A while back, and it’s been haunting me, I spotted a comment on Twitter about writing competitions. The gist of the tweet was, “I’m only entering small competitions because I’m not good enough to enter the big ones.”
I wish I’d replied to this because it struck me as sad that someone could feel excluded from the larger competitions and, anyway, I’m not sure competition success is as formulaic as the tweet implies. Does small mean easier, or lower quality?
I’ve had stories commended or longlisted in big competitions, only to watch them bomb in subsequent smaller competitions. It surprised me at first but if you think of the process, it’s obvious that a story might resonate more with one individual than another, particularly if it triggers a poignant memory or sparks a new perception — and that personal resonance will make the story memorable. Readers and judges may each have to assess hundreds of entries so the shortlist will be limited to the stories that stuck in their minds.
It’s all about subjectivity, so I reckon if a story is strong enough to stand its ground in a small comp (punctuated, hint of grammar, vague plot, etc), it could do the same in a big one. That’s not to say it will, but it might, and might is all you get in this game.
All you have to do is submit something well written that hits a chord with the reader — right? Easy.
If you read the judges’ reports from writing competitions, they often call for ‘originality’, because in practice most subs are not original; they’re almost all based on common themes and plots (common things are common…) and within the plot, stock phrases “spring to mind” “more often than not” (“see what I did there”). Enough.
When authors do try to “be original”, it can come across as contrived. (Or, worse, you have a great new idea at the exact same time as several other people — ugh.) That’s originality for you: elusive. We are, I suppose, a species that hangs out in a herd.
Even when originality does shine through, the readers will differ in their opinions. Evocative and inspiring, or Google thesaurus with metaphor diarrhoea? One man’s meat, as they say. As a reader, I’ve occasionally been very surprised at some of the other readers’ opinions, and as a writer, I find it damn near impossible to gauge how readers will react to my stories.
But the thing is, the brilliant, fabulous thing is, it doesn’t matter. You’re not having a baby, running a country, or shooting an apple off a boy’s head — what’s the worst that could happen? Someone you don’t know doesn’t like one of your stories to the exclusion of hundreds of others?
Oh well, write another one, then. Or send the first one somewhere else; there are seven billion people in the world; someone will probably love it.
Or… if you did win, wouldn’t that be fun?
So, to the person on Twitter whose name I have lost, I’m really sorry I didn’t reply at the time, but if you fancy a pop at the ridiculously big, scary-looking competition, go for it. Don’t even hesitate, ’cause someone’s got to win and you never know…
And the not knowing, it feels good.