In this edition of Words from Winners, I had the honor of interviewing a pair of talented and succesful women who had their works Highly Commended in the Bridport Prize contest for 2012. Sophie Green represents the Short Story category and Kim Lasky represents Poetry. They both have some great stories about how their work came to be and useful advice when it comes to writing for contests.
Kim Lasky is a poet and teacher, facilitating creative writing in a variety of settings. Her pamphlet what it means to fall was published by tall-lighthouse and she is currently working on a science-inspired collection. Other work has appeared in journals in the UK and the US, and in 2011 won the Agenda poetry competition.www.kimlasky.com
CW: Tell us about how this piece of writing came to be - what was the inspiration, how many revisions did you do, etc?
SG. I wrote Foundling a few years ago as part of a series of strange interconnected stories with fairy tale elements. My grandparents were living in a nursing home at the time and so I had first hand experience of the everyday horrors the elderly face in care. It was also inspired by a chapter in Neil Philip's book 'The Little People', from which I borrowed the quote at the beginning of the story. Originally I submitted it as part of an application to a Creative Writing MA but I didn't get an interview. I shelved the story for a couple of years and then decided to look at it again.
It's had several revisions- some bits have only been tinkered with since the first draft- others have been completely re-written several times. The biggest change in between the last two drafts, was that I stopped trying to be clever and removed a few 'subtle' clue-dropping scenes, replacing them with one new scene- a kind of witness statement which did the job in a more straightforward, cleaner way.
KL: ‘Pylons, 1929’ began life as I was out walking on the Downs and was struck by the pylons spanning the landscape as far as the eye could see. This got me thinking, how were they built, when, and by who… Soon I became obsessed with pylons and their history, which led me to find out about the pylon gangs that worked across the country in the late 1920s to early ‘30s building the national grid. The poem imagines one such character. Drawing on what I’ve found out about the ‘facts’ of what happened (I was lucky enough to be researching this at the time the BBC ran the series ‘The Secret Life of the National Grid, showing footage of the pylons being built), I’ve tried to spin myself back in time to imagine the details, how people felt about this new technology – the fears, the controversy, worries about spoiling the landscape. It proved a rich subject! I must admit, having spent so long really looking at them, I now think they are quite beautiful. But also strangely mysterious. This led to a whole sequence of poems about the history of electricity – there are some brilliantly eccentric and fascinating characters involved in that. The poem itself, like most of my poems, underwent many revisions as it grew and developed
CW: Why did you choose to enter this specific contest?
SG: I work in a library and we get the Bridport competition flyers every year so it was well known to me, I and it has really good prize money and an excellent rep - I entered once before but didn't get anywhere, I don't think I really expected to get anywhere this time either but I've always thought if you don't enter then you'll never win- so anything is worth a try, no matter what you think the odds are.
KL: The Bridport is such a well known and respected competition, it’s one I’ve followed for many years.
CW: How do you decide if a poem is contest worthy?
KL:There are certain things that a ‘competition’ poem needs, I think, such as a quite immediate and self-contained narrative or key idea that carries the poem. Firstly, it needs something to hook attention & set it apart. I guess, thinking of the readers who shortlist – if you’re reading a number of poems in quick succession you need to be beguiled and intrigued by some aspect of the poem, whether that’s the idea it explores or the language, or original, striking imagery. And that needs to happen even if you’re quite tired and jaded when you pick the poem up. Ideally, a good poem will have all those things working together, of course, and it’s how all these aspects combine to create the deeper layers of the poem that make it stand up to further reading and a critical eye. I’ve read quite a few judges’ comments that speak about poems that stayed with them, and developed the more they were read and thought about. I also think judges seem to like poems that have a wide appeal in the sense that they deal with some aspect of life that readers can immediately respond to and recognize – the key is to do that in an original way. At the end of the day, though, as with all writing what matters is the spark that ignites your own passion for the poem. It’s impossible to set out to write a competition-winning poem by simply ticking all the boxes – you need to write what you’re inspired to write, and then stand back and see if it’s working in these ways.
CW: What has been your past experience with writing contests?
SG: Mixed. I have been long or shortlisted enough times to believe that it's worth my entering them, and there are so many about that whenever I write a good story the first thing I do is to trawl the Internet looking for competitions. Not all the good ones offer money, some of the best prizes are being published in anthologies, some are free or reduced cost literary services. I haven't heard of the competition before, I google it and find out what other writers experiences have been like. Some competitions are just disguised marketing ploys to get you to sign up to writing courses etc so it's good to be wary.
