Stephen talks about the importance of story, Carol makes some interesting observations about strong literary themes arising in the zeitgeist and the importance of voice and urgency (drama) in the work, Helen comments on the importance of honing and fine tuning your work.
I hope you find their comments and views useful.
From all at Varuna we wish you all the best for your future writing.
Jansis O’Hanlon, Varuna CEO
This year’s pool of new writing included an intelligent and fascinating array of manuscripts covering a wide-ranging field that included adult fiction, young adult fiction, poetry, science fiction, fantasy, memoir, crime and mystery thrillers.
Interestingly and impressively, authors did not confine themselves to Australian shores and stories ranged from Asia, Afghanistan, Europe and other foreign climes, while some did focus on city and outback settings in Australia.
The manuscripts that succeeded in making the shortlist were by authors who have taken major steps to master the craft of storytelling – setting the scene, developing the characters, constructing an interesting, involving plotline and narrative structure. These authors kept the reader in mind and interested at all stages. They didn’t meander from the central concerns of their story.
Manuscripts didn’t succeed where the basic storylines weren’t gripping or involving enough, or were too self-absorbed in their own world to reach out to the reader. Stories lost their impetus where there was too much exposition at the start of the story and where characters and storylines were not fully developed or intriguing enough to hold the attention of the reader.
It is worth noting W. Somerset Maugham’s remark:
‘There is no such thing as inspiration, at least, if there is I have not discovered it. There is, instead, dedication and complete absorption in your craft. I am a self-made writer, I started with a poor prose style and had to fine it down as best I could. You must appreciate from the start that writing is a profession like medicine or the law.’
It was a pleasure to be one of the judges for the Publisher’s Introduction Program and interesting to note the thematic links among offerings—as if, like Thomas Kuhn’s hypothesis about paradigm shifts, a sublimated observation within the wider community has emerged begging to be explored. One of the key themes this year was Asia. Migrants to Australia are beginning to unpack the past. There were also fictional stories that involved characters moving between an Asian country and Australia, suggesting there is a growing imaginative understanding that Australia is part of Asia. Their history is our history. We are intertwined.
The Publishers Introduction Program is a wonderful thing because it gives writers the opportunity to have their work reach the eye of publishing houses. To this end we were looking for manuscripts that made observations in new and very particular ways. Writing that caught our eye often possessed a moral compass that challenged, rather than confirmed traditionally held beliefs. Of course we disagreed about what manuscripts should be chosen. But thankfully Varuna has a very rigorous process in place where every manuscript is viewed in isolation by at least two judges before it moves to the next stage.
For those who were not in the final list at this time please remember that another factor influencing decisions was a manuscript’s stage of development. In other words we were also looking for the most realised offerings. There were manuscripts in this round that were both interesting and worthwhile but where the distillation of the central idea and the marriage between that idea and craft required more thought. Frequently this underdevelopment was demonstrated in a lack of emotional focus in the narrative voice— voice being a key attribute in catching the attention of publishers.
When considering elements of ‘voice’, consider that unlike a movie or play, which is a spectacle, written works are a more intimate performance. The narrator is close to the reader’s ear. In turn the reader (listener) becomes engaged not just by the information but the narrator’s attitude toward the subject matter and his or her reason for telling it. Does he or she (or it) want to impart dread, wonder, bewilderment, a sense of justice and so on? More obvious examples of a very clear intent include the self loathing in Graham Greene’s, The End of the Affair and Humbert Humbert’s self justification in Lolita. But even in more ‘fly on the wall’ narrations, such as William Trevor’s short stories, readers have a sense that they are being shown things for a particular reason that eventually will be known. The motive for telling is key to the tone, attitude and thematic centre of a manuscript—qualities that emotionally connect the reader and lead us forward as surely as ideas and plot.
Urgency to tell also informs focus. What is important to this urgency? What should be described and what things left out? Michael Ondaatje’s well-worn adage applies here. He is quoted as saying, “the first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town.”
This year we had a wide variety of manuscripts which we all enjoyed reading. The ones that stood out to us as readers were those that had an original voice and a strong sense of how to tell a story, of whatever genre it might be. The motivation for the story, the genuine commitment to it, were key factors in the attraction of those manuscripts.
Many of the entries had great promise but needed more work before they were ready for a shortlist. We would encourage writers to continue to work on those manuscripts to which they feel a real commitment. Language is the key here: in the end, writing is, after all, about the words, and how the writer arranges them.
What did strike me as very promising was that writers who had submitted work earlier had presented their work again and shown a leap in their writing, which confirmed our belief in the importance of the writer’s commitment to the work and the dedication required to bring that work into being to the best of their ability.
A small observation but important: I noticed some writers who had chosen to write a novel that was really a disguised memoir. This rarely works. If you have a strong personal story to tell then choose the right form: a memoir will always be best if it’s a true story: to disguise it as a novel requires a whole other talent that some writers do not possess. There is a very big difference between writing a true memoir and writing a novel. Some writers can do both; most cannot.
My very best wishes to all the writers who sent us their work.
