Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Synopsis 3

Just about everybody has secrets they carry around with them and things that are wrong that nobody else can know. [Most of these people would be surprised at how much better they'd feel if they revealed these secrets. In fact, here are mine:

1. I bite my nails in public--not that unusual, except I'm talking about my toenails.
2. I can't get to sleep at night unless I lie on my stomach with a hunk of raw calves liver in the small of my back.
3. I'm one of the world's greatest pianists, yet I've never touched a piano. I learned entirely from books.
4. I'm not actually an editor. I work for a rich guy as his house jester.
5. I have necronumismaphobia, the fear that while I'm sleeping someone will think I'm dead and put coins on my eyes.

Ah, I feel better already.] In the South, in 1965, Renae Hayes is a ten-year-old girl. And she knows enough to keep her secrets. She also knows all about navigating through the trouble in her tract house, and in her lower middle class neighborhood.

Her biggest secret is her abusive family - a violent father, Raymond;
a mother too weak to protect her children [so weak, so inconsequential, she has no name.] Raymond is bitter, unhappy.

Raymond says Renae has his ‘mean genes’. This gives them an unbreakable bond, he says.

But what Renae wants more than anything is to leave.

One fall night in the early 1970s, at a party, drunk, Renae is raped on the floor. [I just remembered why I don't have many parties. It's always so awkward for the host when the raping starts.] People watch. She doesn’t remember when she wakes up, head throbbing. The memory strikes her, hard, later that day as she leans over, legs aching, to kiss her cousin’s hand after his ordination ceremony. [You should have her throw up on his hand. Comic relief.] [Is it the fact that it was her cousin who raped her that awakens the memory? Because that would be an interesting twist.] She feels hollow. Filthy.

The next spring, Renae comes home one day to find Raymond raging, beating her brother while her mother watches, crying. No more. Enough. Renae pushes past her mother, stops her father [with a baseball bat, I hope]. Raymond is embarrassed; furious.

Renae moves out; Raymond, smirking, holds the front door for her. “You’ll be back. You can’t make it alone.” She shrugs him off, but his words stay with her. Underneath all the wanting not to stay is a fear of leaving. It’s a powerful pull.

Renae spends the next several years moving in and out of relationships. She moves away in the company of men; she always comes back. [Not clear that you mean she always comes back to Raymond.]

Tentatively, Renae takes a chance and finds another way to live, initially using and finally loving a quiet man named Geoff. Raymond forces her to choose between them. [Hmm. '07 Mercedes or '75 Pinto. I need more time to decide.] Renae chooses Geoff. Geoff assumes they’ve started a life together. Renae has another secret; she knows she’s only hiding out, waiting to go back.

Months later, Raymond has a heart attack. Geoff walks into the ICU to stand with Renae’s brother by their father’s side as breathing tubes are removed. Raymond lies dying. Renae sees for the first time, clearly, what it means to be truly weak and truly strong.

Renae stays away, in the waiting room, watching her mother chattering to herself, willing herself to remain oblivious. [Is it the mother or Renae who's willing herself to remain oblivious?] She touches her mother’s hand, then, and walks inside the room to say good [riddance] bye to her father.

Revised Version

Renae Hayes knows how to keep a secret. Her biggest secret is her abusive and violent father, Raymond, and a mother too weak to protect her children. What Renae wants more than anything is to leave. But she's only ten.

Fast-forward seven years to 1972. At her best friend's birthday party, drunk, Renae is raped on the living room floor. People watch. She doesn’t remember, when she wakes up, but later, when the memory strikes, she feels hollow. Filthy.

One day Renae comes home to find Raymond raging, beating her brother while her mother watches, crying. No more. Enough. She pushes past her mother, stops her father. He's furious.

When Renae declares she's moving out, Raymond holds the front door for her. “You’ll be back,” he tells her. She shrugs him off, but his words stay with her. Beneath her thirst for deliverance lies a fear of isolation. It’s a powerful pull, and it brings her back to Raymond every time another man lets her down.

Tentatively, Renae takes a chance on a quiet man named Geoff, and falls in love. There is joy in her life for the first time, and when Raymond forces her to choose between him and Geoff, it's an easy decision. Geoff assumes they’ve started a life together, but Renae soon begins to fear that she’s only hiding out, waiting to go back.

Months later, Raymond has a heart attack. As he lies dying in the ICU, Geoff stands with Renae’s brother as Raymond's breathing tubes are removed. In the waiting room, watching her mother chattering and willing herself to remain oblivious, Renae realizes, at last, what it means to be truly weak . . . and truly strong. She touches her mother’s hand, then, and goes to say goodbye to her father.

