Small Prizes: The Way Ahead
Why go in for Prizes?
I write to please myself, not for others. We’ve all heard that mantra, and many of us believe it. But there are prizes out there, some very large, many quite small. And in your heart of hearts you know you covet recognition: a good review, a warm response, a pat on the back. Above all you want readers - apart that is from friends and family.
However, I do get a little tired of reading about ‘award-winning’ authors and wonder about the nature of the award, not to mention whether the award is for this book or one of the writer’s earlier efforts. Once an award winner, always an award winner! Nevertheless, I must be at least marginally impressed. For the small-time author, such an accolade is a great comfort. For the apprentice writer it’s the first step on the road to what we think of as success. Even to be short-listed is a treasure in itself.
Yes, there are hundreds of prizes and awards of all kinds advertised on the net, but there are also thousands of writers, both seasoned and neophyte, and the number grows by the minute. Unless you are already attached to a publisher or are backed by a reputable agent or a well-known sponsor, the Booker is out; in any case Rule 3(d) clearly states ‘self-published books are not eligible where the author is the publisher.’
But to come down to earth: James Minter gives a useful list of Fifty Book Awards Open to Self-Publishers. This could be a good place to start your search. All genres and types of writing are open to budding writers here, from the prestigious ForeWord, the Ippy and the Rubery awards to flash fiction, cookbook, first novel, first chapter and even prizes for the first page. So don’t be shy of entering. We all have to begin somewhere.
Unless you are submitting to your local writing group’s monthly or yearly prize you should expect to pay an entry fee. After all it takes time to read and assess the value of a book or even a flimsy manuscript. Fees naturally vary enormously, from gratis to $80 per title; and so do the prizes, from an offer of journal publication to the Writers Digest 23rd Annual Writing Competion for Self-Published Book Awards topping the list at $8,000.
Of course it’s a rule of thumb that the higher the fee, the higher the sought-after prize. Winners of high profile Gold or even Silver medals are frequently garlanded with offers of book deals, free air passages to attend humungous ceremonies, with much bolstering of ego and promises of gold in store. But the most your also-ran can expect is a book report - of vastly varying quality in my experience. Thus a judge of my road novel Paris Bound had clearly not read much of the book, spending all his time savaging the cover. By contrast, five years later the same company awarded me 100% in 4 out of 5 categories for my novel about a girl boxer, Punching Judy. Prize-hunting is a bit of a lottery. One man’s meat and all that.
Rejection is par for the course, so you have to get used to it. There may be many reasons why your work doesn’t quite hit the mark, including the obvious one of your not complying with the guidelines. First, check past winners to ensure you have not submitted, for instance, literary fiction where crime or romance is the speciality. No point either in sending in manuscripts or galleys to Mom’s Choice Awards. Next, you should examine the credentials of the judges. Are they likely to be sympathetic to your subject or approach? Having checked that you have done all that the gatekeepers have demanded, take a close look at the judge’s report. The tastes and values of the judging panel may not be yours. If not, go elsewhere. Next time widen or even narrow your field. Or cut and come again.
The most obvious reason for rejection is often overlooked by the enthusiastic writer. It’s simply that your work is not good enough. That’s a tough thing to tell yourself, but it may well be true. Having accepted that fact, do you give up or try again, getting a little closer to the required standard? If you’re a writer of course you write; you revise, reshape or scrap. If you really believe in your manuscript or book you perhaps need to take advice from a fellow professional. There are plenty of literary consultants to be found on the net. They may well be able to set you straight. In this regard I found Fiction Feedback very helpful.
Book festivals are another avenue the serious writer might explore. There are hundreds of these spreading across the globe. Almost every major city seems eager to promote new writing, from Beverly Hills to San Francisco, from the Beach Book Festival to London, Paris and New York. Once again large prizes await the lucky winners and some of these festivals have as many as 40 different categories. More and more of these jamborees are now open to digital as well as paper books. Watch the dates and submit to as many as you can afford!