“My view is that there’s a creative continuum which is central to life, and that we’re hard-wired in our DNA to be creative. Now, there are different dilutions and doses of creativity, and in some people creativity is much stronger than in others and those people tend to be the people who turn out to be artists. But all of us want to participate, I think, in this creative continuum.”
Radio National interview, 1st June 2008, Jeanette Winterson live from the Sydney Writers’ Festival:
Congratulations for getting it together to send in your application – for taking your work seriously enough to put it ‘out there’. Also, for chancing that the work of your soul may not, on this occasion, have found a home in the 2014 P.I.P. – Still, as you know, it’s a case of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ (clichés are clichés for a reason – the aim is to use them, as you would every element of the poem, with deliberation). This reminds me of a cranky note I wrote on one of the submissions – ‘two clichés in two pages!’ However, I kept reading – later noting ‘ concrete, tight and focused, touching, emotionally adventurous’. This collection reached my shortlist.
Because I understand how important it is to keep learning to improve your work it would be great if I could give you all really useful feedback. (‘In an ideal world’ ….. ‘I’m only human’ ….. Whoops!).
What I can do, though, is to share the (unexpurgated) jottings from my notebook, as well as one or two things to think about.
Firstly, submissions this year were of the highest quality I’ve yet encountered. This is important because I think you’ll agree so much depends on it. Thankyou for all the pleasure I had in reading it. The selection process was very strenuous – forgive me if what follows is too much information, or too little.
Of the 16 ms. submitted, the most accomplished and promising (in my view) were shortlisted, and another 4 came close. 5 more not quite so.
~ concrete, specific imagery, authentic voice, fine control of language and emotion.
~ in every way rich; striking use of metaphor and simile; taut, layers of meaning, polished.
~ attention to beauty in music and meaning most satisfying, engaging, closely observed and modestly composed.
~ inside the human skin, the view looking out – highly original in conception and execution, sensual, finely wrought.
~ a poetic (in the best sense) exploration of the human within nature, insightful, memorable imagery, ambitious, fully realized, touching.
~ simple pared down language holds its emotional power, poignancy.
~ quite a few publishable poems here, well mannered, well written, but nothing to get excited about.
~ could be tighter, also I wonder about the collection’s reason for being – it’s got a bit of a ‘project’ feel to it, some good moments, promising, but undercooked.
~ this drew me in – skilfully written – though disappointingly ‘prosey’.
~ chopped up prose.
~ amateurish, overwritten.
~ skilful, has obviously studied contemporary published poetry and has all the …………………., accomplished, but with nothing to say.
~ prosaic, sentimental.
Having read all this you might wonder (among other things!) where I’m coming from.
Eschewing fashions and fundamentalisms, I’ve found nothing more thoughtful and concise on the subject than this:
presents the thing in order to convey
the feeling. It should be precise about the
thing and reticent about the feeling, for as soon
as the mind responds and connects with the
thing the feeling shows in the words, this is
how poetry enters deeply into us. If the poet
presents directly feelings which overwhelm him
and keeps nothing back to linger as an
aftertaste, he stirs us superficially; he cannot
start the hands and feet involuntarily waving and
tapping in time, far less strengthen morality and
refine culture, set heaven and earth in motion
and call up the spirits.
Wei Tai (11th Century)
More Janet Winterson (from the same interview):
“Yes, I do think of poems as lie detectors, it’s because the language has to be precise, exact, profound, and layered. Language isn’t just about conveying meaning; it’s also about metaphor, a way of saying many different things. That’s what poetry can offer. In a poem, the language is always authentic. We live in a world of spin, where we find it very difficult to believe in anything that we read or anything that we hear. Either we have to put up with that kind of chopped up karate syntax of the sound bite, which is what you hear on the TV, or a kind of verbal incontinence favoured by politicians.
When you go to the poem you find something which is exact, which is precise and which is true in the best sense of the word, that is about an authentic emotion, or an authentic experience that really happened and is therefore passed on. So it’s a place of trust.”
So, thankyou for your part in ‘the continuum’ and for ‘trusting’.
In the Sydney Morning Herald on 15th February I came across the news that theatre critic James Waite had died, and today this article from him stored in my ‘on the subject of Poetry’ folder since 1995 (S.M.H. Dec 23):
“When art makes sense of chaos, we are comforted. One step further is the hit to heart and head that creates joy.
. . . Poet Robert Gray says he is “sceptical of this dampening down of art. Great art offers an immediate, visceral form of heightened pleasure that precedes our intellectual response. The experience is faster than the mind”. Gray sees beauty in the world itself, not simply in the eye of the beholder. “And it is great art that reveals that to us.”
There’s also something about “the sensual vividness of a great work of art, the presence of a perfectly logical structure, nothing left out, nothing extraneous added. Someone has got to the essence of the object”.
This says Gray, “is why poems even about unpleasant subjects are pleasurable”. It’s a good point, true to all art forms.”
Get your hands on a copy of Dennis Haskell’s chapter ‘Drafting and Re-Drafting’ from ‘The Writer’s Reader’ edited by Brenda Walker – Press, 19..
Rob Reil of Picaro Press will make the final selection. Good luck.