Having come joint fourth in the Mail on Sunday novel competition in 2010, I was amazed when I got a phone call to say I’d been awarded the same prize again this year. And they say lightning never strikes twice! The competition requires you to write the first 150 words of what could potentially become a novel. (My entry for this year is at the bottom of this post if you’d like to read it.)
On the day of the prizegiving, I took the train to London and arrived at Northcliffe House in style, well, by black cab anyway. Coolly I stepped out of the cab and sailed up the steps as if I did this every day, entered the revolving doors and pushed. Immediately a buzzer sounded, a red light flashed, and I was trapped between the doors like a wasp in a jam-jar. By the time I’d worked out how to shove my way out again and in through the correct doors – the ones marked ‘Visitors’ – my cool had vanished and the doorman was busting a gut as he tried to hide a grin.
Being inside the soaring glass atrium of Northcliffe House was a treat in itself. The Mail on Sunday, Daily Mail and the Independent are all based there and the glass walls of the offices afforded a fascinating glimpse into the human machinery behind the newspapers. The six winners (all women) met up with the competition’s organiser, Paula Johnson of the Society of Authors, then off we went to a chic little restaurant to join the judges Fay Weldon and Simon Brett (the third judge, James Buchan was abroad). Also present were literary agents Caroline Sheldon and Lavinia Trevor, a representative from Harper Collins and another from a small publishing house.
Lunch was delicious, the wine flowed freely, and so did the tongues! We winners were treated like stars, and like proper writers, not the novices most of us clearly were. There was, however, plenty of advice on hand should we want it – and oh yes, we wanted it!
Fay talked to me about my competition entry, saying that she liked my ‘modern writing style’ and even giving me ideas as to how I could develop a plot around it. I found out later that she had also spoken to the organiser about it while I was at the other end of the table, and that, I can tell you, gave me a very good feeling. We didn’t have the chance to talk to everyone at length but I was lucky enough to spend most of the time with Fay, Simon and Lavinia and I came away bursting with as much information and as many ideas as I could hold.
At the risk of making this post far longer than it ought to be, here’s a random selection of some of the things I learned:
• Ignore all ‘rules’ for writing fiction because THERE ARE NO RULES. Do it your way. (Fay)
• Readers these days want short books. (Fay)
• Readers (and therefore publishers) want young lead characters. Older women prefer to read about younger ones, not people their own age. It’s a fantasy thing. But good idea to introduce an older character or two so they can also relate to them. (Fay)
• If you’re not sure how to begin a novel, begin with dialogue as it always suggests something happening. (Fay)
• If you have two separate plot lines going on, say where two lead characters have separate stories, don’t worry if the stories aren’t interweaving. Carry on and they will start to merge. (Simon)
• Don’t be surprised, or worried, if agents/publishers have opinions on your book that differ vastly from one another. Don’t change anything unless you really want to as what they say could be rubbish. Editors in particular are very young and inexperienced and most of them know far less than you do. (Fay)
• If you know how your book ends, write the ending before you write the middle section as it makes the middle easier if you know where it’s heading. (Fay) (Simon disagreed, because he writes crime and it wouldn’t work for him)
• Getting an agent doesn’t necessarily lead to publication. One of the prizewinners was signed up by a leading London agency three years ago and they still have not sold her book.
• The main premise for my work-in-progress novel sounds like a winner. (Simon, Lavinia and others). Well, that’s a relief!
• It’s easier to get a story published by People’s Friend than it is by Woman’s Weekly as they are far more picky. (Another of the winners, from personal experience).
• Never give up! (Fay, Simon, everyone) Simon had 5 novels rejected before he got an acceptance. He has been writing for 30 years and has a total of 91 books under his belt!
The Mail on Sunday novel competition has regularly attracted around 1,000 entries so I can be rightly proud of my two joint-fourth prizes, and I am! I had the most exciting, fun day and met some lovely people. Unfortunately, this year’s competition is the last in its present format. There is a proposal to set up a new competition and Paula Johnson is working hard to make it happen. Let’s hope she succeeds.
This was my entry for the competition. It had to contain the word ‘train’, with any meaning.
A ripple of air passes across my face as the train pulls in with a clunk and a squeal. My mother, pretty in her flowered cotton dress, white handbag neat over her arm, stands almost on tiptoe, her eyes switching back and forth as they search the thin straggle of alighting passengers.
Carriage doors slam. A whistle toots and the train rolls away, taking my breath with it and leaving behind absolute silence, so solid I could write my name in it.
The station-master’s boots echo along the platform. As he walks by he tips his cap but looks straight ahead. I slip my hand inside my mother’s and look up at her to share the scald of disappointment. She squeezes my hand as her mouth fumbles for a smile. This is the third day and still he hasn’t come.