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Apprenticeships in Fiction


WriteWords talks to Marion Urch, director of Adventures in Fiction about Apprenticeships in Fiction 2008.

Tell us all about the scheme.

Apprenticeships in Fiction is a complete one-year development programme designed to prepare aspiring novelists for publication. Every year we pair up five talented aspiring writers with a mid-career novelist working in a similar genre. As the title of the scheme suggests, this is very much an apprenticeship with an emphasis on the practical aspects, both of constructing a successful narrative and developing an understanding of the context in which a professional novelist works.

How did you come up with the idea?

The scheme emerged out of the work we were doing with Adventures In Fiction. We set up in 2003 in response to a demand for a more hands-on writer-oriented approach. Unlike other organisations which tend to offer either manuscript appraisals or mentoring, we offer a combination of both.
When I started out as a writer I was lucky enough to be taken on by an agent who believed in me and supported me through the process of writing my first novel. This, combined with my own experience of developing as a writer formed the basis of our unique six-stage programme. With the input of a growing pool of mentors with expertise in different genres, we continue to build on the effectiveness of the programme

What has been the response?

We are about to launch the third year, which speaks for itself! The scheme was a success from the outset, thanks largely to the overwhelming support of literature development agencies and course leaders on MA creative writing programmes who recommended it to their students. Though there are now a number of schemes offering mentoring, we remain the market leader with a comprehensive structured programme covering every aspect of the writing process.

How do you find/choose writers?

We select from open submission. Every year our panel of published novelists is joined by an industry professional; this year it’s up and coming literary agent Rupert Heath. The selection process is important because it offers selected applicants some much needed reassurance that they do have publishing potential. Aspiring writers have often been working in isolation for some time, so they generally need all the encouragement they can get! Being picked from over a hundred or so applicants provides an instant confidence boost.

We try to support writers at every level. Shortlisted writers who show potential but aren’t quite ready for the demands of the programme are offered an invaluable next step in the form of specially discounted appraisals, workshops and one-to-ones. After the competition we offer key tips for all applicants on the website.

Tell us about the mentors.

We have had a lot of interest from published writers who are keen to support emerging talent. We try to match mentor to apprentice so that both find the process rewarding. We now have a pool of fifteen mentors covering most genres, notably Brian Keaney for fiction for children and young people, Martyn Waites for crime and Liz Williams covering for sci-fi and fantasy.

What excites you about a piece of writing?

We look for a strong core idea that is potentially sustainable over the course of a novel. This can be a voice, a character or a premise that has resonance. It needn’t take much, but something needs to jump off the page, something that hooks the reader and makes them want to know what happens next. A diamond in the rough can be polished, but a writer needs to display some storytelling aptitude. A good ear for language always helps. Many of the tools of constructing a novel can be learned but there does need to be evidence of a basic driving force – a passion to communicate a particular set of ideas.

and what makes your heart sink?

Not a lot to be honest. Aspiring writers interest me. I tend to view manuscripts in terms of what the writer is aiming to communicate and that is usually something genuine and heartfelt. Our job as mentors is to work in the gap between the idea and its realisation. But I suppose if anything makes my heart sink, it would be the same qualities that irritate me in individuals. Pomposity, characters who are all talk and no action. Ego is important for a writer, but you need to know when to leave it at the door. We do see slightly too many manuscripts which are driven by the internal thought processes of the central character rather than by a clearly unfolding narrative.

If you could recommend any two novels to aspiring writers what would they be?

For a good example of character development we often recommend A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka, which is a deceptively simple, but extremely well plotted novel.

An understanding of how to handle viewpoint is a crucial starting point for many aspiring writers. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a great example – she handles the issue in a very clear and effective manner.

Submissions policy?

The programme is open to all aspiring novelists who have already completed a first draft of a novel.

Any advice for aspiring novelists?

If you build up your expertise bit-by-bit, step-by-step your confidence will grow. A professional novelist can offer you practical skills and a few tips on building stamina and endurance, but they can’t give you motivation, you have to find and tap into that yourself. Writing can be an exhilarating process. Aim for success, but remember that the process also provides its own rewards.

Publishing is an industry. If you want to stand a chance of publication you need to understand the market.

Plans for the future?

The scheme has already resulted in one publication and referred four writers to literary agents. Two writers have also secured Arts Council assistance to fund mentoring places. Apprenticeships In Fiction is an elite scheme with an inclusive agenda: we aim to continue to fast track talented aspiring novelists and to build up the long term sustainability of the programme. Whether our apprentices achieve immediate publishing success or not, they all leave with a complete understanding of what is required if they are to stand a chance of achieving their aim.

Interview taken from © Copyright 2008 WriteWords


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A one-year professional development programme