PIP Program Judges Feedback
194 manuscripts were submitted to Varuna for consideration for the 2017 program. Each of these manuscripts were assessed by at least two of our four consultants: Carol Major, Helen Barnes-Bulley, Stephen Measday and Vanessa Kirkpatrick.
In making their selection for the shortlist, our judges 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. Our judges continued to assess the work blind with each of the shortlisted works reviewed by all four.
We asked our judges 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 having a confident, authentic voice with a strong ability for observation.
Stephen talks about the importance of sticking to a recognisable genre, especially for as yet unpublished authors, and also emphasises the importance of choosing time and place very carefully when setting a novel in the past.
Helen talks about what she looks for when reading manuscripts, particularly historical fiction.
Vanessa shares how many manuscripts started well, but failed to maintain momentum. She also addresses the importance of having a work plan that demonstrates a good understanding of the elements that still needed reworking in order to bring the manuscript to a publishable standard.
I hope you find their comments and views useful.
From all at Varuna, we wish you the best for your writing.
Veechi Stuart, Executive Director, Varuna
Again, it was a pleasure to read entries for the 2017 Publishers Introduction Program. Our goal is to shortlist manuscripts that are at a stage of development that will catch a publisher's eye.
The selection process is rigorous and bears mentioning again. We have four judges who are not allowed to compare notes until each has submitted a long list. This is to ensure that we will not influence each other's readings until the Selection Meeting is convened.
These lists are then compiled into one list. It contains 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. The judges review this list.
At the Selection Meeting we debate the merits of these manuscripts 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. Is the vision compelling? Does the writer have the skill to communicate it to a reader?
Given the nature of the PIP Competition, we are also looking to see if a manuscript will catch a publisher's commercial, as well as, literary eye. In that regard we are mindful of our publishers' particular areas of interest.
This year we had a number of strong entries in the young adult fiction area and quite a few human-interest stories. We would like to have seen more works of historical and cultural interest, and creative non-fiction, as several of our publishers are looking for manuscripts in this area.
Of course those writers who were not short-listed in this round will want to know what is holding them back. Each manuscript had its own issues surrounding vision and craft. But overall, I do know that we are always looking for particular observation and stories that are not derivative. The subject matter may have been covered before but suddenly the reader sees it with a fresh eye. It gives cause to reflect. We are also looking for confident voices, and this does not mean voices of authority. It means a voice that tells a story with authentic feeling, a voice that holds the reader in thrall. A voice that is not self-conscious but is showing us the thing that needs to be told.
Authors this year showed a strong preference for adult fiction, young adult fiction, memoirs of various types, with a smattering of fantasy, crime and sci-fi -- broadly reflective of the publishing world itself.
If mainstream publication is the author's aim, they need to think carefully about writing in a recognizable genre, particularly if it's their first book. That way a publisher can see exactly what they can do, and if successfully written, has a greater chance of actually getting to publication.
If trying historical fiction, as many do, an era should be chosen that's not too obscure, and with themes that resonate with today's readership. For example, judges this year came across quite a few stories set in the 1970s and 1980s (in particular) that would work much better if set in contemporary times. Novels with constant references to issues/lifestyles/song lyrics of the past can easily look very dated.
Helen Barnes Bulley
It's always exciting to discover new and interesting literary voices, and this year's entries for PIP didn't disappoint. There was a wide range of subject matter and genre; perhaps fewer memoirs than in previous years, but certainly many imaginative pieces of fiction, and some engrossing non-fiction as well. There was as always a substantial number of Young Adult novels, a genre that continues to expand in range and popularity.
Because there is such a range of subject matter, genre and style, the criteria for selection must be about the quality of ideas and the actual writing, which includes the voice of the text and its ability to draw the reader in and keep him or her in thrall to the narrative. Imagination, dramatic flair, originality, pace, psychological and emotional acuity – all these qualities contribute to bringing a story alive on the page through that fundamental understanding of how language works, how to arrive at the right language for your particular story, or stories, and how to distinguish character through the voice, through the sounds of the words and their rhythm. Some writers have interesting stories to tell but haven't yet discovered the best way to tell them. To be reading as widely and deeply as possible is the best way to become acutely aware of how a writer works, and to be able to apply the discoveries you make to your own work.
There is no better model than Shakespeare. He understood how English works, and was able to exploit its rhythms, its drama and its musicality in his plays and sonnets. I'm reading Wolf Hall at present, for the third time, and it's fascinating to observe how Hilary Mantel imitates the rhythms of Shakespeare's lines to great effect, placing us with confident dexterity in the world of Henry and Cromwell and yet also making the drama so present, lending it such immediacy. It's as close to poetry as you can get in a novel that is dramatic and complex.
There were a few historical narratives in the competition, and I would recommend that the writers of those read Mantel's work – A Place of Greater Safety is also excellent – because she writes without that burden of so many historical novelists, that awareness of being "historical". Mantel writes as if Thomas Cromwell is in the room next door and Anne Boleyn on her way up the hall.
It was a pleasure to read, assess and discuss this year's PIP fellowship applications. One of the defining characteristics of successful applicants was that they demonstrated a strong sense of their target audience, and crafted their work consistently with this understanding of their readership in mind. As this fellowship aims at identifying manuscripts with publishing potential, manuscripts needed to clearly fall within the bounds of particular writing genres. Work plans needed to be clearly articulated and achievable, demonstrating a clear understanding of the elements that still needed reworking and redrafting in order to bring the manuscript to publishable standard.
Some manuscripts had very engaging opening chapters, however the writing weakened in the second half – sometimes minor characters were introduced who were stereotypes or unconvincing in other ways; at other times, climactic points in the plot lacked the crafting of earlier writing, and fell into melodrama. Other manuscripts needed to find a balance between light and dark, as even if the central narrative involves trauma, grief, violence or anger, the reader needs moments of reprieve through a variation in mood. Finally, some manuscripts had relevant and interesting central ideas, however the narrative was too transparently driven by the themes, rather than finding its momentum in strong characterization and plot.
Manuscripts of the shortlisted applicants demonstrated a consistently strong and distinctive voice, originality of imagery and metaphor, of ideas and expression, and a sound structure that moved the narrative confidently forwards. The best applications, of course, were those that I could not put down. These manuscripts allowed me to be transported, from the opening pages, into an utterly convincing, other world – whether it was the past, the contemporary world, or an invented fantasy or science fiction world – a world in which the characters were so real that I soon developed an emotional investment in their fates. It is at this point of identification and engagement between the reader and the text that the manuscript leaps to life.