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How to enter a writing competition

 

 

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:

https://www.creativewritingink.co.uk/writing-competitions/

 

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Pre-loved*

 

Of course, it’s unusual to think about love when you’re getting ready for a car boot sale.

But in houses a mile or so apart, two people are spending a drizzly pre-dawn doing just that.

 

Gemma needs space. And money. She’s clearing out clothes and ornaments and with them, memories. She wonders how much anyone would pay for this empty picture frame, for that unlit candle.

 

David’s dad was a hoarder; he’s the opposite. He gets rid of things regularly on the basis it will be less for others to clear out when he’s dead. He has no idea who it might be doing the clearing out.

 

Gemma has done the work of clearing a house, sifting through the detritus of a life. She’s amassed these trinkets as a result, trying to keep pieces of the people who have gone, a parent and then a partner, shadows of them made out of porcelain and glass. A grief counsellor told her, when she got overwhelmed by all the stuff, to think about what she’d really like to keep rather than what she should throw away. So this is what’s guiding her as she makes her two piles: sell, and keep. White elephants, and treasured mementoes.

 

David categorises his disappointments. He has a spreadsheet to help him do this accurately. There are weightings for different elements.

He’s had five break-ups, well not break-ups exactly, more like let-downs. He gets close to people and they always leave him for the bad boys, the ones who knock them about or just play games, then they come and complain to him about it.

He takes out a black T-shirt from a drawer full of black T-shirts. Black jeans. Black lace-up boots. Life is just easier when everything matches.

David thinks if he does ever go on a date again, he probably shouldn’t mention the spreadsheet.

 

Gemma is thinking about mistakes, and exes, too. After Andy died, in time, she tried to ‘put herself out there’, she really did. But she got mad that you can have what you think is a connection with someone, bond over music, talk about Joy Division and Editors until dawn, but he’ll go all the way with the one who has tight abs, the outdoorsy type who plays hockey and always looks sun-kissed.

The boxes are ready now so she turns to herself. She hates herself for putting on mascara at 6am just to go to the car boot. Why is physical attraction so important anyway? It exists in a weird curve: it grows the more you fall for someone – she distinctly remembers waking up next to Andy, the first time, and ranking him a 7 out of 10; six months later he was 9.5 and pretty much her physical ideal, the blueprint by which all future men would be measured – then over time, it plateaus as you get used to each other and with familiarity their face fails to hold the same fascination. If she could have his face in front of her again, just for a second, she wouldn’t take it for granted.

 

They both pile their boxes, David’s tightly ordered, Gemma’s chaotic, into their boots and drive off, half-watching the sun come up over the farmer’s fields on David’s left, Gemma’s right.

 

****

 

Gemma has been warned what the car boot sale is like – a friend described it as brutal – but she’s unprepared for people swooping like buzzards and fingering her stuff before she’s even got it out of the boxes.

Someone actually tries to buy her flask, even though the cup is right next to it full of what is quite clearly hot coffee. She’s come prepared, because she’s used to all the things you have to do when you’re alone. Like you can’t just wander off and buy a drink, or your belongings will be stolen.

Later, she’ll reflect that she probably should have just taken the money for the flask.

 

David first notices her because she gives a loud ‘Hey!’, which is followed by a yelp from the old man whose hand she has just slapped. ‘You have iPad? iPhone?’ someone is jabbering in David’s ear, and he shakes his head distractedly, as the old man walks by muttering and rubbing the back of his hand. David watches the girl struggle with her folding table.

 

He could bloody well help me, she thinks, instead of just staring. She’s sweating. She isn’t cut out for this kind of crap. She never even usually wears trainers. She likes pretty dresses and proper shoes. She likes 1950s style and she’d hoped her little sale would be a classy affair with a vintage tea-party feel, but she can see as she lays it all out on the camping table with the wonky leg, hurriedly covered with an Emma Bridgewater tablecloth, that it is a pretty sad collection.

