Publisher Introduction Program 2016 – Feedback From the Readers
190 manuscripts were submitted to Varuna for consideration for the 2016 program. Each of these manuscripts were assessed by at least two of our four consultants; Carol Major, Helen Barnes-Bulley, Stephen Measday and Deb Westbury.
In making their selection for the shortlist the Consultants continued to look for fresh voices, strong ideas, good writing, a clear sense of who the reader for the work was and an original approach to what might be familiar material. Consultants continued to assess the work blind with each of the shortlisted works reviewed by the four consultants.
We asked them for their general impressions of the work submitted and how they approached this marathon assessment process.
Carol writes about the selection process and also the importance of a well written synopsis and logline, Stephen talks about being wary of overly long prologues that sometimes delay the book from starting and the need when writing historical fiction to consider why these stories continue to be relevant today, Helen lets you know what she is looking for when reading manuscripts and Deb talks about the importance of generosity and writing with all of your senses.
I hope you find their comments and views useful.
From all at Varuna we wish you all the best for your writing.
Jansis O’Hanlon, Varuna CEO
A SHORT WORD ON SYNOPSIS, LOGLINES AND THEIR PURPOSE
Your synopsis is a functional tool, (as opposed to a marketing tool) that assists your reader in knowing what your work is and where it is going. It should be a summary of the whole story (including the ending) and encapsulate your objectives as a writer. Keep it short, direct and write straight to the core of what your manuscript is about. Under one page is ideal.
Similarly, your logline should be a functional short two-line summary of your work. Your logline will help the reader / assessor differentiate your work and talk about your book with the other readers. It cant' be too cryptic but does need to be memorable – honest, clear and distinctive. Can include information on form / genre etc.A good logline will also let your reader know that you really know what your book is about.
The selection process for the Publisher’s Introduction Program is rigorous. The four judges are not allowed to compare notes until each of our long-lists are compiled. This is to ensure that we will not influence each other’s readings until the Selection Meeting is convened.
A compiled long list is presented that includes those manuscripts where all judges scored highly and those where some judges scored high and others scored the work low, as manuscripts that provoke diverging responses can contain something exciting and new.
We then begin a debate to create a short list. During this debate we are acutely aware how responses to a work can be influenced by what engages an individual judge’s imagination. We are human in this regard but continually return to the principles of vision and craft. “Has this particular manuscript engaged with ideas in a fresh way? Does the author have the skill to bring the reader along?”
Given the nature of the PIP Competition, the judges must also don ‘publisher hats’. We are looking to see if a manuscript is well developed enough to catch a publisher’s commercial, as well as, literary eye.
On that note, I do feel that some writers could be more focused in articulating what their work is about. “Deals with themes of…” and “Explores such and such…” doesn’t tell a publisher what the story or essay is about. Think of the nub of your work. What is the question that obsesses you? What is the narrative architecture in your work that plays this obsession out? Thinking clearly about these things can also assist with the structure of your work. If it is a dramatic work, a publisher wants to grasp quickly where the drama lies. If it is comic, then what will drive the comedy? If it is an essay, then what is the core of the argument, as essays contain dramatic tension as well.
Of course often writers have no idea of what they are writing about until it is written. This is what we call the ‘writer’s draft’. But what you are presenting to a publisher is a ‘reader’s draft’. You’ve explored the landscape and you are now communicating that experience for a particular effect. Be clear about what that is.
In keeping with previous years, there was a high standard of writing in this year's entries for the PIP fellowships. But a couple of things stood out.
A lot of authors feel the necessity to write lengthy prologues and/or introductions to their work. In many cases, this can be viewed as totally unnecessary and only holds back the start of the story. It's usually better to get straight into it, and to use the natural exposition that will come along in the opening chapters to establish and carry the narrative.
Another point to consider is historical fiction, or fiction set in an era near to the present. Stories from anywhere prior to the 21st Century need to have some resonance to the present day, and the question has to be asked by the author - how will this appeal to contemporary readers? What is in the story that makes it of interest to us now? Is it a character or period from history that we will recognize, or is it (perhaps) a burning issue that makes readers of today sit up and take interest?
