Why It’s Unlikely You Will (and Why You Shouldn’t Take It to Heart When You Don’t) Win Writing Competitions

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In my entire life, I’ve entered four writing competitions. They were:
*The 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript
*The 2015 Griffith Review’s Novella Project III Competition
*The 2015 Hardie Grant Egmont Ampersand Project
*A 2000 Mills & Boon short story competition

It should be obvious to anyone reading this that I didn’t win any of them or you would have heard about it by now. You would have heard a lot about it!

After I submitted to the Hardie Grant Egmont Ampersand Project, I wrote a blog idea on my ideas board about competitions. Specifically that writers entering competitions shouldn’t get dejected when they don’t win. And here’s a few reasons why that hopefully make all of us “losers” feel a little bit better.

It’s a Small, Overpopulated World After All
These days, there are more and more people trying to tick “writing a novel” off their bucket list and consequently, there are more and more people submitting to publishers, self-publishing and submitting to writing competitions. It was already a small pond and it’s just getting smaller.

I submitted to the Griffith Review’s Novella Project III at the end of May and a decision was due by roughly the end of June. But at the end of June, all writers who had submitted a novella received the same email. It essentially said, “Thanks for the entries but there were so many more than we expected that we need a couple of extra weeks to be able to get through them all.” Even the people running the competitions are underestimating the numbers.

Fitting a Square Peg in a Round Hole
There are dozens and dozens of writing competitions. Hundreds. Thousands. There are so many competitions that writers might be tempted to enter all of them. But once you whittle them down, you’ll probably find that most aren’t suitable for you.

There are a lot of short story competitions. But I don’t write short stories. So they’re out.

There are almost as many poetry competitions. But I don’t write much poetry anymore. And certainly nothing that I would consider submitting. So that’s out, too.

I don’t write novellas. But one of the novels I’m working on tells the same story in three parts from three different perspectives. The first part is complete and I think it’s a pretty good piece of writing. Plus with a few tweaks, I managed to squeeze it into the maximum word limit. So I thought why not have a go at the Griffith Review’s Novella Project III?

Well, of course, the reason why (and that would have saved me the $50 entry fee) was because it wasn’t really a novella. And while it wasn’t exactly a square peg in a round hole, it didn’t have a proper ending because the ending is two more novella-sized pieces of writing slapped on the end (yes, you could even call it a novel). So it was never going to win a novella competition.

Which leaves novel competitions. There aren’t as many of these but there are enough. But most of them have very specific requirements. Must have an Australian theme. Must be for young adults. Must be crime. Must be unpublished. Must be published. Must be this length. No, must be that length.

Especially where cash prizes and publishing contracts are on offer, writers might convince themselves to change something here and something there to make their piece of writing fit the criteria of the competition rather than finding a competition where the criteria fits the piece of writing. It’s a mistake. Because it’s a compromise. That square peg will never fit in that round hole, no matter how hard you try.

Judging the Judges
Each competition engages the services of a handful of judges and anyone who has ever read a selection of book reviews on Goodreads will know that five different people can have five entirely different opinions on the same piece of writing. I always make a point of not reading reviews until after I’ve read a book and written my own review to make sure I’m not influenced by the thoughts and feelings of others. When I eventually do, I’m always surprised by how many people hated books I loved and loved books I hated.

The same applies for the people judging the competitions. They might have very different ideas, not just from you but also each other, on what constitutes a great piece of writing. The year you submit might be the year the judging panel comprises people who hate the style or genre or subtext of the piece you have chosen to submit.

It doesn’t mean your writing isn’t any good. It just means that the extremely small cross-section of the writing community chosen to select the winner that year found something else they preferred over your submission. You might have had better luck if you’d submitted something else. Or submitted the same piece the previous year. Or waited until next year. In the end, no matter how much hard work you put in, sometimes it all comes down to a bit of luck.

A Short and Exciting Postscript
Having said all of the above, entering writing competitions, even when you don’t win, is a great way of getting your work read by people who have influence and the ability to help you on your way. A week after I submitted my entry to the Hardie Grant Egmont Ampersand Project for young adult and middle grade manuscripts, I received an email. “Wow!” I thought. “That’s the quickest rejection I’ve ever had.”

But it wasn’t a rejection. It was a personal email from one of the Hardie Grant Egmont commissioning fiction editors telling me she had spent the weekend reading my manuscript in one sitting (even though there had been beautiful sunny weather outside), that she found it “utterly engrossing” and that she thought it was “tremendously well-written with a strong, deeply intimate voice and a strong sense of place”.

She finished the email by asking where I was at with the novel, where I was planning to take it (as it is the first in a trilogy) and to provide any insight that might help as the judging panel whittled down the “huge number of entries” the competition had attracted.

My initial response can’t be printed but it’s safe to say I was in total shock. We exchanged a series of emails as I answered her questions and she finished by saying she would pass my manuscript on to her colleagues and see where it went.

Of course, I didn’t win the Ampersand Project competition. But that commissioning fiction editor is now following me on Twitter and I have her personal email address (which I hereby promise I will not abuse the having of). It kind of makes me want to squeal like a little girl. I certainly can’t say that (neither the having nor the squealing) about any other commissioning fiction editors. And it never would have happened if I hadn’t entered a competition I didn’t win.

*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing

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