I had a nice Skype visit with students from Santa Margarita Intermediate School today. They asked great questions that showed their intelligence and imagination. My thanks to them and to librarian Jenny Todd and IT guy Mark for making it happen. And, gosh, look at these notes. Stuff like this is the best part of being a middle-grade author.
Archive for April, 2015
Lookie, it’s the cover of the German edition of California Bones. Looks gritty! Knochenzauber translates to “bone magic,” if Google is to be trusted. This is the first non-English edition of any of my books, so this is pretty rad.
And here’s this from the Google translation of the book description: “With six years Daniel Black swallowed his first bone fragment, a small piece of octopus vortex.”
Octopus vortex?? Damn, I wish I’d put an octopus vortex in the book. Octopus vortex!!!
Here are the synopses I used to sell three of my books.
A lot of writers will tell you they hate writing synopses. Well, I’m here to tell you that they probably don’t hate it as much as I do. Their hatred is a sad, weak thing compared to my hot and powerful hatred. I hate writing synopses. Why? Because it feels like homework. Because it focuses on the story rather than the telling, and the telling is the fun part. Getting across a sense of your style in a synopsis is a pain in the ass. If I had a thousand asses, it would be a pain in all of them. Nonetheless, I have managed to sell books based on a synopsis, so I thought it might be helpful to post mine as examples.
None of these are intended to show the way to do it, bur rather one way to do it. For another approach, take a look at Harry Connolly’s excellent blog post on the subject.
To put these in some context, the synopses for Kid vs. Squid and California Bones were each preceded by a query letter, sent by my agent to an editor, who then requested a detailed synopsis and a the first few chapters of the book. The Boy at the End of the World was sold as the second book in a two-book contract with Kid vs. Squid, and was designated as to-be-determined. That means that the publisher bought two books from me, but I still had to pitch the idea for the second book so they could decide if that book was the one they wanted to publish. I did write a synopsis for Norse Code, but that was after the fact once the book was already sold based just on sample chapters. My agent thought it would be a good idea to have a synopsis anyway for sales and marketing purposes.
Most of you know this, but just in case, whenever you submit to an agent or editor, always, always, always check their submission guidelines. They may want something entirely different than what you see in my examples.
Also note that the books in their final published forms differ quite a bit from my synopses. Character names and plot threads and plot outcomes changed quite a bit by the time the books were on the shelves. Okay? Okay. I hope this is helpful to you.
The Osteomancer’s Son is a heist story and family saga taking place in an alternate Los Angeles, built not on oil and movies, but on magic. Osteomancy is the art of drawing magic out of bones, and Los Angeles is home to one of the richest sources of osteomantic bones in the world: The La Brea Tar Pits. Skilled practitioners can coax magic from the remains of extinct mammals, such as mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, American griffins, and the Western wyvern. From this power base, Los Angeles grew into a dominant city-state on the Pacific Rim, ruled by the Hierarch, an ancient, magic-imbued osteomancer.
Daniel Blackland, 25, was born in the late 20th century, a time of political instability and dwindling magic, though osteomancers like Daniel’s father, Sebastian Blackland, still enjoyed high status. Twelve years ago, Sebastian was killed in the Hierarch’s purge. The ostensible purpose of the purge was to eliminate those suspected of being disloyal. But the real reason was that osteomancers absorb magic from the materials they work with, and now facing shortages of “bone,” the Hierarch is bent on recovering and hoarding magic for himself.
After Sebastian is murdered, Daniel’s mother leaves him in the care of her criminal brother, Otis, and defects to Northern California. She takes with her a golem created from Daniel’s own flesh. Daniel is told that the golem was killed during her escape, leading the Hierarch to believe Daniel is dead.
The novel opens with Daniel trying to make money legitimately by working menial jobs. But in the Hierarch’s world, earning a living is getting harder and harder, especially without Otis actively protecting Daniel’s identity. When the opportunity to make a few bucks by stealing some hippogriff hoof shavings presents itself, Daniel takes it. He’s not caught, but he leaves behind clues that will come to haunt him.
Otis tempts Daniel back to more profitable work by offering him a job that only he can accomplish: Break into the Ossuary — the Hierarch’s personal store of bone — and steal his own father’s remains. Daniel refuses.
