A Mentee’s Journey 3: Voyage’s End

A year’s mentoring with Cinnamon Press has concluded. My novel, The Tears of Boabdil, went through three new drafts. It transformed, in large part through the critiques from the scheme. This is the work of which I’m most proud.

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This is what my mentor, Adam Craig, had to say about the final draft.

This is a very effective, absorbing literary novel and Neil’s to be commended for his dedication and hard work—Tears of Boabdil is a much improved MS and Neil has dug very deeply into the narrative and managed to bring out aspects and ideas that were not present in the original draft.”

Adam also noted,

Tears of Boabdil is a thematically ambitious novel, interweaving multiple narrative lines around a central character who does not have a fixed identity. The manuscript in the form originally submitted for mentoring had several drawbacks in terms of structure, narrative pace and voice, and in the evolution of its central character, Zami/Vince. Neil’s dealt very ably with restructuring such a complex narrative, streamlining it while adding a great deal of pace and tension. The evolution of the psychotic nature of the central character is convincingly portrayed in this draft, not only through the device of mirroring the main narrative in various tales and stories (which was present in the original mentoring draft) but also creating a new thread based around the character’s parents that is extremely well integrated into this draft and is also both disturbing and arresting.”

All very encouraging. And they considered it publishable. More disappointing was that they decided not to publish it.  They preferred the voice of two other mentees’ works, and felt it was a hard genre, being both literary and a thriller.

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My task now is to make that complication a selling point. I had intended that the thriller/ romance frame story would make the more literary content accessible. One of my readers had this to say about it, proving the fusion of the genres worked for her.

I’m really enjoying your form of storytelling. It’s different than anything else I’ve read and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to follow. But it really works for me. Your story is very complex and layered, and you’re doing a really good job of balancing those layers. Most of the books I read simply hand me the story and don’t make me think, but you are and I like that. You’ve got me guessing as to what will happen and I very rarely even attempt to do that!  I don’t normally read anything remotely like this, but it’s been amazing, and a good exercise in the value of stepping outside our usual genres every once in a while.”

 

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A Mentee’s Journey 2: First Pass

As I reported at the beginning of the year, I was awarded a year’s mentoring by Cinnamon Press for my novel The Tears of Boabdil. I got first comments back from my mentor, Adam, in March, and more detailed comments in May.  So I can now honour my promise to update you on how it’s going.

Adam made very helpful observations about a recurring aspect of the novel, which I had rendered as “voices” in the narrator’s head. He pointed out that this was confusing, and I have now turned them into separate characters with a distinct story thread. There were useful comments too on places where the story needed more room to breathe. I’ve added about 10,000 words so far.

More problematically, he has also been emphatic that the opening doesn’t work because it prevents the reader immersing themselves. It jumps around in place and time. He’s right, but the thing is I don’t want the reader to immerse themselves in the first chapter. This is a book about lies and I want the reader to consciously interrogate what is being told them. So, we have different visions of how the book should work.

I was aware how risky it is to ignore the usual imperative to hook your reader. So I tested response to chapter 1, using thirteen independent beta readers on Scribophile, only one of whom had any relationship with me. Over three quarters of them said they would read on. As an ex-scientist, I’m driven by the data. I’ve made the chapter a little less demanding to navigate, but I’m going to stick with my plan.

Of course, you don’t have to agree with everything a mentor says. But a mentor is a trusted counsellor and guide. They will normally have more experience and knowledge than the mentee, though peer mentoring is possible. The relationship is neither that of a critique buddy, nor that of a teacher, though there are overlaps with both roles. I think the difference is the degree of trust required on the part of the mentee, and the degree of nurturing on the part of the mentor.

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Mentor Me MD

There is no agreed definition of what mentoring is. So, compiled from various sources, this is my best sense.

The mentor should:

  • Manage the relationship
  • Encourage
  • Nurture and champion
  • Teach, advise, and coach. Play Devil’s advocate and “truth-sayer”: provide the tough feedback that mentee needs to hear in order to move forward; push the mentee to take risks when appropriate
  • Offer/ develop mutual respect Support mentees’ own development and resist temptation to create a clone. Help mentee find own solutions
  • Respond to learner’s needs

The mentee should:

  • Identify learning goals. take an active role in their own learning and help drive the process
  • Be open to and seek feedback
  • Follow through on commitments
  • Take informed risks as they try new options and behaviours in support of development goals.

This is a complex relationship. And that complexity is probably the reason why both mentor and mentee need to have a role in choosing who they want to work with. Experience is that assigning mentors often does not produce good results.  In my case, the mentor was assigned. Time will tell about the results.

A Mentee’s Journey 1: Anticipations from an arranged marriage

In December Cinnamon press awarded me a place on their year-long writers’ mentorship programme.  Last week I learned who my mentor for the year will be: Adam Craig. He co-runs Cinnamon Press, and is the author of two novels, a collection of short stories and a prose poetry sequence. His novels are literary, his short stories, he says, more genre “generally in a fantastic/SF/weird fiction vein.” I write this without our relationship having started yet, filled with excitement and anxiety, a little like a bride in an arranged marriage.

 

 

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The prospect is exciting and daunting. The last time I took my work to a published author, I was 18, and the author was the poet in residence at my University.

“Come back in a week,” he said.

A week later, he said. “I have to ask you a question first: are you serious about writing?”

I said I was.

“Then,” he thundered “who the f*** do you think you are? Do you believe you’re the first person who’s ever had those emotions? Get a grip, lad. Get some distance.”

It was brutal, but I learned a lot from him. I’m hoping Adam will be less brutal, but equally insightful.

The mentor-mentee relationship is a sensitive one. Sure, it’s about the transfer of knowledge and experience, but it’s also about building trust and understanding and establishing an agreed way of working. Perhaps, it’s a little like making a friendship, if not a marriage.

I think I can see why Cinnamon paired me with Adam. This is the blurb for his experimental novel Vitus Dreams:

“An explorer dreams of a sea and a land beyond that can be found on no map …

A naval officer becomes lost inside maps of his own making, his wife lost inside her pleas that someone search for her husband …

And, as a singer struggles to make sense of the ordinary things around her, a hitman is trapped in an endless bid to escape …

Meanwhile, two complete strangers plod through their day-to-day lives as they pour their hearts into writing a novel — but which one is the fictional character and which the author?

An ever-shifting kaleidoscope, by turns moving and funny, intense and tender, Vitus Dreams draws you into a place where our basic assumptions about the real and the concrete are shattered to leave us with no choice but to rely on instinct and the people around us, if they exist.”

My novel on which I’ll be working with Adam, The Tears of Boabdil, is also about uncertainty, though there are huge differences. Adam’s book is anti-narrative and poetic, while mine is a story, albeit a fractured one. My protagonist is an undercover policeman attempting to penetrate a jihadi cell. He embarks on a doomed taboo liaison with a beautiful quarry, and must choose to betray his love or his duty. This book, about politics and passion, tracks the magic and the tragedy of a lie. These stories are doubled by a magical tale of a fifteenth century Spanish nobleman who falls in love with a Muslim woman in Moorish Spain. Gradually, the magical rules of this tale permeate the policeman’s world, and reality becomes the story we tell about it.

I have sent Adam the manuscript. All will go quiet now until he gets back to me around the end of February. I will keep this diary updated as a chronicle of a mentee’s journey.