Tuesday 21 December 2010

Arts' Council Evaluation

I am putting together the evaluation for the AC - I emailed a week or so back and told my contact the news that 'The Coward's Tale', as it now is, has found a great home at Bloomsbury. It is a sobering thought - I was lucky, and managed to secure a grant before the cuts in spending hit - and it was tough enough a year back, believe me. I can't help thinking that my grant was a tiny sum, relatively speaking, and how many wonderful pieces of work would be helped into the world if it was only possible to give a helping hand more often.
Maggie Gee, in writing her evaluation of the mentoring process, made the point that my grant money has enabled her go to New York to research her next novel. So that's two writers helped in one swoop, two pieces of work given a shove into the world.

I didn't have to send these documents in - but because it has been such a successful project, thought it was a good thing to do so. Who is to say - maybe it will encourage a purse string to be loosened a little? I was always a mad optimist.
Anyway, in the spirit of sharing as much as I could on this blog, here is my evaluation paper.


When I applied for this grant to work with Maggie Gee, my manuscript was basically a series of short fictions, all set in the same town, with the same set of characters. I had created a thin and very last-minute ‘linking device’ based on conversations between two characters, and I knew that was patently obvious, and therefore unsatisfactory.
Working with Maggie Gee was marvellous. From the first read-through of the work, she seemed to understand exactly what I was trying to do, and saw some of the seeds of the solution in what I had already created. It was under her guidance and encouragement that these linking sections took on a depth and importance that strengthened the rest of the book, as the relationship between the two characters grew in the most surprising ways. The results have enriched the whole far more than I would have thought possible.
Maggie never told me what to do in terms of the plot. She would point out the issues, and we would discuss the implications of various suggestions, or possible solutions that appeared as we discussed. She wrote extensive and extremely helpful notes for all the manuscripts I sent her, showing me her reactions as an intelligent reader as much as a great teacher.
I learned the importance of creating a narrative thread that pulls the reader through a novel, and that events strung together, even though they are ‘saying something’ cohererent, are not enough.
I learned specific craft skills appropriate for a novel-length work, the necessity for example, to help the reader more than in a short story, especially at the beginning, to identify important characters by using small but definite details. That is a good example of learning to see the work from the reader’s perspective. Maybe it is easier to be more self-indulgent with a short story, but if I wanted to keep the reader’s attention for the length of a novel, I had to learn a few different tricks of the trade. There were plenty of places where the reader’s attention might slip – where I had overdone the descriptions and images, and there was not enough happening. That raised several issues - it was clear that I had overused imagery in places, such that one cancelled out another, and the overall effect was messiness, rather than what I was reaching for. It was marvellous to have those places pointed out – not specifics, necessarily, but passages where the tension slackened.
One very important discussion took place - the most uncomfortable - where the central image, a machine, and a marvellous metaphor, became the target of a possible scythe. This really was my writer's darling - the novel was called 'The Man-Engine' and there were careful descriptions of this device, that got clearer and clearer (at least that was the intention) as the book progressed. But... the book is about the echoes of a mining disaster. It is Wales. And this machine was not in use there. Yes, I could have put in an explanatory paragraph at the end to say I was aware, but this is fiction... but after drafting the said paragraph twenty times, I just couldn't do that. It seemed an image to far, finally. And when I realised that the movement of the machine had given me the structure of the novel - something the publishers commented on in the end, positively - it had done its job.
Did I do everything that Maggie suggested, then? No. For example, there were places where Maggie suggested dropping a specific phrase from the prose, here and there, and on consideration, I left some of them in, because to remove them would have had an impact on the voice and the rhythms. In those instances I tried to find another way of sharpening the experience for the reader in a different way. I think I have learned to listen to my own instincts more. To trust my own skills more than before. The seeds of the main narrative thread were all there – Maggie pointed out the importance of these characters, and their interaction – but also the relative thinness of these sections, as well. I like to think that next time, I will trust the process of creation more, and be able to expand on those things that are important more instinctively.
I learned how much work is necessary to create a manuscript I am really proud of, as opposed to an ‘it will have to do’ creation. I learned that when I thought it was finished, but was a little concerned still about the ending – Maggie picked that up, and I was right to be concerned. I learned that what one thinks is the last of all the many rewrites is never the last. Maybe a work is never ‘finished’.

Overall, as well as having tackled the craft issues necessary to turn a series of linked stories into a novel, I think I am a more confident writer at the end of the mentoring process. Working with Maggie Gee was terrific, and I am very grateful for that opportunity.


  1. Thanks for pinpointing specific issues this writer for one may want to look at in her own writing.
    Bravo on the grant and the publisher, and I love the way one (grant) may equal two (novel projects). Allbest for 2011.

  2. Glad it was useful in some way, Merc - even if it just makes us look again at a comfort zone. I was certainly in one of those - 'don't plot' and 'don't plot' being the mantra I'd heard so much - and I still don't write like that, first pass - but was insecure when it came to the deeper revisions, and anything that had been hard to write - like much of The Coward.

  3. Thanks for sharing that with us, Vanessa. Fascinating and thought provoking reading.

  4. Generous of you to share that - very interesting and useful. Thanks.

    Also, just read your poem at Ink, Sweat & Tears:

    "the saints look on, sad as dogs" - beautiful line.

    A gorgeous festive poem, Vanessa - Merry Christmas!
    Oh, and good luck with that emigration plan!

  5. Congratulations on the book deal and thanks for the illuminating post. Very useful for anyone attempting a novel.

  6. very very useful, thanks for sharing that with us, V!

  7. So glad I followed Tania's link here. Much fodder for thought.

  8. Amazing news about your book, Vanessa. I feel really inspired after reading this evaluation too. Can't wait to read 'The Coward's Tale'.

    It's interesting and again, inspiring, how you developed your short pieces into a 'whole', something I'd love to do one day too. Thank you and good luck with the whole lead up to publication, hope you'll blog about it.

  9. Thanks all. Teresa - that's a terrific idea, to keep a blog recording the journey from now to book. Thanks!