What it's like to win the BBC National Short Story Award

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With the BBC NSSA shortlist announced tonight, last year's winner Jo Lloyd describes the prize and its aftermath

Tonight, the shortlist for the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award will be announced. On 6th October, the five writers will sit in a nervous row – possibly virtual this year – turning various degrees of pale, before the winner is revealed live on Radio 4. Last year, I was the person going onstage for a Nikki Bedi hug, a very large cheque, and quantities of congratulations.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably an emerging writer who plans to enter the NSSA. You’ve heard all the usual good advice – read the anthologies, listen to the podcasts – so I’m not going to repeat it. I’m going to talk about what you can expect if you do well. And a little about how to make the most of it.

Enjoy the publicity

NSSA winners include best-selling novelists and writers who have published just one story. It makes for an exciting, unpredictable shortlist, and you will get requests to do publicity – radio, press, social media. I can’t say radio was my forte but I learnt some things: get used to describing your story in one sentence, don’t hit the table, and above all, listen to the interviewer. Turns out talking books with some of the country’s bookiest people can be fun.

Your dentist reads the shortlist

All your writing contacts read the shortlist. Publishers read it. Your dentist reads it. Friends you haven’t spoken to in years see your face on the BBC and they read it too. People will tell you how brilliant you are. You will feel daunted and grateful and maybe a little inspired.

Actors know how to read

You probably read your work aloud sometimes. It is a revelation to hear it performed by an actual actor, who does this for a job. It’s like those words have never been spoken before. Your story instantly sounds ten times better. And guess what – your dentist listens to the radio too. Expect more praise. Be a little more inspired. Maybe go back and look at your work in progress because …

… it’s a good time to capitalise

If you are in a position to capitalise on shortlist success, with a collection nearing completion or a novel about to come out, so much the better. That is exactly what people want to hear. That is the perfect time to do well in the NSSA. It will also give you something to talk about at the ceremony.

You will lose all the cards

It feels like everyone you’ve ever heard of is at the awards event. Your fancy crush-proof outfit doesn’t have any pockets, so you will instantly lose the cards agents hand you. It’s ok, they’ll find a way to contact you. The agent process often comes across as cold and brutal, but everyone I spoke to was lovely and knowledgeable and full of interesting writing gossip, especially C&W’s Lucy Luck, who represents me now, despite us chatting at the afterparty where I had all the aplomb of a hedgehog on the motorway.

It will change things

The prize money is a big deal. It will buy you heat, light, pizza, books, a much-needed new laptop, and most importantly, time. But it’s not the half of the rewards. I had already achieved a number of my goals, including publication in some of my all-time favourite journals and the O. Henry Prize. But the NSSA changed the opportunities that came my way. What you do with those opportunities will be up to you. I am proud to be part of the NSSA’s fifteen-year history and I can’t wait to see who will be on the shortlist this year.

 

Jo Lloyd won the BBC National Short Story Award 2019 with her story ‘The Invisible’, which is available, together with all the shortlisted stories, in the Comma Press anthology. Her collection, The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies, will be published by Swift Press in February 2021. The BBC National Short Story Award 2020 shortlist will be announced on 11th September on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row and published by Comma Press. Order your copy here.

 

Keep an eye on www.writers-online.co.uk to read extracts of the shortlisted stories!