The Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize

I had to keep it all hush-hush until the award presentation on May 3rd, but oh it was a happy moment when I heard my memoir/creative non-fiction manuscript won second place in the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize. First prize went to Sara Johnson Allen, and third to Sarah Fuchs.

As I recently said to Lizzie Harwood, Vice President and First Pages Prize Founder (and author of the wonderful memoir “Xamnesia“), it is very unusual for a writer’s prize package to not only offer a really generous award in financial terms, but also to cover festival fee, accommodation, a travel stipend AND developmental editing of the first pages. I very much doubt there is another competition that does this, anywhere.

With this competition, it felt to me the Festival was not only hoping to give encouragement to the prize-winning writers, but really looking to support them to take a step forward with their work and their career. It’s nice to win competitions but then you go back to your quiet little room and try to face the blank page yet again. It’s a short lived ‘high’. But winning one of the prizes for the First Pages Prize felt totally different, as if I had been taken by the hand and guided, supported, inspired, encouraged in my long term journey of being a writer.

I had not been to the Stockholm Writers Festival before, nor to Stockholm, and to be honest I was bowled over.

The Festival has a very specific focus: to help writers find their path to getting published. In fact you cannot enter the First Pages competition if you have a literary agent.

There was so much about the Festival that impressed me. I have been given an award for my writing in public before, but it was a fairly short-lived moment in the spotlight. This time, the judge, Paul McVeigh, spent some time talking about each of the entries and what it was that impressed him. I am sure I was not alone amongst the winners in feeling a little weepy with gratitude as I sat there, listening to what he said. The prize was also presented by Jonas Nabbedo, Vice Mayor of Culture and Clydette de Groot of the de Groot Foundation (who generously support the prize packages), and they both gave heart-felt and inspiring talks about the importance of prizes for writers, and about the importance of writing. After this, all three winners had the opportunity to read from the first page of their manuscript. I love giving readings (I flubbed my lines!).

The Festival’s organisers keep the participation numbers fairly small, and this means that although I may not have managed to befriend everyone, it still felt intimate and easy to forge connections. The sessions I attended were exceptional, including Jane Friedman‘s “How To Get Your Book Published”; Julie Cohen’s “Learning Story Structure from Pixar Films”, Jess Lourey and Jennifer Dahlberg‘s “From Traditional to Indie” and Paul McVeigh‘s “Creating your Platform”. And although some sessions overlapped, it was possible to have a ‘taster session’ with each of the faculty during one of the events. I was able to spend 20 minutes with Cassie Gonzales on ‘Making Your Dialogue Do the Heavy Lifting’ for example.

I learned SO much. I have a notebook literally packed with scribbles.

I pitched my novel to two highly regarded agents. I have never I’ve done this before – not in person. Terrifying, but great practice. Both agents want to see the novel, and one in particular I felt a strong connection to (I must do another read-through to make sure it’s in the best shape possible!).

I also was honoured to be able to spend time with Clydette and Charles de Groot. What a pleasure! And special mention should go to the efficient (and gorgeous) team of volunteers who were on hand whenever I was confused, or lost (or lost something!).

I did make friends during the weekend, and I want to return to Stockholm as the little I saw I loved. So all in all a truly spectacular, informative time.

If you have read my previous two blogs about my ‘health situation’ you might wonder how I manage to participate in such a full-on Festival. The truth is it is incredibly challenging. I usually spend about 15 of each 24 hours lying prone in some form or other – trying to sleep. sleeping, resting. And this was 15 hours of sessions, events, walking, connecting…. It was hard. Very hard. At times I felt horrendous. But I was also doing something I love to do: spend time with other writers. Usually I get quite ill after such intense periods of activity. So far I’m just mindlessly exhausted (hence how long it’s taken me to write this blog), so I’m crossing thumbs all the positive energy from the Festival has helped my immune-system.

Photography: Birgit Walsh Photography
(The photograph of the volunteers which was taken by Catherine Pettersson Founder of the Stockholm Writers Festival)