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Filtering: HD for your writing

Writing Competitions: give yourself the best chance

Competition in creative art is an odd concept, but also a natural one: since the beginning of time there's been a limit on the number of chops you can carve off a goat, and only one place by the fire for a storyteller because our audience - the Lord, the Lady and their top henchmen - had the other places ex officio. We compete, too, to increase that audience: the Palace fireplace is bigger than the Manor's, and the Royal cooks serve roast swan. But it's not only good practice to enter competitions: they can be a very good way to help develop your writing:

  • they give you a deadline to stop you fiddling and procrastinating forever;
  • they may offer a topic or starter which pushes you off your usual trackways into new territory;
  • having a word limit can help you, as formal restrictions often do;
  • it can be quite freeing, too, to write something in a "Oh, let's have a go, why not?" spirit, rather than the paralysing effect of feeling that this has to be your masterpiece;
  • reading past or present entries can give you a good (if sometimes painful) insight into where your writing sits in the spectrum of current writerly and readerly tastes and talents;
  • even a longlisting is the kind of conditional validation which can boost your confidence and kick-start the next phase of your writerly growth. 

However, to some extent you're working blind, at least at first. So who better to ask about how to maximise your chances of getting that conditional validation than a judge? As some Itch-readers will know, Debi Alper is a vastly experienced writing teacher and mentor, with whom I developed our online course Self-Editing Your Novel (200+ graduates, next course booking now for September 2016) - but you may not know that she's also an experienced judge of short story competitions. So I was delighted when she agreed to blog about how to give your story the best chance. Over to you, Debi.

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Thanks so much to Emma for prompting me to get round to something I've had on my to-do list for a long time, i.e. sharing the insights I've gleaned from the many years I've been judging short story competitions. Some of these competitions have been small, and I've been the sole judge, but the big national competitions, like the Costa Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize and the Bath Short Story Award, attract thousands of entries and the organisers use professional readers or 'sifters'. We're the people who look at every entry, selecting those which, in our informed opinion, are 'in with a chance'. Those are the stories which will be submitted to the collective process of discussion by the top layer, named judges who then either select the winners or, in the case of the Costas, for example, choose a short list for a public vote.

The sifters' role is to condense the thousands of entries down to a manageable list and, I have to tell you, dear writer, many of the stories can be dismissed at a glance. I know that sounds brutal but them's the facts. Rather than spending energy ranting at any perceived lack of fairness, it would be better to concentrate on writing the best stories you can and making sure you don't do anything that would earn an instant rejection. Once we've put aside the ones who've earned that dubious distinction, we're still left with many hundreds of stories which merit more careful reading and thought. And some stories, the glorious few, are so stunning that they shoot to the top of the list we'll pass to the named judges.

So what can you do to avoid being on the straight-to-dismissal list and also elevate your chances of shooting into the top category? Here are the essentials.

  • Stick to the word count. If the maximum is, say 4,000 words, submitting even a few more means the story won't be read, no matter how brilliant it may be.
  • Read all the terms and conditions carefully. If the competition is anonymous, as many are, make sure your name doesn't appear in the file name or anywhere in the submission. This will result in an instant disqualification.
  • Most of us will tolerate the occasional typo or punctuation error. If we encounter several on the first page, you're pushing your luck. Sloppy presentation gives out the signal that you don't care enough to proofread and polish your story. And if you don't care enough, why should we?
  • Be original! One year, it felt like four out of every five stories I read was about grief and loss. Inevitably, some were better than others but the cumulative effect was like being bludgeoned by gloom.
  • Study previous winners to see what the judges are looking for in each competition. Stories that would work well in the women's magazine market, for example, may not stand out in a competition that prefers more literary stories.
  • Fulfil the promise your story makes at the beginning. Many stories start with a strong hook, meriting a careful read of the whole story, but the end feels disappointing. Your story needs to feel complete.
  • As with any creative writing, the narrative voice is crucial. Much of the above can be forgiven (though not the points about disregarding the terms and conditions) if the voice grabs us by the throat from the opening line and doesn't let go.
  • Be persistent. You'll never know how close you came to being on a long or short list. It's when it comes down to choosing the best from a manageable list of top quality contenders that subjectivity really kicks in. In one competition, the sifters are asked to select their top twelve stories. I usually list any that I believe are in with a chance - about twenty out of the many hundreds I've read. The top layer judges in that particular competition (where there are five sifters) have approximately a hundred stories to read and discuss in order to come up with a short list of six. The ones that I ranked highest may not appear on that list and the authors will never know their story was my personal favourite. If you believe in your story, submit it elsewhere. There are countless examples of entries which achieve success in one competition, having been rejected elsewhere.
  • As with any creative writing, the most important piece of advice I can give is to enjoy the process.

Good luck!

Debi Alper is an author, editor and creative writing tutor, as well as a competition judge. Her first novels, Nirvana Bites and Trading Tatiana, were originally published by Orion and were re-published last year as e-books under Debi's Nirvana Publishing imprint. The third in the series, De Nada Nirvana, was published on Mayday this year. She also co-runs the phenomenally successful Self-Edit Your Novel course for the Writers' Workshop.

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Thanks, Debi: as you say, enjoying the process is important. Entering a competition was never time wasted, even if the story didn't get anywhere, if you end up with a story you're pleased with. But it really is a waste of precious writing time if not winning means you wish you hadn't bothered to try. 

And for a different angle on the same questions, do click through to The Hoops You Must Jump Through, for Susannah Rickards' experience of being a filter reader for competitions large and small.

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