Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Synopsis 18: Redux

Under a Starlit Sky

JASON CALVERT loved his wife, lived for his job and was content with life – until he lost it all when his world was turned upside down. Waking next to a small harbour in Victoria he can’t remember anything about his past. He meets BARLOW PUCKETT, who says his name is IAN HOWTON, and that they work together. After finding a matchbook for a pub, Jason heads to Vancouver hoping to find more clues to his forgotten identity. There he has an unsettling encounter in a bar with REMY HOLBROOK, a man he cannot remember, but who definitely remembers him. Remy angrily asks ‘Jason’ why he is there. Thinking his name is Ian; Jason is confused and tells the irate man he is mistaken. Remy is taken aback, flustered, and quickly realizes Jason has amnesia. Remy apologizes for the case of mistaken identity before hastily leaving the bar.

Jason is plagued by a recurring dream set in a tower library overlooking a war-ravaged city, dominated by a locked wooden door. In the dreams, answers emerge about his life and the people who love him – his sister, his best friend, his ex-wife, memories of his childhood and teenage years and his old Vancouver address.

Desperate for help remembering his past, he approaches EVE HENDRY, an attractive psychic medium, even though he ‘doesn’t believe in that sort of thing’. Guided by visions and instructions from Eve’s spirit guide, Jason runs into a young woman, a student, who tells him his name is not Ian Howton but Jason Calvert and he is a poetry teacher at the University, unaware he was fired as it was kept quiet by University heads.

At the same time Jason has been struggling to find himself, Remy Holbrook is struggling to stop him. Remy, a social studies teacher, who has always despised his job and always dreamed of teaching English, has always envied Jason--who is automatically enemy number one. Before losing his memory, Jason’s career meant the world to him. So much so, he had a quote from a poem tattooed on his arm. His students loved him and colleagues admired him. The feud between Remy and Jason ultimately led to the breakdown of Jason’s marriage and Remy jumped at the chance to take Jason’s newly single ex for himself but she refused his advances. Using false allegations of sexual assault against a student that led to Jason being fired, Remy eventually got what he wanted - Jason's job. Not wanting Jason to oust him as a liar and loosen his grip on his newly acquired dream, Remy resorts to harassment and threats to scare Jason away. It works. For awhile.

But now that Jason is back in town searching for his identity, Remy must again turn to unscrupulous means to keep him away. After witnessing a violent attack on a homeless man, Remy threatens to call the police and report TODD, the young man responsible, unless Todd helps him deter Jason from finding his identity. Using blackmail worked before, scaring Jason away to Victoria where he changed his name to avoid the threatening phone calls, emails, and texts. But when Todd takes Jason for coffee the morning after getting him drunk, all part of Remy’s plan, and starts asking too many questions, Jason snaps. Hung-over and frustrated by the lack of information about who he is, normally easy going and mild-mannered Jason uncharacteristically attacks Todd in the café, throwing a chair and smashing Todd’s hand with a table leg. Shocked by his actions, Jason runs, scared Todd will come after him.

Falling asleep while stargazing after Eve says someone used to tell him to lie under stars, Jason wakes to a stranger mugging him. Recovering his wallet, he finds an old photo of himself and his sister in Toronto that has fallen from a hidden compartment. After uncovering more clues that point to Toronto and borrowing money from Barlow Puckett he jumps on the next flight. While in Toronto , he runs out of the money. Hungry and alone in the big city with no one to turn to, he turns to shoplifting food, narrowly escaping with his stolen goods, embarrassed, and angry with himself. That isn’t him. Jason also runs into HYDE VINSON, who is the man he saw in one of the dreams - bizarrely dressed and threatening, with a strange metal prosthesis and slip of paper with important information. Hyde drops a bombshell on Jason when he mentions hearing about a sexual assault allegation against him. Next, Jason finds CAROL, his sister who reminds him of an estrangement with his mother, the person who used to tell him to lie under a starlit sky – that doing so would make all your problems seem insignificant compared to the vastness of the universe. Intent on making amends and repairing their relationship, he visits her rest home only to discover she passed away that night. Due to shock, he passes out in sudden overwhelming grief.

When Jason learns from his ex-wife about the false allegations that cost him his career, he confronts Remy and a violent struggle ensues. Remy stabs Jason who manages to hide in an empty auditorium. Passing out from blood loss, he experiences flashes of memories – a young woman crying in front of a panel of men; receiving threatening messages from Remy; a table strewn with empty beer cans. Jason finally realizes the reason behind his amnesia: As a biological safeguard against the fear and pain from continuous harassment by Remy, the psychological trauma became too much and his memory shut down.

He awakes in hospital to two police officers standing over him. Remy has been arrested. Not only for stabbing Jason, but also for the student he was blackmailing into lying about being sexually assaulted by Jason. Remy was giving the girl straight A’s. In return for sex.

Jason dreams of the library one final time. The door is unlocked. He comes face to face with himself and realizes he likes what he sees.

