Thinking of submitting to the CBC Nonfiction Prize? Here are 10 tips from writers who know what it takes
'Your story is important and the world is waiting to read it.'
The 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize is open now for submissions, and the winner will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books. They will also attend a writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point, a cultural hub on Toronto Island.
You can submit memoir, biography, humour writing, essay, personal essay travel writing and feature articles up to 2,000 words. The deadline to submit is Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. ET.
We know that submitting to a literary prize can be a daunting task. That's why we spoke to some recent CBC Nonfiction Prize winners and finalists as well as this year's three jurors to ask them what advice they have for those who might be thinking about submitting or are still undecided about it.
1. Trust the words
Cayenne Bradley says: "No story is too dark to be made into art. Trust the words to carry the weight of your truth. Finding the right language to describe your deepest wounds doesn't just liberate you, it builds lighthouses for those who are navigating through their own traumatic past. Your story is important and the world is waiting to read it."
Your story is important and the world is waiting to read it.- Cayenne Bradley
Cayenne Bradley was a finalist for the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize.
Bradley is a writer living in Victoria. They won first place in Event's 2021 Non-Fiction Contest and Room's 2020 Short Forms contest. Their work can be found in publications such as Contemporary Verse 2, Plenitude and the Temz Review. They have a BFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia.
2. Connect with your reader
David A. Robertson says: "Stories are all about connections. If you're able to connect with your reader, you will be able to achieve a lasting and meaningful engagement. We make connections by recognizing shared experiences — the good and the bad. A memoir is intimate and personal, but it can also be something that enables you to reach a wide readership. That's because if you write about your own struggles, you'll find others who've struggled. To make that connection, you have to be able to go there. That means having the courage to be fully, emotionally honest. Doing that is cathartic for you, for the reader and creates the perfect condition for your best work."
If you write about your own struggles, you'll find others who've struggled.- David A. Robertson
David A. Robertson is a juror for the 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize.
Robertson is a Cree writer from Winnipeg who writes books for readers of all ages. He has published several books across a variety of genres, including the graphic novels Breakdown, Will I See? and Sugar Falls; the picture books When We Were Alone and On the Trapline, both of which were illustrated by Julie Flett; the Misewa YA series; the memoir Black Water; and the novel The Theory of Crows.
Robertson also hosted the CBC Manitoba podcast Kiwew and is the editorial director of a new children's imprint dedicated to publishing Indigenous writers and illustrators at Penguin Random House Canada.
3. Get the good kind of feedback
Susan Cormier says: "Get feedback and writing from people who know writing well — not from people who know you well. If you rely on your friends and family to critique your work, you are likely to get only positive platitudes, because it is their job to support and encourage you.
You can only learn from someone who is more knowledgeable and skilled than you are.- Susan Cormier
"If you want to improve and grow as a writer, turn to people who are better or more experienced writers than you. You can only learn from someone who is more knowledgeable and skilled than you are."
Susan Cormier won the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize.
Cormier is a Métis writer, filmmaker, performer and beekeeper. By day, she is a beekeeper and co-owner of C.R. Apiary in Langley, B.C. By night, she is the producer of Vancouver Story Slam. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Atlantis Women's Studies Journal, B&A New Fiction, West Coast Line and the anthologies Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary B.C. Poets and Against Death: 35 Essays on Living.
4. Focus and centre yourself
Kerissa Dickie says: "You might have used a calming technique for anxiety where you close your eyes and pay complete attention to your surroundings. You focus on four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell, etc. It's meant to calm your thoughts and centre yourself in the moment.
"I find it's also a great tool to use when writing, especially when handled strategically. What is something sensory that's unexpected or mundane that your character notices in their unique environment? Let us slip into their skin by expressing the sensations they are feeling around them. It's a great way to show versus tell, too."
Let us slip into their skin by expressing the sensations they are feeling around them.- Kerissa Dickie
Kerissa Dickie was a finalist for the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize.
Dickie is a Dene writer from Fort Nelson First Nation. Her work has been published in the anthologies Initiations: A Selection of Young Native Writings and Impact: Colonialism in Canada and in magazines and newspapers such as Beaver and Windspeaker.
5. Read to be a better (and inspired) writer
Eternity Martis says: "This advice is often given to writers, but I do think it's tried and true. Think about the kind of writing you want to achieve and the kind of stories you want to tell, then read stories that do those successfully. What features, memoirs, books and other stories do you love? Why does the writing move you? How is the story framed? How do they use time, structure and language? How does it make you feel?
