If you’ve ever entered a writing competition, you’ll know that it takes a certain kind of story to win. What that story is however, isn’t always clear. So how can you write a prize-winning book? And what is it that makes a book ‘outstanding’?
These are questions we think about a lot at CompletelyNovel, as our authors strive to create and publish the best books they can. So, to shed some light on the secrets of prize-winning books, we’ve taken a closer look at four of the biggest book competitions in the UK, and what their winning entries have in common.
Man Booker Prize longlist - ‘Do something exciting with language.’
The Man Booker Prize is thought of as being the biggest prize for books in the UK, although there’s plenty of controversy this year, as most of the longlisted authors seem to be American.
But what do these books really have in common?
"The range of different performances and forms of these novels is amazing. All of them do something exciting with the language they have chosen to use.” - Judge chair Michael Wood on the 2015 longlist.
Apparently, a Man Booker-longlisted book requires ‘exciting language’. Great! So what does this mean? Well - in the case of this list, it seems to mainly mean lyricism. Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways’ is a masterclass on how to shine light on small details in descriptions. Tom McCarthy also manages to construct complex sentences that mirror a complex plot.in Satin Island,
The Man Booker Prize isn’t a celebration of commercial fiction (and the advice you’ve been given on ‘killing your darlings’ still stands true!) But if literary fiction is your bag, then you could learn a lot from the books on this longlist and their ‘exciting’ lyricism.
The Carnegie Medal - ‘A strong narrative voice’
Voice is a key part of any children’s or young adult book. It’s also one of the most difficult things to get right. Whether you are a forty-year-old man writing in the voice of an eleven-year-old girl, or you are pushing the boundaries of what things even have a ‘voice’ - the Carnegie Medal is famous for recognising when a writer gets it right.
This year’s winner was Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman:
“Engrossing from the very beginning, the strong narrative voice engages the reader in the world described; perfectly conveying raw emotions without the overuse of sentimentality.”
So how did Tanya do this? You’ll probably have your own opinions on this, but for me, one of the most striking things about the voice of this book is that it is first person. It doesn’t shy away from using ‘unfamiliar’ phrases (‘Ma’, ‘damned fool’) and the sentences are so short, some of them are only one word long. It’s definitely different and definitely strong - a prize-winning combination for sure, when coupled with a serious subject matter such as slavery.
Costa first novel award - ‘Grabbed us from the very first page’
Those of you submitting to agents will know all about the importance of capturing the reader’s attention from the very first page. Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing (winner 2014) was praised by the Costa first novel judges for doing just this:
“This outstanding debut novel grabbed us from the very first page – once you start reading you won’t be able to stop. Not only is it gripping, but it shows incredible flair and unusual skill. A very special book.”
So what makes this first page so engrossing? One of the most gripping parts of this first page is that we want to know more about the narrator - about the things she is forgetting and why. Maud is a character we want to get to know. She’s funny, perhaps without meaning to be, and the Costa judges are right - it’s difficult to stop reading about her, right from the start.
Richard and Judy ‘Search for a Bestseller’ Prize - a loveable character
This prize is a little different, as the submissions came from unpublished authors, rather than large publishers. For the judges, Richard and Judy, it was the likeability of the protagonist that won Tracy Rees this prize for Amy Snow in 2014:
"Tracy’s writing really stood out – we really fell for the character of Amy and we can’t wait until you get the chance to read it when it hits the shops next year."
So what makes a likeable character? In this instance, the protagonist has the odds stacked up against her and, in the same way we’ve been feeling for Cinderella for so many years, we also feel for Amy Snow, who keeps positive and shows determination in the face of adversity. It’s a simple, tried-and-tested plot/character device, but it’s one that works.
These prizes are all very different and winning one may feel a million miles away for many writers, but there's a huge amount you can learn from reading the books on the shortlists of book prizes and the judges' opinions of them. Each of these winning books show off the craft of writing, with a noticeable dedication on the part of the writer that is very inspirational. They tend to do something very difficult (such as creating a strong narrative voice, or using complex language) brilliantly. It begs the question, what are you doing brilliantly in your book? And how can you make it even better?
And remember - you can’t win a book prize if you don’t have a book to enter!
Sarah Juckes is the Communication Manager for CompletelyNovel.com - a friendly publishing platform specialising in outstanding print books. For more information on how to create a book, check out the advice on CompletelyNovel.