The magic sentence: a conversation

September 11, 2013 § 7 Comments

Russell Lynes, a former editor of Harper’s Bazaar, famously quipped that, “Every good journalist has a novel in him – which is an excellent place for it.” Having worked on my first novel for the last three to four years, I’m inclined to agree with him. In fact, a week or two ago I got to the point where I realised it needed yet another rewrite and I didn’t really know how to begin. I just couldn’t see the proverbial wood for the trees.

Editing the language is not the part I struggle with. I’ve been writing for a living for more than twenty years, so I know how to pare things back, be concise, make every word beg for its place on the page. No, I needed an approach to doing the same to the plot and structure of the book, a way to look at the story beyond the words, and question that.

And so I did what I find myself doing more and more these days – I turned to some friendly folk on Twitter, and asked them for advice. I began with two of the authors I’ve ‘met’ online: Richard de Nooy and Fiona Snyckers. In the process of talking to them, two other authors joined the conversation: Gail Schimmel and  Karen Jeynes, who is a playwright as well as the author of books for children and young adults.

I found the response I got from them so useful, that I thought I would share it, so here (slightly edited for ease of reading) is what they said:

Fiona Snyckers: Have you had a useful, clear response from your beta readers? If it’s only a matter of tidying up language and expression, then just do it, but a complete redraft needs a strategy. Have you done the ‘put it in a drawer and leave it for a month’ thing?

Mandy Collins: Twice. It’s been almost four years in the writing, on and off. That’s the trouble, I think.

Richard de Nooy: Step back and get the full picture. Pretend you’re telling us the story and we have a plane to catch in an hour. That will trim off all the fat. Now ask yourself: do I still like this story?

Karen Jeynes: May I offer some scriptwriterly advice? My experience of my own writing, scripts I edit, etc. is that the ones which work have a great “logline” [A logline tells the reader who must do what in order to prevent what from happening.] and their writers can complete the magic sentence: This story is about [name] who wants [x] but [y].” If those are clear then all edits, etc. are done to fit the logline. It helps focus.

Fiona Snyckers: I like that very much. It’s a good way to overcome the old ‘can’t see the wood for the trees problem’.

Karen Jeynes: Yes, exactly. And often “favourite bits” are actually standing in the way, and need cutting.

Richard de Nooy: I’m with Karen on this. I write chapter breakdowns with key action and what I want the reader to know or feel. The truth is that most of my insight into structure comes from film writing. I use a big board with a smallish Post-It for each chapter. I need to see it as a whole.

Gail Schimmel: I believe that many writers have a book that must come out before they can write the books they ACTUALLY should write. So I suggest you start something new. Maybe this book was your practice – that was true for me.  My first novel will never see the light of day. Two published novels later, I understand why I needed to write it first. Don’t give up; but also don’t get trapped into “it’s this or nothing”.

I found all of that very useful – it’s simple, clear and gives me an approach. And the good news is that I started my (hopefully final) rewrite the very next day with a framework I could use, and a reminder that as hard as it might be, I need to be objective about whether this novel has any merit.

I think it does. I hope I’m right and Russell Lynes – at least in my case – is wrong.

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