The Tao of Sarah

March 9, 2008

I have had a realization: that I tend to use the same phrases again and again when I’m working with writers – because these principles are true for everyone who wants to create a fabulous and special novel. I therefore offer them to you now:
Extract the absolute maximum from your plot and characters – and from all the special moments in your story. Make me really weep; make me laugh uproariously; make me empathize with and love your characters; amaze me with the depths and layers of your plotting; leave me desolate when I have to turn the final page because no other story I read will ever be as rich or satisfying. Pretend you’re Jamie Oliver (or your own favourite celebrity chef): concoct a recipe, stick your fictional orange in the juicer and start extracting!

This is a phrase that was used of British tennis player Tim Henman when he was playing at this best – those moments when he finally unclenched, lost his self-awareness, and just whacked the ball with panache and freedom. At those moments, self-defeating Tim could beat anyone! So, lay aside your anxious notions of marketability, your crippling self-doubt, and yell ‘What the heck!’ Then start writing the story you long to tell, poured out with fire and passion. To corrupt the inspirational greetings card I saw in Wholefoods today: What would you write if you knew you could not fail?

I’ve already told you about the Greenhouse Mini Cooper. Well, my best friend is Mrs Garmin – the nice but fierce lady who lives in my Garmin GPS and tells me where she thinks I should go. Occasionally I disobey Mrs Garmin because I know my route is better than hers. Then there will be an ominous silence and Mrs Garmin will say, in disapproving tones: RECALCULATING! RECALCULATING! In the same way, if your story isn’t going in a way that feels right to you, take stock and change direction. If necessary, start right over again. It ain’t easy, but sometimes recalculating is the absolutely right way to go!

We’ve all seen movie posters that ‘sell’ the movie with a couple of lines of sharp copy. Two lines is just about the amount of space an editor will get when she sums up a novel for the inhouse catalogue; it’s the amount of time a sales rep will get when she sells a novel into Brains & Noble. Can you sum up your story in a pithy and engaging way in just two lines? Try it and see. If you can, it will reveal to you what the heart of your story really is. And when you’ve found it, work that angle to the max. In fact, refer to #1 JUICING THE FRUIT for details.

So, forget for once that this is an impossible, capricious, mercurial, heartbreaking business where the good are not necessarily rewarded. Get writing – and have a bit of fun! What’s the worst that can happen?