12.26.2005

Crapometer #1

Genre: Romance/Western

FORD rode into ELIZA QUINN's life without warning, and within twenty-four hours captured her heart, destroyed her home, and pulled her into the middle of a bloody feud—forcing her to fight for her future and their love. (This is a good opening)

When Eliza notices an approaching rider on the horizon, she knows she must act quickly. She is hiding an escaped slave, JOHN BROWNSTONE, and she fears the rider will kidnap or shoot John for the bounty on his head. (You don't need to explain her fear. "Escaped slave" conveys that Eliza has something to fear) She hides John in the barn. The stranger investigates the barn. He finds John Brownstone, but he surprises them by asking after a different man, CORBETT.

Eliza and John deny any knowledge of the man. The stranger gives his name, Ford, and announces that he's going to stay and wait for Corbett's certain arrival. Afraid of Ford, Eliza invites him into the house for supper, hoping to appease him. Ford explains that Corbett is a man guilty of murder and rape, and he's riding hard for the Mexico border. Eliza's homestead is not only on his direct path, but the only place within a hundred miles with water. Eliza is frightened and wary of being caught in the middle, but Ford doesn't offer a choice. Ford requests a room with a view of the front, a hot bath, and a shave. Eliza offers Ford her bedroom, a large tub of hot water, and ultimately agrees to act as his barber. Ford strips in front of her, completely shameless, and his nude body and her strong attraction to him fluster her. Ford kisses her, and she enjoys it. Before the kiss can progress to something more, John knocks on the door. A rider is approaching.

Ok, here is where I'm starting to roll my eyes. "Ford strips in front of her, completely shameless". Where does that come from? It's such a romance cliche that even I recognize it. The way this is is written, as a recitation of events, we have no sense of motivation for any of this so it seems like a cliche, even if you haven't written it this way in the novel.


While Eliza and John hide, Ford goes out to meet the lone man. After several minutes of silence, there's a single gunshot. The man was a member of Corbett's gang, and he brought news that Corbett was only a day away. Ford asks John to gather all the guns in the house. He then takes Eliza out back to teach her how to shoot. She's hesitant to learn, but he warns her that the ability to pull the trigger could be the only thing that stands between her and death. She takes his words to heart, but they don't help her aim. She leaves him to practice himself, which he does well into the night. Eliza is waiting for him when he returns. With unspoken consent, she follows him to the bedroom. They make love, Eliza not confident that they'll live to see another night.

Breakfast is thick with tension the next morning. They are all armed. John is assigned to the barn and told to shoot whoever he can. Eliza is assigned to the bedroom and told to hide. Ford settles himself in the living room behind the picture window. Shooting starts as soon as the gang rides into range. John is shot and killed. They throw a torch into the kitchen, forcing Eliza to move to the first floor. Ford tells her to cover him while he goes after Corbett. She fires repeated at the barn, finally hitting one man. Corbett flees and Ford chases him as her house continues to burn. Eliza races to the barn, intent on saving the horses. They bolt before she can harness them, leaving her stranded without transportation. She moves John's body away from the flying embers and collapses with exhaustion.

Here's where I'll stop reading if this is with a query. "Thick with tension" is a cliche. The gun battle is completely ridiculous; it's every bad film western cliche in the world. Yes, this is a romance so things don't have to be realistic but romance should not be cliche. First, you have the other adult man John assuming a subordinate role, as if that's just a given. It's not. You have Eliza also assuming a subordiante role, when she's the homeowner, brave enough to be hiding runaways and the heroine. The idea that some lone cowboy rides in on a white horse and takes charge is so outmoded even in romance that I'd stop reading here.

