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)

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Guest blogger- Heather Richardson, historical novelist.

Guest Blog- Heather Richardson, historical novelist and creative writing tutor

I’m looking forward hugely to reading Heather’s second novel Doubting Thomas which is appearing at the end of this month. Here is her very interesting account of the ‘experimental’ method that helped her decide how to treat the material and how best to tell the story.

Taking your story by surprise

When I decided to write an historical novel about the last man to be hanged for blasphemy in Britain, I faced a conundrum. How should I approach this real-life story? I had certain facts that were part of the historical record: Edinburgh student Thomas Aikenhead was arrested in 1696; his former friend Mungo Craig published a pamphlet condemning him; Thomas was tried, found guilty and hanged, but not before writing a speech accusing Mungo of being a blasphemer too; Mungo published another pamphlet, denying Thomas’s accusations. There was plenty to build into a story of betrayal and friendship gone sour. But how to go about that building? No matter how much material I had to work with there were lots of decisions to make. First person or third person? Or even – perish the thought! – second person? Who should the viewpoint character be? Thomas, Mungo or someone else? Or should I go for multiple viewpoints? How much of the text of Mungo’s pamphlets or Thomas’s speech should I include?
Thinking about these options is all very well, but, as the Irish proverb has it, no one ever ploughed a field by turning it over in their mind. At some stage I had to start writing. My approach with Thomas Aikenhead was to experiment with almost every element of his story, and to play around with writing styles. I wrote letters from dead Thomas to Mungo. I wrote deranged stream-of-consciousness extracts from Mungo’s diary. I wrote a flamboyantly wordy introduction to Edinburgh from an insouciant, irreverent omniscient narrator. In the course of my research I’d come across an incident involving Aikenhead’s apothecary father and some dodgy aphrodisiacs. That interested me – how could it not? -  so I decided to write a short story from the point of view of a doctor involved in the case. This short story, as it turned out, was my way into the novel. The doctor and his wife became the most important characters in the novel. In many ways it is now their story rather than Thomas’s.
The approach I’m describing here is certainly not a quick way to write a novel, but it’s an incredibly interesting process. I think it’s also good for me as a writer. Hazel Smith, in her book The Writing Experiment, warns ‘it is easy to write only in the way that seems to come most easily, and which does not require any extension of skills or outlook’. She goes on to say that the writer who does not experiment with new approaches ‘will soon reach a limit in their work, a point beyond which it is difficult to develop’. Doing the kind of writing-for-discovery I’ve described here stretched me as a writer, and allowed me to interrogate the ideas and themes of the Thomas Aikenhead story. As writers we can become overly protective of our own work, but it’s important to remember that fiction is not chiseled from a block of marble. It can be pulled apart, twisted and reshaped without being destroyed.
I’m still very fond of my flamboyant omniscient introduction to Edinburgh. Sadly, that was one darling that had to be murdered – it just didn’t fit with the overall feel of the novel. But maybe one day I’ll get to recycling it. Do you think there’s an audience for a world-weary, Oscar Wilde-meets-Flann O’Brien account of Early Modern Edinburgh?

Doubting Thomas is published by Vagabond Voices

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Agent Hunting by Philippa

All it took was a trip to London and a Writers Workshop Masterclass

in May of this year to convince me that I needed to get an agent. 

The event was held, one early evening in May, at Waterstones in 

Piccadilly. Happily there was time for a day in the city to make the 

most of my railfare. First I made a long anticipated visit to the 

Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square – quite fascinating and a place 

where many poignant stories could begin. A quiet lunch was followed 

by a little browsing in Regent Street, before the heat of the 

streets drove me early into Waterstones.

