What makes a winning novel?

What makes an award-winning novel?

The story of nurse and mum of two Christie Watson – and how she has won a first time novelist award – is the inspirational stuff every writer dreams of.

But the 35 year-old is proof that if you persevere with book writing and doggedly stick with it, you don’t have to be a celebrity to write a book and neither do you need to be an academic.
In an interview in the Sunday Times Christie, 35, a rescuscitation officer at an NHS hospital, reveals although she had been thinking about it all her life.
But, having left school at 16 and with no A levels it was only when on maternity leave several years ago and having gained a place on a creative writing MA course (at the University of East Anglia) that she took it up.
So what made her novel award winning? Her experience reveals a few key points if you are planning on writing an award-winning novel yourself:

Take your reader into another world

Where you set your story can make a difference to how successful your novel is as both readers and publishers enjoy being taken into another world. A quick look at the Costa Book Awards confirms this with another winner’s book being set in Paris. Christie’s novel also certainly fits this criteria. Tiny Sunbirds Far Away is a family story set in Nigeria. And the story also isn’t run-of-the mill either. Christie says in the Sunday Times: “The story follows a 12-year-old girl, Blessing who lives a comfortable middle-class existence until her life is turned upside down when her mother finds her father on top of another woman. They have to adapt to a new life in the Niger delta and change religions.”

Write about what you know.

Many authors have found success – especially with their debut novel – by incorporating details from their own lives. It makes sense as readers adore finding out things they didn’t know and wouldn’t know but for some insider information you, the writer, gives them – what the world is really like in the City for example or in a Lawyer’s office. Although all the characters in her novel are made up, Christie says she was inspired by elements of real life. “My boyfriend is from Lagos and we’ve spent a lot of time there,” she explains, “I’m an agnostic, my boyfriend is Muslin and my stepdaughter is evangelical Christian so we’re a multi-faith family as well as a mixed-race family.”

You don’t have to give up the day job to become a writer

Christie has managed to write her novel despite being a mum of two and holding down a very busy job. Despite her win of £5000 (which she says will be spent on a new boiler) she is still working and has no plans to give it up. She adds: “I didn’t mention my win to my colleagues and I don’t think they know about it yet.” Meanwhile, she admits finding time to write is sometimes difficult. “I try to be disciplned and write every day but it’s not easy. Take yesterday for example. Every Saturday I go with my daughter to a college where she learns ballet … and I’ve sat among a lot of screaming kids as they twirled and whirled – not a good work enviroment for an author. I’ll make up for it today.”

Many writers don’t realise how good they are.

There can’t be many writers who’ve not felt underconfident when they compared their work to other writers whom they admire. Christie is no exception. She tells the newspaper: “People often say they didn’t expect their win in a million years but I really mean it. I had Googled the other candidates, many of whom are experienced writers, and I knew they had produced some amazing work.”

A novelist’s life isn’t all glam

Christie admits when twice a week she collects her children from school, “I’m the only mum there with unbrushed hair and no make-up.”
She adds: “Before I started writing I had this idea that it involved glamour and book tours. Travelling and Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City sprang to mind. In fact I spend a lot of time wrapped in a blanket at the kitchen table, eating half packets of biscuits or tuna fish from a can.”

Awards can set you on the path for success

This year the Costa Book Awards are dominated by newcommers. As well as Christie’s debut novel, another winner Moira Young was awarded Children’s Book Prize with her first novel – the Blood Red Road, the story of a girl who tries to track down her kidnapped twin brother in a mysterious future world.

What other attributes do you think an award-winning novel has? And are there any other awards that authors can enter to get their books out there? Let us know what you think below…

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Alison Smith-Squire

Alison Smith-Squire is a writer, journalist and media agent selling exclusive real life stories to newspapers, magazines and TV. She owns the sell my story website Featureworld.co.uk, which was set up to help ordinary people sell their stories to the press.

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