We’ve not even got started yet and the windows have steamed up, so many bodies are crammed into the not insubstantial Waterstone’s Events Room for Is There A Novelist In The House? This is the culmination of the First Chapter Competition run in association with Crocus Books, the publishing imprint of Commonword and Cultureword. The contest aims to give a leg-up to budding novelists in the north of England, with £250 up for grabs for the winner and advice to all seven finalists to assist them in getting their first novel published.
Having submitted a two-page synopsis plus their novel’s first chapter, the shortlisted entrants now have to pitch their idea, in just five minutes and in front of this packed house, to Jane Rogers (author and Sheffield Hallam University Professor of Writing), Dan Franklin (digital editor at independent publisher Canongate Books) and Zoë King (agent at Darley Anderson). No wonder they look nervous...
First up is Benjamin Judge, coincidentally the MLF Blog reviewer of this event last year. Having had short fiction published through the likes of Bewilderbliss, Rainy City Stories and Manchester Blog Awards winner 330 Words, Ben calls his writing “speculative”. Indeed as he reads an extract from All Creatures Great With Chips, sci-fi of the Douglas Adams ilk springs to mind, with protagonist Casey delivering the wrong kind of flamingo to an evil mansion owner on Stork island. The panel is impressed with Ben’s imagination and likens his humour to Man Booker winner The Finkler Question.
Quite a contrast is Nicola Timms’ gritty tale, which she describes as “women’s realism”. A rebuilt Sheffield is the setting, and even a character, in This City Of Steel We Live, which follows the trials and tribulations of care-worker Sarah Smith and her “mix’n’match family”. Nicola draws on the strength of Yorkshire folk and her own experience with social services, but it’s the lack of sentimentality in the narrative (along with her recital from memory) that goes down well with the judges.
Newspaper editor Andrzej Wieckowski offers up a historical novel. Three Days In September recounts the German invasion of Warsaw during World War II through the eyes of Polish soldier Piot and his comrades. Obviously Andrzej was never there, but his story is so rich in detail, it seems authentic. He acknowledges that he’s done a lot of research into both the battle and the background, listening to then re-imagining the stories of older people in the Polish community. Jane, Dan and Zoë love this idea of finding a hidden corner of history to explore and make his own.
Former advertising copywriter Gary Parkinson has already surreptitiously promoted Scarecrow by scattering postcards about the room; his next trick is to introduce the book to us by reading out a “letter” from the main voice, Lily Brakes. The play on words doesn’t pass unnoticed as he reveals a plot thick with abuse, incest and horror in the Staffordshire fields contrasting sharply with the poetic prose. He likens the style to The Lovely Bones, and the crafted language is one of the things the panel likes.
Deborah Mann’s concept is intriguing: Eve, a schoolyard bully abused by her father, goes on to marry a violent husband then have a number of affairs with both sexes. Eve eventually finds the perfect lover, although this person’s gender is never revealed; perhaps so the spell remains unbroken, perhaps, as Deborah says, because the important thing is that this relationship finally works. The judges think Deborah is brave to tackle such subjects and find “genderlessness” an interesting premise.
Mothers Beloved by Susie Stubbs, editor, appropriately, of Creative Tourist, is set in Laos in southeast Asia, and puts a teenage girl, Nantip, centre stage. Visiting the country a number of times has paid off, and Susie’s descriptions of people and place are compelling. She hopes the book will appeal to “anyone who has ever felt like an outsider”, but the narrative, complete with mysterious visions, is probably its real selling point. The feedback for Susie is that her research really shines through and that incidents in the story unfold well, making the reader want to read on.
Finally, Katy Massey introduces The Book Of Ghosts as “not a scary haunted house-type novel” but a story about the effect of bereavement on a multiracial family and the ghosts witnessed by one of them, Sophie. Katy explains it is somewhat autobiographical, with a distinctly northern voice like her own, and shows that “the dead can be written back into existence”. The judges find this “instantly likeable”, and enjoy the two backdrops of the monied 1980s and the recent economic crash.
After a nail-biting 20-minute break for deliberations, Jane, Dan and Zoë return to praise all the finalists - “Everyone was outstanding” - and name this year’s winner as Susie Stubbs. Congratulations!
By Sarah-Clare Conlon
Sarah-Clare is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. She is the co-creator of Ask Ben & Clare, author of the award-winning Words & Fixtures, and regular contributor to Manchester Blog Awards 2010 Best New Blog 330 Words.