5 Things I Learned from Failing to make the Longlist of the @BathNovelAward
Last month I entered the Bath Novel Award, a competition for first time novelists judged by a panel of literary agents. The quality of the finalists is exceptional and listed novelists have a remarkable record of publication. Just as important, the organisers seem like nice people. I really wanted to make the longlist.
I did not make the longlist.
So, was it worth the pain? Should I have bothered submitting? What did I learn?
Here are the five biggest things I learned from failing to make the longlist of the Bath Novel Award:
1. Not everyone will love my novel.
Which should go without saying. My wife doesn’t like The Name of the Rose; I can’t get past the first few pages of A Sentimental Education. You have to be good to win a competition, but being good in itself isn’t sufficient. Whatever you write has to be a good example of whatever the judges like.
This was the first time someone who isn’t a close friend, member of my writers group, or my wife, read part of my novel. Sooner or later I had to show it to someone not invested in my wellbeing. I was going to have to go through my first rejection. Everyone does (ask JK Rowling, or, well, everybody!)
Like going to the dentist, you know it will hurt, but you’ve got to go, anyway. Great novels get rejected every day. Rejection doesn’t tell you very much about whether your book is good or not. Maybe the reader was in a bad mood. Maybe it’s just “not their thing.” Rejection increases the prior probability that your book is bad, or at least needs work. Multiple rejections are a hint you shouldn’t ignore. But one rejection? Meh, that’s normal.
So I haven’t written the one book in history that everybody instantly thinks is fantastic. Saying it out loud reminds me what a stupid notion it was in the first place!
2. But working to a submission deadline helped me edit with a purpose
It has been three years since I started this novel and the last year has been editing. I would really, really like to stop working on it. Preparing it for competition helped give me focus and drove me to make those hard but necessary decisions a deadline forces upon you.
My latest draft is much improved because I edited for submission. It’s not so much that it finally got me off my arse to work (I work bloody hard all the time, it’s positively neurotic.) But the texture of your work changes when you are working for a target, particularly a hard target, particularly a competition where you know you will have to be exceptional just to have a chance.
Like a runner who gets their best times at the Olympics, competing at the highest level encourages you to find your own highest level. You may not win gold (or medal, or get past the qualifiers), but you will run faster than ever. My current manuscript is substantially better for having submitted it to the Bath Novel Award.
3. An excerpt demands different things from a novel… Or does it?
The submission required a summary and the first five-thousand words, which in my case is the first three chapters. We all know the opening must grab your readers attention and draw them into the novel. But I wonder if an excerpt needs a little more? Must an excerpt operate differently in isolation?
I am, for my sins, an intellectual. I have written a complicated (although not necessarily intelligent) novel. It’s about Burkian racialism, and subjective vs objective truth, and power, and gender, and all sorts of other good complicated stuff.
To soften the blow of all this wordiness, and because I like sword fights and shagging, I have expressed these themes largely through the medium of sword fights and shagging. The first chapters focus on introducing a protagonist in peril and getting you into the world of the story as painlessly as possible. It makes for an entertaining, quick read, and if it works as I want then once we get into the meat of things you are engaged with the characters and prepared to put up with the odd polysyllable.
Hopefully the judge who read the excerpt enjoyed it. But in hindsight there may not be enough in the first three chapters to suggest that the book is much more than popcorn. Nothing wrong with popcorn, but you don’t award it prizes in a cooking competition.[i] Arguably, letting the harder stuff in the book sneak up on you works fine if someone is committed to reading the whole novel but not so well in an excerpt.
But that leads to a larger argument: maybe I owe my reader a clearer sign of how the rest of the book will be? If my reader has bought the book thinking it’s popcorn they will be pissed off to discover its roast beef, even if it turns out to be really good roast beef. Surprises are nice, but they’re better if they’re signalled. A reader is engaged in an act of trust. We shouldn’t mislead them.
So something I think I’ve learned is I need to give a clearer sign of the thematic questions and style right at the start the book, and I can’t afford to be too subtle. A reader to whom I am not married has no reason to show me good faith. Most of these thoughts came from a great conversation with my friend Kai, who suggested writing a preface before the book leaps into the action. I’m excited by that idea.
Either way, the process of failing to be listed made me think about an essential question: why might someone not like the excerpt? Reframing the question in the context of failure made me think differently about the chapters. The next draft will be better for it.
