Friday, February 20, 2015

The 2015 CBC Creative Competitions

I have only learned about this competition now, and decided to participate. It ends soon (March 1) - so if you're interested, you'd better send your stuff in soon! Before you spend the time to read more about, know the limitations: Canadian citizenship or permanent residence, 1200-1500 words, $25 entry fee.

JMacKinnon-GrayCreative nonfiction is remarkably similar to what bloggers write every day, without any hope of ever winning something. Here’s the definition provided by CBC:

The Creative Nonfiction Prize includes memoir, biography, humour writing, essay (including personal essay), travel writing and feature articles. While the events must be real and the facts true, creative nonfiction conveys your message through the use of literary techniques such as characterization, plot, setting, dialogue, narrative and personal reflection. In works of creative nonfiction, the writer's voice and opinion are evident. The work should be accessible to a general reading audience (i.e., not written for a specialized or academic audience).

If you want to be specific, the word count is finicky.

  • Word count excludes titles. Texts above or below the specified word count (excluding the titles) will be disqualified. For works submitted by mail, an electronic version may be required  in order to check the word count. Only the original content of the submission is counted, which excludes quotations and dedications.
  • Our word limits are strict in each category. We use Microsoft Word to verify word counts. Since Word only relies on spaces to delimit words, any term containing a hyphen ("twenty-five") or an apostrophe ("can't", "don't") counts as a single word. Word also counts every article ("the", "a", etc.) as a separate word. Microsoft Word also automatically counts groups of characters (e.g. "xxx") as well as symbols (e.g. "***" or "~~~") as a word.
  • Participants may submit as many texts as they wish in one or all categories. A writer can win only one prize per category. Each text may be submitted to only one category.

The odds are higher on the French side.

We receive an average of 10,000 entries every year. Among them, nearly 8,000 are submitted to the English competition: 40 per cent in the Short Story category, 35 per cent in the Poetry category, and 25 per cent in the Creative Nonfiction category.

Your contest entry must be original and unpublished, and the prizes are probably more than what the average blogger makes in one year:

  1. $6000 grand prized + $1000 for 4 runners-up
  2. publication on AirCanada’s enRoute magazine and
  3. 10-day writing residency at the Banff Centre

But if you’re serious about writing, winning a prize could do wonders for your careers, taking you from the unknown into the “established” territory. And there’s more:

“The most exciting part was the internal shift,” wrote Alison Pick who won the Poetry Prize in 2005, “the permission to actually call myself a writer, and to devote myself to it completely. I never looked back.”

And the nonfiction contest, with its March 1 deadline and 1200-1500 words is not even the only one. There’s also a poetry contest, running April 1 - June 1 with 400-600 words/entry, and a short story one, September 1 – October 1, with the same 1200-1500 words. The winners are announced 4 months after the deadline. CBC has even a bunch of writing tips presented as a tag cloud:

The above cloud might not “work”, but you can click the photo above to go to the CBC page, or get inspired by the following tips culled from the Canada Writes website. A common thread seems to be editing and self-censorship.

Michael Winter, a previous winner, has this to say about his self-described “mercenary” process.

A man meets a woman, falls in love with her, she discovers she's dying and has a simple, parting request: she wants to have a baby.
This felt like a profoundly uncomfortable thing to write about, melodramatic and ridiculous in its summary, and yet I knew this heightened drama was the story's strength.
There was a deadline fast approaching. I wrote a draft in a week, then rewrote the story once a day for five days. Then I hauled out the contest guidelines to get the postal code and something caught my eye. Word limit: 2,500. My story weighed in at 5,000 words.
What was I to do?
I went through the manuscript and deleted every line that was not necessary: dialogue, exposition, description—chopped it all. No tangents. And, in an hour, I had cut the story precisely in half. I read it again and, in an insane way, the story made more sense than the longer version. I walked the story, wagging in its manila envelope, to the post office and made sure they stamped the date on it. A few months later the story won first prize.
Through an arbitrary problem I had arrived at a tenet of good writing: brevity wins. If you are having trouble with a story, it may not be an issue with the quality of the writing—there may just be too much of it.
After I won, I met one of the jurors and she said, we kept going back to your story. How did you manage those leaps, those odd connections? I told her what happened and a mix of shock and understanding passed over her face. She's an editor by trade, and I caught in her eye the shared truth that cutting is an indispensable part of rewriting." 

Camilla Gibb describes her encounter with an editor similarly.

'It's not the reader's job to indulge you, Camilla.' She was specifically referring to a chapter of a manuscript that I had enjoyed writing more than any other chapter.   

I tended to get carried away. I tended to find myself amusing, get on a roll, tumble down the hill into a pit of my own miasma. Apparently I wasn't as funny as I thought I was. This piece of not-so-gentle editorial advice was actually part of a bigger philosophy—less is more, show don't tell. No matter how experienced you are as a writer, you need to repeat these mantras to yourself every writing day. I do it with students; I do it with myself. 

(..) fatty passages overstuff a manuscript. Better to isolate the tastiest bits than drown them all with gravy.  

My own writing style has become cleaner over the years as a result of this advice. I no longer get carried away by the sound of my own voice, the manic or onomatopoeic, or relish the liberty of being able to write anything and everything I want to write. I've had to learn restraint. I've had to learn how to trim the fat and throw the vast majority of what I write away. Ninety percent of it goes in the bin. Ninety percent of the writing is simply the pot boiling. The real work is in letting it boil for hours and patiently distilling its essence.  

I've internalized that editor's voice to the point that every time I am enjoying writing too much? Every time I make myself laugh? I say to myself: It's not the reader's job to indulge you, Camilla. Am I having as much fun? Certainly not. But that marks the passage of writing moving from the realm of hobby into that of occupation. Editors have forced me to grow up, get professional. I'm now in desperate need of a new hobby." 

Good luck!

Sources / More info: cbc, mw-how2, submittable 

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