I asked him to give my synopsis for 'Magpie Ranger' the once over and he very kindly did so, giving me a few insights into the commercial world of selling books at the same time. Here's what he said...
Firstly, a question: Is this a work in progress, or do you have a finished draft?
If it is finished, I'd like to read it. But equally understand if you headbutt me to the ground and tell me to 'feck off'. I haven't got kids, but do know the feeling of handing over a manuscript to a stranger - and imagine it is akin to leaving your kids with babysitters you've never met. 'We'll be back about midnight, Myra. Tell Ian to help himself to biscuits...'
In truth, it's difficult to provide any feedback of any depth (or use) from a synopsis. But I like the idea. I'd read it. The core elements are strong, it has regional appeal (both a good and bad thing, but I'll get onto that) and I think the juxtaposition between real sorrow (the death of a friend) and the more superficial sorrow (Toon) would provide real pathos. Plus, the Geordie-ness and humour would keep the dialogue snappy and light.
In terms of getting it published, there are certain hoops that you have to jump through - for every editorial decision a publisher makes, he makes 10 commercial ones.
So I've included below the issues that a publisher/ agent is likely to raise/ consider - some I agree with, some I don't, some are bullshit, some are valid. But all you should be aware of.
* Regional appeal - although this is often a positive, a publisher might be concerned that it will limit the market. The title for example, would be changed. If Fever Pitch had been called Love Life of a Gooner, it would've died on its arse-nal.
* Class appeal - again, this can be a real strength. But worries some publishers (and editors), who will try to re-package the working classes in a particular 'saleable' way, because...
* Publishers are obsessed with 'theme'. This should be as timeless/ classless/ ageless as possible - even if it is a period piece (capturing the 70s, 80 and 90s well could be a real strength, ain't nothing as contemporary as retro!). They also love 'an eternal truth' - which in this case, will sink in during the train ride south.
* Also, a strong narrative is important. When any manuscript is being considered for publication, the ‘rule’ for editors is to ask (as a reader) ‘why am I reading this?’ on every page. They will look for good characterisation and conflict to keep readers engaged.
And a ‘twist’ is always a hook. This can be subtle – say, for example, in the end you change your mind about publishing The Last Match. The fact that you’ve written it, is the end of the journey.
Be prepared for it to be chopped to bits too – in order to follow the rules, publishers/ editors will want to re-structure, cut out characters, add characters, even change the settings… ‘Love your work, Mr Rivers, love it. But this Newcastle that you speak of…. could this be Notting Hill? And instead of football, perhaps – amateur dramatics…?’ Their vision will never quite match yours.
Just from the synopsis – and this is just an opinion – I can see a publisher suggesting the book starts and ends with that train journey South (there is a natural correlation between the actual journey and personal journey). It’s also a classic flashback format, that clearly defines the periods, will allow you to dip in and out of the story and tie up the ‘eternal truth’ up at the end.
Or, it lends itself to each chapter be focused on, or at least starting with, a match (book-ended by introduction and epilogue chapters).
This is the difference between story and plot – which is key to novel writing. Tolstoy said that characters + conflict = plot.
I prefer to think of a story is a timeline of events – prompting no questions, or involvement. But a plot provides depth.
A bad example:
‘A man died, then a woman died.’ That’s a story.
‘A man died, then his wife was so distraught she committed suicide.’ That’s a plot.
And what did Tolstoy ever do, eh?