4. Failing is painful (ok, I knew this one already).
If you want to study behavioural economics[ii] you have to study cognitive psychology. And if you’ve studied cognitive psychology, you know that how much we want/fear something increases how likely we think it will be. We worry more about aeroplane crashes than household accidents; we waste thought on winning the lottery rather than working for a promotion at work.
There were more than 1100 submissions to the Bath Novel Award. They listed 33 manuscripts, two of which were written by the same person (git[iii]), and 6 of which were written by people who had submitted the year before. Which is to say that my chances of success were teeny tiny very small.
Now I know all that, and I can do the maths. But I really, really wanted to get on that longlist. It would have been amazing for me, professionally and personally. It would have vindicated my decision to stay at home with the kids and write, which probably shouldn’t need vindicating but absolutely does. It would have given me a real shot at getting agents to read the manuscript. And the people running the competition seem like they are really nice. It would have been lovely to know they liked my book.
So, now I haven’t beaten the odds and got on the longlist, it feels like a personal failure. Because I wanted it so much, the likelihood of success felt larger (and closer[iv]), and therefore when it didn’t happen I felt like a fool. Even though I know the strength of the evidence is weak. Even though I know it is entirely possible that I got votes but didn’t make the list. Even though it was absolutely the right thing to do whether the book is good or not. Because I really wanted to be listed it feels like it was an easily achievable goal[v]. Therefore I have personally failed as a human being by not making the list.
And that really hurts. No other way around it.
5. But there are a lot of other writers out there going through the same thing.
One of the nice things about being involved in the competition was following their twitter feed. I shared the run up to the announcement with lots of other writers whose hopes and dreams were invested in their submission.
My initial experiences of meeting writers on twitter were following people who instantly spam your account with retweets of adverts for self-published vampire romance novels. I have nothing against self-published vampire romance novels. But I hoped to connect with other people who understood what it was like doing what we do. It isn’t easy, it isn’t always fun, and then, sometimes, it is the most brilliant thing ever. That’s a good thing to share.
Which is why I’ve shared my feelings on failure. For all my training in rationality and economics and rhetoric and blowing things up, I’m pretty upset not to have made the longlist. I’m not upset with the judges, I’m certainly not upset with the writers who made the list (very well done guys): I’m upset with myself. My little animal brain is now convinced that I’m a terrible writer who should never have written a book and should never write again.
And normally I would shut up about that until the feeling passes. Because I know I will write again. I can’t help it.
But I also know that at least some of the brilliant people I saw tweeting in the run up to the competition are feeling the same way. And if you’re hurting like I am, please, give yourself a hug. Or have an internet hug from me, if that helps. I think you did a brilliant, brave thing by putting yourself on the line like this. You dreamed the impossible dream. And it hurts when that doesn’t work out, no matter how much you know that it’s silly. But if you aren’t going to love big why bother loving at all?
I will go back to my manuscript, my submission excerpt, and my synopsis, and look carefully to see if there is anything more I can improve. I will ask advice from readers. I will write new things, and study to be a better writer, because that is the best I can do. I hope you will do the same thing. And don’t worry about feeling bad. You’ll feel better tomorrow.
The Bath Novel Award is an excellent competition and I hope one day to write something worthy of the company of those who made the longlist. In the meantime, and on the subject of tilting at windmills, I understand they’re trying to save their local library from their Tory MP. Let’s hope they can be the exception that breaks the rule.
[i] Actually, you might, I was in this restaurant the other day and… nevermind.
[ii] Which I have [insert Princess Bride duelling quote here]: “you’re fantastic”, “I’ve worked hard to become so”, “I admit it, you are better than I”, “Then why are you smiling?”, “Because I know something you don’t know?”, “What’s that?”, “I… am not left handed!” Oh, to write like William Goldman!
[iii] I’m totally kidding, well done that guy. Writing isn’t a zero-sum game: everyone one of us who stands up and writes something brilliant is an inspiration for the rest. I’m totally not sticking staples in his underpants as I speak.
[iv] Ask me about the relationship between size and proximity some other time. Or, watch the Father Ted sketch. But seriously, it’s a real cognitive phenomenon and a friendly reminder that we only have tiny animal brains. It’s amazing we can (most of us) walk and chew gum at the same time.
[v] Yep, this is a stupid conclusion. For those who haven’t studied cognitive psychology: people are really, really stupid, and can’t do probability. Even really clever people. Yes, I do mean you. Even if you are a maths teacher. Especially if you are a maths teacher. And no, the Monty Hall problem MAKES NO SENSE! What was this endnote about again?