Saturday, 6 February 2010

What's your strategy?

It's that time of year when some of the biggest writing contests open for entries including, of course, the Bridport Prize (accepting flash fiction for the first time). Then there are impending deadlines for the Fish One Page Prize, the Bristol Short Story Prize, and then Exeter, Yeovil - the list goes on. All of which has me thinking: what's your strategy for deciding which contests to enter and what influences that process?

Do you, for instance, consider the odds?If you're a newish writer do you tend to enter smaller contests and build up to the bigger ones? If so, I admire your pragmatism; I could never resist jumping straight to the big fish (in this case Fish itself, where I got lucky in 2008).

Bridport is a longer shot than ever with a 40% increase in entries for 2009: 17,000 entries, including poetry! I wonder, was this the result of Ali Smith's judging role, or could it be that the exchange rate made Fish seem more expensive than ever to enter? (Terrific prize money, of course.) To what extent does the entry fee affect your decision to submit to a certain contest? At all? Somewhat? Only in relation to the prize money?

Does the choice of judge make a contest more (or less) attractive? Does it influence your decision at all? I know I've sometimes thought (no doubt wrongly) that a particular judge may or may not like my writing because of the impression I have of the judge's own writing, or taste.

I also wonder how far the marketing of a contest matters, in the scheme of things. There are some amazing sources out there - I'm thinking in particular of Sally Quilford's Writing Competitions Calendar - but what else should contest organisers do to attract entries? Does it help when the judges blog about what they like? When contests offer a critiquing service (usually at an extra cost)?

I'd love to know what other writers think about this subject. Is entering contests a big part of your writing life? It was a huge part of mine a couple of years back, but now I've drawn my horns in (partly because entry fees add up, partly because I'm taking longer to polish stories). Do share!


Tania Hershman said...

Always a thought-provoking topic, isn't it, Sarah? I find competitions so tempting to enter, but inevitably enter many comps which are completely unsuitable to my writing. Well, I enter a lot of American comps and I think that they are mostly looking for quite realist fiction, and if you look at the shortlist etc..., it also tends to be mostly American. It's really hard - there is absolutely no formula. In most cases the final judge doesn't read all the entries so you can't, as you mentioned, send something you think that judge, whose writing you know, might like. It's fairly random.

One tip I have is that competitions that publish a longlist and a shortlist are worth entering because you get a better sense of how far your story got, as well as perhaps getting some publicity even if you don't win.

And another thing: I have friends who have won 1st and 2nd prizes in the Bridport prize, and know 4 people on last year's shortlist, just in case people might think that it was somehow something only "other people" win. It's not - real people win this too. I have proof.

Speaking now as a judge of 3 comps this year - none of which I have started judging yet! - I am really interested to see what happens on the other side of the curtain. Only for one of these comps, the Sean O'Faolain, am I the single judge and I will be reading all the entries, so I can really choose exactly what I love. For the others I will get a shortlist and then pick the ones I like and fight for them against the others! I'll let you know more as it happens :)

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks for kicking off the debate, Tania, and with such great food for thought. It's interesting what you say about American contests - I too have entered several and got nowhere, and without any sense of really understanding why.

Good point about longlists as well as shortlists. Are Bristol going to do this? How about the other contests you're judging?

Looking forward to hearing how you found The Other Side of the Curtain!

Joe Melia said...

Hello Sarah & Tania,

Thanks for mentioning us, Sarah. Yes, we (Bristol Short Story Prize) will be publishing the longlist on our website and also those stories that nearly made the longlist which we want to highly commend- link to last year's listing here-

This year we will publish the longlist again when the shortlist is announced and include the authors' names with the stories.

On a diferent matter, don't forget Amy Bloom and Janice Galloway at Bath Festival on March 6th!

Group 8 said...

Hi Sarah,
Great topic.
I have policies:
* I never re-enter a comp I have won or been in the top 3 of. It's on my CV, I do not need to go there again.
* I re-enter comps that I like that I have never won/been placed in. (I am a traditionalist!)
* I enter less and less comps as I have been judging them over the last few years.
* I rarely enter UK or USA comps as I feel Hiberno-English doesn't sit well with many readers. (I know, I know - don't mention Colum McCann, Colm Tóibín et al, I KNOW!!)
* I like comps with writers' names attached t the title but would LOVE to see more comps named for women writers e.g. The Virginia Woolf Novel Prize, The Edna O'Brien Award etc etc
* The judge's name will influence my decision to enter even though I know most comps have reading committees. (Some with dubious literary credentials.)
* Why do I enter comps? FOR THE MONEY! Also for the buzz and the confidence a shortlisting or win gives. It spurs me on.
* I object to huge entry fees.
* I enter some comps because they are free to enter (rare).
I'm sure I've more to say but my comment is probably way too long already!
Nuala x

Elisabeth said...

I think I'd rather get my work published than win awards, Sarah.

I used to enter them all the time. Here in Australia, depending on the nature of the award, there is no guarantee of publication.

I was shortlisted last year, one of five, for the Australian Book Review's Calibre prize for the best essay with a ten thousand dollar reward for the winner. I'm still trying to get the essay published.

I agree with Tania. Such competitions can be a lottery, based largely on the subjectivity of the judges.

It's good practice to submit your work whether in competitions or for publication, but it's best to have some thought as to who's doing the judging and what the competition seeks.

