the Valerie Parv Award: a minion’s tale

The Valerie Parv Award 2012 opened for submissions today, and it’s inspired me to write about my experience winning a year’s mentorship with Valerie.

First things first: I never intended to enter the competition. I had just joined the Melbourne Romance Writers Guild and was still dealing with the abundance of chocolate and enthusiastic applause, much less wrapping my head around contests and such. The one other girl who writes Regency asked me to read over her entry for the VPA.

That in itself was a fantastic experience – reading what someone else was working on in my genre. I gave her a (way too in-depth) critique, but she didn’t end up submitting it. At the last second I thought, Hey, I’ve got the word count. Can’t hurt, right?

I was so convinced I wasn’t going to win, that I didn’t even bother going to Sydney for the awards dinner. I was out late at a different conference, and when I got home special k was snuggled all sleepy on the couch and said, “I have to tell you something.”

I sat down beside him and was all, “I didn’t win, did I.” He looked at me, long and mournful, then broke into a grin. “You won!” (Serena, who called my mobile to let me know and got special k instead, thought it was hilarious that he didn’t really get the significance. He was all, “Oh, alright, that’s cool.”)

Valerie emailed me about a month later and described the mentorship thusly:

How the mentoring process works is pretty much up to the individual winner, depending where you are in your writing journey. I’m happy to answer questions on the business side of writing – working with editors, agents, what to expect, etc – as well as creative aspects depending on what you feel is more useful to you. Any suggestions I make are just that, suggestions, which you can take or leave as suits you. [This was easily the best thing about Valerie – she had an abundance of suggestions and was completely unfazed whether I took them on or not, which made brainstorming with her a free, generous experience.] Other helpful info – I don’t bite. I love the process of working with what have become known as my “minions”.

I replied by basically saying, “I would like to talk to you every day, and have sold a best-seller in six months, and is there a special diet writers should go on? Maybe we should just move in together.” She gently reminded me that she, too, had a life.

I didn’t have a lot of industry questions at the time, but when I wanted to re-query an agent Valerie helped me judge whether I was ready, and she helped me work through a problem I’d run into at the time with my crit partner.

After we discussed her initial feedback of my entry, I went away and worked on some new ideas. One day I kinda cracked, and wrote this whole new, mental first chapter. It felt extreme, and great, but extreme. I was so nervous sending it to her, because it was such a departure from the story that had won me the award. Her reaction was:

I was very keen to read this and wasn’t in the least disappointed – to me, what you’ve done is wonderful. The depth and complexity of the characters in this brief glimpse is impressive. I love Roscoe’s awareness of his flaws and strengths, and that exquisite moment when Danes sees what’s beneath the contrived surface of the man. I got the distinct impression they are somewhat alike, and could even be friends in some other reality. I do hope you’ll get chance to explore that aspect in future, either late in this book or in the next.

You’ve definitely transcended farce and moved the story to a whole new level, frankly unlike anything I’ve read before. The challenge will be to keep the story at this level because I have a feeling it could be the key to unlocking your story. Not an easy task ahead by any means, but worth the effort.

Sweet feedback, huh? It was entirely unexpected – and gave me the confidence to continue in this new direction. It’s all well and good for writing buddies to say they love your work, but when someone with Valerie’s experience gives you the green light, it’s an affirmation you can build a book on.

In the same email she made a suggestion that Roscoe could be a spy, or involved in some political intrigue. At the time I was all, “Yeah, that’s not my book.” Sometime later, struggling through Roscoe’s motivations, it occurred to me that what he needed was a political sub-plot. Moral: When your fairy godmother suggests something, you should probably listen.

The feedback she would give me chapter by chapter was useful and specific, like:

Ch 6

When he thinks he miscalculated this badly, do we need any details? I found myself curious.

Ref. To the silence – we’ve already done this. Could you nod in that direction by having him think of “that damned silence again” or some such?

P2 – I momentarily had to think who Liza was. Perhaps a very brief refresher?

P6 – laughed at her in the dark is a reminder it’s not daylight yet. Might need a little clarifying so we know how much they can see of each other. Gloom? Pre-dawn light?

P6  – starts in omnipotent POV again, something to look at

Very good – he pulled everything into a slow orbit J Some lovely writing in these chapters.

P8 – a piece of a whole family…may be me reading in stages, but I couldn’t recall how they came to be as they are. In the polishing, might check back and ensure we have enough info. to follow this.

P9 more lovely writing in Bea thinking nothing in LE’s imagination could be safe J

P12 – beleaguered machinery – are we in Roscoe’s POV here? Should “her” be “him” if so?

