In an attempt to demystify the behind the scenes goings-ons, as I always aim to do, during a novel award, herein follows the honest account of what we do, and how we try to help outstanding writers be showcased and launch careers.
First, an origin story…
As a child, Stuart was not actually know as Stuart. Born and registered as Robert he was thereafter always referred to by his middle name, Stuart…(bit weird, right?).
Mono-browed and friendless, he took refuge in books…
Okay, okay, let’s not go that far back!
Since I started writing (in 2010) I’d always been obsessed with competitions – I would always enter them, using them as an incentive to finish and as a deadline, and considering the fees paid as investments in my future career as a writer.
I was fortunate enough to list a lot in contests for unpublished writers, especially between 2014-17, and even finished runner-up in one. Always a Best Man, but never the Groom. But it gave my letter to agents a nice end to it, being able to say that someone except Grandma Eileen liked my writing.
But even as that happened, I could never fully pinpoint or understand why I got listed form some, but not others, nor why some books got listed more than others I wrote. Similarly, in one where I finished runner-up, I entered again the next year (with what I thought was an improved version of the ms) only to not longlist.
What had changed? Was I suddenly rubbish? Was my story now a bit crap?
Well, of course not. And this concept has really chilled my mindset towards writing, getting published and worrying about readers liking my work (to an extent – I mean, come on, we are writers!).
‘It’s all SUBJECTIVE…’ Yes, there it is – the dirty word of our industry – commonly used in place of giving a more detailed reason (sometimes there really is no other reason, though) and the cause of many an eye-roll as it’s said for the 50th rejection in a row…
‘I just didn’t connect…’
‘There is much to admire about your writing, but I just didn’t feel as strongly about it as I must to offer representation…’
Or variants upon those. All valid sentiments. How often do all of us pick up a bestselling book and say the same?
I’ve got hundreds of these in my archived rejection folder in my inbox. And a whole bunch much more personalised, but with the same message: ‘it’s good, but just not good enough…for me.’
So let’s get back on track – why a novel award? Why create something that I myself had some success with and wouldn’t actually help me personally?
Well, isn’t that the whole ethos of WriteMentor…elevating others up to and even above ourselves? Placing out a helping hand to pull another writer from sinking in that Rejection Swamp on Degobah (oh yes, a Star Wars reference!).
Of course, but I had an ulterior motive – I wanted to see what actually happened behind the scenes – I’ll admit it, curiosity was a strong pull. Helping others just a strong. It was also a second chance for our WriteMentor mentees to shine – those who maybe didn’t get picked up via our showcase.
And I wanted to make it affordable – something ANYONE could enter. And we’ve stuck with that, offering 30 free places (we ended up letting more than 40 enter for free) which we pay – we don’t ask for those places to be sponsored or paid for by others (yet – we’ve been asked by lots of people to set up some kind of fund to help those with lower income, so watch this space).
I also wanted to offer feedback to every entrant – from both adult readers with a strong understanding of craft and kid readers, to whom we aiming our words and stories.
And lastly, I wanted prizes that reflected what WriteMentor offers – yes, the £500 cash, which is great of course – but also mentoring prizes. Our shortlist all get a place on our voluntary mentoring programme in the summer, and the best novel with a BAME MC from a BAME creator gets a year of paid mentoring from a Spark mentor – a small part of our commitment to diverse representation in both creators and in the characters our children will read about.
So I did it – on 1st December 2018 we opened up entries for our first novel award. We received 223 entries, selected a long longlist of more than 40 (we LOVE to celebrate as many people’s talent as possible with recognition – see above about how nice it is to put in letters to agents, so it’s not just Grandma Eileen), with a shortlist of 6 (4 of which are now signed with agents – plus deals to come, watch this space) and our eventual winner, Alexandra Page.
Alex was chosen as the winner by judge Chloe Seager, from a talented pool of 6.
Runners-up were Kathryn Lougheed and Amy Borg.
Shortlisted were Stephen Catling, Dale Hannah and Loretta Chefchaouni.
The first year was such a success, I was certain we wanted to run it again.
With a new judge at the helm, Alice Williams, we decided to introduce Picture Books into the award, and it’s been a popular addition already.
We are currently reading and hoping to announce a longlist at the end of February.
How to run the novel award
So, yes, that’s the backstory, we’re all up to date – we all put a nice, long bit of telling backstory at the beginning of our novels, right??
What does the novel award involve? How much work is there behind the scenes? What does the £10 entry fee go towards? How are novels selected for the LL and the SL?
I’ll answer these questions and more below:
The first job is to contact and ask an agent to judge. We’ve been lucky with the calibre of both our agent judges in these first 2 years and we hope we can continue at that level going forward. The upside for the judge is getting to read great work first, and for the writers, it’s an amazing opportunity to have an agent read your whole ms.
Then dates – we have quite a small 2 month window compared to other contests – this is essentially because it’s a 1 person job behind the scenes and I do so many things, it’s easiest to compartmentalise it all, but it’s something we’ll look at for next year, to perhaps extend that – we shall see.
There’s then decision on prizes and entry fee. We increased this year, but to a number of factors I’ll mention below, from £5 to £10.
