Thursday, 2 August 2012

Synopsis Spotlight: As If I Were A River

A blog-reader has offered this synopsis of her book for us (you and me) to advise and comment on. Many of you will remember that I often have a "Synopsis Spotlight" - I'm still doing this every now and then. I can't use every one that is sent to me, for various reasons, but I try to include those that I think offer some useful teaching points. I do not include those that I think are so far from the mark that they'll attract lots of negative comments.
As If I Were A River by Amanda Saint

Genre: general / women's fiction
Word count: around 55,000 at present and I am just starting to write my 2nd draft.
Specific difficulties Amanda is finding: "Specifically, I find how to get across the themes of the book difficult and after reading your book I realise that I am writing an outline, but I just can't seem to stop myself!"

As If I Were A River - synopsis

Kate’s life is shattered when Jimmy, her husband of seven years, goes missing. As she attempts to come to terms with this, she also has to deal with the memories that are surfacing about her mother’s abandonment of the family twenty-four years earlier. Her sister, Jules, returns to England from her job in Japan to support her but they fall out when Kate’s behaviour becomes increasingly volatile, as she despairs of ever finding out what happened to Jimmy. Kate is left with just her friend and neighbour, Gloria, for support when she goes on a self-destructive binge after her grandmother’s funeral that ends with her in hospital. Inbetween Jimmy vanishing and waking up in hospital Kate walks out of her job as a magazine editor, seeks solace in drugs and alcohol and turns to the spiritualist church and mediums in her search for answers.

Nine months after Jimmy’s disappearance Kate is settling in at her grandmother’s house, where she has moved to try and get her life back on track. As she sorts through her grandmother’s belongings, she finds letters from her mother, Laura, dating back twenty years. Kate had lost control of her life as the months passed with no news of Jimmy and the discovery of the letters threatens to send her back on a downward spiral. The story of Jimmy’s disappearance and what led to Kate waking up in hospital seven months later, with no idea of how she got there, are told in alternate chapters as she tries to rebuild her life.

Kate’s troubled relationship with her father, Ken, starts to improve when she confronts him about Laura’s letters. He finally reveals the truth about why so many lies were told for so many years, which helps Kate to better understand his behaviour when she was growing up, and enables her to take steps towards healing their relationship after years of estrangement.

At a self-help group for people who have had loved ones go missing Kate meets two people who show her the very different paths she can go down in dealing with Jimmy’s disappearance. Counselling also helps her to understand how her life has been shaped by her mother leaving when she was just eight years old. Kate’s recovery leads her to a reunion with Laura and the truth about Jimmy’s disappearance is revealed in an epilogue. 

My comments:
I think there are some promising characters and emotional journeys going on in here and family secrets are a rich seam for fiction. However, I was left somewhat confused and I had to read it several times before I felt I might know what was going on, especially in terms of the story arc and pace.

Am I right in guessing that the first paragraph is a kind of overview of the whole thing and then the story is told in more detail starting from para 2? If so, that's quite confusing. If you want to do a short para pitch to sum up the whole book, that's fine, but I think a) it should be shorter and b) it would be clearer if it were presented in italics, so that the reader can see the part it plays. As it is, the synopsis sounds repetitive.

I wonder if you've taken my earlier advice slightly wrongly - I advise writers to write a paragraph and then fill it out with more detail, but I meant bulk the paragraph up from inside, not by adding more after it.

It seems to me that you keep telling us things from the distant past, recent past, and present, and it's quite hard to work out how this is conveyed in the actual story. For example, this bit was particularly confusing (my bold): "As she sorts through her grandmother’s belongings, she finds letters from her mother, Laura, dating back twenty years. Kate had lost control of her life as the months passed with no news of Jimmy and the discovery of the letters threatens to send her back on a downward spiral. The story of Jimmy’s disappearance and what led to Kate waking up in hospital seven months later, ..."

The final para seems to offer Kate two choices. But are these two choices not presented a lot earlier in the story? I think it would feel more interesting if that were the case, otherwise it looks as though near the end of the story the solutions are offered her by two other people, in other words without her own personal journey through the book having the main effect.

I think you also need to be more concrete in places. For example, the sentence beginning "He finally reveals the truth about why..." is very vague. I appreciate that you don't want to give the game away but the synopsis for an agent/publisher does need to do this. 

