Category: Writing

Shortlisted (or Not) for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award

March 7th, 2012 — 3:23pm

Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize This is my experience of waiting to hear about being shortlisted for a major writing prize, the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, the world’s largest short fiction award.

I was thrilled that my short story, “Where the Gods Fly” had made the longlist for a number of reasons: 1) I’d had so much trouble creating the pdfs they wanted for the application that I didn’t think they had even received my entry; 2) I knew they’d had over 1200 entries and was convinced I wouldn’t ever hear from them again, even if they had gotten my submission; and 3) the other writers on the longlist of twenty include greats like Lionel Shriver, Emma Donoghue, A.L. Kennedy, Alison MacLeod – need I say more?

The writers on the longlist heard the news a few weeks before it was made public. In fact, we were told the same day the decision was made and sworn to secrecy.

Then came the waiting for the news about the shortlist.  I didn’t think I had any real chance of making the shortlist. Some of the authors I most admired were on that longlist. However, I did want know for sure so I would have time to recover from my disappointment. Cathy Galvin, the founder of the prize, had tweeted on Twitter that the shortlist meeting would be on Wednesday, February 22. I was traveling on that day, flying from Amsterdam to New York with a Dutch television crew which was filming a documentary about my novel, Girl in Translation, and my

I worried. What if they somehow did choose me, yet tried to call my Dutch mobile phone, which wouldn’t function for the two weeks I was in New York with the television crew? What if they left message after message, then decided, “Oh dear. She obviously doesn’t want to be on the shortlist, let’s move on to someone else.” I hoped that if there was any news that they would send me an email or ring my US cell phone instead.

I fidgeted throughout the long flight to the US, went through customs, took a taxi to the hotel and finally set up an Internet connection. No email. No phone call.  Nothing. Not on my home phone, not on the US mobile number. I’d known it was unlikely that I would make the shortlist – it was already incredible that I’d made the longlist – but I still felt sad. I decided I wouldn’t be fully disappointed until the next morning because perhaps they would wait a day before telling the shortlisted authors.

The next morning: still nothing. Now I felt like a loser writer. I understood what had happened – my story was the one that a single judge mildly liked but the other judges had laughed at that person because my story was so bad. I imagined all of the authors who had made it, sipping champagne and glowing with heavenly approval. I emailed my UK editor, Juliet Annan, told her I wasn’t on the shortlist and was sorry I wouldn’t be able to take her to the award ceremony at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. She wrote back and told me that I always took first prize in her eyes anyway. That helped. I took a deep breath and told myself that the shortlisted authors deserved their happiness. I’d gotten friendly with a few of the other longlisted authors and I hoped they’d made it at least.

Time passed, almost a week. Tuesday morning, as I was frantically trying to get all of my hair dry in time to meet the television crew downstairs, my US mobile phone rang. At first, I didn’t understand who it was, then realized it was someone from the same organization that had rejected me for the Sunday Times short story prize.

I knew why the lady was calling. She was going to say, “We feel so sorry for you for not making the shortlist that we would like to offer you this pamphlet on how to become a better writer.” Or maybe, “We need someone to help clean the ballroom after the award ceremony and we were wondering if you might be interested.”

While this was flashing through my mind, the lady on the telephone, Hannah Davies, was saying, “Jean, do you have a moment to talk?”

I did not really want to sweep the ballroom after the ceremony and I was still a bit hurt (irrationally) that they had not shortlisted my story for the prize so I answered, “Well, a little but actually I am rushing to get ready so I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of time.”

“Oh, this will just take a minute. I wanted to tell you that you have made the shortlist for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.”

I shook my head to clear it. “I have NOT made the shortlist, is that what you said?”

“No, no, you HAVE made the shortlist.”

It went on this way for a while. We sounded like Laurel and Hardy. Hannah is extremely British and kind and I could tell that it physically pained her to say “no” to me so forcibly, but I drove her to it.

