Why writing competitions are vital if you want to get published (it worked for me!)
On September 13th 2014 my novel The Dress Thief won the Festival of Romantic Fiction Readers’ award for the Best Historical Read. A moment of personal satisfaction, and I don’t yet know what other good things will flow from it. Here, I make my stand for competitions as the best doorway to publication. At the event, btw, an unpublished writer won a publishing contract.
Want to get published? Then write a terrific book. Have it read by fair-minded critiquers who’ll help iron out the weaknesses that get between all writers and perfection.
Then get an up to date copy of Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook – or whatever is your nation’s version of this fine tome – and submit your work, in the preferred format, to every agent and publisher who declares an interest in your genre. Put the champagne in the fridge and wait. And wait …
The above is pretty much standard advice, but if you’re doing this and getting nowhere, is there anything you can do to push open that unyielding door? When the post brings yet another SASE containing the pages you sent out six weeks before, along with a boiler-plate response or a scribbled, ‘Not for us’, you’ll wonder what you can do to change the odds. Time is passing, rejection slips make depressing bookmarks. The notion that writing was going to be a fun, creative way of making a living has evaporated.
If this scenario feels a little uncomfortably familiar – what now?
Enter every serious, honest writing competition you can. Make it your goal to enter as many as you can afford. Doing so changed my life.
It gave me the step up from being a ‘Want it’ writer to being a writer with a 2-book deal with a mainstream publishing house. My debut novel came out June, 2014.
I’m not one of life’s natural winners. I rarely win raffles and never win lotteries. I went through school without picking up so much as a book token. Even at Sunday School, the prayer book presented to me by the vicar was inscribed ‘for regular attendance.’ Yup, a plodder but turning up has a lot going for it, and if you’re a writer, ‘turning up at the page’ (as creative guru Julia Cameron puts it) is the best way to finish a book. But that’s another blog for another time. Come to think of it, I’ve already written that blog.
My first writer’s prize I shall always treasure as it came after I’d been flumping on a literary mudflat for some while, my confidence shot. It was courtesy of the then London Evening Standard and the writing challenge was a poem on the subject of wonderful novelist Jeanette Winterson. The prize was a set of Le Creuset saucepans. I won, I have the pans still. Confused? There’s a link to my website at the bottom, where you’ll find the full exposition. I think it’s headed poetry and sex. But I digress …
My next success came a few years later when I won first prize in a BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour competition. The challenge – to name my three ideal Christmas dinner guests. I chose The Lord of Misrule, the Queen of Sheba and late, much missed Claire Rayner on the basis, I seem to remember, that I would be guaranteed a lark, some glamour and hugs when it all got too much. My prize was a mention on Women’s Hour by Jenni Murray and a reception at the BBC’s Maida Vale studio where Jenni chatted a moment and presented me with a red rosette, which I still have.
I was writing madly, as well as doing the day job, and getting no nearer success. Scroll forward a decade. Picture nights spent at the keyboard, manuscripts completed, some abandoned, a flirtation with screen writing, a major house move and various resonating life changes. At last, in 2007, I had finished a book I thought was good enough to be published. I started marketing A Tangled Season.
I developed a tight, compelling query letter and sent it off to agents, joining that gallant company of triers, for whom hope springs eternal and every hike in postage is a cause of material pain. I got some good feedback, a couple of ‘can we read the whole book’ requests that came to nothing after a long, painful wait. I got some curt dismissals too. Mostly, it was photocopied form letters saying thanks but no thanks. The most depressing response was, ‘Don’t bother, nobody’s publishing anything.’ The most confusing was from the agency who managed to get my submission back to me within twenty-four hours of my sending it (in itself a miracle) with a typed comp slip saying, ‘We have carefully considered your work …’
There are times when trying to get published feels like a form of insanity, Catch 22 refined by the Mad Hatter. I had a good book, but I didn’t have an edge. No USP. No relatives in the media; I’m not a celebrity. Nor am I the victim or perpetrator of a high-profile crime. I’ve never had a fling with a footballer. Well, not a famous one, anyway. I’m not in any way related to the Royal Family or to the Middletons. I could pretend to trace my lineage back to Richard III or Jack the Ripper, but I’m not sure I could sustain the scrutiny. In short, I’m just me. A woman living in East Anglia, UK, who writes. My dogs think I’m special, but that’s as far as it goes.
