Decoding a table of contents

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I’m looking at the table of contents (TOC) of Fixing Mrs Philpott, my new novel, and thinking that it tells a story.

First clue: that a table of contents is even provided. A quick glance at other novels on my shelves suggests that the norm is probably to have no table of contents, but merely to number the chapters as they happen.

Another obvious weirdness is the number of chapters: way outside the norm. When a novel does include a TOC, it usually fits neatly on a single page. Fixing Mrs Philpott has a TOC that fills three pages. It has 57 chapters in Book One, and then another 32 short stories, narrated by 27 different characters. Weird or what?

So what can we deduce from this 3-page TOC?

As the author I think I know, so you don’t have to sit this test.

  • One event happens per chapter, so to speak. As there are 57 chapters, the plot has a touch of the picaresque.
  • Zoe is the main character, but 26 other characters get to tell their tale or tales. Only one character is male. It’s a book featuring many different aspects of women’s lives.
  • The style is light-hearted for the most part. But with such an absurd structure, this was a mighty hard novel to shape and took a lot of grunt to write.

The strange provenance of Fixing Mrs Philpott

Professionally, I’ve been 95% occupied with my business for the last ten years. All that time, any so-called creative writing was low priority, squeezed into rare opportunities. Therefore the only book I could write apart from business books was a collection of short stories, based on true tales about personal relationships told to me by various women. This book became Scarlet Heels, published in 2010.

Then in 2012, the NZ Society of Authors picked Scarlet Heels as one of 40 books to promote at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I went along and seized the opportunity to quiz publishers and literary agents who answered with a single voice: “Virtually no publisher will touch short stories now. Turn it into a novel.”

Enter writing buddy and Writers Salon

Okaaaay… I struggled with the question: but how? I made a few doomed attempts at the job. Then in 2015, I got together with a writing buddy, Denise Keay, and that made all the difference. We meet on some Sunday evenings for what we jocularly call our Writer’s Salon. Denise is relentlessly honest and a splendid writer herself. With Denise at my elbow I struggled to squeeze a raggedy, random, all-over-the-shop narrative into the stern structure of the Hero’s Journey. Amazingly, it could be done and eventually I did it.

But what about the table of contents?

OK, getting to that. Originally the novel had all the stories inserted in the narrative at the moment they occurred. Each chapter ended when a story was told. Result: chapters without a focus, of wildly different lengths, chapters in which several major events might occur or none at all. So I decided, one event, one chapter. Stories happen whenever.

Then four friends beta-read the manuscript, and they were neatly polarised, two distracted by the short stories, and two distracted by the story of Mrs Philpott. So I removed the stories and put them back as Book Two of the novel. Mrs Philpott was well and truly fixed.

That was boring

I know! If you don’t write novels, I have just been guilty of a pointless rave. But if you do write novels, you’ll know exactly what I mean, and why it matters. You see, that’s one of the primary things that novelists do: struggle with structure. If we don’t get the structure to work, it’s not a novel. End of story. So to speak. Thanks for reading this far. (I’m amazed.)

PS How about your writing buddy?

Go read her blog, which is really an extraordinary novel, sort of, written by a 16th century cat and edited by Denise Keay, whose avatar is toutparmoi.

The Earl of Southampton’s Cat

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5 thoughts on “Decoding a table of contents

  1. I’m so glad I read —and enjoyed — the entire post because, for me, the treasure was at the bottom with your words “You see, that’s one of the primary things that novelists do: struggle with structure. If we don’t get the structure to work, it’s not a novel. End of story.” I’ve toyed with writing a novel, have some interesting characters I want to develop and a basic plot, but absolutely no idea how to structure it. Hmmmmm.

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  2. Structure has always been a challenge for me, but you do get better with practice. Understanding classic models such as the Hero’s Journey is a big help. Good luck and above all have fun with that novel! Most first novels are a necessary step towards writing the second, much better, novel.

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