How to almost win a novel competition
I can’t tell you how to win the WMCNA, partly because I was a runner-up but also because there’s no magic formula and what works for one writer is useless to the next. But my book, WHISPER PIER, did land me an agent through the competition, and it’s got me thinking about what this book has that my previous 6 queried and rejected books did not. Below are the tips I would give my younger self could I go 10 years back in time.
- Have a hook
I knew WHISPER PIER was working when I realised I could actually write a Twitter pitch for it instead of the rambling nonsense that my other novels inspired. If you have a catchy, memorable premise, then you’re off to a good start. So, can you summarise your novel in a single sentence? Twitter pitching contests are a great way to tell if you’ve really got a handle on your own story. The feedback from other writers is the important bit (expect agents to ignore you).
- Keep it simple
In the past, my opening chapters have contained a lot of setup for all my various plots and subplots. It’s hard work for the reader and, in my case, a sign that the book is going to be overly complicated and hard to follow. Now, I go through my first pages and write down all the questions the reader will be asking. Often, lots of them aren’t necessary. Remember that the WMCNA judges will be reading a lot of first pages and they’d rather their brains not explode.
- Character first
You’re asking a reader to stick with a character for an entire book. Make it worth their while by creating someone who is surprising and intruiging, and who does stuff rather than sitting back while the story happens to them. Ask yourself what makes your character interesting and different, and is it showcased in the first page? Sometimes I will imagine the coolest person I know in real life having a conversation with my character. It helps me work out if I’ve really got the character clear in my own head.
- Include a sense of place
Settings will always be my first love. Make your descriptions visceral and real. Ask yourself what is special about your story’s location and if your reader is going to feel transported somewhere new when they read. Don’t be boring; don’t be predictable. Pinterest boards are my favourite setting inspiration.
- Interrogate your story
When trying to decide what comes next in a story, I never go with the first idea. It is rarely original in my experience. At every stage, but particularly the opening, question everything. Ask yourself why something is there, why it’s interesting, why you’ve chosen that particular setting, why your character reacts the way they do. One of my favourite techniques to to put some ‘brain music’ on (thanks YouTube), lie down and daydream my way through tricky scenes. I get my best ideas this way.
Wrapping up, I want to say one thing. Before I entered the WMCNA, I’d spent many years trying and failing to find an agent for my books. I was beginning to get downhearted as I knew my writing was pretty good but had no idea how to make it good enough. If my experience over the last 6 months has taught me anything, it’s that there is often an element of being in the right place at the right time involved in publishing. So, if querying isn’t working for you then maybe competitions such as WMCNA will be the break you need.
Kathryn Lougheed is a germ-loving scientist turned writer. She’s the author of a popular science book about tuberculosis but her first love is children’s literature. She writes atmospheric and weird young adult and middle grade novels about monsters, magic, and mental health. She lives near Oxford with her partner, 4 year old daughter, and the world’s clumsiest cat.
Kathryn is now represented by Chloe Seager at Madeleine Millburn Agency.
Read her WriteMentor success story here.