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Máire Fisher

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Richard de Nooy – South African writers on writing

Richard de NooyWhen asked how he went about creating a sculpture, Auguste Rodin replied: “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.”  I wish writing was that simple. Before most authors get to do any chopping, they first have to write a bloody great block of marble. And believe me, it takes a lot of guts to hack and chop and chip away at something you have lovingly created.

But it gets worse: I once spent ages sculpting a spectacular horse, only to discover that a horseshoe was all I needed. I still have the horse, stained with blood, sweat and tears where I beat my head against it until I saw the light.

I now work with the 3S system – structure, structure, structure. Needless to say, this process takes place before the real writing begins. Very few people set off on a journey without knowing where they are headed. Those that do, often end up wandering aimlessly, gibbering to themselves, with a bottle of cheap booze in hand. Those are hard luck stories no one really ever wants to hear.

If you want to learn about structure, screenwriting is a great place to start. No screenplay is sold without a synopsis. And no synopsis is read without a logline. The reason is simple: to produce a film, you need money, which means you need to convince a lot of people that their money will be well spent. You hook them with the logline, reel them in with the synopsis, and then land them with the screenplay. Only then does the cooking, serving and tasting begin.

Granted, book publishing works in more mysterious ways. But ultimately a publisher will have to decide whether your book is worth spending money on. So it’s a good idea to have ready answers to any questions that may be asked. And by doing the prep work – logline, synopsis, character biographies, etc. – you can save yourself a lot of time when you’re writing. If you know the essence, the premise, the logline of your story, it’s easier to spot superfluous or irrelevant material. A good synopsis and chapter breakdown works like a global positioning system, telling you exactly where you are, even in the most convoluted plot. And if you write biographies in advance, you won’t have characters who suffer from multiple personality syndrome.

All this may sound very anal and restrictive – there was a time when I would have said the same – but I still have that bloody horse to remind me that I needed a horseshoe.

Richard de Nooy grew up in Johannesburg, but has lived in Amsterdam for more than 20 years. His first novel Six Fang Marks and a Tetanus Shot (Jacana, 2007) won the University of Johannesburg Prize for Best First Book in 2008. He would love to write a second novel, but spends too much time feeding the corporate crocodile as a translator, editor and copywriter. De Nooy is deeply intrigued by his own quirks, foibles, obsessions, and lack of discipline, which he enjoys projecting on humanity.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    January 22nd, 2009 @14:27 #
     
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    Thanks, Maire! Careful, kids: smoking makes you sinister.

    I'll be in JHB next week. Not sure how much time I'll have, but it would be great to get together with some of the regulars. If you don't have my email address, perhaps you could drop me a line via Ben.

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    January 22nd, 2009 @14:48 #
     
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    Oh Richard, yes! I'm so with you on that 3S system. Structure, structure, structure.

    It's a real shame you're not coming down to Cape Town.

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  • <a href="http://liesljobson.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    Liesl
    January 22nd, 2009 @14:48 #
     
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    As one of those who wanders, idle and lost, bottle of plonk in hand, I can quite see the merit of the 3S approach. It's just that I don't know where the story is going until I start to write it. My novel is a wayward and dithery beast that refuses to be harnessed by any class of external direction.

    I know... I know... that's why it is 60% complete and doesn't know how to get to its own end.

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    January 22nd, 2009 @14:56 #
     
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    Although I do prefer to go on journeys without too much planning...but, that said it's true, I always know my final destination or at least the country I'm in. I just don't like to know too much else, I prefer to be surprised. And if I know too much about all the sights along the way, I have too many expectations, and generally everything doesn't go as planned (so having expectations leads to misery!) That's what I liked about the Camino, I just followed the path and every night ended up somewhere.

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  • Maire
    Maire
    January 22nd, 2009 @14:57 #
     
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    It's a great pleasure Richard, and I do hope to see many more Book SA writers joining you. Thanks so much for being the first!

    I could do with just 1 of those eSSSes- am now starting to panic about the writing I should have done, but didn't, in the last two months - 2235 words do not even a chapter make. My characters won't speak to me any more - frosty is a good word to describe their attitude at the mo.

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    January 22nd, 2009 @14:58 #
     
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    Perhaps I'm not such a structuralist after all, maybe I'm a framer...I like a frame. A picture framer...I like a picture too.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    January 22nd, 2009 @15:22 #
     
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    What days next week, Richard? I'll be in Joburg on Wednesday.

