Claire Gradidge: What it's like to win a major writing competition


03 December 2021
The author talks about winning the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller Prize… and what happened next
Claire Gradidge: What it's like to win a major writing competition Images

I’ve always been a storyteller – from my earliest days I’d make up tales for my soft toys to act out. When I grew up, I wrote for self-expression and my own entertainment, but my dream was always that one day, I’d be published. A career as a nurse, followed by years as a stay-at-home mum didn’t dim the dream. Determined to do everything I could to improve my writing, I went to Adult Education Creative Writing classes, attended workshops, joined a writers’ support group – and became a long-time subscriber to Writers’ News (now Writing Magazine).

One way and another, I spent more than thirty years trying to get published. I sent off novels to publishers (it was a long time ago) and agents, received more rejections than I care to count. Sometimes I’d get a helpful comment, and a couple of times I had a near miss: once even a visit to a publishing house who were thinking of taking me on. I entered competitions and sent off stories and poetry to magazines, and was listed or published by a few. But the only time I actually won anything, was a ‘write a postcard’ competition at a writers’ conference in Chichester. I won £8, and spent £12 on the way home buying a celebratory round of drinks for my friends! (It was a very long time ago…)

But I didn’t give up. Writing is an essential part of who I am, and after my primary roles as mum and nurse came to an end, I was determined to pursue my dream. In 2006 I enrolled on an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at Winchester, and followed it with a PhD, because my director of studies told me it would be easy!  It wasn’t, but in January 2018, with my doctorate complete, I was free to submit the novel I’d written as the major part of my thesis – a historical crime fiction set in my home town, Romsey, in WWII – to the commercial world of publishing. I was researching agents who might be willing to look at the genre when I saw details of the 2018 Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition online. They wanted ten thousand words of a novel, a biography, and a synopsis. There was no fee to enter, so I thought I’d give it a go. The closing date was looming, so I sent off the opening three chapters, and thought no more about it.  

It was a shock when an email came in July to tell me I’d been shortlisted. I couldn’t tell anyone until the official announcement, which was all right, because I didn’t really believe it myself!  But when my name appeared on the internet as one of five shortlisted writers, I celebrated with anyone who’d celebrate with me, because I thought I’d better make the most of the good news while it lasted.

Bonnier Zaffre sent editorial suggestions to each of the shortlisters based on the first 10,000 words, and we then had until the end of December to revise (or complete) the novel. I’d finished mine, but I took note of what was said, and removed some of the fancier ‘literary’ touches I’d included for the PhD. I duly sent the revised novel off in December, and got on with Christmas and marking – by then I was working as an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at Winchester. I won’t say I forgot about the prize, but I certainly wasn’t waiting for the announcement, because I was sure I wouldn’t win. I just thought having been shortlisted might make it easier to find an agent.

So I was dumbfounded when, at the end of January 2019, I learned I had won. Again, I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone but my husband until the official announcement. He was out when I got that email – I went from speechless to agonisingly desperate to tell, before he finally came home!

And that was it, then, was it? The cheque was in the post?

Far from it!  Much as I hate to use the cliché, the journey had only just begun.

In the email that told me I’d won, my editor, Katherine, asked if I’d mind if they changed the title from Home to Roost to The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox. Did I mind?  No. Of course not. They could have written it in my blood if they’d wanted to!

A week later, I went to London to meet the publishers and the agent who was going to represent me. Everyone was supportive and friendly, including the taxi driver who took me to the meeting and gave me my first ever tax-deductible receipt! I spent the whole day smiling, listening to people telling me how much they’d enjoyed my book.   

The novel was then edited, and I was surprised – and chastened – to discover just how much still needed to be done to make the book properly commercial. Because it was on a fast track to publication, I had to complete the suggested revisions quickly, a much less leisurely process than writing a thesis! For the most part, I followed all the editorial suggestions offered, though I did argue for – and keep – one or two aspects which seemed particularly important to my vision of the characters and the story.

The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox was published on the 8th August 2019, and I had the joy of seeing it promoted on This Morning and of having a launch party at my local bookstore, P&G Wells. And while it did fulfil my dreams to have a real book of mine on the bookshelves, I was planning the next book already…

My publishers told me to wait and see how sales went before they’d decide whether they wanted another in the series, so I simply got on with the business of promoting the published book during the autumn of 2019. I was lucky enough to be able to participate in a number of events – interviews and talks at libraries and church halls, signing my book in a local branch of Waterstones, appearing on local radio and in local papers and magazines. In the new year, and much further from home, the book was longlisted for the Waverton Prize, and I had great fun speaking to the prize committee there – made up of the whole village who vote for their favourite read. Though sadly, a number of ‘live’ events had to be cancelled in 2020, I was invited to take part in virtual events which have kept the first book in the public eye – and, as it turned out, paved the way for the second!

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In the spring of 2020, my agent and publishers agreed a deal for two more books in the series featuring my investigators Jo Fox and Bram Nash. The first of these – and the second in the series – Treachery at Hursley Park House, was published in October. All the editing and proof reading is finished, and the cover design has been released. It’s a beautifully evocative picture, with echoes that tie in to the first book’s cover.

I’m now in process of writing the third novel in the series, which is set around D Day, still in the local Hampshire area of Romsey and its surroundings. This is scheduled to be delivered to the publishers by the end of the year, for publication in October 2022.

I suppose the most common questions I’ve been asked about winning the prize are:

1) Did I meet Richard and Judy? No, but I did have a wonderfully congratulatory email from them, and their promotion of the book on TV prompted it to sell out on Amazon on its first day!

2) What was the best part of winning the prize? Getting to see my book on bookshop shelves.

3) What was the worst part of winning the prize? Having my picture taken… I’m camera shy! And after that, finding out a book prize isn’t like winning the Lottery. The tax man still wants his cut! (Other authors who submit their work for a cash prize, and are lucky enough to win, please take note.)

4) What are my plans going forward? To keep on writing! I’m deep into book three now, but ideas are gathering for number four. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to do that, too, but I guess we’ll have to see how two and three sell first!

The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox and Treachery at Hursley Park House are published by Zaffre.


Entering writing competitions can change everything! Another major competition winner, Jo Lloyd, describes what it was like to win the BBC National Short Story Award.