Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Awards, prizes and competitions

Good news for 'Song at Dawn' Literature Wales has mailed me to say it's eligible for the 'Wales Book of the Year 2011' and has asked for 5 copies of the book for the judges. I am chuffed to bits for three reasons; Wales is my adopted country and if it didn't rain all the time, I would still be living there, so I am proud to be Welsh-enough. Secondly, it is a hot award to be in the running for, and thirdly, I take it as a big compliment when someone invites me to submit my writing for anything. It happens to me now and then with poetry that I get asked if I'll contribute to an anthology, and it's almost like being a real writer when it happens. I've been published every which way except bestselling (yet) but I still hate the process of submission and rejection, whether to publishers/literary agents, or for competitions and awards. However, what you don't enter, you can't win, so if I come across an opportunity for any of my writing, I consider it.

What makes the Wales Book of the Year so hot, in my view? 1) great, varied company on that list of books entered 2) my kind of prize 3) if you're eligible, simple submission

Awards, competitions and prizes are good for publicity and make you feel good if you win this particular lottery but you'd be surprised how often 1,2 and 3 add up to a rip-off or just a predictable waste of your time.

1) Your name on any list of authors is publicity but you do get judged by the company you keep. The Wales Book of the Year  authors are a mix of people I've never heard of, a couple of big names and people who've been to my house for tea or shared a dire performance at a Pembrokeshire pub. It's amazing how many people feel the need to go for a pee when I reach a particularly moving part of a long poem. When we poets go on the road, audience response can reach new lows.

I think my worst performance was on the 3rd day of a festival in a field in mid-Wales. I'd been paid to give a poetry workshop but, it being the third day and all, by the time I tramped across the mud and past the hippy teepees, I was almost high myself from passive smoking. I found the 'creative tent' and when some guy asked if I had some paper, I thought I had a customer, but no, he just wanted to roll his own. As a feeble attempt to earn my pay, I went into the tea tent, stood on a chair and declaimed 'For you I tamed nine tigers.' There was no rapturous applause but at least I wasn't stoned. Everyone else was. I got down from my chair and squelched back to the car, and home.

I like hanging out with authors whose very names fill me with awe. It feels good to say that my poems were published in the same anthology as Margaret Atwood's and there are writers for whom I have just as much respect, on that Literature Wales list. What's more, they're part of my history.

John Barnie, then Editor of Planet, rejected the first poem I sent him and wrote screeds of constructive criticism on his rejection reply, with the invitation to send more. Going the extra mile makes him a special editor and he did publish some of my poems. I met Ifor Thomas at one of those Pembroke pub performances and I've never forgotten what he suggested to do with clingfilm, nor the fact that his toilet was too depressed to clean itself after his girlfriend left. Herbert Williams and I did school workshops together and compared notes on the 14year old thug who wrote his heart out for us strangers. It was Herbert who won the Cinnamon Press Novella Award the year one of my manuscripts, 'Crystal Balls',  was shortlisted. And if you want a big name, try Gwyneth Lewis, Wales' first national poet, just as well know for her autobiographical 'Sunbathing in the Rain: a cheerful book about depression'

I miss the writing scene in Wales. It is alive and inspiring, for both readers and writers, in English and in Welsh. So it is important to me to be Welsh-enough to join that list. Being there is already an Award. Although actually my name isn't there yet and I've checked 53 times today so far.

2) The Wales Book of the Year prize is big money (and a trophy). I would like to win lots of money (trophy optional) because money would give my writing status and big prize money attracts good competition (See 1) Also because I don't have enough money not to enjoy having more.

You'd be surprised how many competitions have prizes I'd pay not to win. I'm sure there are people who want to win 4 months writing retreat in a Benedictine monastery but I am not one of them.

My favourite prize to go after used to be 'publication' but now I'm self-publishing I no longer want to have my baby published as a pamphlet by a 19th century printing press in Newcastle (no offence to Geordies - I've seen equal historically accurate and unsaleable publications in Yorkshire)

3) Eligibility. It took me a while to realise that 99.99% of awards and competitions for writers have regulations specifically drawn up to exclude me. I am either too old or too young; the wrong race, nationality or religion (lacking any); resident of the wrong country; self-published, or having a publisher in the wrong country. When I do fit the criteria, it usually turns out that was for the year before and they've been changed to make sure I can't enter. As self-publishing becomes a choice for more and more authors, rather than a last desperate attempt to get your Mum to read your book, I think awards and prizes will change but many Awards require publisher nomination.

The daft thing about this is that anyone can set up as a publisher, and many have, and happily bring out his/her own books. One writer even posed as her own Literary Agent to add gravitas to her book, which became a bestseller (after she spent 10,000 pounds sterling on marketing and, in a year off paid work, visited bookshops all over the UK claiming she was a local author to get her book onto the shelves - this was in the days when there were still bookshops).

If you are eligible, you then check out the submission requirements. I'm happy to send a book or five, if they're going to be read as part of a serious award or competition, but it does cost money, Small publishers do not check awards and competitions but will enter books for you if you pay. This does cost money. Some of the biggest prizes in the writing business demand not only books but cash upfront from publishers. This can cost very very big money. At one stage there was a prize which guaranteed big sales from the major publicity and bookshop commitment (= future money) in return for something like 12,000 pounds. I tried to find the details on this but I think it's a prize that was discontinued and I can't check up the facts now.

Small presses keep going by charging entry for competitions; are you willing to pay 20 pounds to get someone to even read your manuscript? Your choice. Big prizes often charge big money so that only big publishers (or rich writers) can afford to submit books.

This is why I like the Wales Book of the Year Award. If you are eligible, you submit 5 books and 3 judges choose the best. The mystery remains as to what happens to the extra 2 books. Is this in case 2 get eaten by the dog/run through the washing-machine?

Finally, if you've submitted work for an award or competition, CHECK THE PRIZE-GIVING DATE! Do NOT book a holiday in Venice for exactly the same date on which you win two prizes in the same damn international writing competition otherwise, because you wish to stay married, you will be mooching along the Grand Canal instead of wearing a strapless dress and tearfully thanking your parents, said husband and the dog, in front of London's finest.

Of course you're not going to win. It's a lottery. But sometimes you do. I won the prize for children's writing and the prize for journalism in the London Writers' inc annual competition one year and missed the ceremony. On the other hand, the prize money wouldn't have paid for the journey, or even the posh dress, and I did get to be in an anthology with very good company.

I'll just check whether my name has gone onto that Literature Wales list yet.

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