Meet The Judges: Tufayel Ahmed

Jan 31, 2023

Photo Credit: Robert Greene

Greetings, budding authors! I’m so excited to judge the adult Queer Fiction Prize 2023 alongside my agent Cara, and I can’t wait to read your entries. Whether it’s commercial fiction, romance, or moving literary fiction, we encourage writers from across the literary sphere to enter.

In case you need an extra helping hand, here are some of my personal tips to help make your entry stand out!

Have a killer hook

If you had to describe the plot of your story in one sentence, what would it be? That’s your hook. In Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, for example, the premise can be boiled down to: a man’s wife goes missing and all eyes turn to her husband as people realise their perfect marriage isn’t what it seems. Sounds intriguing, right? Immediately I’m pulled in. What happened to the wife? What are the dark secrets in their marriage that we might uncover? Think about how you plan to draw your reader in and keep them sucked in. The hook may be more obvious in thrillers and romance, but even literary novels that favour character and style over fast-paced plotting have a clear and original way into the story. In Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, the tension in main character Wallace’s life is palpable as Taylor deals with themes of sexuality, whiteness, grief and trauma. The “hookiness” is achieved by setting the entire novel over one weekend, and we immediately sense that this particular time and place is of consequence to our protagonist, and therefore it sets the stakes for the reader.

Characters you can root for

Characters are at the heart of all our stories. I love reading characters that I can’t help but root for. Your protagonist or protagonists should be memorable, loveable, and perhaps even a little infuriating at times — that’s okay, too. Does your character have a charming naviete about them, like Mungo in Young Mungo? A little social anxiety that makes the reader want to take them under the wing? Or perhaps they are they a mile-a-minute motormouth who can win people over in 60 seconds. The traits you choose to give your characters are the colours that bring them alive. Think about how they talk and present themselves to the world. And in your story, what is their emotional journey? In Elodie Harper’s historical novel The Wolf Den, Amara is a free woman who is forced into slavery and, well, lots of terrible things happen to her. Immediately, I want her to win, and I can just about forgive any dubious things she might do to get back her freedom. Where do you want your character to end up by novel’s end? What are the obstacles you’re going to put in their way? It may sound clichéd, but seeing characters try and fail at achieving their end goal makes the reward at the end that much sweeter.

Teach us something new about the world

My favourite novels often teach me about new people, places or cultures. For example, I loved being immersed in working-class 1990s Glasgow in Douglas Stuart’s work (Young Mungo, Shuggie Bain), or Belfast during the Troubles in Milkman by Anna Burns, or early 20th century Korea and Japan in Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. What unique cultural perspective can you imbue into your work? I’d love to read something that transports me to a culture that I don’t know a lot about or that isn’t often represented in fiction.

Write your synopsis before you write a word of your novel

Trust me, having a synopsis to lean on and refer back to makes the writing process that much easier! Write out the general outline of your entire novel, from start to finish, in a Google or Word doc. This will serve as a handy roadmap that you can always keep checking once you start writing, so you know you’re on the right track. This is one technique that has helped me massively. But you don’t need to rigidly stick to this synopsis either; it’s natural that the direction of your story may change during the course of writing. Fear not: your synopsis isn’t written in stone! You can tweak it as you go along, or divert from it altogether. But having a rough outline to work from is handy. It removes the anxiety of worrying what to write next, it helps you track roughly where you are at in the writing process (halfway through your synopsis? Halfway through your novel!), and it lets you zoom out and picture the story as whole when you feel stuck on a particular chapter, paragraph, or even word.

Most importantly, make sure you enjoy yourself

If you were to win the Queer Fiction Prize — fingers and toes crossed! — you’ll need to live with this story and these characters for a long time, not least when you write the rest of the novel, so make sure it’s a story you love and want to tell! Don’t try to replicate stories that are already out there or authors that are successful because you think that’s what you should do. The best stories come from the heart, perhaps even personal or lived experiences. It can be quite cathartic to write like no one’ll ever read it — you might find yourself fictionalising events that you vowed you’d never tell anyone! Get lost in your writing, your world-building and characters. Enjoy the process of bringing this story to life. It will reflect on the page.