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Zahirra Dayal’s Success: Making Writing Competitions Work For You

Zahirra Dayal’s Success: Making Writing Competitions Work For You

From the moment we heard the opening of Zahirra Dayal’s ‘Invincible Jacarandas’ at the 2021 Friday Night Live, we knew it was something special.

Now, Zahirra’s making waves. She’s signed with Katie Fulford at Bell Lomax Moreton and made the shortlist in multiple writing competitions. We caught up with her to find out what her writing life was like before Friday Night Live, and beyond it.

JW: Hi Zahirra! Firstly, please tell us a bit about your background as a writer, and your journey to writing your first book.  

ZD: My love affair with words began when I was very young. I spent hours reading Enid Blyton books which I borrowed from the city library in Harare – the capital city of Zimbabwe where I was born. I was never far away from pen and paper and filled pages of diaries with my thoughts and observations. It was only natural that I went on to study English Literature at university in South Africa. I nurtured the secret hope of writing a novel one day. After I graduated and moved to London in 2000, I enrolled in a part-time creative writing course with the Open University – but from that point onwards life seriously got in the way of my writing ambitions. 

Fast forward 19 years and I was finally able to steal a few hours on the two afternoons that I finished work early to write in a café in Wimbledon. Those moments were the beginnings of the very messy zero draft of my novel. The entry point to my novel was a story I wrote for the Open University course, inspired by my intrepid grandmother, who moved to a new continent like many other Passenger Indians at the turn of the 19th Century. The story of the main protagonists, sisters Zaynah and Amira, came to me as I developed the story.    

Many of my stories were accepted for publication and this gave me the confidence to keep going. Most importantly, I loved the actual writing process. 

Then the lockdowns happened and while teaching online from home, I carved out more time and space to write. I joined the writing community on Twitter and started writing short stories which I submitted to literary journals. Many of my stories were accepted for publication and this gave me the confidence to keep going. Most importantly, I loved the actual writing process. 

I knew that I still had lots to learn so I applied for every opportunity advertised on Twitter. I did a free short writing course with Spread The Word, but the real game-changer was when I won the bursary for the Jericho Writers Self-Edit Course. Every week we focussed on a different aspect of writing and had a chance to give and receive feedback on our weekly tasks. The tutors – Debi Alper and Emma Darwin –  were fantastic and the other writers were so supportive and insightful. 

I joined the writing community on Twitter and started writing short stories which I submitted to literary journals. Many of my stories were accepted for publication and this gave me the confidence to keep going

At first, I was terrified of having my work critiqued as I didn’t believe that what I had could be shaped into a novel. Enter Debi Alper! Debi was the first to show me my novel’s USP: the exploration of timeless themes in the specific setting of Zimbabwe just after independence. Her belief in my writing has been the gold dust on my journey. It just takes that one person to show you to yourself. I continued to transform my zero draft into a first draft with my shiny new editing tools.

After the Self-Edit course, we formed a WhatsApp group to stay in touch with each other and the other writers persuaded me to enter the opening of my novel into the Jericho Writers Friday Night Live competition at the Summer Festival of Writing, which I knew nothing about at the time. I did – and I won! One of the agents from the competition requested the full manuscript afterwards. I was elated, floating on a blissful cloud of joy. But in the end, the agent turned it down – which brought me crashing down to reality again.

Her belief in my writing has been the gold dust on my journey. It just takes that one person to show you to yourself. I continued to transform my zero draft into a first draft with my shiny new editing tools.

Clearly, it had all happened too fast; I was still heady from my FNL win and there was still a lot of work that needed to be done on my manuscript. Part of the FNL prize was a manuscript assessment and I asked if Debi Alper could do mine. Debi was honest in her feedback and – unsurprisingly – told me that it wasn’t ready for submission yet.

I worked on my manuscript for the next few months and then in March 2022 started querying the first 10 agents on my long list of hopefuls. Within days I received full manuscript requests. I held my breath because it felt surreal and I was all too familiar with the pangs of rejection from that first time. Two weeks and six full requests later, I had one zoom call and one face-to-face lunch at a swanky café in London with two agents who both wanted me to sign with them. 

JW: Writing can be quite isolating – how did you find a sense of community?  

ZD: I have met so many writers through my networks on Twitter and that has made me feel so much less alone. It can feel like you are flailing in the dark sometimes as you type away in your little corner. After the Self-Edit course, The Murder Alibi Club was born and we commiserate the woes and celebrate the highs together. It’s a safe place where I know I will be understood. We also post resources that we come across and it’s just a lovely bunch of writerly people. I would never have got this far were it not for the creative people I’ve met along the way. There are so many people I could name here but they know who they are! 

Two weeks and six full requests later, I had had one zoom call and one face-to-face lunch at a swanky café in London with two agents who both wanted me to sign with them. 

JW: What kinds of resources did you find useful along the way?

ZD: Last year was the first time I attended the Summer Festival of Writing and though it was online, I listened to most of the webinars and found them brilliant. They kept me motivated and I learnt so much from the industry experts and the guest authors. I loved that I was hearing from the authors whose books I was reading at the time.  

JW: Do you have any advice for writers trying to get exposure before getting an agent?

ZD: Apply to every writing competition you hear of! Each time I applied, I thought that nothing would come of it, but I have now been shortlisted for the Owned Voices Novel Award, longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Writing Award, and The Mslexia Novel Award. Even though I didn’t win, it has been great exposure for my novel and each time I received useful feedback on my manuscript. Being longlisted for the Deborah Rogers also meant that Matthew Turner at RCW agency gave me invaluable tips on pitching my novel and writing my query letter. Submitting short stories to journals is another great way of getting exposure and I created a writer’s website to showcase all my published short fiction and non-fiction (at www.zahirradayal.com.)

JW: How did you choose your agent, and what has it been like working with them?  

ZD: It was really hard to choose between the two agents that made offers. In some ways, having a choice, whilst being empowering, can also make things more difficult. Both agents loved the novel and were wonderful people who I felt I could work with. It was an agonising decision, but in the end I asked each of the agents to give me more details about the editorial work that needed to be done on my novel. I used this to inform my decision. I chose Katie Fulford, who was the first to read the full novel and get back to me. Katie also has a wealth of experience in publishing and is very familiar with the period I am writing about in Zimbabwe. She has been to Zimbabwe several times and we have the same vision for my novel Invincible Jacarandas.   

JW: Finally, have you encountered any surprises in the process so far? 

The biggest surprise for me has been how slow things can be and then at other times how fast. The mantra of the industry should be ‘hurry up and wait’. I was also surprised by how supportive the writing community really is. It amazes me that I have had so many conversations online with writers who I have never met face to face but feel like I know as we all experience the same highs and lows and really get it! 

About Zahirra

Zahirra is a Zimbabwean-born writer who lives in London. She is currently working on her debut novel set in post-independence Zimbabwe and is represented by Katie Fulford at Bell Lomax Moreton. She is the winner of the FNL 2021, shortlisted for the Owned Voices Novel Award and longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Writers Award and Mslexia Novel 2021. 

Follow Zahirra on Twitter.

Explore Zahirra’s website.