With categories in poetry, short story, flash fiction and novel, the Bridport Prize attracts thousands of entries every year from all over the world. I have been reading for the novel award since 2013; last year there were almost 800 submissions for that category alone.
You need no special qualification to become a reader for the Prize, although the 35-strong team includes editors, publishing professionals, writing tutors – and writers of course. What unites us all is a love of storytelling and the thrill of discovering powerful new voices. Most of us happily come back for more, year after year.
It is always a magic moment when the first submissions trickle in. Entrants are asked to supply the first 5000-8000 words of their novel as well as a synopsis, and I can be asked to read anything from 100 to 250 of the hundreds sent in. I used to be given plastic crates filled with sheaths of paper, bound every which way, with staples and bulldog clips or ribbon, or florist’s string. These days I download entries to my kindle and read them like a reader does, in bed, in the bath, in the tube, at the surgery, rooting for each one in turn, willing each one to be the winner.
The range is enormous: fantasy, sci fi, dystopian, historical, literary, romance, police procedural, thriller, the odd comedy. Inevitably, some genres appeal to me more than others but it is easy to set prejudice aside when the writing carries you away. And, therein lies the mystery. How to write stories that carry the reader away? As a writer, I struggle with that like anyone else, and it is so much easier to critique others than it is to write yourself.
First things first. When I open a new entry, it is dispiriting to be presented at once with exotic type faces, strange margins, unreadable point sizes, everything in bold or in italics. These are distractions. All that readers for the Prize want is a clean, legible layout that doesn’t get in the way of the words. In any case the competition has rules. It is astonishing than entrants go to all the trouble of writing a novel and the ego-bruising anguish of submitting it for judgment, but don’t take the time to follow the rules. The simple mistake of putting your name on the title page will disqualify you. As will sending less than 5,000 words or more than 8,000.
And so to the words on the page – and the next barrier to success. If I find myself editing out spare phrases; turning passives into actives; deleting tautologies, ellipses, exclamation marks, or repetitions; correcting typos or grammatical errors, then the reader has lost me. None of those things should be there.
I am hoping to find the entries that carry me through to the last tantalising sentence and leave me scrabbling for the synopsis so that at least I know how things turned out.
So what is it that makes the potential prize-winners stand out?
Actually, it’s obvious when you think about it. Top of the list has to be the story. What will happen to whom? What will they learn? How will they change? How will the reader be changed, too?
Next, the cast of characters. Who is the reader going to be spending their time with? Will they care about them? Will they be terrified of them or fall in love with them or wish they could be their new best friend?
Then there’s the structure, the shape of the story, the variety of pace, the completeness of the chapters. The writer has to direct as well as create. The story must never get out of hand, take us down blind alleys, leave us too long in the same place with the same people while nothing much happens, or end too early and leave us in the lurch.
And, finally, to that most enigmatic of things, the writer’s voice, the fairy dust that means no other writer could ever have written that particular book. For their voice to ring true, the writer must let go of all dishonesty by which I mean the compulsion to be literary, or refined, or shocking, or edgy, or clever. They must write from their true heart and communicate without artifice, so that the beauty of the language and the truth of the story shine through.
This year I must decide, do I read again or do I enter the novel I’ve finally completed? I’ve seen the quality of past entries; I’ve read the winners. So I know what I’m up against. Have I followed my own advice? Am I ready? I really have no idea.
The blogger: Colette has just completed her MA at Bath Spa for which she was awarded Distinction and her novel has been short-listed for the Janklow & Nesbit Prize. She has written two novels, Love Lessons and Afterwards, as well as a collection of short stories. She is a reader for the Bridport Prize.
Comment from Grace Palmer at Novel Nights: The Bridport Prize is one of the most prestigious in the country. Being placed is a prestgious endorsement for your writing For first time authors there’s a special award, The Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award. It’s run in conjunction with The Literary Consultancy (TLC) and A. M. Heath Literary Agents.
Good luck if you enter. Details at https://www.bridportprize.org.uk/
Each year the competition closes on 31st May.