Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Synopsis 35

Guess the Plot


1. Patrolman Zeke Martin is first on-scene at the Fairfield Inn by Disneyland. Zeke knows two things: the victim is very dead and he’d better … uh … no wait … the paramedics just revived the victim. Zeke doesn't know anything. Maybe that’s why he’s still a patrolman after twenty-seven years. Also, a talking motorcycle.

2. Fairfield. A sedate Los Angeles suburb in the 1970s. Home to dentists, accountants and housewives, each in full-blown midlife crisis and living a life of quiet desperation except for the occasional extramarital affair. Yes, it's literary fiction.

3. Two divorces and three kids later, Lynda's facing imminent eviction. However, her fortunes take a leap forward upon catching her manager, Harold, snogging fellow cashier, Jerome. Her botched attempt at blackmail ends with Jerome dead. Suicide in the butcher shop? All is not well in Fairfield.

4. The only thing that keeps the predatory cattle in Fairfield from making manburgers of occupants from neighboring realms is an udderly delicious drink called True Milk, produced by Bessie Teatsfull Enterprises. But when contract renewal time comes up, Bessie demands top fodder, or she ain't putting out. Will mankind be ground? Or will cattle just continue to suck?

5. Jay Hughes inherits an abandoned hotel in Fairfield, and sets out to have a look. Turns out the building is now occupied by a bunch of old people. Did I say old? I meant dead. Long dead. Once Jay realizes they're just ghosts and not zombies, he has only one priority: collecting all that back rent.

6. Fairfield was known as the armpit of the rust belt until Barry Carpenter came to town. Suddenly the place is shaping up. Crime is down, the streets are clean, everyone's happy. But now Barry Carpenter is threatening to leave and take the town's children with him . . . unless Joelle Stewart marries him.

Original Version


Jay Hughes has been deeded an abandoned building in his old home town of Fairfield, a nondescript little town on the outskirts of nowhere. [If you can't tell us what it's on the outskirts of, no need to mention outskirts.] Jay’s living in Indianapolis and has no use for the place [Which place? The abandoned building or Indianapolis?] and no idea why he’s suddenly gotten so lucky. [Hard to believe you can be informed you now own a building with no explanation.]

Mulling his problems, [Do his problems have anything to do with the plot?] he learns that the building was formerly owned by Deenie Rafton, [This sounds like something he would learn while investigating his acquisition rather than while mulling over his problems.] an old woman who may or may not have died a mysterious death. [Can't that be said of anyone who dies?]

So, Jay and his young associate, Mal Brown, set out to see what’s inside the old wreck.

When they arrive, the eerie calm in Fairfield isn’t particularly frightening, but it is odd. They kick open the front door and find disrepair, aging rotted boards, a few pigeons and a lot of dusty memories.

And an old woman, who’s happy to see Jay again after all these years.

As the intrigue continues, [Hang on. Did Jay know the old woman? Is the intrigue the fact that she seems to know him, or the fact that he owns the building with no explanation?] with each trip, Jay meets still another old-timer who’s happy to see him, glad he’s come to fix up the hotel. [He's fixing it up? I thought you said he had no use for the place.] After a few more trips, the trend continues. [The trend is that one new old person is in the place each time he returns?] Finally, more than two dozen old people are around, milling about, [They're milling, and he was mulling. Are you sure this building wasn't a mall?] all just being here and there. [All just being here and there? That isn't helping us.]

There’s a connection. [Between what and what?]

When Jay and his new love interest, Carmella (also Mal’s aunt) begin to dig into the story, they learn that the Old Ones are long dead, but have materialized – awaiting space in the cemetery annex.

The convoluted paper trail takes them to what could have been investment fraud, trickery, deceit and perhaps murder. The Old Ones aren’t much help. They remember something one day, forget it the next.

With each trip, Jay and his associated learn more about the dilemma. The Old Ones are waiting until the annex opens. [You said that already.] Their souls are patient. Even Ron Patterson is awaiting the return of his body from Southeast Asia.

Deenie Rafton had made a connection and was, in her death, helping the Old Ones find their way to peace. Jay and Carmella eventually learn the truth, through the help of an old couple living in Jay’s boyhood home. [The end? Do they do anything? Complete the annex? Fix up the hotel and let the dead live there? Investigate the annex fraud and bring the guilty parties to justice?]


There are too many words and not enough story. Your setup is: Jay inherits an abandoned hotel and discovers that it's occupied by ghosts. Seems they were tricked into buying plots in a proposed cemetery annex that no one intended to build, and now they're hanging out in the hotel, patiently waiting for the annex to open.