"By reading and studying other writing, you begin to develop a sense of how to accomplish that in your own work. Reading these stories can also inspire you to write. There have been many times where I've had writer's block and opened a good book. After reading a few pages, I'm inspired and ready to start writing again. You can learn so many new things simply from reading stories that match the kind of writing you want to achieve and stories you want to tell."
By reading and studying other writing, you begin to develop a sense of how to accomplish that in your own work.- Eternity Martis
Eternity Martis is a juror for the 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize.
Martis is a journalist and editor living in Toronto. She is the author of the memoir They Said This Would Be Fun, which won the 2021 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for nonfiction. She teaches journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University. Her writing has appeared in media outlets across North America, including Vice, Huffington Post, The Walrus, Hazlitt, The Fader, Salon and CBC.
6. Be brave, take a chance on yourself
Leslie A. Davidson says: "You have to be brave to be a writer, to submit, accept rejection and carry on. It's hard and it's humbling and it can shake your confidence but you are in incredibly talented company. There is always that hope, the possibility that you could be longlisted, or shortlisted, or win. It won't happen if you don't get that piece in the best shape you can and write with the intention of reaching out, heart to heart. It won't happen if you don't take a chance on yourself. If you don't, no one else will."
You have to be brave to be a writer, to submit, accept rejection and carry on.- Leslie A. Davidson
Leslie A. Davidson won the 2016 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize.
Davidson is the author of two children's books, In the Red Canoe and The Sun is a Shine, and the memoir Dancing in Small Spaces. She lives in Revelstoke, B.C.
7. Learn to love revision
Y. S. Lee says: "Learn to love revision. When I finish a draft of a poem, I've done all I can with it. It feels good. Often, I think the work is tight and pretty much complete but maybe in need of a light polish. I set it aside for a few days. When I come back to that draft, I've gained perspective. I can see where it needs pruning, or expansion, or more restraint, or a sideways leap. Revisions continue like this through a dozen drafts, often more. I'm always so glad for the extra time to sift and refine the work."
Y. S. Lee was a finalist for the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize.
Lee is a writer living in Kingston, Ont. She is the author of the YA mystery series The Agency. Her poems appear in publications such as Event, Room, Rattle and the Literary Review of Canada. Her poem Saturday morning, East Pender Street was longlisted for the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize.
8. Pay attention to the small details
Jane Ozkowski says: "My writing tip is to pay attention. Remember the receptionist's chapped lips or the single glow stick caught in a gutter on a rainy night and weave these tiny miracles into your piece. The small yet specific details of everyday life are what turn a story from words on a page into something that feels real."
The small yet specific details of everyday life are what turn a story from words on a page into something that feels real- Jane Ozkowski
Jane Ozkowski was a finalist for the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize.
Ozkowski is a writer from Bloomfield, Ont. Her writing has appeared in the National Post, Vice, and the Walrus. She is also the author of the YA novel, Watching Traffic.
9. Focus on the story
Merilyn Simonds says: "Writing is not publishing. When you are creating, your contract is with the story. Do everything you can to bring the story fully to the page. Don't think about winning that prize or being accepted by that agent, or getting a contract from that publisher. It's just you and the story. Give it the best words you've got."
Do everything you can to bring the story fully to the page.- Merilyn Simonds
Merilyn Simonds is a juror for the 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize.
Simonds is a writer from Kingston, Ont. who has written 20 books, including the nonfiction books The Convict Lover, Gutenberg's Fingerprint and the novel Refuge. She is the founder and first artistic director of the Kingston WritersFest. Her latest book, Woman, Watching, was published in 2022.
10. Let the story guide you
Chanel M. Sutherland says: "One of the greatest joys of writing, for me, are those moments when I surprise myself. It usually happens in a first draft, where I allow myself to let go a bit and let the story take me wherever it wishes to. You never know what you'll find just around the corner of that last sentence. There's a deliciousness to that mystery, one that brings me back to the page eager to see what happens next."
You never know what you'll find just around the corner of that last sentence.- Chanel M. Sutherland
Chanel M. Sutherland is a two-time CBC Literary Prize winner: she won the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize and the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize.
She is the recipient of the 2022 Mairuth Sarsfield Mentorship, a component of the Quebec Writers' Federation Fresh Pages initiative. Born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Chanel moved to Montreal when she was 10 years old. She holds a BA in English literature from Concordia University and is currently writing her first book.