Not Winning is OK (really, it is.)

I just got back from a weekend in Brighton. I went down for the announcement of the winner of the First Fictions / Myriad First Graphic Novel Competition for which I had been shortlisted. The seven shortlisted authors were invited to attend the First Fictions festival to listen to the judges discuss the selection process and announce the winner. The invitation email acknowledged that Brighton was perhaps quite far for some of us to travel, but It is not everyday that one gets shortlisted for a prize, and I was not about to miss having my work discussed publicly by a panel of esteemed judges. I accepted the invitation, of course, as did five of the six other shortlisted authors. Gareth Brookes couldn’t be present  because he is currently in New Zealand. I envisaged myself sitting at the back of the theatre while the judges went through the work of each finalist in turn; valuable feedback was to be had, I hoped. I suspect that the format for the session changed somewhat once it became obvious that all bar one of the finalists were going to attend. A further email from Corrine Pearlman, creative director of Myriad Editions suggested we might like to stand up in front of the audience and read some of our work while the art was projected behind us. More pressure, certainly, but a chance not to be turned down: speaking at a literary festival has been an ambition! The stakes were upped again with the announcement that we would also be answering questions from the panel of judges- Ian Rankin, Bryan Talbot, Ilya, Hannah Berry, Corrine Pearlman and Steve Bell (Bell could not attend, as it turned out, but we didn’t know that until the day). A nerve wracking but not insurmountable prospect and, as the winner would have been already decided prior to the session, nought but dignity would hang on our onstage performance.

I wasn’t particularly nervous until the day itself, but once I took my place with the other finalists at the front of the theatre my heart was pounding. This reassured me somewhat: I like to feel it beating in this kind of situation and get somewhat worried if I can’t. I need the blood to get to my head; beta blockers, the public speaker’s friend, are not for me. Peter Lally stood in for Gareth Brookes, and we all read in turn: Paula Knight, Con Chrisoulis, Tom Eglington, Adam Blackman with Dylan Shipley, Hannah Eaton and me. Peak heart rate was reached as Paul Gravett, who chaired the session, called my name and I stood up to take my turn, but I felt myself relax as I started to read and my stint in the limelight passed quickly. The theatre seemed full, although I wasn’t studying the audience. After I sat down again I actually began to enjoy things. The judges were kind to us all; no grilling was involved. They spoke about the strength of the entries, the difficulty of long listing, let alone shortlisting: how eighty entries were whittled down to twenty eight, then seven. They said that all the final entries were worthy of publication.

I felt happy to be there, without expecting to win. I am ambitious, clearly, and driven too, but while winning would have been a good thing, I really wasn’t thinking much about it. I would have loved to win, of course, but what mattered more was the reassurance that my work in progress has promise, that the artwork I submitted was strong, and that the synopsis invited interest. There is much work to do, but I now feel affirmed in aspiring to make something worthwhile, that others will want to read. It may take a little time to complete, but I am inspired with the confidence of six respected judges who seemed to say that I was on the right track, as were all the finalists, and that is all I can ask for.

What might have been purgatory was further prolonged by Corrine’s suggestion that the judges leave the room to further confer and check that their decision was unanimous. I was enjoying myself by then and the drama of the situation made me chuckle. The winner was duly announced as Gareth Brookes. Peter tried to contact him from the auditorium by mobile phone, but to no avail, it being 2am in the antipodes.

I met Gareth a few months ago at the Bear Pit Zine fair in Bristol and he told me about The Black Project, his winning entry, then. It sounded good. The artwork includes embroidery and lino cut and, as the judges pointed out, the work pushes the boundaries of the graphic novel.

I enjoyed meeting the other finalists and chatting to the judges. I told Ian Rankin that my mother was a big fan of his (I have to admit I haven’t read any of his work myself). He seemed a very pleasant guy, without the ego that might accompany such success as his. I met up with some some friends too: Paula, of course, and her husband John Austin, plus Nicola Streeten, Nye Wright, John Miers, Megan Donnolley and Alex Fitch who was recording the session. I look forward to him duly broadcasting it on PanelBoarders.

All in all, I had a great weekend and was glad I went. I ended up buying more books, of course- Nye’s new graphic novel, and Bryan and Mary Talbot’s collaboration ‘Dotter of her Father’s Eyes’ and a signed Ian Rankin for my mother. I’ll no doubt be a tad jealous of the celebrations surrounding Gareth Brookes win, but all in all I’m pretty happy, and feeling pretty confident that something good will come out of this for all the finalists.

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