Fresh from the publication of her debut novel, author Philippa Holloway shares her thoughts on how writing competitions helped her get there.
Sometimes, as a writer, I find myself thinking of my life as narrative. I ignore the boring bits and seek out threads of story, themes. One of these narrative strands is, inevitably perhaps, my journey as writer, and this reached a climactic point recently when I had the first of a series of events launching my novel, The Half-life of Snails (Parthian Books). This novel, my debut, was a finalist in the 2020 Writer’s & Artists Working Class Writer’s Prize, which gave me the boost I needed to send it out to publishers and gave the book the credibility to get publishers to read it.
The first launch event felt like something from a fairy tale: to be celebrating my novel’s publication considering my background and the barriers I faced along the way (and yes, Imposter Syndrome was my companion that night as I signed copies and chatted to guests) still seemed unreal to me: a perfect happy ending. But looking at the narrative, I can see some very important plot points that helped me along the way, and many of these were little opportunities, chances, that I jumped at. Some of them paid off, some didn’t. But incrementally, they added up to give me confidence, a creative portfolio, an identity in the world as a writer…I’m talking of course about Competitions and Prizes.
Being from a Benefits/Working Class background, living ‘Up North’, meant that there was no easy access to the nurturing or culture that often exists in big cities and for more privileged demographics. In my area and circles, there were few opportunities for developing writers. I did attend, and run eventually, some excellent community groups though, and these were vital to my practice. We encouraged and critiqued, pushed and dared one another. And one thing I learned was that submitting to competitions, whilst initially a terrifying thought, was a way to both test out my writing and get noticed.
There are many competitions that are free to enter, or have reduced or low entry fees, meaning they are often accessible to anyone, anywhere. While they can be nerve wracking to engage with, as our hopes and fears are arguing in our heads, it can help to think of them as like buying a lottery ticket – you know you not everyone can win, but you need to a ticket to have a chance, and the entry fee goes towards supporting the arts anyway. Still, just as success can lead to confidence, disappointment can lead to doubt, so it’s important to contextualise this too. Later on in my story as a writer, when education and opportunity had changed my demographic, I found myself on the other side of the table: part of a judging panel or as a judge alone. I realised that not being shortlisted does not mean the work submitted is poor quality or worthless, but that with so many quality ‘tickets’ entered, judging is difficult and often fraught, and usually negotiated. Even if your work is not formally recognised, though, the process of crafting, editing, improving and formatting work for a competition has its own value, and the resilience and confidence gained whether you miss out or get picked are part of your story as a writer.
So, to anyone unsure about throwing their words into the ring, I can assure you that there is everything to be gained regardless of the outcome. And who knows, the next competition you enter might be a significant plot point in your journey as writer.
Philippa Holloway is a writer and academic, teaching Creative Writing at Staffordshire University. Her debut novel, The Half-life of Snails, is out now with Parthian Books, and her short fiction/non-fiction is published in the US, Australia, Africa, Europe and the UK and she has won prizes in literary awards including the Fish Publishing Prize, The Scythe Prize, and the Writers & Artists Working Class Writer’s Prize. She is the co-curator of 100 Words of Solitude, a global writing project responding to the pandemic, and co-editor of the collection 100 Words of Solitude: Global Voices in Lockdown 2020 (Rare Swan Press). Follow her on Twitter: @thejackdawspen or Instagram: @thejackdawspen