Far less prestigious awards or simply publication on the websites of social medea such as Authonomy, Youwriteon, The Book Shed or Year Zero Writers are ways of keeping in contact with other writers and readers. Random House and Orion review their Top Ten Budding Authors on Youwriteon monthly throughout the year. Listed authors can sell their books direct from the website. There’s always somebody looking for your book and as a writer these days there’s really no excuse for not having a go. This way you circumvent the traditional publishing process with its agonising delays in response time. You are in charge, you are respected and with a bit of luck you are even earning money.
So, although we may look up to the stars and envy those who have landed a 6-figure contract for their book, the majority of us are struggling on the lower slopes of Mount Parnassus. We are for the most part the humble toilers in the field and need to accept that fact. That doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to make our work as good as possible, nor does it mean that we don’t shoot for the top prizes on occasion. But we accept the fact that sometimes small can also be beautiful.
David James is the Promoter of The Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction
The Inside Story: Using Your Favourite Novels
An article inviting novelists to explore the fictional possibilities of sequel writing and fictional biography
THE INSIDE STORY
Imagine you are Charles Dickens. Not yet the famous author but still just a boy forced to leave school and work in a blacking factory. Imagine you are Becky Sharp, a poor despised governess to the children of a dissolute peer. How do you feel? Could things ever get any worse? Why did the gods single you out for such undeserved punishment? Tell your story.
The advantages of having an established person or character as the teller of your tale are many. You can chose your favourite author or one of his or her characters and see the world afresh from their point of view. Was Heathcliff really such a monster? In his own eyes? Or was he the embryonic working class hero surrounded by the effete privileged Lintons? If you choose to work with a historical figure you have abundant biographical material to hand and probably letters to give the flavour of period and idiom. But using a character from a novel gives you more scope.
By using the first person as the narrator you can immediately engage your reader. My novel as told by Thackeray’s feisty heroine Becky begins, ‘Last night I went looking for a man and ended up with a woman.’ She then proceeds to inveigh against the author of Vanity Fair for dishing the dirt on her. The character rises up and demonises the author. Who to believe? Neither of course, for the whole cock and bull story is a fiction based on a fiction.
In my Dickens novel I keep the famous man in the background for several sections of the book, while the other members of his family, his wife, children and the servants have their say. The action is based on Dickens’ Italian tour of 1844-5, his dabbling in hypnotism and his ambiguous relationship with his ‘patient’ Mme de la Rue. Considerably more research was needed for this book, but the imaginative element was exciting and extensive. It’s far from being a biography.
When I was giving a lecture at the Winchester Writers Conference a couple of years ago I met a delegate who had won a prize in a short story competition. She had been asked to write a story based on a Jane Austen novel from the point of view of a minor character. She chose to see the world of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective not of Darcy or Elizabeth, but Lady Caroline de Burgh. What a revelation! It’s almost impossible not to sympathise with the loveless and rejected creature in this version, one who was so snobbishly superior in the original novel.
So, for those among you who are determined to get out of the autobiographical mould, or who are perhaps like me Victorian junkies, and who have the temerity to take liberties with the established classics, why not venture into the sequel or fictional biography? While there are many snipers waiting to shoot you down for inaccuracy or for cheating by using other authors’ works, there are also some distinct advantages.
The pitch is there, the goalposts are in place (though you can shift them a little here and there). You can play your own game. You are now safe from the solipsistic approach that dogs so many debut writers – grandad’s war experiences, your own unhappy childhood or painful love affairs of interest only to you. You are safe from drum-beating, personal agony and not tempted to indulge in – one hopes – any cod philosophising or axe-grinding. Furthermore, you have a ready audience of classics lovers who are pleased to hear a new tune played on an old fiddle.
David James is a Victorian scholar, teacher, publisher and writer. His novels include The Confessions of Becky Sharp, Charles Dickens and the Night Visitors and The Scholar’s Tale.
