Life on the Short List, Part 2: Competitions?!
So, why enter competitions?
A good question, especially for the newly forged writer, who will sit in nail-biting anticipation, waiting for the results (actually, we all sit in nail-biting anticipation, but eventually you develop that cool exterior... shh, don’t tell anyone).
Is it all worth it, just to get feedback that might, er, smart a bit?
Is it, in fact, about the feedback?
My last blog post looked at feedback, and what you can get from it, but can’t you get feedback without putting yourself on the line in a competition?
What about critique groups?
Mum (especially good if what you are after is a warm, cosy glow - which is quite valid, by the way, and you might also get this sort of reassurance from your Other Half, or you BFF...)?
I can always rely on Mum to boost my confidence.
(PS this is not my mum, or me,
but some random strangers on a free image site.)
Your friend at [insert work place/playgroup/coffee shop, etc., of choice] (especially good if you want a long discussion on how they could do a better job than [insert favourite author] if only they had the time - only joking... I think... and maybe they are right)?
So... is it about winning?
Well, yes, and don’t you dare tell me that you wouldn’t be truly excited to win...
...but also, no, because, drum roll for the big reveal, please, it is about putting yourself out there, taking a risk, allowing yourself to make a mistake, even, and learn.
I’ll say that again. In capital letters. LEARN. And you knew that, didn’t you?
And this is what entering competitions is all about, because, with a few rare exceptions you will not make huge amounts of money (and definitely not enough upon which you can retire to that golden life of full time writer).
Nor will you necessarily reach the shining apple of publication calling from the top branch, though some do. That is the carrot on the stick – possibility.
Maybe I’ll stop with the [mixed?] metaphors now. You get the picture.
Sometimes you will be asked to submit a complete short story (as were the stories that I had published by Ginninderra Press in a series of anthologies for children) and sometimes an excerpt or opening from a longer work in progress (such as I entered for CYA).
Most will offer some level of feedback, but not all, due to the vast number of entries, and some will only provide feedback for those who make the short list. But I have already talked about feedback. You get that. Moving on.
Here is the next important bit. Highlight this.
What all competitions offer you, the writer (or, for that matter, illustrator), is the chance to treat your work seriously – practising, as it were, your professional approach.
You plan. You write. You edit. You edit again. And maybe even again. And again. And you tweak this bit, and you cut that bit, and, oh, yes, you add a little bit here and there, until it shines.
I always begin by overwriting as far as word count goes, which is kind of me, anyway. I have found that it is far more valuable to be tightening up your prose with well thought out edits, than trying to fluff up a very short entry – although, if your word count falls under the limit, that is usually okay, and it is much better to have a solid, short draft than trying to plump* it out with fluff.
*NB: I have found myself starting to plump things up to then find myself writing a whole new, longer story that has worked on a different scale, so... you don't have to listen to me on that score.
And I make sure that my work meets the criteria for the comp.
In fact, I go through this with a fine tooth comb, create a check list, and tick off the boxes.
You have heard it before. It is no use sending a hard hitting crime novel to a romance comp, no use sending a PB for YA comp, or vice versa. No use sending 10,000 words for a flash fiction comp (okay, now I’m exaggerating, but you get the drift, you wouldn’t do that, so don’t send 1000 words when they asked for 600).
Make the most of this chance to practise.
Don’t just whip something up at the last minute and hope for the best.
Don’t just get that dusty ms from your bottom drawer and hope for the best.
If it is something new, give yourself enough time to let it rest before you go back and edit.
If it is something you have used before (and make sure that the comp is okay with you recycling texts – they probably won’t accept anything that has taken a placing anywhere beforehand), brush it off, look at earlier feedback, see it through the eyes of someone whose skill level has grown (ie you), and rework it accordingly.
Accordingly. Not overwork it.
And then you shove it out the door and just hope it remembers its manners. And you wait. In, yes, nail-biting anticipation.
And, whatever comes back, you learn from it. Even if it is nothing.
Yes, grieve that you didn’t win*, that is okay. Eat chocolate, drink tea (or wine) and lick your wounds. Then, remind yourself that it is all subjective. Shake yourself and go take another look at your ms. Is it worth reviving? If so, go out and do some research. Ask, ‘What can I do differently?’ If not, give it a decent burial in the bottom drawer. And move on to the next piece of writing.
*NB: unless you do win, in which case it is absolutely okay to whoop loudly, run around the kitchen wildly, do other things with other adverbs that indicate extreme excitement and probably worry the cat, ring all your friends, post on facebook (graciously), and have a celebratory champagne or similar Australian sparkling wine of your choice (or a cup of tea, all good).
But remember, it is in the doing that the learning first takes place.
As you may have gathered, I’m pretty darned good at getting short-listed (or I was). I rarely take first prize.
But I have always got something out of it. From useful feedback to publication, and, most of all, experience.
And I’ve been offered alternative prizes. A quiet bit of mentorship. The opportunity to take up a place in a course for a generous discount. A long face to face chat with my personal writing hero, about my book. New friends.
Me, starstruck, chatting with Terry Pratchett
at a private function in London.
I’ve learned that the real prize sometimes doesn’t include the blue ribbon.