In the first para, you mentioned spiritualism but I don't think you refer to it again. I think we need to know how great a part this plays. Do we need to believe in spiritualism to enjoy the book, by the way? (I'm hoping not...) Is this in the book as a device a) to show her state of mind and b) to provide important features of the plot? (I'm hoping so... But I'd like to know more of the part it plays.)

I also feel that 55,000 words is rather light. You should be heading more towards 70 or 80.

So, lots to recommend it but I'm having to dig too deep and I'm left with too many questions.

Any comments from blog-readers? Keep it constructive, please.


Derek said...

Two thoughts, if I may:
1. I think it's important to only include details in the synopsis that are essential to understand the plot and character arc. For example, does the synopsis need to mention that the sister has come back from Japan?

2. I think the use of language within a synopsis can give a flavour of the work and the writing style. If it's too clinical it won't engage the agent or editor. They still need to be sold on the book. There are interesting dynamics in the synopsis and a sense of history repeating itself, but I don't feel the author has made the most of this.

Hope that helps.

Ken E Baker said...

Hi, I think what was missing for me was the golden thread through the synopsis - it seems to be a compelling story with considerable drama, yet I was not able to understand the plot behind it. Is it about losing and then finding yourself? If we could tie in the central theme to the synopsis, making sure it crops up in each paragraph, then it would be extremely compelling.

Good luck - I am sure this is a well-written piece of work :)

JO said...

It feels as if you are embroiled in this story and finding it difficult to step back and think about the bones of it. The plot, from what I can disentangle, looks wonderful - but I wonder if you need a bit of distance from this. Then you might find it easier to see how to gather the essentials of this story into a synopsis.

Cameron Lawton said...

I agree that this sounds a very interesting novel but the synopsis is rather confused. Writing a list of the essential points of the book and then expanding on them after the initial overview paragraph might help to make it a bit easier to read. Also, yes, let the "voice" that you use through the book come out in the synopsis.

Hope this is useful.

Nina Bell said...

I think perhaps Jimmy's disappearance needs to stay central to the plot. He does seem to vanish as the synopsis progresses, with the final truth only revealed as an epilogue. Her journey about loss and love is a strong one, but you start with asking 'where's Jimmy?' and I think that would drive the character throughout the book, even if her journey to find him also brings up all the other aspects of loss, such as that of her mother. I also suspect you don't need Gloria and the sister, unless Gloria is needed for some useful job such as being able to hack into police computers (too many of those around already). Hope it goes well, it was interesting to read. Nina Bell

Amanda Saint said...

Hi everyone, sorry for the late reply but I have been moving house and offline for a week. Thanks to Nicola for including my synopsis on the blog and giving me an opportunity to get feedback.

I am finding it very hard to step back from the story and think about the bones of it. But Ken I think you have grasped it with the losing then finding yourself as a theme. Its also about lies, the lies we tell ourselves and each other.

There is some great tips here and lots for me to think about in order to write the next version. Thanks for taking the time to comment everyone.

All the best,

Amanda Saint said...

Hello again, I have been away and thought about this more and read through all the comments again and wanted to give a bit more info.

Derek - yes, history repeating itself is central to the story and to the way that Kate reacts when Jimmy disappears. You're right this is not at all clear in the synopsis for such an important element.

Cameron - I wasn't sure about the voice and whether it should be in Kate's. I think I am going to try writing it as if Kate is telling someone what happened years later then build on that.

Nina - you hit the nail on the head re Jimmy's disappearance and the way I have written this makes it seem as if this is not such an important plot element but 'Where's Jimmy' is what drives much of Kate's behaviour throughout the novel.

Nicola - you don't have to enjoy/believe in spiritualism to enjoy the story and it is something that Kate turns to in desperation when Jimmy's disappearance remains unexplained for several months. The story is told in two time frames in alternate chapters - one moves forward from when Kate wakes in hospital and the other from the night Jimmy disappears. The history of Laura's desertion and Jimmy and Kate's relationship is told in flashbacks. I haven't included any of this detail though and it is very important!

I now feel like I can take the first paragraph as a starting point and build up from within it, and that I have a much clearer idea of what the themes and central plot are that I need to convey.

Thanks again everyone for taking the time to read and comment.

All the best,