It’s never too late to change everything you’ve written into something else altogether.

1184079_pencil_and_paperIf you’ve ever wondered how to revise a novel, your wondering is over.  A Light Inside is featuring a series on novel revision—born from the turmoil of Jenna’s actually having doing it. The posts are the more interesting in that they embody an approach I’d honestly never thought of before.

I’m a bit obsessive-compulsive about revising, in a non-clinical way. My usual way of revising is haphazard, like a horde of uruk-hai smashing through a garden plot—reckless and unstoppable, leaving nothing unmarred, confident in its own greatness. As one author confided in me, ‘There is no final draft until someone pries the manuscript out of your hands.’

So Jenna’s ordered, thoughtful, and sensitively ruthless approach has been fascinating to read.

I begin, in no particular order, spontaneous meditations on the series so far. Other concepts will appear for discussion in future posts—after I’ve crash-tested them on my own manuscripts—so for now we begin with a hook.

The whole matter of a hook intrigues me. At university, the working definition of ‘hook’ (other than the Captain variety) was the opening sentence. The pithy, pointed declamation that somehow obsessed your readers or hearers, the words that fill the precious five seconds you have to acquire someone’s interest.  We scrawled lines of power and beauty, such as

There was nothing he could have done.


It was the worst day of my life.

Though my personal favorite struck me in a moment of exhausted inspiration:

There is no gorilla in the room, you ape!

These things were subjected to grades. Discretion may be the better part of valor, but ingenuity is often the lesser part of genius. After reading and hearing any number of works all attempting to grab my attention, I did wonder. The hook was all very well, but too often it seemed we’d do much better by jumping up and down on a desk, yelling, ‘Emergency! Emergency!’  Or, better yet, ‘Nobody look!’

Jenna’s definition of hook, however, is more introspective. It’s part of a series of questions the writer should ask himself at the start of revision. The hook, she says, is the essential oil of the story, the premise at its heart that will grab. What makes this a story worth telling? What makes anyone want to read more than the first line?

That sort of question can get interesting answers. The hook of Doctor Who for instance—not just of an episode, but of the Whoniverse itself—is a guy who travels through space and time in a blue public call box. The hook for The Princess Bride, according to Rob Reiner, is a grandfather telling his sick grandson a story about true love.

Please note, these tell you nothing whatever about plot, characters, themes, imagery, whatever. Which is why there can be eleven Doctors, and counting. And why The Princess Bride defines the word ‘classic’ without trying.

‘The heart of a book’ can, theoretically, be divorced from the events of a book. But that’s doubtful. There’s clearly a sub-hook, something implied in the hook, that makes the story or sorts of story it spawns necessary. So, anyone who can fly through time and space with eleven different bodies must be a bit wacky—and can change shape somehow. Then it’s obviously SF, so you gotta have alien races trying to destroy the universe. Enter elaboration Give them plungers and a monomaniacal superiority complex, and we’re all hiding behind the sofa.

I’ve heard it said that for a story to be a good story, it must have a single sentence summary that moves you as deeply as the story itself. But that’s absurd. If that we’re true, we could run around writing single sentences. Perhaps only Myth, as Lewis defines the term, can ascend to that level. The story gives birth to itself. The self gives birth to the hook. At the end of the day, the story is its own heart.

There is no summary in the room, you ape.

Addendum, 26-4-10

I would hardly have the chutzpah to claim the concluding sentence above is the best ever written. It isn’t a bad one, as such things go. But it raises a difficult, and therefore potentially illustrative, question.

Who is the ape? Is it anyone in particular? Anyone in your neighborhood? Anyone in government?

No, no, and no. It ties neatly to the cryptic and metaphysical ‘hook’ mentioned above, that is all. It reflects on the nature of summaries and essences, that is all.

In other words, it is itself a sort of summary essence, drawing all questions of hooks into its hear.

The ape is no one.

And perhaps that way lies the answer to the riddle…



7 thoughts on “rework

  1. “The hook was all very well, but too often it seemed we’d do much better by jumping up and down on a desk, yelling, ‘Emergency! Emergency!’ Or, better yet, ‘Nobody look!’”

    Made me laugh out loud. 🙂

    I, too, am skeptical that a single sentence summary could move a person as deeply as a story. It could be intriguing; it could attract attention; whether it will leave the average reader still mulling it over a month later is debatable. A good story moves into the mind and heart of a reader in ways no summary or aphorism or other one-liner could ever do.

