The market for short stories is even more limited these days than it was in the past, to say nothing of the market for poetry. Gone are the heady days of the daily story in the Evening News. That was my first taste of paid publication, and it was a terrific outlet. The only requirement was that it had to be between 1050 and 1100 words, and not be offensive. So I did science fiction, historical, contemporary… Capital Radio had a slot where you could do weird surreal stories there, of a similar length. The short story competition has filled some of these lamentable gaps, and poetry competitions are invaluable for undiscovered bards who are notching up rejection slips in three figures from magazines.
The first competition I ever entered was Bridport, in 1987, and I came third. These days they publish anthologies, which gives you an idea of the sort of thing they’re after.The Bridport Prize - Winners, 2012
Flushed with success (and more money than any short story had earned me, up to that point!) I started entering others. I’ve won a few big ones, such as the Cardiff International Poetry Competition, in1999, and I was one of the recipients of the Canongate Prize, in 2001. My enthusiasm waxes and wanes – some years I won’t enter any at all, and other years I really go for it. There are lots and lots of small competitions, as well. And over the last few years, flash fiction has made an appearance. To decide whether something is worth entering I look at the entry fee, and compare it to the prize money. Some competitions are just scams to raise money for something – or someone! There are other prizes, often very big ones, when the book or short story has to be submitted by the publisher.
And then there’s ABNA. This is the amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and it’s administered and judged in a completely different way from all the others. Go to here to find out about it. You need to have registered with Create Space, although you don’t need to have actually published anything through them. You have to have written a novel of between 50,000 and 150,000 words, and there are five genres – general fiction, young adult, fantasy/horror, romance and science fiction/fantasy. If you’ve never written a pitch before it’s a good way to get started – the ABNA community are a generous lot, and post their own pitches for people to read and criticise. A lot of people use the Write a Novel in a Month event in November to get it together. See here
It’s as well to be aware that results don’t always appear when promised, and sometimes the judging of a competition takes a lot longer than originally anticipated. With both Cardiff and Canongate I’d forgotten all about my entries by the time I heard something. This can be a real problem – most competitions want something that has never been published, and my Cardiff poem was just about to appear in a small magazine and had to be withdrawn at the last minute. This did not make me very popular with the editor, as you’re not allowed to divulge the results before a certain date. Explaining why I had to renege on my submission without being able to say precisely why was an episode I’d prefer not to repeat.
There are a few bits of advice I’d like to pass on.
Firstly, READ THE RULES. Even then, they may not say what they mean. Read the small print.
Most competitions want anonymous entries – they’re identified by the entry form. Make sure you’re erased your name from the title page as well as any headers or footers.
Number your pages.
Don’t use a fancy font or purple ink.
Don’t exceed the word-count, or line length for poetry, as it’s so easy to check these days. Instant disqualification.
Be careful about your use of humour. It’s a pity, but funny stories or poems rarely win competitions because humour is such personal thing.
Remember the old editors’ adage: the first paragraph makes you want to read the rest, the last paragraph makes you want to commission it.
And don’t surrender your copyright unless you really don’t want it.
I suspect I cried “personal bias!” with the best of them until I was asked to be a judge myself. It was a salutary experience. When I co-judged the Richmond Short Story Competition we each independently received the same seventy-odd anonymous entries to read, from which we were to select a shortlist of twenty. We only disagreed on four. When it came to choosing the winners, we didn’t disagree at all other than the order. We were writers from very different genres, and I think the only thing we had in common was gender. This was not reflected in the stories, once we’d made our decision and got to see the names of the authors. Hopefully, this shows that ability does shine through, and personal prejudices take a back seat. Although I have to admit there have been occasions when I’ve read winning entries for some competition or other, and thought – why?
Oddly enough, I’ve been more successful in competitions when I’ve been writing as a man. The anonymity helps, of course. If a book is written in the first person by a woman, we expect the character to be female, and vice versa. This is why it’s important to specify the gender of the narrator as early as possible, by whatever means, so that we don’t build up a false picture of the person concerned. In Cassie, my Canongate story, I did it as follows:
She’s playing now. I watch her, the way her dark head tilts as she talks to her farm animals, telling them what they’re doing as she shuffles them across the floor. I did wonder whether to get her the plastic models; they’re more realistic. But in the end I decided against it – the pre-war lead ones are perfectly adequate – better in some ways. I know their contours, the solid feel they have in the palm of your hand. I owned a set of them when I was a boy.
Beware of Men with Moustaches is one of thirteen shortlisted books, and the amazing thing is that an ex-student of mine, Paul Beaumont, is one of the others with his subversive novel entitled A Brief Eternity. The prize is open to unpublished books, or ones that have been e-published but haven't appeared in print. There is a free e-book of all thirteen opening chapters. And our own Chris Longmuir won the prize in 2009 with Dead Wood. Night Watcher, another book in the same Dundee Crime Novel series, is available on the Kindle.