I followed Women Rule Writer and Tania here, Sarah and I'm pleased to see your blog. I look forward to reading more.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Joe, great to hear from you, and very good to know Bristol publish a long-longlist as well as the shortlist. It really makes a difference to writers to know whether they made a grade in that way. Will check out the Bath Festival gig also - thanks for the prompt!

Sarah Hilary said...

Nuala, your answer is excellent - thank you for it. I agree that we need more women's prizes. Too often these are hidden away within appreciation societies (the Muriel Spark one, for instance) or hard to track down (the Daphne du Maurier, for instance). There ought to be more of a profile for these - and some new ones to join the crew would be great.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hello, Elizabeth, lovely to have you here. I really like your take on publication vs prize. A lot of UK contests do publish shortlisted stories as well as winners, which can be a terrific consolation prize although it does mean you can't then enter that story for a prize elsewhere and - if the anthology isn't going to be widely publicised or known - can make that choice a tricky one. (I've made a bookmark to check out your blog!)

Group 8 said...

I've blogged about this on my blog - hopefully a few more will join in here.

Elisabeth makes an excellent point about publication. The same has happened to me - struggling to find a good home for work that has won in comps.
I TOTALLY approve of comps that also offer publication. The best ones are the ones that link in with a good lit mag; or who produce a high quality anthology that they and the writers involved then work their asses off to promote. (Told ya I'd have more to say...!)

Sarah Hilary said...

Brilliant, thanks, Nuala. And great point about the onus on the writers to help promote anthologies etc. I'm hoping to do my bit to market the Cheshire Prize Anthology when it's published. I think it's an excellent discipline for writers to learn - the hard work doesn't stop with the story.

Peter Goulding said...

A couple of self-inflicted policies. I very rarely enter any competition that costs over €5 per poem. I tend to favour competitions where the final judge reads the entries. Also, I refuse point black to enter UK competitions where payment is by sterling cheque only. I refuse to take an hour out of my life to go down to the bank and pay over the odds for a sterling draft for a poem that's probably going to sink into oblivion anyway!
As for competitions with huge entries, pragmatically its a waste of time me entering them but I do, because of thelittle voice in the back of my mind whispering "what if? what if?"

Julia Bohanna said...

Interesting points. I think there is an art to selecting the right story for the right competition. I never do sim subbing in competition that makes it a one-shot deal. I look carefully at the terms of the competition and see how tempting the prize is...not simply the money but promoting the writer. One thing I always do is to research the winners of the last do get a 'taste' of what wins, oddly even when the judges vary from year to year.

Oddly too the judges involved do influence my decision, even to the extent of me getting nervous if I admire that particular writer. I try never to send work that I feel will please them.

This year I have entered eleven competitions and I now at stage of entering even smaller competitions, with perhaps lesser stories. By lesser stories I do not mean sloppy but perhaps they are lighter, took less time to write (I generally take ages) or are simply Julia-lite. The important thing is that a story gets written...I am using that competition for an incentive to craft a story and then have it in my possession.

I dislike:

Huge entry fees (sometimes for a laughable prize

Long long judging periods with no word as to progress...sometimes a few words such as how many entries they have had, can feed a writer for a while...

Competitions that publish shortlisted entries in a relatively poor way, so that poor published story struggles to find another home

In all, it is quite an exciting but nervous process. One thing I do though is forget all about it - or try to - until the results are through. It must be onward in writing. Thinking of the new.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Peter, thanks for stopping by. That little voice whispering, 'What if, what if?' is surely one that's heard by every writer. I know I hear it. And think how many great poets and writers might never have become 'known' had they ignored it.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hello, Julia, lovely to have you here! I really like your list of 'hates' - that's actually a very smart way of approaching what does and doesn't make a contest look worth entering. And, yes! Forget all about it, once entered. I try to do this, to the point where I actually feel I will jinx a story's chances if I hope for it too much or too hard.

Rachel Fenton said...

I enter very few competitions for the simple reason that I find anything with numbers - ie submission dates/money etc - a major time consuming headache (dyscalculia) and invariably I fluff it up! I am also too skint to consider entering many, even if I could get my head around the numbers or afford to spend my limited writing time on it.

I'm not sure about the women only writing prize idea - I am very much a feminist but I don't want to further marginalise myself - I want to beat the men DAMMIT!

Group 8 said...

Oh, I didn't mean women only comps as such - just that I'd like to see more competitions named *after* women. Most of the ones named for writers are male writers. There are/were lots of worthy women writers who deserve good lit comp named after them.
THere is The Molly Keane Award in Ireland. And last year there was a Jane Austen comp. More please, is all I mean!

Rachel Fenton said...

Lol,I read "named for" and went into A. S. Byatt mode!

Yes, by all means, we should have more comps named after women writers! - So long as more women win them!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Fascinating article, fascinating thread. Thank you Sarah.
I agree with most of Nuala's points above - and Tania's. I used to enter a lot, had a definite strategy to aim high and higher, so started low and worked up.
of course, one never knows, if those stories that had come in a the smaller comps had been entered for the biggies - would they have come in there instead?!

I don't enter much any more. Last year I got Fish 2nd for the second time - and decided that was that, there. Time to step aside.