Now you have plenty of room to tell us who the villains are, what happened (including the murder, which I assume was Deenie's), what Jay plans to do to make things right, what obstacles he must overcome...

If that's not your story, if the story is just finding out what the ghosts are doing in the building, I don't see how that's enough to carry a novel.


John C. Updike said...

So, is the critique connected to a weakly-constructed synopsis? I think all of your blue-note comments are explained in the novel.

Anonymous said...

Oooh, I like Zeke Martin, and wait to hear more about what he doesn't know...

To the author, I know it's tough to cram the exciting plot points into 250 odd words (very odd in some cases) and I know I haven't mastered the art yet, but may I suggest you do everything EE says? Your plot sounds like Jay has somehow inherited a hotel that's a half-way house for ghosts with consumer rights issues. Which is interesting and novel (I'd like to read about that)...but is just set up and not a story in itself.

There's nothing stopping him from turning his back on the ghosts and returning to his regular life. Or if there is, it needs to be highlighted (maybe he's on the run?). Stakes, you see.

Maybe the Old Ones need fresh blood in order to remain in the hotel and not vanish altogether, and Jay needs to stop them killing again. Maybe love interest Carmella is dead too and just hasn't noticed yet.... I dunno. Just add some conflicting goals and you'll make the plot much more interesting.

John C. Updike said...

In any case, this is the first real feedback I've ever gotten about writing a synopsis. So for that, thanks. Now, will you help me find an agent?

Evil Editor said...

You need a query letter to get an agent. The query letter will include a short synopsis, maybe 10 sentences at most, and will also tell the agent what your genre is, your word count, any impressive credits you have as a writer or in the field you're writing about. It should all fit on one page. There are almost 1100 query letters on this blog. They're titled "Face-Lift."

If your query letter is good enough to convince an agent she might be able to sell your book, she'll request pages. She might also request a synopsis, in which case you'll want to have improved yours.

John C. Updike said...

Ha! No, it's not a gruesome zombie tale. These are lovable dead people.

Truthfully, I have written a few novels but rarely endeavored to see about getting them published. So I am not all that versed in synopsis.

Not sure what I'd put in this forum reply that clarifies it ... these are all people the protagonist knew as a young person and he knows they are all dead. But they are in spirit, still alive inside this abandoned hotel that he eventually begins to rehab. Eventually he learns that his reason for being there is connected to their eternal peace, which is incentive to do the rehab work.

The Old Ones are indeed supposed to go home together. There's a plan that explains all that. As I responded, the EE comments are worth it because I can recraft the synopsis.


AA said...

Here's what's needed: "Jay Hughes has been deeded an abandoned building in his old home town of Fairfield"

Later, you say it's a hotel, so:

"Jay Hughes has been deeded an abandoned hotel in his old home town of Fairfield"

You have to be succint in a synopsis and that means conserving words.

Leave out things like: "Mulling his problems" and "a few pigeons and a lot of dusty memories." You don't have room for these things in a synopsis. That's where you have to try to describe as much of what happens in a novel as possible in a very short space.

Here's an example:

"Arthur Dent is rescued from Earth moments before it's destroyed by the Vogons to make room for an interstellar bypass. His rescuer is his best friend, Ford Prefect, an alien who gets them a ride on the Vogon ship. When the Vogons discover they have stowaways, they eject Ford and Arthur but both are picked up by the spaceship Heart of Gold, which has been stolen by the President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox. Arthur is stunned to learned that not only are Ford and Zaphod related, there's someone else on board that Arthur knows-a human girl who calls herself Trillian.

"All of these coincidences are related to the ship's unusual method of propulsion, called The Infinite Improbability Drive, that makes the Heart of Gold the fastest ship in existence."

And so forth. Basically, you're cramming a whole novel onto one page.

If you mean to write a query instead, I'd suggest you read the Face-Lift posts that are for adult non-humorous fiction so you'll know what tone to give your query. If you send it back here we can look at it.

John C. Updike said...

Thanks for this.

I labored over the synopsis for a long time and it didn't come without research. Still, it appears to be more of an art form than writing the book!

Let me run the query through the same process.

Again, thanks.

Kelsey said...

Hi author,

Brava on wanting to take the next step to getting published. It's a long, hard road, I hear.

For some constructive criticism--

I second Anon 4:25's comment about needing stakes. (It might be that your story has stakes but they were left out of the synopsis, or that this would affect the content of your story).

What is the major conflict in the novel? Right now it sounds like Jay learns that if he rehabs the hotel, the Old Ones would be able to find peace. Which then you say is his incentive to rehab it, which makes it sound like Jay's just a nice guy. But to carry a story, your MC needs to face more obstacles. What's getting in the way of his rehab plans? What's compelling him to help the ghosts, MORE than just the goodness of his heart? What terrible thing will happen if he DOESN'T succeed in releasing their souls?

