Saturday, May 01, 2010

Competitive Writing

I've never won a competition in my life. I was even second in the egg and spoon, whilst my mum in a never repeated triumph, romped home in the mum's race. Though it's dad who has the competitive edge, with a shelf full of bowls and golf prizes, that have accumulated faster as he's got older as he keeps his own amongst the "seniors".

I probably should have been suspicious of writing competitions when I entered a poem into one organised by the English department at Lancaster University. Weeks past and I heard nothing so went and tapped on the academic's door who'd organised it. "There was no winner," he said, grandly, "none of the entrants were good enough." How to deflate the fledgling poet? Mind you, it was called the Wordsworth Prize or something similar, and my poem was about tower blocks, so I've only myself to blame.

Yet, despite never having won one in my life, I'm not adverse to competitions. My shortlisting for the Lichfield Prize in 1990s was the first time that my writing had been read by strangers, and even the existence of a prize for an unpublished novel gave it validity. Even today, that openness seems important. I'm not valid for prizes for BME, women, Scottish, Welsh or North Eastern writers; for poets under 35 or novelists under 40. A prize gives focus - and even if/when you don't win get shortlisted, it's almost a guarantee that winning poem or story will be so terrible (i.e. not to your own taste) that you'll be inspired rather than depressed. I do wish prizes would be kinder in terms of short and long lists - to hear their are a thousand entrants and they've shortlisted five is particularly galling. Did I come 6th? Did I come 1000th?

So, it's with the usual health warnings I mention 3 recently announced Manchester based prizes that I might just get round to entering. Refreshingly simple is the new Oxfam Short Story Prize - you even have to hand in your entry to one of two shops in the city! The closing date is the end of May and so you've got exactly a month. Now in its third year, the Manchester Prize is on poetry following last year's fiction. Run by MMU and with a good judging panel of Armitage, Greenlaw, and Nagra, It remains quite a lottery, given the size of its prize (£10,000) and the likely number of entries (in the thousands); then there's the high entry fee (£15) and I still find the rules a little restrictive (3-5 poems, up to 120 lines maximum)...but if you're a poet who likes the odd flutter on the Grand National, don't let me stop you. Third and finally, there's Commonword's Dragons Den Style competition for first chapters, which will take place during the literature festival. "This competition provides a rare break for fledgling writers," they say, though whether a public "pitch" will appeal to more sensitive hearts I'm not sure.

Finally, my own arts event, A Happening, will still take place next Saturday 8th May 3pm onwards at Madlab. More details here, and the full programme will be up there in next couple of days. I'll be reading from Extracts from Levona and you'll be able to buy a copy there - or online in advance here.


Tim Love said...

I still enter competitions (currently I've stories in Commonwealth comp, Bristol comp and Calderdale comp, and poems in Ver comp, Ware comp, Templar comp). I've won odds and ends, but I'm probably in the red overall. Competitions remain a tempting way to get a poetry or story collection published (Salt, Templar, The Poetry Business, etc) and UK outlets for short stories are so limited that I think authors might as well send their best stories to competitions first (at least you'll know when you can send the piece somewhere else; mags sometimes hold onto pieces for ages)

Adrian Slatcher said...

Its a good point about the pamphlet competitions - they require more commitment from a writer, make you get your work up to a standard, and there's a timetable. They offer a really good outlet for writers. There are other competitions, which seem to be designed for the benefit of the competition, (for publicity purposes, or to raise money or to have a gimmic) and these come with a health warning. Your obviously far better at getting things in on time than I am!