The boy – not a boy, she chides herself, stop thinking of them as boys, he’s a man for goodness’ sake – he’s far cooler, she thinks. He’s not looking at her any more. His stuff is neatly labeled in boxes: BOOKS. CDs. DVDs. GAMES. Everything is square or rectangular, the kind of things that are easy to wrap at Christmas. No soft edges or frills.

 

It’s David’s first time at one of these things and he has decided quickly that it will be his last. Obviously he hasn’t come to buy anything. So why exactly does he find himself standing at this girl’s stall, flicking through her books and CDs? (Phil Collins? Ugh. On the other hand, she’s getting rid of it, so…)

He jumps when she appears from behind her car and says ‘Hi!’ He drops No Jacket Required like he was looking at a dirty magazine and his mum just walked in. Not that that ever happened.

‘Er…hi,’ he says. Er…hi? goes his inner voice. Real smooth. She’s got really pretty eyes.

‘Having a good day?’ she nods towards his neat little pile of soon to be ex-belongings, marginally depleted. He shrugs, feels that bored expression take over his face that always makes him hate himself a little bit.

‘It’s alright,’ he mutters, ‘Not my favourite way to spend a Sunday morning.’

‘Did you want to buy any of these?’ she motions to the CDs, which a hand-written poster announces are ‘Only £1 each!’, in flowery letters. Her voice is still bright but he can tell she’s thinking he’s an asshole.

‘God, no,’ he says, and her face falls. ‘I mean. No offence, but…they’re just not my style.’

‘Well, they’re not mine. I mean, they don’t belong to me, not exactly.’

‘How come you’re selling them, then?’ The words are out before he can stop them. Now I’m a rude, nosey asshole, he thinks. ‘Sorry.’

‘No, that’s alright.’ She sighs and picks up her flask. ‘Fancy a coffee?’

 

David. His name is David. That’s about all Gemma has managed to find out about him, but that’s probably because she’s been rabbiting on about herself. She always does that when she’s nervous. He doesn’t really look at her. Is he shy, or just rude? And can she be bothered to work it out, she wonders. Then again, he did come over to her first, and he did go and buy her a coffee when the flask ran dry, asking her to watch his stuff, though he didn’t seem overly concerned about whether it sold, or got stolen, or disappeared into thin air.

She likes him. She hates how she starts liking guys straight away, starts envisaging far-fetched scenes involving long country walks, city breaks, a proposal, a wedding…but usually does nothing to make those things happen.

The initial flow of people has died down and Gemma wonders if there will be another surge or if it’s time to pack up. She looks sadly at her little collection of bric-a-brac. She doesn’t like the idea of taking it back to the house.

‘I think I’m done,’ David says, to somewhere just over the top of her head. ‘I’ll probably just take the rest of it to Oxfam.’

‘Right. Good idea.’ She turns away and tips her remaining items into the largest box, hearing something clatter and smash as it falls in.

 

It’s been a long time since David asked anyone out. On, like, a date. But he likes this girl. Woman, he corrects himself, she’s a woman, come on idiot. Gemma. She talks a lot but she’s honest and sweet and kind of funny. And she really does have nice eyes. And a great smile.

His remaining CDs are all messed up. He doesn’t bother to sort them; he’s suddenly self-conscious and needs to get away. He places them carefully in the box alongside the books he didn’t manage to sell: a guide to the flags of the world, and some cod philosophy book an ex-girlfriend bought him, called ‘Happiness’ (the book, not the girlfriend). He sighs, catches sight of his reflection in the car window. Ageing, balding Goth, he supposes is how you’d describe his look. What would someone like Gemma see in him, anyway?

 

They both sit in their cars. There’s a queue to get out of the field. Gemma glances in her rearview mirror, catches David’s eye, and the first time, he smiles. The second time, he looks away. Neither of them really knows why he does this, what it means.

When he gets home, David will start to reorganize his CDs into alphabetical order and find one that doesn’t belong there. Phil Collins – No Jacket Required. When he picks it up, a piece of paper will flutter out: a phone number.

