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True confessions of a girl who writes dirty books--and loves it!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Decoding Disappointment: Narrative Drive

Below is a rejection letter from an editor at a big publishing house.


Thanks very much for the look at your proposal for DESPERATE JOURNEY,
which I've now had a chance to consider. It's apparent, even in these
early pages, that you know your period well - the details of domestic life
are well-rendered.

That said, alas, I don't think this is going to be for me. Although the
characters are sympathetic, I found the narrative drive a bit less
compelling than I'd hoped to. Ultimately, I didn't fall in love with the
material enough to think it would work on my list here.

So, I'm returning the proposal herewith. Thanks again for considering
XXX, and much good luck with this elsewhere.

All best,


This is a good, solid rejection. It begins with a compliment, which isn't strictly necessary--the fact that the editor took the time to work that in speaks well of him/her. It's good for the author to hear that something works, even if the overall decision on the acquisition is negative. It can take away some of the sting, and can encourage her to build on her strengths.

The line that confused the author is in the second paragraph: I found the narrative drive a bit less compelling than I'd hoped to. Our author confessed that she'd never heard that phrase before, and it gave her quite a bit of trouble. Eventually she decided that it referred to some combination of a problematic plot with slow pacing. To me, narrative drive refers to the way the elements of the story combine to pull the reader along from beginning to end. It's structural--put another way, on a very basic level, a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it's up to the author to make sure that there's a compelling reason for the reader to keep turning those pages. The editor is giving the author a decent clue about what's not working with the manuscript, but it's up to the author to figure out how to act, based on this information.

The first thing I'd look at is where the book starts. About half of the manuscripts I turned down had a simple problem--they began in the wrong place, either way after the inciting action of the plot, so the reader was constantly scrambling to get caught up, or way before, forcing the reader to wade through oceans of semi-relevant backstory. In romance, the story often starts when the hero and heroine meet--but certainly not always. Don't be afraid to experiment, but don't do something wacky just for the sake of uniqueness.

Once you have the beginning squared away, turn your attention to the middle. Something changes, forcing action from the hero/heroine. It should build on itself, do that good old rising action thing, and it should all lead inevitably to the climax.

And now the end is in sight. Either the status quo must be restored, now that the conflict is resolved, or a new status quo is established based on the fallout from the conflict. Either way, the hero and heroine have been on a journey from the beginning of the book, and it should feel as if, in some way, they were always headed right here.

This is all very simplistic, I know, and it would probably be easy to come up with hundreds of examples of great books that don't follow this structure. And without having read our author's proposal myself, I can't swear that this is what the editor is even talking about. But I can swear that your novel will benefit from a serious deliberation over where the story you want to tell actually begins; it's a simple jumping off point, and any changes you make to the beginning will naturally cascade down through the entire story, strengthening and tightening as it goes.


At 12:56 PM, Blogger Gina Black said...

Louisa, this is fascinating.

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At 11:00 AM, Blogger jennifer echols said...

I want to blog about your awesome blog. Are you still accepting Disappointments, & if so, how should people send them to you?

At 9:51 PM, Blogger Debra Parmley said...

Thanks, Louisa.
Awesome job.

At 9:52 PM, Blogger Debra Parmley said...

Thanks, Louisa!
Awesome job.

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