One thing that hasnt been raised yet is the issue of already highly successful writers entering comps. I'm not sure what I feel here - one part of me thinks why on earth shouldnt they? The other half says 'oh fer heaven's sake - you've got there now - books left right and centre. Like an olympic runner entering a town race, and screaming 'Yes!!!!!!' when they win against all those middle-aged spreads.

One thing I will say - is that when you judge a competition, especially when you read all the entries, not just the shortlist - you see how small are the numbers that seriously stand a chance. How many people pay good money to enter work that is seriously substandard - and that makes me cross. Not with the writer - but the 'system'. Who tells them it is good enough? is it the writing groups that fanny about saying everything is 'lovely, dear!'

In the end, its a lottery, when youve got to the final shortlist/finalist list. When the technicalities are right and the judgement comes down to largely subjective criteria.

But I'll leave this ramble (sorry!) with one thought. never ever ever send a comp work that is 'like' the judge's own. Who on earth wants to trawl through a pile of substandard clones? Give them your best, something that stands out as great because it is different.

so says me, who has bombed in some rather big comps over the last six months!!!

Emma Darwin said...

What a fascinating discussion! I'm not primarily a short fiction writer, but I've had a bit of success, and judged a comp too (Fish Short Histories), which was very revealing of how it looks from the other side of the fence.

One thing I would say is that not knowing how your work reads to others cuts both ways. Yes, its very obvious pretty quickly that most of the entries aren't winning (in either sense) material. On the other hand it seems to me a mistake for a new writer to hold back from the big comps, because competition in writing isn't a linear thing, and not just a matter of who hits the finishing tape first: what makes a story successful for readers may be something the writer can't see. My Bridport 3rd was only the third story I ever wrote, although I had five novels under my bed and one out on submission. Since I'd had to that date nothing but rejections (albeit helpful ones) for my novels, I had NO idea if my writing was something that people I didn't know liked and wanted to read. So unlikely had I thought it that I'd get anywhere, that I actually had forgotten I'd entered when the Secretary rang (what a nice job that must be!). So the win was a hugely important, my first pub credit, and something which kept me going for a couple of years while I was trying to find a home for The Mathematics of Love.

And back in the days when I was doing comps I did sim subbing because the lead times are ridiculous (from the writer's point of view. I quite see that they may be inevitable from the organisers' point of view) and I couldn't afford to have one of my very few stories tied up for so long. I only had about four stories which were any good, but I never entered a story in more than one comp without deciding how I'd cope with any success, though, and in the event everything did dovetail nicely.

One issue with the small-versus-large question is that small comps usually have what to me as a novelist seem ludicrously small wordcounts. Yes, of course there's huge skill in writing flash and short stuff, but there's also a different skill in writing longer work and different pleasures in reading it. There's room for subtlety there, because you do have the larger canvas, the greater breathing space, and so on. So if you naturally write in the 4-6,000 bracket, only the bigger comps may be the place where you can send your best writing and therefore stand a chance of getting anywhere.

On the should-you-enter-once-you're-a-pro question, I too have mixed feelings. If you see competitions purely as a way for aspiring writers to get something on their CV, then obviously it's not fair to go on entering once your CV is well-stocked. On the other hand, it's still very difficult to get short fiction published unless you're writing for the womags, or are uber-literary and already a name, at which point Granta might be interested in you. In other words, if a newish, smallish author like me wants to get their short fic published, the competitions are still an important outlet. And, frankly, we need the money too, even if we are more likely to behave ourselves and pay our tax on it...

Emma Darwin said...

One last thought: at the Bridport prize-giving the organiser of the sifters told me that they'd liked the other story I'd submitted, but recognised it by the layout etc. as being by the same writer as one they'd already put in the pile of 50 for Jim Crace. So they thought it was fairer to give someone else the slot.

What do people think about that? On the one hand, if a competition like Bridport is all about encouraging new writers then it seems perfectly fair and sensible. On the other hand, you could say it's changing the principle of judging 'the best stories', by mixing in 'who needs it most'. And 'who needs it most' is about the writer, not the story. Which rather defeats the object of the anonymity, perhaps. And what if they'd done that, and then Jim Crace hadn't liked the story which did get in - is it fair that he wasn't offered my other effort?

Sorry, that sounds whingey, which I don't feel at all about that. But I do think it's an important and sometimes overlooked issue with comps. And that's before you get into the question of whether it's disingenuous of the competition organisers to keep so quiet about the fact that most comps are sifted by non-name judges... Mind you, I think sifting for a big beast like Bridport is inevitable, and also for anything where the judges aren't paid - writers have to eat, after all...

Group 8 said...

Ooooh, GREAT points Vanessa - ones I have ruminated on a lot.

Firstly, successful writers entering comps. Yes Ma'am, this is one that interests me hugely.
I am sure that some people think I should stop entering comps. I often think it myself. By some people's standards, I am successful. Not always by my own. My thoughts are that when the prize money is worth it, I'll enter. Or if the title of the comp is worth having.
I write full time. I earn from teaching, bursaries, readings etc. All of it sporadic, all of it less than the minimum wage. So a comp win is a nice chunk of money for one story - a quick hit. I still think I will stop entering altogether v soon. Except for the huges ones like the Sun Times, which are too good to pass by.

