Margaret Skea, a participant in last year’s Festival of Writing, was born in Ulster, but now lives in the Scottish Borders, dividing her time between writing, respite and emergency fostering and various church activities. Previously concentrating on short stories, she has recently finished her first novel for which she is seeking an agent and / or publisher. Early chapters can be found here. Her story Working Away won both the Adult Prose and Overall Winner in this year’s Neil Gunn Competition. Her writing has appeared in magazines and anthologies, both in Britain and the USA.
Monday 7th Nov: back to earth with a bump after the excitement of last week’s two appearances on the Alan Titchmarsh Show, as a participant in the Harper Collins People’s Novelist Competition.
For the record, I won the Historical Fiction section, but (sadly) failed to take the overall prize of an advance and a publishing contract. That went to the Women’s Fiction winner.
I’ve been a closet fan of writing competitions for a while, noting the details of at least half a dozen every month, but mostly forgetting about them till past the closing date, and only occasionally venturing out with an A4 brown envelope to my local Post Office – embarrassed in case the assistant notices the word ‘Competition’ in the address.
The People’s Novelist Competition was one I couldn’t pass. For one thing it was free to enter – a rarity. And having finished my first novel and received my first rejections from several literary agents, the lure of the prize was irresistible.
I didn’t have any real expectations. But making the longlist helped to counter the negative feelings my small but growing pile of form rejections had produced. For the first time in the whole process I read the competition details to see what I might have to do if, hope, against hope, I reached the shortlist. That was when it began to get scary. A televised interview with a Harper Collins panel of judges is definitely outside my comfort zone. I hate seeing photos of myself, and I hadn’t even thought about how my voice would sound until a friend helpfully commented ‘No-one ever likes hearing a recording of their own voice.’
The reality was both worse and better than expected. The time spent in the green room meeting interesting people; the lovely lunch that I couldn’t eat; the overnight stay in a hotel; would all have been much more enjoyable were it not for the filming to come. The comfort implied by ‘pre-recording’ dissolved when I discovered it was ‘as live’ – no re-takes. (Perhaps they might have made an exception if I’d fallen off the stage into the audience, but I couldn’t count on it.) The ‘interview’ was a one-minute chat with Alan Titchmarsh – a genuine and lovely host – ‘think of a sound-bite to describe your book’ we were told – followed by the judges’ comments. The nail-biting classic TV moment, as they panned along each competitor’s face before declaring the result, thirty seconds that stretched to infinity. The feeling when I was declared the Historical Fiction winner is impossible to describe, but my face was locked in a permanent grin when I got home five hours later.
The following day realisation struck. I had to go back on TV and this time read from my novel. Knowing I wouldn’t get very long, I practised a selection of two-minute extracts. The actual allocation ended up being 30 seconds: 73 words. Not a lot in which to give a flavour of the book. The second day at the studio was even longer than the first, and much more tense. For each of us – the final four out of 1000 entries – the prize was almost within grasp. One would go home with a publishing dream realised, the rest, despite all the judges encouraging remarks, would ‘leave with nothing’.
Not quite nothing. There was the slightly surreal, but pleasant glow when approached by total strangers in the street to say they’d seen me on TV and could they buy my book (I wish!) Strangest of all the Frenchman who had seen the programme in France and then happened to travel to Scotland to my home town two days later, and bumped into me. And I do have something new, and I hope significant, to put on my CV and some fabulous endorsements from the judges, including Jeffrey Archer, to add to my query letter. But most important of all is the knowledge that I haven’t been wasting my time writing this novel, and the determination it has given me to keep going until I find a publisher.
Was it a scary experience? Yes. Would I try again? Absolutely. – Anyone seen any good comps…