Here are some thoughts about competitions – mainly short story competitions. This is an updated version of a piece I shared with the Croydon Writers a while ago.
I suppose my main aim as a writer is to get a proper novel published – but ‘you know it don’t come easy’. So about eighteen months ago I decided that I would go in for short story competitions a bit more seriously, with the aim of getting some recognition and honing my skills. I’ve won nothing, but I’ve been placed three times. I’ve had ‘honourable mentions’, longlisting or shortlisting seventeen times (not for seventeen different stories, though; The Reddifers has been listed in five different competitions, which might tell you something about my ‘carpet bombing’ approach). Five stories have been published in anthologies – nice to have an actual printed book. Of course, these ‘hits’ are the tip of an iceberg, with many, many ‘misses’ below the surface – I’ll confess that my spreadsheet (of course I have a spreadsheet) now shows a total of 124 misses (again, that’s not 124 stories), with many more entries pending and numerous competitions I’ve got my eye on but not yet entered. That’s a hit rate of about 12%. Overall, I feel encouraged, but I think I could refine my targeting a bit.
My basic strategy so far has been to enter everything I was eligible for, and where allowed, enter several times. I’ve ended up doing about six competitions each month. The main reason was simply to stack the odds in my own favour. One thing that seems very clear is that there is a considerable element of chance in all these competitions. Even a great story won’t get anywhere unless it is lucky enough to encounter judges who like the kind of story it is and happen to be in a receptive mood. Sometimes, I’m afraid, I feel sure my story did not get read at all. That might sound paranoid, but I can quote a couple of cases where the evidence is rather strong. In one I was given feedback that clearly related to another story (not mine); in another I got a panicky email saying they had mislaid my entry – that was on the day before the announcement of the shortlist, so although I sent them another copy I really doubt it got a proper chance! They only notify you if you get somewhere, so if your entry simply falls down a crack somewhere, you’ll never know (and most competitions won’t tell you if you were disqualified for some reason, which is pretty poor, I think). There is nothing to be done about this – I think it’s pointless to try to start an angry correspondence – but entering multiple times increases the odds of your story surviving and getting read by a sympathetic pair of eyes.
Let me digress at this point to raise the side issue of feedback. Competitions usually will not offer any feedback (a notable exception being the Grindstone site, which automatically gives really detailed feedback, though I think that may be changing this year), but some will offer it for an additional fee. Sometimes it’s worth it, but to date I have only opted for the cheaper ones. I’ve had useful feedback from Henshaw and the Fiction Factory; others were encouraging but not especially useful, and a couple didn’t seem to understand the story. One reviewer took so long to deliver and the comments were so formulaic it was clearly a waste of time and money. I’m not sure whether it’s more annoying to have negative feedback based on a misunderstanding or excellent feedback but get nowhere in the competition!
Anyway, my second reason for entering lots of times is that it takes the edge off failure. There’s always another competition coming along. In fact, you may even feel some compensating pleasure when a story fails, because now you can enter it somewhere else! But having given it a year, I don’t really recommend the carpet bombing approach. I think there are actually good reasons to be a bit more selective about what you enter. First, if you’re going for quantity, you do need a fair number of stories ready to go, or nearly ready. In fact, it’s difficult to say exactly how many stories I do have. To qualify for different competitions I’ve rewritten several in different lengths or with changes of plot to make them match a theme, so it’s not always clear what counts as a new story. Word limits for different competitions may be as low as 1,000 (ignoring the separate competitions for flash fiction) or as high as 10,000, though 2,000 is most common. I’ve found that sometimes, rather annoyingly, shortening a story to meet a word limit actually sharpens and improves it too. Overall I reckon that in practice I currently have about a dozen different stories I’m happy to submit and a few more I can brush up if needed.
A second good reason to be more selective is that most competitions charge an entry fee, and although they are typically small, this starts to mount up if you’re not careful (and especially if you start paying for feedback too). I’ve certainly spent a lot more on entry fees than I’ve made in prize money, and next year I plan to pare my spending down a bit.
A third reason is that you have to remember to ask yourself in each case – do I really want to win this? For large competitions the prize might be ten thousand pounds and a week in a luxury retreat; for small ones the first prize may not be that much larger than the entry fee. I’ve seen one or two competitions where the only reward for winning is publication, and you give away your copyright (typically I believe competitions reserve the right to publish your story in an anthology or elsewhere, but otherwise you retain all the rights). It’s good to see your work in print, but not so good you want to give it away. Even more reputable competitions may not be attractive. The Artist’s and Writer’s Yearbook, for example, runs a very respectable competition, with the winner going on an Arvon course and the story published on the website. But I don’t want to go on the course, so that’s of no value to me. If my story is put on their website the truth is that hardly anyone will read it, but I’ll be disqualified from entering it or publishing it elsewhere – so no thanks.
What stories should you submit? It goes without saying that they must match the entry requirements for the competition, including formatting. These vary a lot, and a small mistake can get you silently disqualified. On the other hand, where there is theme or a prescribed title I’ve found most competitions are quite flexible over interpretation.
To have the absolute best chance of winning, you should read past winners, find out who the judges are, and if they are writers, read their stories too, and then write something to match their tastes. I’m not willing to go that far – life’s too short and also I want to write what I want to write, not what some random judge prefers – but I do try to select which of my trusty dozen seems most likely to find favour. It follows that it’s good to have stories in a range of tones and styles. The White Review, for example, tells you explicitly that if your story isn’t innovative and exploring the boundaries of the short story form, don’t bother entering it. Others say they want real stories about relatable characters, not meditations on the writer’s inner life.
I think it helps to be aware of why a particular competition is running. Many are associated with local literary festivals; while most of these are open to anyone, some seek to promote local voices (some competitions are explicitly for minority or disadvantaged writers, of course). You may need to judge exercise judgement over that. The Seán O’Faoláin competition, for example, obviously has strong roots in Ireland, but it can certainly be won by someone from Surrey; in other cases if you’re not local, maybe don’t bother.
If you go in for short story competitions, what has your experience been? Are magazine competitions worth a go? How much is a reasonable entry fee?
(The picture of a white squirrel has nothing to do with anything, by the way; I just happened to see it on my statutory walk round Wallington earlier. We’ve had albino squirrels round here for years, so they evidently do OK. Tell, you what, it’s a writing prompt. There.)