'Lit Idol' rival writers vie for first book deal

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The Independent Culture

It is the opening chapter to a literary career that aspiring writers could normally only dream of - the chance to land a lucrative book deal through one of the UK's leading publishing agents.

Five wannabe novelists - among them a civil servant, a secretary and a healthcare consultant - are vying for the title of Lit Idol 2004, the publishing world's equivalent of Pop Idol. To win, the aspiring authors will have to read extracts from their books in front of a panel of judges.

At stake is a contract with the respected agency Curtis Brown, which handles the likes of Vikram Seth, Ian Rankin and Fay Weldon. And that would virtually guarantee a lucrative book contract for the author.

The shortlisted writers - each hoping to turn their hobby into a fully fledged career - who have been whittled down from 1,466 entries, will be officially unveiled tomorrow and the winner announced on 15 March.

Lit Idol 2004 was launched last year and aims to find the nation's most promising new novelists. Often working in snatched moments over many months, the writers (see shortlist, right) submitted 10,000 words from the opening chapters of their novels, along with a two-page synopsis.

Celia Alcock, 29, whose novel The Bone Dance has made the shortlist, said: "I don't even have a proper desk to sit at when I write, so I've been doing it in short spurts. But if you do it little and often you get there in the end."

Donald Considine, 41, was overwhelmed when he was told he was down to the last five for his book Careering. "I was physically trembling when I heard. It was one of those things where I hoped for the best but expected the worst," he said.

"This was only the second time I had tried to write a novel. The first one I junked because it clearly wasn't up to scratch."

Mr Considine, who is a senior strategic planner for the Greater London Authority, said: "I work all day, so I write for about an hour or two in the evenings, but sometimes I go for a week without touching it. I do find it difficult to find the time. I would love to earn my crust through writing, though."

It was also Ms Alcock's second attempt at penning a novel. "I didn't seek publication for the first one because I didn't think it was good enough," she said. "I think most people are a bit reluctant to show what they've written to other people because it is so personal.

"If this doesn't work out I will try to get The Bone Dance published. It's about two-thirds written at the moment and I've been working on it since about July.

"I had the idea and plotted it out for a quite a while before I started writing. It needed a bit of work because there are two separate time lines," added Ms Alcock, who reads up to eight novels a week.

The other shortlisted authors are Karen Barichievy, a freelance journalist, Paul Cavanagh, a healthcare consultant, and Tom Easton, a production manager for a children's publisher.

The shortlisted authors will get instant feedback on their abilities when their works face a wider public a week tomorrow. They must each read an extract at the London Book Fair in front of the judging panel and figures from the publishing world, who will choose the winner later that evening. An online public vote will also have a bearing on the result after extracts were posted on websites.

The Lit Idol winner will be represented by Ali Gunn, one of the agents at Curtis Brown. She will judge the competition alongside a panel that includes the novelist Jenny Colgan. Ms Gunn said the search so far had been "incredibly inspiring".

"I'm looking forward to the final judging and to finding an exciting new fiction talent," she added.

The huge volume of manuscripts sent to agents and publishers means that major talents can be easily overlooked.

Clare Morrall, 51, made it on to the Man Booker Prize shortlist last year with her book Astonishing Splashes of Colour - her fifth novel but the first to make it into print. The book had been accepted by a tiny publishing firm after being rejected by the major houses.

"I suppose it is a strike for all those of us who have unpublished books under our beds and wonder if it is worth going on," she said on being shortlisted for the Booker. "Well, it is."But she was beaten to the prize by DBC Pierre for Vernon God Little.

Celina Alcock

'The Bone Dance', a murder mystery

A 29-year-old personal assistant who works for a magazine publisher and lives in Shoreditch, east London. Her goals are "becoming a critically acclaimed writer and being able to afford the odd bottle of Dom Perignon".

Tom Easton

'Jennifer's Friend', a comic novel involving sex, murder and relationships

A production manager for Hodder Children's Books, aged 32, living in Blackheath, London. Has struggled to find time to work on his writing but has had "encouragement from friends, a reading group and some agents".

Karen Barichievy

'Dirty Women', a story about prostitution and S&M

South Africa-born freelance journalist, 27, who has lived in London for nine years. "I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time staring out of the window, dreaming of being the female equivalent of Henry Miller."

Paul Cavanagh

'Northwest Passage', in which a grieving husband searches for his daughter

Based in London, Ontario, the 29-year-old has worked as a therapist, university teacher and a healthcare consultant. Studied creative writing at Canada's Humber School for Writers.

Donald Considine

'Careering', a conspiracy thriller

Aged 41, works as a strategic planning officer for the Greater London Authority. Sent his shortlisted novel to a number of agents: "I got some good feedback - they thought I could write but it was not for them."