My other major suggestion is showing why the love subplot with Carmella exists. As it is, you could take her out of the synopsis and nothing else would change--which isn't a good sign. Is her grandmother one of the ghosts? Does Carmella somehow have the secret to releasing their souls? Does Carmella want Jay to move to Florida with her and forget the ghosts (thus giving Jay conflicting goals)? If something's in the story, it should matter.

That all said, best of luck in your revisions. I have a soft spot for abandoned hotels, myself.

John C. Updike said...

I'd say the conflict, as such, connects to the frustration over learning who was the evil person who denied them the right to find that peace. Naturally, following those trails ... well, the people who know are all dead, even if he asks them about it. One day they say one thing, the next day, something else. They have no retentive memory, being that they are dead. And there's evidence of a scam that somebody took the money and ran.

The Carmella connection is important to the story though I suppose the synopsis doesn't make that clear. Again, learning to do a synopsis ... it appears that hasn't been one of my better skills.

As an aside, there is a connection between two very real events in my life that made this story work. You'd need to visit my website ( to get a sense of that. These are, with embellishments, real people from my real life.

I suppose it's why I finally decided to go looking for a serious publisher. I have a few other marginally interesting novels, but none this important to me. Having the same name as a more famous author is not a bonus, btw. But it is my real name and I weary of the "did you know there is ..." (Yeah, I did, but my parents didn't when they named me.)

I am not sure I need to usurp the reply line this much but it seems the questions are worth answering.

Please define "stakes." Are we talking vampires, or landmarks?

-- John

Evil Editor said...

We're talking What's at stake? If his goal is to learn who scammed everyone, what happens to him, to the ghosts, if he fails? Does finding the scammer bring peace to the ghosts? Is his goal to find the ghosts peace? If so, it seems like he should sell the hotel property and use the money to complete the annex.

In a James Bond novel, the whole world may be at stake. In The Wizard of Oz, getting home is the stakes. What's at stake for Jay?

John C. Updike said...

So, am I expected to answer that in this reply or is it a rhetorical question that needs to be answered in a synopsis?

What's at stake would have to be established in the story, I suppose. Otherwise, I think I'd have run out of steam for finishing it.

(Man, these little robot control codes are really tough to read.)

Anonymous said...

To John...
It's up to you.
Some submit a revised version of their synopsis for EE and the minions to mock... I mean critique. Others note the main points for their own reference. I strongly suggest that you check through the archives and see what you think of the original queries and the comments.

You're trying to break into an industry that's very competitive. I've learnt that actually finishing a novel is just the first step. The next step is to get your manuscript to stand out amongst the thousands of others. Agents/ editors have many to choose from and only so many hours in the day. If a query/ synopsis doesn't immediately grab them, they're not going to give it a second chance. It sucks I know, but that's the reality.

So, yes, you are totally correct to say that it's an art form. Like any art form, it takes practice to master.

You've spent hours on your manuscript. Now you need to put it forward in the best possible light.

Kelsey said...

You don't have to answer every question EE's minions raise in the comments, but clarifying the major conflict, stakes, what the MC's goal is, and what their choices are which force major plot points can help us make suggestions on how to make the dramatic, compelling, unique parts of your story stand out better in a query or synopsis.

Stakes are important to include upfront because they give the reader a reason to care, a reason to spend $17.99 on your book and multiple hours to read through to the end. Stakes give a novel urgency. They make the reader want to know what happens next--which (I'm guessing, though I don't write the genre) is particularly important in mystery. This is why knowing what Jay has to lose right from the onset might help a prospect agent/reader go from, "Hmm...maybe" to "I need to read this NOW."

If the scammer is a villain who in the end tries to kill Jay before Jay can foil his plan (or maybe tries to kill Carmella) that's a good example of telling us what's at stake.

And believe me--I'm definitely NOT recommending more vampires!

Again, feel free to post a revised synopsis in the comments. Good luck.

John C. Updike said...

Posting anything that resembles a polished synopsis is going to give me the satisfaction of knowing it's a good one. I won't de-value that experience.

After that, I have a polished synopsis.

I have been rejected by zero agents because I have found zero agents. I hardly think submitting the first sentence of a story is going to work very well.

So the advice I've received is quite useful.

John C. Updike said...

Or you could read the book and tell me if you like it.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Updike, I'll go further than Kelsey: You shouldn't answer questions that minions ask in comments. It's a misdirection of your energy. None of the minions is going to represent or publish your manuscript.

Instead, direct your energy to revising so that those questions are no longer raised.