The National Magazine Awards Foundation is all about celebrating Canadian creators and storytellers. Our mission is to recognize excellence in magazine writing and art production.
At the NMAF we tip our hats to the storytellers who skilfully fill the pages of Canadian magazines. To highlight the hard work and meticulous crafting that goes into creating an NMA-winning piece we’ve produced a portrait series of this year’s winners and nominees, discussing what makes for great storytelling.
“The key to great storytelling is respect for the person whose story it is that and a willingness to develop that trust with them as well as a recognition of the responsibility that you carry as a storyteller. Good storytelling is a way for us to connect to somebody else’s reality. It can capture us in reflecting on an experience we thought was unique to us and that we discover is universal.”
“I really appreciate development of plot at delayed intervals, when the writer can suspend action, but still keep interest in the development of the story. I find that fascinating. That works really well to keep the reader attached to the story as it unfolds.”
“A great story is when I have a lot of different kinds of information coming to me, so I have the person telling me what they remember or what they went through or what they think and I also have documentary evidence, so I see medical records or I see emails from the time or contracts or documents or official letters. I like the detail.”
“If you do a good job in the investigation, the story almost tells itself and so you have a sense of story while you’re doing the investigation. I think another thing, too, that makes for a good and important story is finding people who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to speak.”
“Storytelling is uncovering stories that haven’t been told or finding a new way to tell those stories. In our world, we write a lot about inanimate objects, buildings and bridges, so we rely on good storytelling, simply because we’re not writing about people. We’re writing about things that have been around for 100 years, so it’s about getting that hook in there and getting that hook in there early.”
From left to right: Haley Cullingham, former Editor-in-Chief; Jennifer Varkonyi, Publisher; Anna Minzhulina, Art Director; Daniel Viola, Editor-in-Chief. Daniel Viola (right), Editor-in-Chief: “For me (scenes are) what separates what’s going to be a good story from a great story and a really great story, because that’s what’s interesting – people are interesting, events are interesting. You need to be able to have both the ebbs and the flows of the story, great scenes, research to back it up, all of the context needed, but it’s knowing the role of all these different elements of storytelling and how you put them all together to make an 800-word story or a 2, 000-word story and how you adapt to the length that there is.” Anna Minzhulina (seated), Art Director: “I think that art and the words, they should exist together, but at the same time they should exist separately and individually as well. It’s not necessarily that art should be an illustration of what the story is word-by-word, but it should be an interpretation, not a narration.”
“I think that’s the key to any good storytelling is the listening part, so you need to hear what they have to say and take the time to consider it and string it together. The best part is to have many different voices to make sort-of a tapestry of voices. I think that’s the key to storytelling.”
“I think an underdog makes a great story, because cheering for somebody that you know is going to win is not interesting and exciting. What’s gripping about storytelling is the unexpected and I think most of the time the unexpected is when somebody who doesn’t win, somebody who doesn’t get to talk, somebody who gets ignored finally gets that chance to talk, to win, to say something.”
“It’s through the language of emotion and how we connect as humans that you can tell stories through photography. I think I’m always trying to dig deeper into that level of what people are feeling and where they’re at, at that moment. It’s from being there and immersing yourself in the story that you start to recognize those moments that tell it because you’re side by side with the people who are experiencing it.”
“A great story is when someone, through their artistic intelligence, creates a beautiful shape out of hours or weeks or months or years of total chaos.”
“It all starts with a recipe. The recipes that are in the magazine that are on the cooking show and all of the stuff that you need to make those recipes is available in the store. You walk through the store, you can buy everything that you see on the show, in the magazine; you walk into the restaurant, you will be served the food that is in the magazines, on the TV show – it’s just this symbiotic universe.”
“We try to be indispensable to our readers with our service journalism and we try to be very relevant through our other stories, and just give them a great read, where they sit down and it puts them in the moment. It makes them feel like they recognize that moment and they’re there.”
“(The key to great storytelling is) timelessness! A story that transcends time, that can be told today that’s pertinent to today and that people know that it happened in this era, or you can tell it 20 years from now and people can still glean universal truth from it.”
“You need tension to make it an interesting story. (The most important thing when writing profiles) is that there are as many levels as possible within that person, from public persona to inner struggles. No one’s a simple story and so what you have to do is create that trust so that people will bare those levels of tension and it’s a gift when someone does that with you.”
