Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

I doubt you woke up on a Tuesday morning and decided, "I think I'll be a novelist." It was a more gradual process. Telling bedtime stories to the little ones. "Daddy, would you write that down so I'll always have it?" Then sending your creation to a local mag just for the helluvit, and the thrill of publication. Followed by a couple more credits, an invitation to write reviews of kid-lit for a regional journal, a couple dopey mystery stories and an unfinished YA wizard's apprentice novel.

Finally you lost all control and spent years (or 6-7 weeks, if you're my friend Angie) purging and bleeding over reams of perfectly good paper before birthing The Great American Novel. An ugly truth gradually emerges - nobody will ever knock at the door to see if, just by chance, you have TGAN ready to rush off to the presses.

Damn. You have to grovel before the money changers and promote your masterpiece in the marketplace. Worse yet, you've got to write the two most miserable, despicable, slit-your-wrists-if-you-don't-get-it-right-this-time documents: a query and a synopsis. Somehow you summarize TGAN into an 8-page synopsis only to be told: "Cool! Now condense it to 1,000 words - better yet, 500 - and then shoehorn it into one measly paragraph for your query letter."




Okay, I'm back now. Just had to double-check that 'shoehorn' is one word, not hyphenated.

Crap. Had to check 'double-check.'

Any questions why I'm not the speediest author alive? Okay, below is the synopsis for my novel Montana is Burning. I don't claim it's the world's greatest synopsis (still a bit of the passive voice, eh?). I just hope it conveys the flavor of the work and shows I can tell a coherent story so, if the agent or editor is partial to that kind of story, hopefully she'll ask to see some more. Anyway, here it is.

Tall and weathered, with a nose right off an Indian-head nickel, Detective PAUL LONGO worries his new job in Montana with the Mullen County Sheriff’s Department won't last long. Seeking solace in the Rockies after accidentally killing a child during a crack house bust in Phoenix, now Paul finds he has alienated his new co-workers, who mistrust his city ways. His first day on the job, he kneels to pray with a dying holdup man who requests last rites, and Paul’s profane, hard-drinking co-workers stick him with the nickname The Pope.

Elections are near, with the Department split between loyalists of incumbent SHERIFF CLYDE FRYE and the Chief of Detectives. Paul is the only fence-straddler. When an abortion clinic catering to wealthy out-of-staters in the town of Kintla is firebombed with a Molotov cocktail, the political hot potato is dumped in his lap. Paul must contend with vicious local politics, over-zealous federal agents, a newly-formed militia group bent on blockading the county, a former lover trying to connive an exclusive interview, and an approaching forest fire.

Three bodies emerge from the abortion clinic wreckage, one being DR. SUSAN SEWARD from the clinic. An adult male victim goes unidentified -- unthinkable in such a small, close-knit community -- and an autopsy reveals the third, badly-charred corpse is a large dog. But whose?

A remote-control bomb explodes on the route of a local peace march two days after the clinic’s destruction, killing four. Paul’s heroism prevents more deaths but while he’s hospitalized over-night for a concussion, the investigation spirals out of control. On returning, he finds Sheriff Frye has caved in, ceding power to the FBI and ATF. Paul fails to convince the feds to look for two different bombers -- a Molotov cocktail bomber and a high-tech copycat.

His lone consolation is a budding relationship with Deputy JANET BAREFOOT, who is half Native American, making her another outsider in the Department.

A second remote-control bomb, discovered outside Kintla’s high school, is disarmed before it detonates. Paul remains convinced this technology doesn’t fit in with the primitive Molotov cocktail used against the abortion clinic.

The investigation eventually centers on SONNY, a Religious Right fanatic. Sonny flees into the teeth of the forest fire, only to be blocked by scores of armed militia. A gun battle erupts, with Sonny and most of the militia wiped out.

Everyone else celebrates the end of the case but Paul Longo worries it's too neat. He digs into the background of Dr. Susan Seward, and discovers her husband DR. JACK SEWARD assumed another doc’s identity years earlier. Paul goes to Seward’s remote home in the path of the advancing fire. Seward admits firebombing the clinic and says the unidentified bodies were a hitchhiker Susan had seduced and the man’s dog. Despite being wounded in a face-off with his prey, Paul kills Seward after a chase through blazing, smoke-choked woods.

