Secrets from the Shortlist

Bath Novel Awards founder Caroline Ambrose highlights some of the qualities readers most often mention in their early voting comments for manuscripts which go on to shortlist.

Over the years our readers have shortlisted a wide range of manuscripts: from speculative to realistic; historical to sci fi and from literary to commercial. As the first reader for each manuscript and voting comment, I’m often asked if I think there is a  recipe to writing opening pages which attract the readers’ votes.

At the longlist stage, readers receive a tailored batch of opening extracts (up to 5,000 words) and a synopsis. They then vote yes or no to one question: “Do this extract and synopsis make you excited to read the full?” The extracts with the most yes votes are longlisted and read in full. Most simply, the extracts which longlist are the manuscripts readers can’t stop thinking about.

Uniqueness is often an irresitable factor; the fresh voices with an original take within a story only they could tell always stand out. Strong voices like Adunni in Abi Daré’s The Girl with the Louding Voice sing out from the first page, demanding the readers’ votes. Another noticeable craft element which attracts votes is the writers who have mastered the art of hiding themselves away, enabling their characters to lift off the page and pull the reader deep inside their world. When you are reading in volume the characters readers most want to know more about are those the writer has let demand we care what happens to them.

I’ve also noticed some technical elements often found in the opening lines of novels which pick up votes:


A common opening device I see in novels which go on to shortlist is a short and simply worded first line which signals change:

The email arrives in my inbox like an unexpected bomb. Friend Request, Laura Marshall

Another Being falls as we’re driving into Edinburgh. Out of the Blue, Sophie Cameron

This is the last conversation we will have. Testament, Kim Sherwood

A dead bolt has a very specific sound.  Baby Doll, Hollie Overton

At first, nothing was unusual. Rainbirds, Clarissa Goenawan

I stole a baby. The Hurting, Lucy Van Smit

Each one of these lines is loaded with forward motion and poses a compelling question:

What was in the email that arrived like an unexpected bomb?

What’s a Being and why and how are they falling?

Why a last conversation and between whom?

Who or what is behind the bolted door?

What unusual thing happened?

Wait—you stole a baby??

While not all our shortlisted novels start this way, it seems to me this kind of opening performs particularly well with award readers. Reading submissions is an intensive, focussed process of jumping from one fictional world into the next particularly in the time-pressured early rounds when the field is wide open. By directing readers straight into an I-have-to-know-what-happens-next mindset these kind of first lines can get an extract off to flying start reflected in voting comments along the lines of ‘this writer had me from the off’.


While most of or submissions are written in the third person, first person narratives seem to punch above their weight. Readers seem more likely to mention feelings of connection to the main character and/or experience an emotion – whether moved, amused, scared or thrilled. Conversely, novels written in the third person are more likely to pick up comments where the reader mentions not feeling they can connect with the main character or that the writing felt a little flat. If your novel is written in the third person, it’s perhaps worth considering an edit focussed on making sure your opening extract includes moments where the reader can experience X or Y emotion.


Another quality we often see in books which go on to shortlist is a writer who takes stylistic risks. For example, in Rainbirds, Clarissa Goenawan breaks one of the most common mentioned first page taboos in lists of writing ‘rules’ – to never start a novel with a character waking from a dream:

At first, nothing was unusual.

        I was on the phone with my sister. She sat at her desk by the window in her rented room in Akakawa. The sun shone through the curtain, casting brown highlights on her long dark hair. She asked me question after question, but I just mumbled one-word answers, impatient for the conversation to be over. But then, before my eyes, she crumbled and turned to ashes.

 I woke up in a black sedan; the dream would have slipped from my mind, had it not been for the porcelain urn in my lap. Resembling a short, cylindrical vase, it was decorated with a painting of a flying cuckoo and chrysanthemums. Inside were the ashes of my sister, Keiko Ishida, who had been only thirty-three when she died.

As well as the surprise of a page one twist on one of the opening tropes submission readers see most, there’s also an inciting incident in the form of the dead sister who wants answers. Stylistically brave, immediately moving and innovative writing is incredibly exciting when reading for an award and a clear signal of the magic which goes on to translate into shortlist votes.

Caroline Ambrose

The £6,000 international BATH NOVEL AWARDS were founded in 2013 to spotlight and support emerging novelists. The Bath Novel Award is open for submissions from December to May. The Bath Children’s Novel Award is open from June to November.