Writing Competitions: five rules

by isabelrogers

You know the panicky feeling: you stare at tens of thousands of words in your novel and have to pick 500 of them to run ahead to impress someone. Logically you know it’s somewhere between sticking a pin at random and tearing out your own heart. (We know it feels like the heart thing. Stop being so melodramatic. God – writers. Nightmare.)

There are some rules. I shouldn’t be allowed near rules. They set off my condition.

1) Keep it simple

You know your novel will be the Ulysses of your time: a tumbling, multicultural, grounded, soaring, incisive and yet achingly profound tome of such intellectual weight it must be imbibed whole or nobody will get it. You search for an extract that will convey all this in 500 words. You fail. It won’t do.

2) Get the right mix

You want a bit of description, and a bit of dialogue. All your adverbs and adjectives will already have been ruthlessly edited out, so frankly the description’s going to be sparse. If there is more than one person talking, you won’t know who it is because you’re not allowed dialogue tags. You feel you are veering into Wolf Hall territory. You cut like a mosquito-crazed, machete-wielding Amazon explorer. You are left with one quivering sentence that makes a haiku look prolix. It won’t do.

3) Use a discrete extract

You waste precious minutes looking up the difference between discrete and discreet before realising this research won’t even show in your extract. Every section you lift seems to be tangled in with all the other parts of your post-modern interconnectedly woven work that isolating it is going to be like cutting off its arteries. Your 500 words will die, fluttering in your hand before they are even printed. You push away this nauseating medical metaphor, preferring a gardening one of separating a pot-bound plant. Or maybe cutting a worm in half. Except only one half lives. You’re back to heart surgery.

4) You need to mainline feelings

Because you’re going to have to tug pretty quickly at the reader’s emotions. It’s no good spending most of the extract getting them to love your hero only to kill him in the last ten words. Kill him first, explain later. Or pre-load knowledge about the killing and then backtrack to get them to love him with the awful foreboding shadowing its every line. Or eschew death. Maybe give the hero a puppy. Puppies are always popular.

5) Practise your performance

Obviously, you’ll need to read it out at some point, if only to appease the baying fans at your acceptance ceremony. Can you convincingly play the parts of both the intergalactic serial killing monster and the heartrending inner monologue of the hero’s daughter’s teddy bear? Do you have the vocal skills? You must practise. Pay no attention to the looks of passers-by as you stroll behind them exploring your entire range of pitch and timbre. Declaim. Gesticulate. You are, after all, an Artist.

I hope these rules help you as much as they have helped me. I am indebted to Shelley Harris, who actually gave me some cracking advice and will be holding her head in her hands at what I’ve done with it.