A chance comment by the phony doctor leads Paul to suspect Sheriff Frye’s involvement. Frye gets the drop on Paul the next day and disarms him, bragging that he secretly set up the militia in order to eventually squash it, spring-boarding himself into the governor’s mansion -- maybe the White House. As federal agents close in (Paul is wearing a hidden wire), Frye takes Janet Barefoot hostage and bolts.

Paul tracks them into an abandoned gold mine. The Sheriff and Paul struggle deep in the pitch black tunnels before Paul plunges a knife into Frye’s chest. Paul's a hero, Janet's rescued, and Frye heads for the infirmary in his own jail.

After a night in the local hospital, Paul awakes sore and woozy but feeling redeemed. He finds Janet waiting. She tells him he’s turned a corner on his tormented journey, headed in the right direction at long last. If Paul doesn’t mind, she’d like to walk alongside him.

Thar she blows - critique away and we'll see how much humility I can handle.

Thanks and keep on writing.


  1. Great synopsis. The rules are simple: you need to accurately describe motive without deviating from a straight blow by blow outline and at the same time keep the outline to two pages while also eliminating all reference to subplots even if they involve love and are essential to explaining your characters' motives which absolutely must be delineated but only within a simple outline as long as you don't just simply write a scene by scene list, which of course must also include...
    Good luck - Jake

  2. I'm just a lowly reader, from Upstate NY, who loves mysteries. If I read this on a book flap in B&N, while trying to find a book to buy/read, I'd love its location, so I'd hope Montana was another character. (I've read Kent Krueger's entire Cork O'Connor series, Steve Hamilton's Alex McKnight series and CJ Box's Joe Pickett series. The locales are heavily featured in all 3.)

    I might be in a minority on this, but I prefer the personal life of the protagonist to be kept to a bare minimum. Concentrate on the story and allow your characters to form in the readers' imaginations. Few writers can do justice to love and sex; it usually turns into emotive drivel. Two writers who can pull this off are 1) Janet Evanovich with her Stephanie Plum series, and 2) Julia Spencer-Fleming with her characters Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne and Rev. Clare Fergusson.

    Here’s the BIG BUT. The one point in your synopsis with which I have a problem -- it would kill the sale right there on the spot in B&N -- is the political reference, "a Religious Right fanatic." It rankles to my core and suggests that I'll be subjected to your personal political soap box. It's one thing to read about the characters' politics; that's fine, no matter the politics. But to inject your own is a HUGE no-no, as far I'm concerned. It's almost impossible not to insult readers whose politics differ from yours, in this case the right-wing. The fact that you capitalized the words Religious Right is the tip-off. If you removed the capitals and I bought the book thinking it wasn't preachy and it was, I'd be extremely p-o'd and never read anything else by you. And if I was insulted, you can bet that others would be as well. If you need an example, CJ Box has a knack for writing about hot topics without getting preachy and offending people with his politics, whatever they may be.

    I’m still trying to write my first GAS (Great American Script), so I have a lot of admiration for anyone who’s actually typed “The End.”


  3. You might want to read the comments posted by snarklings on one of Miss Snark's crap-o-meters to get an idea of how injecting personal politics and/or religious views affects readers.


  4. Um, I believe I'll be deleting the phrase "Religious Right" from the synopsis. Thanks for the spot-on comments regarding political and religious beliefs. I'm too close to it but my critique group tells me the actual book isn't preachy.

  5. You've certainly piqued my interest in your book! I really hope you succeed. I would love to be able to buy it knowing I "knew you when."

  6. Hi, your synopsis sounds good to me. Good luck on finding an agent. Marie

  7. Congradulations on getting your blog up and running. Looks great and your synopsis is very well written. Two small comments;
    1. No need to write the name "SONNY" in all caps.

    2. Consider changing Religious Right fanatic to religious fanatic or some phrase less PI. Debbie

    Good luck with your novel. I'll be bookmarking your site. Debbie

  8. The first time you introduce a character in a synopsis you must use all caps. Great Synopsis, I've heard agents say they hate reading them as much as we hate writing them. The book is great and if given the chance will be a publishers dream.