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The Blank Sheet – Finding a Story with Jennifer Burke

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Jennifer Burke

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So you’ve decided to write a novel. And not just that – you’ve decided that you want to try to get published. Great! So now what do you do?

There are many theories on how to write a novel that agents and publishers will eat up.

An original hook.

A gripping opening line.

An imaginative title.

Those all help – but if you’re starting to write a novel, I wouldn’t worry too much about them. Those are the finishing touches – the details to polish once the novel is complete. But before you get there, focus on what agents and publishers are really looking for – a real, authentic story, told well.

It’s all about the story

Start with a story. And please, please, please don’t pick a story or a genre because you think ‘it will sell.’ That is your agents and publishers job. Your job is to present them with something they can relate to. They have every style and genre at their fingertips. They are looking for something authentic.

Pictured Jennifer Burke, author. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.What you are trying to do with your story, if you are a real writer, is touch people. Move them, whether it be with an action packed thrilled or an emotional love story. If you want to convince the agents and publishers to back you, you’ll need to reach them on a personal level. The only way to do that is to tell a story about which you are passionate, not because you think “it will sell.” Just like in a job interview, people in the industry can spot a fake a mile away.

Don’t try to write like someone else, especially another famous writer. Of course, other authors can inspire you and you might unconsciously pick up a particular style, but never actively try to copy another writer – again, it will be spotted immediately as nothing but a copy. Be yourself, and tell a story that means something to you.

Even literary novels, which traditionally focus more on pros and quality of storytelling than the story itself, must at their core have something worth telling. Why waste your time writing well, if you’re not saying anything.

As often is the way, kids put it best. No child asks to be read a “book” or a “novel”. They want a “story”. That is the crux of it, and what you need to find.


Finding my story

I came up with the idea for my first book The Secret Son while I was sitting in a lecture on wills and probate law. I was genuinely shocked at the number of cases that come before the Irish courts where families were fighting over wills. While I should have been frantically transcribing the details for my upcoming exams, my mind started to wander. I began to conceive of a will that went one step further than the cases I was learning about. Instead of just leaving money in an unexpected way, what if it revealed a secret, one that threatened to pull the family apart?

I couldn’t get the story out of my head. I’d write a bit, then put it aside when life got busy, but I always came back to it. It demanded to be written more than any of the other ideas I had for novels. And above anything else, that is why it was a success.

Before I ever got a book deal, I had finished The Secret Son and was waiting for inspiration to hit for another book. I had a few ideas – some good ones, even if I say so myself! But none about which I was really passionate. None of them made me want to stop what I was doing immediately to get the story down on paper, which was how I had felt about The Secret Son.

So I didn’t start anything. I tinkered around in my spare time but waited, knowing something would hit eventually. Soon afterwards, I travelled to Italy with my choir and visited a place that was truly inspirational, and suddenly Levi’s Gift was born.

A blank piece of paper staring up at you can be a daunting thing. That is why you need to wait until the right story comes along. The plot and characters needs to be bursting out of your head, demanding to be written down. That will make the blank piece of paper less of a challenge and more of a tool – the exact thing you need to tell your story.

For that reason, I’m a big fan of what I call “mind mooching”. When I get an idea for a novel, I don’t start writing straight away. I go for walks, and ponder on the idea, letting it grow and develop. Once I’ve reached a stage when I think I have something really special, then I grab that blank sheet like my life depends on it, and the writing comes easy.

(c) Jennifer Burke
Check out the other articles in this series here:
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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