Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Dreaded Synopsis

Having already accumulated a decent list of agents' names, along with their contact information and submission guidelines, it's time to actually complete the queries. Several requested a synopsis. If "query" holds a place in the minds of most writers similar to "colonoscopy" and "biopsy," for "synopsis," add "without anesthesia" to the first two options. Paring a book of (in this case) over 96,000 words into a single page requires leaving out everything that, for me, makes a book readable; dialog, the interplay between characters, the voice of the writing, and humor only begin the list. The synopsis can be no more than a quick, superficial telling of what happens. Not what characters think, who they love, or what they say. Even motivations are implied; there just isn't room to explain anything.

I used to hate doing synopses until I discovered this technique a couple of years ago. I hope someone finds it helpful.

The first thing is to make a chart of the key events in each chapter. This is only a few words; no more than a sentence. "Tom and Marty meet in Tease." "Doc and the kids at West's house." "Marian vents." I just spent a year and a half writing the book; I know the context. (This is made a lot easier if you kept what I call a "scene inventory" as you go, brief descriptions of what happens in each chapter. I outline, so the inventory is pretty much organic for me. Pantsers may have to track things as they complete each chapter.) A white board or large sheet of paper (like for a presentation on an easel) works well.

After making the notes for each chapter (this book has 64), I circle the four to six absolutely key elements that have to be included in the synopsis. "Tom kills Carol." "A body is found in a vacant." "Rollison reads Frantz's phone records." Whatever. Then I start eliminating all the scenes that don't help directly connect these elements. (This part is easier on the white board, as you can just erase what you don't need.) Main character finds a love interest that allows you to more fully flesh out his personality? It's important for making the book work, but extraneous to a synopsis. Sub-plots that don't directly relate to the main story? See ya. Never has "kill your darlings" had more relevance or poignancy.

Remember, the synopsis can't be more than a page or three long. Getting it down to one page is best, as someone will almost surely want one no longer than that. If you're going to have to reduce that far, you might as well get it right and send it to everyone. That single page has one purpose, and one purpose only: to get the agent interested enough in your story to want to read the entire manuscript. Period. She can revel in your deathless prose, witty banter and engaging characters when she reads the full. Books are sold on story; sell the story. As Marcus Sakey writes in this excellent morsel of advice, seduce her by letting her know what's going to happen, but making her wonder about exactly what transpires while she's getting there. Make her want you..

What's that? You want to see my synopsis? What, and you'll know how the book comes out? Get real. "But," you stammer indignantly, "how can I tell if the synopsis is any good?" If an agent reads it and requests a full, it was good.

I'll let you know.

Now for the Hard Work

The book is done. Now it's time to find an agent. Most writers look forward to this part about as much as they look forward to going to the dentist, or poetry readings by Glenn Beck. I understand completely.

I'm not going to pretend to tell anyone how to get an agent. I've had two, and no good idea how I landed either. One I parted amicably with. The other relationship fell apart over a misunderstanding fostered by less than optimal communication. I'll take the greater part of the blame for that; I hadn't done as much due diligence as I should have to see how our marketing visions synched (or didn't), and I was immature about a couple of things. These agents helped me immensely as a writer, and I have great respect for both of them.

What I hope to do here is to post a travelogue of sorts. I'll going to let you see how things progress for me, with names redacted to protect all concerned. I make a mistake, you'll see it. I do something right (which will probably be accidental), you'll see that, too. If anyone learns anything from all of this, it will have been worth it. A lot of people have been generous with their time and expertise with me; they don't need my help in this area, so maybe I can repay them by helping someone else, however indirectly.

The first thing you need to do is to find agents to query. Agents are everywhere. Run a search on The Google and it will seem you can't swing a dead cat without hitting one. Which are well suited for your work and personality is the catch.