Upon leaving Otis’s lair, he’s abducted by agents for the Department of Water and Power, run by William Mulholland, an ancient wizard who came to power with the Hierarch. He informs Daniel that he knows about the Ossuary job, and instructs Daniel to go through with it and bring the bones to him. Otherwise, harm will come to his daughter. Now Daniel has no choice.
Daniel visits Cassie’s apartment, where she lives with their daughter Miranda, often babysat by Tía Abril, an old family friend. Daniel warns Cassie about Mulholland and declares his intention to do the job. Attempting to protect them, he uses sphinx powder to lock her, Abril, and Miranda in the apartment. Nothing can get in, nothing can get out. What he doesn’t know is that Abril works for Otis, and after Daniel leaves, she poisons Cassie, breaks Daniel’s osteomantic locks, and brings Miranda to Otis.
Daniel recruits his childhood friends to do the Ossuary job with him. Moth is the muscle, Punch is a lock/safe guy. Their first task is to collect osteomantic traces left in the plumbing of the apartment formerly occupied by the old osteomancer who made the Ossuary’s locks. Accidentally ingesting the traces gives Daniel visions of escaping across the Northern border with his mother. The osteomancer who made the Ossuary’s locks is the same one who helped Sebastian make the golem of Daniel, and being in contact with his magic gives Daniel a retroactive psychic link to the golem. He learns that his mother was a spy for San Francisco, and that she’s partially responsible for his father’s death. And he knows Otis lied to him about the death of the golem.
When Daniel confronts Otis, Otis convinces Daniel to proceed with the Ossuary job anyway by presenting him with his daughter’s finger bone, infused with magic inherited from Daniel. If Daniel doesn’t complete the job, Otis threatens to sell off Miranda one piece at a time.
Meanwhile, Gabriel Tyson, the Hierarch’s great-nephew, is at a family gathering celebrating the anniversary of the Hierarch’s ascension to power. Gabriel is a junior inspector with the Ministry of Osteomancy’s procurement and accounting wing, charged with keeping track of bone supply in the city. Disney, a glamour mage, takes Gabriel aside to complain about the lack of bone available to him. In the midst of complaining, Disney tips him off about the hippogriff theft that Daniel perpetrated. Gabriel decides to investigate. He soon discovers that Daniel is alive and in Los Angeles.
Cassie wakes up to an empty apartment. She goes to Daniel, and they determine the best thing he can do now is finish the job quickly and get Sebastian’s remains, which they’ll then use as leverage to get Miranda back from Otis and get Mulholland off their backs.
The Ossuary heist is underway. Things begin smoothly enough, but the Ossuary proves to be a labyrinth, protected by magic-enhanced guards and osteomantically-spawned creatures: three-headed guard hounds, minotaurs, flying americapithecines. Daniel, Moth, and Punch are soon fleeing deeper into the Ossuary just to stay alive. Daniel fights off a minotaur to give his friends a chance to escape, but they come back for him and are killed. Daniel has now lost the only people other than Cassie who have never betrayed him.
On the outside, Cassie learns that Otis already has customers lined up for Miranda’s bones. He’s not going to return her alive, even if Daniel delivers Sebastian’s remains. Planning to kill Otis, she encounters Gabriel Tyson. Gabriel proposes a deal: Give him Daniel, and he’ll help her get Miranda back. Cassie agrees, giving him the maps to the Ossuary Daniel is using to find his father’s bones.
Heading yet deeper into the Ossuary, Daniel recovers Sebastian’s remains. The Hierarch confronts Daniel, and only by consuming some of Sebastian’s bones to absorb their power does Daniel survive the battle. He runs even farther into the Ossuary and comes upon a chamber of bubbling vats. Contained in the vats are golems, grown from osteomantic samples. In one vat, Daniel finds a gestating golem version of himself. He knows he can gain more power by consuming the golem. But he won’t exploit this version of himself the way his parents exploited him, and the way Otis is exploiting Miranda. Instead, he decides to save his golem.