Finally I understood that I had actually made the shortlist of six writers. Somehow, out of a field of 1200, my story is in the top six. In fact, everything that had happened had been in my imagination and had no connection to reality whatsoever. In my mind, my hopes had sickened, then died. I had already grieved and moved on. Only it hadn’t actually been necessary.

There must be a lesson in here somewhere but I’m not quite sure what it is. Possibly that you should be grateful you are not married to me because I don’t think I can stop being like this.

So my story has been published in a collectionSunday Times EFG Short Story Award Shortlisted Stories available at, alongside the other shortlisted stories by Emma Donoghue, Kevin Barry, Tom Lee, Robert Minhinnick and Linda Oatman High.

And I am going to London. First, I’ll be at the Waterstones in Piccadilly on March 29 at 7pm where well-known actors will read mine and the great Kevin Barry’s stories aloud, and then I will actually take my lovely UK editor to the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival for both a panel and the award ceremony on March 30.

Fortunately, I am quite certain I will not win so at least I do not need to worry about preparing a speech or anything. This time it is not my imagination. Really.

7 comments » | Awards and Honors, Publishing, Writing

New York Times Bestseller

May 20th, 2010 — 9:28pm

GIRL IN TRANSLATION has just hit the New York Times Bestseller list at #29!  I received the call from my editor, Sarah McGrath, last night!  I was also congratulated by my agent, publisher, and other members of the Penguin/Riverhead team.  Yet another thing I didn’t know before I became a published author was that Wednesday would become a very important day in my week.  This is because the BookScan numbers come out on Wednesday, which more or less tell you how many copies of your book sold the week before.  Your agent or editor will send those numbers to you.  Then, if you’re anything like me, you start to calculate furiously and fruitlessly to try to figure out if your numbers have set into motion something to do with the other Wednesday event, which is: in between 4pm and 6pm Eastern Standard Time, the New York Times Bestseller List gets sent to your publishing house, ten days before it appears on the Internet and in print.  So they get an early look at what everyone else will be reading a week and a half later. Although there are many other bestseller lists, the New York Times list is still the list.

At least I assume this because no one calls me for any other list.  GIRL IN TRANSLATION has only been available for two complete weeks now and has already made the ABA Indie (Independent Bookstores) Bestseller List, the Walmart Bestseller List, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association (SCIBA) Bestseller List, and now, the New York Times Bestseller list — all of which I am very happy about, but I only get called for the NY Times.  Of course, this may also be due to the little problem I have with telephones (see earlier blog entry on Trials of the Telephone) plus the fact that I now announce triumphantly whenever I pick up the phone and hear a voice at the other end, “I managed to answer the phone this time!”  This may not instill confidence.  And it is also close to midnight here in Holland by the time the Times list comes out.  Probably, no one DARES to phone me.

I did see something hopeful from my window, which was:

So since we’re getting a peek at the NY Times list in advance, it will actually be posted on the Internet on May 30, 2010.   I’m going to finish my blog posts on the end of my book tour, and all of the things I learned by then, as soon as I find the time.  I just got back to Holland and am dealing with a 9-hour time difference (can we spell JETLAG?), and have my two little and very active boys, plus phone calls with film people, and a live to tape national Dutch television program where I have to speak Dutch (NED 1 at 10:30AM on Sunday, May 23), and tomorrow I have two print interviews with two different photographers (for the TELEGRAAF and GROOT VOORSCHOTEN), and a phone interview with another television producer…  all of this within five days!  Not to mention the New York Times thing, which I am really completely THRILLED about, if I weren’t falling asleep here in front of the compu…

12 comments » | New York Times Bestseller, Writing

How to go from complete unknown to published author

February 25th, 2010 — 10:37pm

First of all, you probably shouldn’t listen to me.  The only reason you might even consider listening is because I was pulled out of the slush pile, without any connections, for the two most important moments in my professional career: my first publication and when my agent found me.  I’m going to tell you the twelve things I would tell my best writer friends.  (It seemed like a nice number.)

1)  Stop.  If you can stop writing, do it.  Or at least if you can stop hoping to become a professional writer, go do something else.  Why?  Because it is hands down the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, creatively and business-wise, and pretty much the only people left in the book business at all are those poor (and glorious) suckers who can’t let go of their love of books.  Otherwise they’d be making millions doing other stuff.

