Sunday, September 12, 2010

New Voices Thoughts

Yesterday I received a very special gift. A book containing the very first venture into print - in a short story - by a dear friend. I have a wonderful collection of these 'firstborn' now - the wonderful signs of the earliest success (hopefully only the first of many) from writers I've known, in many cases worked with, encouraged, supported and had my fingers tightly crossed for over the years. Many of them I've met through the RNA, others through courses I've run or workshops I've given. Often they've said how much the 12 Point Guide has helped them too.

And that makes me feel wonderful. I love the thought that I've helped some new writers on their way towards achieving their dream of being published. Although I'm coming to the end of the year of celebrating my 25th anniversary of being published, I still remember only too well what it felt like to send off a manuscript to a publisher and then put myself thorough the waiting game. Waiting and watching - in those day, watching the postman because I had no email and my submissions were full manuscripts in great big padded bags.

So I know too just how the entrants to the New Voices contest are feeling as they prepare, polish, and finally post their entries to the New Voices contest page over on I think this takes an extra sort of bravery - not one that I feel I would probably ever have managed, when I was starting out. It's one thing to submit your work to a trained editor for assessment and critique - quite another to mpost it up on to a public forum for anyone and everyone, friend and foe, to read and judge and criticise.

I've visited the New Voices website several times. It's been interesting to see the number of entries - 175 the last time I looked - growing as more and more are added. I've been intrigued to see the different styles and subjects of the stories, the ones that have stuck to the tried and tested sort of romance, the ones who have tried something different.

What I haven't done is try to judge and specially not to vote or comment. I have to admit to knowing several - quite a few - of the entrants and even though my university training and the work I do for the RNA has taught be to be as totally objective as I can, inevitably, I will have favourtites. Besides, as I've always said, it doesn't matter if your mother and your sister and your aunt and your best friend love the story - the opinion that matters is that of the editors.Ask any author writing today, whether at the start of their journey to publication or after 25+ years and 58 published titles. It's the editor's view that counts. (That's the bit that means I still remember how nerve-wracking it is to send in a new submission - because it still happens every time I do it -now!)

But I'll admit that some of the entries have intrigued me. For several reasons -

One, I'm with Liz Fielding on this one - and her post on the importance of grammar. Like her, I was frequently - far too frequently - thrown out of a good read by the bad grammar in the entry. Like Liz, I use language, style - and, yes, grammar with deliberate effect . An effect that sometimes sends the grammar/spell checker on my word programme into a flurry of red or green underlining as if it can't quite believe what it's seeing - but there's using grammar and there's neglecting or just not understanding it. And one of the problems with the latter is that if it pulls your reader out of the story then it's damaging your writing and weakening your chances.

Two - I have read some very clever, very intriguing posts - but some of them have seemed just a little too clever for me. They read like writing exercises - examples of how to create a 'cute meet' - to 'open with a bang' - or the response to 'write a first chapter in the style of a particular genre' - in this case, obviously romance. They have real spark, no doubt about that - fizz, style, plenty of it - but I'll admit I did sometimes wonder how the story would continue. How the characters would grow and develop into people who came alive on the page and held my interest for another 45,000 words or more.

I hope that the authors of all these first chapters have not just written them in isolation, with a view to hooking a reader rather than to open a story. And I hope that they will build into a story that holds the reader right through to the Happy Ever After moment. I'll be only too happy to see it happen - but I suspect that this is a problem with a contest that needs a first chapter submitting rather than, say the 3 chapters and a synopsis that forms an normal submission. Or the way that I used to submit way back at the beginning of my career - by sending in the whole story so that the editors could see how it worked. I still work that way now - not by selling on proposal, but by sending in the whole manuscript.

And it's going to be a problem for entrants, I think. Because I know from experience that it's one thing to create a good - a great - first chapter. Quite another to take that opening and develop it into a full story. One with peaks and troughs, with pace and emotional punch and emotional devlopment. In my computer I have more opening chapters than I'll ever have published books. Chapters that are fine as they stand - but that never developed into fully grown stories with a hooky beginning, a pacy middle, emotional punch by the bucketload - and a satisfying, sigh-making happy ending.

But then that's an editor's job - to work with a writer and hopefully pull out of them the story that grows from that beginning. I'm not an editor (can I just add here - that heaven!) It's a difficult job, specially when the honest truth is that as they often say they don't know what they're looking for until they see it. These first chapters are, literally, only the beginning. There's a lot of travelling between these submissions and a printed book. Again - ask any published author!

But I admire of the authors who have submitted. There's a lot of hard work in those first chapters, a lot of writing blood sweat and tears that has gone into creating those entries and a great deal of courage in submitting and exposing their 'baby' to the cold, harsh winds of being read and commented on, and judged. It's the only way forward if you hope to be published. You can never get any further unless you take the risk of submitting first. You just have to close your eyes and jump . . . And if you don't succeed this time, you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.

I'm just coming up to the anniversary of the date that I heard from my then editor that the revisions I'd done on my very first book had worked , that they were buying The Chalk Line, and my novel was actually going to be published. To be honest, I'm still amazed that I ever had the nerve to send it in. It was a scary, frustrating and often long drawn out experience. But I'm so glad I found that courage.