To learn more about the award winners and nominees from the 2016 awards program, please visit magazine-awards.com. You can also follow this photo series on Instagram (nationalmagazineawards) or by following us on Twitter @MagAwards.
Credit: photos taken by Steve Goetz; interviews conducted by Melissa Myers.
Like the heirloom tomatoes soaking up the sun and the rain and the urban-air particles on this blogger’s Toronto balcony, summer writing season is ripening on the vine, still green with youth but tantalizingly close to fruition.
In his National Magazine Award-winning poem from this year’s NMAs, David McGimpsey writes of the self-defeating anxiety of creating something significant:
There is your life with the coffee-stained pants,
paint-stained pants and oxy-contin-stained pants.
O, your unfinished novel’s hero yearns—
he’s been sleeping on an army cot
in a Wendy’s basement in Los Robles.
Read the entire award-winning poem “The High Road” (Vallum) by David McGimpsey.
Summer is no time to put off writing. Be inspired to create your next work of poetry, fiction or personal essay. Take the opportunity to finish your latest literary creation and submit it to a Canadian magazine writing contest.
Our annual Summer Contest Guide provides a list of contests via Canadian magazines (or magazine-related organizations) open to unpublished works of Fiction, Poetry, Creative non-fiction and Photography. And check out our Canadian Literary Magazine Guide for other ideas for where to submit your work.
Please note: This list is organized chronologically by deadline dates from June 22 to September 22. If you know of a contest we missed, please email us or grab us on Twitter @MagAwards and we’ll update our guide.
At the start of summer, fall, and early spring, the National Magazine Awards Foundation publishes a comprehensive list of magazine writing contests and prizes. These contests are great opportunities for emerging writers and poets to establish their presence in CanLit. Michael Prior is one such emerging writer, and in just a few years he’s compiled an impressive record of Canadian magazine publications and contest wins.
Doggedly submitting his work to numerous literary publications, between 2013 and 2015 Michael placed in over a dozen competitions and garnered scores of publications in literary journals and magazines across Canada.
His success as a poet has evolved from literary publications to small-press chapbooks–Swan Dive (Frog Hollow Press, 2014) included poetry first published in The Walrus, Lemon Hound and the Winnipeg Review—to a debut, book-length collection recently published by Véhicule Press: Model Disciple (Spring 2016).
Recently the NMAF caught up with Michael, currently pursuing an MFA at Cornell University, to chat about magazine contests and building a career as a writer.
NMAF: Your poetry career emerged quite recently and has been moving at breakneck-speed. How and when did you first set foot in the world of Canadian poetry, and why were you drawn to this world?
Michael Prior: I think, like a lot of other writers, I was nudged into this by a series of passionate teachers and professors. I had always liked poetry, but it wasn’t until later in my undergrad that I actually began to read poems deeply. And then, when I did, they became these fascinating and visceral experiences: Dickinson took off the top of my head. Lowell made me feel like my mind was in a vise. Bishop asked me to look more carefully until the act of looking became a way of thinking.
NMAF: “To Hunt” (2013) garnered you your first poetry contest win: 2nd place in Echolocation’s Chase Chapbook Competition. You were in Vancouver at the time; what drew you to submitting to the Toronto-based Echolocation? What did it mean to win, and what happened—personally and professionally—next?
Michael Prior: Well, I’m not sure anything happened immediately, but placing second certainly gave me a little more confidence. I hadn’t been making poems for long at that point, and I remember having received a few rejections around the same time, so it was a nice validation to think that someone liked something I had written.
NMAF: You’ve since won poetry contests in acclaimed Canadian magazines, such as Vallum, Grain, The Walrus, and Matrix Magazine. There are often financial incentives to entering magazine writing contests, but what are some of the not-so-obvious perks? (Winning the Matrix Lit POP Award, for instance, includes tickets to POP Montreal and offers poets the opportunity to present on stage.)
But in terms of less tangible perks, I would argue that the primary benefit of literary magazine contests is that most are run through a blind submission process; that is, the readers and judges aren’t permitted to see the authors’ names, and therefore have to judge the work on its own merits without the context of a writer’s corpus, their stature in a literary community—in theory, this should level the playing field a bit for less-established writers.
