The Manchester Literature Festival and Commonword Cultureword joined forces on 23rd October for the event Is There a Novelist in the House? Seven budding Manchester novelists competed in this novel-pitching competition in Manchester’s Waterstones, which the judges described as “The Literary X-Factor.” (This is the second night in a row that an MLF presenter has used an X-Factor analogy. It’s a shit TV programme. Please stop using this show as a pitch for your event, people. And stop watching the programme as well. Moving on.) The prize: £250 in cash plus the chance to work with an editor to get the book into print.
The judges received completed manuscripts. The panel:
Author Jane Rogers
Cannongate editor Dan Franklin
Associate Agent at the Darley Anderson Agency Zoe King.
They received full texts but without author names. The judges had read all seven novels in full before the event.
Judges picked names out of a hat, on the night, to decide the order of running:
Benjamin took centre stage to read a section of All Creatures Great and Chips, his funny and absurd speculative fiction story. His tale featured a depressed flamingo and a sadistic mansion owner, and he wrote the darkly humorous piece to challenge “what is acceptable as normal”. Who can resist talking animals and macabre violence? As Benjamin put it, “It’s not for thirteen-year-old boys.” I like.
Nicola Turres followed this with a pre-scripted intro and a passage from her work, This City of Steel We Live. The city- Sheffield- she describes as “a weird part of the world”, and the passage she read featured a care home, where a crazy woman in an underskirt is covering herself in baked beans. “Sheffield gets more and more beautiful in real life,” said Nicola. “I’ve tried to show that in the novel, and it reflects that world of steel in Sheffield.” After a mechanical start, her reading went down a treat. Slightly reminiscent of the film Tommy, though.
Andre Wzowski’s Three Days in September featured the German invasion of Poland in 1939. “War is still a living, breathing thing,” says Andre, who has previously written fantasy and has now entered the realm of historical fiction. Although it’s set in the past, he says the genre is not historical but more “literary”. (Somebody used this phrase the previous night at Women and Crime Fiction; it's the polite way of describing something as “genre-less”, it seems.)
When Andre described the plot it started to sound a lot like the movie Uprising, about the resistance displayed in the Warsaw ghettos. Sorry folks, but I thought the segment of Three Days was crap. How did he get a previous book deal?
Gary Parkinson darkened the mood with Scarecrow, a macabre story about a woman impregnated by her father (like in the film Chinatown…) Former advertising man / magazine editor Gary, who due to self promotion said he has “no shame left”, read out a section. The girl narrates the book in first person. The judges admitted that they assumed a woman had written the work, which pleased Gary. Fair enough, but I wasn’t so bowled over. The question I found myself asking was: how young is the narrator character? I thought under eighteen, hence vulnerable to her father’s advances. Here’s a line from the reading: “I slip out like a candle blown out.” Very descriptive. But an image like that, I’d imagine, would be used by an intelligent, creative-minded adult. Not a young girl. “I actually did some plotting in this one,” said Gary. Why would you admit this? I thought. Why tell your audience that you don’t normally plot your work? What kind of novelist do you want to come across as? He then rounded off with a writer’s cardinal sin and told us the end of the story. No. No. No.
Deborah Mann, who has a masters degree from Edge Hill University, read from her work “Circles of Eve.” Her auto-erotic piece was about finding sexuality. After a good start she also gave away part of the ending! A character in the book is a neighbour called Mary Shelley. Why give a character this name? Anyone clued up will be looking for a Frankenstein-related significance. But Deborah didn’t elaborate on this. Distracting!
Suzie Stubbs’ set Mother’s Beloved in Laos. The young protagonist, a native girl of maybe six years old, has visions of death. The visions become premonitions when people die in the circumstances she imagined, terrifying the people in this communist country.
Have you ever seen The Eye, the Japanese film that Tom Cruise has remade? Same story. Suzie has apparently had work published in Time out and The Guardian, and has won at the Manchester Blog Awards in previous years. Again, I wasn’t that impressed.
Suzie said that she’s never been to Laos. Judge Dan said that lack of first-hand geographical knowledge isn’t necessarily a problem, and thought the phrase “write what you know” is a cliché. I’d agree with that.
Then Suzie became the second author to make a really dumb mistake- the same one- she told us the end to her story! “She’s telling a pack of lies,” she said. Not only did you just spoil it for the remainder of people who might have given up the time for reading it, you’ve used a crap end twist! Ever seen Lucky Number Slevin? Narrator has been lying to viewer throughout the film. That was a crap end as well, and you’ve just nicked it, Suzie.
Two hours into the event, my arse began to hurt… perhaps softer seats next time, organisers…?!
Katie Massey read from her novel The Book of Ghosts, about Sophie, a girl with a difficult family life who imagines that distant family relatives are talking to her. (A lot of these stories are very similar to each other. Overcrowded market much?) The segment she read is pretty decent, although her intro was also pre-scripted.
Jane Rogers liked the language in this novel, and said it shows the differences in the characters and how they change. I concur with that.
There’s a break while the judges made their decision. A quick glance around the audience proved that Dave Hartley is here...
And some guy wearing the same Nazi militia jacket that he had on at the Comedy Poetry Slam.
The event concluded with a feedback session. Dan and Jane praise the participants but also offer specific criticisms to the writers.
I’d have picked Benjamin Judge, but the judges go for Suzie Stubbs. Well. They did describe it as “the literary X-Factor”, so you can only expect recycled ideas and devastating injustice to prevail. Not like I watch the TV show or anything. But each to their own…
The official Manchester Literature Festival Blog coverage: