Sometimes writing is just like riding a rollercoaster; you climb laboriously towards some dizzying pinnacle, and get to enjoy the exhilaration of being at the top for a few brief moments before plunging headlong towards terra firma once again. And that’s when writing is at its best, when it offers those rare highs that go some way towards offsetting those heart-sinking lows. The only alternative is to trundle around and around on the kiddie’s ride-along-train.
Yet, the analogy is flawed. At least when you’re riding a rollercoaster you get to share the excitement with the people sitting all around you. Writing is a solitary pursuit. There’s usually someone around to share the highs– an agent, a publisher, a reviewer perhaps – but it’s difficult to stay motivated during the dips.
I’ve been riding that rollercoaster for some time now, and have enjoyed my share of highs, like securing a really great agent in Andrew Lownie, and getting great feedback on my work. Yet the lows come in the form of rejection emails from publishers telling me that, while they like my idea and admire my approach, there simply isn’t enough commercial potential in what I propose. Last April, I was feeling particularly despondent and decided to take back some control. I entered two writing competitions, both directly relevant to my subject matter.
Six months later, I’m happy to report that I won the Keats-Shelley Essay Prize and was runner-up in the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize. I cannot tell you what a wonderful relief this was. I felt that I was on the right track after all. Having come close to abandoning the whole project, I took to the keyboard with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, and I’m still typing.
Writing prizes offer many advantages. Simply by entering for one, you can impose a deadline and a structure on a piece of work that can be difficult to complete when you’re left to your own devices. As with many industries, there is a suspicion that ageism and sexism are rife in publishing – and don’t even get me started on prizes with an upper age limit that falls far below my own – but prize entries are judged blind. No account is taken of your age, gender, photogenic potential, etc.
Judges are generally selected with care, and will have a demonstrable passion for the topic you have chosen to write about. In the case of the Keats-Shelley Prize, two of the judges were professors of English literature and the chair of the panel, with the final say, was acclaimed novelist, Salley Vickers. When else would you have the opportunity to get your work in front of, and potentially admired by literary people of this calibre? If you attend the prize-giving ceremony, you even get to meet them and many like-minded people who share your passion.
Should you do well, the sense of achievement and validation is second to none. Your work will attract the notice of people in the publishing industry and academics with a passion for your chosen subject; these can be very useful cheerleaders indeed. Your work will be published in a well-regarded journal; my essay will appear in the Keats-Shelley Review, where it will be read by people with a real passion for my chosen topic. As runner-up for the Tony Lothian Prize, I got a mention in the Bookseller. You may even attain the Holy Grail – a publishing deal. Publishers are risk averse and a winner is an attractive prospect for them.
Then of course there’s the prize. The organisers of the vast majority of writing competitions realise that the life of an impoverished writer can be a hard one to sustain, and usually offer a reasonably generous cash prize. Although, as runner-up for the Tony Lothian Prize, I was presented with a lovely bottle of champagne, but had to pay £24 to fly it home to Dublin. It was worth it! There is generally an entry fee to be paid, but this should be modest and must be treated as an investment.
Although preparing an entry can be time consuming, there really is no downside to entering for writing prizes; of course it is best to chose one that complements the book you’re working on. Fiction writers are spoilt for choice, but non-fiction writers like me may have to search a little harder to find something relevant. A great starting point is the Writing Magazine Competition Special, published every October. There are also many writing websites, including www.writing.ie, which regularly feature writing competitions.
If you are writing about a specific person or topic, there will often be an organisation or association sponsoring a relevant prize; for budding biographers I cannot recommend the Biographers’ Club Prize highly enough. As well as imposing a really useful and commercially desirable structure on your work, the prize dinner is also the most fantastic night out. All that remains to be said is go for it and good luck!
(c) Eleanor Fitzsimons
To find out more about Eleanor and her writing, check her member page at writing.ie