One man’s meat: Which writing competitions should you enter?

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.

Related links —
Rachael Dunlop writes: Losing is Not the Same as Failing,
and Claire King asks, What are you if you don’t win?

18 comments

  1. Kath says:

    The best advice I ever had on submissions was from a writing tutor who said to mix it up. Send your work to small literary mags and competitions by all means but also send it off to the bigger ones. He likened it to the FA Cup where every so often a team from the lower leagues will beat a Premiership Club. Sometimes, you have to believe in yourself and play with the top flight if you ever want to join it and besides, it helps you to up your game.

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  2. It might have been me. I’ve said that before. My side of the ‘argument’ was/is

    1) I think I have a shrewd idea where my writing standard is vs the entries that win and in a big competition, I’m seriously up against it. In a smaller competition, it may not win but if it’s ‘decent’, it has more chance of being long/shortlisted which is what I’m more interested in at this stage of my writing ‘career’ (although winning would be nice).
    2) Some of the entry fees for big competitions are absolutely ridiculous e.g 14 Euros for a 300 word flash story. There are a lot of smaller competitions with no or low fees (sometimes the fee goes to charities or a good cause) and some decent prizes. To be honest, I think I’m throwing my money away in big competitions at the moment. My exception to all this will be the Bristol Prize as I like what they do and it’s a sensible fee for the amount of work they put in! I consider it a charitable donation rather than an entry!

    However I entirely agree with your point that you have to be in it to win it. I entered the competition to be featured in the Royal Photographic Society Biennial Exhibition and was one of 100 selected from an entry list of 9000. However it was free to enter and I believe my best work is on a par with professionals. It was still a shock/thrill to see my name in the same list as the chief sports photographer of the Times and I’m looking forward to seeing the exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in March/April.

    In writing, I feel that I’m still learning my craft and that smaller comps / online mags give me more chance of some recognition. My batting average for 2012 was 45% for acceptance (publication e.g. Six Words) or longlist or better (comps) though I didn’t win anything. I have a limited amount of stories and money so I think this strategy suits me personally at this moment. Horses for courses as they say!

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    • t upchurch says:

      Hi Pete, I agree, I think everyone has their favourite places to sub and it’s wise to listen to your own gut feel. Recently I submitted a story to an established competition, knowing full well it won’t win because we’re not a good fit — but there was a theme, and I had the “perfect” (ahem, really?!) story for that theme. (In my head.) I’m really curious to see what happens; will the good theme fit override the fact that my writing style and their acceptances don’t usually marry? I guess I’ll only know if it’s accepted, but there’s a part of me that stays pretty cheerful either way. I guess I just like to join in.
      And I’m familiar with the expensive comps. Yes. I find Fish expensive and I don’t like their grading system BUT I love the collections, the fiction on their site is wonderful, and a longlisting there still holds kudos (plus they have nice long, inclusive lists!)

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      • There’s no harm in any of this and there’s no right way. I need to write a lot more and some longer pieces this year and I still don’t think I have found my distinctive voice yet. I think you’re further up the road than me.

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  3. t upchurch says:

    Pete, you make me smile! If I’m further up the road, I’m probably lost and coming back your way :))
    Also would love to see some of your longer works, I’ll look forward to that.

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  4. ginandbooks says:

    Really interesting post, Tracey.

    The first time I entered a small short story competition, I was – blimey – shortlisted. And then – flipping heck – won it. In an ill-advised bout of euphoria I entered the next one. It didn’t even place. That settled it: the first had been a fluke. I’d used up my beginner’s luck, my one good story.

    Since then, I’ve only submitted to the occasional online flash comp, where the odds, somehow, seem safer.

    You’re right though. Other than the entry fee, what is there to lose by entering?

    Thanks for making me think about it differently.

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    • t upchurch says:

      Interesting to hear about your early success — I blogged recently about my similar experience (here); I had three good placings and then ZIP, nothing, for ages. Experience is not always our friend! And yet… I’m trying to see it as a necessary hurdle in the journey. Seriously, I think when we start out we are unafraid, and it’s hard to hang onto the fearlessness — but we must, because it makes for bold stories. That’s my theory…?

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      • ginandbooks says:

        Having just read your other post, I think you may be onto something.

        When I won the comp, the judge said she had selected my story for its vibrancy, despite the writing being technically weak. Guess which of those two things I focused on?

        I paid for a critique of the story. Rewrote it over and over again. This was my chance to learn to be a proper writer. By time the original was published, I was embarrassed by the amateurishness of it. But I’m not sure the vigorously polished version is any stronger for the re-writes.

        If I’m honest, this is probably what is holding me back from submitting to comps and pushing on with my novel. I’m such a long way from being a good, competent writer, but I can’t quite recapture that fearlessness either.

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  5. Sal Page says:

    Interesting. I was placed as runner up in the first comp I ever entered (Woman’s Own 2000). It then took till 2009 to get even a short listing (Fish) & I entered lots of different ones over those years. Agree with the mixing it up approach. I enter bigger comps thinking in terms of maybe a long/short listing & enter smaller ones because I probably have more chance of being placed & also just for the feeling of joining in or for the challenge of a particular theme or word count. Perseverance is definitely the key, in entering comps & with each individual story. Only comp I’ve come first in (Calderdale 2011) was with a story that’d been in 3 others previously & got nowhere. Yes – very subjective. I keep sending them out & try to see a story not getting anywhere in one comp as freeing it up to go elsewhere & see a listing as a tick by that story, giving extra hope for further success!

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    • t upchurch says:

      Maybe there’s a pattern emerging? ;) If we’re experiencing similar early successes, maybe there’s a freshness in the new writer that shouldn’t be edited out… Occasionally I still look at some of my very early writing, and prefer the raw prose to the ever-so-edited sections in later versions. At the end of 2012 I dumped my pen name, ostensibly to save time, but there’s an element of starting again about it. I want to write the words as they come, for a while, and just send them out naked rather than doing eight passes at poshing them up. God only knows if anyone will like them; I’ve sent the first tranche out and am waiting for feedback. I re-read a couple of submissions recently and hated them, but then… I always hate my own stories (in a way). They’re like my bum; a part of me, and something I value and love to have — but if I look closely, I can only cringe.
      I’d better stop right now.

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  6. dcallen2 says:

    I’m always looking for contests to enter. Your point about different stories resonating with different people is a good one. I think it pays to do a bit of research into the judges’ writing styles.

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    • t upchurch says:

      Chris, do judges like to read the same material as they write? :P I confess, I tend to shy away from checking out judges because I am SOOOOO idle, but also I’d be terrified of one of their ideas filtering into my brain, and waking up the next day to find I’d either committed some horrible idea theft or turned into a literary sheep.
      I tend to try and protect my own way of writing, and hardly ever read while writing a first draft. My work is pure me. Bleeuuuugh.
      :))

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Penny for them?