2)  Are you still reading?  OK.  If you can’t stop writing, if you’re one of those people who will obsess about writing or not-writing for the rest of their lives, then I urge you to show your work to some other people.  Preferably people you are neither related to nor sleeping with.  Yes, there are solitary geniuses who absolutely need to work alone, but I find it very helpful to get some feedback.  Even if they completely misunderstand what you’re trying to do, you can use that information to deliberately mislead your readers, who will also no doubt misunderstand what you’re trying to do.  Think of it as a breath of fresh air for your work.

3)  Make sure the structure works before you fine-tune the language.  I know I’m going in the face of a lot of popular wisdom here and don’t get me wrong – I LOVE to work on the language.  I’m a voice-driven author myself and I can’t set a word on paper until I hear the right voice in my head.  However, for me, the voice is not enough.  I need to know that the whole foundation is basically right before I build the house.  Otherwise, I can throw away hundred of (beautifully written!) pages later that don’t work.  I know this because I did.

4)  Remember in fiction that there are two timelines: 1) the actual order in which your events happened and 2) the order in which you chose to reveal them to the reader for maximum impact.  Write down the first for yourself and figure out the second one as a part of the structure of your piece.

5)  When you sit down to work, don’t set a time limit for yourself – set a word limit.  For me, that’s 1200 words a day, although when I’m under a deadline, I can write many times that.  I can sit in the chair and fill an entire morning doing something else if I don’t have a word limit.  However, when I know I can’t leave until I’ve produced a certain number of words, I’m motivated to get it done.

6)  If you tend to procrastinate (and who doesn’t), set a kitchen timer for five minutes.  Promise yourself that if you work non-stop and seriously for those five minutes, you’re allowed to stretch and take a break.  This is usually not-scary enough for most people to get going.  And once those five minutes are up, take a break, and then reset for another five minutes.  You can try ten or fifteen minutes if you’re up to it but keep it short.  You can write a whole book in fifteen minute spurts.

7)  For your first draft, don’t worry about making it good.  Just get it done.  Get the whole thing down on paper in the crappiest way possible.

8)  On your second and subsequent passes through the work, now is the time to make it as good as you possibly can.  Show it to people.  Don’t let it out into the professional world until it’s ready.

9)  If you have anyone who is incredibly generous enough to introduce you to their agent, make sure you’re ready before you submit.  You only have one shot.  Don’t fire off a submission because you’re bored or want to set a deadline for yourself or because it’s easier to work on the business angle than the writing itself.  If you need incentive, go buy yourself some diamonds instead.  Because diamonds are worth less than a good agent’s serious consideration.

10)  If you have someone who knows an editor in publishing who might be willing to look at your un-agented submission, don’t do it.  Get an agent first.  Again, I know I’m going against popular wisdom here.  I mean, who would turn down the chance to have a real editor read their work?  The thing is, your work can be brilliant but in my humble opinion, that editor is not going to read it with the same positive expectations as they would if it had been submitted to them by a reputable agent.  I think chances are high they’ll turn it down.  (Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, this is what I believe.)  Then, when you finally get that reputable agent, the first thing she’ll ask you is, “Where has this been sent?”  If you got turned down by some editor at Norton, for example, your agent can’t resubmit there, while she may well know a Norton editor who would have loved it.

11)  Believe in yourself and your work.  When my friend, a fierce dancer, goes to an audition and doesn’t get the job, she says, “It’s not that they didn’t like me.  They didn’t even SEE me.”  And that’s almost always what it is.  She just dyes her hair a different color and goes back in again the next time they have auditions.  In writing, you can’t resubmit to the same person but just keep going.  Don’t let the rejections knock you down.  Take a look at my FAQ page for more details on what happened to me.

12)  Don’t listen to anything here or anywhere else that doesn’t work for you.  Trust yourself and your own gut feelings.

16 comments » | Publishing, Writing

Back to top