At the 20th The Bath Independent Literature Festival we hosted a panel discussion called “How to Win a Novel Award”. Inaugural winner & debut novelist Joanna Barnard (Precocious, Ebury Press), editor Dionne McCulloch & literary agent Juliet Mushens talked with Bath Novel Award founder Caroline Ambrose about what makes a manuscript rise up through the entry pile. Here’s what everybody had to say…
How to Win a Novel Award, The Bath Literature Festival
CA: Joanna, as our inaugural winner you’re the best qualified to say how to win a novel award. How and why did you submit your manuscript to us?
JB: I won my first writing award aged 9, but it took me 30 years nearly to win another!! I wrote Precocious in 2008 and submitted it over a period of time to various agents. I got some nice rejections, but really when it came to submitting Precocious to The Bath Novel Award I felt like the book wasn’t going anywhere. I was thinking, this is my last attempt and then I’ll go onto something else. (I’m so glad I didn’t.) I’d written two main drafts, the first took about a year, then I did a major redraft.
CA: We ask for the first 5,000 words. Did you do a specific edit for this?
JB: I think I was quite fortunate because there was a natural break in Precocious at about 4,800 words, so I didn’t have to edit it to fit it the word count.
CA: Entrants also have to submit a one page plot summary. Any tips on writing the dreaded synopsis?
JB: I found it really hard. Writing a synopsis is really difficult, especially a short one. I’d say, stick to the point, don’t be mysterious. Cover all the main action and talk about the characters’ development throughout the piece. Do include spoilers, because the judges need to see how you will carry the narrative right through to the end. Then show it to a few people who have read your book, ask if there is anything they’d change.
CA: Did you workshop Precocious? Sadie Jones was talking last night in her event about how she felt workshopping a novel in public could be dangerous in the early stages. Her feeling was that there’s a danger you can start writing to that audience.
JB: I’ve been part of a writing group called The Hogsback Writers for about four years. We don’t workshop as such but we share work. So we come along with chapters which we read and give each other feedback. It’s useful to have fresh eyes. Also listening and learning from writers who do something a bit different, work in other genres for instance, I find a massive learning opportunity. But if your work is very early stages I would probably hold back a little bit. You don’t want too much criticism too early if you’re not yet confident in your work.
CA: Let’s move on to what happens when we receive each entry. I assign a number to each submission and oversea first reading round and read each entry to see which of the reading panelists would be the best fit to read a particular book. The first round is really quite brutal, as we aim to get very quickly down to the strongest 10% which go out to the reading panels. Entries go out in batches of ten and at this stage are given a straightforward yes or no vote. The novels with the most votes go forward to the longlist. Each reader also has one golden ticket they can give to a book they absolutely love. Which brings me nicely to Dionne, who gave her golden ticket to Joanna’s book. Dionne, where and how do you read the entries?
DM: I read in bed, in the bath, basically anywhere but my working desk. I want to come at it as a reader not a critic. Usually, when I crack one open I’m just looking for the story and to see if it takes me away, but not with a critical eye but as a reader. It’s exciting, whether it’s the tenth or fiftieth in a row. Every time, I’m always rooting for the book, reading with an open mind and wondering if this is going to be The One, if it will take me with it. It’s a bit like panning for gold. You want to find the manuscript that shines. All the panel get a bit competitive. You want to find the winner.
CA: What’s makes you want to push a longlisted book for the shortlist?
DM: I think the longlist is about potential while the shortlist is more about execution. With the longlist it’s really about whether or not you want to keep reading and if you really have to know how the extract turns out. For the shortlist, a lot has to be right and it has to have much more than just solid writing. If there’s problems with plot and pacing, you know that can be fixed by an agent and/or editor. But if you don’t have great characters, a strong voice and good writing it won’t make the shortlist because the entry standard is so high. If there’s a slight problem, say if I feel a section is falling apart, that’s probably more the stage when I might turn to the synopsis to understand the bigger picture. I always read the extract first.
DM: For one thing, I just couldn’t put it down, I read almost the whole thing in one sitting. Even from just the initial extract phase it was just simple writing with the story starting in the right place which is probably one of the things most people get wrong by starting way too early. There was no back story, no overload of characters. It was really quite a simple opening. Basically, in that first scene a woman meets a man in a grocery store and then sends a text. That’s really all that happens, but in the writing there’s so much more. The emotion was all there. Love, loss, betrayal and danger, plus the inciting incident was on page 2 of 3. It was right off and running and immediately I was hooked and couldn’t wait to read the full. As soon as I got that, I started reading and couldn’t put it down. It had everything for me and that’s what makes me want to back a book. When I have to read the whole thing because I’ve got to know what happens.
