How to...win a novel award

This weekend, I headed to How To Win a Novel Award, a talk at Bath Literature Festival. Here are the key highlights from the discussion to help any aspiring writers pitch their work just right...

How to...win a novel award

The discussion was run by Bath Novel Award founder, Caroline Ambrose. She was joined by 2014 winner,Joanna Barnard, Joanna's literary agent Juliet Mushensand shortlist judge Dionne McCulloch. It was great to see an all female panel on International Women's Day, and their insights were both helpful and realistic.

Which section of work do you submit?

It should always be the first section of the book that you submit, and whilst there will be an upper word limit, you shouldn't let this strictly define the section you send in - you can always go under the word limit by a little. Look for a natural break in the text, and make sure the last moment keeps the reader wanting more.

The importance of the first few chapters should never be underestimated! They will speak for your whole book and will be the deciding factor in the rest of your book being called in for the shortlist stage.

The dreaded synopsis.

All writers hate writing synopses, but they are a monumentally important part of selling your work. But how to write something that not only sums up your entire novel in a page, but also does so in an engaging way that displays your own writing style? Here are the top tips from the debate...

  • Stick to the point
  • Don't try to be mysterious, spell out the plot
  • Show clear narrative from beginning to end
  • Show friends who haven't read your book, is it engaging? Do they want to read more?

Should you workshop your book before entering competitions?

Sadie Jones previously said this is dangerous, as it can take you off course too early. However, Joanna is part of a writing workshop that she said had been very helpful. The main points are both listening to and learning from others, and having fresh eyes on your work. She did mention that it's important to be cautious with this however, and remember not to show your work too early - in other words, make sure you already have a grasp on where it's going. Always remember that you aren't just writing for this group. Take their thoughts on board, but don't be led by them.

So, how does the process work?

There will be an initial 'slash pile' read, after which a top 25% long list will be sent on to ten readers. These readers will be industry experts - writers, editors and publishers themselves - and they will read the initial chapter submission and synopsis. From here, they will narrow down the selection to the top 5%, for full books to be called in. Each reader can 'gold star' one book of choice, marking out their favourite from the selection they've been given.

Dionne emphasised that she reads as a public reader, not a critic, reading in the bath, in bed, at her kids swimming class - basically anywhere that isn't her office. They want to gage public opinion, not just critical response.

What are readers looking for?

Caroline mentioned that all long listed books - the top 25% - are going to be good books. They will be well written, with a good narrative and great potential.

To make it to the shortlist, it's all about execution. Do you have an original voice? Are your characters compelling and well considered? Is the writing itself really strong? Elements such as plot are more fixable, so at the core they are looking for the right ingredients.

Overall, they are 'rooting' for every book that comes their way, so don't imagine that they are sitting there trying to pull your book apart, they want to love it - make sure you give them reason to.

Comments on last year's winning book were that...

  • The reader couldn't put it down
  • It started in the right place, right in the action
  • It was a simple opening scene, but full of emotion
  • The inciting incident happened early on, on page 2

What are the big dos and don'ts?

  • Don't mess up on spelling and grammar. Print out the work to check again off screen, and get a friend to look over it as well.
  • Don't overwrite the story, be concise and keep things exciting
  • Don't start your story with someone waking up
  • Do write your whole book before going back to edit
  • Do put it away for a month after writing so you can go back with fresh eyes
  • Do know what all of your characters want and whether they'll get it in the end

What if you're a very young or first time writer?

Not many writers get picked up first time, but everyone has to start somewhere, and the process of writing your first book will open up your eyes to your own patterns and habits. As mentioned in the talk, everyone has a book they HAVE to write, to get out their system, but it is often the next book they write that is the real gem.

Just keep writing, keep learning and trust your voice. Also, read, read, read. Look at how other writers use words and why it's working. Surround yourself with words.

Also, look out for Juliet's book launch this Summer, 'Get Started in Creative Writing for Young Adults'

Final Advice...

The panel members all gave one final piece of advice.

  • Just do it
  • Make it's as good as possible before sending in.
  • Pay attention to your opening - start right.
  • You might not win if you enter, but you definitely won't if you don't.

Image courtesy of Sarah Reid

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