Tuesday, 2 September 2014


More than two years ago I finished the first draft of my 9th novel and handed three chapters over to my agent. She hated it. Picked holes in just about every paragraph. Didn’t think my characters were convincing. Thought some of my research was suspect. And generally couldn’t find anything good to say about it. I put up all sorts of arguments for it being a first draft etc etc but after she had torn it apart, the thought of fixing it was just too daunting. So the story was buried.

I knew it was a good idea and once I could stand back from all the criticism, I felt there was a kernel there that still needed to be told. But I was far too demoralized to dig deep and find the right way of telling it. After a couple of years of being involved with picture books, I recently took it out again. My son, who has had some success with an 'about to be published' first novel and a film deal, asked the burning question: what is the story about?

I rambled on and on. I was floundering.

There was the problem! I had no idea. I couldn’t be succinct enough to say what my story was about. So if I couldn’t sell my story to my agent, or even my own son, how was I going to whet the appetite of an editor or more importantly readers out there?

Anyone who listens to a premise, must be able to see the entire book unfolding in his mind. A premise has few words but must hit hard. It has to be emotionally intriguing. It has to mean something to the person hearing the idea for the first time. But it's not just a tool to use to sell a story to an editor, it's for the writer to keep crystalised in his head as he works. The little nugget from which all else springs. Nicola Morgan has written reams about writing premises but I had somehow fallen into the lazy trap of thinking because I write organically (pantster???), my premise could be equally organic.

Wrong! Basically a premise needs a compelling hero, a compelling bad guy and a compelling need or goal we as humans can identify with. Put this in a single sentence or at the most two and make it compelling enough to capture a stranger’s attention and to keep the writer focused on the kernel of the story.

What is the story about? My son’s question drew me up sharp. I couldn’t tell him in a few succinct sentences. But the moment I began to formulate and define the premise, like magic, the conflicts were brought more sharply into focus, my protagonist gained stature and I could make the bad guy just a bit more out of reach of my hero’s ability to defeat him.

So writing a good premise is a great step in the right direction. Ask yourself is this story about someone:
I can identify with
I can learn from
I have a compelling reason to follow
I believe deserves to win
Has weaknesses that are overcome in the end (the hero's arc)
Has stakes that are primal and ring true?

Now as I’m picking up on my story again, I’m visualizing a short and hugely dramatic first image and then I’m going into the beats of the story like they do in film-scripts. What is the right way to pace this story? I’m even writing out index cards and am putting them up on a cork-board. And having read Lari Don’s recent blogpost on ABBA where she writes: I know that I’m just discovering the story, not finding the perfect way of telling it first time around. And I know that it takes a lot of work to make that original mess of scribbled ideas into a book, I’ve realized that keeping track of the beats in a story is far easier if you’ve already written the first draft. Heaven forbid I would ever have to work out the beats in a story I hadn’t drafted first.

Now after the premise and that riveting first image and the initial set-up of time, place and characters, what is the catalyst? The moment of no turning back? Crossing the threshold? The door of no return? Should I go? Dare I go? I’m talking about me… not my hero! And for those of you who recognise some of the above – yes, I have read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and yes I think both he, my son and my agent have hopefully saved my manuscript.

And finally as an aside, I don’t believe my research is suspect – my notebooks are full of distracting and time-wasting detail that help me 'play' and doodle my way through the story. 

twitter: @dihofmeyr
Dianne Hofmeyr's most recent picture book Zeraffa Giraffa published by Frances Lincoln, is illustrated by Jane Ray and has been translated into 6 languages other than English. Her previous picture book The Name of the Tree is Bojabi, also published by Frances Lincoln and illustrated by Piet Grobler, was nominated for the 2014 Kate Greenaway.


Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting and really useful - I'll be showing this to my creative writing class - and using it myself!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Wow! these are incredible notebooks! And great post, too - I sympathised so much. I hate finding 'pitches', too. And the thought of finishing a draft and your agent 'hating' it is a scary one. Well done on starting it all over again.

Stroppy Author said...

Excellent post! I've just spent 7 weeks trying to tell students how important it is to have a really solid premise - if only I'd had this post to point them to. It will go on next year's reading list. Another trick is to formulate your story as a 'What if?' question. 'What if a man became so obsessed with a whale he would devote his whole life to destroying it?' 'What if an ambitious man had his ideal future revealed to him?' etc

Nick Green said...

"Pantsters are just planners who plan in ultra-fine detail." Discuss!

C.J.Busby said...

Yep, I think I'm with Nick on that one (!) Great post, and you're so right. If you don't have the kernel of your story crystal clear for yourself it's hard to make anyone else 'see' it.

Nicola Morgan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicola Morgan said...

Yay, Dianne! Great post! Mind you, I have a novel in progress which I can sum up with a fab premise but I can't write the flipping book. :(

(Btw, Lari Don is a woman...)

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks for all the comments and feedback and the challenge Nick. Will leave that to someone who teaches creative writing. And oops Nicola! will amend immediately!

madwippitt said...

Great post! And what fabulous looking notebooks ... you even have gorgeous handwriting ... :-)