Notes on the 2012/13 award entries
There were 164 submissions for the 2012/13 award.
The range of subjects and styles was huge. The ‘favourite’ period was unsurprisingly the twentieth century (any edition of the HNR will confirm that this is invariably the case), but after that, interestingly, it was the seventeenth century.
The most favoured subjects after love and war were massacres (always popular!), religious intolerance, pioneering stories, seances and ‘home front’ tales (the aftermath of war, or the effect of war on non-combatants).
The panel of judges would like to make the following recommendations based on their reading:
1. Beware prologues. At least half of the entries had prologues, and probably only 10 percent were enhanced in any way by them. Even when prologues are functional, are they essential? It is in the nature of reading for a prize like this (and perhaps in the nature of being a publisher’s reader) that it is a disrupted stop/start process. Your aim must be to engage the reader with your characters and world as quickly as you can. Making us effectively have to restart the process after a couple of pages is unwise if it can be avoided.
2. Beware generalised descriptions. Every historical novel should have on the very first page a specific description of setting or attitude that establishes as precisely as possible when and where it is set. Descriptions of weather, landscape, feelings etc that we believe we have in common with people in other times can of course be appropriate within the heft of the novel, but at the outset we need to stress the things we do not share with our characters. A surprising number of entries failed to recognise the urgency of this.
3. Beware of ‘building up to’ your story. Usually historical fiction is written about a subject or event the author finds intrinsically interesting. The problem is that the intrinsically interesting bit may happen structurally three quarters of the way through the book, and the reader will never get there. This (perhaps) is why we get so many prologues. SImply put, if the part of the story that is interesting to you is a battle, you only have two options. Either you have to start with the battle (or witch trial, or massacre, or painting) – perhaps write the whole novel about the battle, if that’s even possible. Or you have to rethink your premise and write about a character who just happens, at the climactic point of his or her story arc, to be engaged in the battle that they did not know was going to happen. Another way of saying this is that there isn’t anything intrinsically interesting about historical events in novelistic terms, and no writer hoping for success can afford to use history as a prop in this way.
We hope these thoughts will help with future submissions to this or other competitions – and may help understand why your current book did not make the longlist.
Reading for a competition (as reading from the slush pile) is by its nature NOT a nurturing process. The job, ultimately, is to reject 163 entries, to accept only one. Occasionally the reader will be rejecting a writer whose style they do not enjoy for whatever reason. Most frequently, however, you reject the book, not the author. Something isn’t working about the plot construction. Something has not created sufficient interest in the characters. Something about the project seems tired, or derivative, and you feel like you’ve read it before. Readers generally actually like the writer – we probably admire a scene, or a few pages, or a description or two – and we’d probably be happy to see something more by you. It’s just we feel that this book isn’t working.
With thanks to all who entered the competition, and special thanks to our panel of readers.