But of course, the factors involved in any contest’s outcome are undeniably complex. There are aspects of contest culture that might favour certain aesthetics, certain experiences, certain types of poems about certain things. Connected to this is the question of who’s actually entering literary magazine contests. Economic means can be an obstacle to submitting (contests usually cost around $30 to enter, which is a lot for someone struggling to make ends meet) and identity can also be a determining factor: writers of colour may be uneasy about sending their work to prizes if the judge is of European descent, while LGBTTQI writers may apprehensive about submitting to a contest judged by a cisgender, straight individual.
Regardless of whether one wins, or doesn’t, I think it’s important to remember that placing in a contest is only a small measure of success. What matters is that one keeps writing and reading and writing.
I do think, however, that contests present an important opportunity for writers, as long as one takes their inscription of hierarchies, their tendencies, with a grain of salt; the magazines that run contests should be thinking (if they aren’t already) about how to attract more diverse submissions from diverse writers. Mostly, I hope that judges and readers are doing their best to be respectful, empathetic, imaginative, and inclusive when considering contest submissions.
NMAF: Which Canadian literary magazines are on your reading list right now?
Michael Prior: There are many great Canadian literary magazines, though due to budget constraints I have to rotate subscriptions. Right now, the stack of periodicals on my bedside table includes issues of Ricepaper, Poetry is Dead, The New Quarterly, Canadian Notes and Queries, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Fiddlehead.
I do my best to keep up with Canada’s burgeoning online publications, and like many of the poet folk I know, I eagerly await each new issue of The Puritan and TheRusty Toque. Also online: the poet Robin Richardson recently founded the Minola Review in order to create a unique publishing space for women, femme-identifying, and non-binary writers; the influential website Lemon Hound, though no longer publishing, remains an important archive; and Plenitude Magazine continues to publish and promote the work of LGBTTQI writers in Canada.
Needless to say, I think it’s apparent that there’s a lot of exciting work happening among Canada’s many literary magazines, of which I’ve only mentioned a small number, and I’m very grateful for all the editors and staff who volunteer countless hours to sift through the submissions and support new work.
NMAF: While completing your Master’s at the University of Toronto, you were a Poetry Editor at Echolocation. You’re now an MFA candidate at Cornell, and an Assistant Editor at Cornell’s Epoch Magazine. How does a magazine editor at a small press literary journal go about attracting new writing talent and new readers? As an editor, what do you look for in poetry submissions?
Michael Prior: To answer the first part of your question, I think an engaged editor obviously needs to read widely: books, journals, websites, blogs, and all the other places poems might be proliferating. This is undoubtedly time consuming—we’re all busy, and resources tend to be scarce at small magazines—but I think this sort of effort is essential to fostering a magazine’s ethos, which emerges over time through both the work an editor solicits, and the work an editor accepts from the slush pile. This becomes an even harder thing to foster at a student-run journal, where the staff changes every year.
Editorial work, in my opinion, requires a simultaneously historical and forward-looking perspective (what has happened, what is happening, what will happen next / what might I like to see happening more in the future). Editors are unavoidably gate-keepers. There’s no way around it: a magazine cannot, nor should it try to be, everything at once (though its scope of interest need not be narrow)—what’s important is that the literary landscape is able to support a diverse range of publications, and by extension, a diverse range of editors.
And of course, I believe editors should always be questioning what they like and why. As Jim Johnstone once said to me, it’s much easier to quickly dismiss a piece of writing than it is to spend the time and learn how it’s asking to be read. Some writing opens up in unexpected ways with a little persistence.
As for what I personally look for in a submission, well, I’m interested in poems that are compelling experiences, surprising experiences, experiences that are emotionally complex and powerful—poems that have something at stake beyond language as a game of phonemic pick-up sticks. Memorability is often a good marker of this for me: if I am re-experiencing a poem at unexpected times (while riding the bus, or when walking a corgi) moments when the poem is not right in front of me, that’s usually a good sign.
I am also interested in a poem’s formal qualities, especially its engagement with what has preceded it—its conversation with other poems, traditions, and modes. In other words, how aware is the poem of the fact it wasn’t written in a vacuum? This isn’t to say I’m only interested in canonically inherited formal structures (though I am a sucker for a well-written sonnet): I’m as equally enraptured by Alexandra Oliver’s metrical brilliance as I am by Alice Fulton’s fractal poetics or Cathy Park Hong’s renovation of the ballad form through lipogrammatic constraints.
NMAF: As both a writer and editor, what advice do you have for those new poets who have yet to enter a magazine writing contest?