Submitted to Dr Freya Johnston, St Anne's College Oxford on October 14 as an entry for The Johnson Society of London Essay Competition 2009.
The Theme of Commemoration in the Work of Samuel Johnson
JOHNSON'S HOUSE IN
GOUGH SQUARE, LONDON.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Lives of the English Poets is probably the only work of Johnson’s likely to be read today beyond academic circles. Despite the fact that he was in his sixty-eighth year when he began the task of writing the lives of fifty-two poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, his ‘little Lives and little Prefaces’ display a wealth of sparkle and critical insight. We can almost feel Johnson enjoying his fusion of precise fact and carefully weighed opinion, not to say personal prejudice. Even if some of the poets are dull, Johnson here is never dull. It was the kind of undertaking for which Johnson by nature and temperament was ideally suited; that is it required meticulous research, a slavish dedication to ploughing through many minor and often inferior works and a lively interest in the vagaries of human conduct. As with the seven-year compilation of his Dictionary, here again in the Lives one feels Johnson’s underlying need to provide a touchstone, an element of stability, as well as a service to the nation and posterity. Lives of the Poets is not merely a memorial to fifty-two English poets, but a memorial to Johnson himself.
Perhaps more than any other writer Johnson is conscious of the passing of time, of the futility of human effort in the face of the eternal, of the vanity of human wishes. ‘Nothing is more evident than that the decays of age must terminate in death,’ he writes in The Idler in 1759: 'The life which made my own life pleasant is at an end, and the gates of death are shut upon my prospects.’ All that a mere human can do in the face of such vast emptiness is to hope and pray, and commemorate the passing of those who have gone before. Johnson’s letters, diaries, sermons and essays are replete with such threnodies as we find in his sermon on his wife’s death in 1752. This lament on Tetty’s death, delivered not at her funeral service, which he did not attend, and not published in his lifetime, is more a meditation on mortality than a celebration of her life. Thus the undelivered sermon warns the phantom congregation: ‘Let those who entered this place unaffected and indifferent, and those whose only purpose was to behold this funeral spectacle, consider, that she, whom they thus behold with negligence, and pass by, was lately partaker of the same nature with themselves; and that they likewise are hastening to their end, and must soon, by others equally negligent, be buried and forgotten!’
Although Johnson declares that ‘Nothing excites a man to write but necessity,’ and that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,’ the fact that he was prepared to accept a mere two hundred guineas for the massive undertaking of the Lives suggests that he wrote because he loved writing biography for its own sake, rather than for purely mercenary motives. True, for most of his life he was dogged by poverty and his pen was ever his fortune; however, we never find him haggling and he relished celebrating the lives of those, like Savage, of a carefree disposition, rather than, for instance, the puritanical Milton. That Johnson, who enjoyed the company of ordinary as well as extraordinary men, was more likely to befriend a poor man than a rich one is typified in his generous bequest to his servant, Frank Barber.
Indeed, Johnson finds that the celebration of great men is frequently misplaced. In The Adventurer (No 99, 1753-4) he refuses ‘to vindicate the sanguinary projects of heroes and conquerors, and would wish rather to diminish the reputation of their success.’ He goes on to vilify Caesar, Catiline, Xerxes, Alexander the Great and Peter the Great, wishing them ‘huddled together in obscurity or detestation.’ And in ‘The Vanity’ he tells us ‘Great Xerxes comes to seize the certain prey/And starves exhausted regions in his way.’ His contempt for vain memorials is epitomised in Rasselas, in Imlac’s contempt for the Pyramids, which appear ‘to have been erected only with that hunger of the imagination which preys incessantly upon life.’
