The Eye of the Beholder: litcomp judging and grant assessment

This week Margo Lanagan, four time World Fantasy winner, is talking about her experiences judging literary competitions and grant applications. Take it away, Margo …

I’ve just finished two simultaneous 3-year stints, one as a judge for the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, managed by Allen & Unwin, one as a member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body.

This means that for great slabs of the past three years, I’ve read little else but novel-length manuscripts by authors 35 and younger, or grant applications with supporting material.

This post isn’t about how to write a Vogel winner or a winning grant application. Sit me down and give me a coffee and I’ll rattle on about that for as long as you like. This post is about what these tasks are like from the inside—what joys and frustrations do they bring?

The frustrations are probably shared by any ‘slush-pile’ editor or literary agent.

  • The sheer quantity of material you have to get through, combined with
  • the fast-oncoming deadline and
  • the fact that you need to make some intelligent contribution to discussion on assessment day,

means that you never feel you’re giving each competitor or applicant quite the amount of attention she or he should get. You can’t read every word of every submission; you’re always wondering whether it’s okay to take the shortcuts you have to just to get through.

Particularly with the Vogel and the Lit Board’s Emerging and Developing grant categories, you also have to be spectator to a lot of running into brick walls—not the authors’ own, original and peculiar brick walls, but the same kinds of brick walls you remember running into yourself, that pretty much every new writer hits:

  • choosing the wrong book to write
  • stretching a sketch’s/short story’s worth of material out to song-cycle/novel length
  • describing every object and slant of light in an inconsequential room
  • in novels, being so scared of dialogue that you omit it completely.

Those are just a few of the larger issues an MS can have; there are also the regular mini-blows dealt to grammar, tone and characterisation. You have to keep on reading and maintain an open mind even while an author is repeatedly kicking you out of their story with errors, odd phrases or outright howlers.

One other frustration is a side-effect of too much joy. There are good and bad seasons for these competitions and assessments. When there are too many good entries or applicants, but the pot of money doesn’t grow, it can be disheartening to cast numerous worthy entries/applications aside with only a reader’s report or the hopeful message to the author that they came quite close and should apply again.

On to the joys.

Novels, stories, plays and poetry are mostly written alone. But judging and assessing, even though I’ve done the bulk of the work in solitude, have admitted me to wonderfully fruitful and inspiring gatherings with fellow authors, critics, booksellers, publishers, theatre people and tech-heads. Fascinating people in themselves, these colleagues have arrived at the assessment meeting via the same seemingly-never-ending tunnel of intense work and thought as I have. Sitting around the table sharing our experiences of that journey, hearing how each person’s been struck by totally different aspects of the submissions, wondering at this person’s articulateness or that one’s blunter passion for the entry/submission at hand—it’s been a privilege, and I’ll miss it that a lot.

There are the times when I’ve read 20 unremarkable submissions in a row and begun to doubt whether I have any critical faculties, let alone whether they’re in tip-top form. Then I’ve opened the next file in the folder (both the Vogel judging and the Lit Board assessment processes have gone electronic during my terms) and found a work of skill, integrity and clear purpose, by an author who’s been prepared to revise and polish until the novel or the poem or the new-media project shines, and I realise that yes, I do have instincts and opinions about what’s good and bad, and here is what I’ve been looking for.

This pleasure in watching the cream rise during the judging or assessment process, and then seeing the very cream of the cream rewarded, and knowing my vote has counted towards that, is what has made worthwhile these marathons of reading, annotating, time management, e-squabbling or debating around the assessment table, and agonising over scores.

With my own writing and day-job to fit everything around, it’s been a mad, madly busy three years. I don’t think I’ll ever commit myself to doing so much obligatory reading again, but I’ll never regret that I did.

If anyone is interested Margo could write a post on the fine art of writing grant applications.

Margo is the author of award winning short story collections like Spike, White Time and Black Juice which won  two World Fantasy Awards. Her novel Tender Morsels won the Printz Honor Award. Her latest anthology is Yellow Cake.

Margo’s blog.

Margo on GoodReads

This entry was posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Grant Writing, Literary Competitions, Nourish the Writer, Writing Craft and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Eye of the Beholder: litcomp judging and grant assessment

  1. Cat Sparks says:

    If anyone is interested Margo could write a post on the fine art of writing grant applications.

    Yes please!

  2. Great post, Margo :) You juggle so many things so very well :))) I would be very interested in a post on the fine art of writing grant applications – pleeeeesse… xx

  3. I’ll have to see if I can twist Margo’s arm!

  4. Louise Curtis says:

    I just gave you all a versatile blogger award. http://twittertales.wordpress.com/2011/09/26/versatile-blogger-award/

    Louise Curtis

  5. Fascinating post. Did that blog post on the “fine art of writing grant applications” ever get posted, does anyone know?

  6. Susan May says:

    Margo, I found that absolutely fascinating. As a writer who regularly enters short story writing competitions, with varying degrees of succes, it always very interesting to read about the Judge’s experience. I pretty much agree with your 4 brick wall points. I ffind it disappointing whenever I read a published book that has these problems. It must be very difficult to read manuscript after manuscript that doesn’t engage you and then pick up the next one with enthusiasm. Thank you for doing a wonderful job. I have retweeted this to the twittersphere. It is good information for all writers. And yes do write more posts on the application process.

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