Give your writing its best chance of success in competitions
My short story publishing career kicked off with a competition win. So did my novel publishing career. If you’re a subscriber to my newsletter, you’ll already know that I put great store in writing competitions as a springboard for emerging writers* – I publish a monthly run-down of the best competitions I can find – and if you’ve ever been in one of my classes, I’ve probably tried to persuade you to enter the Bridport, the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair, or the Mairtín Crawford Award, and possibly all three. And more besides. The thing is, writing competitions are much more of a level playing field than subbing to magazines. For one thing, your publication history has zero influence on where you place in a competition, and most are read blind. For another, an overwhelmed editing desk might very well decide that they’ve got enough strong stories in one reading period to carry them over a weaker round of submissions a month later and accept none of the fiction sent to them in July. A competition, on the other hand, will always have a winner, and probably a couple of runners up too. It’s the only submission venue where you can guarantee that someone will be successful in any given round.
Whether or not that someone will turn out to be you will rest, to a very large extent, on a mixture of how well the judges receive your story and a little bit of luck**. There’s nothing you can do about the latter, unfortunately (though Samuel Goldwyn’s advice – “The harder I work, the luckier I get” – still holds broadly true), but there are plenty of ways you can stack the odds in your favour with regards to how the judges receive your story. The first is, of course, write an absolutely cracking piece of fiction. But once you’ve done that, make sure you do the following things as well.
1. Check the word count. Then check it again.
I expect you’re probably thinking something along the lines of “Well, DUH,” but hear me out: I’ve seen it happen that an absolutely phenomenal piece of writing had to be disqualified at the final hurdle because, on a technicality, the word count was over the limit. That technicality may seem unfair, but it’s actually incredibly important: competitions are supposed to be a level playing field, and a piece of writing that doesn’t adhere strictly to the rules of the contest simply can’t be awarded a prize over hundreds of others that do. Your title doesn’t usually count towards your word count, but everything after that does. Some word processing programmes count hyphenated words as one; some count them as two. If your word count is close to the upper limit, it might be worth doing a manual count just to be on the safe side, or import the document to a different programme and run a word count there as well, because you can’t be sure what software the competition sifters will use.
2. Have someone else read your work before submitting. (Two or more people, if possible.)
I know that it can be incredibly difficult to open yourself up to the folks in your life and show them your work, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to have somebody take a look at your submission piece before you press send. I’ve seen way too many entries that had clearly been viewed by nobody but their writer, and it showed. From misplaced homonyms to bills that should be Bills or Carols that should be carols, right through to characters whose name changed abruptly halfway through (and occasionally changed back again before the end). You get to a point with your writing and editing that you just can’t see these things anymore. Our eyes decide they’ve seen what they expect to see, and they skim right over that misplaced word that isn’t actually misspelt, it’s just that you’d meant to write something else. To be clear: the occasional typo isn’t going to detract much from your chances if the story is phenomenal and everything else is in order – but it might knock you down from second place to runner up. And more than the occasional typo is very likely to be the difference between shortlisting and not.
If you don’t have anyone in your life to whom you’re comfortable showing your work, there are plenty of groups and platforms online that can help connect you to people who’ll read and comment on your work. This is likely to be a quid pro quo arrangement, in that they’ll read/edit your writing and you’ll read/edit theirs, but believe me, that’s a great arrangement to have. Critically reading other fiction is a fantastic way to get better at writing your own, because it forces you to engage with the principles of what works and what doesn’t. Facebook writing groups can be a great way to connect with reciprocal readers (though I’d always recommend taking a bit of time to make sure that the ethos and atmosphere in any given group matches what you’re looking for). Goodreads has a few groups listed for writers looking for a reciprocal editing arrangement. Finally, Critique Match is a free online platform solely set up to connect critique partners.