However, Imlac may well be voicing only one side of Johnson’s view of memorials. The Lives of the Poets are testimony to the author’s need to record meticulously the thoughts, feelings and tempers of the poets in their everyday doings. These are the best kind of memorials for him: sincere tributes in words, rather than graven images. For, irrespective of public esteem, a man’s thoughts and words are for Johnson always worth preserving. ‘In a man’s letters . . . his soul lies naked.’ And, as Boswell believed when pursuing him for copy for the biography, ‘he was secretly pleased to find so much of the fruit of his mind preserved.’ One suspects that it is the flamboyant and insincere lying epitaphs of ‘great’ men that incur his displeasure. In a similar way he deplores the fulsome dedications and panegyrics common at the time – though often essential for patronage. Of Richard Savage’s dedications he declares, ‘his compliments are constrained and violent, heaped together without the grace of order, or the decency of introduction: he seems to have written his panegyrics for the perusal only of his patrons, and to imagine that he had no other task than to pamper them with praises however gross, and that flattery would make its way to the heart without the assistance of elegance or invention.’
It often seems that for Johnson a man’s own words and deeds are his best memorial. Hence his passion for recording the exact details of the lives he commemorated and his need to keep, as far as possible, to the original words of Shakespeare in his edition of the Works. And in his advice to biographers he reminds them that chronology is the eye of history’ for ‘every Man’s life is of importance to himself. Do not omit painful casualties or unpleasing passages, they make the variegation of existence.’
And some there be, which have no memorial
We may wonder why Johnson included in his Lives such minor figures, both in quality and quantity of output, as Halifax and Thomas Parnell. Indeed he commences his Life of Parnell with hesitation and reluctance: ‘The Life of Dr Parnell is a task which I should very willingly decline.’ He then goes on to commend not Parnell himself but his subject's previous biographer Oliver Goldsmith, ‘a man of such variety of powers, and such felicity of performance, that he always seemed to do best that which he was doing; a man who had the art of being minute without tediousness, and general without confusion; whose language was copious without exuberance, exact without constraint, and easy without weakness.’ Thus the typical Johnsonian rhetoric; but what about the eponymous Parnell, known latterly as the Father of the Graveyard Poets? In a work that, in the Everyman edition, devotes 100 pages to Pope and 83 pages to Dryden, it is perhaps fitting that Parnell should be allocated a mere two pages, giving the bare outline of his life and works. After all, Parnell only published nine poems in his lifetime. But then why then include him at all?
In his debates with Boswell over the moral qualities of the various poets in the Lives and the possible dangers of celebrating those whose habits were vicious, Boswell recalls Johnson’s remark that ‘Addison and Parnell drank too freely.’ But Addison, eminent politician and editor of the Spectator, is awarded a more than respectable 42 pages; Parnell ‘too much a lover of the bottle’ must be satisfied with just a couple. Clearly, however, it seems not to be his addiction to alcohol, but the paucity of his output that results in Parnell’s slim biography. Yet Boswell himself was puzzled by his mentor’s omission of the Latin epitaph in his Life of Parnell.
Qui sacerdos pariter et poeta,
Utrusque partes ita implevit,
Ut neque sacerdoti suavitas poetæ,
Nec poetæ sacerdotis sanctitas, deessset.
Johnson can of course turn a neat Latin quatrain, but he is reluctant to indulge in pious and lying epitaphs for the undeserving. As with Stepney, who 'apparently professed himself a poet’ and whose juvenile compositions ‘make grey authors blush’, so here: ‘The general character of Parnell is not great extent of comprehension, or fertility of mind. Of the little that appears, still less is his own.’ In fact, much of Johnson’s Life of Parnell is taken up with exposing the subject’s borrowings and plagiarisms. He is nevertheless noted in the great work, not commended, but, rather, remembered as a man for having lived at all.
Occasionally one feels that, as regards his own family, Johnson, rather than celebrating their lives, would rather wipe their names from the slate of memory. This is certainly true of his brother Nathaniel, and, to a lesser extent, of his wife Tetty. Having run up debts, failed in business and been found to have cheated customers, Nathaniel was to his brother a pariah, fit only for transportation to America. Death spared him this ignominy, but even before Natty’s funeral, Johnson had set out for London with his tragedy Mahomet and Irene in his pocket. To Mary Prouse who later wrote to him seeking information about Natty, he merely confessed that ‘he was my near relation.’ He wanted no memory of and no memorial to his failed brother.
