Of Unpublished Novels, Competitions, and Shortlists…

So, I’ve been sitting on this news for THREE WHOLE DAYS (well, more like two and a bit), and I can finally tell everyone — I can tell EVERYONE!: I’ve been shortlisted for the Rivers of London SF/F Award for BAME Writers! Check out the news on Gollancz’ (YES, IT’S GOLLANCZ. AND BEN AARONAVICH. I’M DYING) website, and also take a look at those amazing titles for the other shortlisted novels!

For anyone who’s currently at the point of finishing up a draft of a novel, you might be wondering about what’s involved in submitting to competitions. From personal experience, I can tell you that novel competitions are equal parts terror, anxiety, and excitement, with heaps of disappointment thrown on there for good measure. I can also say that they are always totally worth it, no matter the outcome.

WHY SUBMIT YOUR MANUSCRIPT TO A NOVEL COMPETITION?

Seriously? I can hear you asking. Can they really always be worth it? And I can tell you without a doubt that they are. Before my third novel, Shape, was shortlisted for PRH’s Write Now Mentorship, I submitted my first and second novels to several different novel competitions, including the MsLexia and Bath Awards for Children’s novels. And even though none of those competitions netted me a win, or even a shortlisting, they did give me one major thing:

They convinced me to put my work out there. As writers — and especially as novelists — it can be extremely difficult to share our work with other people, especially strangers. Even more difficult is knowing when we can call our drafts done. As DaVinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

What novel competitions will always do, without fail, is give you a deadline to hit, and a goal of making your work the best it can be in that time. Sometimes, you won’t even make it to the submission — and that’s okay. Maybe you manage to submit your work, but you never even get longlisted — and that’s okay too. What matters is that you put in the time and effort to make your manuscript the best it could be, knowing that, at the other end of the process, it is going to be read and judged by a stranger. If your ultimate goal is to one day be published, this is vital.

The other thing that quite a few novel competitions are good for is building a community and getting to know other writers who at the same part of the process as you. WriteMentor is especially good for this: even beyond their annual writing competition, the #WriteMentor community on Twitter is brilliantly active, supportive, and encouraging.

And then, of course, maybe just the one time, you push yourself to finish your manuscript by writing 20,000 words in a week, and a month later, you find out that you’ve managed to scrape onto the shortlist. And maybe, just maybe, the next time, you find out you’ve actually won.

PROSE AND CONS

That said, competitions are not for everyone. Probably the biggest drawback to competitions as a whole is that most of them do cost money — this is of course to keep the competitions running and to be able to offer the winners prizes, but it can also be a huge barrier to those of us who are functionally living without disposable income. The good news is there are still quite a few competitions that are free, and usually the bigger ones will have schemes to support writers who can’t afford the entry fees.

Of course, there’s also that huge heaping pile of disappointment that I mentioned at the beginning. Not placing in a novel competition can pack a demotivating punch, but if you keep in mind that these competitions are highly subjective as well as hugely… well… competitive, then hopefully it’ll feel less like a rejection of your work and more like the bad luck that it usually is. Take a breath, shrug it off, and turn your focus to the next opportunity. No writing journey is EVER going to be free of rejection, and if we’re being honest, a “we had a huge number of submissions this year, and we’re sorry…” stings a whole lot less than an agent’s form response of “yeah, not for me.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the fact that, even if you place in a competition, there’s no guarantee that it’ll lead to publication. Probably the most heartbreaking moment in the past year for me was having my manuscript requested by an agent as part of the fallout from being shortlisted in the WriteMentor CNA, only to have her send me the most honest, difficult, and heartfelt rejection letter I have ever received in this entire journey.

THE TIPSY PART

So, if you’re thinking about getting that draft into a competition, what’s my advice? First off, if you can do it, absolutely DO IT. Especially if you can find a free competition or one that gives all entrants critiques or feedback. With free competitions there is literally nothing to lose.

Secondly, always read the full requirements and guidelines very carefully. Stipulations on formatting, number of words, lengths of synopses, manuscript completeness, eligibility, and whether your name should be anywhere on there need to be followed to the letter. Just like any other submission, you want to present yourself in the best possible light, and for a competition, that means following the rules.

And finally — probably my biggest piece of advice for anyone else who gets anxiety like me: detach yourself from the result. The point of the competition is submitting to the competition, not necessarily to win or to place. Once you’ve sent your work out, take a breath and congratulate yourself. You’ve already done something amazing.

A VERY PARTIAL LIST OF PRE-PUB NOVEL COMPS

Bath Novel Awards – an annual prize open to international writers for an unpublished adult or young adult novel, with a separate award for children’s and 12+. First 5,000 words and a £28 entry fee, with sponsorship for low income writers available. Prizes range from workshops and feedback to £3,000 prize money.

Write Mentor Children’s Novel Award – amazing mentoring community with a yearly prize for children’s fiction from picture books to YA. Requires synopsis and 3,000 words of a complete manuscript, with the full manuscript being judged for the shortlist. Prizes include mentoring, feedback, and up to £500 cash.

PRH’s Write Now Membership – Penguin Random House’s BAME outreach program gives 10 finalists a year-long mentorship, and has produced Run Rebel and the Million Pieces of Neena Gill. 1,000 words is all you need.

Myriad First Drafts Competition – Cancelled due to the pandemic this year, but annually awards one unpublished novelist a week-long writing retreat as well as a six month mentorship with one of their authors.

Have you ever submitted to a novel competition or short story prize? I’d love to know what your experience was like! Share your thoughts in the comments.

Published by thatexpatgirl

Traveler, Reader, Writer, Scribbler. Go ahead and email me at aborg.teaches@gmail.com

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