Comments

I think there are still a couple of subplots and characters that aren't as important to the story as the synopsis makes them out to be. That said, I'm also concerned that there's one subplot that could be elevated: the one with the psychic. There seems to be a hint of possible romance with her, plus the query mentions her trying to jolt his subconscious into remembering things by engaging in hang gliding, etc. It seems if it's important enough for the query, it's important enough for the synopsis.

In my version, I've rearranged events so that the synopsis follows Jason's thread of the story then switches to Remy's then brings the two of them together in the end. I'll let other critters weigh in on whether they think it's easier to follow the story line that way. Since the synopsis still doesn't feel too awfully thrillerish, I don't think cutting back and forth between them adds anything to the tension. My version also cuts about 120 words from the original 1000.

I didn't change the last paragraph, but the coming face-to-face with himself part still feels a bit weak to me. Does anyone else have an idea for strengthening it?

If this really should be feeling more thrillerish, then you'll probably want to focus on cutting back and forth between Jason and Remy even more. And put more of Remy's actions and motivations into the present tense.

You can also do two versions of the query and synopsis -- one pitching it as a thriller where you amp up those aspects in both the query and synopsis and the other pitching it as literary suspense where you use the approach you've got here. Then you can send targeted versions to agents who handle commercial thrillers and those who handle more literary types of suspense.

My Version

When he wakes by a small harbour in Victoria, JASON CALVERT can’t remember anything about his past. The man who claims to be his coworker doesn’t seem familiar and certainly the name “Ian” that his coworker calls him doesn’t feel right. What he does have on waking is the memory of a dream that makes him afraid to go to the authorities or to a hospital that might report him. Determined to track down his identity on his own, Jason finds a clue in a matchbook from a pub in Vancouver. There, he runs into a man who seems to know him as “Jason.” The man’s irate, hostile even, until Jason convinces him it’s a case of mistaken identity and the man hastily leaves the bar.

After the encounter, Jason’s dreams become more vivid and disturbing. In one, he’s in a tower library overlooking a war-ravaged city, unable to get out through the only exit: a locked wooden door. In others, he catches glimpses of answers that continue to elude him: an ex-wife, a best friend, a sister…

Desperate for help remembering his past, he engages a psychic, who helps Jason interpret his dreams. More importantly, she points him toward a university student on summer break who greets him as Jason Calvert and reminds him she was in the poetry class he taught in the spring. The psychic also helps him recall there was someone important in his life who told him to lie under the starlit sky when troubled. When he tries that and falls asleep, he wakes to stranger mugging him. It's a violent act that actually becomes a stroke of fortune. Recovering his wallet, he finds an old photo of himself and his sister in Toronto that falls from a hidden compartment.

Using the last of his money he hops the next flight to Toronto. Hungry and alone, he has to shoplift food, embarrassed and angry with himself for doing it. Snippets from his dreams of a bizarrely dressed man with a metal prosthesis and a slip of paper with important information lead him to HYDE VINSON, a childhood friend. Hyde confirms Jason’s real name, then drops a bombshell when he mentions hearing about a sexual assault allegation against him. He also gives Jason the address where CAROL, Jason’s sister, now lives. Carol helps him piece together early memories, but she can’t help with the 10-year gap since they last saw one another. She also reminds him that he’s been estranged from his mother, the person who used to tell him to lie under a starlit sky. Intent on making amends, Jason visits his mother’s rest home the next day, only to discover she’s died during the night.

Meanwhile, the man Jason met in the Vancouver pub has been planning how to keep Jason out of Vancouver permanently. REMY HOLBROOK is a brilliant but delusional man with double master’s degrees. A university instructor, he despised teaching social studies and coveted Jason’s job as an English teacher, envious of how Jason’s students loved him and colleagues admired him. Remy also coveted Jason’s wife. In a desperate ploy to seize them both, he blackmailed a student into making false allegations of sexual assault against Jason and coerced a dean into giving him a hiring recommendation. The university quietly fired Jason and gave Jason’s job to Remy, who resorted to more harassment and threats to keep Jason away. And when Jason’s marriage fell apart and Jason moved to Victoria to start a new life with a new name to escape the stigma of it all, Remy moved in on Jason’s ex-wife.

Now that Jason is back in town searching for his old identity, Remy again turns to unscrupulous means to keep him away. After witnessing a violent attack on a homeless man, Remy recruits TODD, the young man responsible, by threatening to file a police report if he doesn’t help. Todd invites the vulnerable and grief-stricken Jason out for drinks, then takes him for coffee the next morning and starts asking questions. Jason snaps. Hung-over and frustrated by the lack of information about who he is, easy-going and mild-mannered Jason uncharacteristically attacks Todd in the café, smashing Todd’s hand with a table leg. Shocked by his actions, Jason runs, afraid Todd will come after him,

It’s Jason’s ex-wife who supplies the final puzzle piece about the false allegations that cost him his career and about Remy’s advances. Jason confronts Remy, who stabs him. Jason manages to hide in an empty auditorium and, just as he’s passing out from blood loss, he experiences flashes of memories: a young woman crying in front of a panel of men, threatening messages from Remy, a table strewn with empty beer cans. Jason finally realizes the reason for his amnesia: It’s a biological safeguard against fear and pain from the continuous harassment by Remy.