The best advice I can give for finding an agent is to read people who know how to do it. Janet Reid is an agent who gives great query advice. Miss Snark, who is, alas, no longer blogging, had a blog that is well worth your time, though it has not been updated in quite a while. Recent articles by Marcus Sakey and A.C. Crispin bear looking into. The best piece of advice I can give is covered in some of these other locations, and I used it when looking for both of my agents: read the Acknowledgements section of books somewhat similar to yours to see who represents those authors. Mention why you chose them when you write. They'll appreciate the fact that you did your research.

I finished that part of the process last week, and I generated a list of about fifteen agents. A few days ago I researched all their contact information and submission guidelines. (This eliminated one from the list, as his agency was of the "you'll only hear back if we want to see more" school of agenting.) That was the easy part. Soon I'll have to actually write the queries and complete the packages.

I'll keep you posted. Cross your fingers.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Departed

I watched The Departed last night at the behest of The Sole Heir. I remember how impressed I was coming out of the theater the first time I saw it. I've seen it three or four time since, and, frankly, it's not holding up all that well. It's still good, and I'm sure I'll watch it again. It's just that the holes are more evident every time I watch, and the things that made it special have to work a little harder to hold it together each time.

Most of what holds it together is the acting. I know a lot of people like to rip this movie because of the accents; they don't bother me so much. I lived in the Boston area for four years, and there are Boston accents and Boston accents. None of them bothered me enough to take me out of the movie. The performances in general more than made up for any accental flaws. (Yes, I made that word up.)

DiCaprio and Damon are great, playing the opposite sides of the coin. Nicholson's risky in places, but no bones are made about the fact that Frank Costello is crazy, and getting worse. The character depicted by Nicholson is definitely batshit crazy. Martin Sheen has the most troublesome accent, but the humanity he brings to Captain Queenan more than makes up for it. No one has more obvious fun acting than Alec Baldwin. Mark Wahlberg's character is awkwardly written, but he carries it off naturally. Ray Winstone was born to play in crime flicks (if you haven't seen Sexy Beast, do so), and Vera Farmiga was a revelation.

Scorsese's direction is the equivalent of an actor choosing to be a movie star instead of an actor. Everything is there, and it's dazzling in parts, but it lacks the "go to hell" character of Goodfellas and Taxi Driver. He may have entered the phase of directing Raymond Chandler warned about for writers, where one has all the techniques and nothing new to say. The overall effect is still commanding, especially on first viewing on the big screen. The seams become a little more obvious with subsequent evaluations.

Now we come to the weaknesses, and they are several. To wit (spoilers abound, so beware):

- The premise. Given the research done on these elite cops and the depth of knowledge Queenan and Dignan have on Bill Costigan, how can they not know Colin Sullivan and Frank Costello go way back. It's not like they made it a big secret; Costello did a drive-by at the Academy graduation ceremony.

- Cittizens Citizen's Trust. The misspelled envelope is the key to Costigan's uncovering Sullivan as the mole, but there's no need for it. Everyone in Costello's crew writes their vitals on pieces of paper that are places in the envelope to be delivered to Sullivan. Why does Fitz alone wtite his bank information on the outside? There's nothing there that identifies whose bank that is. The whole thing is done solely so Costigan can find it on Sullivan's desk later.

- Sullivan erasing Costigan's record. There's no way a staff sergeant is going to be able to erase such a well-protected, permanent record from this sensitive a database. I'm a senior administrator for a training tracking system of much lower sensitivity, and I couldn't do it. There's no way Sullivan can.

- The rat scurrying along the railing on a seventh floor balcony. Please.

There are some great scenes, Scorses's a master at them. Costigan ordering cranberry juice in the bar the night he meets Mr. French is a favorite. Still, for me, The Departed has shifted from a brilliant movie to a flawed connection of excellent scenes, the whole less than the sum of its parts. Well worth watching, but not Scorsese's best work.