When Gemma gets home, she will just wait.

 

 

 

 

*First published on writers-online.co.uk

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The Curse of Time

One particular October, it was decided that an extra hour would be added to every day.

At first there was a lot of excitement about this. Haven’t we all been saying for ages, the people cried, that we need more hours in the day? And now we’ve got it! Everyone agreed that the government were really very clever to come up with this.

For a while the people used the hour really well. They did the things they’d always said they didn’t have time for: they read books, went for walks, called their mothers. An hour isn’t very long, it’s difficult to squeeze in anything too life-changing but it did seem as though the world was becoming a bit of a nicer place. Well done us, people said.

Eventually, of course, the novelty wore off. The extra hour became not extra at all, but just part of the twenty-five that people took for granted every day. The people started having more lie-ins. It’s okay, they would say, hitting snooze and rolling over, we have plenty of time. And for all the people who had used their hour to call their mothers, there were also people who took their hour in the dead of night and used it to mug, fight, or murder. There were a whole seven hours a week in which to be unkind, intolerant, and greedy.

In no time at all it seemed the world was becoming a bit less nice again. It’s all the government’s fault, the people said. They should never have given us that extra hour. They should have known we couldn’t be trusted with it.

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Ashley at the the zoo

I took my nephew Ashley to the zoo the day his parents divorced.

His mother, my sister, was celebrating her officially-recognised freedom by taking a plane to St Lucia with the photocopier repair man from her office.

I helped Ashley climb up onto the viewing platform so he could stand eye-to-eye with the giraffes. His little face was pink and streaked with snot, and utterly serious.

‘You are very tall indeed,’ he told the animal lumbering towards him, and held out his chubby hand to be sniffed.

I thought of his mother, on the beach by now, strawberry daiquiri in hand, and hugged Ashley to me as we watched the gathering clouds.

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Fairytale of New York

My first glimpse of the city, from the back of a yellow cab, was of the Empire State building lit in Christmas colours of red and green. The Hudson shimmered with reflected sykscrapers and I knew the instant we crossed the bridge that I was a city girl, an urban animal, and that the bustle and noise of this place would take a bite from my heart.

Movie scenes met us on every corner, in this unreal place where we cricked our necks looking higher, higher, the spires of St Patrick’s reaching for a sky filling with snow. Even the steam from the drains, the litter and the sirens had a kind of grimy glamour. I was falling in love.

Two years and a week later, the same man who showed me my city, via helicopter, boat and foot, proposed to me as the ball dropped and ticker tape rained down.

A little under ten years on, he was back in Central Park, where we had skated and fallen, marrying someone else.
Our small son stood between them, wearing a waistcoat for the very first time.

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He’s always a legend to me: in praise of Billy Joel

There’s a scene in classic rom-com Love Actually when Bad Harry teases his wife for still listening to Joni Mitchell. She replies, ‘I love her. And true love lasts a lifetime.’ It always makes me smile and think of me and Billy: an (admittedly one-sided) love that’s coming up for 30 years and shows no sign of abating. I recently saw him perform live for the 8th time, and it caused me to reflect on where this love originated and what it’s meant in my life.

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Giddy as you like in September

Getting ready for the Wembley Stadium concert last September, which I suspected might be the last time I’d see him (although I’ve been wrong before, so here’s hoping), I thought it would be fun to dig out my teenage diary from 21st May 1990 – the date of my first Billy Joel concert.

In a manner to be expected of a nearly-14-year-old, I (1) talk more about the minibus journey from Bolton to London and back (arriving home at 4.33AM Tuesday morning – responsible behaviour from the teachers who took us?!) than the concert itself, and (2) employ mainly generic superlatives e.g. ‘fantastic, wonderful, unbelievable’. A flick through the pages preceding the gig is revealing, featuring countdowns to the big night, and Billy’s birthday (9th May) duly noted (was I planning to send him a card, I wonder?).

