Susannah Rickards won the Scott Prize with her debut collection of short fiction, Hot Kitchen Snow and it's just out from Salt. She's also the teaching a workshop on entering writing competitions at the Claygate & Esher Short Fiction Festival, which is running 26-28th November as part of National Short Story Week. For many writers competitions are their first taste of trying to get their work noticed, but most of us have little idea of how they work and therefore little idea of how we might improve our chances of getting onto the longlist. So when I heard that Susannah has many years' experience of reading for competitions, I asked her to do a guest blog on what they look like from the inside.
And just to make it even more fun, one reader can win a signed copy of Hot Kitchen Snow. Leave a comment on this post, or in Part Two which will be going up in a couple of days, by the end of Sunday 14th November, and I'll pick one out of the virtual hat. So, over to Susannah:
HOOP ONE – The First Filter Reader
A talented, unpublished writer I know was recently told to enter her work for awards as her prose was ‘the sort that does well in competitions.’ She asked if such prose existed, and if so, what was distinctively competition-friendly about it? How did it differ from other good writing?
My instinct was to reply that there isn’t a single style that wins a judge’s heart: I’ve judged thousands of stories and hundreds of novels for local and national fiction competitions, and have shortlisted work I loved and work I loathed but respected or admired. But I didn't say that. Because however different in tone the top stories are, they do have certain stylistic traits in common that raise them to that crucial top 2%. (With a surprising consistency over the years, only about 2% of entries stand out.) This 2-part post is about what we’re looking for, why, and also why great stories can get overlooked but rarely do.
First - it helps to understand the process. You may submit your work to a competition because an author you have a keen affinity with its judge this year. It’s a shrewd move in some ways but that author may never read your work. They aren’t paid to wade through the hundreds, sometimes thousands of entries that pour in. There are lackeys for that. I was one for years and still do it sometimes to keep aware of writing trends. It’s the most insightful, rewarding and badly paid job I’ve ever had. The low paid, power-wielding First Filter Reader, not the judge, is the person to whom your story must appeal, so who takes this role? Why? And how do you make them kiss your script with relief and scrawl over it: At last – a shortlister – halle-hooplah-lujah!
FFRs aren’t the enemy, they’re your colleagues. Like any colleague, we appreciate writers who make our work easier. I’m not talking about double-spacing typescripts and numbering pages – readers of Emma’s blog aren’t fools - I know you know all that. To make a FFR happy, have a bit of insight into what we do and what we crave, and provide it. FFRs are typically paid between nothing and £2 for reading a story, between nothing and £10 for critiquing one. Usually towards the lower end of that pay scale. (I’m currently reading for a local award that works out at about 30p a story. Clearly we’re not in this for the money.)
Don’t fondly imagine your story will be read during office hours by a full-time awards assistant who has access to a well-lit office with a broad desk on which to spread out submissions. We work from home, when we’ve come home from work. Boxes of books or typescripts are biked to us by couriers, hastily signed for and stuffed on top of an already overflowing desk, on the way to our main occupations as Publishing Assistant, Literary Agent’s Assistant, Mother, Schoolboy or Sea-fisherman. Because some first filter readers are just readers. Bridport’s are. They are the staff from the Arts Centre, their friends and relations, whose first degree may be in Agriculture or they may still be studying for their A levels.
Before you toss a pen across the room in scorn at the sheer amateurish random selection of this process, consider this: FFRs are that elusive grail – keen readers. We plough through hundreds of stories for next to nothing because we love to read, because our craving to discover a new, rare voice is keener than the nose of a truffle pig. We’ve read dozens of authors every day, published and unpublished. Sheer volume trains the eye to note good syntax from the first sentence. It’s practice, not personal whim, that leads us to know if a voice stands out from the crowd. I admit without apology that I’ve read submissions in the bath, in bed, on the tube, on my kitchen step at five in the morning with three cups of coffee lined up on the floor as stamina fuel. A good story will turn the bath and coffee cold, make a reader miss her stop. In short, it does exactly what you seek when you pick up a book. It transports the FFR and makes us forget we’re reading. The fact that we’re shattered or our car broke down, our main-job boss had a go or our kids are screaming all work in your favour in a skewy way: we’re reading as real readers do – without £££ in our eyes or marketing teams on our backs. We’re reading to escape. If you can persuade us to suspend disbelief, your writing is working.
In Part Two, I'll be looking at what puts a story into that 2%.
Susannah Rickards grew up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She read English at Oxford, trained for the theatre in Paris and then spent ten years in classical and improvisational theatre, touring the world with baskets of corsets and swords in ever-dodgier vehicles. Her fiction and poetry have been published, anthologised, broadcast on radio and online, and have brought her the Commonwealth Broadcasting Short Story Prize, the 2008 Conan Doyle New Fiction Award, and a Hawthornden Writing Fellowship, as well as numerous Highly Commendeds and shortlistings.