Structure is everything

Friday, February 5, 2016
By: 
Jenny Valentish interviewed by Amy Briggs

A portrait of Jenny Valentish
Jenny Valentish

Editor, feature writer, novelist, Jenny Valentish is a literary all-rounder. Here Jenny Valentish talks about editing and her writing life in the lead up to her Features Clinic in this Q&A with Writers Victoria's Amy Briggs. 

What is the most challenging part of editing feature articles?

The most challenging part of all is the concluding paragraph. You need something inspired to avoid it sounding corny or superfluous. It can’t be a new point, but you don’t want to be repetitive, either. When contemplating the overall structure, I open a separate document in which I note on a new line each key point that the story makes. Then it’s easy to reorder into a form that flows without awkward segues, or check for filler that can be cut.

Different publications require vastly different structures. Take the example of an online news site, whether it’s about the food scene in Melbourne or the latest human-interest stories aimed at women. Analytics tools such as Chartbeat show publishers that readers drop off dramatically after just one paragraph, so it’s important to deliver your hook immediately. Let’s say you’re writing a news story about Jonah and the whale. You’d be advised to start the story with Jonah in the whale’s belly. At the other end of the spectrum, if you’re writing longform for the kind of title that requires the reader to make a pot of tea and settle (lucky you), you can afford to set the scene with a bit of creative non-fiction – in which our protagonist surveys the ocean as he unknots the dock line, wondering if it’s his recent crisis of faith that is unnerving him about his forthcoming voyage. (Please, editors, no Jonah commissions. This is just an example.)

What is it like working as a regional writer?

I have V/Line to thank for the bulk of my writing. I’ve found the most reliable way to get in the zone is to sit on a train for hours with no internet reception, no fridge, no TV and no garden. Sometimes I’ll get on a train without needing to go anywhere. I’m sure, psychologically, the fact that you’re speeding forth helps. The only downsides are bus replacement services – totally unconducive to writing – and people who are not quiet in the Quiet Carriage. In fact, I have just this hour launched a Twitter account in their honour, the creation of which is indicative of how easily distracted I can get if I’m not on a train: _Quiet_Carriage. Join in with the password ‘shutupshutupshutup’ if you’re on the same track.

Apart from V/Line, I’m pleased to live in the country because Castlemaine has a great library that puts on events; the Castlemaine State Festival every two years; Castlemaine Word Mine; Castlemaine Children’s Literature Festival; Newstead Short Story Tattoo (we’ll claim that) and is a short V/Line ride to the Bendigo Writers Festival. Good stuff happens in the sticks.

How do you pitch your work?

I start with a brief introduction to my previous work, via links to relevant features on my website. That’s followed by a couple of paragraphs about the proposed article and maybe even the opening paragraph of the feature, to reel in the editor. I recommend which part of the publication the feature would best fit, but that’s mainly to prove I’ve read their title.

What prompted you to write your novel ‘Cherry Bomb’?

On the surface level it’s about the music industry, but it’s really a coming-of-age story about the effects of child sexual abuse. That’s something that I feel doesn’t get covered enough, given the prevalence of it. According to Child Family Community Australia, up to 36% of girls and up to 16% of boys will be abused before the age of 16, yet they’ll find little reflection of their situation in popular culture. I wanted to cover the topic in a way that didn’t make people’s hearts sink when they realised what was coming.

You’re currently writing your second novel. Have you left feature writing behind forever?

It’s a non-fiction book for Black Inc, about women, drugs and alcohol, which will take another six months. I have a tendency to over-research, so there will plenty of material left over to pitch as features. Spoiler alert.

About Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish has been the editor of ‘Time Out Melbourne’ and ‘Triple J Magazine’. She has written for women’s titles – ‘Cleo’, ‘ELLE’, ‘Frankie’, ‘Marie Claire’ and ‘Yen’ – and men’s titles – ‘Ralph’ and ‘Men’s Style’ –  as well as ‘The Big Issue’ and ‘The Monthly’. She regularly contributes to ‘The Age’, ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ and ‘The Saturday Paper’. She has guest lectured in journalism and has guided around a hundred students through their work experience modules. She is the author of novel ‘Cherry Bomb’ (Allen and Unwin) and a forthcoming non-fiction book for Black Inc.

About Amy Briggs

Amy Briggs is the Program Intern at Writers Victoria. She has a background in anthropology focusing on the importance of children's literature in society. She enjoys writing short stories in her spare time.