As HWA team up with the Dorothy Dunnett Society to launch a brand new short story competition (Dorothy Dunnett pictured above), here’s Imogen Robertson on how competitions helped her get published.
Have you heard that the Historical Writers’ Association are launching a new open short story competition for Historical Fiction with the Dorothy Dunnett Society this year? The first prize winner will receive £500, a very handsome award for the shelf and mentoring from me and from Norah Perkins at Curtis Brown. Two Highly Commended entries will also get fine certificates and mentoring, and all three winners will receive invites to the Crown Awards ceremony in the late autumn to be officially congratulated and meet with writers, agents and publishers. I think there may also be some books involved.
I’m very pleased this is happening. It is always exciting to find new voices writing historical fiction, but helping to launch a new competition also has personal significance for me. I wouldn’t be a writer now without competitions like this one.
In 2005 I was struggling to make a start on the novel which in the end became Instruments of Darkness, and I happened across Fish Publishing’s competition for historical fiction. To break myself out of the hamster wheel of frustration and failure which is a first run at the first draft, I wrote a ghostly little piece, a series of letters from a Regency rake who had bitten off rather more than he could spiritually chew. It was selected as one of ten stories to be published in the competition anthology All the King’s Horses. Funnily enough, another of the stories selected was by our own Emma Darwin. I hope Fish regard it as a vintage year. (Potential entrants, do get your copy of Emma’s Get started in Writing Historical Fiction by the way, or check out her Historia advice column. Dr Darwin knows of what she speaks.)
It was certainly a turning point for me. Michel Faber, author of The Crimson Petal and the White, wrote very flatteringly about my story in his introduction which made me insanely proud and also something of a pain, as for several months I wandered around the flat referring to myself in the third person and by my surname (“Robertson wants a cup of tea”, “Robertson is far too busy being the equal of Roald Dahl to do the washing up at the moment.”) I’m glad to say that wore off after a while, but the confidence boost was vital. There are also some very good pointers for every writer of historical fiction in that intro, so I do encourage you to have a look. We had a presentation ceremony, and an actual real world agent came over and introduced himself and offered to read whatever I was working on at the moment. I almost swallowed my own tongue.
But no writing career is without its plot twists. I sent the first thirty thousand words of the novel to that agent and he didn’t love them. He did though take the time to give me some very valuable advice about how to improve the story. I had been sharing chapters with a couple of writer friends too, and I found myself just about to launch into a new TV project (Numberjacks for those of you with kids of that vintage), with a half-formed manuscript, lots of advice and no time.
That’s when the next competition came to save me. Louise Doughty had been writing an excellent column on how to write a novel for The Daily Telegraph and to mark the end of the project had launched a competition for the first thousand words of a novel. My writing friends and I agreed we could all get a thousand words written, and we entered. I was lucky enough to be one of the five winners. I read somewhere that I won the Guardian first book award, and that paid for me to complete the MS. That didn’t happen, but our actual prize – lunch with Louise, Sam Leith who was her editor at The Telegraph, and Louise’s publisher and agent – was critical to me. There was a moment during lunch when Louise said ‘Imogen, when you’re a published novelist, you’ll find…’ I can’t remember the rest of that sentence, but her assumption that in the end I’d have a book published made the idea of being an actual writer seem suddenly real, tangible. I had just finished the big TV project, so had some money on hand and this fresh confidence boost, so I decided not to look for anymore freelance work and write until the novel was complete. Now, that’s not something I’d recommend to anyone really. The variable financial rewards of writing mean it was a terrible risk, but I decided to make the leap, and I am very, very glad I did. By the way, one of the other winners, Vanessa Gebbie, has since published a number of excellent novels and story collections and a very useful book on writing short stories, Short Circuit.
When, about two years later, Instruments of Darkness was published, The Telegraph ran a feature on me because of the connection with the competition and the New York Times ran a review too on American publication, largely because they were interested in comparing the version which won the competition with the version that was finally published. My point is that the consequences of winning a competition can ripple out far beyond the prize ceremony.
I do hope if you are a writer at the beginning of your career and are wondering whether or not to enter, you decide to do so. Writing with a deadline in mind is a great way to make yourself finish something (always an issue when you’re being pulled by life in one direction and research in the other), and a win can really help bat aside the monsters of self-doubt, and introduce you to a community of writers and readers who will support you in the years to come.
For any short story set at least 35 years in the past.
Word limit: 3,500
Submissions close: 1st September 2017
Photo: Dorothy Dunnett © Alison Dunnett