Wednesday 10 March 2010


Monday 8th March. The real start of the activity for which I have the ACE grant. My mentor, Maggie Gee and I, met at the British Library, near St Pancras. I had never, to my shame, been here – the largest new build in the UK in the whole of the last century. I was late. A tube train broke down at King’s Cross, holding up the system – typical!

Maggie (henceforth ‘M’ as in Bond, James Bond) had read through the whole draft manuscript – the first time anyone has done that. So her feedback was always going to be invaluable, and my ears were pinned back from the off. It was great - straight talking, no flannel, encouragement and an honest appraisal of where work was needed.

I am very aware of my limitations here, hence this working relationship thanks to ACE. I know a bit about writing short stories, and that is not helping me. Whoever tells you that a novel is a natural progression that begins with the short story may not be talking from experience, that’s my conclusion – there is little in common as far as I can see.

We talked for two hours. M had already spent at least 8 hours reading and making extensive notes…so I needed to listen, and ask, and remember. It felt exhausting. She must have been so too.

She made me ‘see’ the work through the eyes of the reader. To recognise the importance of narrative pull-through. To begin to see where, although there is a backbone to the work, it is weak in places needs strengthening. A very important relationship between two central characters, is very weak – maybe because it only appeared very recently. There are over 60 characters in two timeframes… many subsidiary – and that needs simplifying. I drop important characters and pick ‘em up later – or introduce a new important character too late when they need to be ‘present’ earlier on. All stuff that will hold up the reader – most of whom will read much faster than M, and each omission will stop them in their tracks.

That is THE most valuable lesson. To bring the reader into the equation – something I haven’t done much as a short story writer. Maybe it is easier to just ‘be’ the reader as writer for a short – to hold the whole in your head as a coherent balanced entity. Whereas for a novel, and a complicated one – it is not as doable, and you need a different mindset.

M reckons it is 80% ‘there’.

As my house is full of builders and electricians, and plumbers at the moment, I am working at a friend’s house – doing the minor stuff first. Letting the major stuff mull.


Sue Guiney said...

sounds like an incredibly valuable meeting. It's so terrific that you're doing this. Just think how great you're novel will be, and how far along you already are. 80%! That's big! xo

Lauri said...

80% there is great. I can't imagine how you've managed with such a big cast of characters. And I agree that writing a short story and writing a novel are two completely differnt things. I approach each in very different ways.

Caroline M Davies said...

It sounds invaluable having this sort of relationship to nurture the novel along. What an excellent way to spend tax payers money.

And well done you for being brave enough to be honest about what still needs to be worked on. It's very encouraging to the rest of us.

Jo said...

Vanessa, you're so lucky to have such a great mentor, but I'm sure you know that! I could do with one, too! I get so disheartened with my novel, but your post has encouraged me to persevere. And yes, so different from short story writing. I think I have a similar problem in that I have a lot of characters and don't 'pick up the important ones' when I should. I do try to read it from a reader's point of view, and to write for the reader. I spend most of my time thinking I'm a rubbish writer, that my novel will never be published and why am I wasting my time? Trouble is, there's nothing else I want to do. It's so hard to feel encouraged and to persevere when you have no idea whether you're on the right track. It's like writing into the void. I wonder if I'll have the stamina to finish my novel.

The fact that Maggie says you're 80% there must give you a huge boost. Well done!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hi Sue - it is amazing, and its a great encouragement to just keep going, so easy not to, I suppose.

Lauri - Im holding on to that 80% and hoping it is now 81% or something.

Caroline - well, I am learning a huge amount, and I hope I will be able to pay it back in a round about way. Re being honest - no point in not, really. Plus the fact that I am fed up with writers who 'make it' and stop telling it as it is - instead, everything becomes gold lined. Oh really? I doubt it!

Hi Jo - oh I do hope it is useful... and its nice in a way to know we have similar things to overcome. I took the view - get it all out there - doesnt matter how raw, doesnt matter in what order. You have to get the stuff on the page and then, the work starts.
I dont write for the reader at all, unless I couldnt myself as the reader. But its one ofmy big learning things, I think - discovering how to put on the hat that says 'reader' when doing this sort of edit.

This novel was started in late 2006/early 2007. Its quite old. Lots has happened to it along the way, and it will be great to have it finished. I want to move on to something else.

Rachel Fenton said...

Short stories and novels are very different. I enjoy writing both.

It must be wonderful to have that fresh pair of experienced eyes on your work and for them to say it's 80% good to go - wow - brilliant.

Really pleased for you.

Sounds like an intricate and intriguing novel, too, can't wait to read it when it's out there!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hi Rachel - well, I am nothing if not a realist. It will be 'done' as well as I can do it, with M's guidance at this stage. The rest is out of my control.
Tis certainly intricate. It does like this: Write twelve stories, all set in the same place, about each of 12 men. Make them all wander in and out of each other's stories. Then find a way of gluing the lot together.

Rachel Fenton said...

You got any Jesus glue?

Jenn said...

Well done on your grant - I had one too, for the revising and completion of Cold Light - and like you, I also budgeted for five meetings with a creative mentor in order to help me make the transition from hobby writer to working career writer. I also commissioned an appraisal report, which was invaluable. Are you going to be blogging the whole process of being mentored?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Fresh out of Jesus glue, Rachel!

HI jenn

its soo nice to know you went through something similar, and it workd for you. Mind you - I have never thought of myself as a hobby writer at all. I'm a kept woman, which helps with the bills, is all! And yes - I will be blogging about the mentoring process, and about what I am learning - it seems a nice thing to share if possible. Doing this makes me reflect more on the process.
I have a professional final reader lined up as part of the activity - I guess that takes the role of an 'appraisal'?

Many congrats on your successes!

Jenn said...

Oh no - I didn't mean you were a hobby writer, sorry. I meant for me the mentoring was about career and time management and freelance working - professional development planning I suppose - learning to take myself seriously and so we concentrated on that rather than the in-depth reading and response to the manuscript you seem to be having through your mentoring relationship. My mentor, although she worked with me on structure and character, didn't ever read any of the writing and it didn't stop the experience being a really valuable one. I'm interested in being a mentor myself, and it is nice to know there are so many different kinds.

Anyway - I will be back to see how you get on! Good luck ... x