Johnson’s comparative neglect of his mother has been remarked on by many of his biographers, but even more striking is his attitude to his wife, Tetty, whom he praised and effusively prayed for only after her death. The fact that he did not attend her funeral has been already noted, but the distance between the couple was not simply one of a twenty-year age gap and for some time the separation of their respective locations. Mrs Johnson (formerly Porter, neé Jervis) was a rich, plump widow with three children, who came to the marriage with a dowry of £600. The marriage was obviously one of convenience and in a sense no marriage at all. He confided to Boswell, ‘My wife told me I might lye with as many women as I pleased, provided I loved her alone.’ Put simply, Johnson had a predilection for younger girls and needed an independent life in the city; Tetty sought a support, a companion and a man of literary promise to flatter her vanity. In this she was disappointed and, after a life of addiction to the bottle, died an opium addict. As with Nathaniel, she needed and received no engraved memorial – not until some thirty years later in Johnson’s final days.
'I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful,’ Johnson declares in his Rambler essay, No 60. Indeed, we continually find Johnson celebrating the humble as opposed to the great, the ordinary as opposed to the extraordinary, and the natural against the supernatural. He is a great retriever of scraps that others would barely deign to notice. The drudgery of compiling catalogues is as important to him as the study of literary history. Little things count. Typically, he refers modestly to his finest work as ‘little Lives and little Prefaces.’ Johnson is forever engaged on the dual task of preservation and annotation of works and lives that he would not willingly let die. Were it not for Johnson we would hardly know of that man of fashion ‘ostentatiously splendid in dress’ William Walsh, whose main claim to fame lies in his acquaintance with Dryden and Pope, and whose work ‘seldom rises higher than to be pretty.’
Whatever its value as literary criticism, Lives of the English Poets remains a great work of preservation and celebration. Johnson can hardly bear to think of a man’s passing without a word of commemoration. ‘It is unpleasing to think how many names, once celebrated, are since forgotten,’ he says, taking time out from his earnest biography of Dryden and lamenting that ‘Of Newcastle’s works nothing is now known but his Treatise on Horsemanship.’ And his account of Edmund Smith (of whose life ‘little is known; and that little claims no praise but what can be given to intellectual excellence, seldom employed to any virtuous purpose’) concludes with an encomium to his friend and boyhood mentor Gilbert Walmsley. There being so little to commend in the work or character of Smith, Johnson indulges himself in an ubi sunt of Walmsley, Johnson's boyhood hero: At this man’s table I enjoyed many cheerful and instructive hours, with companions such as are not often found; with one who has lengthened, and one who has gladdened life; with Dr James, whose skill in physic will be long remembered; and with David Garrick, whom I hoped to have gratified with this character of our common friend: but what are the hopes of man! I am disappointed by that stroke of death, which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure.’
But their name liveth for evermore
At the end of his life Johnson wrote epitaphs for his father, his mother and his brother. He directed that these be engraved on ‘deep, massy and hard stone’ and placed in St Michael’s Church in Lichfield. Writing to Lucy Porter the week before his death he tells her of the stone he had laid over her mother’s grave in Bromley. The Latin inscription, translated for Lucy, celebrates Tetty as ‘a Woman of beauty, elegance, ingenuity and piety.’ Boswell had described her as ‘very fat, with a bosom of more than ordinary protuberance, with swelled cheeks, of a florid red, produced by thick painting, and increased by the liberal use of cordials, flaring and fantastic in her dress, and affected both in her speech and her general behaviour.’ Of course, an epitaph’s function is to memorialise the dead, rather than to tell the truth. Mendacity is permitted and to a large extent expected. But a biographer has totally other obligations, as Johnson points out in Rambler, No 60: ‘If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth.’ Samuel Johnson’s own life and work are surely perpetual reminders of this obligation.