Greetings from the Philippines where I am currently sitting on the verandah of a grass hut staring at this:
And wondering idly if now is the time to enjoy this:
These past months have been SO hectic what with trying to finish my manuscript while getting through a packed schedule of speaking engagements. I’ve been a very, very bad blogger. I missed my turn on the Slushpile rota last month and I didn’t even realise it until a day later!
My Slushpile colleagues have been very forgiving. After all, here on the Slushpile, we are authors first, bloggers second. I am on the home stretch of my next novel. ‘Home stretch’, you must note, does not necessarily mean I’ve almost finished.
It means: The End is in sight.
It means: so near and yet so far.
In the author’s roller coaster quest to write a book, I am at a kind of final reckoning. You see, I have written my story several times already, explored many versions of the narrative. But this is my final draft. This is the story that my reader is actually going to read.
In this final drive to The End, I am no longer searching for my voice or bringing my character to life or figuring out plot. This final quest is not a pursuit of a story but for The Book itself.
PROPOSITION VS OUTCOMEIn a screenwriting lecture, playwright David Hare said:
It’s only the great films that move towards the end so the incredibly simple rule of writing a screenplay is always to end-load it, always to write something where the outcome is more important than the proposition. All Hollywood is interested in is propositions.
The idea of Proposition vs Outcome resonates at a time when finding the Hook that will get you published has become a kind of Holy Grail for fellow authors who have yet to be discovered. For the past few years, there has been a glut of events catering to the wannabee author focusing on hook and proposition. How do you catch the eye of a publisher? How do you write a first page that will keep an agent reading? How do you come up with a Big Idea so compelling that editors clamor to publish your book?
In his lecture, Hare described how a film based on a proposition degenerates as it proceeds: ‘The first 30 minutes you are having a completely wonderful time and going, “Oh this is absolutely marvelous”’ – only to find that vitality dissipating as the film proceeds as the idea is exhausted.
I’ve been experiencing this a lot recently. Picking up a book with a compelling cover and blurb, thinking ‘What an amazing idea! I’ve got to know what happens in the story!’ only to find myself disappointed as the story thins in the telling.
I’ve picked up a book with a compelling cover and blurb only to find myself disappointed as the story thins in the telling.
With screws tightening more stringently than ever before, the publishing scene is now driven not just by editors but by accountants and marketing departments. In this scenario, a good Proposition or Hook equals a Publication Deal equals Sales equals Success.
But will your book actually get read? Do you care if it does or doesn’t?
In this sense, The End is also The Outcome.
“I avoid and never accept any movie that is a proposition.’ Hare said in his lecture. ‘I am only interested in what I call outcome movies.’ He described an outcome movie as one that gave you no reason to panic because you were confident that the outcome would be profoundly satisfying.
AM I WRITING A BOOK THAT IS ‘PROFOUNDLY SATISFYING’?This is the question that has been keeping me up late at night, the question that
hangs over my head, like the sword of Damocles, as I write everyday.
It is not about writing to impress my way into getting published anymore. It’s about adding to my body of work as an author. It’s about installing another building block to my career. It’s about writing the book someone might fall in love with.
Ultimately though: it’s about the story.
Have I told it to the best of my ability? Have I learned what I needed to learn as a writer to give it a good chance of being read?
I have often quoted Neil Gaiman quoting his friend Gene Wolfe: ‘You never learn to write. You only learn to write the novel you're on.’ Have I learned to write this book?
The truth is, I’ve written three novels to which the answer to the profoundly satisfying question is ‘No’. No, publishers saw no spark in them. No, they weren’t written well enough. No, they weren’t ready for the reader. These sit quietly in my desk drawer, waiting for the day when I decide to take them out and reimagine them. Their time will come. But what about this novel? Have I served it well?
CHECKLISTWe like lists here on Notes from the Slushpile. It’s always helpful to have action points and tips and checklists. So here is a list of thoughts for any author who, like me, is on a quest for The End.
1. Inciting Event vs Crisis
(If you don’t know what an inciting event or a crisis is then skip this blog post and read a few books on narrative structure.)
It’s been three years since I began writing this book. Three years since I first penned the inciting event that launched my characters into their adventure. As I take my characters to crisis for the very last draft, it’s a good time to revisit the Inciting Event, that moment when my character first walked through the fictive door of no return. Because writing a book takes years (well, for me), it is so easy to forget the triggers that sent your hero on his journey. It’s so easy to get lost down wormholes and distractions. Now is the time to look at your story with eyes that see. And if you see something that doesn’t work? Well. You gotta fix it.
