Assessor Feedback - Publisher Introduction Program 2019
This year’s Publisher Introduction Program submissions represented an interesting cross-section of Australian writing - from engaging genre fiction to literary novels (several quite daring) and short-story collections to a relative handful of non-fiction - mostly in memoir and biography.
Some writers already had runs on the board with previous publications and awards; others were fresh out of the starting gate with their entries, by no means a handicap. Inevitably, the assessors were both impressed by what we read and daunted by the task of selection. It is important that those who were not selected retain their writing elan and dedication.
Not making it across the hurdles in one competition does not mean you will never - at some point - enter the winner’s circle. Persistence pays.
It was a pleasure to read the manuscripts for the Publisher Introduction Program and to discuss them at the panel meeting. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes one manuscript more compelling than another, but for me, the most absorbing were those which were written in an authentic voice, and which left space for the reader’s imagination.
I found many of the short story collections particularly captivating and well-crafted. There were also many powerful stories contained within the memoirs and narrative non-fiction works. The most absorbing of these paid close attention to the narrative arc and characterisation, rather than relying on chronology as the sole structural principle.
Another feature of stronger manuscripts was evocative and embodied writing which encouraged the reader to identify with the characters and to care about their fates. Those manuscripts in which the writer had paid close attention to the sound and rhythm of the language, and the ways in which this enhances meaning and flow, also captured my interest. The most compelling created a visceral response in me, embedding the narratives strongly in memory.
A full-length manuscript is a major achievement in itself, and I appreciated the work and time that was put into each one of the submissions.
I was very impressed by the manuscripts I read as a PIP assessor. It was very clear to me that all the authors had put a lot of hard work into writing, revising and polishing their manuscripts.
My advice to writers who submitted manuscripts but weren’t shortlisted and those who intend to submit work in the future would be that a strong narrative voice will immediately make their manuscript stand out to the assessors.
Another tip would be that exposition is essential, particularly in fiction, to balance out the use of description, scenes, dialogue and characters’ thoughts. Though many creative writing books and teachers exhort writers to ‘show not tell’ my advice is to ‘show AND tell’. It’s always hard to find the right balance between scenes and dialogue vis a vis exposition or ‘telling’, and even some of the most experienced writers don’t achieve this balance. However, exposition enables authors to provide context and background at the beginning of a novel, deepen characterisation and link the action where scenes and dialogue aren’t necessary and would slow the manuscript down.
In addition, it’s important for literary authors, to have a compelling plot and/or a sense of growth in the characters as the novel progresses.
Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors and kudos to everyone who submitted.
It was an incredible privilege to consider 90 or so of the 146 submissions over nearly three months for the publishing fellowships. It was clear all of the manuscripts were projects of intense passion and commitment for each writer. For an awards judge, a literary agent, a publisher and/or an editor, it’s always humbling to be one of an unpublished manuscript’s first readers, and I know all of the judges for this Varuna-led program undertook the task of reading the entries with the utmost respect for the process.
Having to consider at least one manuscript a day over about 90 days was sometimes a little overwhelming, particularly with everyday commitments (work, family, etc!) but it meant that my reading had to have a very clear focus on how strong the voice was in each manuscript, how compelling the characterisation and plot were, and whether I could anticipate the manuscript working on particular publishers’ lists, given my knowledge of the individual publishers offering the fellowships.
The collective process of deciding on the shortlist was intensive but fairly straightforward as the four judges were mainly in agreement during our meeting together about the longlisted manuscripts. Where rankings and scores might have initially been disparate between the judges, we were all able to come to a consensus effectively, though probably every judge had at least one manuscript they wished had scored much higher with the other judges.
I was surprised that all three collections of short stories that were part of the 146 entries were so strong – as an agent the quality of short stories I’ve seen in recent years hasn’t been as high as the ones we considered as part of this process. In my time as an agent I learnt very quickly that collections of short stories by emerging writers are more often than not a very difficult sell to publishers. However, all three collections of short stories made it on to the shortlist because they displayed originality, an excellent control of narrative tension and sophisticated plots in many of their stories. The three writers clearly have immense potential and some of the stories may be able to be developed into longer-form fiction.
All of the memoirs and biography I read were polished, compelling and poignant, even those that did not make the shortlist. Some needed to focus more on the voice and language, rather than intricate factual detail and some needed to be reduced in word count to make them more engaging (though some of the entrants acknowledged this in their applications).
The literary fiction manuscripts that made it through to the shortlist did so because they felt inventive, bold and multi-layered. I found that some writers described their novels as literary fiction when they might better be described as commercial fiction, but I acknowledge that labels are often problematic. Some of the novels used as comparison titles also felt somewhat questionable; my advice to writers considering entering their manuscripts into the fellowship in future years would be to compare your work to books that have been in the market recently (in the past three years) and are not too obscure. The literary fiction that did not make it through to the shortlist needed further drafts to develop more texture and perhaps more complex characterisation.
There was some solid commercial fiction in the submissions and those novels that made the shortlist were well paced, had an interesting hook, and intriguing characters. The commercial fiction manuscripts that didn’t make it through was mainly because of their concepts not being arresting enough to get all four judges to come to a consensus on their merits, or the novel might have lacked subplots or adequate exposition. Some novels relied on dialogue too heavily, perhaps because the writers felt tentative about using narrative exposition. It’s probably always better to use a little too much than too little, as it can always be pared back.
Ultimately, although the selection process was as fair as we could possibly make it, there is always an element of arbitrariness about judging, and so I feel that none of the entrants should be disheartened because they didn’t make it to the shortlist this time around. My advice is always to leave the manuscript for a few months, read copiously in the genre in which you’re writing, and return to your next draft with renewed vigour (and the knowledge that you have already achieved so much in having a complete draft).
Congratulations to all of those writers longlisted and shortlisted, and thank you to the other writers who gave us the opportunity to consider their work. Many thanks to everybody at Varuna for the passion and commitment you show to the Australian writing and publishing communities and for facilitating programs such as these publishing fellowships.