Please note I haven’t titled this blog ‘How to win a writing competition’. Because, let’s get this out there at the start, the truth is (whisper it) I don’t know. Even though I won one of them, a few years ago, which turned out to be A Very Good Thing, I can’t tell you exactly how it was done.*
What I do know, and can share, is how to enter a writing competition – with style. How I believe you can give yourself and your work the best possible chance of shining. How I think framing your attitude helps. And, probably, a few heavy hints on how not to win.
Shall we get going?
For the last few years I’ve had the joy of being involved in reading for the Bath Novel Award, in the early rounds, up to shortlist stage. In the last two competitions, I’ve correctly identified the eventual winner from the very first 5000 words – now this is partly luck (I don’t read every entry, so I was fortunate they happened into my inbox) but maybe some judgment too. So I’ve been thinking about what it is that made those particular entries shine – and what other aspiring entrants could learn.
Stand out for the right reasons #1 – AKA follow the flipping rules.
I know this might seem boring, but seriously. It’s the same with entering a competition as submitting to an agent – if they ask for 5000 words, send 5000 words (or a little under, obviously – find a natural break). If they ask for 12 point Times New Roman, then…how much effort is it, really, to use the right formatting? If you don’t bother following the rules, it doesn’t make you look wacky or interesting, it makes you look like you don’t care, or you don’t think that you need to care, whereas the other hundreds (even thousands) of entrants do.
Of course, sometimes we all make mistakes – and not all competitions will automatically disqualify you for these, but some will.
Stand out for the right reasons #2 – check, double check, and triple check spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Again I’m aware I’m coming off like the fun police here, and it’s true some readers will forgive you a few errors in the SPAG department if the story and the characters are strong, but…personally, I find if there are too many it’s really distracting. And when the standard is very high, even if you have a killer idea, your consistent typos and missing commas could send your entry into the ‘no thanks’ pile. Ideally get someone else to check your work over for you – it’s easy to become blind to our own mistakes.
Remember the power of the hook – a compelling opening scene is all-important. Get straight into the action and pose a question – quickly. To do this you must know what your characters want. Kurt Vonnegut said every character must want something, even if it is just a glass of water. You need to establish what they want early – and ideally put something in their way. Conflict is the lifeblood of fiction. But being a bit thirsty isn’t much of a hook, is it? Unless, maybe, your character is lost in a desert, miles from anywhere, in a dystopian world where water has become more valuable than gold. Maybe they have water, or the means to create it, and someone is pursuing them to get to it. OK, it’s probably obvious I’m not a science-fiction writer, but you get the idea. The hook is the question(s) your reader will be asking themselves as they turn the pages: it’s how, what, why, or when? The hook is the thing that could only happen in your world, to your character. And if it doesn’t show up in the first 5000 words, you probably need to do some trimming of those opening pages.
It might seem a bit like you’re playing to the audience by being deliberately ‘hooky’, but there are two things to consider: one, if your manuscript is longlisted, the rest of it absolutely must deliver on the extract’s promise. Two, writing for a contest is no different to writing for a reader – there’s a lot of competition out there and readers can be fickle and impatient. If you don’t grab them from the opening pages, they’re not likely to pick up your book in the shop, or if they do get it home, they’re not going to keep reading it and then tell everybody they know ‘You have to read this book’. Which is what we want as authors, right? (Pretty sure this is not just me…)
Pay attention to voice – I’ve read lots of terrific entries to the Bath Novel Award. When I look back over the notes I made on my ‘yes’ votes, my most common comments had to do with voice. Voice is, in my opinion, the quality that makes good writing great. It’s what makes a book sing from the page. It’s also unfortunately the hardest quality to define (I could probably write a whole blog post on this topic alone…and still not have a definitive answer). It’s the quality that makes your writing yours. It manifests in confident, consistent writing; a narrator, be it first or third person, that I want to spend time with (note, I don’t have to like them – I just have to find them interesting); a world or a way of looking at the world that is somehow unique, even startling. Good voice can be funny, it can be reflective, it can be angry or wry. Voice is tone. It’s style, choice of language, rhythm. Told you it was hard to pin down, didn’t I? If I had to put it into a word though, I would say simply this: good voice sounds real.
A word on the ‘dreaded’ synopsis – I think ‘dreaded’ must be the epithet most commonly applied to ‘synopsis’. Yes, we all hate doing them. Yes, it’s one of the bizarre ironies of writing life that it’s harder to summarise your book in 500 words than it was to write the whole damn 80,000 words of it. So here’s my advice: don’t get overly hung up on it it, because it’s not that important. If your writing is absolutely stellar, it seems unlikely (though I can’t swear to it, obviously) you’ll be rejected on the basis of a weak synopsis. Personally I read the extract first and then go to the synopsis to see if you can carry the story, if your novel seems to be paced well and have good character arcs, and so on. Which brings me to the second piece of advice, which is: spoilers, please! The synopsis must tell us how things turn out. Don’t try to tantalise us…we need to see that you know where you’re going (and how you’ll get there).
To be honest, I know an extract is really special when I don’t want to read the synopsis because I don’t want to know how it turns out.
Attitude is all – you might argue that the odds of winning a competition that receives hundreds or even thousands of entries are not great, so why bother entering? Well, my answer is twofold: you still might win (someone usually does), and if you don’t, just being a part of the process could be huge. You’ll likely make links with a supportive community even if only via Twitter; you could get useful feedback from the judges; and putting your work ‘out there’ can be a powerful step. Even if you have a great book, there’s luck and personal taste involved, too, but you are best to make friends with those now if you hope to be published in the future.
Frame your attitude, manage your expectations, and dive in.
One last thought. There are loads of qualities that make a competition entry stand out. But the thing the recent Bath winners have in common is that they stayed with me when I wasn’t reading. Why not consider getting a trusted, honest friend or colleague to read your entry…then ask them about it a week later? If they’re still thinking about it…if they can still tell you what they liked about it…you might be onto a very good thing.
Happy writing, happy submitting, and good luck!
*I did once appear on a panel called ‘How to win a novel award’. But it was a group effort; I wasn’t claiming to have all the answers. The other panel members in particular have some interesting and useful things to say, though – check them out here:
HOW TO WIN A NOVEL AWARD
The Bath Novel Award 2018 is now open for entries, closing date 30th April. Other writing competitions are, of course, available. You can find useful lists in the back of good writing magazines, and all over the interweb, like here: