Thursday, 9 October 2008

Hold the burning match

In the aftermath of the Fish cull (see previous post), I've been thinking about the value of entering writing contests. Is a writer a gullible fool to fork out entry fees and should we eschew contests who charge them? Or is the very process of entering (and losing) contests a necessary part of our craft?

I think a serious writer needs a strategy. I spent my childhood years scribbling snippets of stories for friends and family. Lovely pastime! My readers told me I was brilliant; I basked in their unqualified praise. Then I grew up. I learned there are no short-cuts to getting published. That you have to work damn hard at it, and you have to have a strategy. You have to court criticism, and failure.

Success, I've concluded, is measured in your ability to accept failure and keep moving forward. I'd go further, in fact. Failure is your friend. It gives you a line in the sand, a measure against which to work. You might think that a hundred failed entries, or failed submissions, would equate to a feeling that you're unequal to the task you've set yourself. But the writers who give up, in my experience, are not the ones with a hundred rejection slips under their belts. They're the ones with one or two rejections or maybe none - because they didn't ever work up the courage to put their writing out there to be judged. Perhaps they told themselves it was pointless because contests are a rip off and a crap shoot. Funnily enough it's often not a lack of confidence that stops a writer subbing their work. It's ego. "Of course they'd never award a prize to such innovative writing."

A serious writer knows the value of failure, is intimately acquainted with its sharp edges and its blunt tone. Remember Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, holding that burning match until it's ash between his fingers? "Of course it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts."

About this strategy business, then.

So few magazines pay money and even fewer have a profile with agents, publishers, editors - all the people you need to get onside if you want to make a living as a writer. Sure there are bound to be contests out there which operate as commercial ventures but these are generally easy to spot. Having been close to Fish in Bantry this year I can tell you that it's a labour of love for the people behind the venture. It cost me about ten pounds to enter but the prize money was close to six hundred pounds - I call that a good return for my investment. More importantly, it got me right in front of readers, learning important lessons about the hard end of the business. I got quizzed at length by a scouting agent, face-to-face. I'm trying hard to think how else I could secure that sort of exposure if I eschewed all contests on the grounds that I was getting ripped off.

I'm under no illusions; I'm a grown up. Fish was a calculated investment. And even had I got nowhere I'd have counted it valuable in the sense that unless we keep putting our heads above the parapet, keep courting the slings and arrows, how will we know we're getting anywhere? It takes nerves of steel to keep pushing our work out there to be judged, to be rejected. But without that process I think the danger is this becomes an exercise in ego-stroking. There is an acid test in the judgement of peers and professionals. Sure it's a crap shoot, to an extent. A lot of it comes down to subjective opinion of an individual or two. And luck. But I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts on how else we can get ahead, get better, stronger. Persuade me!

11 comments:

Tania Hershman said...

I echo everything you say, Sarah, about getting your writing out there. I was just planning in my head yesterday a talk I hope to give to students on the MA in Creative Writing that I did a few years ago and I was going to say that if they want any advice, I would say they should rack up the rejection letters, because that's the sign that they're out there, taking risks. I know a few writers who submitted their first story to the New Yorker and when it didn't get anywhere, gave up. That's not what it's all about.

Competitions are expensive, also you have far less chance to win than you do to be accepted by a lit magazine, but I do think they provide a different kind of validation - a longlisting, a shortlisting, that's all helpful to a writer, they can make of that what they will. But they do remain one of the best ways for a short story writer, at least, to earn a little from writing, if they're lucky! And yes, it is luck - it is subjective, it's the judge's personal preferences and, as I heard recently at the Frank O'Connor Short Story Festival from a past judge of the Sean O'Foalain comp, it is also the judge's mood on that particular day (he told us how on one day he divided entries into "Yes", "No" and "Maybe", then the next day he picked up a few from the "No" pile and started reading them and thought, Why did I reject these? They're pretty good...!). That's just the way these things work, and to imagine otherwise is to fool ourselves.

The main thing is the writing. Write and write and write, get it out there, if it gets sent back, get it out again!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Tania, that's quite scary about the judge's mood! I don't think he should have admitted to it, for the sake of his credibility let alone the writers' nerves. But it reinforces how we have to keep trying, that a rejection or failed entry doesn't mean the writing isn't good. The story I have at Smokelong currently is one that was routinely rejected by any number of "less prestigious" magazines.

Shameless said...

Quite right.

I'm going to fall-back on the conversation I had with the internationally best-selling author with 25 (still selling) books under his belt.

He said, "Write a great novel."

That's my strategy now.

I still have some shorts springing to mind, and if I can't dash them with a jotted note, I write them, or at least start them. But mostly I'm going to concentrate my writing to my novel.

THAT is what sells. And when it sells, it makes money. When you're making enough money as a writer to support yourself, you can write all the shorts you want, and send away ten pound entry fees without a second thought.

Of course then we're back to that whole, "Should best selling authors enter writing contests?" thing that we talked about last month.

Write, Sarah!

Write some great novels.

Though I have no doubt in your abilities, I don't think they've made action figures based on short stories.

Sarah Hilary said...

He's right, you're right, Kev. The novel makes the deal and the writer needs the deal if he/she is going to make a living of this. And a living brings with it the reward of being able to devote all your time to writing. The novel is the thing. I just wish it wasn't such damn hard work right now!

Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah. Caught your blog on Writewords and it reminded of something I read in Andrew Croft's Freelance Writer's Handbook.

There's a chapter in it about coping with rejection and he says, 'If you aren't getting rejections, you aren't being ambitious enough. Only people who stick their necks out get rejected.'

Writing a good novel is the holy grail, but in meantime I keep those two sentences in mind when a rejection or competition loss comes my way. Then being rejected almost feels like progress.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks for dropping by, Anonymous. "Then rejection almost feels like progress." That's it, exactly. Good luck with the novel - you're right, that's the holy grail.

Robin said...

Sorry, didn't mean to be mysteriously anonymous. Robin

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Robin, great blog you have! Mind if I link to it?

Robin said...

No, please do link up. R

Sarah Hilary said...

Cheers, Robin! I look forward to debating the merits of spy fic and TV.

Helen Pletts said...

Sarah I just saw your invitation to link up ! I gave birth this morning to http://stemofquietlydisarrayedfertility.bogspot.com