CA: Juliet, what do you look for when choosing the winner from the shortlisted books?
JM: I’m looking for really good compelling characters, an interesting story and a writer who knows the story they’re telling. Because often I can read a manuscript, whether I’m looking at submissions or judging for a prize, and think it’s interesting but quite all on one note. Or that the writer has got some characters and some things happening to them, but it’s not necessarily a writer who has sat down and figured out, okay this is my A, this is my B and I know what my route is, how we are going to get there and what the reader is going to take away at the end of it. Joanna’s novel felt like she was in control and knew where she was going. Dionne’s exactly right. Precocious starts in the right place. There are a lot of books where writers write their way into the story. Or some books that feel like they start halfway through. It’s quite “Goldilocksy” i.e. you know what you like and you just want it to be exactly right. As soon as I started reading, I knew it was the winner. I read it thinking I’ll just have a quick flick through at the end of the day and I ended up having to leave to go to a meeting so I put it on my iPhone to read, which I hate doing, but I had to know what happened and how it ended and that’s when I knew it was special. I stopped reading it in a critical way and started reading it in a “oh-my-god-I-have-to–know-how-this-is-going-to end way” which is a really good sign for me.
CA: Do you usually know quite quickly if a submission is for you?
JM: It’s hard, because sometimes you feel you instantly know and then the longer you read the more you realise, no, don’t know anymore. It doesn’t work. But I felt Precocious was really polished. It was quite a short book, around 60k words and so it never felt like there was any padding to the story or the characters. It felt very compelling. Sometimes I get sent novels which are far too long for the story. And the story doesn’t need that length in order to tell it, so you’ve diluted it or there’s a story and a half in there or even two stories you’re trying to cram in. So it felt very streamlined the entire way through. And I think because of the kind of story it is, and because it was only 60k words it felt like a real race through to get to the end of it. And that was what was great when I sent the book out on submission, is that sometimes it takes editors a couple of weeks, two or three weeks to get back to me. But I got my first call back the next morning saying the editor had read it in one go and that was the kind of quality I thought the book had and so it was wonderful to think yeah, I’m right again, people feel the same way I do again.
CA: Do you have any page one no-nos?
JM: I think it can’t be overstated that you should check your spelling and check your grammar. I’m not going to reject something because there are grammatical errors in it but watch it. Get someone else to proofread for you because we’ve all done it and when you’re really close to something and you don’t notice the errors. When I send a book out on submission I read my pitch letter aloud, because I have a terrible habit of using the same word over and over again. And you don’t notice that when you’re reading something, so it’s good, I think, to put yourself in a different perspective. If you’ve written something on screen, I always say print it out and read it through, because it can make you feel a little more removed from your own words. And, I think, give it to someone else to read as well, someone that you trust to see if it makes sense and if there are any glaring mistakes. And don’t start it with someone waking up. No alarm clocks!
CA: How perfect does the whole manuscript have to be for you to take it on?
JM: I don’t think I’ve ever signed a manuscript that I would say was perfect as it was. I always do work with my authors on manuscripts. I think that people believe no one edits any more, you know – editors don’t edit, agents don’t edit and you have to do it all yourself. I would say that’s not true at all. Some books I’ve done six or seven drafts with an author before I’ve gone on to send it out to an editor and then it might go through another two or three more edits with the editor as well, before it actually goes to print. It’s a long process and there’s lots involved, so I wouldn’t get hung up on making it perfect, but I would get hung up on making it as good as it can possibly be. Because you don’t want to give whoever’s reading it an opportunity or an excuse to say no. So you want to make sure you have done the best possible job.
CA: Any other advice for new writers?
JM: Always finish your book completely before you start editing it. I think that’s the best way to do it because you can get stuck on an editing loop otherwise where you’re constantly reworking the same chapters over and over. And then I say put it away for at least a month and don’t look it again. And then get it out and read it through like a reader not a writer, asking yourself questions. Does the story hang together? Does this twist come out of nowhere? And always know what your characters’ motivations are. It’s Kurt Vonnegut who says that every character should always want something, even if it is only a glass of water. And you should know what all your characters want and if they’re going to get it by the end of the novel. And if not, why not? And I think, do a few drafts. Make it as good as it can possibly be. Then put it away for at least a month then get it out and read it through like a reader. Every character should want for something even if its just a glass of water. Do a few drafts, make it as good as it possibly can be. Then send it out there. But don’t get hung up on making it absolutely perfect. I think even my authors who’ve had five or six novels out…. Will still say they’ll see it in a bookshop and pick it up and think oh God why did I do that? That was a terrible choice. If I could I’d go back and rewrite that. I don’t think there’s ever such a thing as perfection.
