GenreCon 2017 Plenary Address

That title is a fancy way of saying I ranted at a bunch of nice people at 9.20am this morning. It was fun!

Here’s the transcript of my rant.

Awards Don’t Matter

Good morning to you all, hungover or otherwise.

My name is, as you might have already heard, Angela Slatter.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land on which we stand, for they were this country’s first storytellers and we always walk in their footsteps, if not their shadows.

So, I’m here today to address an apparently controversial topic, which causes a great wailing and gnashing of teeth, the occasional beating of breasts, and the rubbing of ashes in the hair.

That topic is awards don’t matter.

So, who the hell am I to be telling you this horrible thing?

I thought I’d tell you about the milestones in my career as relate to awards so you can see my trajectory, not because I’m a narcissist, and I don’t believe in comparing yourself to anyone, but I also believe that in watching the steps others have taken – be they successful or otherwise – you can always learn something. Also, I believe that my purpose in life is to always be a warning to others.

My caveat: you can’t recreate someone else’s career. You can try but it won’t work because the planets will be in a different alignment to what it was ten, twenty, thirty years ago. But you can learn strategies that can be applied to other situations.

I’ve scribbled all my life, but 13 years ago I made the decision to embrace poverty, self-doubt and a diet of two minute noodles and become a writer. I knew I needed training, particularly in matters of structure and building convincing characters, so I did a Grad Dip in Creative Writing … then to improve my work yet again I did a Masters (Research) in Creative Writing … then because I apparently am a glutton for punishment I did a PhD in, you guessed it, Creative Writing.

In those thirteen years since I’ve written and published eight short story collections (two co-written with Lisa L. Hannett), three novels (the third one is out next year), two novellas, over one and fifty short stories and articles about writing. I’ve was one of the inaugural Queensland Writer Fellows and the Established Writer in Residence at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in Perth. I have been awarded four Arts Queensland career development grants, one Copyright Council career development grant, one Copyright Council CREATE grant, and this year I got an Australia Council New Work grant. So please if you want to ask me about applying for grants over the weekend, please do so.

I have also won some awards.

So, what Happens When You Win an Award? 

Firstly, Kelly Link, writer extraordinaire and international treasure, tries to kill you.*

Helen Marshall, another extraordinary writer, joins in – which is especially awful because she’s Canadian. I think she had her citizenship revoked for that one.**

So, for me, the awardening began with the shortlistening. The first story I had shortlisted for an Aurealis Award was “The Angel Wood” and that was in 2007, three years after I’d started writing for realsies.

I was shortlisted again in 2008 and 2009.

In 2010 I published my first two short story collections, The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, and Sourdough and Other Stories. Both were shortlisted for the Aurealis Award, TGWNH won. Sourdough was a finalist for the World Fantasy Awards. That year I also won Best Fantasy Short Story with Lisa Hannett at the Aurealis Awards for “The February Dragon”.

In the time since I’ve had something shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards every year.  I’ve also won four more Aurealis Awards.

In 2012 I won a British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story for “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter”. I was the first Australian to win this award; and that’s when the award-effect kicked in. There was a lot of print media coverage, the news made it to the radio and even the television. That’s when overseas publishers started looking for my name in earnest. That’s when I started getting emails about my novel – surely I was writing a novel? Wasn’t I? We’d love to see it when it’s done.

The BFA got me new readers both at home and overseas. I began to get requests for reprints from places like Russia and Bulgaria and Japan. So you can see that there was some effect.

It also brought me to the attention of Jo Fletcher of Jo Fletcher Books, part of Hachette International. She was one of those publishers asking where my novel was … ultimately she did end up as my publisher, and will hopefully remain so for some time!

In 2014, I won a World Fantasy Award for The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, which is the prequel to the Sourdough collection, even though I wrote it afterwards … so perhaps Sourdough had prepared the way. I certainly knew I had readers out there who wanted more of that world. And this award also made me, at the time, one of only eight Australians to have won in a forty-three year history.

In 2015 I won a Ditmar for Of Sorrow and Such.