Secondly, the standard of comp entries. I've judged a few good ones (the Seán Ó Faoláin, the Mitchelstown - formerly William Trevor Prize). Overall, the standard was mediocre. Yes, there were gems but they were RARE.
I blame the writers - they clearly don't read contemporary fiction or else they would know that their stuff was not up to scratch.Or maybe they just don't have any critical faculties especially when it comes to their own work.

Sarah Hilary said...

I love Molly Keane, Nuala. Didn't Pat Jourdan win that award one year?

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Vanessa, thanks for joining the debate. I hear what you're saying about the "culture" of encouragement, and it's a shame there isn't more feedback from contest organisers to the effect of the overall standard of entries etc. Sometimes you see this, but not often. The worst is when you read a blog from a judge saying he hasn't had enough decent entries yet and you realise yours is one of the entries he's sitting on. Yikes!

Sarah Hilary said...

Hello, Emma, lovely to have you here and thanks for dropping by. You raise some really interesting points, not least with that glimpse behind the Bridport curtain. I'm not sure I like the way they called that, given that the stories are supposed to be judged on merit alone. But it demonstrates the very human nature of the judging process. Perhaps my next post should be - how to Keep Going No Matter What. Not that any serious writer needs telling that, and certainly no one who's contributed to this debate!

Sarah Hilary said...

Hello, Emma, lovely to have you here and thanks for dropping by. You raise some really interesting points, not least with that glimpse behind the Bridport curtain. I'm not sure I like the way they called that, given that the stories are supposed to be judged on merit alone. But it demonstrates the very human nature of the judging process. Perhaps my next post should be - how to Keep Going No Matter What. Not that any serious writer needs telling that, and certainly no one who's contributed to this debate!

Sarah Hilary said...

And good luck to everyone entering contests right now!

Group 8 said...

Yes, Sarah, Pat Jourdan did win the Molly Keane.
Lots of intersting stuff here. Great!

Carlton Relf said...

Hi all. Well, I am a new to writing, and thoroughly enjoying it. Like most writers, I aim to publish my work and hopefully make a few pennies for my efforts. This debate made interesting reading. I was going to start out with a few competitions.....some smaller ones to start then go for some of the larger ones. Now I am not so sure. Maybe I will just go large and see what happens!! The debate appears to be finished but thought I would add my little bit.
Very interesting reading....and congrats to Writewords - Great site!

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Carlton! WriteWords is a great site, as there is a mix of seasoned writers and experts as well as newcomers. I know I learnt a lot there when I first joined, and continue to pop across for insights now - if only I had more time, I'd be on there more. Good luck with the contests you choose to enter. If you look in my post you'll see a link to Sally Quildford's Calendar of Contests, which has a great mix of BIG prizes and smaller ones. Happy writing,

Quillers said...

Sorry I'm a bit late joining this debate, Sarah. I didn't get your email till just now. Thanks for the link to the comps calendar!

I have a very haphazard approach to entering comps. I only enter a) if I've got a story suitable and b) if I happen to have the cash at the time.

I've tried the big ones, like Bridport, with no luck, but I think that's because my writing is quite populist, and Bridport goes for a more literary flavour.

I think the cost of entering has an affect on how many people approach comps. Even if comps are fairly cheap to enter, added together a lot of comp entries can be expensive.

I have entered Fish, but not often. It isn't just because of the cost, but also because the winner of the main prize has to travel to Ireland in order to collect that prize or forfeit it. It's a rule I'm afraid I have no truck with. In my opinion if someone has won, they've won, and whether they are able to go and collect the prize should have no bearing on them receiving their prize. Bridport doesn't insist its winners travel to Dorset.

Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now.

Oddly enough, since I've started doing the writing calendar and the article in Writers Forum, I enter fewer competitions. This is because I'm getting to know many of the organisers and judges behind the scenes and I worry that people would think that if I won it was only because of my connections. It's a dilemma really as I love entering comps.

Administrator said...

INteresting idea for a post, Sarah! I wrote my first short story in January for a competition and since then have entered another small comp. My hope is to win something for 2 reasons - to boost my confidence and widen my writing cv for cover letters.

Last year i entered 2 American novel comps because regardless of winning, everyone got very detailed feedback from the judges. I didn't final but the feedback i got was immensely helpful.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Sally, thanks for joining the debate. What you say about Fish is very fair, I think. The year I was there the winner had travelled from New Jersey - she was amazing, brought her two daughters, had a whale of a time but I wondered if she'd have been able to make the trip alone, and what percentage of her prize money was eaten up with travel expenses, too..! That said, I'm very glad I made the trip myself because it was an amazingly enrichening experience - but, I agree, no good reason it should carry a forfeit, or none that I can easily see. Maybe someone who's closer to Fish will know? Vanessa??

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Samantha. Ooh, feedback is excellent! Did you have to pay extra for it? That puts me off, I must admit, but if it was part of the entry fees then great. May I ask which two contests?

Oh and good luck with the ones you've entered recently.

Administrator said...

The entry fee was 30 dollars, about 18 quid and everyone got feedback on their first 25 pages and synopsis, i think it was.

They were linked to the Romance Writers of America org,and similar to the chick lit Stiletto comp - there are tens of these comps held every year in the States. The feedback is extremely detailed, going through character, grammar, plot, writing in general, marketability - and by entering 2 comps i got detailed feedback from 6 judges, so it was interesting to see which points they agreed and disagreed on.

