Bitter Lessons Learned

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A detailed drawing of part of the world Struan Murray has created – by Dr Struan Murray.

Last year I entered Charlie’s Worries into The Bath Children’s Novel Award. As usual I had high hopes and even though I knew the long list would be announced on the 5th December, I kept checking my emails just in case they’d decided my entry was so good they needed to let me know immediately.

No such emails were forthcoming, but my excitement grew as the day of destiny approached. I knew the selection process was blind. The openings of the novels were stripped of any of the authors’ personal information. My middle-aged, middle-class, middle of the road life could not stand against me here, my writing would have to speak for itself, and live or die purely on its own merits.

When I read the long list announcement I scrolled down slowly through the longlistees expecting, at any moment, to see Charlie’s Worries pop up. I was completely oblivious to the fact that they had been listed in alphabetical order. If I had been less nervous and more clever I would have realised that my entry would have been second on the list, if it had been there at all.

A few moments of rereading and rescrolling up and down the list followed. And then a lot more moments of angry silence.

These moments stretched into days of furious, unfounded accusation and quiet depths of betrayal. Surely the whole competition was a complete fix. A farce in fact. There was no doubt in my mind that the twenty six longlistees must all be the wife/husband/brother/sister/mother or father of the judging panel. It was the only explanation.

I’d like to say that this phase passed quickly, but I can’t. The long list was going to be whittled down to a short list of five on the 5th January, so there was barely a day in December that I did not ruminate upon the unjust dagger of rejection the The Bath Children’s Judges had thrust into my heart.

I pretended not be bothered on the 5th January. And I would have succeeded if a tiny part of me didn’t think that perhaps there had been mistake and I’d been left off the published long list by a word processing error. Perhaps my work of genius had actually made it to final five. That wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility, that was not a ridiculous flight of fancy.

Except, of course, it was. I was not on the short list.

The injustice of it. The single lined summaries sounded rubbish. How could any of these be better than my writing? Although the spider one did sound quite good. And the others maybe did have potential to be slightly interesting, as long as they were written properly. In fact, when I compared them to my own summary of Charlie’s Worries I realised they all sounded more interesting and unusual. And much, much clearer.

A month of soul rebuilding followed in the lead up to announcement of the overall winner. I can’t say I forgave these writers for their success, but I probably came to terms with the fact that there were other people who deserved at least some recognition for their efforts.

And then, on February 8th it really began to dawn on me that my accusations of cheating and nepotism might have been somewhat unfounded.

Apologising as they push in front of you at the Farmers’ Market, doesn’t make them any less evil.

The identities of the success thieves were made public along with the opening pages of the five shortlisted novels.

It was galling. They were all worthy of winning. Each one drew me in and I would have read more if more had been available. I sat back from my computer, deflated.

Another month of growing up followed. In the back of my mind I’d always partly blamed my lack of literary success on the workshy policies or nefarious agendas of the agents I sent my work to. I could never bring myself to admit that perhaps, just perhaps, my writing was not quite good enough to slip through the narrow crack to publication. There was always something or someone standing in my way.

Well, no longer. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to read my competition I can fully appreciate how competitive the market it. If an agent gets over a hundred submissions a week then only the ones that are truly original, perfectly written or both will get a second read. It’s not a conspiracy. I just need to be better. And I’ll only get better by writing more.

I’d probably come to this conclusion by St Patrick’s Day when an interview with the overall winner was published on the Bath Novel Awards blog. It turns out that Struan Murray did not just sit down one day and decide to enter this competition. He’s been writing for years. This is his third completed novel and he has never given up.

Along with being a doctor, having extremely cool hair, saving kittens from trees (probably) and being a Bath Children’s Novel Award winner, Dr Murray also spends his creative time drawing parts of the world in which his novel is set – one of which is displayed at the top of this post. That shows a dedication I have only, so far, dreamed about.

So, congratulations to all the longlistees and shortlistees, but particularly to Struan Murray. I look forward to reading the full version of The Vessel when it is finally published