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Meet the judges of the 2021 Manchester Writing Competition - what makes a 10k prize winning entry?

  • Winner of Manchester Writing Competition will be announced at eagerly-awaited gala event tomorrow
  • aAh! Magazine catch up with judges from this year’s Manchester Poetry Prize and Manchester Fiction Prize

As the Manchester Writing Competition gala event lies just around the corner, its established panel of judges are revelling in the untenable expertise of this year’s shortlisted finalists.

With celebrated veteran judges Malika Booker and Nicholas Royle joined by widely-acclaimed writers including Hilaire, Simon Okotie, Romalyn Ante, and Zaffar Kunial, each panel is going to have quite a task on their hands in allocating the sought-after literary awards.

The successful shortlisters not only attain wide-reaching exposure from the ‘UK’s biggest literary awards for unpublished work’, but each winner also acquires no short of £10,000 in prize money. 

Among the excitement of this annual celebration of words, aAh! speaks with judges from across the board, to discuss what they enjoy most about their role and what they’re looking for in that winning entry. 

SHORT FICTION 

Nicholas Royle is reader in creative writing at the Manchester Writing School.

He has written seven novels, including The Director’s Cut and Antwerp, and he has authored over 100 short stories. Royle operates Nightjar Press, publishing original stories using chapbook format, while being editor to 20 anthologies, notably the Best British Short Stories series.

He recently released a memoir titled White Spines: Confession of a Book Collector, in 2021.

Joining the judging panel just a year after the Prize’s conception in 2009, Royle praises such events that “celebrate and encourage creativity”, for entrants and the public alike.

“I love being in a position to give that boost and encouragement to six short story writers and indeed, in the form of the honourable mentions, to many more. And giving the winner ten grand is a pretty good feeling,” he says. 

“The prize money is a life-changing amount and, for those shortlisted who don't win, while not winning may be agonising, the fact that your story came in the top half-dozen out of more than a thousand stories, in the opinion of three judges, has got to mean something.”

Royle notes how this year’s entries have focused around processing the pandemic’s lasting effects, with many writers “trying to make sense of a changed world”. A similar sense of uncertainty is what he believes makes a winning submission. 

He explains: “You get a feeling that a story has potential, and then there are the questions. Questions the story asks that you may not be able to answer. And on the second read there tend to be more of them.

"And on the third and so on. You want to be left with questions, not answers.”

This sentiment is echoed by the new Manchester Fiction Prize panel judge and author, Hilaire.

Although assuring that there is no perfect blueprint, she says: “A story that pulls me in quickly, that doesn’t tie everything up neatly at the end but embraces ambiguity, which rewards multiple rereadings… that story would stand out from many other entries.”

Although fresh to the panel, Hilaire has numerous accolades under her belt. Born in Melbourne and based in London, she published her novel Hearts on Ice in 2000, succeeded by London Undercurrents in 2019, a poetry collection co-authored with Joolz Sparkes. 

Her short stories have featured in several magazines and anthologies, such as Under the Radar and Best British Short Stories 2021, respectively.

Recently, Hilaire produced indoors looking out with artist Stephen Graham, reflecting on life in lockdown in the form of haikus and tanka.

She suggests that opportunities such as the Manchester Writing Competition introduce the wider public to exciting writers they haven't encountered before. She sees great value in “offering an immovable deadline” for entrants, and “a very juicy carrot if successful!”.

Hilaire continues: “What I’ve enjoyed most is taking a deep dive into what is being written right now in short fiction, marvelling at the variety of both subject matter and approach, and what it is possible to do in the short form.”

Also new to the judging panel this year is fiction writer and essayist, Simon Okotie, celebrated for his trilogy of novels Whatever Happened to Harold Abalson?, In the Absence of Absalon and After Absalon. He has a portfolio of work featured in FT Weekend, gorse, 3:AM Magazine and The White Review, meanwhile Nightjar Press published his short story Two Degrees of Freedom, and piece Bindings appeared in Best British Short Stories 2021.

Okotie says: “I didn't really know what to expect, this being my first year as a judge on the prize.

"I expected to be reading some really good stories amongst the entries, but what I didn't expect was for one or two of the stories to be amongst the best I've ever read.”

He acknowledges that while making his way through the entries, there wasn’t an “straightforward criteria” that could be used to facilitate the process, due to the expansive diversity of the submissions, such as genre. 

He says: “I became particularly obsessed by the features of successful beginnings and endings - whether there was something that hooked my attention in the first line or sentence, and whether the ending provided both closure and open-endedness. 

“I was also interested to see whether I became absorbed in that delightful state of self-forgetting - one of the many seductions of great short stories.

"Finally, I wanted to see whether the story lived on in my memory after the event of reading it - a sure sign, for me, that it had life in it.”

Okotie suggests that although fiction-writing is characterised as a “solitary activity”, it also exists within bigger and more collaborative contexts, working alongside editors, translators, publishers and so on.

Opportunities like the Manchester Writing Competition provide invaluable chances to “celebrate these relationships and interconnections”, while being beneficial for writers to get out and about. 

On judging, Okotie says: “[I] particularly enjoy the positive effect the prize has on the shortlisted writers, especially those who are only starting to build self-confidence in their writing.

“Self-belief in the strange endeavour of writing can fluctuate wildly. External recognition, particularly from such a well-respected prize, can make a huge difference.”

POETRY

Sitting on the equally esteemed panel for best poetry portfolio is Malika Booker, Chair and award-winning poet. Founder of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen writer’s community initiative, she was enlisted to perform poetry on Mars for a BBC Science Series in 2019, while becoming lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Met that same year.

Booker has also been bestowed the widely-accredited Society of Authors Cholmondeley Award for her contribution to poetry. 

“This year we were struck by the fact that most of the entries were not afraid to experiment and push the boundaries of poetry,” she explains.

“Yet we were drawn to portfolios that felt considered as a collection, where the poems were in conversation with each other while demonstrating the poet’s range. We were struck by the strong distinctive sense of voice displayed by all our shortlisted poets, as well as their poetic ambitiousness.

“These poems delicately and rigorously grappled with heavy subjects ranging from personal illness, death, nature, historical and cultural norms with formal dexterity, lyrical delicacy, and a sonic precision that both haunted and mesmerised us. 

“Even the darkest poems resonated a sense of wonder while grappling with what it means to be human. We found ourselves reading lines to each other and luxuriating at the richness of the language on our tongues. We are proud of this selection.”

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