Sunday, 8 February 2009

COMING SECOND

I have a habit of coming second. Good in, say, the London Marathon; not so in a boxing bout. (I’ve never done, and never likely will, the former, but did come second a lot in the latter.) If not second, I’d just miss out on the prizes, in other words doing very well but, in my mind, not well enough. It started to irk me when this life-long pattern continued into my writing career: second, and ultimately failure, in applying for my MA bursary; fourth and second in writing competitions; just missing out on the top five of the Macmillan / Richard & Judy 'How to Get Published' competition (46,000 entries). It began to hurt. Was I the literary equivalent of Tim Henman? I did finally win something last year: a short story competition. I was shocked and overwhelmed. Incredulous. Other successes followed. And so today, having made the long-list of 15 in the Willesden Herald competition (which received 645 entries), I was disappointed to revert to form and miss out on the prizes.

It then began to dawn on me how strange a concept writing to compete with others is. Judges of fiction (of which I’ve been one), are given a batch of entries, a long-list, all of which will be strong. Most, if not all, could win, and it becomes largely a matter of individual taste. The point I’m making is not an embittered one, more to reassure writers who feel dejection (all of us at some point) at just missing out. If you’re consistently getting to long- and short-lists, you’re writing exceptional fiction. Judges’ whims are impossible to predict. Your story may not be a 'competition piece'. It will almost certainly find a home in one of the many esteemed literary journals if publication is the goal, rather than winning prizes.

(I’ll discuss writing competitions at some later date: their fickle nature, the revenue they generate, what judges look for.)

So, unless you’re lying prostrate on the canvas at the feet of your opponent, coming second is good.

12 comments:

annie clarkson said...

I am a veteran at coming second (or fourth of fifth), and I rather like it. It urges me forward. It's like being told, you are fairly brilliant but there is room for improvement... As a writer, I love being a work in progress...

TOM J VOWLER said...

I like that, Annie, you fairly brilliant veteran, you.

Tania Hershman said...

First, many congrats on making the shortlist of 15 out of 645! While judging is, yes, completely subjective, making a longlist or a shortlist says something about your writing, definitely. But judges, and first readers, have their whims. I have one story that got nowhere, not even the longlist, in a number of comps, and I had just given up on it, when in one day it won a 2nd prize and a 3rd prize in two comps. While the prize money is very tempting, competitions are fairly unpredictable ways to attain fame and publication, and should be taken as such, and balanced out by submissions to great literary magazines where there is more than one "winner".
I echo what Annie says, we are all works-in-progress, I am not sure this feeling will ever change, even if we were to win 5 1st prizes in a row....

TOM J VOWLER said...

Wise words, Tania. And thank you.

Anne Brooke said...

A wiser writer than I am (that's all of them then) once told me: if you're on a longlist, a shortlist or placed, then it's a winner and something that should instantly go on your writing CV, blog or website. So well done!

Axxx

TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks, Anne. As writers we learn how to accept rejection as an inevitable necessity. I'd just hate to think some great short story writer out there, thinking their endless long-listing alludes to failure, decided to stop. I think I also have an issue with cetain competitions charging huge entry fees (£10 x 600 = lots), and choosing safe, formulaic winners, who have taken few risks.

Tania Hershman said...

I'm afraid there's nothing any of us can do about the huge entry fees and the eventual "safe" winners, if writers are prepared to pay those fees, these are the risks we/they take.

Interestingly, I remember one of my reviewers at the Short Review saying in a review of a short story collection that while many of the stories had won competitions, "This is the one weakness of the collection. Some stories come across as the kind of stories that win competitions, heavy with ‘writingness’ and craft that impresses panels of judges. The strongest stories are those not recognised in competition and that reveal something less palatable and more idiosyncratic and interesting than the technical proficiency of their well groomed associates."

Should we aim to write "winning" stories or just great stories??

TOM J VOWLER said...

Good point(s), Tania. Of the many post-its above my monitor, one reminds me to 'write for the reader' and certainly never 'for a competition'.

My heart was warmed by one particular competition (I forget which) that advised entrants to avoid trotting out the formulaic, competition-winning template pieces.

Another post-it says 'Take risks: fearless writing.'

Charles Lambert said...

Congratulations, Tom, and I say this as a fellow competitor who clearly didn't make the shortlist (or I'd have heard, presumably?). As Tania so wisely says, comps are weird things, except for the ones you win, which are obviously spot-on!

TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks, Charles. Good to hear from you. Looking forward to reading your collection, which I've heard good things about.

Anonymous said...

Pity, I'd read this as a bit of double entendre as well. I wondered if perhaps you were being rather thoughtful and coming second in a different way...

TOM J VOWLER said...

Hmmm, anonymous.