I suppose it's possible the tone, which is cold and dry, is intentional, reflecting the emotional vacuum of the Hayes household. But it comes across as choppy and lifeless, more like an outline than a summary. I've tried to maintain the tone while reducing the choppiness, but Dragnet's "Just the facts, ma'am" tone is always going to feel somewhat dry.

The connection between the rape and the home life could be made more clear. Renae justifiably blames the rape for her inability to connect with men. Emphasis on the number of, and reasons for, her failed relationships might help. Clearly the rape is crucial, yet you could eliminate it from the synopsis and still have a story. Connect it better.

Note that I added some specificity to sentence 2, paragraph 2. If you can do that in a few other places, I think it'll feel more engaging.

Clearly this is a novel in which character development is more important than plot. But you haven't told us much of what happens, so if there's some other event of any significance, it wouldn't hurt to work it in.


Anonymous said...

Should it not be calf's liver?

Anonymous said...

My sense is that the synopsis has sucked all the life out of the story. I'm anticipating a long, hard slog through someone's personal hell with nary a moment of lightness to punctuate the gloom. That's a hard read. I bet it's not so monochromatic in the book, but that's how it comes across in the synopsis.

Evil Editor said...

Where I grew up it was always calves liver. Google gives me 1.7 million hits on calves, and only 1.6 million on calf's. My authority on liver has always been the Peacock Inn. Here's their recipe:

Anonymous said...

Just how lively should a synopsis be? I usually aim for clarity, brevity, and hitting important plot points, under the assumption that the sample chapters will reveal my writing style. Should I be jazzing up my synopses as well?


Anonymous said...

Well 1.7 million vs. 1.6 million is hardly a landslide, but if the Peacock Inn says it's calves liver, I'm good with that.

Dave said...

Being raped by an ill-tempered father and having that screw up your subsequent relationships is a small plot. The story has to be in Renae's emotional development and how her finding Geoff changes her life.

You need to put her emptional development into the synopsis. That's the story. You have to tell us why "pulling the plug" on her father is so satisfying.

pacatrue said...

The part of the synopsis that I don't get is the "returning to Raymond". Maybe if I was more engaged in these issues, I would understand. Part of the problem is age. I assume she's in her late teens or early 20s at the time of the rape and then in her late 20s or early 30s when it ends?

Why is it a terrible secret to want to return to Raymond? If she wants to move back in with her dad when she's an adult, it seems to be a rather creepy relationship. (OK, the creepiness is clear from the abuse; what I don't get is Renae's desire to go back). If she is an adult and just wants to check in on her dad for a weekend, then I can imagine Geoff not supporting it, but I don't know why it's a terrible secret.

Maybe a lot of this comes down to age. In my head I have years going by for Renae, but her brother is still at home. Does this all take place when she's 16 and I misread something?

pacatrue said...

I don't think she's raped by her own father (Dave's take above), is she?! While all the other party goers watch?! If so, then the sequel needs to be vigilante justice where people behead the party goers.

Evil Editor said...

Just how lively should a synopsis be?

It's a sample of your writing. It needn't be loaded with flowery language, but you may be asked to submit one without chapters, in which case it may be the main sample of your writng. If it puts the reader to sleep, that's not good.

A good test for whether it's lively enough: could you dance a jig to it?

bunnygirl said...

5. I have necronumismaphobia, the fear that while I'm sleeping someone will think I'm dead and put coins on my eyes.

That doesn't sound scary, especially if they're gold coins. Have you seen the price of gold lately?

Robin S. said...

OK, EE, you're right. This is so Dragnet, it's almost camp.

I cut 217 words in the hour and a half before I sent you this thing. Apparently I sucked all the life (if there ever was any) right on out of it with that subtraction.

This synopsis sounds like the book is one big freakin downer- and it isn't. New Beginnings 211 (the hoof lamp guy), 350 (the gonad) and 304, (OK- that's a bit of a downer) come from this book, as some of the chapters were reworked for short stories as I wrote my way through this manuscript.

EE, your rewrite is really good.

Anonymous said...

The synopsis ends like the last series of the Sopranos. I'm waiting for something else to be said and it isn't there...

writtenwyrdd said...

I agree that the emotional story is missing. WHY is she torn between going back and her love? Without the emotional turmoil, this is dry stuff. EE's rewrite makes it sounds so much better, though.

Robin S. said...

Sorry not to answer other things before - I was hurrying.

Hi anon 3:06pm - you're right - it's not so monochromatic in the book- and thanks for saying that.