Last year, all our readers were volunteers – good people I knew who helped me out in the first year of the contest – I writhed with guilt all throughout, though, and would never repeat that model for a paid contest. It’s not right and while everyone was very happy doing it (no coercion, I promise, or Jedi Mind tricks for that matter!), we now happily pay our readers.
Also, let’s just take a moment to acknowledge novel award readers everywhere – it’s an essential, but often unacknowledged task and so I’ll acknowledge our readers this year (adult only, due to safeguarding for the kids):
- Alexandra Page
- Clare Helen Welsh
- A.J. Sass
- Carolyn Ward
- Anna Orridge
- Anne Boyere
- Dale Hannah
- Ellie Lock
- Emma Finlayson-Palmer
- Emma Read
- Florianne Humphrey
- Hannah Kates
- Julie Sykes
- Jodi Herlick
- Julie Marney Leigh
- Kathryn Lougheed
- Kathryn Clark
- Lindsay Moakes
- Lydia Massiah
- Melissa Welliver
- Stephen Catling
- Alison Donald
- Polly Owen
- Fiona Barker
- Bonnie Swanson
Thank you to each and every one of you – none of this would be possible without you, so do take a bow…
(still gutted Chewie didn’t get a medal!??)
Kid readers all get a £5 book token for reading either 5 or 10 (or some keens ones read a few more) while our standard rate for adults is about £50 per 20-30 extracts (either full PB or first 3k entries).
The pay doesn’t seem that high, it’s certainly below minimum wage per hour of work if you put it that way, but when you see the numbers, hopefully you’ll understand why it’s so low – I would gladly pay them more, but the only way to subsidise that would be to charge a higher entry fee – something I’m also loathed to do.
And therein lies the the very delicate balance that all creative organisations face – you want to pay writers more for their expertise, while also wanting to make affordable opportunities for writers who are pre-agented or pre-published.
It’s like when Anakin teetered on the edge between Jedi and Sith, the line is almost unperceptable, until he crossed it, and became Lord Vader…hooooooooooooooouuuuughhhhh…
So, where does your entry fee go? Why £10?
Well, of that £10, it’s broken down like this:
- £4.00 goes to the adult readers.
- £1.30 goes to the kid readers book tokens – each get a £5 book token.
- £1.30 goes to the 1st price of £500.
- £1.10 goes towards the mentoring prize with Spark.
- £0.59 goes to PayPal (they charge every transaction of £10 this much).
- £0.20 goes towards the trophy for the winner.
We also fund the 40 or so free entries that we had this year, ourselves, so that is taken from any potential extra cash in the account.
It doesn’t leave much, and what is left, stays in the account for any incidental expenses, such as web hosting (£200 a year) etc.
We have the very best people who are part of the WriteMentor community and we get very few complaints about price and affordability, which is good, but I also wanted 100% transparency in what we do and where your money goes.
You trust us and sometimes it feels like your money is going into a black hole when you enter a contest and hear nothing and obviously don’t progress. At least this way you can enter and rest assured the price is the very minimum we can charge and be sustainable.
So, you’ve entered, and you’re satisfied your entry fee is well spent. You get feedback regardless, remember, and honest feedback, unlike Grandma Eileen, who will pinch your cheeks and say you are so, so talented. No shit sandwich, just bread with her.
How are novels selected for the LL and the SL?
Each of the entries are read by at least 4 people in the first round. Each reader gives written feedback (which you receive after the longlist announcement), a score out of 5 – we have a scoring card for consistency, although guess what – SUBJECTIVITY! – and they give an indication of YES/NO for progression to the longlist for their very favourites.
We will try to select a long longlist, like last year. It was 40 or so, last time, so maybe a similar number this year – but it depends on the standard.
Some people would argue a long longlist devalues making it, but I’d argue that wider recognition is surely only a positive – it’s so bloody tough being an unpublished writer, vying against thousands or even millions of peers for the few coveted spots with an agent and even fewer with a publisher. So if we can spread just a little more joy, to a few more writers, it’s a small price for us to pay in the additional reading or whatever.
We exist to help writers, not vice versa, and being in that place that you all are, and that I am still am btw, I *think* this is what we want.
We will also publish a list of near misses – the Notable Mentions – and the Readers Favourites – again, let’s absolutely spread that joy and sense of achievement to wider group of writers.
And if you make those lists, you don’t go empty handed…no you get a Twitter banner PNG with Notable Mention, Readers Favourite or Longlisted on it. That’s right. Even better than good feedback from Grandma Eileen.
So you made the longlist? 🎉 What next?
For MG and YA, we will read at least 50 pages (at that point the reader gets a choice to stop if they’re not thinking it’s ready for our shortlist) of all long listed entries. Kids and adults alike.
For Picture Books, and Chapter Books, we will read the whole thing.
Then we repeat the process of voting for SL with a YES/NO and thrash it out until we have a shortlist. We had 6 last year – we will aim for that this year, though with PB and CB much shorter in length, we may have 7 or 8, depending on the distribution of age categories on the list.
And if you make the SL, your manuscript heads off to Alice Williams for Final Judgement! She will chose the winner…the chosen one…
We hope to announce the LL at the end of February, the SL at the end of March and the winner in late April/May, but the timetable, like the Force is malleable and flows through every one of us…we will definitely keep you up to date with how things progress throughout.
So, if you’re still with me, after this trilogy, a saga to rival those of the ages, then all that’s left to say is…