Thursday, 7 April 2016
Organising the Remember Oluwale Writing Prize
It feels like such a short time ago that Max Farrar of Remember Oluwale first contacted me on LinkedIn, to ask whether I'd be interested in helping organise a writing contest, and anthology, in memory of David Oluwale. That was last November. Now we're in April and about to publish our shortlist, and I can't believe how fast the time has flown.
The Remember Oluwale Anthology was a joint venture between myself, my organisation Fictions of Every Kind, Remember Oluwale, and The Big Bookend Festival. We're very happy that Valley Press agreed to publish the resulting anthology quite early on in the process - before we'd even started taking entries.
I've done a lot of work organising the writing prize, and editing the anthology (with help along the way from lots of people - we'll come to that in a minute), and wanted to do a blog explaining the process we used to run the competition.
Once Fiona Gell (of the Big Bookend), myself, and Max Farrar had all agreed that we wanted to run a writing contest, things got moving pretty quickly. Valley Press got onboard early on, and said they would be happy to publish the book - in which we were planning to publish the longlisted contest entries, as well as previously published works by writers like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Ian Duhig, and Kester Aspden. Max did an excellent job of recruiting an amazing panel of judges, which included Marina Lewycka (of 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' fame), poet Ian Duhig, and Caryl Phillips (who has written extensively about David Oluwale's life and death.)
This was great news and gave us momentum to get the writing prize running.
As the charity's work is to raise awareness of 'David's issues' in cities - marginalisation, immigration, mental health, and homelessness - we were all agreed that we would invite poets and writers to submit stories and poems that reflected on these issues. We did this because we all felt that 'David's issues' were a wide and current issue, and we knew that writers would have a lot of interesting things to say about them. We agreed our themes and contest rules, and Fiona got the contest page up on the Big Bookend website.
I took advice from a colleague more experienced in running writing contests, and set a submission window 3 months long. This way, he told us (thanks Wes!) we'd be sure to get as many entries as we needed.
We took entries from 20th December - March 6th, and recruited an excellent team of filter readers - 5 people in total - all of whom are practising writers themselves, who either read for existing literature magazines, or are literature professors, or who have a Masters in writing or cultural practise, or a combination of all of the above. We were lucky to find such a great reading team, and all of them get a thanks in the book.
We took all of our entries through Submittable. This was for two reasons: one, because it cuts down hugely on admin (very important, when you're running a writing contest in your spare time) and two, because it allows for "blind-reading."
"What is blind reading?" I hear you cry? Well, it's a system whereby the filter readers don't get to see the author's name. It's a much fairer way to read submissions, because it doesn't allow the readers' prejudices - whatever they may be, we all have them - to impact on their reading of the work. So, each reader had a selection of 15-20 pieces each, which they read without knowing anything about the person who wrote it. Not their gender, or their background - nothing. This seemed important, as it means the readers had to choose (or not choose) work, based solely on what they saw in front of them.
Submittable does charge a fee - not huge, but it was one we thought worth paying, given that it allowed us to read the entries 'without prejudice', if you like. It also made running the contest much easier. Our contest entry fee was only £3, which is a total bargain when you compare it with some of the larger writing competitions.
We had 70 entries in all. The readers did a great job of reading these thoughtfully, then choosing a few from their pile to go forward into the anthology. If the readers weren't sure about an entry - and this might have been because they didn't know whether it was relevant enough to 'David's issues', or because they were on the fence about whether or not they quite fit in the anthology - they let me know, and these pieces went for a second reading, by somebody else in the team.
This process produced a longlist of 26 writers, all of which will be published in the anthology.
One thing that we did in this contest, which is quite rare, was that I kept up a high level of communication with the entrants. I sent 'decline' responses to those writers whose pieces we hadn't selected for the longlist, and 'acceptance' responses to those whose we had. Most writing contests don't bother to do this - they just let declined writers find out, by default, when the longlist or shortlist is publicly published. Having been on the other side of the fence so many times, as a writing contest entrant, and knowing how it feels to find out that you haven't been shortlisted by reading a list on the web.... well, I didn't want to treat entrants to our contest that way. Luckily, our submissions portal made it very easy to remain in contact with entrants, otherwise I would not have been able to do this.
At this stage of the process, everything started happening all at once. We were on a fairly tight deadline to get everything in to Valley Press on time, so there were lots of things to do.
Max Farrar and Sai Murray started sourcing previously published works to go into the anthology, and they also worked on whittling the longlist down to a shortlist of 10. This shortlist was to go on to be read by the judges, who will select and award the four top prizes. (More on the shortlisting process, later.)
Whilst all this was going on, I was receiving the previously published works, and collating the longlisted contest entries to go into the anthology. I was doing loads of different things all at once at this point: going through a light editorial process with some of the writers (where I had spotted errors or omissions in their pieces), getting writers' bios (for the contributors' notes section in the end of the book), looking for and correcting typos; getting Max's introduction for the book, writing my own introduction for the book, putting it all together into a single document; making sure the same font was used throughout, checking and double-checking for errors and typos, making sure the formatting made sense.... basically, all the things that you don't notice when you're reading a book when they're right, but the first thing you notice when they're wrong.
I spent about three weeks constantly glued to my computer. I got backache and my eyes started to go funny. I legit thought I was going mad at a couple of points. (It was all ok in the end, though.)
At the end of March, breathing a huge sigh of relief, I sent everything off to Rosa, our lovely editor & publisher at Valley Press. She was very complimentary, and also very pleased that we'd got everything in on time to meet our projected publication date, of 3rd June.
A thing nobody often tells you about publishing: lead times are long. It's not as if you send a manuscript into a publisher, and they print it out, and hey presto! next week, you're holding a book in your hands. Things take much longer than that. Publishers need time to typeset your work, to proofread, and to design the cover. In our case, Sai Murray (or Remember Oluwale) will be designing the cover. If you ever work with a publisher that doesn't spend time doing these things, you're going to end up with a very shonky-looking book indeed. Ours will be at least 2 months from me sending everything to Rosa, to the book actually coming out - and that is an unusually short timeframe, for publishing.
I promised you more about shortlisting. Choosing the best pieces for the shortlist was not an easy task at all, never is. By the time we were down to a longlist of 26, we had a lot of very good pieces to choose from. All of us in the organizing party - me, Max, Sai, and Fiona - all had our favourites. And they did not coincide at all. Literature: it's so subjective. I produced one 'wishlist' for the shortlist, of 9 pieces; Fiona did the same, and so did Max. They were all completely different. (Apart from 1 or 2 pieces that appeared on all three lists.)
So, Max and Sai developed a system, using points awarded for various things like: how relevant the piece was to David's issues; how well-written it was; how creatively it approached its subject. How can you award points for creativity, I hear you cry?! Well, the answer is, none of us is completely sure. Like I said, it was tough.
There were lots of pieces that nearly made it into the shortlist, then at the last minute, didn't. There were pieces we all argued over and pieces we defended to the death. There were lots of things that we all liked a lot (including a couple of my personal favourites - not that I'm bitter) that didn't make it onto the shortlist. That is shortlisting for you, I'm afraid.
In the end though, Max and Sai discussed it and produced a list of 10 pieces that we could all agree on, and which will soon go forward to the judges for their deliberation.
It has been a great privilege to be involved with this project, and I have learned so much during the course of it. Not just about editing and running a contest, but also about David's story, and about how important stories and poems can be in bringing his story back into our consciousness.
My huge thanks go to Fiona Gell for all of her help & support, for my co-organisers at Fictions of Every Kind for the same, and for Max Farrar for having suggested it in the first place.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Philip K. Dick
Sweet Home Carys Bray