Hi Dave and pacatrue- No- the father doesn't rape Renae. The time frame is skewed by the way I wrote the synopsis. I was trying to use EE's "outline" of what a synopsis is supposed to be, but I didn't do it very well. At all.

Renae literally leaves town for several periods of time , and comes back home - not home as in back in the same house, but home as in back in the same neighborhood, same life that she's trying to work out how to leave. That's part of the plot, but I didn't say it very well. I was worried about being 'listy'.

And anon 4;38, you hit it so perfectly when you said - "I'm waiting for something else to be said and it isn't there..." because there is more, except it's not in this book; it's in another one. Funny you saw that. I didn't realize I'd written it that way until you pointed it out.

Dave said...

I don't find anything strange about Renae's behavior.

Boys and girls who are sexually or physically abused still love their parents or the person in-loco-parentus. Even Women with abusive husbands tend to love those men (up to a point). It takes a big step for them to move away from the abuser and more courage to admit the abuse to others.

Worse yet, fathers or brothers or cousins who molest their young girls convince them to keep the secret. I don't want to go into details before dinner. It's a control thing. It's not sex with the abuser, it's control. And unfortunately, some mothers are completely in denial about abuse.

It takes monumental efforts for the woman to break that barrier and understand real love. They are told a bunch of lies about what the abuser thinks love is. So I can understand the deathbed scene.

I think that the query or synopsis has to reflect the emotion of that event. The novels payoff has to be emotional. It's not revenge. Renae doesn't pull the plug. She ceases to be Raymond's victim.

Church Lady said...

I like this. It has a good start. I want to see more about Renae's growth/strength and her relationship with Geoff. How did the early hardships enable her to achieve fulfillment later in life? Like the other poster, I want to have an idea of the time span of the novel.

I'd also like to see Renae be the one to pull the plug at the hospital, but that's a different story.

Great start, good luck!

pacatrue said...

I definitely understand that people who are abused can still feel a strong connection to their abuser. It was the vagueness of "returning to Raymond" that confused me.

Robin, I do find the use of "mother" and "Raymond" quite fascinating in itself. It's like the first person is only a role, not an individual with her own pursuits, while Raymond is just this guy named Ray who happens to be around and isn't actually a father.

Robin S. said...

Hi Dave-

You said - "It takes a big step for them to move away from the abuser and more courage to admit the abuse to others" - that's exactly right.

Sometimes, it's a long time before the thought of "having been abused"
occurs to a child- as his or her world view has been tilted into an unreal position. This occurs quite often when abuse is not as much physical, after a while, but travels for into emotional abuse. No party to it acknowledges,or is able to acknowledge, the awareness that any abuse has taken place - most invasive when it is framed as 'love'.

Hi paca- yes, you're right - and I left the mother's name out purposefully - I figure you already knew that.

Hi chuerch lady- the time span is mid-1960s to late 1970s. The "early hardships" initially frame "strength" and "weakness" in a sick way - both by establishing aberrant boundaries and definitions for those concepts, and by focusing on "being strong" to the detriment of a fully functioning adult personality. It's a lot to overcome - a skewed mindset that frames experience in this way.

AmyB said...

Wow, EE's rewrites have been amazing, for all three synopses.

I've been wanting to comment on the synopses, but I never know what to say. I don't know how to write a synopsis myelf, and I'm terrified of the day I'll need to write one for my own novel, which has a complex, twisty-turny sort of plot that doesn't condense well. Further, I've never been entirely certain what a synopsis is meant to achieve, or how the task of writing it should be approached. I could comment on whether the stories are to my personal taste, but I don't think that sort of feedback is useful to the author. So I'm reading these with interest, but I've little to comment on.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robin,

Is there something she is looking for from Dad? Like his finally being proud of her or saying he loves her? Something that recurs and draws her back into his life. Something that she tries to find in all those relationships and never fills the void?

Does he say the words when he is dying? Or is she left with that empty feeling still?

It is hard to write a synopsis that doesn't make you want to slit your wrists with these subjects. A lot of the turning points / highlights can be on the dark side.

Sounds powerful!

Good Luck!

Robin S. said...

Hi Sarah,

I guess the best way to describe what she wants is to say - she wants to be free of the influence he's had on her life - and yet, at the same time, she loves him very much. But there's no simple closure here- (as life isin't simple- I'm not a big fan of answers that are simple in what I read or write)- other than mustering the courage to walk in the room.

What's missing from my synopsis is the humor and survival attitude that's in the manuscript. You're right- it's hard to write one of these without sounding like life is one big tear-jerk.

Evil Editor said...