3. Start as close to the end as you possibly can. (Yes, I’m riffing on Vonnegut.)
Well, not so much “riffing on” as “plagiarising wholesale” because that’s exactly what his fifth tenet of writing states:
"Start as close to the end as possible." - Kurt Vonnegut
What that means in practice is that you cut to the chase as quickly as you can, without losing the reader in set-up that the word count just simply doesn’t support. A short story is not a novel: you need to get to the driving conflict without delay, and that means saving the delicious descriptive prose until after you’ve hooked your reader’s attention. Don’t get me wrong: if the action takes place on, say, a windswept beach on the west coast of Ireland where the sun is setting in a profusion of rich golds and salmon pinks, I absolutely do want to read that glorious description, and it will probably work just fine as an arresting opening line. But if that’s all the story information I get for the first paragraph or two… you’ve lost me. An opening line replete with richly textured prose is fine; richly textured prose woven through the story is also fine. But the heart of the story is the conflict that drives it, and you need to get that moving as quickly as you can. Vonnegut’s eighth tenet runs as follows:
"Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.
To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding
of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves,
should cockroaches eat the last few pages." - Kurt Vonnegut
And that’s also great advice.
4. Brush up on punctuation and formatting conventions
I’ve written here about the importance of making sure you’re up to speed on dialogue punctuation, and this is, largely, what I’m talking about under this heading, but it’s not just that. It’s also line spacing, paragraph formatting, all other forms of punctuation, and even (rarely, but it has happened) choice of font***. Yes, poor punctuation and formatting will count against your work – which is unfair, but that’s the industry. The harsh reality is that there are many, many more submissions than winners, and a writer that hasn’t learnt to format their work correctly is – inadvertently – showing the sifter, the editor or the judge that they are not writing at the level that wins competitions. Now, don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of perfectly formatted entries that don’t make the cut. Getting the formatting right isn’t an automatic win. Getting it wrong, unfortunately, is almost certainly an automatic cut.
There are programmes available to help you if this is something you struggle with. I don’t use it myself, but I have students who swear by Grammarly to catch the grammar and punctuation mistakes that they didn’t realise they were making. It’s also free, unlike bringing in a professional copy editor (which you almost certainly don’t need to do, but which is also an option). And the internet is replete with blogs and guides and how-tos to throw some light on all the things you didn’t know you didn’t know. I love The Editor’s Blog for its straightforward, easy to follow guidance on just about anything and everything editing related. Helping Writers Become Authors is also very comprehensive and user friendly. Reedsy’s Blog has some great advice too. And then, of course, there’s the second set of eyes you’re going to call upon (see: point 2, above) – if you know that grammar and punctuation are your Achilles heel, then finding a beta reader who’s more comfortable in that area and letting him or her know it’s something you’d like them to read for will definitely help.
And here’s the thing: you can do absolutely everything “right” and still not place in a competition. Believe me when I say that you have no idea the bitter tears that are wept over the stories that are wonderful but aren’t quite the right fit: maybe they’re almost there, but the writer hasn’t quite figured out how to end the story in a satisfying way. Maybe there were three or more of a very similar theme (totally possible: I’ve seen it) and, for balance, only one of the three could go through to shortlisting. Maybe the subject matter didn’t quite grip this particular judge in the way it might grip another. Maybe one of the judges absolutely raved about your piece, but another wasn’t so convinced and there was another story that managed to gain a broader consensus. You’ll likely never know. So as long as you’re making sure that your story isn’t falling down on any of the above points, one competition loss – or even ten – is not a commentary on its value as a piece of fiction.
Keep going. Somebody, somewhere is looking for exactly what you’ve written.
* Don’t get me wrong, I fully acknowledge their drawbacks, too. Some writers feel that the drawbacks outweigh the positives. I disagree, but you may not, and that’s fine.
** It can literally come down to there being two very similar stories in contention. I’ve seen it happen. There was virtually nothing between the two stories in terms of their quality, but thematically they were almost identical and one was just fractionally more effective. That’s no consolation to the writer who almost squeaked through, but we made sure to let the unlucky writer know just how much we’d enjoyed the piece.
*** Some competitions, and indeed publications, specify a particular font and font size that they require. That’s why it pays to read the rules all the way through. But also just don’t ever use Lucida Handwriting and, yes, I have seen this happen.
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