Knock three times

The Chicken Soup Murder has been shortlisted for a prize three times. Here are the ups and down in the birth and life of a novel.

The first prize was perhaps the most exciting because The Dundee International Book Prize promised £10,000 and publication. It was free to enter my unpublished manuscript. Getting into the top ten gave me confidence that it had potential. An agent got in touch and I asked the organisers of the prize if it would all right to let her see the novel. This prompted a phone call in which they informed me that they ‘loved loved loved’ my book and that though I shouldn’t tell anyone yet, they wanted me to know it was going to be a finalist, one of the top three, and please would I not remove it from the competition. They even quoted part of the reader’s report, which included the word, ‘Bingo!’

A murky start

Some months later I learned by email that the prize would go to someone else. The disappointment was intense, because the prospect of publication was snatched away. Interest from the agent also dried up. I was back to being nowhere … except with the idea that someone had liked it. That was in 2015. My novel finally came into the world in 2017. I had begun writing in 2012: five years of my life were tied up in that one book, in writing, editing, sending it out, negotiating and signing a contract, more editing, talking about the cover design and plans for publicity and marketing, and in repeated rounds of proofreading, closer and closer, reading it aloud, sometimes working backwards line by line until finally, the book was born in September 2017. My gratitude to Seren Books for publishing my novel is immense!

The Chicken Soup Murder
celebrating its existence

In 2018, The Chicken Soup Murder was shortlisted in the fiction category for The International Rubery Book Award. Seren Books had entered the novel for me and paid the entry fee. (How lucky I felt to have the support of a publisher.) This time I felt glad and grateful but when it didn’t win its category and wasn’t put forward for the overall prize, I did not lament. The existence of my novel as a book that could be sold and bought, borrowed and read was not threatened in any way. Shortlisting for a prize could only enhance its reputation and reach. Whereas not winning the DIBP had felt like sliding down the big snake just before the finish, bumping right back down to the bottom, being shortlisted this time felt like we had climbed a small to medium-sized ladder.

The experience of the award ceremony was also very different. We had been invited to Dundee to the celebration of the prize – to a very fine dinner with the Mayor of Dundee, eminent journalists and guests – and went, thinking it an honour to be there, and naively hoping I would meet some of the judges (I was looking forward to talking to Denise Mina and Danny Wallace in particular). But only one of them attended, an agent who was, understandably, very much taken up with the winner. Though we made the best of it, and I enjoyed reading my short extract to a packed room, and the compliment that followed, ‘very fine writing, very finely read’ I ended up feeling somewhat like the ghost at the feast, not least because the announcement of the winner was made on the radio a few hours before the event and most people were just not interested – I would say there was almost a sense of embarrassment at having to look at the ‘not winner’. Whereas, with the Rubery Prize there was no need for my presence, no investment of time in preparations for a trip, wondering what to wear, how to get there, what it would be like, who I would meet, what questions there might be and how to control my expression in the event of success or disappointment. As an introvert, I can take part in such events with some exuberance, and with confidence in my preparation, but always find them tiring and need time to recover.

The last of the three has been the Dorchester Literary Festival Local Writing Prize. We could have submitted my novel in 2018, the inaugural year, but because it was published in Bridgend and not in the South West, I didn’t think it was eligible. Not true, I found out on meeting the Directors of the Festival, Janet Gleeson and Paul Atterbury.

Windmill in the mist

Again, I have to thank Seren Books for undertaking the job of filling in the forms and sending in the book. As far as I know there was no entry fee. The books were all read by at least two people. I was happy to be one of seven on the longlist, even happier to be one of four on the shortlist. There was a final round of judging, by I know not who. The date of the prize giving didn’t fall too well. In theory I didn’t have far to go as Dorchester is only about a twenty minute drive from Bridport but I happened to be off in the Netherlands in July. Having decided to attend, I made the trip back the day before and was so tired the evening passed in a kind of pleasurable haze.

Stonehenge in passing

This time, we did not know beforehand who would win. There was a lovely reception – in the newish and rather grand pub in Poundbury, the Duchess of Cornwall, with beer, bubbles and an exciting cocktail of prosecco, liqueur of some kind, and elderflower, which I found very stimulating – courtesy of the sponsors, Hall and Woodhouse. We were even given goody bags (beer and a voucher) and made to feel individually and collectively that we deserved our place there and that our books, all very different, offered something special. I enjoyed meeting fellow writers on the shortlist, Susmita Battacharya, Dee La Vardera and Emma Timpany. My dad was there and some friends: writers and non writers. The room was full and buzzing and then we all took our places for the ceremony.

