Decades ago, when I was studying the philosophy of history post-grad under Prof. Peter Munz, he announced to the class that the biggest challenge facing anybody writing a book was sustaining the argument. It was, he warned, the hardest thing to do.
I still remember the lesson, along with the derision with which some of the other students greeted the announcement. After all, they knew best – their post-colonial ideology made them intellectually and morally superior examples of humanity and who was this fuddy-duddy old Professor anyway?
Most of them subsequently crashed and burned as far as book-writing was concerned, despite doors being flung wide for them by the post-colonial academic in-crowd who sat on the funds and opportunities available at the time in New Zealand, to the exclusion of anybody else.
The fact is, of course, that Munz knew what he was talking about – he was regarded as one of the world’s top hundred intellectuals, he’d studied philosophy under both Popper and Wittgenstein, was one of the world’s leading scholars of Charlemagne, and had written many books. I regard him as a key influence in my own approach to history.
What Munz didn’t tell the class was the trick involved in sustaining the argument. It applies to fiction and non-fiction equally because both require an over-arching structure. In non-fiction, it’s the consistent thread of argument or theme; and in fiction, it’s the plot cycle and character arcs. Conceptually these are the same thing – they represent the over-arching organising principle around which the work flows and is built.
The problem with both is that, usually, writers who tackle a book-length work only have experience of shorter pieces – essays, short stories, even feature articles. These have their own particular structural needs, but one fairly common outcome of tackling a book for the first time, armed only with the skills of shorter work, is that the book ends up fragmented – the author loses track.
The fix is in the very first step. Before doing anything else, authors must write down the purpose of the work in a single sentence. One sentence. In fiction, it’s known as the ‘logline’. In non-fiction, it’s the ‘thesis’ (yup, a ‘thesis’ is a single sentence – the 280,000 words that follow are the proofs).
That’s it, really.
Of course, like anything else, it’s easy to say – far harder to apply. Sometimes a new logline or thesis will emerge during the course of writing, demanding a revision of the structure. Perhaps the biggest challenge for beginning authors is learning how to hone their thinking down that tightly.
But loglines and theses are how it’s done by the professionals. And, as I learned, professors.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015