Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Synopsis redux

Not long ago, someone on the Adventures in Writing blog asked, how do you know when a book is finished? Well, I'm possibly not the best person to answer this, but I would say you know a book is done when you feel like screaming with joy and dancing around. I realize anyone reading this blog would conclude that I am seriously manic-depressive since not 6 weeks ago I was all I-hate-myself-I-don't-know-how-to-do-this but now it really does seem that I've finished the revision to How to See the Elephant and it is a respectable 72,000 words which is still long, I know, but not as bad. And I think I've made some really good revisions and brought about a satisfactory little novel. Perhaps the best sign is that it wasn't that hard to bring the synopsis, which follows, in at just under two pages. I've tried to follow the guidelines -- only 3-4 characters, just the general outline -- but I would appreciate any criticism. (Also hidden typos, which I have just found two of, and I'm sure there are more.)

Synopsis - How to See the Elephant

Since the deaths of her mother and brother from cholera, Thetis has accompanied her father on his salesman’s route, travelling by wagon and train through Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. Thetis enjoys this life and considers it her job to manage her father, who is given to rash decisions. But in March of 1862 she is unable to dissuade him from his most recent one – to join the Union Army. Thetis is given a choice – temporary residence with the Shakers or an education at Miss Barclay’s, the boarding school where her older half-sister teaches. Thetis, now 15, chooses Miss Barclay’s, and travels to Wilmington, Delaware to start at the school.
Miss Barclay’s is run by MISS VEDA SKAGGS, a sweet-natured, accomplished woman, and Thetis hopes she will be able to absorb from her the refinements she has missed since her mother’s death. Miss Veda is the owner of three slaves, including SHEBA, a girl of uncertain age whom Miss Veda treats as a pet. She makes a point of treating her slaves with kindness and upholding the virtues of slave-owning against those who “don’t understand Negroes.” Wanting to admire Miss Veda, Thetis revises her previous opinions about slavery. Nevertheless she is unpopular at Miss Veda’s, and wrongly tarred as an abolitionist. The students are taken to a concert by a famous pianist and Thetis, developing a crush on him, determines to become his student. Her absorption in music makes it possible for her to bear life at Miss Veda’s, even though she knows she is not particularly talented. These fantasies are shattered when Miss Veda tells her that a professional career as a musician is not an appropriate goal for one of her students. Freed from her admiration for Miss Veda, Thetis begins to question everything she has learned from her.
News arrives that Thetis’ father, fighting in Kentucky, has been wounded and possibly captured. Forbidden to go to him, Thetis plans to escape Miss Barclay’s but is forced at the last minute to bring along Sheba, who wants to run away as well. The two girls flee from Delaware to Ohio, first by train, and, when their money runs out, by foot, begging food and sleeping outdoors. Thetis initially dislikes Sheba because she is spoiled and helpless and plans to abandon her as soon as she decently can. However, as they travel across Ohio, meeting both hostility and help, a tense partnership emerges and Thetis is brought to realize that Sheba is not a child and can take care of herself. Her experiences on the road with Sheba also give her the basis to form a realistic opinion about slavery, without the influence of Miss Veda. In Cincinnati they find that no riverboats are running and that Louisville is under attack by Confederate forces. Sheba, who has little experience of the outside world, breaks down and refuses to go on, but Thetis convinces her that she cannot go back to Miss Veda’s, and the two eventually find a boat downriver to Louisville. There they are put under arrest and confined in military headquarters, but Thetis escapes again and makes her way to the army camp outside of town, where she finds her father wounded but alive.
Under the guidance of a veteran nurse, MRS. HANCOCK, Thetis cares for her father and other patients at the camp hospital. News of the battle of Perryville is brought and Thetis and Mrs. Hancock go to the battlefield to care for the wounded. Although Thetis is horrified by the sights she sees there, she finds that she is a good nurse and is proud of her ability to be useful. After six weeks in Perryville, she returns to Louisville to begin work with Mrs. Hancock in an army hospital. Sheba is now living in a “contraband” camp there, and Thetis, visiting her, realizes that though neither of them has found exactly what they expected when they left Miss Veda’s, both of them have found something better.


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

woo-hoo! Getting your revision to 72,000 words is a huge accomplishment. You should be proud of yourself, indeed. Did you happen to read Libba Bray's post on her livejournal page about the relationship between author and book in revision? It was great.
You asked for critique of the synopsis, so here goes: I really like the historic feel of this but I think there needs to be more at stake for her, something really putting her or loved one in peril that drives the story forward. Look for ways to increase that tension while cutting away some wordiness ('Thetis is brought to realize' can be 'Thetis realizes' for instance) Best to you. I think you are on the right road.

Laura Canon said...

Thanks for picking up something that I had totally missed. The story moves forward well when they are on the road and there is plenty of peril (when they are arrested, for instance). I didn't stress this in the synopsis because I was trying not to get bogged down in details. I've gone back and taken out some of the generalizations and highlighted actual events. And I'm still under two pages!