Are writing competitions worth it? Worth the effort, the expense, the restrictions, the inevitable nerves, the potential disappointment?
The Highland Literary Salon decided to tackle these questions head on, so on Tuesday 22nd November, in conjunction with Book Week Scotland, they hosted ‘Putting yourself out there’. Chaired by Caroline Deacon, the event involved two competition-winning authors, Mairi Wilson and Helen Sedgwick, and a representative from Scottish Book Trust, Lynsey Rogers.
Mairi Wilson, winner of the 2015 Sunday Mail Fiction Competition with her commercial women’s fiction novel Ursula’s Secret, spoke first. Mairi began with plenty of excellent advice about the best way to enter competitions:
The more focused the competition, the better your chances. A competition with an ‘any form, any theme’ guideline may look appealing, but it means you are going up against a significant number of people and trying to guess what will appeal to the judges. If, however, the focus of the competition is, for example, sonnets about trees, or a particular place, you know what the judges are looking for, and are only against other people writing on that same theme.
This especially applies to competitions that are looking for more than your original entry. In Mairi’s case that meant a finished manuscript (and a frantic all-nighter for Mairi). For pamphlet or collection competitions it could mean producing another 20 poems or short stories by return email. So remember: it can take years for someone to notice your work; don’t waste the opportunity by not being prepared. After all, as my mum would say ‘Eventually, it all happens very quickly.’
Be clear about what you want
While your story or poetry is the most important thing in the world to you, to the publishing company it is one part of a finished product. That means they decide the cover, and how to promote the book. You may be given the chance to chip in, and you may speak up if you have serious misgivings about the direction your book is being taken in (preferring sans serif font does not count as a crisis), but there is no guarantee your suggestions in these areas will be followed through. If the thought of letting go like that makes your insides twist, considering self-publishing.
Be prepared to edit
Don’t assume the editor will do all the work. Many writers, including Mairi herself, expect that they will work very closely with an editor, that they will move in together and spend weeks joyfully arguing about verbs and syntax over hearty food and bracing walks on the beach but, sadly, this is rarely the case. An editor will do what they can for you but they are not privy to the doubts inside your head; if you assume the editor will change something, be proactive and change it yourself.
So what happens when you actually go and win the thing? For Mairi it made it real- a validation of her efforts, not just for this competition but for her writing in general. Though it was her first novel that won the competition, Mairi also entered poetry and short story competitions in the past. One of her poems was rejected 30 times before winning a competition, meaning Mairi has experienced both sides of the coin; ‘quick, easy’ victory and the ‘slow, hard-won’ victory. The lesson here? Take your best work and just keep submitting it until it is has a home.
Mairi did, however, also offer a valuable word of caution. A huge number of competitions are geared towards unpublished writers, and, if successful, these opportunities are closed to you; so make sure understand what a competition win will give you, and potentially take away from you, before you enter.
Helen Sedgwick spoke next, detailing her experience of winning a coveted Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award.
Helen started out writing short stories, and it was her short story about comets that won her the New Writers’ Award for fiction in 2012. This story eventually became her first published novel The Comet Seekers, which came out earlier this year.
Helen was wonderfully upfront about the work involved in winning for her. Helen had three previous applications to the New Writers’ Awards that were unsuccessful, and two novels before The Comet Seekers that are hiding in bottom drawers in her house. Helen’s message was perseverance above all things, and, in her case something in her head told her to focus all her efforts on the Scottish Book Trust. The idea of long lists of submissions, rejections, and publications to organise and keep track of just didn’t appeal to her. (A note on this: if you are submitting poems or stories it is a very good idea to keep a spreadsheet record: you don’t want to annoy a publication by sending them something they have already rejected twice; or to have them accept a story or poem only to discover it has already been published elsewhere.)
‘Apply! Apply! Apply!’
The Award package is an impressive one. It’s not just a one-off reward for a good piece of writing; Scottish Book Trust are interested in developing your skills, supporting you as a writer, and bringing your writing goals to fruition. For Helen, the best part of the year was having a year to really, truly, properly think about her goals as a writer surrounded by dozens of people waiting to listen and wanting to help.
Helen’s advice, apart from ‘Apply! Apply! Apply!’ focused on the relationships writers have with agents and publishers. She emphasised the importance of taking feedback and being willing to act of it, but also of knowing when they are trying to change the crux of what your story is about. As difficult as it may be (and it is difficult), if you feel the finished product is too far removed from your original goal or intent, then consider walking away. No matter who the agent or publisher, their view is subjective but it is not personal: Helen is still great friends with a previous agent who couldn’t figure out how to pitch The Comet Seekers.
The final speaker was Lynsey Rogers, Writer Development Co-Ordinator at the Scottish Book Trust. Lynsey was keen to emphasise that the judging panels for each section changes every year and reiterated Helen’s statement that it is incredibly rare to win the first time. To support this, Lynsey presented the simple logic that most of the awardees have some sort of track record which demonstrates their commitment to writing; so the more times you apply, the more comprehensive your application should become.
I am never sure how best to word a statement of application and Lynsey provided some excellent advice on this:
Don’t be generic
You are not a school student applying for work experience, so do not blanket bomb every competition, grant, bursary, or residency application with the same letter. Comment on what they are specifically offering and why it is specifically suited to you.
Don’t be ‘quirky’
You need to be focused and professional. Avoid out-and-out crazy/quirky/eccentric as judges may just find it off-putting. Personalise your application with meaningful and honest information and insights about your work.
Attention to detail is important. The Scottish Book Trust want to give their time, money, and energy to the most deserving people. They want to know what you are working on now; that you are not just going to take the money and run into the shadows; they want to invest in you, after all. So tell them how this award will actually benefit you, don’t just fill a half page with vague suggestions. Will it pay for workshops? Train tickets to attend festivals? Paid leave from work? Let them know.
Or, as Helen succinctly summed up:
Why you? Why me? Why now?
To round off the evening, Mairi and Helen both treated the audience to extracts of their work, and answered questions, while we were all invited to help ourselves to a copies of the New Writers’ Sample, Secrets and Confessions, and decidedly jazzy Book Week Scotland bookmarks.
The evening was a great success. With every chair filled and all eyes and ears focused on our guests, the event reaffirmed the importance of the Highland Literary Salon as a hub for writers. With a new committee ready and rearing to go, I can’t wait to be part of its next exciting chapter.