I have just caught up with a new literary prize – the Banjo Prize – which is not to be confused with the Banjo Paterson Writing Awards I guess it’s to be expected that one of Australia’s favourite bush poets might be honoured by more than one award being named for him.
Before I get to the new one, I’ll briefly mention the older one. The Banjo Paterson Writing Awards were established in Orange in 1991 “to honour Banjo Paterson [of course], a great Australian writer and favourite son of Orange.” They seem to be run by the Orange City Library, the Central Western Daily and ABC Central West Radio, and have three categories: Short Story, Contemporary Poetry and Children’s Writing. The entries, they say, don’t have to be written in Banjo’s style, but must be Australian in content. Fair enough. The winners receive cash prizes ($2000 for each of the first two, and $200 for the children’s award.)
The Banjo Prize is a different thing altogether. Firstly, it’s a manuscript award, and secondly it’s offered by a publisher, HarperCollins. The winner will receive a $15,000 advance and a chance of a publishing contract, while two runners-up will receive written assessments of their manuscripts which could also result of course in their books achieving publication down the track.
Most of the articles I read about the award seemed to be based on HarperCollins Press releases or came from HarperCollins itself. The articles announced the prize in March, the shortlist in August, and then the winner at the end of August. The winner, from 320 submissions, is Tim Slee with his manuscript, Burn. HarperCollins’ Head of Fiction Catherine Milne, whom you’ve met here before, said of the winner:
Burn is a novel that sneaks up on you, and takes you by surprise – and before you know it, you’re deep in its world and don’t want to leave. Burn is a thought-provoking, heart-warming, quintessential Australian novel like no other, and I’m just thrilled that it is our inaugural Banjo Prize winner.
It’s unlikely that any of these authors will be well-known to us because the whole point is to discover new Australian storytellers. However, Adelaide’s The Advertiser provides some information about Slee. He is an “Adelaide-born expatriate writer”, and has previously self-published science fiction and historical novels. The Advertiser says that “he was thrilled that the book that ‘broke through’ for him was one about the ‘unbreakable spirit’ of Australian people.” He’s apparently lived abroad for more than a decade – they don’t say where – but “has returned regularly” to Australia. His author bio at Amazon.Com tells us he’s also won the 2016 US Publishers Weekly BookLife Prize for Fiction and was a past winner of Allen & Unwin’s INK prize for short fiction.
Anyhow, Burn was apparently inspired by a father and son he met five years ago during a family camping holiday in southeast Victoria. The two had sold their farm and the father was heading to Melbourne to look for work because
making a living on the land was too bloody hard. I remember the pain in his eyes. Watch any news bulletin about the drought today, you’ll see that pain.
Burn starts with “the death of a bankrupt dairy farmer who sells his herd and sets fire to his house rather than hand it over to the banks.” Slee calls it a warning that “a lot of people in this country have had a gutful and it’s ready to go up in flames.” Sounds like a book that grapples with some confronting contemporary issues. We’ll just have to wait now for it to be published …
The write stuff
Before I leave this prize, I’d like to share some points made by Denise Raward in the Sunshine Coast Daily in an article titled “Have you got the write stuff?” She wrote it in April after the award was announced. I like that she took the press release, did some research and produced a thoughtful commentary. She notes that Australia is undergoing “something of an amateur writing boom.” Evidence for this includes, she says, the Sydney-based Australian Writers’ Centre [AWC] saying that there’s been “a huge surge in interest in its online and classroom writing courses in just the last five years.” AWC’s national director Valerie Khoo, she continues, attributes this “to the very thing that was supposed to kill the written word as we knew it, the internet.” Khoo said that “people have discovered it’s easy to tell their own stories on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, blogs and so on … It’s given them a voice – and an audience.” It has, in other words, encouraged the art of storytelling.
Raward responds with a note of caution, reminding us that “if it’s the lure of fame and fortune spurring the growing ranks of part-time writers, they may well be disappointed. A 2015 study of 1000 Australian book authors found the average income from their writing was $12,900 a year.”
She then goes on to say that unlike some of its rival publishing houses, HarperCollins hasn’t accepted unsolicited manuscripts for some time because the strike rate was too low. Allen & Unwin, for example, accepts unsolicited manuscripts, receiving about 1000 a year. Publishing rates for first time authors in Australia, Raward says, “are infinitesimal but it doesn’t seem to deter the punters.” HarperCollins’ Milne wants to open the door, hoping that the prize “will become a fixture on the writing community’s calendar and give new authors something to work towards every year.”
Raward then asked – logically – what publishers look for in a manuscript:
Milne says there are some definite pointers but there’s also some magic involved.
“My first piece of advice is to read, read, read,” she says. “Have a notion where your work is going to sit within the genre you’re writing in. Be familiar with the well-known authors and how they’re telling their stories and also the niche authors. Know the territory.”
The next tip is one she can’t emphasise enough – to make sure the beginning is compelling. Milne says she can often tell whether a manuscript is going to captivate her just by reading the title, first paragraph and synopsis.
There’s more, but you can read it all in the article. Raward does report though that Milne says they’re not looking for science fiction and fantasy, but are for other genres that are currently very popular: “great historical fiction, romantic comedies, family sagas, gritty crime – domestic noir and psychological thrillers.”
Milne, however, makes the point that in the end
it’s always the more intangible qualities that make manuscripts leap out of the pile: a unique voice, passion in the writing and good old-fashioned story telling.
She wants to be “kept up late at night because I can’t stop turning the pages. I want to feel the passion that went into writing it.”
Burn must have done that!
It’s an interesting initiative from HarperCollins, if only because it represents a very public commitment to reading manuscripts. A prize to watch – will it continue, and will it unearth some exciting new storytellers?
What do you think?