For a writer, it is always a pleasure, if a slightly overwhelming one, to abandon the quiet room and the computer screen for an encounter with readers and other writers at a literary festival. This weekend I was overwhelmed in the nicest possible way when Nights in the Asylum won the People's Choice Award at the 2009 South Australian Writers' Festival.

No doubt about it, the winning of any prize is a moment to be savoured. For writers, who work so much alone, and experience so many crises of self-doubt from one book to the next, or even one chapter to the next, publication is always prize enough and anything that comes later is icing and cherry atop an already truffle-and-champagne-flavoured cake. But what makes this prize especially sweet is that it was awarded by readers from book groups who, after a year of reading and discussion, cast individual votes for their favourite book, which, to my astonishment and delight, turned out to be mine. I am now the proud possessor of a specially commissioned glass trophy which makes a remarkably effective bookend, as well as a cheque for one thousand dollars!

No one asks writers to pour years of effort into writing books, so it is not as if we can assume or expect a readership. To find that there are readers out there who are prepared to spend time with what we have written is the greatest possible bonus and encouragement.

There were six very good books on the shortlist, and all of the authors were present on Saturday to take part in an extended discussion with the audience before the prize was announced. As I looked out from the stage at the faces of the readers who had come along to chat to us and cheer on their favourite books, it struck me that I will always be my own first reader, and that one of the most important aspects of writing a novel is to pay close attention to that inner reader. I have learned that, until the first draft is written, outside opinions can be unnecessarily distracting; even well-meant comment can throw you off course, or dilute whatever force a writer needs to sustain a particular tone and voice over eighty-thousand words.

Once the first draft is in place, though, it is vital to seek constructive criticism and to consider whether or not you have done the best you possibly can to engage a reader other than yourself. At this point, I have never had a clear image of who those other readers might be, but after Saturday's event I am certain that I will conjure up the warm and animated faces of those who took part in the People's Choice Award, and I will be aiming to produce another book that will engage them as thoroughly as Nights In The Asylum appears to have done.

My love and gratitude to all of you who for voted for me!