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£10,000 Manchester Writing Competition judges reveal what they’re looking for in a winning entry

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By Jacqueline Grima

The 2016 Manchester Writing Competition is now open for entries, offering an amazing £10,000 in prize money to the winners of both its fiction and poetry categories.

The competition was established by Poet Laureate Dame Carol Ann Duffy and the Manchester Writing School in 2008 and has since awarded over £115,000 to its winners, massively changing the lives of new and emerging writers from all over the world.

Humanity Hallows recently caught up with some of the judges of this year’s competition to find out what they will be looking for among the 2016 entries.

Helen Mort

Poet Helen has recently joined the team at Manchester Writing School and is excited to be on the judging panel of this year’s Manchester Poetry Prize:

“Judging a competition always feels like a huge responsibility and a privilege. As someone who has been on the other side of the process (sealing my poems in an envelope, crossing my fingers for luck), I’m very aware of how much effort people put into entries for prizes. But I’m not just daunted, I’m excited to see what we find.”

Helen knows exactly how nerve-wracking it can be to enter work into a writing competition. In 2008, she won the Young Writer Award, offered alongside the first ever Manchester Poetry Prize. Does she have any advice for this year’s entrants?

“Don’t try to anticipate or second guess what the judges might be looking for. Be yourself. Send your best work, the writing that represents you, the stuff that takes risks, the work you’re most excited about.”

Entrants to the Poetry Prize are asked to submit a selection of their best work as opposed to a single poem. Does this make the judges’ job easier?

“Well, I hope our job will be difficult! If it’s difficult, it means we’ve been confronted with lots of writing that demands our attention. It’s often easier to get a sense of someone’s style from a selection of poems rather than an individual poem. I like to be given the chance to get into a writer’s work a bit, the way you do when you’re reading a collection. Best of luck to everyone who is entering the Prize this year!”

Sarah Howe

Poet and academic Sarah will be joining Helen to judge this year’s Manchester Poetry Prize. We asked her what she will be looking for among the entrants.

“I’ll be on the lookout for poems with an atmosphere, a way of carrying themselves, all of their own; poems whose shape on the page feels like an inevitability; poems that open up spaces in the imagination and linger there.”

So, is there a formula for a prize-winning poem?

“I certainly hope not! Habit, complacency, consensus – I suspect all of these are deadly to poems and the business of writing them.”

What other mistakes might new and emerging poets make that might lead to their poem being placed at the bottom of the pile?

“Clichés of thinking or emotion can be even more of a trap than clichés of expression. Then again, I’d rather a poem dared too much than not enough.

“Think about the ensemble of your poems: whether disparate or tightly knit, do they enrich one another. Do they make their companions sing?”

Joining Helen and Sarah to judge the 2016 Manchester Poetry Prize will be Manchester Writing School Senior Lecturer and poet Adam O’Riordan.

Janice Galloway

Writer Janice will be judging the Manchester Fiction Prize. Is she looking forward to being involved?

“I’d be an idiot to say anything other than a very warm YES! I have a respect for prizes in that writing is a difficult, solitary and not exactly well-paid job in general, so encouragement is essential. To have a chance to offer that encouragement is a great thing – and I will be learning stuff I need to know for myself while I’m doing it. All good writing gives you something; that’s what makes it good.”

The Fiction Prize attracts prose written in many different genres. What qualities in particular might a winning story have?

“Oooh, all sorts of things. I’ll zero in on three to avoid scaring people! 1) Tenacity ie the capacity to grip from the off, so the reader feels there’s a point to reading on; 2) Clarity ie the words, the tone, the drive the author has selected should be the fittest, the very best for purpose to capture my trust; 3) Fluency ie a pace that draws the reader in so I feel I’m not reading the story so much as absorbing it through my eyeballs. No pressure there, then!”

Juliet Pickering

Blake Friedmann Literary Agent Juliet will also be judging the Fiction Prize. We asked her what qualities an agent can bring to a writing competition judging panel.

“Hopefully, a practised eye! It’s my job to comb through stories trying to find something fresh and beautifully told. I’m also bringing my industry perspective, and wondering if the writing in front of me could be publishable further down the road.”

How does judging this competition differ from choosing the best of the many manuscripts that are submitted to Blake Friedmann every day?

“The story has to be self-contained, and pack the power of a novel into just a few pages; there’s a different skill to writing a great short story.”

Like Janice, Juliet has a good idea of what she’s looking for when she begins the judging process.

“Stories from lesser-told backgrounds, and stories that surprise me. In our submissions, often the writing is of great quality but a lot of the stories are very similar in theme; the ones that stand out do something different, and have an original voice.”

Joining Janice and Juliet to judge the 2016 Manchester Fiction Prize will be Manchester Writing School Senior Lecturer Nicholas Royle.

The 2016 Manchester Writing Competition closes for entries on Friday 23rd September. For more information and a chance to win the amazing £10,000 prize money, see the competition website.

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