Sunday, 20 October 2013

One for the writers: A synopsis masterclass

One skill many writers find difficult is turning their brilliant idea into a synopsis that will grab the attention of a publisher or an agent. So this is one for the authors among you who are interested in being published by the traditional route, although I think it also has resonance with self-publishers, because the same rules apply to the description you use to market your book on Kindle and the like.

The key is that a synopsis isn't a regurgitation of the plot, action and characters of your book - who did what, where and when - not even in a simplified cut-down version. It has to be a distillation of all those elements that visualises your story into a kind of literary film trailer, but more crucially provides whoever's reading it with the very essence of what you're trying to achieve.

So, for what it's worth here's a pitch I put together a few years ago for an English Civil War series. It didn't work out at the time not because it was a bad idea, or that the publisher didn't think I could write the books, but for the simple reason that they'd accepted a similar approach from the very talented Giles Kristian for his Bleeding Land series about a week before. I think they would have been very complex, multi-layered books, with lots of interesting secondary characters, because the civil war was hugely complicated by religious and social factors that went far beyond the political.

You have two options in portraying such a wide-ranging conflict, either telling the story through multiple points of view, or placing your main protagonist in such a position that he's privy to all the main elements and the action behind the scenes. That's what I chose to do with Nate Pride, who starts off defending the college silver and ends up being so close to his commander that he's branded 'Cromwell's conscience'. Like all books it would have developed, and, looking back, some of the scenarios are a little clichéd, but they, or something like them, happened, and sometimes life is just one big cliché.

So here it is: the ROUNDHEAD series © Doug Jackson (if anybody pinches the ideas herein, I'll be after them for twenty per cent). In the unlikely event I ever get one of these Writer in Residence gigs I apply for, this will be the subject of one of my Masterclass workshops.

By Douglas Jackson

THE new four part series featuring 20-year-old Nathaniel ‘Nate’ Pride, a Cambridge student who in 1642 defies his family to join little known, but charismatic cavalry captain, Oliver Cromwell, as the schisms between Parliament and King, Puritanism and Popery drag the country relentlessly into civil war. 
Nate’s talent with sword and pistol and his ability as a leader quickly establish him among his commander’s favourites, but his lack of religious fervour makes him appear suspect to some of his comrades. As the conflict continues, his growing doubts over the bloody cost of dethroning the king earns him the sneering sobriquet ‘Cromwell’s conscience’ and only the Parliamentary leader’s tolerance protects him.
If the war must be fought, Nate will risk all to ensure it is won, but nothing prepares him for the terrible cost to his family. His brother Edward dies in his arms on the blood-slick slope of Edgehill, his manor house at Paxton Hall is burned, brother in law Thomas murdered and his sister Elizabeth raped by a Royalist raiding party led by landowner, Sir Henry Collingsby, who will be his nemesis until the final shots of the war.
From the first clash of blades, the ROUNDHEAD series is a gripping, epic tale of divided loyalties, human tragedy, and the merciless slaughter of a war that tore the nation apart, and in which no man, woman or child could afford to be neutral. 

Power of the Sword

TORN between loyalty to his family and the strength of his own convictions, Nate Pride attempts to concentrate on his studies in Cambridge as the world disintegrates around him. But everything changes after Royalists attempt to carry off the university treasure and he is persuaded by firebrand politician Oliver Cromwell to help stop them. When war breaks out it’s taken for granted that he’ll join Cromwell’s troop.
While the two sides manoeuvre for position and Cromwell’s reputation grows Nate is called home to bury his father and discovers that his brother Edward has decided to join the Royalists. As he’s leaving the house Nate has a fateful encounter with local landowner, Sir Henry Collingsby, and his son Ralph that will haunt him until the end of the war.
In the early skirmishes, Nate surrounds himself with men he can trust and proves himself a resourceful leader as he discovers the true merciless nature of a conflict that pitches father against son and brother against brother. In an act of compassion he may live to regret he saves the young servant Margaret, who appoints herself his personal camp follower, and whose presence tries Cromwell’s patience.
King Charles raises his standard in the North and Parliament sends the Earl of Essex with an army to persuade him away from the counsellors who have misguided him. Out of favour, Nate is attached to Essex’s force and while on a scouting mission is led into a blundering engagement with Prince Rupert’s cavalry at Powick Bridge that almost costs him his life. Nate’s dragoons cover the Roundhead retreat and he watches appalled as the Parliamentary cavalry are routed and realizes that Puritan farm boys and apprentices are no match for the gaudily uniformed professionals of the King’s army.
Yet the first true test of arms is yet to come, where two great armies will join battle for the soul of the nation and where Nate will come face to face with his brother Edward for the first time since their father died - on the field of Edgehill.