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    January 22nd, 2009 @16:32 #
     
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    Richard do you write screenplays? Since you're universally accepted as the king of dialogue, they can only be good...especially if that have the magic of structure to support all that excellent dialogue. (I heard Tom Eaton is writing a screenplay too...maybe he writes many...I want to see these films/shows.)

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    January 22nd, 2009 @16:47 #
     
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    Mmm, interesting advice. Doesn't apply to the kinds of writing I've been doing, and which I am desperate to disengage from (academic writing evokes hissing of a different kind). So I will add this to my scanty book of maps to the country of fiction: "they do things differently there."

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    January 22nd, 2009 @17:31 #
     
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    But Richard, where's the bloody horse?

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    January 22nd, 2009 @17:41 #
     
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    Wow! I'm a little lost for words. Where shall I begin?

    Working backwards:

    @ Alex - yes, my first major writing project was a screenplay set in Extremadura (also the title), in which a son goes to scatter the ashes of his father in a village scarred by atrocities perpetrated in the Spanish Civil War. No prizes for guessing the identity of the chief perpetrator of said atrocities. (Dutch film companies were enthusiastic, but said they'd have trouble getting funding for an English screenplay set in Spain.)

    And then there's this: http://richarddenooy.book.co.za/blog/2008/03/21/gurney-ho/

    @ Ben - Excellent! Arriving in JHB on Monday night and leaving on Friday night. Perhaps we could DO lunch on Wed?

    @ Maire - 2,000 words make a bloody good chapter in my book!

    @ Liesl and all others in structural doubt - some say there are only two stories: 1) a man goes on a journey, and 2) a stranger comes to town. These are, essentially, two perspectives on the same story. If you see your story as a journey, with stops, diversions, obstacles, etc. on the way, it becomes easier to see the final destination.

    A premise also helps to define structure: what is the core idea/emotion/message you want to put across? If all elements of your book somehow support or relate back to your premise, the structure becomes more coherent.

    My premise for 6FM was/is "Misfortune has many faces." The narrative may be fragmented, by all the pieces support that wafer-thin premise.

    *Disengaging pedant mode*

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    January 22nd, 2009 @17:51 #
     
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    Fabulous, Richard, but you still haven't told Rustum (channelling Roy Campbell) where the horsie is... :)

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    January 22nd, 2009 @17:55 #
     
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    @ Rustum and Helen - When I am incredibly rich and famous and have nothing left to say, I shall exhume the horse.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    January 22nd, 2009 @17:57 #
     
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    Richard, even if you become a billionaire, you'll have more repartee than dollars...

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    January 22nd, 2009 @18:07 #
     
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    I'll be too busy counting to engage in repartee.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    January 23rd, 2009 @11:46 #
     
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    Phew - I'm back online after a (very productive and relaxing) couple of days of internetlessness and hope I haven't missed the chance to invite myself to lunch with Richard and Ben... where will you be lunching? May I invite myself?

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    January 23rd, 2009 @12:32 #
     
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    Excellent, Louis! Lunch á trois sounds great!

    PS: I'll be wearing a red tulip or, if tulips are unavailable, a small warthog.

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    January 23rd, 2009 @14:21 #
     
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    Fantasties. I am also inviting myself to lunch!! I will be in chaps, jeans, a read peak and covered in horse hair and (if i fall off) grass stains.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    January 23rd, 2009 @14:48 #
     
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    Yee-ha! Manger á quatre, then. A table has already been reserved for noon. Am I allowed to publicly divulge where, mes amis de table?

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    January 23rd, 2009 @15:09 #
     
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    Go ahead, Richard. A bit of paparazzi wouldn't hurt. (I must admit that having our table lapped by the Mediterranean would be slightly better than having it lapped by Oxford Road, but still...)

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    January 23rd, 2009 @15:12 #
     
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    We're going Greek at Plaka in the Thrupps Centre on Oxford Road (two blocks north of Corlett Drive). Noon.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    January 23rd, 2009 @15:16 #
     
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    It will be cool to see you there too, Kathryn.

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    January 24th, 2009 @09:00 #
     
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    Will be great to see you too Louis. and Ben, i promise to stay inside my dress. and Richard, I am going to ask u lots of questions about the 3Ss. :)

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