Nice Surprises

Yesterday, the results of the 2013 Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair were announced. I already knew I wasn’t one of the winners, but what I didn’t know was that the judges had decreed that I, along with 9 other writers, had produced work of a high enough standard to be considered longlistees.

Sulu say 'whut?' Image:

Sulu say ‘whut?’

This was a real surprise, and rather a comfort in the face of, once again, missing out on the top rank of ‘winner.’ I came in exactly the same position last time around (in 2012’s competition, the results of which were announced in 2013), with the same book (albeit a vastly different and entirely reworked version); if I decide to enter this competition again, I think the universe may be telling me: ‘Choose a different book.’

It’s wonderful to know that I am a strong enough writer to make a longlist two years in a row – sweetly, my husband did the maths and worked out that I was in the top 7.2% of entries, which was very cool to hear – but what I want to take from this experience is a lesson about what my writing is missing, what it needs to improve on, in order to be good enough to make it.

Over the past eighteen months or so, I’ve learned that I can put together reasonably good sentences, and that I can write on demand and under pressure. I’ve learned that I can hit deadlines, and that I have a reasonable amount of self-motivation. I’ve discovered a love for short stories and flash fiction, and I’ve ‘met’ some talented fellow writers who seem to think my stories – at least, some of them – have a little merit. I’ve found that I respond well to prompts, and that I am capable of turning an idea into a fully-fledged novel.

But where am I falling down?




One of my main issues is, I think, with plotting. Taken as a series of scenes, I think my writing works fine, but overall, as a completed novel, I’m not so sure. I think I manage to come up with good seeds for a story, good ideas which form the basis of whatever I’m working on, but the act of fleshing them out seems to drown them. My plots either aren’t strong enough, or the conflict isn’t sufficiently dangerous, or the antagonist not adequately evil. It’s hard to write a story which you believe in, one which you love, the sort of story you’d like to read, while at the same time thinking about marketability and originality and whether your characters are unique, your baddies not ‘stock’, your protagonist not a walking bundle of stereotypes. Sometimes, a plot you adore won’t find a home with an agent or publisher because they know what you don’t – the shape of the market, the fact that ten thousand other books are already out there on just the same topic, readers’ needs won’t be met by your work – and it’s hard to be told that something you’ve worked on just doesn’t have a place in the landscape of publishing. I know I struggle with plotting, and I guess the only way to overcome it is to practice – and to read as widely as I can.

Another thing I need to work on is pacing. Yesterday, I finished my paper edits of ‘Emmeline’, and – while I’m still happy with the direction the story took – it does feel like the ending is rushed. Also, while I’ve managed to remove a substantial total from my wordcount, I think I am still being too wordy in non-critical places, and not wordy enough in others. The middle third of the book, which I had thought was all right on my first round of edits, actually is a bit longer than it needs to be. The thought of changing it substantially is making my brain melt, but it’s going to have to happen. As well as this, I know my pacing issues centre on the final ‘act’ of my novel, when everything comes together and the final showdown takes place. My Grand Conflict ends up falling flat, because it’s all squashed into one or two chapters. This is a problem. However, knowing you do it and finding a way to fix it are two entirely separate things.

Something else I learned about myself while doing the edits for ‘Emmeline’ was my tendency to use redundancies, like ‘her stomach yowled with hunger‘, or ‘his eyes flashed in anger,’ or – my personal fave – ‘he stared at her with a mixture of anger and fear on his face‘. Of course a stomach yowls with hunger – what else would cause it to do that? And naturally a person, when staring, does it with his or her face. It would be hard to do it with any other body part. So, why did I include the words ‘on his face’? Poor writing, that’s why. I haven’t yet read over ‘Tider’, so I’m not sure whether errors like that cropped up in that book, too, but it’s likely they did. I also tend to repeat myself, whether on a micro- or macro-level; repeated words within paragraphs (sometimes, within a pair of sentences!) are not unknown in my work, and larger repetitions – plot devices, sentence structure, conversations between characters – are also no stranger to me. Somehow, I do this without noticing when I’m drafting, so it’s important to be aware of it when it comes time to edit.

But I am aware, and I am trying. So, I guess it’s just a case of doing it again, and again, and again, until I get it right.



Huge congratulations to all the authors who were shortlisted for this year’s Novel Fair, and to my fellow longlistees. The Novel Fair is a fantastic endeavour, and – year on year – it leads to book deals, the successful publication of some wonderful novels, and a lot of happy people. Novel Fair 2014’s closing date won’t be until October, so there’s plenty of time to get your magnum opus written. See you there?

11 thoughts on “Nice Surprises

  1. Kate Curtis

    You’re all kinds of amazing. Congratulations for making the longlist – well deserved 🙂

    I always think it must be difficult for the judges to choose a winner in competitions like that. I read the top four entries of an Aussie competition recently and my favourite came third. It gives me hope really – not winning doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost. 😀

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Wow, yeah. I don’t envy judges their job, not at all! Writing’s so subjective a thing, and I’m sure it’s hard to balance one entry against another. It’s good to be aware of your weaknesses too, though – it can only help you to improve. Here’s hoping, anyway. 🙂

      Thank you, also. *hug* 🙂

  2. susanlanigan

    Congratulations on being longlisted again. That book must have legs. Is the partial out on submission at the moment? Might as well have as many balls in the air as is possible!

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Yes, it’s out on submission. I’ve another one entered into two competitions, which I want to send out on sub as soon as possible. I got some agent feedback on my first book (‘Eldritch’) which I want to incorporate and get back out on the subs round, and I have another new idea nudging the back of my mind too.

      Geez. No rest for the wicked.

      Thanks for the congratulations, and the support. 🙂

  3. CJ O'Keeffe

    Well done SJ, I didn’t even make the longlist! Good post. A lot in it and plenty of issues that I am grappling with. I just feel exhausted from entering/trying to enter competitions at the mo. Recently I received assistance from an agent, who did a track edit of my first three chapters and read my first 50 pages. He spotted a lot of things I haven’t, which is great. Moreover, he really liked it, which was great to hear as lack of self-confidence is a constant companion.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      At least you have the courage to submit your work to competitions, and (even more scarily) to agents. I completely hear you re. the exhaustion – I sometimes get terrified that I’m missing out on so many opportunities, and I have to remind myself that I’m doing as much as I can. It’s also hard to put so much of yourself into the things you *do* manage to enter, and then to get nowhere. That happens to me a lot, too! Don’t let the confidence flag – it’s so important to keep believing you can do it. Keep submitting, and hopefully you’ll keep getting good feedback from agents. Fingers crossed we’ll both make it, one of these days!

      Thanks for your good wishes; it was great to make the longlist again. I really wish you well with everything.


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