Thursday, 12 April 2012

A first meeting with my creative writing mentor

The way forward clearly visible

 Today I experienced my first ‘mentoring’ session with a professional writer, so I thought it might be useful to share the experience, particularly for those considering paying for this kind of service. I was lucky; I won a mentoring package from Adventures in Fiction on the strength of the first page of my novel, so I had nothing to lose in taking this up. Though considering that first page is probably the strongest in the novel, I was apprehensive about what they’d make of the rest of it.

Firstly, to Adventures in Fiction’s credit, they matched me very well with a mentor – the writer in question is successful novelist writing for young adults, using themes and age groups that appear in my manuscript too. She is also an experienced creative writing tutor, and it showed. She had read my novel three times before meeting me, and prepared an agenda of the key areas to think about. Whilst this initial session was meant to be an overview, giving me broad questions to think about before making any nitty gritty changed to the text, my mentor went into great detail on premise, plot, characterisation, target audience and genre. I’m going to write a bit about her insights into each of these, to give my own overview of what you might expect from mentoring.

Genre and target age group
Being clear on these things matters a lot to an agent, and a publisher. They also set the expectations of a reader. With a title like mine – The Tarney Scalp – and an opening chapter in which the protagonist sees what appears to be a mermaid scalp, there is a strong ‘fantasy’ message going on. But the plot that ensues is based very much on real people in the real world, with no actual magic and certainly no actual mermaids. I had never been clear on a target age group, aiming only to make the book accessible having found myself writing quite accidentally about a young teenage boy. There is a big difference between the categories that (unfortunately) mark out the young fiction territory. What is deemed suitable for 9-12 year olds, in terms of themes and plot, is completely different from what is marketed to 13-15 year olds. The younger group are considerably less cynical, and thus expect less cynicism from characters. So, there may be a problem with a protagonist who begins by entertaining the possibility of a scalped mermaid, but goes on to become embroiled in a plot to foil violent drug smugglers.

Central Premise
Here we discussed core questions about the protagonist. What is his ‘problem’ at the start of the novel and how is it resolved? What is the crisis in his life at which point we begin to follow him? How is he changed by the end, and what has brought that change about? In my case, what exactly is that mermaid scalp doing to help him along on his journey? If it is pivotal, we need to know why. If not, is it a red herring, as opposed to another type of sea detritus?

Character and characterisation
This part was much easier to think about now I have some distance between myself and the novel. The idea of ditching any characters would have been hard to swallow had I only finished the manuscript last week. However, I could see that some characters were more necessary than others, and in places there might be two where one would do. My mentor asked me to think about what each character is for, whether they are absolutely necessary to creating or resolving problems in the novel. I’m looking forward to doing this, as well as writing two-page character descriptions for each one and rounding them out. While I like to show rather than tell, I have laid high expectations on my readers around figuring out what is happening in my protagonists head, where I could give a little more (but not too much) away.

We were running out of time at this point, but a key message was that, in an age of multi-media distractions, if you are marketing a book specifically for a young audience then it better be a bit of a page turner. In my case, at the climax of the story, the main characters are watching a disaster take place rather than being right in it – albeit a disaster of their own making. This is one of several moments where passivity creeps in, and where I have not made the most of the drama of a situation. So, I’ll be re-reading with an eye to upping the genuine jeopardy.

In conclusion, the most satisfying part of this mentoring session was having the doubts I carried in my own head expressed clearly and constructively by someone else. I would not have been able to bring these all to the surface myself, but over and over I had that ‘Yes, I thought that!’ feeling. The more this happened the more I trusted my mentor, which made me feel I should also think about her suggestions that I didn’t necessarily agree with. On the other hand, I can see that, in order to make my novel into a genuinely marketable (i.e. categorised by age-group and genre, meeting certain criteria sought by publishers) book specifically for young adult readers, and with a strong chance of publication, might require making it into another novel altogether. Now that my writing is altogether better than it was when I wrote The Tarney Scalp, it’s a big commitment to do this. For now, I’m going to do the exercises suggested by my mentor and learn as much as I can from the process, whether or not I go ahead with a full re-write in the end.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Trusting another’s instincts

Where is the best bar, do you think?
I imagine that working with a creative writing mentor is going to be a bit like going on holiday with them. Hurrying through the streets of a half-familiar city, I will spot a bar that looks promising for cheap wine and a chat with a local; she will point out another one up the hill that she recalls gives away free nibbles with its cocktails and has a superb view. I will jump in the first bit of sea I can scramble to down the rocks; she will point out that the water is clearer and the beach sandier just around the headland.

As a writer, there is a constant decision-making process which I find extremely hard – choosing between following my instincts over a word, a phrase, a plot, or accepting the judgement of a constructive critic. There are lots of reasons to take on board another’s point of view. They may simply have a better perspective on a story, not having just laboured over it themselves, and they can therefore point out the darlings that need to be killed. Or they may be armed with many years of experience in editing their own and others’ work. In the moment, when perspective is always lacking, accepting the instincts of another involves trust. Does this person understand what you are trying to achieve? Have they got a ‘feel’ for your work? If not, should you trust their instincts anyway and turn your story into something different but better? Do they have good judgement on all writing?

Yesterday I heard Michael Grade, ex-chairman of the BBC and ITV talking about creative decisions in broadcasting on Radio 4’s Front Row. My ears pricked up when he described a scenario in which his judgement diverged from that of a colleague, but, to paraphrase, he trusted his colleague’s instincts and decided to run the show in question. It was Father Ted; with hindsight he was very glad he didn’t go with his own instincts. Of course, the stakes are pretty high when you are commissioning shows for the BBC, but I wondered at the amount of trust that decision took when he didn’t believe in the show himself.

I’m about to embark on a mentoring process with a writer I don’t (yet) know. She is reading my novel manuscript and the idea is that, with her professional advice, I can turn it into something more publishable. This is an opportunity to be relished; her own novels have been well-received and at first glance appear to have a lot in common with my own in terms of setting, themes and intended audience. When it comes to understanding what makes a publishable novel, she is clearly well positioned.

But what I wonder about when it comes to trusting another writer’s judgement is how broad – or narrow – their understanding is of what makes ‘good writing.’ In order to be good in their eyes, does a novel have to become more like their own? If not, how do they know whether a very different kind of story, and style, has the potential to sell? Of course, being ‘good’ and being ‘sellable’ are two different categories with some overlap in the middle, which is naturally where I would like my novel to be. If our instincts clash over the changes that will put my novel in that sweet spot, will I be able to trust her advice and do it? I have experienced tutoring before that was all about writing in the ‘sellable’ category, and it tortured me because it went against my own instincts around good writing. I’m hoping that in this instance, I’ll have a mentor with a feel for the ‘good’ that I can trust.