CA: Juliet, you also represent Claire Douglas who won the Mare Claire Novel Competition with The Sisters. How helpful is it for you as an agent if a book has won as an award when pitching it to an editor?
JM: It doesn’t hurt! I think a lot of people get hung up on how many publishing credits they have and if they’ve ever won something. And if you haven’t, it doesn’t matter. Lots of my authors hadn’t won anything until I signed them. The two award winners I’ve signed, I was the judge so I’d already read them and picked them as the winner. But winning an award can definitely help you to stand out and make someone read you quicker.
CA: Why was Precocious your winner?
JM: It’s such a great concept and really timely. It’s about a woman who meets her former teacher in a supermarket and they start an affair. And then intercut in that are her memories of their relationship when she was fourteen years old and he was her teacher at school. And it’s all about power and imbalance, the nature of memory and how you can lie to yourself. I just thought it was absolutely fascinating. And it was one of those books I wanted to talk to about to everyone. My assistant had to read it right away so that I could then discuss it with her. We had all these really interesting discussions around the book and I thought that was really wonderful and that was the sign that it was a great book. And I’m sure that when more people read it, more people will have those discussions with their book group and their friends too. It’s a really rich novel, there’s a lot to it.
CA: Let’s open up to questions from the audience…
Q: Is literary “better” than commercial if you want to win a prize?
JM: I think the divide between literary and commercial has definitely narrowed in recent years. In commercial novels there are perhaps less layers, more emphasis on creating a good fast moving plot. I think what you need to avoid when writing literary fiction is being shackled by themes. I think there are writers who can create amazing books which aren’t like anything you’ve ever read before.
DM: There’s always some idea that literary is more difficult. At the end of the day it is just about the story, whatever the genre or style of book.
CA: Our shortlist included a wide range of Sci Fi, Literary, YA, Comic and Reading Group. We’re definitely not looking only for literary and like a diverse mix of books.
Q: Any advice for young writers?
JM: I get a lot of submissions from teenagers. I always say, I think you learn from everything you write and read. The best writers are the best readers. Read widely in your genre. Trust your voice. And just keep writing. I don’t think I know anyone who got published for the first thing they ever wrote.
DM: I don’t think your age matters, it’s just a question of work. Just keep writing. Work at it.
Q: How important is it that a book slots in neatly into a genre and what genre is Joanna’s book?
JB: I don’t really think about genre. I don’t wake up in the morning and think, I’m going to write a book in X genre, that isn’t how it works for me. I just start with a character and an idea and it goes from there. When people ask me what my book is, I say it’s literary/commercial so I say it’s on the fence a bit.
JM: We use the term “Reading Group Fiction” a lot, which is kind of the sweet spot between literary and commercial fiction, so the writing is quality writing but there are lots of themes and interesting ideas in the storytelling that make it a good book for discussion. I would say don’t get too hung up on genre, but it’s helpful to have an awareness of it because that’s how retailers, bookshops, Amazon stock things. So when I sell a novel, I know ultimately that I’m submitting it to a crime editor or to a women’s fiction editor, or to a literary editor and so I have to have an idea of what genre a book is when I’m submitting it. And they, if they take it on they will need to pitch it to Waterstones or Asda or independents or whoever, so they have to have an idea of the kind of book it is. Equally I like books which cross genres. One of my authors is James Oswald, who writes a detective series and his first one, Natural Causes, was a Richard and Judy pick and sold half a million copies. His books are crime procedurals but with a supernatural twist. So I like books that aren’t necessarily easily one genre or another, but I think it is helpful to have an awareness of who you think is going to be reading your books.
DM: Should you have an awareness during the writing process?
JM: Not necessarily during the process, but afterwards, when you are submitting it to agents, if that’s what you want to do.
CA: Kazuo Ishiguro said during his event that he is always surprised to find out what genre people think a book is when he finishes writing it. He said he’s in too much of a desperate state when writing to think about genre, he’s just trying to get words down on the page.
