Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Feedback Request

The author of the book featured in Synopsis 47 would like feedback on the following revision.

The Mysterious Death of Mr. Phelp - Synopsis [I see his name's been changed from Phelps to Phelp. Let's hope there are more constructive changes.]

Some teenagers obsess about music and boys, but all Lucy Brown cares about is getting good enough grades for a college scholarship to rescue her from her current life. Ever since her dad abandoned the family, Lucy has taken on the burden of caring for her six-year old twin brother and sister while her mom, married straight out of high school, works two menial jobs to keep the family afloat.

Pretty much the only remnants left of her happy childhood are her best friend, Nancy Martin, who still recalls Lucy’s fun-loving dad with fondness and Lucy’s home address on a safe, suburban street where nothing bad ever happens...until the night two gun shots ring out at midnight. It’s an unseasonably warm autumn evening and Lucy is at an open window, finishing up her homework.

On a street where most residents take their hearing aids out at ten o’clock, no one but Lucy heard the gunshots. When her wheelchair-bound neighbor isn’t at his usual spot in his window the next afternoon, Lucy investigates and finds Mr. Phelps dead with a single shot to the heart.

Everybody suspects the gun-obsessed, twenty-something man who lives next door to Lucy and when the police raid his home and make an arrest, things are set right again on Cottonwood Street. Neighbors breathe a sigh of relief, stop locking their doors, [No need to lock your doors, folks. The police have arrested a guy who is obviously guilty because he owns some guns, although none of his guns is a match ballistically for the bullet that killed Mr. Phelps.] ] and return to the previous topic of conversation - a developer has offered over-market values for two of the houses on their street. The first offer was made to elderly Ms. Peabody, but Mr. Phelps had received the second offer and he had refused. His estate will surely have no qualms about selling now and the neighborhood is up in arms. According to the city planning office, the Owlins Development Corporation has purchased a wide swath of land behind the two houses for luxury condos, but a protected woodland makes Cottonwood Street the only access point. With the neighborhood upset about increased traffic, Ms. Peabody agrees not sell after all. [Why isn't Phelps's land alone enough for access to the condos? All it takes for access is enough land for a connecting driveway.]

Lucy is also ready to move on, except for two tiny things. The police never found the second bullet or the gun that fired the shots. Since the only person who heard two gunshots is a fifteen year old, no one, not even her own mother, has put stock in her report. [As I suggested previously, if one person hears two shots and everyone else hears one shot, maybe you disregard the one person whose story differs. But if one person hears two shots and no one else hears any, and you know there's been a shooting, you can't disregard the only witness just because she's fifteen.] But Lucy is certain there is more to this story. With the twins trailing behind her, Lucy searches for clues and discovers a discarded window screen with a bullet-sized hole. She remembers seeing a tear in Mr. Phelps’ screen window at the crime scene. [Why aren't there two bullet-sized holes in the discarded screen?]

When Lucy fits the screen into the garage window of Mr. Phelps’ next-door neighbors, the holes make a straight line from the garage window into Mr. Phelps’ living room. [If the killer wanted to shoot through his garage window at someone in the next house, surely he would remove his screen first, as going through a window screen would alter the bullet's speed and direction.] The gun wasn’t fired from inside Mr. Phelps’ home but from inside the garage of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, the only other non-geriatric residents on the block. The police are called back and ballistics show that Mr. Wilson, new father and all-around friendly neighbor, owns the gun that killed Mr. Phelps. [Why hasn't he disposed of the murder weapon?] 

However, Lucy’s pride in her sleuthing skills is replaced with anxiety when Mr. Wilson is released on bail. As Mr. Wilson later explains to the neighbors on Cottonwood Street, the gun accidentally went off during a cleaning. He had no idea the bullet hit anyone, as Mr. Phelps’ [Phelps's] body wasn’t found right away. [I saw no need to go over and see if my gunshot caused any damage because no one informed me that a body had been found.] In Lucy’s state, involuntary manslaughter only applies to people engaged in an unlawful act. Mr. Wilson, registered gun owner and upstanding citizen, has been charged only with accidental discharge of a firearm. As the neighbors digest this information, Lucy is left wondering why Mr. Wilson is looking at her with menace.

She figures out why the next day, when her mind wanders during Chemistry class. The key to the mysterious death of Mr. Phelps is the second gun shot. Why would a second bullet be discharged during a cleaning? Lucy thinks she knows. She also thinks Ms. Peabody is in grave danger. Since Lucy has been taking care of herself since she was eleven, asking for help never even crosses her mind. She plunges into the task of saving her neighbor, leaving nothing more than a cryptic message for best friend Nancy.