I still think the party should be to celebrate the cousin's ordination the next day, and he gets drunk and slips her some tongue during a friendly kiss, and the next day she remembers this just as she's kissing his hand and pukes all over him. It'll be the scene from the movie that they put in all the commercials. And getting frenched by her cousin would still turn her against men for life. And now your synopsis has some laughs. Think about it.

Robin S. said...

Hi EE-

I promise you - there are more than a few good scenes that would make funny commercials - like a row of half-naked Playboy bunnies standing in front of a long mirror, cupping their boobs upward, all in a row, lookin like they're preparing themselves as a kind of 'en masse offering'.

Church Lady said...

"And getting frenched by her cousin would still turn her against men for life."

Unless you live in West Virginia, parts of Utah, or in downtown Riyadh.

Anonymous said...

The paradox of loving the abusive parent. He's her Dad and Dad's are meant to be loved. He's abusive and she wants well away from him.

Deep inside, all she wants are parents who love her for who she is. I think everyone can relate to that.

Interesting that so much is focusing on Dad. Isn't she pissed at Mom? Or is she really such a non-entity in the book?


Robin S. said...

Hi Sarah-

She's distant from mom - always has been.

Someone mentioned earlier - EE? that Renae now doesn't like men. Exactly the opposite is true- she likes men a lot, doesn't trust women, and has very few female friends.

hey church lady- good one about the cousin! I made my husband watch Deliverance when we were deciding if I was gonna move to Britain or if he was gonna move here- I figured he should see it, to prep him for my rural relatives. When he did meet them, they seemed so damned cosmopolitan in comparison.

To this day, banjo music is a big turn off for him.

Anonymous said...

Is banjo music ever a turn-on for anyone?

Maybe I don't want an answer to that.

Phoenix said...

When Raymond is beating her brother, there are two things I wondered about.

First, if Raymond is in a rage and he's been abusive to her, how does she stop him, especially if it isn't with a bat? The "enough" line makes it sound like this will be a "The Burning Bed" plot. But he's still conscious, which is why --

-- I also wondered why Raymond is embarrassed. That doesn't sound like a word to describe an abuser who doesn't seem too contrite with his "mean genes" comment and his smirk when she leaves.

The story arc and Renae's personal growth is kind of what's missing here. The motivation for her to change.

But I must admit, your clipped style let you put in a lot of timeline arc. For a different kind of book, that would be great. For this one, I think, a little more character focus is needed.

Hoof lamp man and gonad guy are both from this book? Sounds like you have lots of territory to cover in your story! :o)

Robin S. said...

Hi phoenix-

You're right - there is a lot of territory not covered in this synopsis - with people like hoof lamp and the gonad guy- I sliced the description of that part of the book down to the two lines about the years of going away and coming back again.

The thing with Raymond is hard to explain in a short version- but (very) basically - Renae is the only person in the family who will take him on, verbally or otherwise.
The guy isn't evil incarnate- he's a very flawed human being who is susceptible to derision. He's used to being the one doling out derision - and physical abuse, when he deems it necessary- and in his world- he sees himself as the sole judge of what’s right and wrong- but Renae understands (as she has taken on many of his personality traits) - that you don't need physical violence to take stop Raymond- he's very susceptible to derision himself. And as she's learned from the master, she is piercingly good at it. That, and she has a wooden chair in her hands when she walks in the room.

EE mentioned that even though my novel is character driven, I needed more plot in my synopsis. And you mentioned that I needed more character development. And I think you’re both right – which is very frustrating. I was so frustrated yesterday, in fact, I decided I wasn’t going to include anyone who requested a synopsis on my query list.

But that isn’t true- although it did make me feel better for a few hours.

Phoenix said...

Hey Robin:

Don't despair. Maybe your 617-word synopsis strikes just the right balance and has just the voice needed. If that's the case, then you simply need to stay away from agents asking for a 1-page synopsis :o)

In the end, though, it's a crapshoot, assuming your query and/or synopsis is the least bit coherent. Look at the queries Kristin recently posted for a couple of big-dollar deals. The one about the brothers (Demon Lexicon)had a LOT of writers scratching their heads, asking WTF (including me and Goblin). It would have been ripped to pieces here on EE's blog, I dare say. Even Nathan Bransford admitted he wasn't sure if he would have requested pages off of it.

So, if you've got something that's halfway coherent and grammatical and you're happy with it even if everyone else is down on it, send it. If you know in your heart it's not where you want it to be, rework it based on the feedback that's relevant and then send it. Only you know the intent of the story and whether or not the work resonates with other books an agent reps.

Best of luck!

Robin S. said...

Thanks, phoenix!