I wrote the bulk of my novel, The House at Zaronza, during National Novel Writing Month 2012. It then lay in the proverbial drawer (or the dusty recesses of my computer) for several months, disturbed only by the occasional tweak.
I entered it for a few novel competitions in 2013, most of which required only the first few chapters. But it didn’t get anywhere and I realised that maybe it needed a stronger opening. Writing friends at the online, ex-pat writing community to which I belong, Writers Abroad, confirmed my suspicions.
Along came the Flash 500 Novel Opening Competition, which gave me the spur to rewrite the beginning. The main story concerns a young woman from a bourgeois family in a Corsican village in the early 20thcentury, who has a secret relationship with the local schoolmaster. It continues into World War I and beyond. But the story needed something extra to give it more of a context and a raison d’être. So I introduced a 21st-century story to top and tail the historical story.
By the time I had to submit the first 3,000 words and the synopsis to Lorraine’s competition, I had written the top but not the tail. You might be able to guess what’s coming…
As the weeks went by, my novel made it first to the longlist and then to the shortlist of a dozen. Maybe I was in with a chance.
In early December, an email from Lorraine popped into my inbox. The title line read, “Not Placed in the Novel Opening but ...” At first, my heart sank: the competition has a first and a second prize. I didn’t notice the “but” to start with.
Reading on, I realised that all was not lost. The judges, Crooked Cat Publishing, had asked to see the full manuscript of The House at Zaronza.
My euphoria was tempered with anxiety. I hadn’t written the ending! So I dashed off an email to Lorraine, who kindly gave me a week’s grace before submitting the manuscript to the publishers via her. What Lorraine didn’t know was just how much work the “brushing up” I had described involved.
It’s amazing what you can achieve when you are up against it. During that week, I not only added the final chapters – an additional 10,000 words – but I also altered the bulk of the text from the present tense, which didn’t work, to the past tense. Thankfully, I had had the sense to write the bit submitted to the competition in the past tense. You can’t just do “find” and “replace”.
A nail-biting 12 weeks ensued while Crooked Cat considered The House at Zaronza. We all know that sod’s law works with a vengeance. During the 12th week, our Internet connection gave up. The only place I could connect was at the local library, and only sporadically. So it was several days before I realised that Crooked Cat had emailed me to offer me a contract. They must have thought I was pretty cool not replying instantly – which would, of course, have been my reaction.
The rest, as they say, is history. Crooked Cat published The House at Zaronza at the end of July this year.
A word of advice: if you do decide to submit to the Flash 500 Novel Opening Competition, make sure you complete your manuscript in good time in case you get the call.
And good luck.
Vanessa Couchman is passionate about French and Corsican history, from which she derives the inspiration for much of her fiction. She has lived in France since 1997, where she runs a copywriting business and also writes magazine articles. Her short stories have won and been placed in creative writing competitions. The House at Zaronza is her debut novel.
Blog: Life on La Lune
Writing site: Vanessa Couchman, freelance writer
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Critique Service for Writers
Flash 500 Home Page: Flash Fiction, Humour Verse
and Novel Opening Chapter and Synopsis Competitions