Izzy Mahler Finds True Gold

A sweet little secret of the Lit Biz—which I am about to let you in on, Dear Reader—is this: 

After giving months, or maybe years, of your life to writing an 80,000-word novel, you must then tell the story again, accurately and with zing!, in one page.

That’s only if you want anyone to have a chance to read it.

“What, one page?” I hear you cry. “Dear New Favorite Writer, that’s hardly possible.” 

You’re quite right. It’s flat-out IMpossible. Nevertheless, it’s mandatory.

The situation is not quite as bad as it seems. You can single space.

Why Is this Trip Necessary?

Agents, editors, and publishers want to see a one-page synopsis to decide whether there is any point in reading your whole manuscript. An agent or independent publisher receives a thousand or more queries a year—a query being a proffer of a new fiction manuscript the author hopes will get the green light for a traditional publishing contract. 

The agent or publisher can represent, or publish, only a handful of titles a year. A dozen, or two dozen, perhaps. So barriers are built, like the steep waterfalls and boiling fish-ladders of the Pacific Northwest that keep all but the strongest of salmon from reaching their spawning grounds and scoring the Darwinian reward of posterity.

Salmon try to leap a waterfall. Photo by Marvina Munch, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public Domain

The Synopsis

The synopsis is one of those barriers. Does it tell the whole story? Does it tell the story clearly? Is the story interesting? If not, fuhgeddaboudit.

Unlike the marketing blurb on the back cover of the book, which will give enticing hints of the story while gingerly avoiding spoilers, the synopsis—meant for publishing industry eyes only— must reveal the whole plot, including the ending. If it does the job well enough, the author’s reward is a request from the agent or publisher to send the full manuscript for review. 

Thus, you have made it over the first waterfall on your way upstream. The next waterfall is steeper. After they read the whole manuscript, they may pass. But at least your synopsis has earned you a chance at success. 

Which brings us back to the impossibility of writing your whole novel in one page. But trying to do so is actually a valuable exercise. An amazing number of characters, phrases, and plot twists must be left on the cutting room floor. What remain are only the real essentials, connected causally in whole different way from what the meandering course of the book itself required.

Izzy’s Novel

Now, Gentle Reader, I’m going to do something that’s almost never done. I’m going to give you a peek at the one-page synopsis of my new middle-grade novel about a boy named Izzy Mahler. You will see it before any agent or publisher sees it. 

WARNING: If you hope to read the book after it is published, if your memory for plot details is good, and if you can’t stand reading a story when you know what’s going to happen, AVERT YOUR EYES NOW.

For those who remain, here is the synopsis, preceded by a one-sentence logline. 

Synopsis

In 1957 Illinois, class runt Izzy Mahler just wants to become a regular kid as the world falls apart around him—but can he shield America from Sputnik, and will a secret gold mine save his struggling family?

It’s 1957. IZZY MAHLER, 12, youngest and smallest of eighth-graders in Plumb, Illinois, longs to be respected as a regular kid, not battered by bullies like LYLE HAYCOCK,13. Izzy and fellow Space Patrol afficionado COLLUM GUNDERSON, 14, find a shiny gold rock in the woods near their homes on Wry Lane. Collum swears Izzy to secrecy, because the discovery is their special thing, which Collum’s three half-brothers must not share. Emerging from the woods, they meet IRMA RUGER, 12—Izzy’s third-grade flame. Izzy keeps mum, the gold rock safe in his pocket. But the secrecy irks Izzy. If the gold is real, it could save his parents’ marriage, which  is foundering over money. He visits the public library to learn about gold, but all he garners is a couple of cool space travel books. On his way home from the library, he inadvertently goads the MORIARTY BROTHERS into a baseball game: Court Street versus Wry Lane, to be played in two weeks. Izzy recruits players for the Wry Lane team, filling out the roster with physically impaired and oddly-named MUTT-MUTT CORNER.

Izzy’s underemployed DAD, a war veteran with a science degree, goes into a part-time upholstery business with PATCH PAGELKOPF, a wise old jack-of-all-trades. Izzy interrogates a pawnbroker and learns that even a little gold is worth a lot of money. But he prays Dad’s extra cash from the upholstery sideline, on top of his night-shift job at a glass bottle factory will be enough to keep the family together, so Izzy can keep the gold secret. Time comes for the Big Game: Lyle Haycock, playing for Court Street, shoves and harries Izzy mercilessly. The fey Mutt-mutt Corner makes an oddball play to win the game for Wry Lane, closing out Izzy’s summer on a high note. In the fall, heart-stopping Irma Ruger is once more a schoolmate, adding spice to life. Things are going swell!

Sputnik. NASA photo. Public Domain.

But the glass factory lays off the midnight shift. As Izzy’s family reels from Dad’s job loss, the Russians launch SPUTNIK, the first man-made satellite—which Izzy, furious, takes as a personal insult. Now suddenly, America wants young scientists. Izzy can easily see himself as a space opera hero. He and Collum, advancing America’s space program, launch a skyrocket over the local brickyard, but a night watchman calls the cops and the boys must flee through the woods. With his parents’ marriage on the rocks again, Dad vanishes. Izzy wonders whether he’ll come back. At a science expo for young students, Izzy learns that Irma has a brighter future in science than he. MOM tries to explain to Izzy that Dad was damaged by combat, but try as he might, Izzy cannot picture Dad as a war hero. 