P13 – this is an amazing scene, need to be careful when Bea washes his face that she takes care not to touch his skin. Otherwise she’ll feel the five o’clock shadow?

Do we need to know the Doctor’s diagnosis? I was curious.

I spent a whole two days of a writers retreat struggling to write the second chapter, and in the middle of my desperation it occurred to me: I have a mentor! I called Valerie, and about seven and a half minutes later she’d solved the problem.

Valerie taught me something about the reality of writing. I learned that in this business patience is not optional. She would tell me in the one email that my writing was nearing a publishable standard, and in the same email would remind me that being publishable wasn’t the same thing as being snapped up by a publisher (especially when your hero wears a dress for half the novel).

As I neared the middle of my draft, I started to realise that my original plot wasn’t going to hold my new characters. Much plot-related panic ensued.

I decided to rewrite the whole book from a certain point of the narrative. I sent Valerie the first few chapters of this new version, then we had a phone call. She sounded worried, for the first time, and said, “I think you’ve lost what’s charming about Roscoe.” This email exchange followed:

ME: So, you may have been able to tell that our phone conversation was a little challenging for me. I had that classic moment of being quite sure I was ready to give it all up. HOWEVER! I have recovered, and started to re-think those chapters and give them some more structure.

VALERIE: I’m sorry you felt daunted by our phone discussion. I’m glad you had a rethink and decided against giving up. We all go through that stage many times during our careers. And truth to tell, when things look least hopeful is often when we’re nearer to succeeding than we know. As always hindsight is wonderful.

The truth is that she’d given me excellent feedback to work from. There was no narrative traction in my chapters – what was this story, and where was it headed? But most importantly, she made the one suggestion that let me shoe-horn my previous plot back in. Mostly. Except it still all needed to be rewritten.

I was reaching the last couple of weeks of the mentorship, and worked desperately on the new chapters. I sent them to her, and:

Firstly congratulations – truly – this is a whole order of magnitude beyond what I would have expected in the time you’ve had. The characters and their motivations, their behaviour and the undercurrents are beautifully balanced and compelling to read.

It says something for your story that I started to take a quick peek when the email came in (I was working on a short story of my own), and now it’s after midnight and I was looking for more pages after the end. It’s exciting to see this coming together so well. I hope you feel the same. Talk soon.

Whew! I cannot describe the relief of having this positive reaction to move forward with, past the end of the mentorship.

In the year I worked with Valerie my novel became a whole new beast that’s barely a second cousin thrice removed to my first draft, and a couple of thousand times better. I began to see patterns of lazy writing that I learned to catch as I was doing them. I had confidence in the risks I was taking, because Valerie believed in what I was doing. I left the mentorship with a strong sense of what I was doing, and where I was headed.

As of right now, 45 out of 80 entries have been received. So, what are you waiting for?

Comments 10 Responses

  1. Pingback: The writing blog that almost made me cry | valerieparv

  2. bleuet

    Well, that was interesting. Nice of you to encourage others! 🙂
    Your new… eh – banner? – is a bit strange, inspiring, but strange. My brain keeps telling me to go away from the window, ’cause the sun is reflected off the monitor and I am bli~nded.
    Now that you have made us curious again (unintentionally I guess, but still) – How is it going with the editing?

    1. anna cowan Post author

      the picture in my new banner is of me watching fireworks in Tokyo. It was the oddest experience. We got as close to the river as we could – the crowds were bigger than any I’ve ever been in – and we ended up in this dead-end street watching the fireworks over a fence. They were so little and far off, but the Japanese people loved them anyway!

      The editing is taking a lot longer than I thought, but I think I started out with pretty optimistic ideas! I’ve finished a whole edit, and am now going through to do a line edit (hopefully I won’t have to shift anything else around). So it should be with beta readers within the month. Fingers crossed.

      1. bleuet

        *Crosses fingers for you, too. Gives her best to cross her toes.* I am soo~ excited for you! Sounds awsome. 😀

        Now that you have told me what the picture is I can see the little sparks… From your point of view the firework really must have been small. Because of the buildings in the background I was thinking. “Huh? UFO!?” ;P

  3. Madeline Ash

    Very interesting post. Sounds like an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience. I entered yesterday morning, made it in at number 40. Whew! I’m at least hoping for some valuable feedback from the judges, although working with Valerie would be a dream 🙂

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Congratulations on entering! As I discovered, it’s always worth entering a comp, whatever the outcome (I’ve been entering the US comps like crazy, and as you say, even just getting feedback is great). Good luck and happy writing.

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