The Trick to Winning Big Literary Prizes

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This month, many of the best contemporary books are going to receive prizes and plaudits in some of Britain and Europe’s top literary awards and ceremonies. The first of these took place on 8 May, with the announcement of winning entrants in the 2017 British Book of the Year Awards, where the Fiction Book of the Year category went to Sarah Perry for her work The Essex Serpent. Following this award, both the People’s Book Prize and the EU Prize for Literature Awards Ceremony will take place on 23 May. These series of ceremonies inadvertently make most authors play with the thought that their books could one day be part of the best selected ones in renowned competitions.

This guest post is by Paul Breen. Breen is a Senior Lecturer in the Westminster Professional Language Centre at the University of Westminster, with specialism in the areas of English for Academic Purposes, English Language Teaching, educational technology, and writing for academic, creative, and other professional purposes. Originally from Ireland, he has taught overseas in Australia, South Korea, and Japan before settling in the United Kingdom where he worked for various universities. He is currently working on a book on “Writing for Professional Purposes” to be released in spring 2018.

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Yet, most authors will be lucky to ever see their book in print, never mind becoming the recipient of trophies and princely financial incentives. Despite the hurdles they have to endure, many aspiring writers cling to the plasma of hope found in success stories such as that of the erotic novelist Erika Mitchell, better known as E.L. James, author of the Fifty Shades trilogy.

Many people think they have a book in them, a literary baby waiting to spring forth into the world. And there are indeed many books published every year that are valuable additions to the vast repository of literature already out there in bookstores and libraries. Though the selection process can seem painstaking for new writers, literary agents and publishers constantly remain locked in a search for the next work of fact or fiction that will capture the public imagination.

In my own situation, I have had two books published through small, independent publishers and still dream of striking a deal with somebody more established. But to date I have won no prizes, and very definitely still rely on the day job to pay the mortgage. Indeed, the harsh economic reality for most writers is that they will struggle to pay the bills if the writing of fiction is their sole source of income.

According to the 2013 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, half of all published authors fare no better financially than their independent counterparts; earning less than a thousand pounds a year. The Author’s Guild Member Survey of 2015 goes further in suggesting that the majority of authors live below ‘the poverty line’ when writing serves as their sole source of income. Thus there is very little money to be made in this business, but still so many of us dream of achieving the unlikely, and to hang on to the hope to win, one day, some personal recognition as well as a potential lucrative reward.

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As for my own experience, I found a very useful tip which, I think, all authors should keep in mind if they want to be part of the next generation of awarded writers. About a year ago, I helped set up a Writers’ Group which was an enjoyable experience at the time. Over the winter, every couple of weeks, we met in a local pub and swapped stories by the fireside. We shared ideas, creating themes and topics to write about, but our meetings soon became characterised by a social aspect. Though everybody had different motivations, I wanted to improve as a writer and felt that this was not the way to do it. Then, one evening in the same pub, I observed a local reading group having their weekly meeting – one that was less of a dialogue about themselves, and more about the books they were reading.

This was the point when I began to realise what was missing, of late, in my own practice. I was spending too much time writing and not enough on reading. My New Year’s resolution thus became to read more, and listen to the voices of other writers. Reading is actually the key to better writing. The ability to absorb and reflect upon other people’s words is just as important as getting your own thoughts out onto the page. Too many aspiring authors just don’t read enough. We become obsessed, almost addicted to what’s going on inside our own heads rather than looking outwards to see what we can learn from others. This can be a fatal flaw, because we need to be aware of what’s going on in the contemporary world of publishing and literary prizes, and what has gone before.

I have since joined a Book Club at the University of Westminster where I work, rather than being a part of a Writers’ Group. Now I am listening to other peoples’ voices rather than simply my own. Through doing this, I hope to find greater motivation for reading, but more importantly to spend time in the company of people who enjoy books and enjoy words for the sake of leisure and pleasure.

Too often, as a writer, I have approached the reading of books with the joylessness of a professional wine and cheese taster at a dinner party. Everybody else is having fun, getting merry, savouring the menu, and I have been weighing things up, comparing notes, sketching ideas for my own work. Now, I’m just going to sit back and spend time reading for the sake of it. Maybe at the end of the day, there should be a prize in the book world for readers, and not just writers, or for writers whose work has most obviously been inspired by good reading practices. It would be hard to measure but would get an important message across. Who knows? Maybe being a reader enthusiastic will make you become the next Jane Austen or the next Thomas Hardy of our generations.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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