    There can’t be many better places to use up time than in a 

bookshop. Over numerous floors, this huge, art deco building housed 

multiple layers of books. The enormous competition from so many 

published authors was evident. I always knew that publishing was a 

vast industry but on this day the extent of it was literally spread 

before me. I looked closely at the names, stored for posterity on 

the spines of books; some were famous, some unknown, some I’d read, 

others were on my to do list. I watched other people drift like me 

and wondered if they were writers too. Eventually about 45 of us 

found our way to the top floor, coming together over a glass of wine 

and polite conversation before the event began.
     What did we discover?
You need a good quality manuscript.
-   You need an agent.
     Well that seemed clear enough.

-  Longlist professional committed agents with an open door, who like your genre. Do research on agent search sites such as Agent Hunter, Agent or Writers Market.
-  Filter the list, looking for points of contact, similar tastes, common interests or a comment on a tweet that clicks.
- Approach a group of agents all at once (batches of 10 at a time).
-  Carefully check their submission requirements, as all seem to want something slightly different (eg.3 chapters, 10,000 words, 50,000 words, attached or pasted …). Make sure your manuscript is ready.
     This was starting to sound more complicated.

- Get name on query letter right, include title of book, word count, genre and just a short biography – the manuscript matters more than you do. Include one paragraph about your book, a hook, a USP.
- Get the synopsis right – what is the story? Make it clear and easy to navigate. Notation can be telegraphic. Include and highlight main characters, add a layer of emotion, maybe a sprinkle of spice. Is there an inciting incident?
- Allow at least 6-8 weeks for a reply. Be patient.
- Keep going with another batch. Keep trying.

     Three individual agents generously gave their time to answer our questions. All confirmed the huge numbers of submissions they receive and the low acceptance rate. It’s now taken me three months to prepare to send my first batch of submissions, requesting representation – okay, family illness, a bereavement and a much needed holiday got in the way, but having a little space and avoiding the temptation to rush was actually helpful. I now feel ready for the replies and potential rejections. I feel ready to keep trying.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Naïve Novelist

Eight months on from NaNoWriMo, and I’m proud to report I wrote every day, and I completed a novel. An un-edited, first-draft mess of a novel, but I did it. More of that later…
            At the time, I stated my main intention was to establish a daily writing habit. Habit being: a settled or regular tendency to practise, especially one that is hard to give up. I found daily writing hard, and that I did it best in the mornings. If I left it until later in the day, then there was a risk it wouldn’t happen. That pattern hasn’t changed and I confess I haven’t quite fixed daily writing as a habit. Life (and my brilliant ability at procrastination) sometimes gets in the way. But the best part about this definition is the last bit: hard to give up.
            That’s certainly true. If I write nothing for a day, I miss it. Two days and I’m positively edgy; any longer and I feel like I’ll burst if I don’t write something. (Although, irritatingly, the longer I leave it the harder it is to get started again!) I can only return myself to a state nearing physical and mental comfort by writing. NaNoWriMo finally freed me me to write anywhere – on trains, in public places, in front of my family – and allowed me to understand I didn’t need a dedicated space with a special chair and my favourite pen. (That would be still be very nice though, if any of my family are reading this…) I completed NaNoWriMo entirely on my laptop, but have since returned to the pleasure of a smooth-rolling pen, or pencil, and my favourite lined notebooks, for first drafts, at least.
            I’d promised myself I wouldn’t re-read my efforts for several months. After all, I’ve never written anything longer than a 5000 word story or 45 minute radio drama in the past. I couldn’t quite leave my NaNo characters alone, however and wrote a few short stories playing around with their lives prior to when my ‘novel’ started. Finally, I printed out my mountain of words and read them in three sessions. Mostly, I cringed at the awful writing and the telling not showing, but I also remembered things I’d forgotten, and loved being back with these people in my mind. I made some notes on the sheets, but realised the need for better structure, always a weakness in my writing.

            I read KM Weiland’s unlikely-sounding 5 Secrets of Story Structure – it’s great! I have now worked out a much stronger arc to my novel, and re-ordered some of the events and thought more about themes. It was as if I had to write it first, to see what it was going to be about, and now I know that, I can write it properly. So the rewriting proper will start in the Autumn, and in the meantime I’ll try to fix that daily writing habit good and proper!