Men of Iron

THEY said Edgehill was a stalemate but to Nate Pride it felt very much like a defeat. As Nate recovers from his wounds, King Charles is thwarted in his attempt to take London, but the Royalists are winning in the West and the North and there is a rumour they’ll soon be joined by the Irish and the Scots. Yet Nate is strangely happy. He has been reconciled with Cromwell who, although he turned up too late for the fight, had been informed of the young scholar’s heroics. Cromwell is forming his own cavalry formation and when he is fit Nate will command a squadron.
In the meantime, he returns to Paxton Hall to visit Elizabeth and her husband, and is given the glad news that he’s about to become an uncle. While there Elizabeth encourages him to call upon Jane Faversham, his childhood friend, and he quickly realises that friendship has developed into something much greater. He has another reason to survive.
It can only be time before another major confrontation between the Parliamentary and Royalist forces and Nate works his men hard to prepare for the battle, fighting in the victories at Grantham and Gainsborough, but his efforts are interrupted by a frantic letter from Jane asking him to return to Paxton immediately. He goes back to find the house a blackened ruin and Edward dead, at the hands of cavalrymen wearing distinctive blue cockades. Elizabeth is utterly traumatised and being nursed by Jane. Cromwell’s intelligence chief confirms the raid was the work of Collingsby’s men.
Nate has seen many such tragedies and finds himself strangely detached from Edward’s death and the loss of his home. 
Cromwell and his Ironsides march North to confront Prince Rupert’s army as it attempts to relieve York. Before the two sides meet Nate receives word from Jane confessing that Elizabeth was raped by Collingsby. In a haze of righteous fury, he leads his men into the battle where he will cross swords with Rupert himself and discover the true depths of a vengeful man’s inhumanity when he finally catches up with Ralph Collingsby among the chaos and carnage of Marston Moor.
Turn of the tide

IS there to be no end to the killing? Nate is a changed man after the slaughterhouse of Marston Moor, but he consoles himself that surely the king must now sue for terms. Yet the glorious Parliamentary victory is followed by humiliating defeat. In September word comes of disaster in Scotland where a Royalist force led by Montrose has smashed the Covenanters and in the south where Charles himself has forced the surrender of the Earl of Essex’s army. Cromwell’s impatience with his fellow commanders is growing and he enlists Nate’s aid in finding a way to get rid of Essex and his other rivals at the head of the Parliamentary army.
Meanwhile, Cromwell persuades Parliament to reward Nate for his suicidal courage at Marston Moor and for the loss of Paxton Hall by granting him Collingsby’s estate. With his financial future secure, he asks Jane to marry him, but in an emotional confrontation as Lady Collingsby and her household are evicted, she turns him down. The Nate she sees now is not the man she thought she loved.
Nate’s spirits reach a new low and his faith in Cromwell is tested by the general’s failure at the battle of Newbury. When Cromwell asks him to undertake a secret mission which could bring the war to an early close, he accepts. Forced deep into enemy territory, Nate is recognised by one of Collingsby’s retainers and the hunt is up. He completes his task, but realises Cromwell’s hopes are in vain, and only just reaches Parliamentary lines ahead of his pursuers. But his ordeal is far from over. While he is being questioned about his sudden reappearance he is condemned as a deserter by a man he accused of cowardice at Newbury. Only a last-minute intervention saves his life as the muskets are cocked.
While he has been away, Parliament’s forces have undergone a revolution. Cromwell is now second in command of the New Model Army and Nate will lead one of the his Regiments of Horse. He is back with his old command, the Ironsides, and death or glory await in the battle which will break Royalist military power - at Naseby.

 Divine justice

MAJOR Nate Pride watches the Royalist garrison at Bristol march out with its colours flying and wonders at a war which so arbitrarily slaughters some of the defeated and honours others. Cromwell has tasked Nate with escorting the Royal commander, Prince Rupert to Oxford and he is surprised to find himself liking the German prince who almost killed him at Marston Moor. It seems only a matter of time before the war is won.
The following May, Charles surrenders to the Scots and Cromwell summons Nate to discuss the future of the New Model Army. He talks of taking his soldiers to the Continent to fight for the Palatine Emperor, but Nate says he would rather go home.
Awarded leave, Nate sets out for his estate and narrowly escapes an ambush by Royalist deserters led by his old enemy Lord Collingsby, now reduced to banditry and his loathing multiplied by the loss of everything in the king’s cause. Collingsby has Nate at his mercy and only a misfiring pistol saves him before his attacker flees.
But after five years of conflict Nate finds it difficult to settle down to the life of a country gentleman and he pesters Cromwell for a new appointment. Peace has brought its own problems Cromwell’s fears for his New Model Army are well founded. Nate finds himself caught between the men he served with and the Parliament he fought to defend. He reluctantly puts down a mutiny in support of the Levellers, a radical group intent on abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords. Without warning the war reignites with the escape of King Charles from Hampton Court and rebellion in Wales, Kent and Essex, but the greatest danger comes from a Scottish army which invades the North in support of the king. Cromwell and Nate force the Scots to battle and destroy them at Preston where Nate has his own personal demon to exorcise - Collingsby.
Preston is the final dying gasp of a dying cause, but Cromwell is determined that one more death is required before his task is complete. The king’s.