How I prepared for The Richell Prize

7:29 AM

I've been chatting with some online writing peeps about The Richell Prize, one of the most generous literary prizes for emerging authors, and there's been some interest how I prepared my submission.

Now even though I won second prize which earned me a twelve month mentorship with Hachette Australia, the way I prepared my submission might be completely different to the way you like to work so please, for the love of literature, don't take this as any kind of definitive guide. Take the bits that resonate with you and ditch anything you think is utter codswallop. Cos I'm sure it could be done better (hey Sam Coley tell us all the secrets of your winning ways! Speaking of Sam, you should definitely follow him on Twitter because his book is going to be something special.)

Okay, onto my process . . .

1. I listened to this

In this podcast, Hachette editor Robert Watkins interviews Sally Abbott and Brodie Lancaster who were winner and runner-up of the 2015 Prize. This is an hour of absolute gold - brilliant advice on what the judges are looking for plus excellent insights from Sally and Brodie on how they prepared for The Prize (and look, both of them got published so they know something about nailing this prize business!)

2. I followed these rules

As with a submission to any publisher or agent there are rules that need to be followed. Read through the submission guidelines here and follow them to the absolute letter. There's no point writing something brilliant and then killing your chances because you failed to deliver something essential for the submission. For example, here's a little bit of the fine print that might go unnoticed . . .

Please ensure you submit your sample chapters and synopsis as one single file, with the manuscript title as the file name.

See that bit about 'one single file' and the bit about calling the file the name of your title? Do that.

3. I wrote MY best three chapters

This is where the juggling act starts - pouring out the story you're passionate about whilst applying a few rules of writing craft, all without overthinking the whole damn thing and getting yourself tied up in knots.

I had written my entire manuscript so the story was all poured out on the page. But it was really important that I plucked the right first, second and third chapter, then polish them till they were the best I could produce by following a few writing craft rules. I was mainly looking for scenes that introduced the characters and conflict. Something had to happen. I wanted my readers relating to the characters emotionally and wanting to know what happens after the chapter ends. Needless to say there was plenty of darling killing, mainly backstory.

These are two resources that helped me decide which chapters ticked the right boxes as openers:

8 Ways to Write a 5-Star Chapter One by Elizabeth Sims

How to Write the Beginning of a Book: 10 Things Your Beginning Should Do by Natasha Lester

I also spent a few hours line editing those three chapters. I call it getting rid of the pests - removing passive language, adverbs, redundancies and those words we love so much we use them far too often (my characters do a little too much 'wondering.') You can find some tips for line editing as well as some useful links on editing in this post.

4. I wrote the dreaded synopsis

I have a confession . . . I didn't find the synopsis too hard to write, probably because I'd already completed the manuscript and knew what was going to happen.

Still, I had an inkling that a synopsis shouldn't be all 'This happened, and then that happened and they all lived happily ever after.'

The following two articles helped me learn what to put in (and more importantly what to leave out) and the importance of using 'voice' in the synopsis. I had to tell an engaging short story about my novel.

One other thing I learned - you need to tell everything in the synopsis. It's not a teaser or a blurb. They want to know how your masterpiece ends so don't forget to do the big reveal at the end.

How To Write A 1-Page Synopsis by Susan Dennard

Mastering the Dreaded Synopsis by Kaitlyn Johnson

5. I used readers

I'm fortunate in that I have a highly experienced writer/editor/reader in my friend Meredith Jaffé.

I send her a chapter and she will instantly nail all the things that need to be fixed - boring bits where nothing happens, bits where there's too much telling, passive sentences, adverbs - she goes in hard and it's great. If you can find your own Meredith in a writer's group or Facebook group or forum, it can add value. What you don't want is someone who says they don't like certain bits but can't tell you why, or someone who says they love it just the way it is (that'll be your mum or your partner!)

I also have an old friend who is a voracious reader and has the same taste in novels as me. She also happens to live next door and barely raised an eyebrow when her deranged neighbour banged on her door the night before submission, waving two chapters in her face and begging 'Which one do you like? Which one grabs you, for godsake, TELL ME!!!!'

But of course, as with all advice from readers, use your judgement to decide what you'll take on board. It's your book after all.

6. I read the work of past winners

What better way to see what has captured the judges' attention in the past than to read the work of past Richell Prize winners. But again, I caution you, don't try to emulate writing style or subject matter or tone - this has to be your voice writing something you're passionate about. It has to be truly, authentically you. Otherwise it's going to be very hard to sustain for an entire 90,000+ words.

The Guardian, very conveniently, publishes the opening chapters of each winner:

Sally Abbott (you can also read Sally's published novel which I highly recommend - it's wonderful)

Susie Greenhill

Sam Coley

(Gosh, perhaps you should change your name to something starting with S!? Kidding! Just write something awesome.)

The 2015 runner up Brodie Lancaster has also had her Richell Prize book published and is also worth reading, especially if you're planning to enter the prize with a memoir or work of non-fiction.

7. I wrote the 750 word submission statement in my own voice

As part of the submission, entrants are required to write a statement up to 750 words about how winning the prize will further their writing career. I used this as an opportunity to get something of my own personality across. If you follow my blog, you'll know I write in a fairly conversational tone here. I like a bit of a laugh, mostly at myself, and am a chronic over-sharer. So my advice when it comes to writing the submission statement is just be yourself and keep it real. Ask yourself honestly, what would it mean to you, to your family, to work with a professional editor, to win $10,000? What are your hopes and dreams? What's it been like for you so far? And do you have a notebook fetish? (Don't answer that, I already know you do ;-))

So that's it! Seven things I did to prepare for the Richell Prize.

If you've still got your collywobbles on, read my post 5 Reasons to Enter a Literary Prize. You can and should enter the Richell Prize, if for no other reason than for the experience of polishing some chapters and writing a synopsis.

And you just never know, it could be your turn this year to be clinging, pink-ginning and hopefully winning!

Good luck and don't hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions.


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  1. This has been really helpful, thanks Michelle. Do you know what would be a good chapter length to aim for? Does it matter?

    1. You're welcome Ruby. Chapter length doesn't matter at all - whatever feels right for you. I always aim for approx 3500 words because I read somewhere that that's a good length for a chapter but take that with a grain of salt ;) Good luck with your entry!

  2. Hi Michelle, Thanks for sharing these great tips. May I ask were your chapters consecutive? Do they have to be?