KL: I’ve had a run of successes just lately! My poems have been recognized in competitions including The Hippocrates Prize, The TemplarPamphlet & Collection Awards, and my poem ‘The Bed that is a Tree’ won the Agenda Poetry Competition in 2012. Recently I was chosen as a winner in the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Awards, and my new short collection Petrol, Cyan, Electric has just been published as a result. Later this year Eclipse will be published as an Iota Shot pamphlet as a result of my win in their annual competition. I have to say though, I’ve entered competitions in the past without success so it’s definitely a question of perseverance, and working continually to develop your writing.
CW: What did getting highly commended in the Bridport contest mean to you personally?
SG: It was a great moment for me - it meant that for the first time something I'd written would be officially published. When they called me up I couldn't believe it. Around 6,000 stories are entered for Bridport each year so it's amazing to make it through to the final 13 and it was the first time I'd been recognised for my short story writing (normally I write Children's fiction) so it gave me confidence.
KL: My commendation in the Bridport Prize means a lot to me. It was judged by Gwyneth Lewis, a poet whose work I really admire, and it’s good to know she enjoyed the poem and that it stood out enough to make it onto the list of commended poems.
CW: How have writing contests boosted your career as an author?
SG. Not as much as I would have thought, though they have helped to raise my profile. After being shortlisted for the 2011 Chicken House/Times Children's Fiction Competition I thought I would be sure to get an agent, but I'm still trying. It's the same with Bridport- I think like everything, alot of it comes down to who you know. At the Bridport Prizegiving, judge Patrick Gale advised us to find an established author to take us under their wing - I think he's right- being connected somehow in the industry or pushing yourself out there into someone's path probably are still the best routes. But I also comfort myself by thinking that agents and publishers want work that will sell, but competitions are often just about good writing.
KL: It’s helped in getting my work out into the world – which is hugely important!
CW: What role should contests play in a writer's development?
SG: I think that embryo writers should enter as many as possible, if they're legitimate competitions and right for your type of storytelling; it's worth doing a bit of research on the judges- what they're looking for and the sort of stories normally win. Getting placed in a competition can give you exposure, increase your confidence, give you something to say in the covering letter to agents and inspire you to write to a deadline when you don't feel like it- which is a good discipline. Be very cautious about entry fees though- covering administrative costs is understandable as is raising the prize money but I'd think twice before going over £10 unless the prize is something special.
KL: Competitions can be quite controversial, and not everyone is a fan, not everyone agrees with the chosen winners. But they provide a really valuable means for poets to get their work published and recognized. They can open up opportunities for readings, and the chance to meet people. And that’s often the first step towards building up a readership. No-one can love your work if they don’t know it exists! Increasingly now, publishers use competitions as a means to find new writers to publish, and at a time when things are very tough for the small presses that support many poets early in their careers, this makes competitions even more important in my view.
CW: What are the similarities and differences between being published and winning a writing contest?
SG: Years ago a creative writing teacher told me that the average writer would have more chance of making money through competition prizes than through getting published. That's probably true. I've only made fifty pounds so far and I've been writing for more than ten years. In terms of similarities they both give you a sense of achievement and recognition- they can both lead on to other opportunities, you can make money from them. Actually winning a big competition often does lead to publication and the biggest prizes are for books which are already published. To me both winning a competition and publication are means to an end - which is to get my story read by as many people as possible. I think that publishing it does that best but ultimately it depends on which competition and/or who publishes you and how they market your work.
CW: Kim, you offer mentoring, how would that help a writer?
KL: As I said, there’s a lot of perseverance and work involved in achieving success as a writer! I think mentoring can help with both those aspects. It can be hard to stay focused and motivated when you’re working alone and needing to juggle writing and a host of other demands on your time, as most people have to do. Having regular meetings with a mentor can provide you with structure and set deadlines to meet, as well as offering another perspective on your writing. I’ve benefited from mentoring myself, so I know the process from both angles. Sometimes, it’s just a joy to have someone who’s on your side and understands the process. I often provide exercises or writing prompts tailored specifically to a writer’s needs, or suggest other poems to explore critically to see how techniques are being used, as well as offering feedback on work-in-progress. My mentoring is always tailored to each individual, and one of the most rewarding things about it from my point of view is getting to work closely with writers at different stages of their career and seeing their work develop. People can find out more from www.kimlasky.com.
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