A couple of weeks ago, I appeared on a panel for the Melbourne Chapter of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia(HNSA), as part of its 2018 Event series. The event, held at the Prahran Mechanics Institute, was entitled ‘Evaluating a Successful Submission’ and explored the topic of what publishers, editors and competition judges might consider would be a successful manuscript. My other panellists were Chris Bell, Lindy Cameron and we were ably marshalled by Elizabeth Jane Corbett. The event was a great success, with we panellists providing insights into their various specialities and fielding a variety of interesting and stimulating questions from the eager audience.
|Elizabeth Corbett, Lindy Cameron, Me, Chris Bell (Photo by Geoff Stuart)|
Part of the success of the session was our chair’s excellent preparation. Elizabeth sent each of us a set of questions that, in my case I’m sure, helped me focus on the best advice I could give to those attending. Although I prepared a set of answers, I didn’t actually read them out during the panel, just referred to them every now and then.
The format of the session was for each panellist to read some of their work, answer questions related to it, then deal with questions related to their industry expertise, after which the conversation was opened up to the audience. I read an extract from the second chapter of my work-in-progress, currently entitled The Song of Keeping.
So, for the interest of completeness and because I’m sure others may be interested in the details, I’ve included my prepared answers below. Another perspective of the event, by the organiser, Chris Foley, can be read here.
Tell us about your initial inspiration? Where are you currently at with the project?
I have had a long-held interest in the Celtic world and its mythology and in what has been termed The Matter of Britain. However, I’ve been more intrigued by Merlin than by Arthur and a specific trigger for this project was Nikolai Tolstoy’s book The Quest for Merlin. What intrigues me most was the idea there was an historical person who formed the basis of the Merlin created by Geoffrey of Monmouth. I wanted to write that person’s story.
As for the stage of the project, I am in what I call the Interdraft stage before the actual writing of the fourth draft. I’m doing a structural and conceptual edit of the manuscript, to deal with identified gaps, plot and character problems, and the underlying theological issues of the struggle between Christianity and Celtic paganism.
Who do you see as your main readership?
People interested in The Matter of Britain, the conflict between religions, and the pagan worldview. In a recent USA survey, up to 0.4% of respondents identified as ‘pagan’ or ‘wiccan’. There are about 336 million people who speak English as their first language, so 0.4% would represent 1.3 million potential readers. Then there are all those other readers who are interested in ‘pagan material’, about 10 million alone in the USA (said an executive from Barnes & Noble some years ago). So, a big market.
And finally, because I just have to ask, are those Middle Welsh words?
Many of the personal names in the novel I’ve taken from the Welsh Classical Dictionary. I’ve tried to stick to Old Welsh and Middle Welsh, but I have also derived personal and deity names and religious terms from Proto-Celtic and Indo-European, even Basque.
|(Photo by Geoff Stuart)|
How do you go about assessing a manuscript?
I look at craft issues and story issues, content and structure, what is told, how it is told:
- Can the author write a grammatical sentence, then another, and arrange them in a way that keeps me reading, or does the bad writing—grammar, spelling and punctuation lapses, non-sequiturs in sentence construction, too many sentence fragments, etc.—frustrate me, annoy me, bore me?
- Does the style of the narration fit the content?
- What is the balance of showing and telling? Does it work?
- Does the author know the genre in which she/he is working?
- Does the story engage me? Does it have traction? Do I want to know what happens next or why things have happened? Am I thrilled by elegant language usage or by insights into character or by the late-at-night-urge to keep turning pages?
- Are the events in the story logically presented and arranged in a logical sequence?
- Do scenes work to advance the story or are just filler? That is, if they give backstory or reveal something about a character, do they do double-duty and also push the story forward?
- Are characters consistent in their actions and behaviour?
- Is the storyworld adequately established for and during the unfolding story?
- Are there continuity problems in descriptions, time usages and intervals, etc.?
What are the common mistakes that writers make?
- First of all, lack of reading. Writers need to read more, and not just in their chosen genre. Some manuscripts are just rehashes of favourite movies and TV shows. Or are thinly disguised autobiographies that assume the writer’s life is interesting to other people just because it’s been traumatic to themselves.
- Which leads to the second issue. Story and character arcs. Something needs to change and if you’re trying to write in a commercial genre, you need to be aware of the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre, find ways to refresh the tropes you’re dealing with, and remember that story structure is not a formula but a form that has existed for millennia because it works.
- And, as I’ve said, there’s the matter of genre. What do audiences expect from the genre and are you giving it to them?
- Some stories start with long explanations of the history of the world but nothing about the current situation that is prompting the story. That is, the Inciting Incident is delayed far too long. Or isn’t clear. Such instances are authors indulging in the results of their research and/or worldbuilding and, basically, showing off.
- Or an author has too many characters and none of them astutely rendered.
- There is no story question, or it isn’t obvious, or it hasn’t been explored properly.
- Theme hasn’t been identified.
- Then there are the usual craft issues, as I indicated before: poor grammar, bad sentence and paragraph construction, weak scene construction, as well as improper manuscript layout, not knowing your audience, not knowing your genre through and through.
- Writers who think redrafting is just doing a copyedit pass through their manuscripts.
- To bring everything back to my reading comment: the more you read, inside and outside your genre, the more you understand what things have worked, how other writers have refreshed tropes, how language and story works, and what ideas and techniques you might be able to bring into your own genre from other ones.
How has editing, assessing and mentoring helped inform your own writing process?
Everything I do—teaching, mentoring, assessing, editing—makes me more aware of the mistakes I myself make; how much is still to be learnt about story and writing, craft and content, the what and the how; and how hard it is to fight against resistance and the ‘it’s good enough’ syndrome. I realise how far I’ve come but how far I still have to go. I have learnt to stand back from my own work and analyse it more objectively than I could in the past. I’ve also learnt that at times one has to be stubborn and follow one’s vision for the work even in the face of self-doubt and of the advice from others.
Are you in a writing group?
- Not at the moment, but I have been in the past. Several.
- I have a writing buddy group that meets weekly.
- I also have some trusted beta readers, including my wife, Jo, who reads everything I write.
What do you do when you lose direction?
- If you’re talking about a story, I regroup by looking at the macro picture—intentions, structure, story arc—then go back to the micro. Hence my Interdraft work at the moment.
- If you mean the writing life as a whole, same sort of thing: look at my intentions as well as my motivations, my habits, my commitments and obligations, my distractions, simplify what I can (for example, social media and TV), and then throw myself back into following my bliss as much as I can.
What about on those days when you struggle to get words on the page?
- Put anything down.
- Start something else, even if just notes to a poem or story.
- Go for a walk or spend time sitting in the garden.
How do you pick yourself up after setbacks?
- Mope around for a few days.
- Write about it in my journal.
- Examine my intentions, my life, the piece itself.
- Look for more appropriate outlets for the piece, if need be.
- Send the piece out again.
- Start something new.
- Do more research.
- Forget about outcomes and enjoy the process of writing, the excitement, again.
|(Photo by Geoff Stuart)|
If you are interested in Historical Fiction, check out HNSA here. For news about upcoming panel discussions, see here.
Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome your comments.