Once more, thanks to all the authors who entered and provided much stimulating reading!
HELEN BARNES BULLEY
There was an interesting range of genre and general fiction writing in this year’s manuscripts, with a substantial number of Young Adult entries. We also read a small number of verse novels and some short story volumes as well.
Those that stood out were, as to be expected, motivated by a strong story to tell, whatever the genre, a talent for convincing characterisation, and the choice of structure and language to make the story effective and draw a reader in. The writer benefits, in a competition such as this, from having some knowledge of the publishers on our list, and having in mind a readership for their work.
A short comment on the Young Adult genre: there were many of strong interest, but far too many imitations of dystopian narratives that had little originality or substance.
One piece of advice we all agreed on: if you have already submitted a manuscript to this programs in the past that has not been selected you should strongly consider whether you should be submitting it again unless you have done substantial reworking since first submitting. If you have reworked the manuscript it’s also in your interest to let us know how.
‘Wind is a plant’s only chance to make music’.
Having come across this gem, in my ‘other’ summer reading, dear readers and writers, I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. A small act of generosity, granted, but generosity is at the centre of all the most successful writing. The writer, has this story, this experience, that she wants to give you, that she wants you to see in your inner mind: her first effort is to imagine it, then to find just the right building blocks of words that will recreate it in your mind. By ‘right’ I mean the best words, the most apt, the most precise. This is applicable regardless of the form you’ve chosen in which to embody your work.
I use the word ‘embody’ advisedly here – because it’s too easy, in a visually dominant culture such as our own, to forget that writing comes from the whole body, not just the head – that it is through the writer’s appeal to all of our senses that writing comes alive. As Mies van der Rohe noted, ‘God hides in the details.’ Obviously this doesn’t mean that any and all detailing is valuable for its own sake. For instance, we have all by now seen photographs of a tiger, if not the actual tiger in the zoo. Unlike 19th century readers who delighted in long descriptions of places and objects to learn about them, a description of a tiger has to have more reason for being than to provide information – or decoration for that matter.
The challenge then, for the creative writer, is for description to be embodied in specific concrete language and lovingly crafted phrases and sentences.
Virginia Woolf speaks of “moments of being” in which everything around you seems alive:
“He stood by the window again. It was raining, but the whiteness had gone. Save for a wet leaf shining here and there, the garden was all dark now – the yellow mound of the flowering tree had vanished. The college buildings lay round the garden in a low crouched mass, here red-stained, there yellow-stained, where lights burnt behind curtains; and there lay the chapel, huddling its bulk against the sky which, because of the rain, seemed to tremble slightly. But it was no longer silent. He listened; there was no sound in particular; but, as he stood looking out, the building hummed with life. There was a sudden roar of laughter; then the tinkle of a piano; then a nondescript clatter and chatter – of china partly; then again the sound of rain falling, and the gutters chuckling and burbling as they sucked up the water. He turned back in to the room.”
Of course a good journalist is trained to tell what happened when, where and who did it and why. That there were any number of manuscripts which demonstrated this approach with considerable skill and flair, is hardly surprising when we observe how many of our applicants were, are, or have been, professional media writers.
A conversation about this amongst the panel arose from a question we asked ourselves about what the relevance of this experience might be to the making and sustaining of long narrative fiction. You might also consider the application of word processing to lengthy text. Are we, for example, at risk of losing our capacity to structure our thinking through long pieces of writing that do not require the editing that is integrated in word processing, or the disciplined hand movements intrinsic to elegantly flowing text?
The act of writing is, after all, bodily – as I’ve said – it comes from the whole body, not just the head. It is possible that we are losing the ability to spell, and the disciplined hand movements intrinsic to elegantly written flowing text!
Whatever your opinions on the subject might be, I’ll conclude with the advice that I give all beginning writers (and remember, all advice is meant to be ignored, as rules are made to be broken!). You’ll be doing yourself a favour if you do at least your first draft by hand – and don’t throw it out until the work is finished.
Reviewing my notes on the P.I.P, the main pleasure of reading this summer, I find ‘good story but nothing special in the writing’ and sometimes, with surprise and joy – ‘at last, Beauty!’
Thanks everyone, and good luck.