By Jacqueline Grima
In August of this year, after receiving half a dozen or so rejections from literary agents, I decided to submit the manuscript of my unpublished novel, Coming Second, to the Luke Bitmead Bursary, a free-to-enter annual competition for unpublished novelists that specifically targets writers whose personal circumstances such as disability, a caring role or financial hardship may have prevented them from establishing a career in the writing industry. Founded by Luke Bitmead’s mother, Elaine Hanson, in cooperation with London-based publishers Legend Press, the bursary was established in memory of a talented writer whose struggles with mental illness sadly ended in his suicide eight years ago at the age of 34. After a tense wait, I was thrilled to discover, a couple of months later, that my work had been shortlisted.
On Friday 28th November, all ten shortlisted writers, some from as far away as American and Cuba, were invited by Legend Press to the Betsey Trotwood pub in Farringdon, central London for the announcement of the bursary’s winner and the prize-giving ceremony, one lucky shortlistee destined to receive a cheque for £2500 and a publishing contract. After travelling from my home in Warrington, accompanied by my three sons, I was the first nominee to arrive at the ceremony and was immediately greeted by judge, Ruth Dugdall, whose novel, The Woman Before Me, won the award in 2009. As the guests gathered, the evening’s celebrations began, opening with a few words from Legend Press frontman, Tom Chalmers, and an inspiring and often emotional speech from Luke’s mother, in which her passionate and determined support for aspiring writers was clearly evident. Then, it was time for the prize-giving, all of the runners-up, myself included, invited up to the stage to shake Elaine’s hand as a statement was read about each novel in turn. Next, second and third place were announced, this year awarded to writers Catherine Murphy and Melanie Garrett for their novels Bleak Lush and This He Did Without Remorse, their talents praised in turn by Ruth Dugdall and The Quiddity of Will Self author, Sam Mills. Then it was time for the big moment, the winner by this time aware, through a process of elimination, that her ‘big break’, her chance to be a published novelist had finally arrived and as winner Tara Guha made her way to the stage, a huge smile decorated her face. Her novel Absent, described by the judges as containing a ‘deliciously dark twist’ will be published in November 2015.
During the evening of celebration that followed, the atmosphere amongst the nominees could only be described as supportive, each one congratulating Tara without hesitation and taking the time to speak to and congratulate each other, take photos or gather email addresses and Twitter names. Their only complaint, it seemed, after hearing such praise for each of the shortlisted novels, was that they had not had a chance to read, or perhaps, hear, extracts from each of the shortlisted manuscripts, something that perhaps Legend Press will bear in mind next year. Advice from the judges and Legend Press team also flowed freely throughout the night, Ruth Dugdall in particular took the time to advise each nominee regarding a way forward for their work and wishing me luck in my coming MA at Manchester Writing School.
As the evening came to a close and the nominees said their goodbyes, I left the Betsey Trotwood feeling that I had very much turned a corner in my writing career and that, even though I hadn’t won, I had made some valuable connections and some lovely friends. I also took a moment to remember that, without Luke Bitmead, still obviously very much missed by his mother and the rest of his family, I wouldn’t have been there at all.
Jacqueline recently received a first class honours degree in BA (Hons) Literature and is due to start an MA in Creative Writing at MMU in January. In the meantime, she is working on some short stories and doing a lot of reading. You can follow her on Twitter @GrimaJgrima