Well worth 18 (or 36) quid, i thought.

pat jourdan said...

I have found that the smaller, local competitions are usually won by 'local' writers. There is often a type of story/poem which is far more suitable as a winner.
After the Molly Keane, well, as I am a) honest and b) not resident in Ireland any more,some competitions are now out of bounds.
In another place, I was confidentially informed that I would have won, but it would have been politically incorrect.
It is a wonderful way to build up a body of work even if one does not win.
Total of winnings last year = £45, an embossed bookmark and a biro!

Anonymous said...

The year I did my MA in Writing, I entered competitions and got on the shortlist for the Asham, a poem on display at the OXO centre, and a regional shortlist for the Waterstone's WOW factor. The recognition gave me an immense confidence boost. Since being published I haven't entered anything, mostly because all comps seem to be for either unpublished authors or adult writing, and I don't fall into either category any more. It would be good to get back into it though!

Ossian said...

I run a competition but have had no success with entering my stories in other competitions. However, I have to agree with the verdict of those readers. I don't think I've written more than one or two that would make my own long list, let alone short list. Mind you, I have not yet despaired of ever writing anything any good - I still have hope. As to which competitions to enter I just try to identify ones that seem to share the same ideas about what is good writing, ones I would like to have "to my name". I'd rather win the Francis MacManus prize than the Bridport, or the Linenhall MacLaverty prize than the New Writer etc. I'd rather get paid a small amount for a story published in a magazine than pay to enter a literary stockcar race for a big cheque. When I started the Willesden competition it was just a lark to get people writing and have a bit of fun. I don't think "big money in a small competition" works, it just invites a tsunami of mediocrity. There is a place for the elite national competitions for published writers, such as the BBC (or whoever's matey mates) National short story competition for £20 grand for a story by somebody already published, but that is a bit different. I don't think the Bridport and Fish method of attracting thousands of expensive entries and thus offering a big prize is conducive to evoking great writing. I think, with many apologies to all who feel differently, their anthologies are no great shakes. I wouldn't really be that happy to be in them, honestly. However, you may conclude that my opinion is hopelessly jaundiced.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hello, Pat! An embossed bookmark? I always say you know you're hitting them out of the park when they start embossing stuff in your honour. Seriously, I like your attitude (and your honesty) - and you raise an excellent point I hadn't thought of and which I don't think anyone else mentioned: that writing for contests prompts us to produce new stories and that builds a body of work which can only be a good thing.

(I hope the biro didn't leak!)

Sarah Hilary said...

Bookchildworm, thanks for coming over to comment. That success in year one must have boosted your confidence amazingly - congratulations! Confidence is such a vital commodity for any writer.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hello, Stephen, great to have another voice from the other side of the curtain (or both sides, from what you say). Having fun should definitely be part of the process and thanks for making that point. It can be easy to take this too seriously, can't it?

Willesden publish an anthology, is that right? The trouble with any collection of writing (winning or otherwise) is that it's bound to contain a mix of styles - which I guess underlines the whole 'comes down to subjectivity' point raised earlier. There's certainly a "grade" difference between good, bad and mediocre, but I am often find I prefer a second or third placed story to the one the judges chose as First.

(Didn't Willesden start charging entry fees only last year? It would be interesting to know whether it affected the number of entries you received.)

Ossian said...

Hi Sarah, yes we added an entry fee for the first time, £3 to cover running costs, i.e. prize money and the setup of the book for print on demand. Otherwise it just came out of our pockets. Somebody said they objected to us using the money to pay for the setup of the book. As if we were going to make a great killing on publishing the book. Apart from a few bought by authors nobody buys the books. We were just running at a complete loss. We didn't have a sponsor for the prize money this time so it was back to free entry and a mug for a prize or add an entry fee. The prizes total £600 not counting the cost of the mug, which of course "is astronomical", PayPal takes about 10%, bank account charges £5 per month, website £17.99 per month (I know that is expensive, but we need proper PHP and database hosting, which you don't get on cheapos). We will be publishing the full accounts online eventually. We said we'd give any leftover to charity but there won't be any left, I'm nearly sure, after setting up the book. We don't advertise or pay any fees or any other disbursement to anybody in connection with the competition. The publisher Pretend Genius Press is a registered not-for-profit organisation and anything left over (which I have to keep repeating there never has been, in fact we have been pouring money down the drain of readers' indifference for years) but anything left over, as I say (cor, an old style sentence nearly worthy of Defoe), is reinvested in literary ventures. The judges have all offered their verdicts gratis on my pleading for the love of the short story.

I don't think anthologies are always a rag bag of mismatched items. Once there's a good editing process (ahem) selecting the contents, I can't see why they aren't necessarily a virtual symphony of complementary themes with stylistic variation only in a range that lends to the general progress and harmony of the collection. As for other comps, you know my opinion. (Haha. I'm waiting for somebody to get all uppity about the Bridport or whatever. You can bank on it.)

But back to your question, the numbers went from nearly 650 to 310. When we had a huge prize, which I don't even want to think about now, the numbers went up to nearly 900. That was free entry as well - but the quality of most, not all, of the items went down not up that time.

