Writing competitions might save your life. Unless you’re keen on starving for your art, in which case you should probably stop reading now.
Writing competitions are the lowest common denominator of literary prizes. And I mean that in the best way possible.
Because we may be living in an era when writing competitions have become the new – if not only – way of submitting work when you’re an unknown writer. I don’t know how long this era might last, but I’m so totally going to try to surf the wave whilst it’s there, and see what happens.
For those authors of literary fiction so high-browed that their hairlines meet their eyelashes, there are the fancy competitions, the ones with big name sponsors and deep-pocketed prizes, generating headlines to beat the band and, if you’re shortlisted, book sales you could never have dreamt of otherwise.
But for those of us on the bottom rung of the ladder – writing competitions are even BETTER.
Without really realising it, I’ve been following a strategy in the last few months, by entering any and every writing competition which looked promising. And it’s just occurred to me that depending on how things go over the next few months, I will have either bypassed the traditional submission process entirely, kick-started my attempt to woo the powers-that-be with a better CV than I would have had otherwise, or added considerably more weight to a self-publishing endeavour. Either way, it’s a positive, and you don’t get too many of them this early in the year.
So what makes writing competitions such a good idea for emerging writers? Well, come here ’til I tell you.
There is a very good chance you may never finish that highly literary 3,000 word short story about one man’s struggle with post-modernist troglodytism, unless you’re writing to a deadline. And let’s face it, for 90% of writers, there are no deadlines, unless you’re talking about a closing date for a competition. So go ahead and pick one.
2. It Helps To Avoid Slush Piles
Here’s what happens when you submit to a publishing or agent slush pile:
January 23rd 2010: Finished quadruple-checking my manuscript today. I’m so excited. After 6 months of research, I’m truly confident that W.R. Frightfully-Warbly is the agent best suited to my work. It was such a rush seeing that envelope disappear over the counter in the post office. After all that effort, I can finally take a breath!
July 16th 2010: Finally managed to get through to W.R. Frightfully-Warbly’s office and spoke to a lovely young gentleman by the name of Jackstard who’s working there for the summer. He says W.R. has been flat out at important book fairs, but Jackstard will personally seek out my MS from the Submission Vault and put it on the great man’s desk. Find myself getting excited again!
January 25th 2011: Still no word from W.R Frightfully-Warbly. No sign of him either, for weeks now. And this flat I’ve rented across the road from his office is overrun with vermin.
February 6th 2013: Feeling quite weak… I have not eaten for 6 days, ever since the exterminator was called in… And now I find out that W.R. Frightfully-Warbly stopped taking unsolicited submissions in 2009. Why wasn’t I told?
Even if your wife/best friend/secret lover was sitting next to that coveted agent’s right-hand man at dinner, and managed to get them to agree to have a look at your manuscript, and you duly sent it in, and the right-hand man actually held it in his hands, you have no guarantees or even likelihood that anyone in the office read more than:
a) The first line
b) Your name
c) The title
d) Twenty-seven Daily Mail Showbiz articles
4. There Is Major Kudos in Longlists and Shortlists
Some people really do think that only winning counts. This is complete rubbish. Being a runner-up can kick ass. As I said in this post, sometimes it’s really not that bad being the one who minds the handbags during the slowset.
Take pride in your short- or long-listings. Shout them from the rooftops. Because what you’re really saying is that you have proof that somebody in the business read your stuff before, and liked it enough to put a check mark on it. It’s more important than you think.
5. YOU MIGHT WIN
Isn’t this obvious? Your stuff is good, you know it is! Of course you might win! Just make sure to get the damned thing edited before you send it in!
So What Should You Be Entering?
The more competitions I see (and there are more and more of them, especially novel competitions), the more I like them, because it seems like there’s a nice balance at the moment, of just enough competitions: neither so many of them that they’re rendered meaningless, nor so few of them that they’re impenetrable. Some I’ve entered have had fewer than 500 entries. When you think about it, taking into account the luck associated with the unpredictable zeitgeistiness of genre, those odds aren’t that bad.
It also seems like not too many people have copped just yet how utterly splendid an opportunity writing competitions are: so the submission process hasn’t yet become so clogged as to render competitions useless. (No need to worry about me spilling the beans here. Fewer people read this blog than I hope you suspect.)
Just pick the right prize. Make sure the competition is linked to a reputable publisher or arts body and be hugely suspicious of any that charge you vast amounts to enter. In fact, if they’re really looking for new talent, they really should be free.
So go on: pick a prize (and flaunt your arty bits). You might be left on the shelf otherwise.
Have you any competition tips? Please do tell… what goes around, comes around, after all!