Michael Prior: While it’s nice to win, entering a contest can be a helpful creative impetus: use the contest as a deadline to generate new work; use the contest as a way to support an admired publication; use the contest to hopefully get one’s work before the eyes of a favourite writer.
And regardless of whether one wins, or doesn’t, I think it’s important to remember that placing in a contest is only a small measure of success. What matters is that one keeps writing and reading and writing.
Michael Prior’s Model Disciplewas released on March 29th, 2016. Véhicule Press has declared it “one of the most commanding poetic debuts in years” and the CBC included Model Disciple on their Spring 2016 Books Preview. Model Disciple is available in bookstores and for order now.
Michael holds an MA in English with a Creative Thesis from the University of Toronto, where he was the poetry editor of Echolocation. He’s now a poetry candidate at Cornell University, and an assistant poetry editor at Epoch Magazine. Though living in America, he’s still actively publishing in Canadian magazines, with work recently appearing in recent issues of The Puritan and Canadian Notes and Queries. He also has poems forthcoming in Ricepaperand The Fiddlehead. Discover more at MichaelPrior.ca and on Twitter @MichaelPrior06.
Special thanks to Leah Edwards for researching and conducting this interview on behalf of the NMAF.
The nominees for the 39th annual National Magazine Awards will be announced on Monday,. May 2, 2016. Follow us right here on this blog or on Twitter (@MagAwards) to find out who will be the finalists this year.
Winter. A shivery season not only conducive to externalizing our inner narratives in poetry and prose, but also which leaves us, as we curl under heirloom quilts with cups of tea, prone to daydreaming. Michael Pollan, in A Place of My Own–a bestseller in which the author writes the biography of his own writing cabin in the woods–used the daydream as metaphor for the writer’s first draft. “A fair amount of what [writers] call work,” wrote Pollan, “consists of little more than daydreaming edited.” He went on:
Isn’t it in our daydreams that we acquire some sense of what we are about? Where we try on futures and practice our voices before committing ourselves to words or deeds? Daydreaming is where we go to cultivate the self, or more likely selves, out of the view and earshot of other people. Without daydreams, the self is apt to shrink down to the size and shape of the estimation of others.
Like Thoreau, Shaw, Woolf and her Room of One’s Own, and countless others, Pollan understood that daydreaming depended “on a certain degree of solitude,” and resolved to build a cabin to allow his daydreaming to flourish. “What is a book but a daydream at second hand?”
Wherever you find yourself writing this winter and spring, these Canadian magazine contests may be just what you’re daydreaming for.
All contests and awards listed below accept previously unpublished works of Canadian poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction; listed in chronological order by deadline date. (If you know one that we missed, please let us know.)
Narrative Magazine Winter 2016 Story Contest Genres: Non-fiction; Fiction; Graphic Narratives; Photo Essays Deadline: March 31, 2016 Prize: $2,500 (1st); $1000 (2nd); $500 (3rd); $100 (finalists) Entry Fee: $24 Details: http://www.narrativemagazine.com/winter-2016-story-contest Notes: Entries can be short stories, essays, memoirs, photo essays, graphic stories, all forms of literary nonfiction, and excerpts from longer works of both fiction and nonfiction. Entries must be previously unpublished, no longer than 15,000 words, and must not have been previously chosen as a winner, finalist, or honorable mention in another contest.
Alice Munro Festival Short Story Contest Genre: Short Fiction (max 2500 words; separate categories for adults and youths) Deadline: April 1, 2016 Prizes: $1,500 (adults prize); $500 (youth prize); $500 (Arts & Letters Club Special Prize) Entry Fee: $25 (adults); $10 (youth) Details: http://alicemunrofestival.ca/?page_id=1317 Note: New this year, there is a special category for an emerging GTA author between the ages of 20 – 30. Sponsored by the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto. Must be living in the GTA or have grown up in that area.
The New Quarterly Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award Genre: Fiction Deadline: May 28, 2016 Prize: $1000 + publication Entry Fee: $40; includes subscription Details: http://www.tnq.ca/contests Note: All submissions will be considered for paid publication ($250) in the magazine.
One of the perks of being a published creator of magazine content is the right to receive benefits—including royalties on shared and republished content—pertaining to the copyright of your creative work. The most effective and comprehensive way to gain access to these benefits is to affiliate with Access Copyright Canada.
