Saturday, 18 September 2021

Is it really worth entering writing competitions? by Lu Hersey

 This month, apart from my own writing, I've been busy working as a mentor with my lovely #WriteMentor mentee, helping select stories for the longlist for the new Searchlight Writing for Children competition, and to select short stories for the Bristol Short Story Prize longlist. It made me think again how useful writing competitions can be to aspiring writers - a possible way to get on the road to publication. I know this. It's how I first got published.  

If you're an unpublished novel writer, there are several high profile competitions you can enter each year - and if you're a short story writer or a poet, the choice is even wider (and it often doesn't matter if you're previously published or not). 

So what stops writers entering? Often they simply don't see the point. Writers can be a gloomy bunch (I'm weighed down by a planet-size ball of negativity sometimes - it's a very common writer thing). If you're already feeling down, think there's no way you're going to win and the entry fee is more expensive than buying a lottery ticket, why bother?

If the competition is a reputable one (a bit of research can quickly eliminate the ones that just want money for free content), believe me, there are a lot of reasons to go for it. For a start, your chances of winning are FAR higher than your chances of winning the lottery. Look at the statistics... even if 5000 people enter a novel writing competition, your chances of winning are 5000-1. Do you know how many people enter the lottery? GAZILLIONS!! 

Of course your winnings won't be on the same scale as a big lottery win - even the winner of the prestigious Times Chicken House competition for children's novel writing only gets £10,000 (I say 'only' - in my world that's almost an annual salary) - but winning a writing competition isn't just about money. It helps to get you noticed by agents and publishers. Even if you don't win a cash prize, being longlisted or shortlisted shows you must have some degree of talent, because the other 4950 people didn't get that far.

Perhaps you've entered a few competitions before, didn't get anywhere, and ended up feeling worse? Or maybe the person who actually won was someone you know and think isn't that great (definitely keep that opinion to yourself!) My advice (as a gloomy, negative thinker) is don't give up!! Seriously, when I won the Mslexia competition a few years ago, I knew several other writers who'd entered that year - and I also know their work was just as good as mine. One (who shall be nameless) went on to get a six figure publishing deal - and they weren't even longlisted. 

Which goes to show there is always an element of chance and luck in any competition. The people who sift the stories to decide on a longlist will have individual tastes - they can recognise good writing, but might not like the genre you write in as much as other genres they put forward. It doesn't mean you can't write, even if not winning makes you feel like that.

I've been a reader for the Bristol Short Story Prize for the last 14 years. Over this time, I've noticed how the reading tastes of the primary readers (Bristol Short Story Prize readers are all writers or booksellers themselves) can inevitably influence the stories they put forward for the potential longlist. Then the ones chosen by the second readers for the competition judges to shortlist (these days I mostly help with the second reading) are again, to some degree, influenced by personal taste. 

Fortunately we all have different tastes, so at this stage arguments between the readers can get heated - but some very good stories inevitably fall by the wayside. If there are two or more stories with a similar theme, the one we put forward to the judges is the one that stands out most. (NB. If it helps, some of the most common short story themes are cancer, dementia, mental health, death and grief. Which means if your story is a variation on any of those themes, it has to be really good - there will almost certainly be other stories on a similar theme.)

The same applies to children's novels - magic and fantasy novels make up the bulk of entries to writing competitions. Of course it doesn't mean you shouldn't write magic or fantasy if you want to win, it simply means you need to be that bit more original to stand out. Just give it your best shot - it's still worth entering. After all, the majority of published children's books also fit into those categories.

Another big plus with any writing competition is it gives you a deadline to work towards. Whether you win or not, you end up with something you can enter into other competitions, or possibly sub to agents. You haven't wasted your time or your money. Honest.

Competitions come and go, but some big ones that shine out for unpublished children's novel writers are the Mslexia children's novel writing competition, the Times Chicken House competition, and (if you're a member of SCBWI) Undiscovered Voices. (#WriteMentor is starting to get attention too, though this is more focused on helping talented writers develop their skills). The writers who win the big ones are very likely to find an agent and get published.  And if you write short stories, several of the final 20 writers selected for the Bristol Short Story Prize anthology each year go on to have work published elsewhere, as do winners of the various Bridport prizes.

There are now very few competitions I'm eligible to enter as a published writer, but I still sometimes go for the ones I can. It gives me a deadline, and if I'm lucky enough to get shortlisted, reaffirms that I still have the ability to write. In the very difficult, crowded world of publishing, where most of us earn virtually nothing from actual writing, a confidence boost can really help keep you going.

So as soon as you feel your work is ready, why not take the plunge? Go on! Enter some competitions. It might change your life.

Lu Hersey 

Lu Hersey is the author of Deep Water, originally published by Usborne and now republished in a lovely new edition by Tangent Books.  She is also currently shortlisted in the Wells Book for Children competition, which has helped her feel a lot less gloomy this month.

1 comment:

Andrew Preston said...

For me, odds of 5000 to 1 versus gazillions to 1 still represent a total waste of time. Hasn't stopped me spending £7 to enter my effort into the National Poetry Competition. I won't be making a habit of this.