Tuesday 10 August 2010


When blogging about synopses recently, I offered to post here for public comment any synopses you wanted help with. So, here is the first one. The brave writer is regular blog-reader, Dan Holloway.

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!)

So, my thoughts on Dan's synopsis
Rather obviously, it's longer than is recommended. Much longer... It's over 2,100 words long, if you want to know. So, it is a detailed outline, not a synopsis. It has the virtue of showing a potential agent or publisher that Dan can write and that he has really nailed the plot in fine detail. However, it is so much too long that the agent or publisher simply won't read it properly. This does not mean that it would necessarily be rejected on that basis, but it does mean that a grumpy agent or publisher's first thoughts would be a) this writer hasn't realised that synopses must be short - why has he not realised this? - and b) this looks like a writer who isn't ruthless enough with his own words.

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:

What would you give up to be happy? Your principles? Your sanity? Your children?

The Company of Fellows
Dan Holloway
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.


Sulci Collective said...

I agree with Nicola on almost every para, whether left in or blue pencilled.

"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" - a shortened version of this could serve for the strap line.

Love the idea of 2 synopses, but suspect agents/publishers might see this as evidence the author can't definitively commit to one or the other version of what their book is about.

I saw an agent interview where she stated the synopsis was the last thing she read in a submission, ie after she'd read the sample text. Suggests to me it might be overrated?

Elizabeth West said...

That was really long, but I gotta say, I want to read it!

The most important thing I learned about synopses is how to leave stuff out. It was hard, because my book is multi-POV and there's a lot going on. I have a great side character I had to leave out completely.

I tried to think of it as writing a quick movie review, only I get to tell the end. The idea is to make the person want to read the book, not sum it up so they don't have to.

catdownunder said...

I once had an English teacher (who also taught journalists) who said, "each word should take you an essential step forward". I suspect it might be a good rule for a synopsis.

Kittie Howard said...

I'd first like to say that I think Dan's synopsis grabbed me. This WIP has a chance, a big chance. However, to get to that point, I had to mentally cut out the fluff, push aside that extra info. I personally think the synopsis needs more simple sentences with strong verbs that hit hard. There are too many compound sentences.

I also think there's a bit too much control...I already know Oxford has crumbling spires and so on...Dan needs to paint broad brush strokes and let me fill in the rest.

And, Dan, I have nothing but respect for you for throwing your synopsis Out There. It's always easier to eat a cake than bake one. I wish you every success!!

Dan Holloway said...

How wonderful. Nicola thank you so much. I will be back in detail in a little while - I was unable to get to t'internet yesterday so apologies for tardiness. Firts thought - I too love the 2 synopsis idea. Like Marc I worry that agents would see it as a sign of an inability to focus. Be interesting to hear from an agent what they would make of such a submission package - it would increase the extent to which an author's submission became like a full media pack with cover sheet.

Dan Holloway said...

Elizabeth, it's easier to do ANYTHING than bake a cake, especially with my electric oven :)) Interesting everyone has singled out the same line "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" - I can absolutely see why. To explan my rationale, I constructed the synopsis using Stella Whitelaw's (excellent) book, in which she literally tells you how many sentences each paragraph should have - that was the sentence giving a sense of the atmosphere of the place. I was very much finding some (admittedly excellent) rules and latching onto them, without judiciously enough using the red pen (mind you, you should see the original, as everyone says).

Nicola makes a very astute observation about my ruthlessness or otherwise - I've only really begun being savage with my cuts since spring this year, when I started writing poetry again. It's an excellent way of focusing your editing brain, even though it's a different kind of editing.

Mark Jones said...

Hmmm, I'll be different and say I don't like the line "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." as he is driving a lot in it. maybe change the first drive to forces or leads?

Sounds good though, good luck!

Disclaimer: the only thing I've written that has been published is computer code.

Anonymous said...

Whhhururr. I have to say I got turned off this almost immediately, skimmed over it and thought, "Bugger, I can't be bothered with this", read the comments and then thought "ooo errr". Then I went back to the top. Ah yes, you see, Nicola has already highlighted the bits that really must go, REALLY MUST. Just get to the point, quit telling another story.

Dan Holloway said...

@Mark - yes, that sentence is hardly carbon neutral with all that driving.

@Anon - I'd love you to expand on the 2 stories thing - do you mean the thriller plot vs the personal backstory? If so, that's a really interesting point (and a potential blog post, Nicola! How much personal backstory in a thriller? Also, for this post, how much of what we should put should go in the synopsis?)

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan, you said, "I was very much finding some (admittedly excellent) rules and latching onto them," - I think this is a problem for lots of people but you are clever enough not to do that! This is the problem with "rules", and was the basis of a recent post I did about how there are no rules for writing. (Of course there are some rules, but it's what you do with them that matters.) I haven't read Stella W's book but I guess what's she's done is honestly try to answer the demand for tight rules, but it's the demand that is misplaced, not so much the advice. Only in primary school would we want to be told how many sentences a paragraph should have. I absolutely respect her desire to provide such guidance, but you don't need it. It's guidance, not rules.

I think you have to find the knack of putting yourself in the shoes of a reader who doesn't care about any of your details. The details will be important in the story but not out of it. The synopsis is out of the story.

Dan Holloway said...

I think now I would approach it very differently. I wrote this synopsis in March 2008, which is 3 books ago. It was about 6 months after I had decided I was ready to give writing a serious crack. I was internet-ignorant and had never even heard of self-publishing or anything like that. I just knew from the magazines I'd read I needed an agent and then a publisher, and I had my Writers' & Artists' Yearbook, a copy of Carole Blake's book, and access to the Bodleain to read anything else. I wanted to "do it right" and had no idea what that might be.

I was also (still am!), which is ertainly relevant, an administrator whose duties included a certain amount of recruiting, and I knew from that that, from an employer's point of view, if we set out application guidelines and they weren't met we had no choice but to bin the application, whatever its merit, because it would be a breach of equal opportunities legislation even to consider it. I assumed that most industries worked the same, and there would be similar legal strictures in place in publishing.

In other words I was a newbie who was very eager to learn but not 100% sure how to go about it.

There is a very big moral to the story:
- you're not ready until long after you think you are, and you've done way more research than you think you need.

And to expand that out, whilst you're still learning the rules you're not really ready. Once you've got to terms with the rules, and can see where they can be flexed, and how to flex them, then you're ready.

Furthermore, if you're not ready on the synopsis front, the book probably isn't ready either. The Company of Fellows isn't a bad book, and if I self-published it, it would probably be better than lots of self-published thrillers. But "not bad" isn't what you need as a debut novelist.