Dad comes home. He’s been up North and landed a new job that will make use of his science degree. Seems Dad’s wedding ring is all the gold the family needs. But Mom, Izzy, and kid sister CHRISTINE must move to Pikeport, Wisconsin—Dad’s new work site, after Christmas. Izzy is devastated. Just when he is fitting into kid society in Plumb, he gets yanked away. Walking home from the town’s Christmas pageant, Izzy ponders his improved status as a kid among kids. Lyle Haycock waylays him and starts a fight, which becomes a conversation—one in which Izzy learns the facts of life in a truly broken family. Only Dad’s new job up North can spare Izzy from sharing Lyle’s crummy fate. After Christmas, the Mahlers move to Pikeport. On their way out of town, Izzy gives his new baseball glove to Mutt-mutt Corner, wishing him a good 1958 season. Up North, Pikeport is a hard place to adjust to, but Izzy finds a couple of new friends. His morale improves when America finally manages a successful launch of its own satellite in January 1958.

#

There you have it, Dear Reader—my latest book, soon to join the crowd of manuscripts battering their way upstream in the world of publishing. 

When it comes out in paperback, do yourself a favor and read it. Especially because of all the ’50s reminiscences included, it’s a fun book for grown-ups as well as kids.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Back to the Drawing Board; OR, Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood #7

Only last summer I regaled you with a series of Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. Perhaps you recall it, Dear Reader.

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I clearly issued the following caveat:

“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be.  If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.

In light of further experience scaling the slopes of Parnassus, today I offer Step 7 of 6:

Step Seven: Write (Same as Step Two)

Step Seven: Write (Same as Step Two)

In 2016 I started writing my first novel, Freedom’s Purchasea historical epic featuring Norwegian immigrants involved in America’s struggle against slavery during the period of Abolition and the Civil War.

It took a couple of years to write the first draft. I thought the first draft was already pretty good. Several months were spent revising the book based on feedback I received from trusted beta readers. In February 2019 I began to query literary agents and publishers to get it published.

Many novelists today self-publish, with varying degrees of commercial success. But I aspired to be a writer, not a publisher. My aim was to write  a book that one of the Big Five, or at least an established independent press, would want to publish. In other words, I would rely on the acquisition apparatus of the traditional book trade as my yardstick of literary merit.

Ups and Downs

It’s a tough way to go. You submit a query letter, usually with a brief plot synopsis, to many literary agents and publishers before you encounter even one who is willing to read your manuscript. 

Last September I received a publication offer from a small publisher in the South. I was overwhelmed with gratitude; yet in October I declined the offer. It may seem a counter-intuitive move, but I had my reasons. (The whole sad tale is told here.)

I kept on querying publishers. I worked and re-worked my query letter and synopsis, honing them to perfection. Within a month, I got a request for a full manuscript read from a large and very active New York publisher. Their fiction editor read my book the very next weekend and sent me the following:

I really enjoyed the premise as well as the writing, and while I enjoyed the Norwegian hook, the plot didn’t always feel big or different enough to really stand out among the competition in the way I thought it would need to. The market is very competitive these days, so I feel we’d have a tough time getting this off the ground.

It was a rejection, but the kind of rejection you like to get. It included specific feedback, which is always encouraging to a writer. My plot wasn’t “big or different enough.” Hmm.

Then, in January, I queried a small, selective, high-quality independent press, and its owner/publisher requested a full manuscript read. His response came a month later:

I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assumed the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.

Another rejection—again, a very nice one, and accompanied by even more specific feedback. He even made suggestions as to how my book could be improved.

What to Do?

A close friend and key advisor, who really knows her stuff, suggested I do a quick reshuffle of chapters and send it back to the owner/publisher. She said his feedback was virtually an invitation to resubmit. I agreed with her about that. But with the greatest respect for my trusted friend, I disagreed about the quick reshuffle.

My two helpful rejectors had made me realize something: I had gotten so good at query letters and plot summaries that when professionals read my book, the manuscript did not fulfill the promise of the synopsis. In some sense, they would rather read the promotional material than the book itself. This is not a good sign.

Considering their specific comments, I realized they tallied well with my own thoughts about the book. I would love to believe that I wrote a terrific novel that these dolts simply aren’t discerning enough to appreciate. But I would be a fool to stand on my greatness and fail to hear what these astute individuals are telling me. 

The bright spot is that, having thought about it—a lot—I have some ideas. These ideas require a complete, tooth-to-tail rewrite that would substantially improve the plot. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the least I can do to bring you, Dear Reader, a work that you will not just like but love.

So again I am doing the counterintuitive thing. At age 75 I embark on a quest which will add at least half a year, if not more, to my investment in Freedom’s Purchase. All while I have plenty of other projects to work on. But then, what else is there for a literary lion to do?

Parting Thought

Writers read a lot of books. Some of the books we read are books about how to write books. One is Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. I am only now getting to it, and I find it an interesting and useful read. 

It probably will not tell me everything I need to know. None of them do. But Donald Maass is worth listening to. A top literary agent over four decades, he has seen everything, and he knows what can be sold and what can’t. 

He also knows everything about how books are sold—all the tricks of editing, promotion, and clout. But he said one thing that stopped me in my tracks. A single sentence, almost hidden partway down a penultimate paragraph.

“At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”

He’s right, of course. Writers, for understandable reasons, get swept up in marketing and promotion, platform building and networking. But you and I would much rather read a book that’s riveting than one that’s not—riveting because it’s well-crafted, with appealing characters who undergo great moral and personal challenges in a plot with lots of twists and turns. 

Have patience, Gentle Reader. We’ll get there. I’m going back to the keyboard. I’ll let you know when something happens.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer