Mary-Anne Harrington, Publisher, Tinder Press.
I think we’ve all spent far more time in the past year watching TV than we have previously, and the bar there is now very high in terms of story development and narrative structure. I remember Andrea Levy remarking how useful she found TV drama in terms of pacing character and story development, so if you’re struggling a bit, perhaps take a leaf out of her book. Think about what you’ve written, and then ask yourself, if you were adapting it for TV or film, where would you begin. What would be the next scene, and the next scene. Is there anything you would take out? It might not work for everyone, but it’s an enjoyable exercise and a way to feel you’ve put those armchair hours to good use… And it may just leave you with a leaner and more dynamic manuscript when you come to submit, which is no bad thing.
Let’s talk voice
Whenever I’m asked what I look for in a manuscript, I so often end up talking about voice. When I happen upon something that really stops me in my tracks. I’ll often be able to picture exactly where I was when I first read it (I will never forget reading the prologue and most of In Our Mad and Furious City into the small hours on my phone, and not just because my Kindle wasn’t working). But every bit as important as those amazing opening pages was what came next, the way the author, Guy Gunaratne, plunged me into a story (about four young men on a London housing estate over the course of 48 hours) in which the stakes were high, and that never stopped moving. Once that narrative got its hooks into me, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from that tiny, illuminated screen.
The business of storytelling
As a judge on the Novel Award I’ve been struck by how much our judging conversations centre around this business of storytelling. Do we care enough about this story, does it unfold in a compelling and confident way, how does the sample we have before us make us feel about the prospect of the book in its entirety? Are we learning enough, quickly enough, about the characters and their motivations and relationships, what they stand to gain or to lose?
It’s interesting to me because as judges – author, agent, publisher and editorial consultant – we come from different disciplines, and have our own personal tastes. But as we narrow down from longlist to shortlist stage, and from shortlist to winner and runner up, we tend to be in fairly broad agreement. The books we’ve wanted to celebrate are the ones that set up scenes confidently, that keep us, if not in suspense, then at least intrigued or guessing. They’re the ones where we know we’d carve out the time to read the full MS, even once the competition is done and dusted.
Story is the engine that makes fiction tick
So when you’re preparing to submit, maybe don’t prioritise your prose style, think instead about how you can show us that you’re in control of the story you have to tell. How does the second chapter develop the scenario you’ve set up in your first? Do we learn enough about the relationship between the characters and why they should interest us? Is your structure engaging enough – is there any slack you could afford to take out. Where should your story begin, do we need to start at a), or might it be more engaging to start in the middle of the action, then flash back, and then jump forward? Maggie O’Farrell has said that when she starts to write, she doesn’t always know where the finished book will begin. Her recent novel, Hamnet, which is essentially a portrait of a marriage doesn’t start with the first encounter between the couple on whom it centres. It opens with the moment of crisis, ten years later, that sets the plot ticking, then looks back to tell us how the characters got to this point.
Story is the engine that makes fiction tick, it’s what makes it a wonderful simulacrum of life that we can escape into. It’s what gives it its power to provoke and challenge us and make us think.
Mary-Anne is one of our Bridport Prize partners and helps judge the novel award. Tinder Press is Headline’s literary imprint and their bestselling and award-winning authors include Maggie O’Farrell, Patrick Gale, Deborah Moggach and Guy Gunaratne. They have a a diverse list of fiction and non-fiction, with both commercial clout and prize-winning potential.