Jason wakes in a hospital to two police officers standing over him. Remy has been arrested. Not only for stabbing Jason, but also for blackmailing the student into lying about being sexually assaulted. Remy was giving the girl A’s -- in return for sex.

Jason dreams of the library one final time. The door is unlocked. He comes face to face with himself and realizes he likes what he sees.

5 comments:

AA said...

It still doesn't read like a thriller. That's probably because it isn't one. There's no ticking clock or deadline. No deadline, no real suspense.

Also, we don't really know what's at stake, as per a thriller. I can get why he would want to piece this all back together, because he has to know what happened. He also wants to clear his name, get his priveleged position back, etc. But there's no real sense of urgency to find this out within a specific amount of time. Or at all. What happens if he doesn't get his old life back? He continues to be a dock worker? So, not life threatening, or anything. People have worse jobs in this economy.

Your phrase "struggling to find himself" is exactly how this reads. It reads like a man struggling to find his identity. That's just fiction, not suspense.

If we had more of a hint earlier on that Remy was planning to kill Jason, that would be better. But it still doesn't solve the problem because Remy could just as easily kill Jason BEFORE he discovers his true identity as he could after, so Remy's killing Jason doesn't hinge on Jason's discovering his true identity. Instead, it's a final confrontation that leads to the resolution of the story. Nothing wrong with that, but it isn't the story arc of a thriller.

Suspense hinges on Jason discovering what happens IN TIME. In time for- whatever will happen if he doesn't figure it out before then. Before Remy kills him? In that case, Remy must be PLOTTING a murder. The murder can ONLY happen if Jason doesn't find out in time the evidence he needs to have Remy sent to jail and thus incapable of murdering him. Jason's DEADLINE is Remy murdering him before he gets that information.

What you have here is a fiction novel with psychological elements to it. There's nothing wrong with that. If you want a thriller, though, you'll have to change the manuscript, not the synopsis.

Ink and Pixel Club said...

Even putting the question of whether or not works as a thriller aside, I still feel like something is missing. The answers to the questions of who Jason is and how he lost his memory don't strike me as very exciting. It's less "Of course! It all makes sense now!" than "Oh, okay." in the previous synopsis, I got the sense that losing his memory and having to rediscover his identity helped Jason become a person he liked more than the one he has been before, though I didn't understand why. Now I'm not even sure if that's the case. Does Jason confront himself in the dream and realize that he's a stronger and better person now than he was? Does he have a new appreciation for the life he already had? Or is he just happy to be himself again? What has Jason gained by going through this experience?

The events of the story feel lacking in emotion with the possible exception of the mother's death and even that could be stronger. I don't know why Jason and his mother have been estranged for so long, which could help me to feel more invested in their relationship. Other encounters he has with people he is close to feel like nothing more than opportunities for Jason to get the next clue. Jason also has very little Hand in freeing himself from Remy's schemes. He gets stabbed, wakes up, and his problem has been solved.

AA said...

That's a good point. I'm not getting that gripping, 'I HAVE to read this book' vibe off of this. I want to feel more emotionally connected to these characters, especially Jason. Right now, Remy shows more emotion and has more passion. Jason needs to have at least as much passion to get his life back as Remy showed stealing it in the first place.

Jo-Ann said...

The story reads more like a mystery than a thriller, however, I’m having a hard time believing the premise of your novel.

Amnesia/ dissociation simply does not work that way.

Jason may repress the memory of the traumatic events (although the opposite is far more likely – he can’t get the thoughts out of his mind – go to Google scholar and search the psychiatric literature), but it is very unlikely that his entire identity would be wiped. Childhood memories tend to be suppressed by childhood trauma – is that a part of Jason’s history?

If Remy had held a gun to his head and forced him to rape and murder the student, the most likely type of memory loss would be for the events following the incident, (and possibly for those immediately before). People who have been traumatised can have their ability to form new memory traces impaired – so they may experience a blur for events that happened after the event, and this can continue for months afterwards (“anteriorgrade amnesia”).

I don’t think that the pain of a false accusation, job loss and marriage breakdown really is a strong enough mix for a loss of identity. People who dissociate (lose sense of themselves) when faced with stress tend to have significant psychiatric issues to begin with. When people are in a dissociative state, they simply don’t have the skills to look after themselves, let alone follow clues and solve a mystery.

That’s not to say that your story won’t work.

One of my favourite books “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” (Kate Atkinson) is about memory and identity, just as yours is. It’s a very well written account of a young woman, Ruby, who tries to piece together a secret that her family have kept for many years, and to fill her own childhood memory gaps.

Spoiler alert: in the end Ruby discovers that she had an identical twin sister and was unfairly blamed for causing her death as a child – so she repressed all memories of her twin, causing great huge gaps in her memory and identity.

The premise was rubbish, but it was saved by great writing, and having a number of compelling sub-plots running through it.

Is your writing good enough to hold the readers’ interest?

Sarah Laurenson said...

Jason with amnesia and all I could think about was The Bourne Identity. And this pales by comparison for action laced thriller types. This seems a bit more focused on his growth.