getting back into writing with the women's prize
As I’m writing this, the judges for the Women’s Prize for Fiction are going through the shortlisted novels and getting ready to select 2018’s champion. Before you ask: no, I did not enter this competition. I know we all like a good comeback story, but writing a post about my crippling fear of writing and then miraculously producing an entire novel a fortnight later would be a bit much even for me. Nice to see my unauthorised biography, The Idiot, has made the shortlist, mind.
You'll be pleased to know that since my last post, I've actually managed to write something that isn't a tweet. Gasp! It even has something to do with the Women's Prize. Every year, Grazia – a weekly lifestyle magazine whose name I always fail to pronounce correctly – partners up with the Women’s Prize, and they host a little baby version of the competition called First Chapter. The concept is a very simple one: you, the little baby writer, are given the opening paragraph of a non-existing novel written by a much more successful writer, and it’s up to you to complete the first chapter. Once written and submitted, you will then be eligible to hopefully win £1000 and hit up a meeting with Penguin Random House. Now, if there's one way to get me to write something after a year-long hiatus, it's a financial incentive and the concept of meeting a random penguin.
I mean, how tough could this opening paragraph be?
Of Katherine’s four children, her second-born, Lauren, was undoubtedly her favourite. Cara, the eldest, was wilful and disobedient, while the two youngest, Robert and Alex, were as feeble and timorous as their father. Lauren was dutiful without being sycophantic, obliging without being needy She never entered Katherine’s bedroom without knocking and, when she was invited in, she frequently brought with her curious gifts: snails from the garden, or a perfectly-round pebble, or, on one occasion, the bones and beak of a bird which, cat-like, she laid at the foot of her mother’s bed.
Not tough at all, right? Well, not necessarily.
Writers are often told to write what they know. Inspiration doesn't have to strike if you already know what you're writing, and intimate familiarity with the topic gives your content a lot more authenticity, and consequently more credibility as a writer. While this advice isn't an absolute law (or even remotely helpful at times), it's the advice I'm used to following. When writing, I naturally gravitate towards things that are part of my past or present: working in offices, the organised chaos of the university experience, or living in a potentially haunted house - the context for which probably warrants its own blog post. So, as someone who isn’t a married mother-of-four (as far as I know), this prompt was very difficult to approach – and that, reader, is a fantastic thing.
Staying in your comfort zone and never trying something new are excellent ways to never develop your skills as a writer, and this opening paragraph was both a breath of fresh air and a much-needed prod in the backside to get me out of my usual writing style. I don’t think I’ve ever written from the perspective of a mother before, and I certainly haven’t included a family in any of my stories for years. Instead, my preferred main character tends to be a lone wolf and a subversion of your usual protagonist: a likeable misogynist; a love-struck serial killer; an overworked lawyer who may or may not be Satan. It's been a while since I've written more than one character for an extended stretch within a story, and if I was going to really challenge myself, then I would have to leave my morbid protagonists behind. No more housemates turning into she-wolves, or deranged fashion students using their ex-boyfriends as living mannequins against their will. It was time to write something unusually normal.
“Harry’s mum lets us have chippy chips for tea!”
“That’s because Harry’s mum has never operated an oven in her life,” Katherine said loftily. “Now eat up or the internet’s going off.”
The twins glanced at each other, weighing their options. They hated eating anything remotely healthy, but they also hated being separated from Monster Factory III. With a simultaneous sigh, they accepted their fate and raised their forks – which Harvey took as a signal to ruin everything.
“I need the internet to work on my book, Kat,” he said through a mouthful of potato. Before Katherine could even open her mouth to respond, the boys had vanished from their seats, leaving nothing but clattering forks and abandoned carrots in their wake.
“Nice one.” Katherine also dropped her cutlery and folded her arms. “You’re footing the bill when they both get scurvy.”
This is an excerpt from the middle of the chapter, and I genuinely can't remember the last time I had fun writing something. The information provided in the opening paragraph gave me a wealth of characters for whom I could write dialogue, and if there's anything I love more than writing morbid short stories, it's writing dialogue. It's hardly groundbreaking content, but I loved writing it. Dialogue is the writer's playground, and after years of writing from the perspective of loners and awkward misfits, it felt good to play there again.
Now, I'm not holding my breath about winning this competition - I mean, I didn't even receive a confirmation email, so there's a decent chance I accidentally sent my submission to my old dissertation tutor or the Arriva Trains Wales complaints department. That doesn't really matter, though, because I wholeheartedly loved writing this chapter. In fact, I wholeheartedly loved writing, full-stop. For the first time since I handed in both my final university project and my enthusiasm in 2016, I felt truly present in my own writing again, and no amount of prizes or published novels will ever give me that feeling.
With that said, if you never hear from me again, please assume I won the competition and used my winnings to finally open my dream cat sanctuary in the middle of a desert with my trophy wife, Florence Welch. Do not try to find me.
● Mared Jones is a writer and doughnut enthusiast whose hobbies include dissociating, luring cats into her garden, misplacing her tea, and writing about herself in the third person.