WRITING FEATURE And the winner is…

How does it feel waiting for a prize announcement when the winner could be YOU?
SCBWI writer Helen MacKenzie lets W&P in on her Kelpies Prize experience.

Picture the scene: a busy tent at a book festival. The wine is flowing, everyone is chatting and the award for which you have been shortlisted is about to be announced. You’re nervous, chewing your nails, and then you spot the guest presenter walking to the stage.

Your heart starts to hammer. Is she going to say your name? Will you be the one walking out with the prize?

That was me, a few weeks ago, at the Kelpies Prize and Kelpies Illustration Prize award ceremony at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The award is run by Scottish children’s publisher Floris Books, and six unpublished authors and six illustrators were in the running for two amazing prizes, both of which included a publishing contract.

Shortlisted writers (left to right): Bobby Finn, Emma Mason, Karen Hussain, Lizbeth Valentine, Christopher Mackie, Helen MacKenzie (credit: Floris Books)

Shortlisted illustrators (left to right): Aimee Ferrier, Angus Barker, Catherine Lindow (SCBWI member), Sarah Coomer (SCBWI member), Lisa Molloy, Kirsty Oxley  (credit: Floris Books)

I didn’t get it. The winner was not me.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to have been shortlisted, and I know that Kelpies Prize winner, Christopher Mackie, and Kelpies Illustration Prize winner, Aimee Ferrier, are worthy winners indeed. But still… I’m only human. I was a bit disappointed. A publishing contract had been just within reach and, with the rip of an envelope, it was gone.

Catherine Rayner with winning writer Christopher Mackie (credit: Sarah Broadley)
No big deal, you might think, and in the scheme of things it is definitely not. But when you’re in the room and eyes are upon you, it is still a difficult moment. For you have to smile. You have to be gracious. You have to pretend that you feel no sting of rejection at all.

Handling rejection

Like all writers, I am well acquainted with rejection. I’m fifty this year and I’ve been writing - and dealing with rejection - for a long time now.

When I first started, I couldn’t handle it. It took me years to admit to people that I liked to write, and even longer before I started sending submissions out. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and it showed: the rejections piled up and I became so demoralised that I gave up writing for eight years. I didn’t start writing properly again until 2014.

This was, clearly, an over-reaction, but looking back, I think I learned something from it. It taught me that rejection cannot get any worse than that: I hit writing rock bottom and I gave up and the only person I hurt by doing that was myself. I know now that there’s no point in getting that upset over rejections, ever again.

A question of choice

I’ve found it helps to think of it as a question of choice. Choice gives me control in a business in which writers have very little control at all. There’s not much I can do about an agent’s personal taste, or an editor’s budget or a publisher’s existing list, after all. But I can choose to make myself the best writer I can possibly be. I can choose to put myself out there. And I can choose not to beat myself up about it, when I don’t succeed.

It doesn’t always work. I got extremely down at the end of last year over feedback on a book I had worked on for ages. It was a good book – it had been longlisted in things, shortlisted in things and had helped me get a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust. I was getting full requests for it. I was convinced I was nearly there. And then it became clear to me that it wouldn’t go any further in its current form.

Old (young?) me would have chucked my pen away and cried in a corner. Present (old?) me picked up another one. I put my finished story aside for a while and started something new. And I hung on to all the positives I could find: feedback from my crit group; from course tutors; from the competition listings I had achieved.

SCBWI-Scotland keeping everything crossed for me and the other SCBWI shortlisters.
So, standing there in the tent at the Kelpies Prize Award Ceremony, it wasn’t so hard to do the same again. Yes, I was disappointed, but only a little. Most of me was simply delighted to be there, because it showed I was moving in the right direction again. I’d not given up and instead I’d written something new: something worthy of being shortlisted.

There were more positives too. Floris Books is going to give me feedback on my Kelpies entry – a win in itself – and the whole event gave me much-needed experience in networking. I spoke to editors and other writers about my book, explaining what it was about, and even pitching it a little. I have a feeling that was the most useful experience of all.

And what have I learned?

I guess I have confirmed something that I already knew: writing is a journey, and a long, hard one at that. I don’t know how far I still have to go, or if I’ll ever reach my goal of becoming a published author. But each step takes me closer to it and, dare I say it, each rejection makes me stronger. I have finally got to the point where I am not afraid of it anymore.

Header image courtesy of Helen MacKenzie

Helen MacKenzie is a freelance writer living near Edinburgh. When she’s not working, she can usually be found helping at her local museum or walking her dog. She also runs one of the SCBWI Scotland YA crit groups.
You can find Helen on Twitter @W1shfulth1nker

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