The thing is, all writing is competitive. Even if all you do is send stuff out to agents, you’re competing against other hopefuls. Even if all you do is self-publish, you’re competing with everyone else out there who’s publishing stuff. The only difference with entering competitions is that there is money involved. Usually (but not always), you have to put up an entrance fee. More importantly, apart from one or two very rare occasions, there is prize money involved.
What it all boils down to is that entering a competition is essentially the same as taking a bet that you are actually as good as you think you are. If you’re right, then you’re quids in. Not only that, but everyone else now knows that you’re as good as you think you are, which is good for your CV. If you’re wrong, at least you know you have work to do, and you’re getting a useful lesson in dealing with rejection. No-one need ever know, either, because the losers’ names are never published.
So how do you go about choosing which competitions to enter? First of all, you need to have plenty of material if you’re going to be taking this seriously (because comps tend to take a dim view of folk who submit the same piece to several places at once). The best way to generate lots of material is to enter the type of competition where you have a short time to write something (a couple of weeks, perhaps, maybe just one week or even an hour or less), usually to a prompt. Most of the stories in my new collection originated in one of these events.
Most of these events are run by writers’ forums, such as The Write Idea (who do the Whittaker Prize) or Café Doom (who have a weekly flash challenge) or Write Invite (who do an unbelievably scary twenty minute flash challenge every week). Believe me, they are fantastic for generating original material – stuff that you never thought you had in you.
So, now that you have your material, you can move onto the secondary level competitions. But how to choose which ones to go in for? Obviously there are the biggies, such as the Bridport, the Fish and Bristol, but while a score there can do wonders for your reputation, you need to be aware that the odds are stacked heavily against you, even if you send in a couple of entries for good luck. So it’s worthwhile taking a look at some of the smaller comps as well, and this is where Sally Quilford’s competitioncalendar is immeasurably useful. Not only is it an excellent reference, but Sally also does a pretty good job of weeding out the ones that are a bit iffy.
Ah yes. It’s an unfortunate fact that some competitions are better run than others. The gold standard, in my experience, is set by the Bristol Short Story Prize: the lists are announced on time, the anthology is of superb quality and you’re treated like royalty if you get as far as the shortlist. However, there are others where the list of winners isn’t so much as announced as permitted to escape, where the promised anthology fails to materialise or even where the prize money itself fails to appear [I seem to remember you had a bad experience with one comp, Dan?*] My advice is to look at who’s running the competition and how long they’ve been doing it, see if you’ve heard of any of the previous winners and see if there’s a named judge that you’ve heard of.
I’ll finish with a few words from the position of someone who’s been a judge. First of all, we get things wrong. We have our own subjective ideas. We may pass over something that the folk at Bridport think is the best thing since Raymond Carver. That’s tough. Deal with it and send it in to someone else. Secondly, we get bored. There is a finite limit to the number of stories about abuse we can read in a day without slitting our wrists. If you can throw in something a bit unusual – maybe even with a spot of humour – you may get our attention, as long as it isn’t trying too hard to be weird. Similarly, an unusual title will work wonders for getting us in the right mood. Finally, even if the maximum word count is 5000, if you can say what you want to say in 500, don’t pad it out.
That’s it, really. What are you waiting for?
Thank you, Jon. That's great advice and a very sensible way of looking at competitions.
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* Yes, my experience wasn't as bad as some (details here), but it proves people should always find out as much as they can before entering a competition.