Friday, 17 February 2017

The Big 5 Diary #1

In November last year, we announced the winner of our Big 5 Competition, chosen from a shortlist by judge Sheila Bugler.

Sophie Wellstood’s entry, The Sky is a Blue Bowl, took the first prize - a year-long mentorship by Triskele Books.

That was three months ago. What’s happened since?

Stage One: Sophie made the final edits to her book and sent it to us for editorial feedback.

Stage Two: Catriona Troth, a professional editor, went through the manuscript with both a critical and appreciative eye, in order to give detailed feedback. As a second pair of eyes, JJ Marsh also read the book and offered overall notes.

Stage Three: We compared our reactions and responded to Sophie.

Here’s what Catriona had to say:

Like everyone who read Sophie's opening chapter, I fell in love with Edith and wanted to curl up on a grassy hillside with her and share a glass of cider.
I loved the evocation of the New Zealand landscape, and gentle rhythms of the honey shed.

I did however have a few issues to do with the big cast of characters, and also with the book's structure, especially towards the end. There were some characters I felt were insufficiently grounded before we moved on to meet the next, which allowed them to become jumbled up and hard to tell apart. Others slipped at times into stereotype. And Wyn herself (the book's narrator) could come across as immature and sometimes hard to sympathise with.

The pacing of the novel was a little off - moving almost sleepily at times and then suddenly cramming events together in a way that was exhausting to read. When what had felt to me like the book's main thread came to an end - in a deeply satisfying and genuinely moving conclusion - the book carried on, leaving me with a slightly confused sense of what it was really about.

None of these felt to me like insurmountable obstacles to what could be a really excellent book. I provided Sophie with a four page report explaining my thoughts, plus a set of line edits on the manuscript - lit blue touch paper and stood well back.

Stage Four: Sophie got to work as a result of our opinions.

Here’s her take on the process so far:

It’s been a fairly intense few weeks. Whilst the MS was sitting with Catriona and Jill, I worked on the second novel and various short stories, but kept fiddling with this one. I’d subbed it to a number of agents who were mostly very complimentary but they weren’t in love with it enough to take it on. I knew there were aspects of the plot, the structure and some of the characters that needed overhauling – a couple of plot developments in particular really nagged at me - but I just didn’t have the necessary insight or confidence – or motivation - to know what to change, or how. At times I felt very deflated and tired with the whole thing.

Receiving Catriona and Jill’s feedback and editorial suggestions was exactly the kick up the backside I needed. Two pairs of fresh, professional, experienced authorial eyes and insight; two unbiased brains, two experienced readers. For free.

It’s reassuring to know what works; that scenes and voice are strong and affecting and believable - but by far the most valuable editorial notes have been of the sleeves-rolled-up-don’t-spare-my-feelings nature. I asked for tough, critical notes, and got them. Catriona has nailed the exact weaknesses in character and plot that were nagging at me, and it’s genuinely exciting to go back and re-work these people, what they get up to and the consequences of their actions.

There has been one major, major change (I won’t say what here) which has impacted every aspect of the story – it was something my instincts were telling me to do long before this competition, and it feels right. The knock-on effect of course is that threads become unravelled, some actions are inappropriate or irrelevant, something someone does at 10k needs resolving at 60k, etc etc, but having Catriona’s all-seeing editorial eye – I’ve started thinking of her as my virtual sat nav – means that I can trust her to see where I’ve (literally) lost the plot.

There are some recommendations that I need more time to digest – suggestions around the structure towards the end of the story, how it reaches its climax / conclusion; how it all comes together. We’ve discussed how the beginning and ending of the story are really quite different in terms of pace, and how I might change the order of events – this is something I’m still thinking about. I don’t necessarily disagree – I’m just processing the amount of work it will involve!

I couldn’t be more grateful for this support, though. The story is growing a tougher spine, and (Catriona has picked me up on my liberal sprinklings of mixed metaphors) a new pair of wings. And so have I. Thank you!

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