In all the years I’ve been writing novels, there’s one piece of advice that’s stuck with me: find the core of your novel and stick with it. There are other variations of this advice you might have heard: don’t go off on tangents, stick to the main plot, don’t overwrite, do the plank exercise every day (oops, sorry, wrong core!). But let’s delve deeper and learn what this really means and how you can achieve this.
The first time I started getting to grips with this was when reading a blog post by Maggie Stiefvater many years ago. Maggie writes great teen fiction and her Shiver series focusing on werewolves are a huge hit. And yet in her blog post, she said she would rather cut out the actual werewolves then lose the core of the novel, which for her was the mood, specifically a ‘slow, slow build to a bittersweet end’.
I found this a bit vague though. How can a mood be the core of a novel?
When I got my first book deal with HarperCollins, I worked with a brilliant editor called Eli Dryden. When she sent me the revision notes for my second novel My Sister’s Secret, I remembered Maggie Steifvater's blog post again and it suddenly made sense. As my editor Eli wrote:
‘This editorial stage is all about weighting and organising and prioritising then finessing the material. If you could say what this book is in a sentence, what would you say? I feel that you have to decide what you want to be the overarching strand and then prioritise plot lines accordingly – there’s too much noise and too many things happening.’
She was absolutely right. I think it’s fine to write your first drafts in a passion, if that’s what you like to do. But when it comes to revising, that’s when the focus on ‘core’ really comes into its own.
For My Sister’s Secret, the core of the novel was sisters. Simple as that. You might read this and think ‘yep, pretty obvious’. But actually, it wasn’t in the initial drafts. In fact, the novel was first called The Layers of Me and the different strands I’d weaved in meant the true core of it – the relationship between three sisters and the impact of this in future years – was lost.
Once my editor helped me draw that out, including changing the title to match the core, I felt I finally had something to hone in on. Everything became about those sisters and the consequences of the tragedy that befell them. It worked too. My Sister’s Secret went onto become a Kindle and Kobo number one bestseller, and one of the biggest selling ebooks of 2015.
Let's look at some other examples from books, TV and film. Many of these 'cores' are up for discussion, but this is my take on them and the core ranges from a sentence to a mood to one simple word.
Bodyguard (BBC series): Crushed vulnerability of the seemingly strong (breakdowns, wavering, fear)
The Greatest Showman: Expressing what makes us different (a show being the ultimate expression)
Big Little Lies: The ebb and flow of female connection (like the sea, a strong focus of the novel)
So how do you find your core in your writing and then maintain focus as you’re revising your novel?
Sometimes, it’s about the first kernel of feeling that came to you when writing the novel. So I came up with the idea of my latest novel, Her Last Breath, while watching a documentary about landslides. It got me thinking about how that would impact a town, but also, the own internal landslides we experiences. With the help of my current editor, that became my core: a landslide and, as Maggie Stiefvater calls it, the ‘slow slow build’ towards it.
You see, landslides start before we perceive them. Years of subsidence and ruin, all kept hidden beneath a seemingly perfect visage until all falls to pieces. I applied this to the characters too: how a seemingly perfect life on the outside can be falling apart within. And what happens in that last gasp of breath before the landslide happens. Before Estelle, the main character, falls metaphorically to the sea below?
So how did I keep that focus?
My advice? As you toy with ideas for your novel, or tackle revisions for your novel, think about the core that brings it all together
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