Last minute checks

The Literary Consultancy’s Aki Schilz gives some last minute tips for writers planning to submit to competitions.

Submitting to a Writing Competition: last-minute checks  

So, great, you've read all the rules, sat in them, played with them, broken them. You've written and re-written (several times) a gripping opening to your novel, you've had some feedback, gone on a retreat, read it out loud to friends, family and pets, and found some space and time to dedicate to your writing. You've let it breathe, then come back to edit it with a cool and keen eye. You've had a think about where you might sit on a bookshelf; you've become 'Market Aware' and now scout the Bookseller's book announcements page daily to see what's 'hot' (and you've learned when to ignore what's hot and just write from the heart, but with a better sense of what the industry looks like these days to help bolster and inform your writing process). Now, the opportunity arises to submit your as yet unpublished masterpiece to a prize. Fantastic! Quick, stick everything in an envelope or into an email and press SEND.

Time to put on the brakes.

What you need is a polished and proofread submission package. It really does make a huge amount of difference if you can make the reading process a smooth one. Your reader will appreciate it.

First, give yourself some time away from those crucial opening pages so you stop auto-reading them as the writer, and start to coolly analyse them as a reader. Now is the time to weed out those errors you are probably blind to, and after time away, they will start to become apparent. Check for spelling, grammar, consistency, cadence. Indent your paragraphs, excepting the first line of each new chapter. Re-read the competition submission guidelines (especially if you are applying to a few different competitions) and make sure you have the right font, font size, line spacing, and margins. Should it be anonymous, or do they require a header and footer? Page numbers inserted?

Get a friend to go over your writing for you. Reading aloud really does help, too; if you stumble when reading, it's likely there's something in the writing that's snagging. Listen carefully to how the sentences sound. Pay particular attention to dialogue and how authentic it feels when sounded out rather than read silently. And to whether voices, whether in dialogue or through the narrative voice chosen, reflect the characters they are talking through; their personalities, their ages. Are they sufficiently differentiated? A tip: if you took out all the speech tags and any other text in a section of dialogue so only direct speech remained, would it still be clear who was speaking?

Now ask yourself: are these opening pages truly representative of my book? You can start by asking yourself the following questions,  about your submitted chapters.

Do they give a clear idea of:

*your sparkling writing ability (is it clear, lucid, stylish, engaging, and crucially, appropriate to the genre you're writing in and the reader you're writing for? Make every word count, test every adverb and adjective, and make sure the tensile strength of every paragraph is balanced sentence by sentence, for a good sense of proportion throughout)
*the genre (who are you writing for? 'Everyone' is never, never the answer. Get a sense of which other books resemble yours; how are they categorised? Is it a psychological thriller, a crime procedural, a comic caper, an adventure fantasy, a literary sci-fi, a Young Adult dystopia...)
*the story (does your reader feel strapped in and confident they are heading down the Narrative Arc within these crucial opening pages, or are they in a parking lot somewhere in an unnamed place and time thinking, hang on, it's a bit foggy. Where am I? Are we moving? Don't waste these pages on exposition to try to 'set the scene')
*whose story it is (who are we following here? Have you introduced a main character yet? Are they clear in the reader's mind? Have you established a clear Point of View (POV) or Points of View if it's a split narrative? Have you avoided confusing head-hopping to make this crystal clear, so we know who we are building a relationship with: even fictional relationships require trust! If your reader can't trust you as a writer, they will be hesitant to read on. This isn't the same, by the way, as an unreliable narrator: good unreliable narrators are created by writers who are anything but)
*conflict ahead (8,000, even 5,000 words is enough time to start building in the idea of upcoming conflict or narrative tension; every story hinges on this in some way, and you'll need to start thinking about how you build this in. This is what keeps a reader turning pages, the central question: what happens next. Usually after the Inciting Incident, which, as in my last blog piece, does not necessarily mean a Dramatic Happening, simply something that kickstarts the action. This could be a schism. A revelation. A letter arriving. A death in family. A reconciliation. It doesn't matter what, but it's essential that you make your reader care. That's your job as the writer. Make them hold their breath.)

OK, the writing is ready. And now? You'll need a streamlined covering letter. Think of it as you would a job application; slick, to the point, professional. Here isn't the place for linguistic acrobatics; leave that for your extract. Tell the reader:

*What you are offering (genre/style/length)
* A short two-sentence summary of the main story
*A one-sentence summary of the main themes (voilà, your three-sentence elevator pitch: think of film loglines for inspiration)
*A little about yourself, and any relevant biographical information
*A polite and professional sign-off thanking them for taking the time to read your submission.

If it's helpful to, you can think of this as a practice run for submitting your work to an agent. Incidentally, if you get to that stage, don't forget to personalise your email. If you are selecting an agent for a writer on the list they represent you admire/feel an affinity with, tell them. If you saw them speak at an event or read an article they contributed to a magazine and were impressed with them, say so. Don't, under any circumstance, start a letter with 'Dear Sirs' if you can find out whom you're addressing.

Finally, you'll want to submit a synopsis that shows that beyond this extract, you can carry a story through from beginning to end neatly and competently. You want to reassure the agent/editor/prize judge that they are in safe hands. Try to stick to a page, around 300-500 words in total. An overly long, complicated or meandering synopsis will set off immediate warning bells, and tends to beg the question, Is the problem with the book, rather than this rambling synopsis? Vague language throws the control of the writer into question. Keep it slick. You can add just a soupçon of style, to gently reflect the tone of the book (whether playful, earnest, lyrical, or tongue-in-cheek). The synopsis gives you a little more space for play, but keep it reigned in.

Need more help? Here's our How To Write A Synopsis page by TLC founder and Director Rebecca Swift.

Good luck!


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