Access Copyright is a national non-profit organization that represents over 11,000 Canadian writers, visual artists and publishers. Their mandate is to facilitate the sharing of published content, via licensing agreements with professional and education services, and ensure appropriate rewards for creators and publishers.
To affiliate with Access Copyright, you need only own the copyright to at least one work that is published in print (magazine, newspaper, book, journal). There is no fee to affiliate; Access Copyright keeps a small percentage of royalties to cover its administrative costs. All other proceeds are passed directly to the creator in the form of an annual Payback.
Since 1977 the National Magazine Awards Foundation has been recognizing excellence in the content and creation of Canadian magazines. Each year the Foundation grants more than $60,000 in prize money to award-winning writers, illustrators, photographers and other creators, and bestows the honour and industry recognition of a National Magazine Award to the publishers, editors, art directors and other staff of more than 75 nominated publications.
And although that may be reason enough to enter, many previous winners are happy to give us more.
1. New readers. Award-winning magazines attract new readers who are hungry for great stories.
We did feel that if we were lucky enough to get noticed at the National Magazine Awards in our first year of eligibility it would help us spread the word of what we are about and who we are trying to reach. The NMAs mean a great deal to people in the magazine industry and to writers in general; they indicate what is working at a high level and signal to the country what might be worth paying attention to.
—Curtis Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Eighteen Bridges
2. Bragging Rights. Be able to tell your readers that you are delivering the best and most credible content, recognized by your peers in the magazine industry.
It is immensely gratifying, on a professional level, when our team and contributors earn a National Magazine Award, or simply garner a nomination for that matter. It’s yet another measurement of how well we are serving our audience, based on the criteria for magazine excellence as determined by our industry peers.
—Patrick Walsh, editor-in-chief of Outdoor Canada
Le plus grand mérite revient au journaliste qui l’écrit, mais le choix du sujet, la révision, le choix des titres et surtout l’encadrement pendant la recherche et la rédaction sont aussi d’une importance capitale et font souvent la différence entre un reportage «publiable» et une œuvre remarquable. Quant à nos lecteurs, ils sont toujours impressionnés de voir notre récolte de prix. Je crois que cela renforce notre crédibilité.
—Pascale Millot, ancienne rédactrice du magazine Québec Science
3. Get Noticed. With a National Magazine Award, writers and artists find new audiences for their creative work and talent.
The NMA is a big award and I’m extremely grateful to have won it. I’m sure it has done quite a bit to promote my work and lift my profile as a documentary photographer. Above all else, I’m happy that this award brought the story to more viewers.
—Ian Willms, NMA-winning photographer
Winning the NMA gave me confidence in my writing, which I never really had before. [It] also got my work noticed. After I won Best New Magazine Writer, the essay was selected to appear in the Best Canadian Essays 2013anthology, alongside some very successful writers. It is an amazing honour that I feel would not have happened without the National Magazine Awards.
—Sierra Skye Gemma, winner of the 2012 NMA for Best New Magazine Writer
4. Book Deal? Publishers take notice of award-winning work, and a National Magazine Award could be a step towards launching a book project.
The National Magazine Award was crucial into shifting [my]feature into a book project. After the magazine award, I received a few phone calls from literary agents, inquiring about the possibility of a book. I am sure the NMA helped [my agent] in the all-important pitch to book editors and marketing departments; to be able to say the idea had already garnered a Gold Award from the community of magazine journalists.
—Joshua Knelman, NMA winner and author of Hot Art
I got a lot of great feedback and everyone at the magazine was effusive and full of praise. It was very validating and it really encouraged me to continue the novel. Or it certainly put a skip in my step as I was finishing the rest of it: knowing that people had taken a peek at it and had approved.
—Heather O’Neill, NMA winner and author of Lullabies for Little Criminals
5. Find Your Next Job. Award-winning writers are better able to find new editors and publishers interested in their work.
The impact of this award was stunning. Here I was, writing from an isolated basement office in Vancouver, and all of a sudden my work is being recognized nationally. Personally, it was an unbelievable affirmation that the sacrifices I’d made to leave a twenty-year corporate consulting career had been worth it. Professionally, it was a game changer. The NMA nominations provided me with an entrée into one of the country’s top literary agencies. I met with and acquired [an] agent the day of the awards ceremony. In short, I believe that the recognition of the National Magazine Awards catapulted me from the ground floor of my writing profession to the penthouse suite.