I think I notice that the involvement of prize money brings in poorer quality entries than a free competition. There are still the quality entries but they are harder to find among the hopeless punts. I don't blame anybody for having a go. Right after finishing a story I think most writers think it's pretty great, to be honest - even if anyone else can see that it isn't. So we stick it in an envelope and cross our fingers. Usually within a week or two we have realised it was a poor effort but by then it's too late. I admire everybody who makes the effort and every single one of the entries, albeit hopeless, shows signs of artistic endeavour, structure and unique viewpoint etc.

Group 8 said...

Very interesting insights there from Ossian. Having judged comps, I am inclined to agree.
One comp I judged (remaining nameless) didn't advertise very well. There were about 200 entries. I struggled to pull together a shortlist of 5. I was told by the organisers to 'find more'. I couldn't. The prize money was fantastic and very few of the stories deserved it. They simply weren't 1000 euro's worth.
On the plus side, I - the judge - got to read all entries. That's fair, I think.
I've no exp of the Bridport anth but the Fish one is often not up to scratch, editorially etc. There's usually at least one good story in it though - not always the winner!
WHICH is encouraging, really. It means any half-decent story has a chance.

One thing not mentioned so far is the UN-rotating judge. One of the big Irish comps - Bryan McMahon - has the same judge for the last 3 years. If she doesn't like what you do, you haven't a snowball's chance. I'm all for rotating judges.

Tania Hershman said...

One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet in this fascinating discussion is length of stories... the endless debate, when submitting to a comp, over whether you submit something that is as close to the maximum word length as possible, or just submit what you think is your best story?

When Nuala chaired the Sean O'Faolain comp she explicitly said she was interested in much shorter stories too, as am I for this year's competition. And last year's Bridport winning story is apparently around 1000 words, where the limit was 5000. Bridport clearly state "no minimum", whereas Fish, for example, don't. I know that the Bristol Short Story Prize has tended to get entries averaging the maximum word count but we'd be thrilled with much shorter stories. It's hard to know, though, as a writer taking that chance, and paying that fee. Thoughts?

Ossian said...

I don't mind any length of story, though there has to be a maximum or it's just not a short story. What I'm mainly trying for is to encourage people to send their best stories. I was not slightly alarmed, that's too strong a word, but slightly amazed, perhaps, at what Julia said above about sending different types and strengths of story to different competitions. By the way, Julia, did you notice that you had a marvellous Freudian typo there - you said you tried not to please them! :-)

That's why Willesden is only one entry per writer, because I don't want to spend time reading somebody's second best story and because I'm ambitious enough to want the best for the New Short Stories series. Plus I do this for fun. On the other hand, (how many hands is that now?) I probably wouldn't mind one of Alice Monro's, or William Trevor's etc. second bests.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks for the candid stats from Willesden, Stephen. I'd say that's a sort of proof that both entry fee and prize money are strong influencing factors. I can well see that a glut of entries would hinder not help the search for the best. But did the quality really go down when the prize money was at its peak, or was it just that the proportion of good stories was smaller? Otherwise it suggests that the best writers were put off, in some way, by the prospect of a bigger prize?

It's interesting what you say about the 'themed' anthologies. How do you decide on a theme, when surely the entries are diverse? (Unless you set a theme contest to begin with.) Or is it indicative, rather, of what the judge(s) look for? I'm probably being obtuse, as I'm rather tired this evening, but I love the way you express it in musical terms.

As for the "astronomical mug" - I hope the winner toasts his/her success in it, in style!

Sarah Hilary said...

Interesting point, Nuala, about the rotating judges. I haven't seen many contests where the same judge remains year on year, but how frustrating to be stuck with one whom you know doesn't chime with your style (the foolish so-and-so!).

Sarah Hilary said...

Tania, I'm so glad you're actively encouraging shorter story entries for the Bristol Prize. There does seem to be an odd notion in the minds of some contest organisers, and entrants, that the maximum word count is a target to work towards. As Nik Perring pointed out in a recent post on his blog, each story has its own length and there's nothing to be gained (and much to be lost) by trying to extend a story beyond its natural length.

I often see the comment against flash fiction (even the very best) that "it feels like part of a longer piece" and I usually (not always) think this is symptomatic not of a failing in the story but a reluctance in the reader to meet the story halfway.

Hemingway's "Baby Shoes" is a perfect example of a story that only becomes "whole" when the reader brings his/her interpretation to bear on it. Oh the baby died, how sad. Oh, they wanted a boy but they got a girl. Oh, the baby had giant feet!

No one would suggest (I hope) that Hemingway failed to 'finish' that story. But it does require reader engagement.

Now, nurturing that engagement is undoubtedly a skill on the part of the writer. But I think it's a mistake to 'dumb down' to a level where everything's laid on a plate for the reader because you're not expecting them to bring anything to the party.

As a reader, I love a little elbowroom to decide for myself what happens next, or precisely what went on. It's said to be the mark of a great novel - that we keep thinking about the characters and story after the book is finished. Why then expect conclusiveness from a short story?

Or am I missing a nuance somewhere?

Ossian said...

Sarah, all I can about the quality versus big prize on offer is that the bigger the prize the more "not very good" entries seem to be attracted. I might be wrong though, maybe it's all in my mind. I think the quality entries will always arrive as long as the competition continues to favour them and doesn't make poor selections. It's not just that good writers might be piqued to be overlooked, though that might be the case as well, but they simply will not want to enter a competition that selects homespun yarns or phoney baloney stuff.