In 2016, my debut novel Vigil was shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards, and also for the Locus Awards in the US – despite not having been released there – for best debut. This week, Vigil was longlisted for the Dublin Literary Prize.

It all seems so easy, doesn’t it?

None of this tells you how many words under the bridge, how many tears, how many times I’ve thrown myself on the eighteenth-century fainting couch and howled that I simply cannot go on any longer. It doesn’t reveal the financial distress, the broken relationship, the number of times I’ve neglected my family and friends because I was on deadlines. Because I was caught up in a story that bodily took me away from the living, breathing fleshy folk around me.

The groaning awards shelf
or: the shelf of groaning awards

The lovely Dr Kim Wilkins launched my second novel in July this year and made a joke about my groaning awards shelf. She asked if I woke up in the morning, looked at it, and thought “Fuck, I’m awesome!”

The answer is no. The answer is that I have to dust the damned things.

But! Awards can do things for your career.

If there’s prize money attached – and we always live in hope – then there’s a chance that we can pay the rent for a while longer, buy a better bottle of whiskey, stock the pantry with more two minute noodles against the lean times, and just maybe buy a new pair of shoes or underpants before our old ones disintegrate.

There’s marketing value. It doesn’t hurt your bio to have the words ‘award-winning author’ in there, but please make sure you *are* actually an award-winner before you put that in your bio. Please remember that everything is googleable nowadays.

It can get you the attention of an agent or a publisher: at conventions or conferences where there are award ceremonies, these folk will appear in the bar with a bottle of Veuve Cliquot in hand if you’ve just won an award.

Maybe a boost in sales – awards garner media attention, especially if it’s a slow news day.

A word of warning: don’t tell a writer who’s won an award that they’re lucky.

There is a point to all of this!  There are three things I want you to take away from today.

  1. Winning awards never makes you a better writer.

In fact, it can give you a complex. It can make you fearful that you will never write anything so good again.

  1. Losing awards does not make you a worse writer.

I have lost awards and it’s never affected how or why I write.

Conversely, it may well drive you on to greater heights … but you should be striving to write better purely for the challenge of being a better writer – not because you’re craving external validation.

  1. Awards can be useful marketing tools but your career will not die without them.

They are not and should not be your end game.

I said before don’t compare yourself to others. You are a different writer. You can’t be Neil Gaiman, because we’ve already got one and he’s rather good at being Neil Gaiman. Don’t be the next Neil Gaiman – be the first YOU.

Write the best thing you can. Write the words that make your heart sing – maybe someone else will like the tune. Maybe not. You are not owed an audience. You’re not owed awards.

You can’t influence the judging panels of awards; you don’t know what the competition is like. Sure you wrote the best book you could, but you know what? So did someone else.

At the end of the day, awards are basically Russian Roulette for the Soul. If you write in expectation of them you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Personally I think writing is such a hard endeavour anyway, why put a new obstacle in your path. The fact is that you might never be published let alone win an award.

So when I say awards don’t matter, what I’m trying to give you is perspective.

If you are writing to win awards, then you need to readjust your ideas or settle in for a lifetime of heartache over something you cannot control. Some of you are simply going to be folk who have that tendency anyway in all aspects of your life – good luck to you, I can offer nothing except the name of a couple of good therapists.

Concentrate on the important thing, the one true thing we have: our words. Write your stories. Write your books. If others want to come along for the ride, then that is wonderful – love that, enjoy that.

But Kathleen Jennings will Art for you if you win awards

When you’re dead and dust, you won’t leave behind awards – because they’ll be buried in the mausoleum with you – and they can’t be studied or interpreted or enjoyed. They me

ant nothing to anyone but you for the brief span you were on the planet.

You’ll leave behind your books and that’s your legacy.

* Please note that Kelly Link did not *really* try to kill me.

** Please note that Helen Marshall is still a Canadian citizen ever though she *did* try to kill me.

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One Response to GenreCon 2017 Plenary Address

  1. Carina says:

    Loved the article, really interesting to read. Thank you!

    I’m amused by the last bit in your article- Kathleen Jennings’ artwork is totally worth winning awards! 😛

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