—Carol Shaben, NMA winner and author of Into the Abyss
6. Promote Your Innovations. Magazines are growing, and we’re growing with them. The NMAF recognizes achievement in digital content creation and all other enterprising magazine journalism.
It’s a great honour to be recognized by peers who work across subjects and venues in journalism. It seems to be increasingly true that readers can expect good writing and reporting in many places—blogs, web pages, etc.—and it’s wonderful that the NMA recognizes that with its awards categories.
—Julia Belluz, winner of the 2012 National Magazine Award for Best Blog
Un prix est le couronnement de nos efforts, la reconnaissance qu’on a atteint notre objectif. Personne ne se sent obligé de lire un magazine pour être au courant de l’actualité. Les journaux, la télévision et les nouvelles en continu sur le Web nous livrent une rude compétition. C’est à nous, artisans des magazines, de proposer des histoires inédites, des angles nouveaux et surprenants pour nous rendre indispensables aux yeux du grand public.
—Catherine Dubé, lauréate et journaliste chez L’actualité
7. Build Your Confidence. Freelancing is one of the most challenging pursuits for an artist or journalist, and sometimes even lonely. Awards and nominations are benchmarks of progress.
Whenever I felt that I was hopelessly inept and dark voices inside were telling me to give up, I would defer to other people’s opinions (such as those giving out awards) and carry on. Of course the prize money is helpful in funding the next project, and it is good fun to go to the awards evenings. I don’t think anyone will deny that recognition from your peers is especially gratifying.
—Roger LeMoyne, NMA-winning photojournalist
The National Magazine Award was a vote of confidence that I was in the right line of work. We all need a thumbs-up from the world sometimes, as we toil away in the studio.
—Jillian Tamaki, NMA-winning illustrator
Winning that NMA was especially rewarding because the story was quite personal. As well, the story had been rejected by numerous magazines before AlbertaViews picked it up. That fact made the win even more gratifying, and dulled the sting from those rejections.
—Jeremy Klaszus, NMA-winning writer
8. Celebrate Your Creators. Editors, publishers and art directors have the opportunity to reward the creative talent that helps their magazines sell copies and connect with readers.
An award is useful for communicating to our stakeholders that we are successful. It adds momentum to what we do every day at the magazine… We create content to satisfy our readers, not to win awards. But it is our creators who get the awards and the cash prize, and for an editor, that’s an honour.
—Sarah Fulford, editor-in-chief of Toronto Life
9. Even a Nomination is a Celebration. We all start at the beginning, and just getting our work out there, and getting it noticed, is a step on the path to success.
As a young artist, it is a great honour to be recognized nationally, which in turn provides many assurances of support for my career. I was thrilled to be nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2009 even though I only received a honourable mention. Even with greater astonishment, [in 2011] I was called up on stage to receive the Gold award. An award not only provides charming publicity but it raises the standards in my work and, therefore, produces a wonderful opportunity to surpass my previous accomplishments.
—Selena Wong, NMA-winning illustrator
10. Believe in What We Do.After all, magazines are the medium of creativity, passion and a deep engagement with our readers.
I think we should always believe in what we do. Successful magazine stories have that ‘wow’ factor, and with everything we do we try to achieve that. You know that story matters, that content matters. If you believe you achieved success then you should enter the National Magazine Awards, because then you’ll know if your peers agree; that it made them say, ‘wow.’
—Carole Beaulieu, editor-in-chief of L’actualité
At last June’s MagNet magazines conference in Toronto, a golden panel of industry experts gathered to present a session called “Going for Gold: How to Create Award-Winning Content,” moderated by Deborah Rosser, president of Rosser & Associates.
The panellists were:
Carole Beaulieu, publisher and editor-in-chief of L’actualité, winner of more than 50 National Magazine Awards since she became EIC in 1998;
Sarah Fulford, editor-in-chief of Toronto Life, the most-nominated magazine at last year’s NMAs and former winner of Magazine of the Year (2007);
David Hayes, freelance writer (nominated for 14 NMAs during his career, winning a gold and a silver award) and member of the board of directors of the National Magazine Awards Foundation (NMAF);
Domenic Macri, art director at Report on Business and winner of 6 NMAs for his design and creative direction;
Patrick Walsh, editor-in-chief and brand manager of Outdoor Canada, winner of 21 National Magazine Awards since 1987, and former president of the NMAF.
