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Emirates LitFest Writing Prize Writing Tips

As you begin to prepare your manuscript so you can enter the Emirates LitFest Writing Prize competition, here’s some advice from the judge of our Adult Fiction Category.

Writing Advice from Luigi Bonomi

Another year arrives and my mind turns to the excitement of what gems will be sent to me by aspiring authors at the terrific Emirates LitFest Writing Prize. With that in mind I thought I should set out the kind of books that publishers are looking for and I asked my fellow agent, Hannah Schofield, who has been talking to lots of editors this year, what they have been telling her. She told me the following:

There’s a joke somewhere about how all editors looking for commercial fiction want to acquire a book that is brilliantly written and will sell loads of copies. Don’t we all? However, the landscape for commercial fiction launches in the UK has been challenging – supermarkets and WHSmith, which have long been stalwarts of commercial fiction, are taking fewer copies of debuts (focussing instead on brand-name authors) and publishers are having to find other routes to market for much of their list, or choose to focus all their attention on their debut of the season to hope it cuts through. Waterstones has also become vital for launching debuts and has got behind several of the biggest debut successes in the UK in the last year, including The Appeal by Janice Hallett (where the emails-only structure brought an exciting point of difference to the cosy crime genre).

The influence of BookTok also continues to increase, and publishers are taking note. The readership of BookTok is young, hungry, and engaged – and their preferred genres tend to be romance and fantasy (as well as YA and ‘dark academia’ a la If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio). Bonus marks if it combines these elements, like Madeleine Miller’s Song of Achilles does. Greek retellings continue to be sought after by editors and readers alike – as do romance novels that will appeal to a Gen Z audience, in the vein of The Love Hypothesis. Trope-driven is the name of the game (think: enemies-to-lovers, forced proximity, second-chance romance, etc), and BookTok champions established authors and debuts in this space – many debut romances have a ‘TikTok made me buy it’ tag on Amazon.

The digital market is also plateauing after an uptick during lockdown as people turned to their Kindles after exhausting their other pandemic hobbies, and it is also hard for debuts to cut through here, though some are, like Sally Page’s The Keeper of Stories. This is why it’s key that any commercial fiction project – regardless of genre – has a watertight proposition. Editors tell me that if you can’t pitch it in a sentence – they’re not interested! And that one-sentence pitch must conform to the conventions of the genre and convey that this novel is doing something new and different within those genres. Combined with an excellent cover, the ‘package’ of a book is aimed to hook a potential reader (and thus, buyer) within seconds. So ensuring that book agents submit to editors have a strong hook is vital at the moment – and that’s what agents are therefore on the hunt for in their submissions inboxes: a clear, one-line pitch; defined genre cues; and something a bit different. A brilliant example of this is Blood Sugar by Sascha Rothchild, a psychological thriller where the pitch is: “Ruby is accused of four murders – but she’s only guilty of three…”

Perennial genres in the digital market include psychological suspense and Second World War historical fiction – there is always appetite for these from readers, but because they’re saturated areas of the market, a debut in this space needs to be bringing something new and exciting to the table, for example, a WWII novel that isn’t set in France, or a thriller with an interesting setting, like The Sanitorium by Sarah Pearse.

Growing genres across the industry (as well as those driven by BookTok) include cosy crime, which Richard Osman’s enormous success has kicked off with a vengeance, and regency romance, after the ‘Bridgerton effect’. With cosy crime, the ideal would be authors who can produce two books a year in a returning series – and for all commercial genres, publishers are looking to publish at least a book a year to establish and hopefully grow that author. Across all genres, I’m seeing a skew towards the escapist and the joyful (including a move towards cosy rather than gory crime) – after the last two years, everyone seems to be gravitating to books that will completely absorb them, and leave them with a smile on their face.

As a good 80% of all popular fiction is bought by women, I think hard-boiled thrillers are having a tough time of it unless they can give readers something different. If they are exactly like the thrillers that are already out there now, only written by you, then that won’t be enough – they need to be sufficiently original – maybe with cross-genre elements – horror, the paranormal, something like that. All thrillers, even written by men, should try to appeal to a female audience.

Crime is always popular but less genre-driven and perhaps more upmarket, psychological, twisted or historical. Novels that help you explore a world that is unfamiliar to you are always popular. Sagas are coming back big time – either pre-war up to the 1950s, featuring salt of the Earth characters caught up in a crisis – often with a strong romantic theme or bigger, more contemporary novels featuring multi-generational stories.

When thinking about entering the Prize think about the impact you will make with your first few pages – does it grab the reader? Is it immediately something a reader will want to read? Is the very first line/paragraph a captivating one? Is the plot clear? Is it clearly laid out (I prefer Times New Roman, 14pt, double-spaced); has it been spell-checked? Does your synopsis clearly set out the story in a matter of a few pages? All of this will make an impact.

How serious are you about becoming a published author? Recently we have given some prizes to a number of authors who then told us they didn’t really want to write a novel but had just entered a few chapters for the fun of it. The fact they had won one of the prizes was very gratifying to them but they had no real intention of taking it further. Is this you? I know there are so many people out there who do want to become published authors that it seems to me that in all honesty, if you do want to enter the Prize you should do so on the understanding that it is on this basis and that you too are keen to develop your writing skills. Perhaps you don’t have confidence in your writing ability and winning would give you a real boost I don’t want to put such people off but it would be a great idea if you could think seriously before entering whether writing is just a hobby for you or a real passion.

I hope the above helps you – the Emirates LitFest Writing Prize has been a great success and I hope will continue to succeed. There is huge talent here – and me and my team are very much looking forward to discovering a new bestseller among you.

Good Luck!


Enter the LitFest Writing Prize

If you’re considering entering the Children’s Fiction Category, make sure you read Louise Lamont’s advice on applying.

And finally, if you feel ready to enter the Adult Fiction Category of the competition, make sure you review the guidelines and pay the entry fee so you can submit your application!

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