While Cassie locates Miranda and kills Otis, Daniel fights the Hierarch, using every ounce of skill his father taught him. He loses three fingers and watches in horror as the Hierarch eats them to boost his power. Desperately fleeing, he comes upon another golem: a younger version of the Hierarch, being prepared to give the ancient sorcerer a new body to replace his old, failing one. Daniel eats the golem’s heart, giving him enough power to defeat the Hierarch.
When Daniel leaves the Ossuary, Gabriel is there, waiting for him. But so is Cassie, a knife at Gabriel’s throat. Daniel strikes a deal: They’ll let Gabriel live if he helps them get out of the city. And so, with Cassie, Miranda, and the golem-child, Daniel departs Los Angeles for the questionable safety of Northern California.
This is my synopsis for The Boy at the End of the World, a middle-grade science fiction novel. Note that I go out of my way not to call it a science fiction novel, because science fiction is usually called something else in middle-grade. Because … I don’t even know. Capitalism. Some general notes about my synopses and context here.
This is what he knew:
His name was Fisher.
He was fourteen years old.
He was alone.
And that was all.
In a futuristic novel that comments on our current society and culture, the last living boy on Earth must learn to balance survival and self-interest against friendship and self-sacrifice.
Before civilization fell into ruin, scientists built an underground Life Ark in the Appalachian Mountains, a facility where six hundred human specimens lay asleep and protected in hopes that one day they’d be awoken to repopulate the Earth. When the Life Ark is bombed by forces unknown, fourteen-year-old Fisher wakes up in his preservation chamber. He finds nothing but destruction around him, all the other humans crushed by debris. As far as Fisher knows, he’s the only human left alive.
Fisher has no memories preceding having been “born” in his chamber, but his head contains small areas of knowledge: He has language, and he knows his name and age, and he knows how to build a fire.
Pursued by a mechanical man, Fisher runs from the Ark and faces an outside world of desolate ruins and the glowing eyes of nocturnal predators. When he’s attacked by a pack of bipedal rats, the mechanical man saves him. The machine, whom Fisher names Click, is a damaged custodial robot from the Ark who has taken on the task of helping Fisher survive such that he can eventually rebuild the human race. Each member of the preserved human community was supposed to have been born with implanted knowledge and skills, from metalwork, to medicine, to leadership abilities. But Click only had time to program Fisher with a limited profile — a strong survival instinct and specialized fishing skills. Click knows of the existence, but not the exact location, of another Ark on the West Coast, where there may still be surviving humans. Fisher determines to cross the 2600-mile wide continent to find the other Ark.
Making their way down from the mountains, they are joined by a cloned juvenile Columbian mammoth whose herd was annihilated by “gadjits,” intelligent military drones bent on wiping out rival intelligences.
The three companions are hunted by terror birds: giant, carnivorous parrots who, like their ancestors, mimic human speech. And their message is this: “You will die. You will all die.” Barely escaping with their lives, Fisher is left with the mystery of who taught the parrots these threatening words.
Fisher and his friends continue west, until coming to the Mississippi River. They encounter fragments of lost civilization: an airport, a truck stop, a housing development. Beneath the ruins of the St. Louis Arch stand the more intact ruins of the McDonald’s golden arches.
Fisher builds a raft to take him and his companions down the river, a waterway now clogged by the tops of skyscrapers and crumbling freeway overpasses. They survive rapids but go over a waterfall. Almost drowning (or in Click’s case, merely sinking), they drag themselves onshore, only to be captured by a band of evolved river otters. The otter clan doesn’t have spoken language, but they’re clearly intelligent. They march Fisher and his friends to their village, where their leader signals for their execution. But after a gadjit raid, during which Fisher saves the otters, the clan leader decides to let Fisher and his friends go.
Joined by a pod of freshwater whales, the companions fight their way past piranha-like miniature crocodiles and gadjit outposts. Fisher follows tributaries westward. Before leaving him to continue his journey by land, the whales warn that he’s leading Click and the mammoth into even greater dangers, things that the whales know only from myths handed down in song over the generations. They speak of cities of the dead and ghosts. And that’s what Fisher finds in the remains of what was once Chicago, an eerie landscape where the recorded voices of the last humans drone from loudspeakers, telling the sad tale of humankind’s final days, how they fell to environmental degradation and disease and warfare, both a bang and a whimper.