Risk and Reward: The moderator began by asking each of the panellists to present the story of a challenging piece that won a National Magazine Award, and what lessons they took from the experience.
Sarah Fulford spoke about how breaking the rules helped Toronto Life to a surprise NMA win for best magazine cover of 2008. Sarah said she and her then art director Jessica Rose, whom she hired with this specific challenge in mind, took big risks on a cover about gun violence in Toronto, as they bucked the conventions for cover design with small cover lines and other elements reflecting thinking outside the box. The issue sold well on the newsstand and also impressed the NMA judges that year, as they gave it a Gold.
Domenic Macri spoke in a similar vein about a magazine cover that won Gold the following year, 2009, at the NMAs. The Julie Dickson cover presented a challenge because the editors had agreed not to put her portrait on the magazine cover. Domenic showed the audience several of his drafts and mockups that he went through on his way to finally developing the final cover, saying that what he learned from the experience was although there are certain elements required of a good cover, “you don’t have to take the same approach all the time. I think we won the award because we came up with new directions, and because of the words.”
David Hayes mentioned an episode from 1990 when a feature story he’d written for Toronto Life wasn’t entered for an NMA that year, and after talking with his editor, who said he wasn’t able to enter the piece that year due to budget constraints, he learned that he could enter the NMAs himself. Several years later he took that experience to heart when he again discovered that an editor wouldn’t enter his story, so he entered it himself and it ended up winning Gold. “You never know what the jury will decide,” he reminded the audience, “so as a writer if you are proud of your work you should enter it.”
Patrick Walsh described the story of a controversial article he commissioned about the death of a hunter in Newfoundland, called “Another Fine Day Afield.” As an editor he felt that the story hadn’t been covered well in other media, and though it would be a legal, financial and editorial challenge to pursue the story for Outdoor Canada, he decided to take the risk. The risk paid off when the magazine story he published was picked up by CBC’s The Fifth Estate and NBC’s Inside Edition, and his writer Charles Wilkins won a Gold National Magazine Award in Sports & Recreation.
Carole Beaulieu also touted the benefits of taking risks and believing in the work you produce. She talked about a piece from last year she commissioned from a writer about Pauline Marois. Although Quebec news had been saturated with stories about the premier, Carole felt there was room for more if they could find the right angle and give it the right depth. She sent her writer to spend time with Mdm Marois at her hairdresser’s, achieving a kind of intimate portrait not yet seen, and L’actualité created a newsprint insert–what it is now calling a “mini-book” and making a semi-regular feature for the magazine–to accommodate the 16-page story. And at this year’s NMAs, “L’éttoffe d’un premier ministre,” by journalist Noémi Mercier, won Gold in Profiles.
Quote-Unquote: On the significance of winning a National Magazine Award and why we strive for award-winning content.
Sarah: “An award is useful for communicating to our stakeholders that we are successful. It adds momentum to what we do every day at the magazine… We create content to satisfy our readers, not to win awards. But it is our creators who get the awards and the cash prize, and for an editor, that’s an honour.”
David: “As writers, what we have is our reputation, and what we create should stand on its own. Awards are a feather in your cap, not the cap itself.”
Patrick: “We won because the story was beautifully written, because it was longform [5000 words]… We also took risks and winning the award was a measure of that.”
Carole: “I think we should always believe in what we do. Successful magazine stories have that ‘wow’ factor, and with everything we do we try to achieve that. You know that story matters, that content matters. If you believe you achieved success then you should enter, because then you’ll know if your peers [the jury] agree; that it made them say, ‘wow.'”
The Bottom Line: The moderator asked each panellist to distill one piece of advice for winning a National Magazine Award.
Domenic: Strive for strong collaboration between editorial and art in creating your content. Success is a product of a strong team.
Carole: Don’t take things too seriously. Trust your instincts and never give up on a great story.
Sarah: The most successful pieces are the ones where the creators were passionate and took risks.
Patrick: Be strategic, because the more you enter the more you are likely to win. If your aim is to win awards then enter as much as you can.
David: Advice to writers: write well. And advice to editors: hire writers who write well.
In Summary: Accept challenges, take risks, think differently, be passionate, find (or be) the best creator, work together, never give up on a good story, believe in your work and enter as much as you can. That, and always strive for the ‘wow’ factor!
On behalf of the Canadian magazine industry, thank you to the panellists for sharing your wisdom.