It comes down to personal preferences. Some of the things I think are marvellous others can't abide. I see excellence in things that others don't particularly like, I have found. Some people's tastes bend more towards the soppy, others can't bear anything that isn't politically right on.

I would have loved to have something accepted by David Marcus because everything he selected I thought was great. He encouraged me but of course having read about him and read his autobiography "Oughtobiography" I realise now that he encouraged everybody. Still I miss him. Damn.

Julia Bohanna said...

I do love hearing about the inner workings of competitions and would plead with organisers to let us have some crumbs of information....the number entered, when the shortlist is in, perhaps even themes that came up. It is all exciting to read, when you have entered a comp.

How odd that paying competitions sometimes attract lesser entries than the free very topsy-turvy!

Also. 'twas not a freudian slip Ossian - I really don't try and send stories that will 'please' a particular judge. I please myself hopefully. For example, Mslexia have guest judges and I sent in a story (not for a comp - for general submission) without knowing who the judge was at all. It was a rather ethereal tale and the guest judge turned out to be Val McDermid. I would never have submitted such a story if I had KNOWN she was a judge. But she picked it and I met her some time later at the literary festival and she said that the story had been 'touching.' I learnt a lot by that and now I NEVER pander to the judge's tastes or genre.

I think it is all about confidence in yourself as a writer and that can wax and wan depending on state of your writing career, or even personal circumstance.

Another tip would be to seek out not simply fiction writing comps but non-fiction ones. If you can write, then you can win these too. I once entered a travel writing competition in the Sunday Telegraph...I wrote about wolves in Romania, because I was passionate about the subject. I won a holiday in Jamaica - absolutely gorgeous. So ask friends to keep clippings - newspapers often have such competitions and they can be very profitable.

It is all about the race, the craft and the joy of competing.

Good writing and winning, everyone!

jonathan pinnock said...

Just noticed this fascinating discussion. I tend to use a bit of a scattergun approach with comps, tbh, because I know that judges, however hard they try, will always be a little bit subjective. And I'll sometimes send two quite different pieces to the same comp for the same reason. I don't really understand Ossian's remark about restricting entries to one each, because he wants authors to send only their best story. I don't have a concept of a "best" story; I have considerable affection for some of my stories, true (generally the ones that keep coming back with their tails between their legs), but I have no idea which ones are "better" than others. Oh, and I don't simultaneously submit (except by accident) - I like to think I've got enough material lying around. And it also means that when a story fails, I can think to myself "Great! That one's free again."

jonathan pinnock said...

One other thing - I'm sure someone else has said it already, but I hate comps where there's only a winner announced. Total waste of time for the CV. Longlists are good :)

And I also agree with Julia's comment about not trying to second-guess the judge. A good judge is a lot more broad-minded than you might think.

Sarah Hilary said...

Julia, excellent tip re the types of contests we look out for. The travel one sounded terrific - what a prize! - and as you say, it's the enthusiasm that affects what we write, so why not look for chances to write about the things that excite us?

I agree also about the 'crumbs' from the contest table. There should be more of these. Long-lists, hints on the sort of things that worked and why, blogs from the judges that keep us in touch with the process.

It's too easy to feel as if we've dropped off our story all spruced up for a special occasion, only to hear nothing at all for months before it comes back, without a clue as to how it fared.

Please, contest organisers, more information! Doesn't have to be personlised; we'll take a general flavour. I'm sure the process can be demystified without losing its magic.

Sarah Hilary said...

Jonathan, hello, and thanks for joining this debate. I totally agree about the single winner disappointment. I feel at the very least a shortlist should be a part of the process, especially for fee-paying contests. I appreciate that the judges are busy people but surely it's an investment in the long run if they can provide some clear indications of what 'nearly made the grade'.

Longlists, shortlists, top three. And prize money split between the top three. These would all surely help to demonstrate what sort of writing is making the grade, which would help writers (some of us, anyway) to get a better grasp on what to send where.

(The split of prize money is simply to encourage those lower down the results chain - the all or nothing of some whapping prizes like Sunday Times seems inflated to attract published authors at the expense of encouraging newer ones. How then does ST hope to discover the next big thing?)

I notice that Fish has a rule for their One-Page Prize (not sure if it applies to their other prizes) where anyone who's appeared in their anthos twice in three years has to take a year off from entering to allow newcomers a good crack at it - good idea? I suspect so, but I'd be interested in what others think.

Fred said...

The problem with literary competitions is that there are too many of them, and there is an unseemly rush among young fledgling writers especially to win them, so that they can be added to the literary CV. It's almost forty years since I won the Hennessy Literary Award. Back then, the judges were the late V.S. Pritchett and James Plunkett, senior writers whose work I had read and admired. It does one no benefit at all to be judged by one's peers; one should be judged always by people who have attained more and are more respected, as well as better known, than one is oneself. But now some competitions are being judged by people, very young, who aren't even published writers, and this is mortally wrong; wrong for literature, wrong for young writers hanging on the competition verdict. There is, besides, no merit in winning such a competition. Let me put it this way: if one finishes an examination paper for a university qualification, would one prefer to have it praised by one's fellow student at the next desk, or by a senior professor in the department? Why should it be different in literature? Why should one's attitude be different?

Sarah Hilary said...

