Wednesday, 19 June 2013

False dawns (or where it all went wrong)

I used to win prizes, but it all seems so long ago. The first was for prose in 1988. I note in this press cutting that I said I was a "computer science research analyst". Umm. I didn't really think in terms of literary trajectories then, so I just plodded on. In 1991 I came 2nd in the same competition.

I won 150 pounds for a poem in 1992, after which I tried more seriously to reach the next level. I entered pamphlet competitions, getting as far as appearing in Poetry Business anthologies of runners-up, but only that far. I rationalized my failure by claiming that I no longer wrote competition poems, and I may have had a point. I often don't like the poems that win prizes nowadays - the shortlist usually contains more interesting work.

With prose I've fewer excuses for failing in competitions. Some of my pieces aren't mainstream but a good few are supposed to be. I've tried competitions big and small. I usually see merit in the winners of open competitions. It wasn't until 2007 that I won something else - short Fiction's competition. By then I had enough stories for a collection, and tried entering Salt's get-a-book-published competitions. No luck. Another false dawn.

But then, in December 2010, my poetry pamphlet came out. I tried to capitalize on it, approaching festival organisers and entering pamphlet competitions again. In 2011 I came 2nd in the Purple Moose Poetry Prize. First prize was pamphlet publication. Perhaps that was the turning point - so near yet so far. The pamphlet remains unpublished. All was not lost however, because in October 2012 my story book appeared. Again I looked for gigs, I kept on submitting to magazines and sending follow-up books into competitions. I even tried an editor or two. No luck. I'm not even treading water: my appearances in magazines are scarce now - I'm in the longest rut of rejections that I can remember.

Somewhere along the line I was hoping for an appearance in a Forward or Salt anthology, or something more thematic - Oulipo maybe. When I read anthologies I usually think that my best eligible piece is better than the anthology's worst (I suspect many other writers think that too, with some validity). No luck.

So what went wrong? Why was I never able to go to the next level when I needed to? Why did I keep losing momentum? Needless to say, I don't write enough or well enough - trying to keep a career afloat writing only a dozen poems and four stories a year is doomed to fail, even if all the pieces were publishable (mine weren't). I had a rather rigid idea of the stages one must progress through before trying to publish a book. Also I didn't seek opportunities to get into forthcoming themed anthologies, send books to publishers, or visit enough festivals and events.


  1. I get e-mails all the time telling me of competitions. I virtually never enter. I sent four copies of my poetry book of somewhere—I forget where—while I was still of the opinion this was the best thing I’d ever written. I hope they found good homes. Other than that I never enter competitions. There are too many. I see people who proudly display on their site: Winner of the Blah-de-blah competition and it’s meaningless to me. I recognise the Man Booker, the Nobel and the Pulitzer and that’s about it unless you write science fiction. Why don’t I enter? I never lost momentum. I never had much to start off with. I like the writing bit of writing but I really can’t be arsed with much of the rest of it. I don’t have the ego to stand in front of an audience and lap up their praise. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased as punch when someone likes my work, especially if it’s someone who I respect, but adulation or even vindication isn’t awfully important to me. I can do without the fifteen minutes of fame because I really don’t think it’d be enough to advance my (and I use the term loosely here) career. It’s a bad time to be a writer. They say it’s a great time and I understand why they say it’s a great time but it’s not. Let’s not kid ourselves. Unless you’re someone like Tao Lin who is constantly promoting himself you haven’t got a chance. I don’t have the energy for that. It takes me all my time to do what little I do.

  2. If I wasn't read, I'd hardly write anything. "Success" is not only a side-effect of getting more readers, it's a way of getting more too.

  3. Sorry for taking so long to comment, Tim. I really do hope you make it through this fallow period for acceptances.

    My intention with Happenstance has always been to develop a reading (i.e a structure for audiences to follow) around the pamphlets in order to showcase them. It's certainly worked in terms of sales at events.

    I'm also working on new ways to promote the latest book. Last year it was ham, this September....time will tell! There's a lot of decent poetry out there, so we have to focus on what makes us different if we want to find readers.