Q: You said when you submitted your novel it was 60k words but the finished novel looks like more than 60k words. What did you do to make it bigger?
JB: It was interesting, because in my head it was finished but I sort of knew it needed more, though I wasn’t sure what. I was too close to it, maybe. And then when Juliet took me on and we spoke about it and then Gillian Green, my editor at Ebury, it was quite unusual because it was about adding stuff in, rather than taking stuff away. It was great to have the input of those guys because everything they said felt natural to me and right. I thought yes, thank you that’s what I need to do. I added 15k words so it’s still shortish, it’s around 75k compared to the average for novels of 80-100k, but it was really important to me not to pad, to tell the story in the right amount of words. Any more would have been too much.
Q: Who reads the novel entries before the shortlist judge?
CA: It’s a small and trusted team of editors and writers, including specialists like horror and fantasy novelist Lou Morgan. Reading the entry pile is a great way to learn about writing. David Nichols was saying at his event that he read the entry pile for years. It’s very concentrated reading and gets very intense by the time we get to the final longlist debate and you’re reading a novel a day for a month.
Q: How important is it to have contrasting traits within a character?
JM: I think that essentially your characters just have to be consistent and they have to feel like real people. And real people can be incredibly contradictory in and of themselves. You have people who do terribly bad things but it doesn’t mean that everything about them is bad. Something that makes me say no to submissions is when the characters don’t feel like people, they feel like a placeholder in the plot. Or they are just there to serve a purpose so their motivations don’t necessarily make sense. I think you have to work to make your characters consistent and to know them really well, even if not everything you know makes it onto the page. You still have to have that sense of who they are and what drives them.
DM: I recently read a manuscript where the two main protagonists were almost identical in character. It’s really important to make sure you’ve really thought about making your characters distinct.
JB: Real people are light and shade. Nobody is 100% good or 100% bad. I think that’s what makes characters interesting. In a strange way, I think having a negative side to your character makes them more interesting. If they’re too perfect I don’t find them relatable. The flaws are the interesting part to write
JM: I also think your characters should grow throughout the novel. There should be a personal as well as the main narrative arc.
Q: As an agent, do you sometimes say to your authors ‘I don’t think that novel is going to make it.’
JM: I don’t think I’ve ever had to say ‘just smother it now’ to an author. When I take a writer on, I take them on for a specific book which I have faith in and want to sell. Sometimes that book doesn’t sell and that’s when the conversation starts about what they are going to do next. Like I had an author last year who was out of contract with her first two books and didn’t know what to write next. She had written two manuscripts and sent me the first one and I said there’s something here, but this needs to go and this needs to change and it was all going to take months. And then she came back with the other one which she didn’t think was as good and I said: no this, this is much better and very saleable. I’ve sold it in about eight countries and it was bought by a publisher for six figures within days. I think she had to write the other one to get it out of her system when the other one was better. But I’d never say ‘that’s a terrible book, what were you thinking?’
Q: Do you think the idea of having to write your first manuscript out of your system is common with aspiring novelists?
JM: Definitely. It comes back, I think, to learning from everything you write. One of my writers whose first novel I sold last year at the age of 68. I signed her for her first novel and it was beautiful but it didn’t sell. And it was obvious the reasons it didn’t sell, because it was a little all over the place. And then she wrote her second one and it was like every bad habit she’d had, she’d written out in the first manuscript. And what she turned around was a very focussed character narrative with a very twisty turny unreliable narrator. which has sold in 18 countries around the world now. I think that she learned so much from writing her first book.
DM: Can I ask, did you know, when you took her on, that her first book wasn’t going to be The One. Did you mostly just see her potential?
JM: I thought that the first book needed a lot of work and it just never quite got there, I suppose. But I thought she’s a beautiful writer, her turns of phrase are stunning and the way she writes characters is amazing, but that book wasn’t the one. And she took things from that first manuscript essentially and turned it into the second novel which then sold. It’s called The Dressmaker of Dacchau by Mary Chamberlain. And Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist sold in 24 countries, was the bestselling literary debut of the decade and it wasn’t her first book.
CA: It was humbling to hear David Nichols talking about Us. He was saying that after the success of One Day he didn’t want to follow it up with another love story novel, so he started writing a book about a very mean father/son relationship and sent 35k words to his agent who did tell him to smother it and so he scrapped it and started again.
Q: Is there is any point trying to second guess the market or should you just write what flows out of you?
