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Re-working The Finished Story by Jennifer Burke

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Jennifer Burke

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There are a few phrases you’ll hear over and over as you become more familiar with the world of novel writing. In this article, I’m focusing on the three I consider to be the most important (along with “Just write”, which I’ve already discussed.

  1. “Writing is re-writing”

So you have selected a story about which you are passionate, forced yourself to “just write” despite the distractions of the modern world, and have followed a plan that will ensure your story flows expertly. Essentially, you should be finished your novel.

When I finished my first draft The Secret Son, I thought I was brilliant to have “finished a novel”. It is certainly an achievement to complete a first draft – indeed, that is the hardest bit – but that is in no way the end of the book.

Writing is re-writing.

Polishing, honing, finessing your book will take time. I could not even begin to count how many re-writes I did of The Secret Son and Levi’s Gift. Sometimes it was just tightening up a paragraph that was repetitive (in the first draft, I wanted to make sure I got my point across). Other times it was cutting huge sections (I was indulging, they added nothing to the story) or adding in entire chapters (I thought I could cover an important plot point as part of a flashback, but on a re-read realised it deserved a chronological place).

There are many writers with finished, polished books ready to go. Agents and publishers are visible and accessible to all aspiring authors through social media and the internet generally. They have so much choice – yours will have to stand out. Quality is key to this. Take your time. Re-write.

  1. “Kill your darlings”.

Pictured Jennifer Burke, author. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.You might be very proud of your first draft, but subsequent readings can make you see things more clearly. Be brutal. In this case, the end justifies the means.

It is a common misconception that the more descriptive the language, the better it is. Not so, in fact the opposite can often be true. A properly placed description can heighten the beauty of your work. But over-use of adverbs and adjectives makes it dull and, importantly, slows down the story. You might think that using complicated and obscure descriptions makes you sound intelligent. It can do so, depending on the context. But often is has the worst effect possible – all the reader will hear is you, the author, trying to sound clever. This removes the reader from the world of your novel. If the most wonderful passage you have ever written is detracting from your book in this way – delete it. As Stephen King says, ‘kill your darlings’.

Example: When I had finished The Secret Son, I sent it on to a friend to read. This friend was also a writer, and thankfully a better one than me. She sent me back the first page with a note – “I have highlighted all the adverbs and adjectives in this one page alone in red.” When I opened the document, I was nearly blinded. I had been so keen to tell the reader everything, I had made the first page – the very first thing an agent or publisher will read – a slow, boring piece that didn’t introduce the storyline at all. It took many more re-writes before it was up to scratch.

Does your language add to your story? Quality language can be a beautiful read in itself, especially if your book is more literary than commercial in nature. But even then, the descriptions should not be written for beauty’s sake alone. It should add to the story. If not, remove it. Kill your darlings.

Example: When writing Levi’s Gift, I had written a scene that, at the risk of sounding immodest – was quite lovely! In it, an intruder stepped over the threshold of a windowless hut and, as the moonlight illuminated the face, the occupants of the hut were shocked at the identity of the person who had discovered them. Really, I was delighted with the description. But, as my beady-eyed editor pointed out, it would be impossible for the moonlight to illuminate the face of the intruder after she had stepped over the threshold of a windowless hut. Either the moon lit up her face when she was outside the hut, or some other light inside fell upon her once she crossed over. I tried many different scenarios and in the end had to scrap the description completely. It would have been a pleasant read, but would have created an inconsistency in my story. So, tough as it was, I killed my darling.

  1. “Show, don’t tell.

Imagine a character coming home to find his entire family murdered. The reader will want to know how he reacted. Whatever you do, don’t tell the reader! How bland would it be if you told the reader “John was sad.” You are removing the reader from intimacy. They cannot share the feeling if they are on the outside of the book, looking in on a sad John.

Instead, show them that he is sad. Describe John’s eyes watering, his knees trembling, a howling cry escaping his lips. You can be guaranteed that every reader has been sad at least once in their life, and the last thing they thought at the time was, “I am sad.” They would have been conscious of the physical manifestations of their emotion. They will relate to what you show them, because they will remember their own experiences, and become immersed in your story.

You don’t always have to show emotions so blatantly. Layering the book adds to the quality, and even if a reader doesn’t notice such layering explicitly, they will feel an authenticity to the writing that adds to their satisfaction. A common example of this (and possibly one that is overused) is mirroring the emotions of the characters in the weather – when a husband and wife have their ultimately argument, there is a storm outside, or if someone is sad, it is raining. Use of colour, clothes and location can also be used to relay information to the audience without having to tell them like you are a teacher and they are the student, learning about your book. They need to feel it.

Example: In Levi’s Gift, I gave every single character a name with a particular meaning. Even the most minor characters, who might only have been mentioned once, were purposefully named. To give one example, the woman who was the main character’s best friend, I named “Ruth” which means “friendship”. I made no obvious reference to this throughout the book, but it was one way of enriching the story, giving it depth, and showing, rather than telling.

(c) Jennifer Burke

Check out the rest of this series of articles by clicking the links below:

Finding a Story

Filling the Blank Page

Plotting and Planning

Reworking the Finished Story

A Writing Life & Getting Proactive About Publishing

Read Margaret Bonass-Madden’s interview with Jennifer here – ‘On Being a Winner’

About the author

Jennifer Burke is a Dublin based author and solicitor. In July 2013, her life changed forever when a TV3 camera crew burst into her office to announce that she had won their Write A Bestseller competition, and with it a three book deal with Poolbeg Press. Her first novel The Secret Son was published in September 2013 to critical acclaim. Its success in the bestsellers list prompted Poolbeg Press to establish a new imprint, Ward River Press, which focuses on accessible literary fiction. Jennifer also writes shorter fiction. Her short story, Leaving the Cold Behind, was published in the 2012 From the Well Anthology and she has been shortlisted for the past three consecutive years in the Fish Flash Fiction competition. Jennifer takes part in a monthly writing group in the Irish Writers Centre. Her second novel, Levi’s Gift is available now –  pick up your copy online here.

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