Well, it's official, folks. Someone other than just ourselves likes our group novel. We're not just navel gazing! Last night, Western Women Writers (well, some of us at least) went along to the FAW (Fellowship of Australian Writers) Awards night to collect a commendation for our group novel -- or the first 30,000 words of it. Originally, we began the project with this award in mind -- not so much because we thought we might win, but because it would give the group a focus for the year, and a deadline. And there we were, happily beavering away, at around the 35 k mark (and nowhere near finished) when we found out that this year there was a word limit on entries, and we'd already passed it. What to do? Well, we shaped the first half of the book into -- well, the first half of the book really. That involved picking out a suitable scene to break the story out, and removing a new subplot that was just starting up at that point, and which would have proved too distracting. And writing a note to explain what was going on (ie why the story abruptly stopped).
Entering any kind of competition is always a lottery. Whether we like it or not, such things are subjective. I've seen it with stories I've been a shortlist judge for -- when a story I think is memorable and outstanding is passed over in the final prizes for something that almost didn't make the shortlist. I know from the decisions I've had to make as a judge -- the final choice between the perfectly executed story that doesn't truly engage and the engaging story that has a number of flaws. The superbly written versus the original idea. Such decisions are not always easy. But winning or placing or even receiving a commendation in a competition offers writers tremendous validation. And going along to the ceremonies is a great way of hobnobbing with the rich (oh, no, that's right -- we're writers! No rich here) and famous (or not!). Awards nights are a great place to network and even, if you're not so good at networking, to feel a part of a community of writers.
Last night was no exception for me. But here were some of the surprises of the night:
(i) Those who were listed. In one category, one of the commended writers was no less than Booker Prize winning author JM Coetzee. He wasn't there, but it was still a moment when I felt a part of not just a writing community but a community of successful writers. Of course there were plenty of other "names" who weren't there, but Coetzee was the biggest, and as I've enjoyed Waiting for the barbarians, I was pleased to feel we were almost rubbing shoulders. (Not in any true writerly sense, obviously. I should be so lucky! Okay, I'll stop gushing now. And name-dropping.)
Another name who wasn't there was Garry Disher, but he did, at least, send a lovely thank you letter, acknowledging the FAW's support over the years. I haven't met Garry Disher. He doesn't know me at all. I have seen him speak at the Melbourne Writer's Festival, where he seemed a nervous speaker (something I can relate to), but he also spoke from the heart. I came away thinking him gracious and honourable and thoughtful and ... Oh, that's right, I promised I would stop gushing. We use his Writing fiction with our first year classes (it's their one set text) and now with our online students, and every time I see something of his I'm glad he's a writer we can support this way. It's a great beginners book, BTW.
(ii) The number of people who will travel from interstate just to get a certificate! This always amazes me. Truly. I suppose it is an acknowledgment of the validation thing I mentioned earlier, but I'm not sure I'd be prepared to do it. If I were a winner, yes. But just for a certificate! Don't get me wrong -- I admire these people greatly. And maybe they're not all subject to the same financial constraints that I am. Anyway, they did add greatly to the night as a whole, and what was particularly lovely was to see a whole writers group come down from Sydney to support two of their writers. Today, they were hitting the bookshops, so I imagine they'll be enjoying their holiday immensely!
(iii) The people we know. So, the winners in our category (writing group anthology) were called The Cartridge Family, which I thought a brilliant name -- brought The Partridge Family (and I always respond well to the writing-group-as-family concept) into the world of writing via ink cartridges. Anyway, turned out one of them was a former client -- someone who's book I'd edited a few years back. The funny thing was that in the last few weeks, I was thinking about her and wondering what had become of her book! If and when it's published, I'd really like to get a copy.
The Williamstown Writers Group, like us, were also commended. Now, they're in our neighbouring suburb, so I know a couple of members, so it was great to see them there. Especially because I've had dealings with one, very recently, through a writing-related venture but this was the first time we'd met both as writers. Another member I'd been in a writing group with years ago, and I know her through her professional life as well. It's a small world, but it's at these types of places that we make the connections.
(iv) The names of unknowns we know. These are the kids. A talented few who seem to win competitions all over the place, and I know some of their names through shortlisting the Imagination Creation literary competition each year. Margaret Campbell, who runs Imagination Creation, and is my mother Rita in our group novel (in other words is part of Western Women) couldn't make the awards last night, but I knew she'd be as pleased as anything to see some of "her" writers up there. They become hers in the same way that the poets published in Poetrix become ours. Those writers might not know we "own" them -- it's just a kinship we feel with them, a pride when we see them doing well, even though their success is completely independent of any (small) influence we may exert. Perhaps I'm just rambling. Humour me.
(v) The judges. Ah, well, as it turns out the judge of our section was someone I know -- luckily such competitions are judged anonymously. He did not know it was our work; we did not know he was judging. It's always tricky, because sometimes such things can seem not quite kosher to outsiders -- for example, if one of Western Women Writers entered the Ada Cambridge this year (they didn't) and won. (Not that I was any more than part of a team who did the shortlisting, and have no influence beyond that on the final judging.)
In our group, we have a policy about awards -- if one of us is judging, the others can only enter something we haven't seen; they must not talk about it in front of us, and can workshop it, but not when we're in the group. That way we can ensure fairness, which above all is what we're all striving for in a competition. But, even so, there's always the fear that such an event would not quite seem fair -- that whole thing about not just doing the right thing but being seen to do the right thing as well. (And that in itself isn't necessarily fair!) I prefer not to enter if I know a friend is judging. It's easier all around.
(vi) The amount of interest there was in what we had attempted, especially by the other writing groups. Others seemed to think it was difficult, extremely brave, inventive -- all types of things. What they can't have imagined was how much fun it's been. How fantastic the plotting sessions are. How easy it is to get into character. My character is exactly like me (okay, now the members of my writing group have just keeled over in shock), and nothing like me. And I do enjoy becoming him. But now I'm back in my own novel, there's the worry that Brendan (my group novel character -- a 30 yo contemporary cartographer) might just pick up his sword, put his foot in the stirrup iron and swing up onto his warhorse. For the record, he doesn't ride. Or own a sword. But that's where my head is right now!
I just wonder if we've started something and next year the FAW might have a flood of partially completed group novels. Go, the group novels!
(vii) The shy authors. Okay, I admit: I'm one of them. I'd prefer not having to get up and collect my award. Was perfectly happy to stay in my seat while the others went up, but for some reason this is a three-muskateers thing: one for all and all for one, and all of that. One could have gone up. Or all. And the others do enjoy their moment in the sun. And why not? It's well earned. (All writers deserve it!) It's just that I personally don't enjoy it. And, like me, there were others who took their awards, head down as they walked in and out, and made no speech. Or the one who said that she wrote so that she didn't have to do that -- or something along those lines.
(viii) The great speeches. Okay, the winners had to be the Sydney author who praised Melbourne (so much so that the convenor said she should be bumped up to first place) and the boy who said that he was glad he'd entered his commended poem and got a second opinion because his teacher had read it and said that poetry obviously wasn't his strength! There's a note of caution to all teachers in that one!
Well, I seem to have rambled on a bit -- but I do see this blog more as a place where I can explore my ideas than somewhere where I put up well-structured articles. Hope you weren't too bamboozled by my being all over the place!