How entering writing competitions changed my life
Aye, pick a number.
I wasn’t close to my father, but that this should be his first question after not seeing me, his only child, for two years, was still puzzling.
I don’t know. Nine?
Give me more. I need five in all.
Okay. Well, five. Ten. Nineteen.
I paused and took a deep breath.
You can’t count? That’s only four.
He opened a dog-eared notebook.
All right. I’m marking down nine, five, ten, nineteen and three for the next Play Whe draw.
None of these numbers appeared in the winning combination that day. I am sure my dad, like thousands of Trinidadians, was undeterred. He would be back in the betting shop trying his luck again the next day.
The odds of succeeding as a writer are about the same as Play Whe. A publishing deal is the jackpot and, despite the long odds, most of us can’t help ourselves. Poverty, self-doubt and loneliness surround us as we sit in our jammies staring at a blank screen for however long it takes to fill the unforgiving page. We cross fingers, hoping our numbers will be called. Unlike the Trini Play Whe winner we’re not hoping to buy a fancy car or go on a cruise. A win would buy time away from the daily noise; to get back in front of that screen. We’re a masochistic bunch.
For me, it started with a private dare. I would write a story for a competition, because that gave me two things I lacked: a goal and a deadline. I was lucky. My numbers were called up, and I won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Armed with external validation, and a cheque for £5000, I went back to my desk under the stairs and started work on a novel. A few months later I submitted that same story to another competition, the BBC National Short Story Award (NSSA), hoping it might stand out to those judges as well. My luck held, and I won again. For a single story the BBC gave me a £15,000 cheque. In that joyous moment what I failed to appreciate was that in addition to my bank balance, my capital as a writer had also rocketed.
When I had approached agents before, none exactly jumped at the prospect of taking on an unknown, middle-aged, Trinidadian woman with 20,000 words of an unfinished novel. Well, once the prize was announced, and the BBC team let it be known that the award winner was unrepresented and unpublished, things changed. Agents began coming to me. Suddenly those 20,000 words were much more than a modest start. They were a teaser to the book I’d almost finished. I ended up interviewing agents for two solid weeks. And always the BBC team were there to offer support as I considered who was the best long-term fit for me.
I asked a few agents if they could put me in touch with authors they already represented. That was helpful. It speaks volumes when an author takes time out to provide detailed information about their relationship with their agent. Then chance intervened. A relative I don’t see enough of got in touch, urging me to meet with a particular agency already high on my list. I had barely spoken to her when a fellow Trini, Claire Adam, (a recent Riff Raff guest who read from her prize-winning debut, Golden Child), called to endorse her agent, who happened to be the same person. I have no doubt that signing with Zoë Waldie of RCW Agency was the best thing I have done for my writing.
Zoe’s enthusiasm was infectious. When could she have the rest of the manuscript? My BBC NSSA capital would not last forever. It was the beginning of October when I told her she’d have the manuscript by year end. I went home, sat at my desk and for the next three months left only to eat, sleep and use the bathroom. Boxing Day I took half day off for a family lunch, but otherwise I worked nineteen hour days. At 4 pm on New Year’s Eve the first draft was finished. Six weeks more of polishing and Zoë was busy shopping it around.
Almost a year to the day I stepped off the stage as winner of the BBC NSSA I am holding beautiful advance copies of Love After Love which will hit bookstores on 2 April 2020. Faber prevailed in a seven-way auction for UK and Commonwealth rights while North America was bought by One World of Penguin Random House. None of it – not Zoe, not the publishing deal – would have happened had I not taken a leap of faith.
Who knows? Next year it could be your story winning the BBC NSSA.
Ingrid Persaud won the BBC NSSA 2018 with her short story, The Sweet Sop.
More information on the winner of the 2019 BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University can be found here and an anthology is out now from Comma Press.
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