Shortlist secrets - what award readers really look for

Caroline Ambrose
3 April 2018
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Mo Harber-Lamond

Caroline Ambrose is the founder and organiser of The Bath Novel Award, an annual international prize for unpublished and self-published novelists. The readers for the prize leave feedback on the writing, and here Caroline tells us what they really seem to enjoy.

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Over seven years of the Bath Novel Award, we’ve shortlisted every kind of novel from speculative to realistic, historical to sci fi, literary to commercial. I’m often asked to pinpoint the qualities in the novels which make the shortlist and the best answer I can give is uniqueness.

Every year, the readers’ votes go to the novels with the freshest voices and something new to say within a story only that writer could tell. The books where the writer hides themselves and their self-consciousness away, leaving the characters to lift off the page and pull you into their world. Most simply, they are the manuscripts we can’t stop thinking about.

While a book’s uniqueness is impossible to formulate, our shortlist voting patterns show readers know it when they see it and I’ve noticed a few technical qualities which often appear in the vote comments.

SHORT FIRST LINES WHICH SIGNAL CHANGE

By far the most common opening in shortlisted novels is a short and simply worded first line which signals change. For example:

The email arrives in my inbox like an unexpected bomb. Friend Request, Laura Marshall

Another Being falls as we’re driving into Edinburgh. Out of the Blue, Sophie Cameron

This is the last conversation we will have. Testament, Kim Sherwood

A dead bolt has a very specific sound. Baby Doll, Hollie Overton

At first, nothing was unusual. Rainbirds, Clarissa Goenawan

I stole a baby. The Hurting, Lucy Van Smit

By directing the reading team into an I-have-to-know-what-happens-next mindset, these punchy first lines get novels off to a flying start.

Caroline Ambrose

Each one of these lines is loaded with forward motion and poses a compelling question:

What was in the email that arrived like an unexpected bomb?

What’s a Being and why and how are they falling?

Why a last conversation and between whom?

Who or what is behind the bolted door?

What unusual thing happened?

Wait – you stole a baby!?


While not all our shortlisted novels start this way, it seems this kind of opening performs particularly well within our award. Reading for a prize is a peculiarly intense experience, especially in the early rounds when the odds are highest. In our first round, readers vote yes or no to the question
does this extract make you want to read the full story?

By directing the reading team into an I-have-to-know-what-happens-next mindset, these first lines get novels off to a flying start and I’ll often see comments with the votes along the lines of ‘this writer had me from the start’.

Voting comments often mention the reader’s connection with the protagonist and first person narratives seem to have more success in this aspect.

Caroline Ambrose

FIRST PERSON VIEWPOINT

The imbalance of narrative viewpoints on our combined shortlists is striking, with twice as many first person as third person narratives. I suspect this could be linked to the heightened pace of reading for awards. Voting comments often mention the reader’s connection with the protagonist and first person narratives seem to have more success in this aspect.

If your novel is written in the third person, it’s perhaps worth considering an edit focussed on emotional layers and opportunities to increase reader connection, particularly in the extract round.

STYLISTIC RISKS

Another quality we often see in shortlisted books is stylistic risk. For example, in Rainbirds, Clarissa Goenawan reinvents the first commandment of writing rules to never, ever start a novel with a character waking from a dream:

Stylistically brave and innovative writing is incredibly exciting when reading for an award.

Caroline Ambrose

At first, nothing was unusual.

I was on the phone with my sister. She sat at her desk by the window in her rented room in Akakawa. The sun shone through the curtain, casting brown highlights on her long dark hair. She asked me question after question, but I just mumbled one-word answers, impatient for the conversation to be over. But then, before my eyes, she crumbled and turned to ashes.

I woke up in a black sedan; the dream would have slipped from my mind, had it not been for the porcelain urn in my lap. Resembling a short, cylindrical vase, it was decorated with a painting of a flying cuckoo and chrysanthemums. Inside were the ashes of my sister, Keiko Ishida, who had been only thirty-three when she died.

 

As well as the surprise of a page one twist on the trope submission readers see most, there’s also an inciting incident in the form of the dead sister who wants answers. Stylistically brave and innovative writing is incredibly exciting when reading for an award, and a clear signal of the magic and uniqueness which translates into shortlist votes.

Caroline Ambrose, Bath Novel Award

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The Bath Novel Award 2018 is a £2,500 international prize for unpublished and self-published novelists. This year’s judge is Felicity Blunt of Curtis Brown Literary Agency, with entries invited until 30th April 2018. The writer of the most promising longlisted book will receive a place on Edit Your Novel the Professional Way, the new 18 week online course from Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.

Caroline Ambrose

Caroline Ambrose founded The Bath Novel Award in 2013, adding The Bath Children's Novel Award the following year. She is a lead campaigner for Bath's public libraries, regular chair for The Bath Festival's annual programme of literary events and holds a Bachelor's degree in English Literature and Language from Birmingham University.

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