1) It’s great practice – far better for a budding writer to make mistakes on an imperfect short story, than spend months to years on a poor novel
2) With a short story, you may actually get the satisfaction of finishing something! (Which is not to say short stories are easy – they’re a very different discipline to novels and certainly not easy to do well – perhaps a topic for another blog post…?)
3) With a ‘catalogue’ of short fiction under your belt, it’s a way to build up a profile – especially if you can get some competition wins to add to your CV.
Competitions, then. Winning them (provided they’re reputable ones of course!) is a sure fire way to critical acclaim, wider attention and, in most cases, publication of the winning story. What’s not to like?
Over the past year or so I’ve tried my hand with a few. Usually, of course, I’ve failed to make any mark whatsoever. This is par for the course: rejections are part of writing, as any writer (or wannabe writer) should know. I’ve worked out, as a rough guess, that the chances of making any kind of win or placing in any given competition is 1%.
For example, a short story competition may receive 500 entries; they’ll be a 1st place, 2nd place and three honorary mentions, so 5 ‘hits’ altogether. A more prestigious competition may receive 5,000 entries; a published shortlist of 50 will typically be drawn up. Again, 1%, give or take. I suppose that’s down to your own definition of ‘competition success’, but personally I would regard any placing as a result.
Possibly it’s a crude way of looking at it – some will be more, some will be less - but this percentage for a competition ‘hit’ seems about right to me.
In short, getting anywhere in competitions is extremely hard – you really do have to be at the top of your game (plus, inevitably, enjoy the merest smidgen of luck). Across the Internet there are a number of worthwhile sites which give tips for competition success – here is a good set of guidelines for how to maximise your chances of winning competitions, and this is a good one, advising of ways to select the most worthwhile competitions out there.
We may as well be honest – failing is not a nice feeling. It means somebody out there doesn’t like your work (or like it enough – but of course the paranoid fringes of the imagination will always swing toward the former). It’s also a constant reminder that there are writers out there ‘better’ than you.
In an ideal world, this kind of competitiveness would not even exist – writing and storytelling, in and of themselves, need not necessarily have a competitive edge – but for those who want to eventually be published, this is the world we live in. Entering, and failing, competitions enables the rapid growth of a thick skin.
Yet it’s worth remembering a few things (and it’s something I always have to consider after my latest unsuccessful attempts).
Firstly, all judges on writing competitions are subjective. Sure, they may have certain criteria for which they’ll award marks – such as plot, character, voice and pace – but how they’ll judge those are very much up to them. The writer Julian Barnes, current winner of The Booker Prize, referred to the very same award a few years back as ‘Posh Bingo’.
Of course a writer will clearly maximise their chances by submitting a brilliant piece of work, but it’ll still be at the mercy of the whims of the judges. Pleasing a fellow scribe with your wordplay to warrant a prize should be satisfying if it happens, but if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be cause for too much crushing disappointment. Other readers, those reading your work without a score system in mind, may well have completely different views. There’s something to be said for gut instinct and liking something just because!
Secondly, failing to win a competition – especially if the contest’s judge gives you feedback – is a superb way of identifying the weak points of your entry and making subsequent improvements. Earlier this year I entered one story in three different competitions simultaneously; it failed to get a placing in any of them. I came back to it a month later and re-read the opening paragraph.
The extent of its dullness was breathtaking to behold; how it managed to get past my own ‘quality’ control check before submission is something I’m chalking down to essential experience. Nobody else would have been compelled to read on, not least by busy competition judges; I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t even make it past the first fifty words and in the whole thing went into the shredder. Whether or not it will now win a future competition is a moot point: at least it is better for having been through the critical mill.
Thirdly, competitions really should not, in my opinion, be the be-all and end-all for aspiring writers, just as they are not for established authors (refer again to Julian Barnes’ comment about the Booker Prize for a case in point). They’re one way to build up an author’s profile, but they certainly shouldn’t be the only way.
Anthologies, story slams, literary festivals, magazines, publishers and good old fashioned networking are but a handful of the other ways a writer can bring their work to wider attention. Although it can be argued that all of these things too have the element of competition (in that only what is deemed the very best work will suffice), at least they may not necessarily have the same constraints, or the all-prevailing feeling of being ‘judged’, that a competition may have.
It’s possible that some writers out there do regard winning competitions as an ‘end’ rather than a ‘means’ – fair play to them if so – but that’s not something I personally want to get into. The reason for this, in my own mind, is simple: I want my own good writing, if it is indeed good enough, to be rewarded, full stop – not good ‘competition’ writing, if such a thing can exist. If I am to tailor my work with a specific prize in mind, surely the only person I would be rewarding is myself, and not the reader. Surely keeping true to your own voice should come first: if it’s any good, it’ll get out there somehow.
Having said all the above, and speaking personally for a moment, I was very pleased to be awarded an honorary mention for one of my short stories in the May 2012 competition on Five Stop Story.
The reason I am particularly taken with this lot is that unlike various other competitions for writers (where I sometimes wonder who else is going to read the results other than the writers themselves), this service is designed very much with readers in mind.
You can read my story, as well as the winner, runner up and all the other mentions, here.