Thursday, 5 August 2021

Hidden Under a Pile of Words

By Jeanette Grant-Thomson 

I write because I love it. I enjoy every sentence, even the corrections, the amended versions of my novels, the reworded versions of other people’s stories. I’ve written ever since I was about six or seven and I only stopped for a few years after becoming a Christian.

Why did I stop?

Because I was so enthusiastic about my new-found faith, I didn’t want to do what I was concerned might be wasting time. I soon discovered that the closer I grew to God, in his presence my mind would be filled with ideas for poems, stories, all sorts of things. I came to believe he considered writing one of my gifts.

Picture the scene.
I was living in a valley at Bardon. At the top of the hill lived a Christian friend of mine. He had a magnificent view. I had none at all. All I had was an old flat with a rickety verandah.

So I prayed.

Me: Lord, how come you bless that man more than you bless me?
God: He’s using his talents.
Me: Well, what do you see as my talents?
God (impressing it clearly so I had no doubt): Writing and praying.

The very next morning I was asked to write some things for my church. Sunday School books and tracts. Then Teen Challenge asked me to write their newsletter. That led to Jodie’s Story, my first actual book. Which led to my being asked to write my next two biographical stories. (This all took years, of course.)

I found writing biographies easy. There was the story, with its obvious pivot points and suspense, all ready-made. All I had to do was put it into words.

Writing novels
So from there to novels. An obvious step. But … in my novel writing, I face big challenges. Often I begin a novel with my setting. Beautiful or interesting settings intrigue me. Take my current WIP, Returning to Riverview. It’s set partly at beautiful Kenilworth Homestead on the Mary River. I lived there on and off for many years and grew to love that property. My first visit there inspired a journal full of poems. Kenilworth features in many of my blogs. I loved the images it evoked.

The old tree with its heavy load of vines – 
    Old man tree, 
    With your vine-laden back hunched against the wind, 
    Bony knuckled branches clutching dry air. 

The high mud banks of the river with flood water rushing past, surging up the banks, rearranging the shape of the bank like a potter at work (well, God the Great Potter was at work) swirling and scouring, sculpting and carving.

Photo by Elvira Meridy White 

So, as I write Returning to Riverview, I’m enjoying sharing these wonderful images as my protagonists, Claire and Vivien, see them.

But oops! Where’s my story gone? That famous narrative arc is covered in images like vines over the tree. In fact you can’t find the plot for vines. Isn’t it time my protagonist – er – did something? Or something happened to her? She’s lost! Well, for the purposes of the plot, she is anyway.

So, as a lover of beautiful settings and interesting characters, I wrestle most with the very bones of the novel. Its structure or narrative arc.

So what can I do about it?
First I pray – along the lines of ‘Help, God! Give me discernment to see what is a necessary part of the setting and character-building, and what is sheer self-indulgence.’

Then I proceed to tighten it. I am much more ruthless than I once was. Unless I were to feel I could write a beautiful literary novel like Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning Gilead (don’t worry, I have no such illusions), I aim for a traditional narrative arc. That means, from what I can glean from various gurus I’ve heard or read, my first pivot point should be about twenty percent of the way along. Maximum thirty percent. Ouch! And I have to finish off the novel quite soon after the climax or main pivot point. (Opinions do vary.)

My desk is cluttered with copies of my novel I’ve printed out to read.

I understand one has to ask oneself, does this (each) scene take the narrative forward at all? If the answer is ‘no’, it has to be deleted or radically shortened. After doing that, I remove some unnecessary words and try to simplify any awkward sentences.

So I’m currently doing that with Returning to Riverview. I’m happy enough with my beginning. I feel it captures the readers’ attention and leads them into the novel. Now to get the action happening soon enough to keep their attention.

Do any of you have an area of writing where you struggle? What is yours? How do you deal with it? 

Jeanette Grant-Thomson is a north-Brisbane based Christian writer and speech and drama teacher. She has been writing since her childhood and has had a variety of things published, ranging from poems to novels and biographies to film scripts (she also directed the films in her more energetic youth.) She has had five books – novels and biographies – and many shorter stories published.


  1. I really enjoyed this, thank you, Jeanette. (I have a sister Jeanette) Being a Brisbaneite by birth I know the areas you mention. I also did Speech and Drama but did not teach it, just being a regular teacher. It has stood me in good stead, though. We go through Riverview regularly travelling to the City from where we now live, so I will look forward to reading your book when it is available

  2. Thanks so much, Heather. Actually, its real name is just Kenilworth Homestead. Riverview is the name I used for the novel. You are probably familiar with Kenilworth? It's such a beautiful area. Thanks for commenting on the blog and for your encouragement.

  3. Thanks, Jeanette. I love how God blesses us when we use the talents he gives us šŸ˜Š.

  4. So do I! Thanks for commenting on the blog, Sue.

  5. I have often struggled with getting to that first pivot point you mention quickly enough in my novels, so I can empathise with you, Jeanette. I want to set the scene too much and give too much detail about the characters etc, before plunging them into some disaster or other life-changing event. At least though, if we have all those extra words, we have the luxury of being able to get rid of them, rather than struggling for extra words to write!

  6. Oh yes, I agree it's better to have extra words! I'm glad someone else has similar struggles. I so enjoy setting the scene and establishing the characters, as I gather you do too. I like to get to know them before, as you say, plunging them into some disaster. Thanks so much for commenting, Jo-Anne.