    Finding “the heart of the book”–however vague the concept–is, I think, important for the author, for the sake of knowing what not to lose. But themes and worldviews and such become agendas when the story itself is forced into subservience to them. J.K. Rowling could have made Harry Potter strictly a morality tale of courage and social justice and love’s victory over death if she’d wanted, but things like Floo powder and Fred and George Weasley and staircases that lead somewhere else on a Friday keep us coming back for more.

    I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on revision and story.

  2. Don’t forget the always-popular “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to read an essay that begins with a rhetorical question?”

  3. Have you ever read a comment that started with a question?

    I like lame jokes…

    Jenna–the power of a summary sentence is valuable as, say, an academic thesis, but they tend to lose their value for fiction or other sorts of art. Not that there isn’t a specific message there but, as Flannery O’Connor knew so well, the story itself is the message. It can’t be distilled or elaborated. What am I saying? What I have written.

    At the same time, however, I struggle with the ‘heart of the book’ idea, for much the same reason. For me, I often don’t know why a story is important. It just is. If what you’re saying–and I think you are–is retrospective, looking back on a completed work and trying to understand it, that I agree with. But even then there is that undefinable sense that, yes–Floo Powder is important, even though it’s not readily obvious what it has to do with social justice.

  4. Actually, Mr. Pond, I don’t equate “the message” with “the heart of the book.” Turning over books in a stack at Henderson’s Bookstore yesterday, I realized that the moment I get a sense that a novel is “about” an issue is the moment the book goes back on the shelf. My reaction to being preached at through story (whether the preaching is a form of religious evangelism or of political moralizing) is that strong. I probably miss some great books that way.

    It’s hard for me to explain what I mean without actually writing down what I wrote about my own book–and that, I think, would be putting too much before the public eye. But the short paragraphs that were answers to questions like “Why did I write this book?” and “What did I try to write?” satisfied me without containing distilled messages. I wrote of why I love the protagonist as she came to me, of what, simply, I hoped the book would be, of the hopes and ideals that made the story beautiful to me. It’s really only a few sentences.

    None of those sentences touch the imaginative elements of the story, but when I look at those ideals I see them worked out in the idiosyncrasies of my worlds and people. I’m not sure I can call it retrospective, as much of it was consciously or subconsciously present in my mind through the writing of the first draft. Anyway, what I wrote about my book is what makes the book important to me; for any reader, importance may come from ideas I never imagined, or may even come off as a non-definable quality. [You and I may also have to consider that every writer works a little differently.]

    Maybe I need to write a blog post on some of this.

  5. Thanks, Jenna, that’s quite an important clarification. Looking back over my own comment, I would say I agree. There’s few things worse than a book intended to convey a ‘message’–those thinly veiled social tracts that, while they might be saying wonderful things–are abysmal novels.

    Yes, writers do write to different rhythms. I tend to be very idiosyncratic in my approach to things–or perhaps haphazard is the right word. With a result that I never quite get everything done. So I’m trying to improve, I guess. At least adapt.

    ‘…what I wrote about my book is what makes it important to me’ — that actually clarifies, for me, exactly what you mean by ‘the heart of the book’. In other words, what makes this story in and of itself a story I needed to write? What do I love about this story?

    And that makes a lot of sense. It also makes a lot of sense to ask those questions after the story is written, because you might not know all the answers to those as you start. I often find myself working with only a vague (or occasionally lucid and burning) sense those answers are there.

    I’d love to read any blogs you happened to blog on this subject. And remind me to pre-order a copy of your book…

  6. “The ape is no one.”

    But I am the walrus.

    Terry Pratchett is probably the only writer I’ve come across who can pull off a book that’s both an engaging story (a la Douglas Adams) and a blatant social commentary/satire (a la Swift). Though I’m not quite sure if “The post office is loony when we look at it as though it’s done in Ankh-Morpork” quite counts as moralizing– more of a voyage to Lilliput, perhaps.

  7. The ape is no one; the walrus is a dream.

    Speaking of one sentence summaries, that’s actually a very good example, Eric. It would take four or five one sentence summaries to express each of the social issues Pratchett deals with in each of his novels. For Going Postal, for instance you have that line about the post office, but also
    ‘People want to believe in something–anything’, and
    ‘The Big Corporations are exploiting workers and stealing other people dreams; they should be stopped’, and
    ‘There’s more important things than money or success, no matter what anyone says’, and
    ‘A dash of recklessness and a dollop of repressed dishonesty can change the world.’

    Speaking of angels…

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