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Not The Booker 2018: Ariel Kahn on what nominations mean for authors

A year and a half ago, I was ready to put my first completed novel, Raising Sparks, in the drawer. I’d submitted it for a PhD in Creative Writing supervised by the wonderful writer Leone Ross. At the viva, novelist Andrew Crumey handed me his annotated copy, saying 'try to send it out into the world'.

I tried. I revised it for a fifth time, made a list of relevant agents, sent it out, and chased by email and phone. Years back I won a short story competition run by Bloomsbury for their website, and secured an agent – but she didn’t like the pitch for Raising Sparks so I was on my own.

Rejections piled up, some with helpful feedback, some without. They kept coming. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.

Then early one morning, a friend posted on Facebook about Pulp Idol, a national writing competition for debut novelists run by Writing on the Wall in Liverpool. It looked great. The judges were an agent and a publisher. They were looking for undiscovered voices, and there were heats in cities around the country. All of them were on Saturdays.

As a religious Jew, I can’t travel on Saturdays, and a host of other Sabbath restrictions made me fear I couldn’t enter. Then, on their website, I noticed that if you couldn’t make the heats for any reason, you could record a YouTube video instead. It had to be exactly four minutes long, and you had to answer a series of questions for exactly two minutes. I looked at my watch. I had 10 minutes before I woke the kids. I sat down and recorded a reading of the opening chapter on my phone, and sent it off.

A month later, Wowfest got in touch to say I was through to the final. I danced around the kitchen. The final was in Liverpool, again on a Saturday. Should I go, or let someone read for me? It felt too important to miss. A member of the book club I run for former customers of a local bookstore I worked in had roots in Liverpool, and the local community welcomed me. I could walk to the final, a reading in the Black-E, a church converted into a theatre on the edge of Chinatown.

Wowfest introduced me to the kind of writerly competition I’d always hoped for. One which felt like a community. The sense of shared excitement and opportunity was electric. All 10 finalists would work with a published author on editing our first chapter, which would be sent out as an anthology to editors and agents around the country.

So I already felt like a winner. I read first, which took care of butterflies. One of the judges, Kevin Duffy of Bluemoose, asked how I would feel if an editor asked me to cut my favourite part of the novel. That’s your job, I replied. I came runner up out of the 10, which I was completely made up about. Then Kevin took me aside. He really liked the first chapter. Could I send him a hard copy of the novel, as his editor was old school?

So on a wing and prayer, off went my manuscript again. On my birthday, Kevin wrote welcoming me to the Bluemoose family, and it really felt that way. The best birthday present ever. The brilliant Society of Authors helped with my contract, and I got to work on revising my draft again, this time with astute editor Lin Webb. All of her suggested changes made my story better. I discovered the joys of being published by a passionate independent publisher.

On twitter, I found another kind of community, where writers shared tips and worries, and motivated one another to succeed. Waterstones in Islington reached out to host the London launch, which sold out, and Waterstones in Liverpool hosted the Northern launch.

Indy bookstores around the country embraced it. My local Waterstones in Finchley put the book by the till, and readers started sending me pictures of my novel – from Amsterdam to Dublin and Edinburgh, to Jaffa and Jerusalem where it was set. It felt extraordinary for it to be out in the world, to hear form readers what it meant to them.

Then came the Not the Booker Prize. I was excited to be nominated, with a very long list of novels, many of which were by authors I admired. I reached out to ask readers to vote – they had really engage – write a review, select two titles from different publishers. As my book had only been out six weeks, I didn’t think I had enough traction to be in with a chance.

To my delight, I made the shortlist, along with several other indy writers, whose work I’ve enjoyed reading. This has brought me a wider readership. The first printing of Raising Sparks sold out in two months, a record for Bluemoose.

If you get readers who love your writing, you are a winner, in my opinion. So put your work out there, and don’t give up. It’s worth it.

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