Ahead of this weekend’s announcement of the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award shortlist, Colin Dray recounts his experience being shortlisted for the Vogel’s Award, and how he found his debut novel Sign getting published despite not winning.
So you’ve just hung up the phone. You’re still trembling. You haven’t yet caught your breath, and there is a funny tickling sensation running beneath your skin. You think you’re in your house, but you might not be. A sudden impulse to run around madly, squealing, like toddlers do when their bodies brim with excitement, is creeping up on you, so it might be wise to confirm if this is your house before you give in to it… and at some point you really should get back to breathing.
That Vogel’s Literary Award that you submitted your manuscript to – that competition you’ve admired from afar for years; that one that for several decades has been launching some of your literary heroes like Tim Winton and Gillian Mears into the public consciousness; the one for unpublished young writers; that one – they’ve shortlisted your work.
The giddiness is buzzing behind your face now. The smile is involuntary. Your cheeks must be glowing like halogen lamps. That was your last shot. You are about to turn 35, pushing that definition of ‘young writer’ to its limit, and nudging you out of the submission rules. You wouldn’t have gotten another chance.
The phone is still clenched in your hand. The voice of the woman with whom you were just talking still reverberates in your head. She was the publisher at Allen & Unwin. The Allen & Unwin! The Allen & Unwin whose many splendid books overload your shelves. And she was so nice. In the months to come you will discover that she is also the most thoughtful, talented, and attentive publisher you could ever hope to work with, but for now you simply marvel at how kind she was.
After explaining who she was (generously pretending not to notice that you were incapable of formulating words in reply), she’d only let you live in baffled delusion for a half second.
‘You haven’t won,’ she’d said. ‘But you’ve shortlisted.’
For the next several weeks you will be sworn to secrecy. There will be a photo shoot, where you will meet none of your fellow shortlisters, who are scattered across the nation. Travel arrangements will be made. The news will swirl in your belly every day. People will ask why you have such a dopey grin on your face and you will lie.
Then you will be standing at the award ceremony in Sydney. It will be a crisp April night. You’ll be surrounded by glittering industry people – phenomenal writers, respected critics, and discerning salespeople – all of whom are far kinder and friendlier and funnier than they have any reason to be. You’ll be wearing your best suit, but you will have accidentally left your cufflinks two hours away on your bedroom dresser, so you’ll spend the entire evening nervously trying to hide from view the makeshift studs you’ve MacGyvered for yourself out of hotel notepaper.
There will be drinks and satay chicken things that look delicious circling the room, but you’ll be too excited to eat anyway. You’ll spend a portion of the evening psyching yourself up to try and hate whichever finalist is going to be announced winner (I mean, they all seem nice, but how dare one of them dash your hopes and dreams!?!) but will instead discover that he’s actually a fantastically talented writer and an incredible person. You’ll realise that you like him and his work a great deal, and are delighted that he won. That bastard!
As the evening wears on, the publisher who first spoke to you on the phone will tell you that she might be interested in working together on your manuscript, perhaps even to consider it for publication. You will not have had anywhere near enough alcohol in your system to process this revelation safely. Your excited hand gestures will become a public health hazard.
You will hurry home to expand your manuscript, eventually getting it to a state that you are happy with, and sending it off once again. When you hear back that Allen & Unwin is indeed keen to move forward, the excitement will be so great that the moment you are about to sign your publishing contract you may forget your own name.
Over the following months, shepherded by your publisher and under the guidance of structural editors, copy editors and readers, literally every person that you work with will be wonderful. Creative, intelligent, helpful; their perspectives will be astute and generous; they will be attentive to the needs to the text. Their feedback will strengthen your work in ways that you could not have achieved alone. Even on a personal level interacting with them will be a joy.
You will start to wonder why Allen & Unwin has no jerks. After all, the world is full of jerks, but for some reason Allen & Unwin doesn’t have any. It makes no logical sense. Even on just a per capita basis.
Unless… Are you the jerk?
In the weeks before the final publication submission date you’ll be sent the hard copy of your manuscript – the very one that will be passed on to the printers. It will be speckled with final editing notes that look like hieroglyphs, and you will be told that anything you write upon it now will be transcribed into the final published edition. For the next several days you will carry this manuscript around like a sacred object, fearful of coffee spills and sizzling with panic any time you walk into a room and see one of your toddler daughters scribbling on anything that resembles a piece of loose leaf A4 paper.
And then, months later, you’ll open a package.
Inside will be yet another kind note from that exquisite publisher who once changed your life with a phone call, alongside the first, advanced copy of your novel. You’ll stare down at its beautiful cover (the one you thankfully had nothing to do with designing). You’ll flick through pages that now look crisp and clean, that are the end result of all your revisions and rewrites, that have been poured over by all the copyeditors and proofreaders that toiled with you to strengthen your writing and elevate the spirit of the piece.
Soon, you will realise, that idea that once gnawed at your imagination, that somehow found purchase among the innumerable other great manuscripts submitted to the Vogel’s Award on the final year you were eligible, will be sent out into the world to fend for itself.
But that’s for later. That’s still to come. Months, even years from now. Once you’ve put the phone back down. Once you’ve swallowed or blinked or remembered to take your first breath.
Because for now you just need to process a single thought.
And your world is no longer the same.
Entries for the 2019 Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award are open until the end of May 2018, while the 2018 winner will be announced on April 23. Read more of the success stories from the Vogel’s Award, the winners on how the prize changed their lives and the shortlisters who also get published, as well as Ben Hobson’s story of how not even getting shortlisted helped him to publication.
About Colin Dray & Sign
Colin Dray teaches English literature and creative writing. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as Meanjin, and his non-fiction has been published in Australian Literary Studies and Antipodes. Sign is his debut novel, and has received glowing praise since publication:
“a claustrophobic road-trip thriller… a slow burn of a road novel that creeps into psychological thriller territory, with tension and real menace lurking under an innocuous veneer.” – Sydney Morning Herald
“Sign slowly cranks up the tension and what began as a familial kitchen-sink drama develops into a thriller…Dray uses Sam’s disability to create a fine knot of tension, particularly towards the end” The Australian
“Dray’s set-up is clever and fresh and Sign is unputdownable… an original, cracking read that bodes well for Dray’s future novels.” The Saturday Paper