Christine Aziz: The book prize that changed my life

When Christine Aziz won Richard and Judy's prestigious literary contest, she was overjoyed. But as her first novel finally hits the shelves, her diary recalls the hard slog of missed deadlines, editing rows and endless interviews
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I post a brown A4 envelope containing a synopsis and three pages of the first chapter of my novel, The Olive Readers. I am entering the Richard and Judy novel-writing competition, not because I ever watch it, but because of several phone calls from a friend who thinks I should enter.

Not out of a desire to win, but from a desire to please, I rummage around in boxes still unpacked from a recent move to Bournemouth from London, searching for one of my unfinished novels. I can't find the one I want, so settle on the one which is already on my computer and which I have spent 18 years working on. The first half has been written, and I rustle up a synopsis.

I don't have a chance in hell, I tell myself. Childhood years spent sitting beside my mother in bingo halls taught me that the world is divided into two categories of people - those who win, and those whose numbers never come up - and I'm in the latter.

I forget about the envelope and start unpacking. I've moved to Dorset to keep an eye on my 91-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer's, and I want to develop a new career in homoeopathy. I no longer want to continue in journalism after 25 years. I think about picking up again on one of my unfinished novels, but can't decide which one. At 52, maybe I have left it all too late.

I tell myself that many women writers do not publish until late in life, when their children, like my two, have flown the nest. Annie Proulx is one, and so was Mary Wesley, but this does not comfort me. Then I receive a phone call. A cheery young woman is talking about Richard and Judy. At first I am irritated by what I suspect is a hoax call, but then she tells me I am on a shortlist of 26 - from 46,000 entries.

A week later, the cheery voice calls again. I have made it to the final shortlist of five. Fortunately, I am lying down on the sofa. This is the closest I will ever get to shouting "Bingo!", I tell myself.

The finalists meet at the R&J studio to be filmed with the judges: Maria Rejt, editor at Pan Macmillan, Amanda Ross of Cactus Films, and the author Joseph O'Connor. I am so overwrought that I burst into tears on camera. I begin to feel as if I have been pitched into a literary Pop Idol. I have a feeling the winner will not be allowed to just slink away to finish their novel. Winning suddenly seems unappealing, even though a £50,000 contract has its attractions. It'll be over soon, I tell myself. Winning, after all, only happens to other people.

FEBRUARY 2005

We are back in the studio to hear Judy announce the winner. It's me. Bingo. I am suddenly aware that the eyes of two million people are upon me. I want to hide, and I turn to my four companions, but they are all staring into space, trying to come to terms with the news that they too have contracts.

We become even more bug-eyed when we are told we have to complete our novels in two months. This does not worry Spencer Jordan and David Fiddimore - they have finished theirs. But myself, Alison Penton Harper and Rachel Zadok still have some writing to do. Maria asks if I would like to keep sending the words over as I write them, but I prefer to send the chapters over in one go when I have completed them. For someone whose unfinished novels, stories and poems litter her flat, the prospect of finishing one of them is mind-boggling.

I receive requests from agents who had forgotten that they had once turned me down. I send them polite rejections...

MARCH 2005

I tell Maria I will finish by the end of April. Who am I kidding? I am already changing the synopsis and I can't decide on the ending. I take long walks by the sea, reacquainting myself with the characters. They spring into action, giving no clues as to how it will all end.

In the third week, I'm averaging 2,000 words a day. There are days when I can't write at all, but in my head I am still working. I am finding it hard to deal with the "everydayness" of life and am down to my last cup and plate. The rest of the crockery has been lying in the sink for days. I see how how useful wives are to male writers. I receive a cheque for a quarter of the advance. I pay off some of my debts and begin to live off the rest of it.

APRIL 2005

I decide nothing will jeopardise the book and I close my homoeopathic practice. The five of us attend a Pan Macmillan reception in London in our honour. We are shown the covers of our books and I am pleasantly surprised by mine. The champagne flows but I wish I was at home writing. I am beginning to panic.

At the end of the month, I haven't delivered the novel as promised - I've had to move home again, and my grandson has been born. The publishers extend the deadline to the middle of May. I should find someone to come and do my washing up as I am no longer capable of doing any housework.

MAY 2005

I am now writing until the early hours. I still don't have an ending. I had planned to kill off one of the characters, but can't do it as I have grown fond of her. The solution comes to me while I am walking on the beach, but it's a more complicated ending.

I hardly leave the house except to visit my mother. When I'm not writing, I collapse on the sofa and watch detective thrillers.

I hand over the second half. It's a first draft as there isn't time to work further on it, although I do manage to negotiate a reworking of the last chapter. I am exhausted and sleep for several days.

JUNE 2005

The first edit arrives in the post and I burst into tears. It's as if I have handed my baby over to strangers. The editing process is difficult and emotional - I can't always agree with Maria and sometimes I think we are working on two different books, but I can also see how Maria's editing has given pace to the narrative. I am told a publishing date has been set in November.

JULY 2005

We are quickly getting through the editing. Maria and I rarely speak to each other, and communication is through e-mail. The Olive Readers is to be sold in the supermarkets, but Asda says it will not be taking any hardbacks after the first week in October. The publishers change the deadline. I am beginning to feel even more pressured.

AUGUST 2005

We are at the proof stage. Some of the changes I agreed have been changed again. I obsess over a simile that I know does not work but, given enough time, I will improve it. But there isn't the time. Maria "corrects" it and I can't sleep. Suddenly the right words come to me, and it's changed. I wonder how long I can go on like this.

SEPTEMBER 2005

I visit the printers to see my book come off the press. For the first time I hold a copy in my hands, and I know the last five months have been worth it. I am told the average hardback print run for an unknown author is no more than 10,000. Piled around us are 40,000 copies of The Olive Readers. I am feeling nervous. Katie James, my publicist, presents me with a list of interviews.A women's magazine describes me as a toilet-cleaning, debt- ridden, downtrodden single parent rescued by Richard and Judy. It's not true.

OCTOBER 2005

I am constantly running from one interview to another. I have spent a fortune on clothes and have never paid my hair and skin so much attention. I'm learning how not to hold my head for photographs.

On 6 October, I'm back on Richard and Judy. Richard holds up my book and I suddenly feel proud. This time next year I will be forgotten, but hopefully, my book will not. Some critics turn their noses up at the Richard and Judy Book Club, but I am grateful to a team of people who clearly love books and created the competition to find new writers. The rest is just show business.

'The Olive Readers' by Christine Aziz (£16.99, MacMillan) is published today. To order your copy at the special price of £14.99 plus free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or order online at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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