And I hope that so many of you who have had the bravery to enter the New Voices contest will end up feeling the same way too. I know what it feels like to have that very special dream - and I wish you every good luck for the hope of it coming true.


lidia said...

You brought up grammar -- a big sore point with me. Many published authors use bad grammar when it comes to the use of "me" and "I." It surprises me that the editors don't catch these things.

A few years back a lot was written about the missuse of "me". Now everyone uses "I" even when "me" should be used.

For example, Sally and I went to the park -- correct. You can speak to either Sally or I (incorrect)-- You can speak to either Sally or me (correct).

What baffles me is that the "check" to determine whether to use "I" or "me" is simple but people just don't bother.

You wouldn't say "You can speak to I" instead you say "You can speak to me" therefore, "You can speak to Sally or me" is the correct form.

I can't tell you the number of published HPs with those mistakes. It is rather sad that neither the author nor the editor pick up on these type of mistakes.

In case you haven't notice, this is a pet peeve (another - LOL) of mine!

lidia said...

Of course, I posted with typos and there is no editing feature. Oh well!

Scarlet Wilson said...

I've been driven insane by the number of typos, grammar mistakes and sometimes factual errors that I've encountered in New Voices. But I've only been driven insane because these things throw me out the story and makes me reread and sometimes try to reunderstand a sentence. (Drat - I'm quite sure reunderstand isn't a word - but you know what I mean!)
I don't want to do that, I want to flow through these stories and read them for pure enjoyment. There are some real gems in there, can't wait to vote for my favourites!

Quillers said...

Interesting post, Kate. I too have been dismayed by the number of grammatical errors in stories. There are some where I haven't even commented because I felt I'd really be putting the boot in to someone who is probably as nervous as I am about entering.

I wonder if you've got the time, whether could expand on what you mean by a 'cute meet'. Bringing my hero and heroine together is one of the things I really struggle with (and don't get me started on getting them to the point of actually kissing!).

LindseyHughes said...

Thanks Kate you made my day. I have been privately contemplating the sustainability of 'slap in the face' opening chaps, and felt a right bitch for doing so. Having quickly reviewed 30 odd MB moderns published over the past 12 months, its amazing to see how many (nearly all) established authors adopt a more measured pace.

PS Working v closely with your 12 Point book without which I would be lost.

Rachael Thomas said...

An interesting post Kate, especially as I have just been brave enough to enter New Voices.
I really hope that mine is not an entry riddled with grammar errors. I have read my ts over and over, but sometimes you can be too close to your own work.
I have also written a synopsis and discovered more about my characters as I hope to continue with the entry once I've finished my current wip. Your 12 point guide and courses have at least taught me that writing a first chapter on its own is not the best way forward and I hope it shows in my entry.
Good luck to all entrants.

Kate Walker said...

Hi Lidia. I know that grammar concerns you. Sometimes I use it creatively and for deliberate effect - but I do think a writer should know the right way to do things. Personaly I grit my teeth when I see apostrophes where none should be and things like that. It can spoil a read for me because it pulls me out of the book and the story.

Kate Walker said...

Hi Susan
I totally agree with you - those mistakes in grammar and any factual errors ruin a read for me. When submitting a novel for a major publisher it needs to be as professionally presented as possible and those mistakes lessen the professionalism of the submission.

And if reunderstand isn't a real word, it should be! I underestood exactly what you meant.

Kate Walker said...

Hi Sally - you've put your finger on a problem about commenting. I think that the comments are so that the editors can see which stories appeal to readers - but if there are grammar problems etc then that is going to detract from the comments on the story which is why I wish people would check their grammar, spelling etc before sending in submissions. I always do a spellcheck etc before I send in a ms. I may have an MA but I can still make mistakes.

'Cute meet' hmm - personally I dislike (very much) the use of 'cute' in that - it implies that it has to be quirky, fun, over-clever . . . I'll have a think about your question and hope to get back to it.

You really should come on one of my courses!

Kate Walker said...

I'm glad you agree Lindsay - I felt that some of these chapters read more as if they were working on a 'chapter' rather than the opening of a book. There is a gap - quite a wide one - between a punch you in the face opening that may have impact but then where do you go from there, and one that is less dynamite but carefully sows the seeds for plenty of conflict later on. I suspect that is what the published authors are aiming for.

Thank you for the comliment on the 12 Point Guide - I'm always delighted to hear that people have found it helpful because after all that was why I wrote it!

Kate Walker said...

Hello again Rachael - good luck to you, and Quillers and anyone else who has had the courage to enter New Voices - I hope you do well.

I agree that sometimes you can be too close to your own work, but as I said, a submission needs to be as professional as possible.

I'm glad that you have looked at your entry as not just the first chapter but the beginning of a story - but then when you've been on my course, I wouldn't expect anythign else from you! You are so right that writing only the first chapter is not the best way forward - I always, always go back over my first chapter once I've finished the book.

Quillers said...

I know I should come to a course, Kate. Sadly I'm booked up on the day you're doing the Halifax one, babysitting my little princess.

At the moment I'm settling for the next best thing and reading my way through your 12 Point Guide. I'm up to Chapter 11, and I've learned loads from reading it. It proves that what the reader thinks is effortless is actually very well thought out and blooming hard work.


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