Writing buddy Gail Aldwin, shortlistees Susmita Battacharya and Maria Donovan and writing buddy Rosanna Ley

We sat in big leather armchairs facing the audience and Minette Walters, ‘famous local writer’, asked us a few questions in turn and we each read a short extract, 3-5 minutes. I went last and enjoyed it to the point where I had almost forgotten there would be an announcement of a winner. The first envelope was opened and my name came out as Runner Up. A big surprise as I had no idea there would be a runner-up. Then the announcement of the winner, Emma Timpany for her novella, Travelling in the Dark. Applause. Photos. Thanks and celebrations. I received commiserations and congratulations in equal measure. It all felt fine.

A laugh at the DLF LW Prize
Left to right: Winner Emma Timpany, Susmita Battacharya, Dee La Vardera, Maria Donovan, Minette Walters, Janet Gleeson, Paul Atterbury, sponsor Hall & Woodhouse

This time, I felt content, grateful to be there on the night and for the attention and care taken over the ceremony and the way we were made welcome and looked after.

Three experiences of being shortlisted for a prize with one novel. I don’t suppose that this particular book – now nearly two years old – will have a chance of any more. All it wants is more readers! I hope that the measure of success it has had in these prizes will go some way to making that part of the writing dream come true.

As for the future, I do not know whether I shall write another book that will go so far in an award. If I’m lucky enough to be chosen again, I know that I will have these past experiences to draw upon, and the knowledge that any new event will have its own character and process.

Writers, I hope this might be useful if you are invited somewhere and don’t know what to expect. Do you have experiences to share? Please tell us in the comments.

Readers, we hope you will continue reading our work. On you we rely! Do you have any comments on what it’s like to attend one of these literary dos?

15 thoughts on “Knock three times

  1. That first one must have been such a difficult experience! To give up on one possible chance for another – how do you make that kind of decision, and so disappointing to lose both. I’m glad it finally made it to print; it’s a great book. I didn’t realise that authors weren’t told before the ceremonies who had won – i thought that sort of thing was just for acting awards! How utterly nerve-wracking to have to hide your emotions from a room of observers. I’m sorry it didn’t win but I’m glad you got so far several times, you deserve that at least.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. All the events have been different but often it’s all revealed on the night. The good part you is that we all enjoyed being there with the possibility of the win still open. Hard as it might seem I prefer that – unless it’s like the celebration for the Bridport Prize when only the top entrants are invited, which means everyone there is super happy! That was perhaps my best experience of all though I had the smallest prize (also in 2015) for the highest place entry from a Dorset writer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting to read about the different approaches by different organizers to the treatment of authors at literary prize givings . Your experience at the first would be enough to put me off such events for life if I were ever to write a book – which I’m not ,you’ll be relieved to hear ,Maria !! I notice you have a 100% five star review record on Amazon which must please you . I will always maintain that ,in the right hands and with the right cast,,it would make a terrific film . Have you ever thought of adapting the plot into a script ? Meanwhile,keep plotting that follow-up .XXX

    Liked by 2 people

    1. If you were to write a book it would be fascinating, John, but it’s such a solitary activity: it’s nice that for writers to get out and meet people on these occasions. As for the film script – keep telling the world until it listens! Am not sure I am the person to write it but maybe …


  3. I was so pleased to be there on the night, Maria and cheering you on. I had my fingers crossed all the way through. The announcement as a runner-up was a first – it didn’t happen in the inaugural year – so I guess that indicates the competition was very close (although I realise it’s no consolation). The Chicken Soup Murder is a great book and it will go on touching readers and making us think about the joys, challenges and confusions of growing up.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful post, Maria, I had butterflies reading it. Congratulations to Emma Timpany but I am so delighted for you and the exposure for your great book. I’m sure there are many more readers out there who will enjoy it!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. What a useful account of the various approaches. They all sound nerve-wracking, I’m glad the Bridport experience proved so positive, it sounds lovely. Well done, it is a lovely novel.

    Liked by 1 person

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