2. Have I said what I wanted to say?
Andrew Stanton, the writer/director of many great Pixar films, said: “You should have something to say in a story”.
When I was a child in the Philippines, my teachers taught me that every story had to have a moral lesson. Interestingly, I still get ‘fan mail’ from children in the Philippines asking me, ‘What is the moral lesson of your story?’ So perhaps Filipino teachers are still asking the same questions.
Be that as it may, as authors, ‘having something to say’ lies at the heart of our storytelling. In Into the Woods, John Yorke explains:
That doesn’t always mean a message. It means truth, some value that you yourself as a storyteller believe in, and then through the course of the story are able to debate that truth. Try to prove it wrong. Test it to its limits.
The hope of course is that one has said what one wants to say with subtlety. So the drive to The End is a good time to check if you’ve been beating your reader on the head with the stick of your conviction.
3. Unexpected themes you had not originally meant to explore.
One of the magical experiences of writing a novel is the unintentional emergence of themes. You may have decided on an overarching theme, but somehow as the story comes to life and your characters find their feet, baby themes emerge and evolve. Now is the time to pay attention to them. What are they? Did I miss them? Did I build on them? Did I neglect them?
Discovering a particularly resonant theme can mean a lot of extra work. My current work unexpectedly developed an underlying theme surrounding friendship that grew and grew to such an extent that I realised I should downgrade my previous main theme and rebuild my narrative with the friendship theme at its core. Yes. It meant an extra month of writing. But if I’m seeking Profoundly Satisfying then I have to do the work, right?
Here’s Yorke again, in a discussion of giving shape to a story:
'It is only through fiction that facts can be made instructive or even intelligible,’ said George Bernard Shaw. ‘[The] artist-poet-philosopher rescues them from the unintelligible chaos of their actual occurrence and arranges them in works of art.’ The facts change to fit the shape, hoping to capture a greater truth than the randomness of reality can provide.
4. Writing for meaning, cutting for pace.
Many times, attending critique groups, I have found myself suggesting that an author write more – more scenes that reveal the character of the hero, more writing to clarify a scene, more dialogue to establish a character’s voice, more writing to pay out a scene, heighten the drama, unfold the reveal. The person receiving the critique inevitably protests: ‘But I thought I was writing too much! I actually cut that scene down! The word count is already way over!’
In the drive for Profoundly Satisfying, there is no editing for word count, there is only editing for meaning. And if that means you have to write more, then so be it.
But what if I’m OVER writing, cries the panicked author. Then do as the thriller writer Elmore Leonard says: ‘Don’t write the parts that people skip.’
At this stage, the story is already laid out before you, it’s the magic carpet ride you are about to offer readers. Your job is to make sure you enhance and retain the magic.
The beginning novelist will stress about whether the publisher/agent/editor will reject their story because the word count was over. She is focusing on the wrong thing. Publishers/agents/editors reject on the basis of story. So write for meaning, cut for pace. Word count? Pah! Word count is not story!
5. Looking for Joy.
The long journey to The End can be a dispiriting one. There is so much that can eat into your confidence. The rejection of new projects you are pitching. Unkind reviews of your existing work. Exhausting day jobs. Real life. Unsupportive friends and family. It is not uncommon for these knock-backs to creep into your storytelling.
So while flying towards The End, watch out for those little tell tale dips. In Write Your Novel from the Middle, James Scott Bell devotes a whole list to tips for getting joy into your writing. He recalls a Writer’s Digest column by Lawrence Block on why Stephen King has been such a successful author:
When you read Stephen King, you feel like you’re reading an author who loves writing, loves making up tales to creep us out, enjoys the very act of setting words down on paper. Because when you’re joyful in the writing, the writing is fresher and fuller. Fuller of what? Of you. And that translates to the page and becomes that thing called Voice.
END OF A JOURNEYWriting about story structure, Yorke (can you tell that I’ve been reading Into the Woods a lot? It's so therapeutic) writes:
As protagonists journey towards completion, they learn to heal the duality in their nature, between inner and outer worlds, want and need, façade and flaw.
My journey to writing this novel has certainly been that. I have fought and despaired and learned and grown.
Sitting here, on a Philippine island, watching the sea, away from the hustling and bustling of my daily life in London, I can see The End very clearly on the blue horizon. I just need to keep writing until I get there.
Candy Gourlay is the founding member of Notes from the Slushpile and the author of Shine and Tall Story. Her books have been listed for the Guardian Children's Prize, the Carnegie, the Waterstones, the Blue Peter and many other prizes. She loves babies, dogs, photography, gardening and drawing. She also blogs on CandyGourlay.com