Mentoring: from novella to novel
Captivated by the Caithness coastal landscape, a connection to an intriguing early Scottish map-maker, and a local folk tale, I came up with the story of a contemporary cartographer who isolates herself in the far north-east of Scotland and befriends a remarkable boy. I knew I could deliver a decent story in the short form and had two published collections, but this story wanted to be a novel, and a previous attempt at writing one had not been a success.
During the first draft this time I forgot about any audience or possibility of publication and just enjoyed the flow. But then with 55,000 words and a rough beginning, middle and end, I started to think about a reader, or even readers, and realised a) I still had a very long way to go , and b) I lacked confidence. That’s where SBT’s Mentoring Scheme came in. I asked for support for an attempt to transfer my skills in short fiction to a longer narrative and I got it!
I was fortunate to be matched with Andrew Crumey, a highly experienced novelist, writing tutor and mentor. During 2011 we met four times, and ahead of each meeting I made a fairly substantial redraft of the material, which he read in its entirety. Being answerable to an agreed deadline was invaluable in itself, but at each stage he encouraged me in the shifts I’d made towards my goal and gently challenged me on areas that needed further thought. In this way we worked our way towards a draft that I was able to send to my agent in January 2012. That was by no means the end of the drafting process, but this supported questioning and coaxing strengthened my own critical approach thereafter.
Questions about the shape and intention of the novel included its length and complexity – initially it was more like a novella than a novel because of its closed set of characters, limited themes and brevity. Over the course of the mentoring this changed: some of the material deepened; the main character rounded; the cast grew; the initial impulses of folk tale and map history slipped into their rightful places and the real conflicts of the story moved into the foreground.
Initially I was resistant to some of the more radical changes implied by our discussions. For example, Andrew suggested that an important revelation I had retained till near the end to act as the climax, might need to come earlier. He didn’t over-egg it, and, daunted by the structural changes implied, I looked the other way. Some time later I realised this shift was inescapable to make sense of the protagonist’s behaviour. And the novel’s climax was something else. Once I’d decided, the adjustments were not as hard to make as I’d feared. The skill of the mentor was alerting me to an issue and then allowing me time to decide whether or how to tackle it.
Call of the Undertow will be published by Freight Books on 14 October.
If you have a writing project you'd like some intensive support with, apply for our Mentoring Scheme. Deadline for applications is Friday 6 September.