A Tale of Two Novels: Thoughts on winning the Bridport Prize by S.M. Misra

Somerset Maugham said, “There are three secrets to writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are?” I wouldn’t want to disagree with so eminent and successful a writer but, as I have discovered through winning the Bridport Prize, there are certainly things that an aspiring novelist can do to reveal the mystery.

The winner of the Bridport Prize receives six mentoring sessions and a manuscript review from The Literary Consultancy. The mentoring involves submitting six 10,000 word sections of a novel in progress over the course of a year to a mentor who reads it and provides a written report on each section containing constructive criticism and practical suggestions. The manuscript assessment is done by an experienced editor who produces a report on a completed novel pointing out what works well, providing specific structural advice about basic narrative elements and suggesting parts of the novel the writer would be well advised to revisit! The Bridport Prize team quite sensibly assume the winner will use both the mentoring and the manuscript assessment to complete and perfect the work for which the prize was awarded – in my case a novel called, The Unbelonging of Taksheel Chaturveydi.

But I had already completed The Unbelonging – the story of a Brahmin émigré to London set between India and England over a thirty-year period beginning in 1932 - and, having spent over a decade writing it, was desperate to start something new. I was a few thousand words into a new novel called In the Days that Came After – a contemporary study of grief and desire in mid-life presented in the form of a portrait of two marriages and set in north London. Feeling indomitable in the afterglow of the delightful prize giving lunch in Dorset, I decided that I would like to have the completed manuscript of The Unbelonging assessed but use the mentoring to make progress on the new novel. The Bridport organisers and TLC were really accommodating and keen to support me as a writer as opposed to just pushing for completion of the novel that had won the prize.

The manuscript assessment of The Unbelonging yielded constructive criticism that chimed with the feedback I received from my agent, Euan, from A.M. Heath (co-sponsors of The Bridport Prize). In addition to issues of character development and plot points, it seemed that, in contrast to what I had thought, the novel wasn’t finished at all and actually needed to be considerably longer.  

What this means for me is that I am now occupying a wonderfully protean imaginary landscape where I move between Rajputana in the 1930s to present day London; between the world of the colonial elite to that of fund managers and media types. I am filling in the gaps in time in The Unbelonging with new writing on my ‘old’ novel and, on different days, as the fancy takes me, I am forging ahead through the unchartered territory of In the Days that Came After. It is an exhilarating, schizophrenic ride.

The feedback I have received both from Euan and from TLC on the whole manuscript of The Unbelonging will, I am confident, make the process of writing the second novel smoother because I have a better sense of the shape a finished novel should take and how to ‘show’ a story unfolding and characters developing rather than simply presenting a series of events. A series of events is not a plot. The decade it has taken me to get this far with The Unbelonging has involved many false starts, wholesale rewritings and frustrating dead ends. I started telling the story with an event that takes place in what is now the middle of the novel; an initially minor character turned out to be a central player; and the main character is a wholly different being to the man I originally conceived. I hope that the lessons I have learned rather slowly and painfully about narrative structure, character development and pace will, alongside the mentoring, hold me in good stead second time round.

I like the fact that the mentoring involves making an agreement with someone to provide them with 10,000 words by a specified date. There seem to be so many other competing imperatives in life – children, earning a living, rearranging the sock draw - that writing gets side-lined. But when someone is expecting your output and you know that person, with an abundance of goodwill, will nudge you away from narrative cul de sacs, provide useful line edits, thoughtful commentary and suggestions all of which will combine to impel you forward –– then you get those words written.

I find that I spend a long time thinking around a scene I want to write, where it will take place, what is going on in the minds of the characters involved, where it will end. This kind of cogitation can take some weeks and happens almost without me being aware of it. Then, when things have coalesced -often round a very simple idea or interaction – the sitting down and writing happens quickly and quite painlessly and with the hints and tips from the previous report in the back of my mind as I write. For me this approach works better than the regimen of writing a set amount of words a day. With three young children and a demanding job the tyranny of a self- imposed daily word count is something I can do without.

Keeping two narrative arcs, two sets of characters and two narrative voices in mind has been easier than I would have anticipated. My mind is peopled by very different characters all getting up to very different things but it turns out there is plenty of room for all of them and, in fact, a third novel is starting to gently ask for my attention from the edges of my imagination.

Practical advice and suggestions from Euan and from TLC are invaluable but what is magical are the words of encouragement and advice contained in the reports I receive as I progress with the mentoring. As a first time – and as yet unpublished – novelist, writing can sometimes feel like shouting into the void and to know that someone is waiting with good intent to apply their expertise and share their wisdom at this early stage of a new writing adventure is a gift. 

Kamilla Shamsie is the judge for the 2018 The Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award for a First Novel. Deadline 21 May 12 midnight BST - enter here 

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