How and when did the obsession (which was not a normal one, to be honest, in the days when most girls my age were attaching Grolsch bottle tops to their shoes and swooning over those blonde twins, oh and The Other One that Smash Hits called Ken) begin? As with so many of these stories, there was a boy, of course. A boy I had a crush on made me a mix tape (for younger readers, this is what we had before playlists. They were ace and we would search them frantically for romantic meaning, of which there was usually none. For further illustration of this, see Avenue Q, below, which spookily enough references Billy Joel*).

I became hooked on the same things I love today: his melodies, his piano playing, the sheer variety of his music, which ranged from jazz to pop to rock through classical and blues, and probably above all (being a bit of a fan of the words even then) his lyrics. I thought he was just a brilliant writer. I liked the way he used songs to tell stories; and those stories were about ordinary people, who, although they were usually from another continent, were people I could recognise, people I might know. He wrote about working class (or lower middle class), ordinary people.

I fell in love with Brenda and Eddie (see Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, best song ever, by anyone, yes ever), Anthony who worked in the grocery store, Bobby, who was driving through the city in a hot new rent-a-car, and Virginia with her much-coveted, well, virginity. I fantasised about the places: it was no coincidence that, later, New York would become my favourite place in the world. It was a kind of pilgrimage for me: while other people’s ‘must see’ lists were headed by the Empire State building and the Statue of Liberty, I sought out the Staten Island Ferry, Mulberry St, Sullivan St, and thrilled when I found them, humming to myself in a triumphant, dreamy way.

Now, it will probably come as no surprise to hear that the 14-year-old me was a full-on geek (and geekdom was not cool then, as it is now). Evidence: we did a kind of ‘show and tell’ in an English lesson, which was really just a ‘tell’, when we all had to get up and talk about something we really, really liked. I talked about Billy. I read out THE ENTIRE LYRICS to Goodnight Saigon (it’s a seven minute song, folks, and it includes the lines: We came in spastic / like tameless horses / We left in plastic / as numbered corpses). It’s fair to say the room fell into stunned silence. Not just a geek, a socially-conscious, earnest geek at that.

Then there was another boy. I wanted to kiss him so I made him sit on my sofa and watch the entire ‘Russia concert’ (again, see Avenue Q) and waited for a slow track (Baby Grand, I still remember it – not particularly conducive to smooching, being a love song to, well, a piano) during which to make my move. It wasn’t the last time I tried to enforce a Billy initiation as a precursor to romance; I can’t say it’s always been successful. I soon came to realise that not everyone would understand Billy as I did; and no-one, no-one, could love him as I did.

Over time my tastes broadened and eventually I could even pretend to be a little bit cool, because I started to like bands other, cooler, people liked (see: Stone Roses, Libertines, Arctic Monkeys. OK, hardly ground-breaking, but a step up for someone who had Genesis and Sting posters on her wall at uni). But I never lost my Billy Joel obsession, although at times I expressed it like a guilty pleasure. I continued to be frustrated by people whose eyes would glaze over and who would then mumble, ‘Uptown Girl, right? Er…that one about the river?’, would continue to suppress the urge to tie them down and perform a kind of inverse Ludovico technique on them, forcing open their ears while they absorbed the full glory of his back catalogue (particularly The Stranger, Turnstiles, and 52nd Street, since you’re asking). Every now and again, I would meet someone who shared The Love; in this crucible were special friendships forged.

Mostly though, as with all the best love affairs, it was just me and Him (yeah that’s right – I just capitalised him). He was with me through all of the growing up, the joys and the disappointments, of teens, twenties, thirties and he’s still with me in this proper adulting bit that’s happening right now. He’s my all-time favourite and that means for all time.

True love lasts a lifetime.

Thanks, Billy. Happy birthday. Don’t take any shit from anybody.

 

*’Mixtape’ from Avenue Q:

 

 

 

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Proof that Writing is Therapy

“So many books, so little time.” This Frank Zappa quote rang true for all of us on World Book Day. The ladies had all gathered at The Art House Café on Thursday, by eleven o’clock in the morn…

Source: Proof that Writing is Therapy

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