Our first QuoScript NaNoWriMo competition has now closed. Charlie and I have been busily – and very happily -working through the submissions and plan to make some announcements shortly. In the meantime, we thought those of you who entered and indeed anyone who’s interested in writing or might consider entering future QuoScript competitions – there will be others! – might like some feedback from us.
It’s important to say at the outset that first impressions of an author’s work are important. All the points that we make below follow on from this.
Some of the submissions contain careless errors: e.g., missed out words or repeated sentences. We don’t expect a submission to be perfect; but at the same time the author owes a courtesy to the judges to make his or her submission is good as it can possibly be.
Poor grammar, syntax, spelling, sentence construction
Again we don’t expect these to be perfect – all MSs benefit from editing and proof-reading, and we know that some ‘errors’ may be a matter of opinion. But if the nuts and bolts of the narrative are so peppered with mistakes that as readers we can’t enjoy what we’re reading, we’re unlikely to want to ask to see more of the author’s work. It’s a good idea to focus on neat sentence construction if you find long and complex sentences difficult to craft. The golden rule, if in doubt, is to write in short or shorter – sentences.
As well as providing a synopsis of the plot and a sample chapter, some of the submissions have included brief sketches of the main characters and we have welcomed these. They are both helpful to us and good practice for the author, as long as he or she sticks to what s/he says! Even in the smallish extracts we asked for, we have been able to detect certain inconsistencies between how the characters are described and what they actually do.
Factual errors and historical inaccuracies
These are like red rag to a bull to us, because we know that if we’ve spotted some there are bound to be others that we’ve missed. Every author’s work must be impeccably researched: if it isn’t, and we as the publisher don’t pick up on the mistakes, our reputation is on the line as well as the author’s. There were actually very few detectable inaccuracies in the submissions we received – though we did spot one or two “facts” that need checking; the standard of the submissions in this respect was impressive, and better than in other competitions we’ve judged.
Telling the tale rather than letting it unfold
In some of the submissions, there are sections of text from the synopsis that are repeated almost verbatim in the sample chapters. We’re looking for more from your narrative than your ability to show that you can get from A to Z in a story by cataloguing B,G, Q and Y along the way. You need to reveal, rather than explain, what is happening and bring out any tensions and ambiguities. You need to tell a story that’s so compelling no one will want to put it down. Ways of doing this include making excellent use of dialogue (generally, new writers are wary of dialogue, but successful dialogue is likely to be a key feature of the novels QuoScript accepts); or writing some of the novel in the first person and contrasting this with the author’s third person narrative; or, as the author, explaining events in such a way that the reader realises that things aren’t quite right / all is not as it seems (a device known as “unreliable narration”). A strong authorial voice is fine, especially if you can tinge it with irony or indicate without actually stating it that there is more going on here than on the face of it the narrative suggests.
Lack of tension
As we’ve already said, dialogue is important, but it shouldn’t be too mundane. You are seeking to create apparent rather than actual verisimilitude. If the purpose of introducing, say, Mr Dobbs the gardener who’s been outside digging his garden is so he can tell a detective that they saw his main suspect pass by, we don’t want a disquisition on how to grow sweet peas! Unless, of course, the sweet peas turn out to be crucial later on: did the killer get one caught in his shoe?
Which brings us to another no-no: the parading of knowledge
This is a difficult one, and a trap into which many accomplished writers fall. It’s an excellent idea to introduce an unusual topic, either one that you’re already knowledgeable about or one that requires research, into your novel: it gives it depth, it may attract the eye of a reviewer and, most importantly, holds the reader’s interest. But only if you can pull it off. Although you may have needed to research the topic extensively, you must avoid including great gobbets of specialised information in your novel. The novel isn’t a manual or how-to book. It isn’t even primarily an exposé of your ideas on this subject, though you and more particularly your characters can offer some opinions along the way. It’s really difficult not to over-egg the cake, but if you don’t feel confident about this, don’t attempt it at all. If you do attempt it, try to think about the topic in the same way as something that you’re more familiar with that features in your novel: the layout of a house, perhaps, or sitting down to an evening meal. You’d be sparing in the details you offered about these things, wouldn’t you? Try to sketch rather than paint the more specialised subject in a similar way. One of our NaNoWriMo YA entries pulls off indicating specialised knowledge without diving too much into the detail very successfully indeed.
Plot is important in most novels. A well-constructed plot is essential if a crime novel is to be credible and it’s important in most YA novels, too, as you usually need a strong plot to maintain YA readers’ interest. We know all our entrants understood this, as all the authors have had a shot at describing the plot in their synopses. As we only have sample chapters, we can’t judge how well they might execute these plots in a full-length novel, but we can offer a couple of pieces of advice: first of all, although a tortuous plot containing some ‘surprises’, particularly towards the dénouement, is a time-honoured and often successful device, introducing a new twist and turn on almost every page which overturns the assumptions the reader was encouraged to make on the previous page not only beggars credibility, but eventually bores the reader and is almost certain to create contradictions in characterisation. Secondly, for crime novels in particular, not only is it essential to construct a meticulous, detailed and completely watertight plot, it’s almost as important to stick to it. You may be tempted to alter or embellish the plot once you’ve started writing, but the further you are into the novel, the more difficulties this is going to cause. Building the plot in a crime novel is like building a house; if you start knocking it about before it’s completed, it’s likely to collapse.
So, what did we most like about the submissions?
Many things: in fact, we felt honoured to have been able to attract so much good writing. Some of you have developed excellent, well-rounded and entirely credible characters. There’s one particularly original character in the submissions we have received: the creator of this character is likely to be hearing from us shortly. Some of you are natural story-tellers. Some of you have crafted good plots. Some of you are good at dialogue. Some of you are masters of suspense.
Charlie and I look forward to contacting our two top picks for the NaNoWriMo competition very shortly, and hope that we shall then be able to introduce the authors on this blog. If you’re not chosen this time, please don’t give up: we were wowed by the high standard of the submissions we received – every one by a potentially successful author of the future. And our heartfelt thanks to everyone who is interested in and excited by QuoScript.