Early the next morning, she drags John's body to the small cemetery where her husband is buried, and begins to dig a grave for him. Ford returns while she's digging. He takes over the task. Once John is interred, Ford informs her that he's traveling on to California and she's welcome to join him. With no other options, she agrees. They set out immediate with nothing but the clothes on her back. After four days of hard riding, they arrive in Dead Man's Corner exhausted and filthy. Ford secures a room for them at the hotel before leaving Eliza by herself with instructions not to let anybody in. Soon after he leaves, the hotel clerk, Bill, tries to break into her room. When he forces the door open, she bashes him over the head with a heavy pitcher. Bill survives, but just barely. Ford pulls the man downstairs, demands a new room, and assures Eliza she won't get in trouble. That evening, while they are eating in the dining room of the hotel, a man with a drawn gun approaches Ford from behind. The man is BEN, Corbett's brother. They exchange words, Ben learns that Corbett is dead, and Ford shoots him in the wrist with a warning to be on his way. Eliza wants to leave, but Ford tells her that they can't until the end of the week. In order to make things more bearable, Ford arranges for Eliza to stay with Mayor BERNARD REID and his wife, ELSIE. Ford agrees to do some work for Reid, but Eliza informs him she won't wait and she's leaving for Silver City by herself on the next mail coach. She has decided to return home to England rather than travel to California. Ford acknowledges that he can't stop her, but begs her to wait for him because the journey is a very dangerous one. Ultimately, she agrees. Ford leaves her in Elsie's care to take care of his business. That night, Eliza is awakened by gunfire outside the house. Worried that Ford is involved, she counts four shots before she investigates. She's stopped in the kitchen by an armed Elsie, and is directed by gunpoint back to her bedroom. Elsie locks the door without explanation. Hours later, Ford arrives looking for her. Bernard tells Ford that Eliza has already left that morning on the mail coach.

The purpose of a synopsis for an agent is, in the words of Lucienne Diver "to make sure aliens don't arrive on the farm in chapter 14". However, that's not the writer's purpose for a synopsis. A synopsis for a writer is part of your arsenal of persuasion. Yes, you write a capsule of the novel but you also make it enticing. You want an agent to read this and think "oh yes I want to read this". To that end you need to focus less on minor events "John hides in the barn. the stranger investigates" and give us some idea of what makes these characters interesting. For instance, why is John Brownstone in Eliza's barn? Why is she alone?

Corbett, the enemy, is never seen according to this. That makes him a bogeyman, not a character. And why is he so intent on harming people? If he's trying to escape to Mexico he just wants to water his horses and get the hell out of there right? What precipitates this gun fight other than your need for drama in the story?

And the major problem here is the ending. Romance requires resolution and Eliza leaving on the mail packet is about as unsatisfying an ending as I can think of. Yes Shane rides off into the sunset leaving broken hearts, but you've set this up as a romance and the reason I read romance is for emotionally satisfying endings.

This could be a very good novel full of deft writing, but as this synopsis stands, if I read five pages, even good pages, I'd not ask for more because the synopsis doesn't make me think the story has something fresh and original to say.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Ugh, writing the synop is so hard...things you flag as cliches ARE cliches, but I tried to make them not cliche in the novel, you know? Tried. I'm not claiming to be successful, but I now realize I need to work on the synop to reflect that.

Also, my total synop for this novel is about 2500 words. I only sent in the first 1000, so this isn't the resolution of the novel. It's about the 1/3 point of the novel.

Thanks again. I don't even know where to begin when writing synops, but this gave me (and the crapometer's other victims...) an idea of how to tear it down and start over again.

Rick said...

A couple of comments on the gun battle.

Eliza lives in the middle of Wild West Nowhere, shelters an escaped slave, and we're told about gathering up "all the guns in the house." Eliza doesn't know how to shoot a gun?

That said, I can understand why Ford takes charge tactically - he implicitly is used to gun battles, which a woman farmer and an escaped slave probably are not.

Why she trusts him the first place, apart maybe from him getting nekkid for her, is another matter. But I admit to being gender-disqualified from judging romance conventions.

Jo Bourne said...

Hi Annonymous --

You may want to come up with a synopsis that weighs in at about 1000 words total. It's not just an exercise. Agents and editors often ask for a five page, or even shorter, synopsis.

I agree with Miss Snark on another point as well -- you're shortchanging your heroine. If Eliza makes her living on an isolated farmstead, she must be both tough and competent. Her strength and determination hasn't made the transition from your ms to the synopsis.