Novel writing workshops
POLISHING YOUR FIRST 5,000 WORDS
Tips for your Writing Competition Submission Part 1 – What are you Pitching?
Are you thinking of entering our Women’s Novel Competition this year? The deadline for entries is 18 September.
Remember, you only have to submit the first 5,000 words in the first instance. If your entry is longlisted, we will ask for the full manuscript towards the end of October – so you’ll have an extra six weeks after the closing date to polish up the rest.
This is the first of a three-part series written by editor and literary consultant Claire Wingfield to help you improve your manuscript and give that crucial 5,000 words the very best chance.
Interrogating your idea
Whilst Mslexia kindly doesn’t ask for a synopsis or cover letter to accompany your entry, and only asks for your first 5,000 words, spending some time drilling down into how your book would be pitched – to an agent, editor and ultimately a reader – can really help you focus on what’s important about your novel and, by extension, what will help it stand out from the crowd.
You can then use that knowledge to shape your first 5,000 words so they give a really good intimation of what is to come if the reader reads on…
As a first step, try to identify the core elements or ‘hooks’ of your novel. These are almost certainly the reasons you came to write it in the first place, and why you were passionate enough about it to persevere with it to produce an entire first draft. If those elements were enough to hook you and keep you motivated, they are likely to appeal to your reader too. Write them down in a list.
Here are some questions to ask:
- Are you describing an unusual or remote location?
- Have you created an entirely new world, in the future, or the past, or in a fantasy world?
- Are you contrasting some dramatic action with a comfortable domestic setting?
- Does your action take place in a well-known location (e.g. Madam Tussauds)?
Consider how you can make best use of the setting you have chosen; or tweak it slightly to make it a little more compelling.
A high-concept novel is one that asks a ‘what-if’ question. They are easy to describe, because the plot revolves around a single unusual idea. What if a genetic abnormality allowed someone to time-travel? What if a gameshow host became President of America? Of course, not all novels fall into this category. But most do explore an interesting central issue, or an underlying dilemma that the reader may identify with.
- Can you identify a ‘what-if’ question in your novel?
- What is the main dilemma of your protagonist?
- What is his or her main quest in the book?
Character is often what starts us writing in the first place, and it’s certainly something that keeps the reader gripped. Unless they care about the character, they won’t keep reading the book.
Who is your main character?
What is special or interesting about him or her?
How would you describe his or her central relationships in your novel?
If I was S K Tremayne, author of bestseller The Ice Twins, and I was completing this task before submitting the novel, here are the notes I might have made:
Setting: Story takes place on an extremely remote Scottish island; many people may have fantasised about moving to somewhere like this; the remoteness adds to the chilling atmosphere that is also a key feature of the novel.
Concept: The death of an identical twin – but which one? This plays on people’s fascination with twins in general; the death of a young child is a parents’ worst nightmare.
If you’re having difficulty applying this analysis to your own novel, try practising with other books. Get into the habit of identifying the ‘hooks’ of any book you read. For now, take a look at a selection of books you own, ideally those that are in the same genre as your own.
- What does the cover text and artwork tell you about how this book is being pitched to its readers?
- Ask yourself: what is the hook of this novel?
- What do you think is responsible for the book’s success?
Hopefully this will help you imagine your own book as a finished product. What would appeal to a reader most about your book?
Focusing on these main elements should help you judge what your opening 5,000 words need to achieve. Make notes on any changes you could make to meet these aims.
CLAIRE WINGFIELD is an editor and literary consultant, and author of the writing handbook 52 Dates for Writers, which is designed to help writers take a fresh look at a novel draft. It includes an editing checklist and examples from ‘live’ editing projects. Claire is offering the book at a special price of £5.99 to Mslexia competition entrants. Use the discount code MSNC17 before 18 September 2017 at www.clairewingfield.co.uk/writing-handbook/