher to be assessing your potential writing career on the wrong story, do you?!. Hand on heart, you're much closer to getting there than I was when I submitted to Nicola. Good luck :)

Margaret Morton Kirk said...

Thanks to everyone who commented - all very useful points to ponder. How to blend the 'duh' duh' 'duh' moments, as Jaxbee calls them, with the tightness and clarity needed for the perfect synopsis? I'm eagerly awaiting Nicola's book to find out :)