Thursday, 28 January 2010


Just found out I made another shortlist, this time for a story from my collection. You may remember this competition from a couple of years ago, when Zadie Smith, the judge that year, controversially decided that none of the stories was worthy of the prize. There was a bit of an uproar, though it struck me as rather a brave decision.

There’s little chance of a repeat this year; that shortlist is as strong as any I’ve seen recently – almost a who’s who of hot writers at the moment – so I’ll rate my chances of a prize as moderate. All shortlisted stories will be published, though, so it’ll be nice to be sandwiched in print with such esteemed folk. And as all writers know, rejection tends to be the norm, so I’m going to enjoy this little run I appear to be on.

It’s got me thinking about submitting stories. I would advise new writers to strike a balance between entering competitions and submitting generally to literary publications. Why? Well you could be a very strong writer but for some reason you don’t write the type of stories that do well in competitions. (This is a whole other post, but for now let’s just say that trends in style and genre and voice, combined with the subjectivity of art might mean you have little success despite creating strong work.) If you regularly submit to journals, you should find a home if the story is good enough and you’ve researched the publication in question. You’re also more likely to receive some feedback if you are rejected, depending on the levels of benevolence of the editor.

Competitions are fickle creatures; like the proverbial bus, you go months without a ‘hit’, then several come at once. But if you’re consistently getting nowhere in them, and your general submissions are roundly rejected, it’s time to look at what you’re doing wrong. Alas, the scope of this piece (and likely this blog for now) isn’t broad enough to explore this. Besides, advice on how to write should be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism; the best way, I believe, is just to read the best work out there.

If you're new to submitting work, start with the smaller journals and competitions - entry fees can soon rack up, so find your level and aim to raise it. There are some big prizes out there now for short fiction, some probably pay as well as a book deal. Not that we're in it for the money, you understand.


Julia Bohanna said...

There is a buzzy gambler thrill to entering, winning or being placed in a competition though. I also spoke to agent some time ago who told me that a list of such things on a CV will make him sit up and look at a writer. Someone else has 'spotted' that writer...therefore they are worth the pursuit.

That said, you are spot on, Tom. A good solid publication history is also a bonus.

My biggest problem is inappropriate submissions i.e sending my beloved stories off to the wrong judge, the wrong type of comp. I still have that to crack.

Those cheap thrills though...picking a comp is like picking a horse.....

TOM J VOWLER said...

Julia, did you speak to an agent or a gent? Ha!

As a one-time (big) gambler, yes, I like that analogy, though I'd hope the writer has more control than the punter. Which competitions to submit to is worthy of a mass debate (!). Some people google the judge, trying to second guess their aesthetic preference. Some study previous winning stories ad finitum. It's tricky though.

I think, though, you need to develop your own voice rather than immitate, which seems like a facile bit of advice, but a truism nonetheless.

Julia Bohanna said...

It is a tricky one - trying to second guess or please a judge. Mslexia ask for submissions for their mag every issue and they have a guest celebrity writer sifting through them. But they NEVER reveal that judge until the work is published. I had a very unlikely story plucked out by Val McDermid, a story I would never had sent if I had known it would be her.

Have a distinctive voice, don't compromise. That's probably the way when you are confident enough. Then at least you are true to yourself as a writer, although you may die in an attic devoured by cats.

The agent was a gent as well: Rupert Heath. I liked him but never sent him there was no novel to say: 'Ta dar...'

TOM J VOWLER said...

I've never managed to crack Mslexia ;)

What have I told you about locking your cats in the attic, Julia?

Blake Kimzey said...

I have entered precious few competitions but submitted a lot of stories to a lot of places. I figure the sting of rejection at $0 is better than a $15 rejection slip. But after reading this post I'm going to re-think my thinking! Maybe entering a few competitions will strike a healthy balance with my regular submissions.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Yes, I agree, Blake. And plenty of publications use comps as a revenue raiser - charging high entry fees for little prize money. But with 3 comps that I'm aware of in this country with a first prize of at least £10,000, they're worth considering if you're sitting on something exceptional.