“I’m so interested in the books that slip between the cracks.”
The Bath Novel Awards are all about championing emerging talent. With so many listees going on to win publishing deals, including multiple six-figure acquisitions, we are thrilled to have teamed up with Cornerstones’ Scouting Programme for an additional prize for all listees. As well as our £3,000 winner’s prize and Minerva trophy, shortlist prize of award readers’ feedback on full manuscripts, plus longlist prize of a place on Cornerstones & Professional Writing Academy’s online editing course for one lucky longlistee, all Bath Novel Awards listed entrants will also now win feedback from a leading editorial director.
Here, Cornerstones’ editorial and scouting director Monica Chakraverty details this exciting new feedback prize and shares what editors and book scouts are looking for.
Thank you for this fantastic new opportunity for all Bath Novel Awards listees. Can you describe the feedback, including the type of copy edit and developmental edit suggestions you might include?
Firstly, I’m delighted to be working with this award and look forward to seeing what – I’m sure – will be an incredibly strong longlist!
I’ll be giving online feedback on the first ten (double-spaced) pages of text and the synopsis, offering my margin comments. I’ll also supply a paragraph summary of what I think works best, along with some pointers if I feel there are areas that could benefit from further development. Sometimes the work can be strengthened through incremental tweaks here and there whereas, with other submissions, something might feel slightly off the mark. It always helps to get another informed viewpoint – particularly if an author has been working on multiple drafts and has lost some objectivity, not seeing the wood for the trees!
What are the elements of a writing style that make you want to read on?
From high concept to family drama, it’s the variety that makes my work so interesting. I love, strong, distinctive voices that define a book from the outset; an intriguing hook and crackling tension; a plot that keeps me guessing with twists and turns along the way; an unusual viewpoint, or leftfield stance; perhaps a protagonist who’s flawed, towards whom we have conflicting emotions. The work would be secured with confident, seductive prose with a distinctive feel and a rejection of the formulaic. There are complex layers that capture the imagination and switch a reader from objective to compulsive reading.
What’s the secret to helping an author to understand what it is like for a reader to read their book?
As I mentioned, redraft after redraft can sap energy and direction from an author so that it’s hard to remember the original spark that ignited the story. Once lift-off has been secured in a narrative, it’s about maintaining pace and tension – even if it’s a delicately told, true story, the pages need to keep turning. I’ve worked on celebrity autobiographies, and they still need a story arc with escalating action leading to some form of climactic peak.
Authors often rely on friends and family to give feedback on their book and, although this can often be hugely supportive, it can also act as a double-edged sword. This is partly a matter of loyalty and affiliation, but someone close might also not wish to be too judgemental, or be so dazzled that their nearest and dearest has written something that they lose any objectivity!
I hope my role will be to allow those who are so near the finishing line to have some positive, constructive feedback where needed, and also to make some suggestions when things feel slightly off course.
As Head of Cornerstones’ Scouting Programme, you look for manuscripts by authors interested in being mentored and presented to agents. How does the selection process work and how polished does a manuscript need to be to be accepted for this scheme?
I work with Helen Corner-Bryant, the director of Cornerstones, to isolate those special manuscripts that we feel have commercial potential for the author but which have, so far, not caught an agent’s eye. It’s a referral-only process and so we look to other editors, who refer the manuscripts they’re most impressed with.
If work is referred to the Scouting Programme, we provide feedback on the first 50 pages as a free service to these terrific writers, and will call in the rest of the manuscript if we feel it’s ready. Some manuscripts are nearly there and might benefit from mentoring or a redraft, and we’re happy to look at the work again once the author feels it’s ready.
When we’re all happy with the submission, we’ll use our industry contacts to be ensure the manuscript is put directly in front of agents who we feel could represent it well. There’s been huge success in the past with the Scouting Programme, resulting in multiple commissions from publishing houses with whom authors often go on to publish further titles.
You’re especially interested in exciting outsider manuscripts – those with the potential to create ‘black swan’ moments. What is it about a book that marks it out as having the potential to surprise the market?
Oh yes, the black swans are definitely out there! By this, I’m referring to the books that no one can predict until they actually arrive – they exist outside of current trends and create a huge ripple effect in their wake.
Within my career, I’ve found that some publishers and agents can slip into what works as a tried-and-tested formula on books. Evolution, however, is key to any healthy industry and breakthrough titles can help redefine a whole genre if they prove strong enough. There are plenty of examples in the past, and most authors now know that no one wanted to publish wizard books until J. K. Rowling had success with Bloomsbury Publishing, her 12th submission. Of course, after that, no publisher or agent could get enough wizard books and we’re all guilty of reaction rather than action on occasions. I’m so interested in the books that slip between the cracks, ones that have so much to offer but that perhaps aren’t valued due to being regarded as outliers.
Why are publishers willing to take more of a risk on these kind of books than perhaps an agent might?
I feel that the publishing world has begun to close the circle. Agents have taken on the traditional role of publishers, in terms of filtering through unsolicited manuscripts from first-time authors, and some publishers are looking for gaps in the market. There’s been an emergence of more formulaic commissioning, which is often a result of everyone needing a sure-fire result in tougher economic times, but the role of a publisher is to allow new voices and ideas to constantly emerge, even those that might not sell in huge numbers.
When I was commissioning for my own list, at HarperCollins, I was occasionally allowed a wildcard. This meant the sales and marketing teams weren’t quite convinced of potential sales but, editorially, there was a passion and belief in a manuscript that swept everyone along in its path. Sometimes these pet projects worked, sometimes they didn’t, but none of us regretted what we were trying to do.
Lastly, any submission tips for entrants on editing their very best draft?
It’s often a good idea to take time away from the book and then return to it with fresh eyes as one can become a little ‘book blind’ looking at the same narrative structure day after day.
Focus on a synopsis that’s tight and on one sheet of A4, however hard this is to create – between 500 and 800 words should do it. The purpose of a synopsis is to allow others to gain a sense of your story but it can also be brilliant in terms of highlighting any strengths or weaknesses within the manuscript itself. If the synopsis falls slack in the middle section, question why this is within the book itself; does it feel like there are too many characters, or have you simply lost the momentum of the central journey with too many detours? I find it such a valuable tool to look at this additional submission material with a forensic eye and would advise that as a key starting point.
First-time authors often find themselves overwriting so allow yourself the freedom to create your work instinctively but also be prepared to rip away what feels superfluous on a redraft, even if this represents many thousands of words.
A final piece of advice is to ensure you’re not attempting to predict the market. You’ve devoted thought, time and skill to an idea that you’re passionate about so allow that momentum to carry you through, and don’t concern yourself about others!
I can’t wait to dive in and get reading.
MONICA CHAKRAVERTY has over twenty years’ experience as an editor in the publishing industry, and four of her titles have topped the Sunday Times Bestseller List. She worked as an editorial director at HarperCollins Publishers, where she commissioned and edited her own list, transforming manuscripts and original ideas into successful, desirable books for a competitive market. Her freelance work includes editing books for Dorling Kindersley and Profile Books, as well as assessing novels for Picador and appearing as a speaker at Faber Academy.
She’s now joined Cornerstones Literary Consultancy as editorial director of their scouting programme where, along with director Helen Corner-Bryant, she introduces debut writers to agents. The scouting programme is by referral only, allowing Monica and Helen to champion authors who they believe have terrific, publishable books with huge potential. They then use their contacts within the industry to give a final push through to finding each author a dream agent who will see the book through to eventual publication. www.cornerstones.co.uk