Click goes missing in the night, abducted by tool-using ravens who consider him a shiny object to be taken apart. When Fisher’s rescue attempt goes awry and his survival is put at its greatest jeopardy, Fisher must overcome his implanted instinct. He must learn to put aside the part of him that weighs risk and benefit, and he decides to save Click, even though his own death could mean the definitive end of the human race.
After a daring rescue, Fisher and his friends beat a hasty retreat from the city. Click scolds Fisher for having made the wrong choice in rescuing him, and Fisher is himself still not certain he did the right thing.
On the Great Plains, the party finds great flocks of passenger pigeons, and thundering masses of bison, and a Columbian mammoth herd, the descendants of cloning experiments from long ago. Though reluctant to leave his friend, Fisher hopes the herd will accept his juvenile companion. But they reject him, considering him “other.” Fisher wonders, should he make it to the Western Ark, if he’ll suffer a similar rejection from his fellow humans.
Fisher finds a colony of genetically “uplifted” meerkats, the descendants of the military’s weaponized animals programs, bred for reconnaissance, infiltration, and sabotage. The meerkats’ legends reveal the location of the Western Ark, which contains not only preserved humans, but also a great wealth of other animal specimens, including mammoths and meerkats. A small detachment of meerkats joins Fisher, Click, and the mammoth to complete the journey.
Too late, Fisher learns that the gadjits have been following him west, attacking not to kill him, but to keep him running toward the Western Ark. The Ark’s defenses are keyed to human DNA, so only Fisher can deactivate them. Not realizing he’s making the Ark vulnerable to the gadjits, he arrives at the Ark and brings down the defenses.
The gadjits attack in full force. In a pitched battle, Fisher and his friends defeat the machines, but the Ark is damaged. Fisher has only minutes to awaken the specimens. While Click and the meerkats concentrate on reviving the animals, Fisher finds the humans. The first one he awakens is a girl.
This is what she knew:
Her name was Farmer.
She was fourteen years old.
And she was not alone.
Evil sorcery. A head in a box. Jellyfish boys. Nasty pizza. These are just some of the threats faced by Thatcher Hill and his friends, superhero-in-training Trudy McGee, and Princess Shoal, heir to the throne of sunken Atlantis.
This wasn’t the summer vacation Thatcher was expecting. He was supposed to be traveling through Asia with his parents. Instead, he finds himself stuck in the small beach town of Las Huesas, California, helping his great-uncle Griswald run a seaside freak museum. His companions are a headless mummy, the FeeJee Mermaid, and the What-Is-It???, a sealed box that no doubt contains some disgusting thing probably better left unseen.
A week into his stay in Las Huesas, Thatcher awakens to the sounds of someone breaking into the museum. As usual, Griswald is off drinking with his salty old cronies, so it’s up to Thatcher to brave rocks and surf and dangerous crustaceans in pursuit of the girl-thief who nabs the What-Is-It??? But the girl is too fast, and Thatcher loses her on the moonlit beach.
The next morning, Thatcher meets Trudy McGee, superhero-detective-in-training, who’s been keeping track of the strange doings in town. She’s an odd girl who uses big words and reminds Thatcher of Batman. So, he likes her. Together, they track down the thief, a girl named Shoal, who happens to be the crown princess of lost Atlantis. The survivors from the sunken city suffer under a witch’s curse. For most of the year, they float like flotsam across the ocean. But in summer, they wash up on the shores of Las Huesas and are compelled to work the hotdog stands and tourist shops and midway games. Shoal stole the What-Is-It??? because it contains the still-living head of Skalla, the witch.
Skalla commands a cadre of human/sea-creature hybrids who do her bidding. Two of these, a pair of jellyfish boys, attack Thatcher, Trudy, and Shoal and make off with Skalla’s head. Thatcher and his new allies manage to get the head back, but not before the witch casts the Flotsam curse on Thatcher and Trudy. Then the witch falls silent, retreating into a power-preserving hibernation. The kids must find a way to reverse Skalla’s spell by the end of summer. Definitely not the vacation Thatcher was hoping for.
