Sunday, 17 December 2017


Novel Competition Feedback

I was pleased to have a novel longlisted recently in the Mslexia novel competition, but of course I was disappointed that it didn’t make the shortlist. The ‘rejection’ message from Debbie Taylor was very positive and encouraging, although the exhortation to re-write and revise the work in the light of general feedback is a little problematic. I, and probably many of the others longlisted, was unsure which, if any, of these particular aspects made my novel less successful. However, the following may be of interest to others who are planning or working on novels.

Hello there,

And thank you so much for letting us see your full manuscript, which was one of the Top 100 selected from a very strong field. I am so sorry to let you know that it has not been shortlisted on this occasion.

I’m not able to give you individual feedback on your work, but I can give you some general guidelines from the judges that you might consider if and when you decide to redraft your novel. At this level, where the standard of writing is already very high, these are suggestions for fine-tuning what is already a very accomplished manuscript.

Our judges told us that several of the longlisted novels didn’t make it through to the shortlist due to a lack of focus in the early stages of the book. Often this was because too many characters were introduced too quickly, so it was unclear who the main protagonist was. Sometimes it was because a prologue introducing one character/setting was followed by a Chapter One introducing an entirely different character/setting, or the same character at a different age. (There was a general sense that many prologues were a distraction that tended to delay the reader’s engagement in the novel.)

Another reason for a lack of focus was underwriting, where the narrative and description were so sparse it was hard to know exactly what was happening – or to whom. Of course, a degree of mystery and withholding of information is important in fiction, to spur the reader to turn the page; but taken too far it can result in a slightly arid prose that makes it difficult to understand or empathise with the characters. If that rings true for your novel you might consider unpacking the text a little and letting your characters breathe.

Our judges also mentioned that in several of the longlisted novels the psychology of a key character didn’t really ring true – because they responded bizarrely to a relatively minor setback, for example, or suffered from an unlikely bout of amnesia. In these cases the judges felt the plot was dominating the book at the expense of the characters – always a difficult balance to maintain. In other novels it was the plot itself that was problematic – in some of the magic realist or speculative fiction manuscripts especially – and the basic logic upon which the story was built was not quite credible, even within the fictional world of the novel. In most cases a relatively minor tweak to motivation or logic was all that was needed to keep the reader engaged and committed to the narrative.

What I’m trying to say is, please don’t give up on this manuscript. It came so close to being shortlisted, I am sure that with some judicious rewriting it will eventually find a home. We know from our research that fewer than one in four women who start a novel ever managed to finish it, so getting this far is an enormous achievement.

We noticed that very few women whose novels had been longlisted in previous years submitted the same novel in a revised version this year. As we run our competition for adult novels every two years, we wondered whether this was because they had all found agents and achieved publication in the meantime.

We hear regularly from past finalists that being longlisted or shortlisted in this competition made a huge difference to the way their future submissions are treated by agents and editors – so don’t forget to mention this achievement in your cover letters.

Our next adult novel competition will be in 2019, which means there’s plenty of time for a rewrite – or to set off on a completely different fictional journey with a fresh set of characters. Meanwhile we’ll be launching a major new set of women’s fiction awards in 2018 with a range of categories, including novella and children’s fiction. I do hope that one of them will suit you and that, when the dust has settled, you will let us see some more of your work.

Thank you again for letting us see your work. Do let us know if and when your novel finds a home.

Debbie Taylor
(Editorial Director)