Arriving home unexpectedly in the middle of the day, Lucy walks in on Mr. Wilson trying to steal a gun from her family’s gun safe. Unable to escape, she hides and dials 911 while Mr. Wilson searches the house for her. He is inches from discovery [finding her] when they hear the distant wail of sirens. Mr. Wilson flees as the police arrive. Lucy reveals him as the developer trying to buy the two homes on Cottonwood Street. Owlins is an anagram for Wilson. When Mr. Phelps wouldn’t sell, Mr. Wilson planned his death, knowing the lax laws in his state would protect him from even a negligence charge. If he hadn’t missed with the first shot, Mr. Wilson would have never been caught. But he had to fire twice, and Lucy heard both shots. Mr. Wilson tried to steal the Brown’s gun so the weapon in Ms. Peabody’s death wouldn’t be traced to him.

The local paper writes up [publishes] a story about Lucy’s sleuthing. But Lucy’s moment of glory is shattered when Mrs. Wilson accuses Lucy of dooming the Wilson child to grow up fatherless, just like Lucy and the twins. [Most people would rather their children not live under the same roof as a murderer.]

The Mysterious Death of Mr. Phelps is a 66,000 word novel aimed at 13-15 year olds. The story is self-contained but there is series potential with best friend Nancy Martin solving another crime after she and her family move onto Lucy’s street. 


Until someone has requested a synopsis, I recommend focusing on editing the book rather than working on a synopsis. 

Also, if you've clicked on "Submit to Evil Editor" in the sidebar, you may have noticed that we have a 400-word limit on synopses, and this one seems to be at least twice that long. 


Anonymous said...

The synopsis is where you show you have a working plot. In what way does the temperature of the night of the murder show that you have a working plot?

Ballistics would show the bullet wasn't fired from within the house.

The mystery doesn't work without a lot of coincidence and incompetence, which has been pointed out multiple times. Idiot plots don't sell. Being YA fiction will not get you a pass on a mystery story where the mystery doesn't work.

"13-15" is not a subset age group that's marketed to.
Age "8-12" is middle grade (MG). Age "13-18" is young adult (YA). Age "18~25" is new adult (NA). There are also differences in expected themes and acceptable content. Familiarize yourself with the market.

Quadruple check punctuation and grammar.

I'd also suggest fixing the plot. Have Mr. Wilson bribe a key police officer, plant his gun in the gun fanatic's house, have Lucy's siblings notice him disposing of the screen in a way that shouldn't be found (although EE has a point about trajectories, so a better clue would be better), not use an anagram for the name of his company--things that look like he's making a reasonable effort to get away with his crime.

IMHO said...

I love girl sleuth stories for middle-grade readers -- mystery, action, & adventure!

Unfortunately, this synopsis doesn't grab me. There's nothing concrete at stake for Lucy. She's irritated no one will believe her, and maybe she hates the idea of luxury condos, and you say there's 'anxiety' when Wilson is released from jail. But it isn't set up so that solving the mystery (or not) will directly gain or lose anything for Lucy.

You start out saying all Lucy wants is a college scholarship -- do the police threaten to arrest her for trespassing if she doesn't quit poking around (ruining her chances at a scholarship)? Does she decide to continue anyway (a concrete decision to act). You emphasize that her Mom works two jobs -- is one of them with Owlins Development Corp? As written, you're not being tough enough on your main character. Lucy hears things, sneaks around, hides and dials 911 -- I just don't think it's enough action/involvement to hook an agent. (My humble opinion, as always).

Have you read "Hoot" by Carl Hiaasen? He really knows how to get the characters tangled up and involved with each other.

Anonymous said...

Serious question here: Do you or any of your very close friends/family members actually own guns? Because the gun (and for that matter, the police) parts of this story just do not ring true to me whatsoever. Like, I'm pretty sure it's illegal to arrest someone without any evidence or motive just because they happen to be a known gun enthusiast. And that makes especially little sense when it turns out that at least two other homeowners on the street also own guns. This reads like you're someone who's heard guns are a thing but have never actually owned one and don't really know much about them or related laws--or about police work.

InkAndPixelClub said...

IMHO has pointed out a central problem of the story: there's no clear reason why this is Lucy's case to solve. The fact that she alone heard two gunshots could be a start, but it's not such a strange or outlandish idea that it makes sense for no one to believe her story. It seems like the idea is "Lucy gets invested in solving the mystery to escape her tough life of work and responsibility," as there's not much reason to include the overworked mom, the absent dad, and the twins if that's not what pushes her to play detective. But why is a murder mystery a good escape for her? I could understand if it started out a bit more low stakes, like trying to find out who's been stealing the resident's newspapers, and didn't become a life or death matter until Lucy was in too deep to just walk away. But why would a teenager whose problem is a life where Mom works all the time and she's stuck caring for her siblings and whose goal is to get into college - which may change Lucy's prospects, but leaves Mom and the twins in desperate need of a no-cost babysitter - take on a murder mystery?