(Due credit should be given to John McFetridge's rant during the 2008 Bouchercon. He got me thinking about some things I hadn't before, and, as is so often the case when he and I initially disagree, he was right. Bastard.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why Movies Suck

Here's a tidbit from the Trivia page of IMDB's entry for the movie Get Shorty:

MGM didn't want to extensively use Elmore Leonard-inspired dialogue in the film, and pushed Barry Sonnenfeld and Scott Frank to make many passages more generic than the book's, but once John Travolta signed on to the film he successfully pressured the studio to leave Frank's original draft (which had a lot of colorful dialogue) intact for filming.

Yeah, let's smooth the edges off of Elmore Leonard's dialog. There's a good idea.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The End

The Work-In-Progress is no longer in progress; I finished it over the weekend. I never append THE END to the bottom of a story until I'm officially through with it; now I have.

This project droned on forever, was almost dropped a couple of times. Should it ever see the light of day, Declan Burke and Charlie Stella will each bear responsibility, as they were instrumental in bucking me up to carry on, each in their own way. Note I said they will "bear responsibility," not "are due credit." Let's see how the book is received first.

So now the writing is over--pending editorial suggestions by anyone who might be interested in it--and it's time to start looking for an agent and/or publisher.

Oh, joy.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Summer Reading

My summer hiatus has extended into all realms of writing, including passing along recommendations. Not that what appears in this blog will make or break a book, but making even one person aware of a good book is worth the time, since the publishers sure as hell aren't going to do it.


So, with that in mind, here are my recommendations for May, June, and July.


The Queen of Patpong, Timothy Hallinan. I will be greatly surprised if I read a better book this year. Hallinan's Poke Rafferty series started well with A Nail Through the Heart, and has continued to improve with each installment. In The Queen of Patpong, Hallinan explores the back story of Poke's wife, Rose, from a girl in a Thai village through her work in the sex trade, in the context of a chance meeting with a man she thought she'd been rid of. Hallinan's pacing is dead on, which is no mean feat, considering he breaks away from the story he's telling to give you a novella-length look at Rose's life. If you're already familiar with Hallinan's work, you're not going to want to miss this one. If you haven't read him yet, why the hell not?

Gutshot Straight, Lou Berney. I picked this up at the Bouchercon book bazaar last year, because I figured any book titled Gutshot Straight had to be entertaining. I was right again. Berney runs you through twist after twist, never quite doing what's expected but never straining your credulity too much. The tone is just right, the characters are expertly drawn and complement each other well, and Berney keeps his tongue planted only deep enough in his cheek to maintain the proper mood.

Tonight I Said Goodbye, Michael Koryta. Koryta's original Lincoln Perry story deserves its accolades. To me, Koryta's Perry stories ring truer than his standalones, and this one is no exception. A good introduction to his regular cast of characters, and a story that turns around just enough. The ending is a twist out of the blue until you think about it for a second, which is just as it should be. Thor, the Russian mobster (who also appears in A Welcome Grave) is perfect.

Cop in the Hood, Peter Moskos. True story of a sociology student who spent twenty months as a Baltimore cop. Not just following them around; Moskos went through the academy and donned the uniform. Insights in a context you can't get anywhere else, an entertaining read, to boot. The last section of the book is a history of prohibition in America—both liquor and drugs—and how the unintended consequences of each may be worse than the problem the policy is supposed to solve. Should be mandatory for anyone who wants to have an intelligent discussion of the pros and cons of current drug policy.

Mating Season, Jon Loomis. A worthy successor to Loomis's first Frank Coffin book, High Season. Not as much of a revelation—you're already aware of the "colorful" nature of the Provincetown setting—but still a fun read. Loomis blends humor and violence as appropriately as anyone.

TKO, Tom Schreck. The second book in Schreck's Duffy Dombrowski series. Another good mixture of humor and murder, though with a considerably higher body count than Mating Season. Duffy is a multi-faceted character who's too involved in what goes on around him to truly be a slacker, though just barely. He's smart, and, most important, has a good heart that holds things together and keeps you rooting for him. Schreck may be the best at getting an animal to help solve mysteries, using Al the basset hound to things a dog could actually do, like track people.