Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Relevant Bones, or the synopsis of a manuscript

The second in series of blog posts for my 8th grade students about the process of trying to publish my YA historical novel.

Some literary agents ask for a synopsis of a completed manuscript. Some do not. However, I ask queried several who do want them and I was left wondering how long should it be? This is one of those occasions where it is OK to ask as a writer, "how long should my essay be?"

Side note: it is definitely an egregious error to query a literary agent without a manuscript that is as good and polished as you can get it. The story is done. It has been revised and revised and revised. Other eyes have seen it and offered feedback. And then you revised and revised and revised. It is why my story took three years to get to this point. A point, I have to add, that has not seen its last revision, edit, note, suggestion, or ax. I fully expect to be expected to make changes. And that is the point and the purpose of seeking a business relationship with a literary agent--they will take your manuscript, bring in the right people, and work with you to elevate it.

Back to the synopsis...

The basic definition of synopsis is "a brief summary." Now, I ask you again: how brief is brief? Fortunately, some agents will save writer's the angst of guessing and will state in very specific terms what they want: a one page summary, a two page summary, etc.

According to blogger Jane Friedman, the number one problem in a synopsis is wordiness. The writer's task is to take the story and boil it down into a series of clear, relevant statements. In other words, write the bones of the story.

This was a challenge. Not that the bones are not there, but after three years of writing and revision everything starts to look like relevant bones to a writer.

My first attempt at a summary, as I scrolled page by page, filled five single-spaces pages. I believed I was following Friedman's suggestion of the four things a synopsis should include:

  • a clear idea of the core conflict
  • which characters will we care about or hate
  • include what is at stake, what is risked for the main character
  • how is the conflict resolved
My story was inspired by the immigrant
experience of my great-grandparents.
I put the five-page synopsis aside for a day, came back to it and cut it down to two. That was very difficult at first. Inevitably, I learned that I was not able to include every plot twist or every character's wants and fears. Large details of the story get cut back like a scythe cutting a field of hay. I hacked at the synopsis and revised what was left into very simple sentences. Instead of writing, "With the weight of memory sinking in her belly, Josephine stepped into the frost-capped tide and shuddered" I forced myself to write something like, "Josephine steps into the sea."

For instance, the first two paragraphs of my synopsis read:
In 1917 Italy, GIUSEPPI runs from home and the war in the north to live with an aunt in the south. Illiterate and sixteen years-old, he holds three possessions: his father’s death notice from the war department, the compensation paid to his mother, and the desire to be respected like his father.  His mother volunteers for the war effort in Milan and promises they will find each other again someday. PAPA FERDINANDO is conscripted into the Great War. MAMA leans on Josephine and neglects the home. She is bilked by the absentee landowner, the PADRONE. Resentful of Papa, the padrone takes their life savings in exchange for finding Mama work. Josephine is left alone, and to ill-equipped, to care for her baby sisters, the farm plot, and home.  

Did you notice some of the formatting? The first mention of a new character should be done in all caps. Notice the verbs? They need to be strong and specific since I am using direct, spartan sentence structure. Just write the relevant bones and extract all of the meat, the dressing, and the jewels.

Try it. It is not that easy...although I imagine it might be easier if you tried it with a novel you read. When you don't have the emotional attachment as the author to a piece of work, chopping things out might be easier. Nevertheless, give it a try with any book just for the experience of making the decision of what stays and what goes.

Finding the relevant bones in my writing proved to be an excellent exercise for all of its challenges. At least to my eyes, it demonstrated to me that my story was complete. I hadn't left any threads unaddressed. I didn't notice any plot holes or incongruous decisions by any characters.  It helped me see the consistencies and inconsistencies. Overall, it was a great way to walk through my text as another form of revision even though the synopsis omits (what I consider) a lot of great stuff.

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