Thursday, 10 March 2016
In Praise of Prizes
Anthea Morrison writes about the value of winning prizes and finding a writing community:
In December, my story You Have What You Want, published in Words and Women: Two last year, won the Margaret Hewson Memorial Prize. The award is open to all students on the Creative Writing MA at Royal Holloway University, and was set up by literary agent Johnson and Alcock in 2010. Margaret, quite a character by all accounts, was joint-director of the agency before she died in 2002, and the prize was established in 2010 to honour both Margaret and her firm belief in encouraging new writers. In January I went to collect my cheque for £500 from Anna Power and Ed Wilson at J&A, still very much in a state of shock.
When Anna came to talk to us on the MA course about the process of submitting to an agent, and what they are looking for, she made it clear that it was much harder to sell a debut collection of short stories from an author without one or two published novels under their belt. Although it doesn’t follow from this that they would choose a novel extract over short fiction for the prize, I still felt disheartened and nearly didn’t bother entering my work. As it turned out, Anna said that all the judges were ‘won over by your clear, spare prose,’ and she and Ed have offered to read my work and mentor me as I progress towards producing a collection of short stories.
The prize means a lot to me for three reasons. Firstly, it fulfilled its aim of providing encouragement, as it came at a time when I was struggling to motivate myself to start the dissertation for my MA, and keep producing new work. All but the most confident of writers seek validation in some form, and it really has helped me to keep going. Secondly, although there is absolutely no implication that J&A will sign me up, it does mean I have a relationship with an agent, someone I can ask for advice and guidance, and this is something I feel lucky to have when it’s so hard to get a foot in the door with an agent. Thirdly, when so many competitions or journals do not offer payment or prize money, £500 is a very welcome reward. I decided to spend the money on furthering my writing, so what better than an Arvon course, especially when I found one for short-story writers called ‘Working Towards A Collection.’
I spoke to two earlier recipients of the prize, Judi Sutherland for her poetry submission in 2012, and Nora Gombos for her novel extract in 2011, to see what winning the prize meant to them. Judi told me:
‘It was a great boost at the time but I don't think it has made any difference to my writing life. I'm primarily a poet, but getting published as a poet is difficult, especially if you are a middle-aged woman with no track record; the poetry world is crammed with people like me, although I flatter myself that my work is a bit different. I still don't have a book out, largely because poetry books make no money.’
Nora Gombos said she felt that winning the prize validated her writing, but she feels that the submissions from the MA are so varied in style and genre, that the choice is necessarily a very subjective one.
“Although it was great to win the prize, I think the annual course anthology (Bedford Square, published by Ward Wood Publishing) is equally important as agents get to see everyone’s work. In fact, most of the students in my year were contacted by agents on the back of the anthology, including myself. Johnson and Alcock had also offered me representation, and while I was very flattered, I decided to wait until I have finished the novel before signing with anyone.”
Nora has stopped working full-time in order to focus on her novel, but she is well aware of how hard it is to get published, even if an agent does sign her up. Whilst it may be even harder to publish a full collection of short stories or poems in book form, there are at least endless competitions and journals to submit single short pieces to, which, if accepted, can help establish a track record for a writer that might attract an agent’s attention. By comparison, competitions accepting novel extracts are far fewer.
As well as having individual poems published online and in magazines and anthologies, Judi has taught poetry, and set up an online poetry journal, The Stare’s Nest. I asked her if this involvement with the writing community has in any way compensated for her frustration at not getting a poetry collection published:
“I agree that it's great to be part of a writing community, but every day I see poets getting book deals and I'd like the same. Magazine publication once felt great, but now I've got a few under my belt it isn't enough. This leads to a sort of bipolar life - being convinced your writing is great, because your friends tell you so, but actually it can't be, it must be bad because nobody wants your book... I think that is a very common anxiety, not being able to judge whether your work is good or not. I really do want a book published. In February, eight of my poems appeared in a tiny chapbook alongside eight from another poet, in a series called "Dark Matter", which is a start. I'm not going to give up but it is a hard slog. Onward and upward!”
Nora says she doesn’t currently have any involvement in a wider writing community, and that she is focusing all her energy on completing her novel:
“I will probably enter the novel for some competitions when I’m closer to finishing it and I feel it’s ready. Prizes and awards seem to have become more important now that getting a book deal is so hard.”
Personally, I am under no illusions about the likelihood of getting a debut short-story collection published, even if I can write one that is good enough. That still feels more like a dream scenario, one that could come true, but a dream nonetheless. And while I’m dreaming, I take a lot of pleasure in smaller publishing successes, and involving myself with a community of writers. I can understand the need for writers working on a novel to lock themselves away in order to give themselves the necessary focus, but writing is such a solitary pursuit that I find I cannot do it in isolation, especially as my job as a freelance copywriter means I work from home.
I am lucky enough to belong to the Angles writing group in Cambridge. Several of us have studied for an MA in Creative Writing, and the quality of both the submissions and the critical feedback is high. As well as critiquing each other’s work, the group provides vital support and encouragement. This might be advice on how to respond to an agent’s request for revisions, listening to someone rehearse for a public reading, or recommending places to submit work. We bolster each other when self-doubt creeps in, we share our rejections as well as our successes, and just meeting with committed writers each week gives us a sense of being in it together. Former Angles members Guinevere Glasfurd and Penny Hancock are now published novelists, other current members are signed to agents, and many of us have had poetry or short fiction published online. Oh, and we’re rather pleased that three of our number made it into the Words and Women: Two anthology in 2015.
I have helped organize and promote the last two Words and Women events to launch the anthology in Cambridge, and have found this voluntary work to be another positive way of supporting and being a part of the writing community. Other voluntary work that Angles members take part in include teaching extra-curricular creative writing groups at school, stewarding the Cambridge Literary Festival, and for Angles chair Leigh Chambers, being Writer in Residence at Cambridge’s Rock Road Library.
Maybe Judi is right, and once I have a few more stories published I won’t float around on Cloud Nine for weeks after one is accepted. When (or if) I have a collection I can’t find a publisher for, I may well share her frustration. But for now, a book deal is not the Holy Grail of writing. For me, writing is about more than that. It’s about collective and community endeavour and support, and advancing each other’s work. I am pleased with my online publishing successes, thrilled that my story made it into the Words and Women anthology, and proud of my Margaret Hewson Prize. All of these have introduced me to new people in the writing community, opened my eyes to other opportunities, and helped me to do what we all struggle with at times, to just keep putting those words on the page.
You can find links to Judi Sutherland’s published work at www.judisutherland.com
Angles writing group meets in Cambridge on Wednesday mornings and occasionally has spaces for new members – contact Leigh Chambers at firstname.lastname@example.org and find out more about the group at www.angleswriting.com/anglespress