JB: I’d say definitely write the book that you need to write. It seems to me predicting the zeitgeist can be pointless as by the time you’ve finished it the market will have moved on and it seems to me to be quite a cynical way to write. Writing a novel is a slog. It’s hard and you have to have the fire in your belly.
DM: I think you have to write the book that’s in you because if you try to write for the market you’re pretty much destined to fail because it won’t have that unique thing which comes from you.
CA: We always see trend clusters in the entry pile. Last year it was war novels, this year we saw a lot of abuse stories.
JM: If you want to get published and are trying to write to a trend you see in a bookshop, you have to remember that the trend you’re seeing now, those books were all sold three years earlier. So you’re fighting a slightly losing battle I suppose, if by the time there’s a slew of vampire books the trend may be over. I think it’s completely true about sitting down and writing a book you didn’t expect to write. One of my writers, Francesca Haig, is an award winning poet who writes beautiful literary collections and she was awarded a Gladstone Library Fellowship. She sat down to write and found herself writing a science fiction novel called The Fire Sermon about twins. Dreamworks are working on the film now and it has sold in tons of countries but she said she would never have expected to write it in a million years. She was there to write poetry but was suddenly struck by this idea and the words just poured out of her.
CA: Would you advise trying to predict a theme, say by writing to an upcoming anniversary or event?
JM: People do do that quite a lot. I think in non-fiction that’s easier to do, but with a novel, I think don’t try to shoehorn it into something. I feel I can always tell. People do look ahead to anniversaries and themes, but I think you have to write the novel only you could write. And also the same idea in different people’s hands can end up being completely different. There are themes that come up time and again and then in a particular writer’s hands become completely new.
Q: Juliet, as an agent, how closely do you read your submissions?
JM: I read as much as I need to, to know if it’s right for me or not. There are some manuscripts I know immediately within in the first page it’s not good enough, there is not point reading on because it’s not going to get better. There are some it takes me a few chapters, some take me half of a book. And sometimes I get two thirds of the way through and then realise that there is not enough there to make it work. And sometimes I turn things down, thought I normally tell people that, because it’s perhaps too close to something on my list. So sometimes people will send me something and I will think, actually I have two things on my list which will be competing with this, so it’s not for me, even though it’s good. There are also areas where I just don’t have the expertise. Like, I don’t represent fiction for very young children so I don’t do middle grade or picture books, because I don’t feel that I understand them enough. I need to be fully secure in my knowledge of the market. What you have to remember is that all of my money, because we are sales people at the end, comes from selling manuscripts. So I greet my submissions pile with ‘I’m going to find something really good today.’ I always want to find something exciting, I don’t want to turn things down. Writers who come along to these type of events are obviously taking their writing seriously, but a lot of people don’t take it seriously. There are a lot of submissions that are 10k words long and someone says is a book. Or the writer will say has been dictated to them by Tom Cruise appearing to them in the form of a ghost, or it’s written in green ink and I know that sounds funny but there are a lot of submissions that just aren’t right from the start. And there are also good books that just aren’t right for me. I don’t like spy fiction for example so I’m never going to be the right person to represent it.
Q: How many liberties can you take when fictionalising a historical story?
JM: I think it depends on how well known the period is and how big the inaccuracy is. For example The Miniaturist is based around a real doll’s house but everything else is not real. It could have happened but it didn’t. It also depends how famous the people are that you are writing about. You have to make things plausible. If you’re writing about Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn’s not going to survive for example. Early life is easier. I read history at university and real historians take liberties with the truth as well.
Q: Should you submit your novel direct to a publishing house?
JM: Most pubs don’t accept unsolicited submissions, so I would recommend getting your Writers and Artists Yearbook, making a list of ten agents and googling them to see what they have sold recently. Treat it like you would a job application.
DM: Consider submitting to novel competitions too. Getting on a longlist can really help you to get you noticed.
CA: We have huge interest from agents in the writers who make our shortlist. Last year, all three unagented shortlistees found an agent and two won publishing deals. Helping writers to hook up with agents and go on to win publishing deals is the very best part of my job.
Q: What one piece of advice would you give to entrants on how to win a novel award?
JB: Just do it! Take your writing seriously and make the book as good as you possibly can. It won’t be perfect, but you need to treat it with care and represent yourself as best as you can.
DM: Really pay attention to the opening of your book because that’s what everybody reads first and can make or break your luck in the first round.
JM: Just go for it. You might not win if you send your novel in, but you’re definitely not going to win if you don’t send it in!
Further reading: Joanna Barnard: How to enter a writing competition