Things get worse when Shoal is swallowed by a giant fish of Skalla’s making. Just before disappearing down the fish’s gullet, Shoal urges Thatcher and Trudy to seek her father in the Atlanteans’ summer palace, a decrepit mansion on a hill outside of town. There, Thatcher and Trudy encounter Shoal’s family, including King Coriolis, Shoal’s father. Coriolis charges them with finding the Book of Keepers, a tome containing a spell that can force Skalla to speak and spill her secrets. Thatcher promises the king he’ll locate the book, a task that becomes absolutely crucial once the king’s sorcerer reveals that the Atlanteans will return to the Drowning Sleep not at the end of summer, but in a mere three weeks. And more, Skalla is planning a bigger spell of some kind, something catastrophic. The king and the rest of Shoal’s family are kidnapped by a band of raiding lobster men, more of Skalla’s creatures, and Thatcher and Trudy barely avoid capture themselves.
They find the book in the possession of the jellyfish boys, whom Thatcher learns were once just a couple of regular kids, not so unlike him, until they fell under the witch’s power. They also discover that Uncle Griswald is a nKeeper, a land-dweller devoted to helping the Atlanteans in their long struggle against Skalla. Using the book, Thatcher and Trudy cast the Spell of Compelled Interlocution on the witch. Skalla is forced to reveal that they can recover Shoal with the help of a minor sea god who calls himself the Beachcomber. A harrowing trip through the spooky Tunnel of Love transports Thatcher and Trudy to a lost beach. There, the Beachcomber helps them out by catching the monster fish that ate Shoal, but it’s up to Thatcher to hack his way inside the fish and retrieve her. In the depths of the fish’s belly, he finds himself in a funhouse made of guts, where his own reflections accuse him of being nothing more than a smart-mouthed lightweight, someone who merely uses words as armor. Thatcher’s determination to stand by his friends keeps him focused on the task at hand, and he leads Shoal out of the fish.
Shoal realizes the witch made a mistake by letting her stew inside the fish’s belly, for when Skalla works her magic on a living being, some of her magic and intentions remain inside the creature. So now Shoal knows what Skalla’s plans are: She’s building a new Atlantis in secret that she can rule with absolute power, and she’s going to summon a tidal wave to drown Las Huesas. To do this, she needs to recover the magic she invested in the kidnapped Atlanteans when she cast the Flotsam curse. And King Coriolis’s sorcerer was wrong. Skalla’s not going to make her move in three weeks. She’s going to do it in three days.
After returning to the Las Huesas boardwalk, the three friends are captured by kelp men, minions of the eel sisters, all of whom are former creatures of Skalla. The eel sisters are up to their own no-good. They want what Skalla wants, only they plan to rule the new Atlantis themselves. Their scheme requires access to magic, which they attempt to obtain by bleeding Thatcher, Trudy, and Shoal dry. But using his gift of gab, Thatcher talks the kelp men into turning on the eel sisters and letting them go free.
By deciphering the encoded hieroglyphs the witch uses to cast her spells, the three discover that the Atlanteans are being held at the decommissioned Ferris wheel on the boardwalk. When they arrive there, everything is in place for Skalla to enact her plan: hieroglyphics, a deep pit containing the new Atlantean palace, and the Atlanteans themselves, strung up on the Ferris wheel, ready to be bled of the magic in their blood.
The kids launch a desperate rescue effort, but they can’t overcome Skalla and her creatures, especially not the worst creature of all, a squid the size of a three-story building. But just before being torn asunder by the squid, with a huge tidal wave thundering toward shore, Thatcher realizes that Skalla’s hieroglyphics reveal something about her, something that she didn’t even know herself: the mummy in Griswald’s museum is Skalla’s body.
Thatcher proposes a deal. Back at the museum, Thatcher, Trudy, and Shoal let the witch draw on the magical residue she left in their blood when she cast the Flotsam spell on them. Skalla’s head is once more united with her body, and she is restored to youth and health. In return, Skalla releases the Atlanteans, undoes her curse, and abandons her plan to destroy Las Huesas.
Thatcher goes back home to his parents and school in Phoenix. He’s more confident and less compelled to speak without thinking. But he feels adrift, no longer fully at home in Phoenix. He’s become like flotsam, floating between places. But when he returns to Las Huesas the next summer and finds Trudy and Shoal still there, he knows where his anchors lie.