Competitive Creativity

running-shakespeare

I would like to invite some responses detailing other writers’ strategies when entering competitions, and perhaps more links to the comps themselves.

Sometimes, I know why I enter short story competitions. Other times, I wonder.

With lists and lists of competitions available to enter, a writer could nearly make a full-time career of the pursuit. Some enter them all (taking a ‘why not’ attitude, and using any winnings to finance further entries), while others refuse (preferring to keep their writing underexposed for greater appeal to publishers.) I have met authors in both extremes, but I tend to take more of a middle ground between two opposing tensions: the certainty of exposure against the risk of overexposure.

The idea of authors competing is actually a bit odd, when one stops to contemplate it. Competitive writing brings to mind a row of bedraggled scribes behind a long table, scribbling their pens until RSI takes them while rehydrating from their camel-packs. Of course, that model of competition doesn’t really apply to us; we might never know whether we are up against ten or three hundred other writers, and our deadlines, while sometimes stressful, are rarely urgent enough to evoke sweat. What entering a competition can do, though, is solve one of the biggest problems that any writer faces: the problem of reaching an audience.

A competition entry (especially one with a fee attached) guarantees that your piece will be read. Truly, it may only be read by a panel of judges, or even just one judge… but that is an audience numbering one more than many of my short stories have accrued. Other than the pesky nuisance of making a living, this is the ultimate goal of any writer: to have our work read. Isn’t it? So, why not just enter every competition, again and again?

What troubles me about that approach is the risk of ignoring rejection. Yes, the same story that falls short in one contest may be a first-place recipient in another. I have lived this reality (as I did with my Flash Fiction entry, Ease), so I know that it is well worth trying again. However, if I keep entering a ‘losing’ story, or keep entering any writing in a competition that repeatedly rejects it, I feel like I will reach a point where I am just disrespecting professional advice. Judging is subjective, certainly, but when one or more judges tell me repeatedly that my writing just doesn’t suit them… well, there’s some arrogance in pushing it again and again.

So, here are my strategies when it comes to competitions. I’m not always very good at following them, but, as strategies, I think they are sound. I would love to read about yours.

  1. I enter any affordable competition, once, that seems to suit my style and a genre I have written.
  2. If affordable feedback is available, I take it.
  3. I enter the same story in the same competition only if I have improved it in response to feedback, and never more than twice in total.
  4. I enter the same story in other competitions no more than three times, unless it succeeds.
  5. Most importantly, I think, is this: if I have had any story rejected by a competition a half-dozen times or more, this is a clear message that my writing style does not suit them, and I have an obligation to respect that. Competitions work because the judges are not overwhelmed by a slush-pile, and writers must play a part in controlling that.
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