Stephen talks about the importance of story, Helen comments on the importance of honing and fine-tuning your work, Carol writes about the writer’s craft and the handling of time within the work and Deb talks about the importance of beginnings.
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
As in previous years, a fantastic variety of manuscripts were submitted with both an Australian and international focus. Great to see Australian authors not confining their work only to our shores.
The fiction manuscripts that stood out this year were those that 'told a good story', with a well structured narrative, good characters and an engaging plot. Or in the case of non-fiction, where the authors understood what was required in writing manuscripts such as true crime stories, memoir or biography.
In many cases, manuscripts are being submitted far too early and before they are up to the required standard to be read or assessed. Authors have to keep in mind that these days publishers expect a really good 'first' draft, which may in fact be the respective authors second, third or later draft.
There are many assessment services available these days, through Varuna and other organizations, and first time authors should take advantage of this valuable advice before submitting their drafts to fellowships and other such schemes. This may mean some cost to the author but will result in a much better manuscript.
Authors should also keep a watch on over-long prologues that hold up the start of the story. They should also be careful about being over ambitious with their manuscript i.e. suggesting that it is the start of a 'trilogy' without creating a very strong first story in the series. The first manuscript must have a very strongly resolved main story, with a strong central character, before any consideration is given to whether it will make a 'series, or not.
Overall advice, keep the story interesting and keep the reader engaged.
As often happens there were some entries that I found had great potential but were not yet ready to offer to a publisher. They contained interesting ideas and intriguing situations but were still at an early stage, requiring further development and a refinement of literary skill.
Those manuscripts at a more refined stage from which we made our selections demonstrated the ability to create a sense of a strong story, unfolding through interesting characters, and presented in language that is fresh and resonant in its exploration of ideas and human experience.
The authority and insight of the writer are paramount here. These are manifested in the conviction and confidence with which he or she takes us into the world of the story and holds us there.
It is always a pleasure to read the entries for the Publishers Introduction Program and so hard to narrow down the final list. Our goal is to shortlist manuscripts that are at a stage of development that will catch a publisher’s eye. In other words, this is not a competition about writing ability alone; it is a competition to put work in front of the industry. Many manuscripts showed promise but it would have done the writer a disservice to put the piece out too soon. Publishers do not have the resources these days to nurture manuscripts over long periods of time. They want to see a work is almost ready to go and we want to catch them fresh with a new story.
On that note we did feel some writers would benefit from learning more about aspects of craft. I’m always on about aligning vision and craft. It surprises me how some believe writers have less need of the knowledge of craft than musicians, sculptors, actors or painters, who spend years and years learning and practicing these things.
Each time I am given the opportunity to be a judge in a writing competition there is usually a crafting issue that stands out for me as a reoccurring issue among the entries. In this case it was the handling of time.
There are many aspects of time represented in a story. There is the time period over which the action takes place, flashbacks to earlier moments that inform the action, moments of summary when time is gathered up, and the unfolding time in a scene. There is also the moment in time when the character is telling the story and the distance between that moment and the actual time when the events of the story occurred.
The distance in time between events and narration is a key ingredient in ‘Voice’. For instance, consider a woman who has lost a child in a drowning incident. On that same day any communication of the event would be about raw emotion alone. A few years later there would be more reflection in the telling. The same mother might wish to explain something she had learned from the experience or something she still didn’t quite understand. Her purpose would be different, come from a different place and change the inflection of her voice. The tale would be cast in a different light.
If someone who listened to her story decided to tell it to someone at a future date, their purpose would be different again.
I would encourage writers to think carefully about the distance between the event and the narration. Be aware that a tale told in first person present serves a particular purpose—the immediate discovery and response to what is happening now. It suits particular tales and scenes. Stories told in past tense offer more reflective space.
Consider that you can frame a story in the past tense (I was sitting by the fire remembering…) and then move to present tense for a scene (and in it I saw myself as a young woman. I am combing my hair). As writers we can be time travelers but we need to know what we are doing and our intended purpose.
As I sit down with the beginnings of over a hundred writing projects I feel both excited and daunted – excited because I love stories like a polar bear loves snow, and can’t wait to jump in and roll around in them. This joins up neatly with the ‘daunted’ bit. After all, these are not shopping lists or recipes, but the actual work of souls – manifest actions, large and small, of skill, hard work, passion, longing, imagination, experience of the heartfelt and the hard won.
Of course I want to congratulate and encourage every single author – for doing the work and for taking the risk of putting it ‘out there’. This fellowship may be the opportunity you’ve been writing for, or perhaps that opportunity is embodied in not getting the fellowship but in a decision to re-write, and / or begin a new project or the start of a whole chain of serendipity / synchronicity. Who knows when or how they will find their way into the world? You probably know that we read the synopsis as well as a goodly-sized sample of each manuscript – over a hundred and twenty at the first sitting – after which a short list is arrived at by comparing the results of both teams of consultants.
Obviously then first impressions are all important – our instructions are to identify strong publishing potential, a compelling and relevant central idea, strongly written characters, a distinctive and engaging voice, a clear idea of the reader that the work is speaking to and / or other elements that demonstrate an understanding of writing and crafting.
You might be surprised that most of these are identifiable quite early on – and this is probably the case with most readers perusing a book that they’re thinking of reading (except for those who like to choose books solely on their covers!).
For myself, I’m looking for the same thing across all genres from verse novels to coming-of-age novels, family history, fantasy, science fiction and even including narrative non-fiction – that we should find myself in the midst of some action straight away, right in the guts of it what is germane to the work, whether it is a conversation or some other action doesn’t matter – the first paragraph, or at least the first page, has to grab me, to leap off the page.
At the risk of repeating what I’ve written previously on this subject, I want to reiterate that what makes creative writing different from other writing is that it is an artform – the writer aspires to use words to make Art – artistry – one recognises at once that something is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
Much of the time I re-read my pages of comment to find repetition of the phrase – ‘great idea for a story, pedestrian writing’ – this is not to say that I’m seeking writing that is highly wrought or mannered or self consciously ‘literary’ – on the contrary, rather an aspect of a voice that is engaging and distinctive and includes vivacity, vigour, verve. Sometimes I wonder if new writers are coming not so much from a place of reading and more from looking at screens, the moving image – to oversimplify. A result might be a reliance on plotting and pacing at the expense of beautifully made phrases and a sensual embodiment of more than the visual.
Having said that, I’ve noticed more than a nod or a smile here and there to Helen Garner, Christos Tsolkas and Elizabeth Jolley, among others. To look at those just named, is to see what is distinctly courageous and clear sighted – another commonality among the best work here.
While there is generally wide agreement throughout, the real fun starts when we compare our listings and discover very different responses to the same work. The final meeting of all the panel members (incommunicado to this point)is at Varuna – to make the longlist into a short one – at which mutual respect and professionalism prevails (you’ll be pleased to know) – over any prejudices or misreadings / misinterpreting.
Thanks for all the good work everyone, and good luck with the next lot! I hope I’ll be privileged to read some of it next time around.