Fred, you raise an interesting point about peers and judges, and also about the readiness of young writers to enter contests (by which I mean both their eagerness and their preparedness). It would be fascinating to see a chart somewhere, if one existed, that shows how many contests exist now compared with forty years ago.

I wonder whether a comparable chart would show a decline in paying venues without contests? (Although of course the internet has skewed those statistics.)

Maybe an analysis like this would reveal something of the impetus behind the setting up and running of contests, which is a subject we haven't really discussed here as yet. If the aim is to encourage young writers then should there be fewer and more strictly judged contests? Or a clearer hierarchy of contests that differentiate between seasoned and new writers?

Ossian said...

It sounds ok to provide a lot of details about what worked and didn't work for the competition but in practice it invokes a fusillade of sarcasm and ill will. There's nothing much can be said without sounding patronising. If I say I don't usually like generic stories somebody flies into a rage about why they weren't told I don't want generic. Then I'm forced into a silly conversation (this is one that happened) where I have to point out that I'm open to being "wowed" by a generic story. It's a bit of a case of "least said soonest mended". Nevertheless as lifetime champion "fool who rushes in" I did post in detail a list of some of the things that made me think "no" when reading. It's on the Willesden Herald blog somewhere. It also got picked up by an American Writers Handbook so I got a few dollars for that. I'd quite like to write a list of the things that work for me. It's a little more difficult. I guess now that I've said it I will end up writing it but not today. Work calls, boring day & night job work that is. I don't call writing work.

I agree with Fred's comments. Respect to Fred - I think I remember that story in New Irish Writing. Was David Marcus still there at that time? You are a legend man. I don't judge, I only filter but as Milton nearly said, they also judge who only stand and filter.

Sarah Hilary said...

Stephen, I flatter myself that I'm learning quite a bit about what you like and don't like by reading your posts here. (Please don't shatter that illusion!) A list of what you like would be wonderful, though, and I intend to take full credit (along with everyone else who posted here) for prpmpting it. Please do link to the blog when it happens.

Tania Hershman said...

This continues to be very very interesting. Another point, made by someone on my FB page, is that first readers or "sifters" may well be writers/budding writers themselves and are thus reading as writers and not as "just" ordinary readers. Does this matter? How could this be prevented if it does? This ties in, of course, with what the aim of a particular competition is. Does "reading as a writer" mean that a good story, well told, is not the first priority but instead it is to do with that word: "craft"? Is this why there are those who say they can spot a "winning" story, technically excellent but perhaps lacking a certain messiness of a truly great story?

Following up on my previous point, here's my personal dilemma. There's a competition which calls for short stories "up to 25 pages". Is it just ridiculous to send a 4-page 1500-word story, because it will be held up against something 7 times the length, whereas if I sent it to a 2000-word-limit story comp it will be judged in a different way because of the shorter length constraints?? I am trying to see if I can read previous winners to get some kind of guide, but can't find 'em!

Tania Hershman said...

Addendum - I was talking about the SLS contest, and I just found last year's winner, Caron A Levis' Permission Slip, you can read it in Fence. It is 3600 words long, roughly 16 double spaced pages. So that's something!

Sarah Hilary said...

Nice detective work, Tania! I do wish the length thing was more consistently applied and that there was less guesswork involved.

On your point about craft vs a great story, I'm guessing the aim is to have both, the former so skilful that it's woven into the latter virtually unseen. I've just read an exhaustive critique as to why The Lady with the Dog by Chekhov is such a good story, and I can't help feeling that the deconstruction of it did nothing to make me feel more or less strongly about it as a story, or as a piece of writerly craft. It reminds me of my English teacher at A level college bemoaning the fact he had to teach us TS Eliot on the ground that we'd all end up hating Eliot by the time we'd done dissecting him (he wanted us to love Eliot). There's some truth in that. A great story should grip first. Craft should be all about THAT, and less about everything else, I feel.

Claire King said...

Great post, Sarah, and wonderful reading through all last years comments. I totally agree that the longlisting and shortlisting is very important and when the judges write a summary (as Tania did last year for Sean O'Faolain) it's really helpful and encouraging.
I only entered about 8 writing competitions last year, a mix of 'big' and smaller. That was me at maximum capacity because I was focusing seriously on getting my novel finished and I know if I try and write something quickly just to be 'in the game' that it will be rubbish.
This year no change, I'm focusing seriously on Novel number two, so I'll be picking and choosing again.
Good luck to you and all commenters! Hope to be reading your winning stories all year!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Claire. I'm lucky enough to be busy at the moment, with rewrites to the novel for my agent, which feels like a privileged situation compared with previous years. But I wrote a couple of new short stories just before Christmas, which I'm hoping to polish up and enter. Picking and choosing is a good strategy. Have fun, and fingers crossed for a great writing year.

Colin said...


I heard this week that one of my short stories had won a cash prize in the 'Writers' Forum' monthly competition. The reason I entered the story was that a fellow member of the 'Write Words' writing community had won first prize in the same competition a few months earlier. Our writing styles are similar, so I thought 'go for it!'.
I guess this emphasises the role of writing networks in this process, as 'Write Words' members gave me honest feedback on the story when I first submitted it. This encouraged me to reshape and refine it before submission to the magazine.


Sarah Hilary said...

Congratulations, Colin!