Described by this newspaper as “a Dragons’ Den for writers”, the Irish Writers Centre’s Novel Fair each year introduces 12 up-and-coming writers to top publishers and literary agents. As the deadline for submissions to take part in next year’s event approaches, previous winners share their advice.
“Never write to chase trends. Never write to give other people what you think they want. The book has to be for you. It has to be something you want to read and you need to write. That’s where passion, authenticity and inspiration are found. Write the book that you want to see published, that you could never turn down.”
Neil Sharpson lives in Dublin and is the author of When the Sparrow Falls (2021).
“When it comes to writing a synopsis, you don’t need to include everything… find a thread and tell it like a story, not an inventory of everything that happens. Make sure you describe the big turning points, heartbreaks, moments of tension, etc. Backstory should be minimal.”
Lauren Mackenzie grew up in Sydney, Australia, and is the author of The Couples (2023).
“Concentrate on polishing that opening chapter until it screams: ‘You must read on!’ Think outside the box with your synopsis. Create word pictures – succinctly – of your character/s, setting, time period. A synopsis doesn’t have to be a chronological account of your novel crammed into 300 words.”
Fidelma Kelly studied English literature at Trinity College Dublin and is the author of Sweet Lemons: Tales of Relationships Under the Sultry Sicilian Sun (2021).
“You have only one chance to impress, so polish those 10,000 words until they shine. Strive for brilliance, dazzling the judges with every carefully chosen word. Leave them stunned: wishing there was more to read. Then do the same for the rest of your novel.”
Alison Langley is a freelance journalist and her first novel, Ilona Gets a Phone (Due 2024), was a finalist at the Irish Writers Centre’s Novel Fair 2022.
“Have at least one other person read your 10,000 words, if not the whole novel, and give you detailed feedback on what is and isn’t working. Try to find a reader who is as close to your “target audience” as possible without falling back on someone who you know will just tell you what you want to hear. Have them explain to you what they think the book is about, even to the point of summarising the story, so that you can identify where some of your intentions may not be getting across. And, remember, novels will continue to evolve until they are on the bookseller’s shelf. Don’t aim for perfection; just aim for clarity.”
Hesse Phillips holds a PhD in drama from Tufts University and was a Novel Fair finalist in 2022. Her debut Lightborne (Atlantic Books) is due to be published in 2024. Phillips found her literary agent (StoryLine Literary Agency) at Novel Fair 2022.
“If you’ve got this far, then your writing is good (it’s so easy to lose sight of that!). Practise talking about your work with excitement and with pride. In short: you know you can work with the door closed, now you have to work with the door open to other people.”
Gráinne Murphy grew up in west Cork. Her latest novel is Winter People (2022).
“Write every day. Even if it’s only for half an hour. Make this your habit. Some days will be more productive than others.”
Aingeala Flannery’s debut novel, The Amusements (2022), was published by Penguin Sandycove.
“Get feedback on the first 10,000 words and make sure you have that much humming. And if you fail, try again. I entered three times before I was successful.”
David Brennan’s debut novel, Upperdown, was published by époque press in 2019.
“It’s worth putting time and effort into the synopsis. Ask other writer friends for help. And remember, it’s the opening chapters that give you the opportunity to shine. Make sure they are well edited. Read them aloud, record yourself reading and your ear will find those pesky details which may have slipped the eye.”
Laura McKenna is a writer of fiction and poetry, whose debut book Words to Shape My Name (2021) was a Novel Fair winner in 2020.
“Have confidence in your words, edit to polish not perfect, but, most of all, take a chance… you’ll never know if this is your ‘right time, right place moment’ if you don’t submit.”
Rachel Blackmore writes historical fiction and was selected as an Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair winner in 2022.
“Concentrate on your first 10,000 words. In the case of Novel Fair, these are your golden ticket.”
Orla Mackey was a 2022 Novel Fair Winner, whose debut novel, Mouthing, will be published by Penguin Books in 2024.
“Do it. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to ‘do it’ as everyone’s life is different. So figure out what works for you – and do it.”
Jonathan Ryder was a 2020 Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair finalist.
“Make sure your opening chapter is as engaging as possible from the first sentence on. Try deleting the current first paragraph of every chapter and see how it changes the dynamic!”
Marianne Lee is an author whose debut novel, A Quiet Tide (2020), was published by New Island Books.
“If you are under pressure regarding the deadline, concentrate your energies on the first three chapters/10,000 words. This is really your ‘key’ into the doorway with agents, publishers, etc. If this section doesn’t grab them (and set up the world, themes, characters, plot and so on), all of that ‘great material’ later on will count for almost nothing. As the saying goes, don’t hide your light under a bushel. Get that good stuff in up front!”
James Richards is a freelance journalist and was selected as a 2022 Novel Fair finalist.
“Don’t rush your writing and don’t underestimate the significance of the editing process. Try to strike a balance between working toward the deadline and giving the work time to mature organically. Try not to just ‘fit a brief’, but believe in your unique voice and preoccupations. It’s a long game, and, regardless of whether you get a deal or an agent ‘on the day’, you want to stay in the ‘writing game’ for the long run ideally. Don’t be devastated if you can’t get a deal there and then, because even if you don’t, this will be an excellent opportunity to showcase your writing and demonstrate how seriously you are taking it.”
Susanne Stich has published stories in literary journals and was a 2018 Novel Fair finalist.
“Every creative project has its own process of unfolding, some more straightforward than others. My advice would be, don’t rush. Let writing take the time it needs. Revise, cut, edit out every extraneous word or scene. Stay true to your creative vision. Don’t let market research or ideas of accessibility dictate any decision. If your book is difficult, let it be difficult. Get a trusted reader to give honest and forthright reports on your work. Finish your book by setting completion goals for yourself. The Novel Fair is a very useful deadline to have in your sights.”
Alice Lyons is the author of Oona (2020) and was selected as a Novel Fair finalist in 2019.
“It depends on what the middle looks like. If you’re midway through a first draft, and wondering if you’ll get to the end, I found it useful to allow myself to write badly. In my first draft, the final chapter of the book was almost unreadably bad, but it at least allowed me to say that I had finished a whole book.
If you’re a few drafts in, I found it useful to focus on one section of the book (in my case the first 10,000 words) and to make that as polished as possible. I worked and reworked the first few chapters – reading it out loud, reading it out of order, printing it out and seeing if that revealed something new, eventually sharing it with one or two friends to check that I hadn’t made some enormous mistake – and then, once I had submitted that much to the Novel Fair, I applied the same method to the rest of the book.”
Bryan Moriarty is the author of Sounds Like Fun (2023) which was published by Hachette UK.
“Make sure your opening 50 pages are the best part of the book. If the book doesn’t really get going until page 79, why are you not starting the novel on page 79, and cut the preceding pages? Make sure you establish early on who the main character is by providing a sense of age, place and general feel for the character. And scenes! Are the scenes active? Make them alive and interesting! It’s all about the characters and the scenes! And best of luck.”
Kevin Curran’s latest novel, Youth, was published by Lilliput Press in 2023. Curran’s debut novel, Beatsploitation (2023), was a Novel Fair winner in 2012 (the first ever Novel Fair).
The deadline to submit a 10,000-word novel manuscript sample to compete for a place in next year’s novel fair is September 30th. Visit irishwriterscentre.ie for details.