Thursday, July 31, 2008

It's like writing a story, except without the fun

Synopses. Greek-based. Neccessary. And aggravating.

If you write a novel, and I hope you do, you'll need one of these bad boys to convince agents and editors that it's worth reading. It's supposed to capture the feel of the story, touch on some major plot points, expose conflict and generally drag the reader by his or her hair directly into "I have GOT to read more" territory.

I've gotten a lot better at it than I once was. But it wasn't an easy skill to learn. Below is the original synopsis for "From the Depths," which, by the way, was origally titled "Dragon." Hello, Trivial Pursuit world championship.

Join me after the last thrilling sentence for a few words about how this thing came together. (this is only about the first two-thirds of the synopsis... I don't want to give EVERYTHING about the plot away in a blog post.)

My name is Dr. Christine Myers. I work for the CIA as a forensic scientist, wading through blood and bullet casings, then telling my bosses who killed whom, and how it was done. This assignment started like many others, with a late-night phone call.

A North Korean submarine, the Dragon, was defecting to the United States. The sub was a coffin cobbled together from rust and outdated technology, but it was important to national security, I was told. Onboard was some stolen North Korean weapons research that the Pentagon already was drooling over.

In the middle of the night, the sonarman on the U.S. submarine escorting the Dragon reported hearing what sounded like a brawl. Then gunshots. Then the unmistakable noise of a sub surfacing. A boarding party found the boat filled with chlorine gas and dead sailors. In the conning tower, a man had been shot to death.

My job? To decipher the mess of corpses. The Dragon was hours from shore, and had to be submerged before dawn, when satellites would spot it. A helicopter was going to drop a SEAL team onboard to get the sub moving. I was sent in with them.

And I’m the only one still alive.

The SEAL leader, Lt. Daniel Larsen, treated me like sand in the gears of his operation. Just a couple of the others stood out at first: His second-in-command, 2nd Lt. Matthews; and Campbell, the only one to bother addressing me as a real person. The rest of the team seemed like faceless automatons, dressed in black, ready to follow orders.

Then the SEALs began to disappear. Once their bodies, broken and twisted like cherry stems, turned up, my work became a little more urgent.

I kinda like it. I wrote it in first person to set it apart--and incidentally offer some of the flavor of the book itself, which also is written from Dr. Myers' point of view.

But it didn't start out that way. The first take was almost five single-spaced pages long. I tried to nail each plot point. But without dialogue... and description... and characterization... and pretty much everything else that makes something fun to read, that version had a big problem: it sucked.

Second take was shorter. I tried to leave some suspenseful hooks instead of leading the reader all the way through to the conclusion. But it still read like a summary. A clinical description, as Dr. Myers might say. Plus it was still too long.

Then a fellow writer and excellent advice-giver--we'll call her "Mom," for short--suggested that, like the book, this might be a story best told by Dr. Myers. And she was right. The result was a one page long, tight and suspenseful.

Most important, though: it was successful.

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