22nd June, 2011, changed it all. I joined the Romance Writers of America which gave me entree into any number of writing contests, including its famed Golden Hearts. During the summer of 2011, I brushed up A Tangled Season for that Autumn’s Golden Hearts. During those same summer months, I worked on a separate novel, It’s Six O’clock Somewhere, and sent the first chapters to the Mslexia Magazine Women’s Novel Competition, which runs every two years.
I also submitted the start of a ‘novel with an urban setting’ to the long-running Harry Bowling prize, a biennial event run by the estate of the late, best selling writer, by Headline Books and MBA Literary Agency. Please imagine a drum roll, culminating in a blast of trumpets at the name ‘Harry Bowling.’ During the long, damp summer of 2011, I worked on each submission, paid my fees (about £60 in total) and sent them out with heartfelt good wishes. I then forgot about them and got on with other projects. The ‘forgetting’ part is important because however good you are, you might not win. I entered the Harry Bowling twice in the past and didn’t figure.
The first result was an email from Mslexia to say that ‘It’s Six O’Clock Somewhere’ was on the long-list for their award. Yippee! Then, in the November, I got an email from the Harry Bowling organisers to say that ‘A Dark Flowering’, as it was then called, was on the shortlist for their prize. In the case of the Mslexia competition, I had to storm through to the end of the book because they wanted the whole thing. Then I got an email from Mslexia to say I hadn’t been selected for their shortlist. Happy turned sad for a few days. However, as a direct outcome of entering Mslexia’s competition, I got an entire 110,000 word novel finished in about seven months. I still have that novel. Its time will come and I will always be able to say of it, ‘Long-listed for the Mslexia prize.’ From the moment I got that first email from Mslexia, I was able to write to agents as a person who had received external validation. No longer was it just me, supported by loving dogs. It was me, dogs and Mslexia. Believe me, that makes a difference.
Joy of joys I WON THE HARRY BOWLING PRIZE for A Dark Flowering. In a way, the rest is history as I had by then caught the attention of MBA Literary Agency, who now represent me. However, spool back to March 2012, having forgotten all about sending A Tangled Season to the American Golden Hearts, I got a call to say I was a Finalist and that the awards ceremony would take place in California that July. ‘I said, ‘Lovely, I’m really pleased.’ I didn’t twig how important that award is to the RWA, how coveted Finalist places are. They’re so coveted, Finalists immediately form themselves into a sorority with a website and a zingy name, in our case, The Firebirds. They were looking for me, this dim English broad, wondering where the heck I was.
Once I hooked up with them, I got the message. A Tangled Season had achieved something special, on its own, without me breathing over its shoulder.
I went to the awards ceremony in California. I didn’t win my category. Was I sanguine about it? No. I howled in my hotel room, but in the end, it didn’t really matter. A Tangled Season will always be a Golden Heart Finalist and I made friends in America that will endure.
Since being signed by MBA, I’ve been working hard on the novel that won the Harry Bowling prize, taking it through revisions and polishings. It has a new name, The Dress Thief, I have signed to Quercus Books, an independent publisher with an impressive stable of authors, among whom I’m honoured, and a little knocky-kneed, to find myself. I have a two book contract. Yes, me, the scabby kid who got a prayer book for turning up. Without competition wins I’d probably still be sending out submission letters to agents. I would know I was worth representing. My dogs and my husband would know it, but would the rest of the world?
Still not convinced? This morning, I got an email from a fellow RWA member who’s just learned she came second in a local chapter competition. An editor from Penguin now wants to see her full manuscript. Of such breaks are careers made.
So get comping and I wish you the very best of luck, Natalie Meg Evans 2012 Harry Bowling prize winner, 2012 Romance Writers’ of America Golden Heart Finalist, RWA Golden Pen third prize winner, RWA Daphne du Maurier Award 3rd prize winner. And that’s enough bragging.
My tip list for entering and winning competitions.
- Make your first sentence a knock-out. The opening phrase of A Dark Flowering was key in clinching me the Harry Bowling prize.
- Proof like crazy and don’t make last minute changes because they lead to typos. Try and finish your work well before the deadline to give yourself time to read with fresh eyes.
- Print out the competition rules and read them out to yourself as if you’re reading to a four year old. Every organisation’s rules are different, but they’re very specific. Some will ask you to submit in RTF format rather than docx because some judges can’t open docx files. They’re often specific about fonts, too.
- Times New Roman point size 12 offends nobody. It’s easy on the eye. Don’t use funny or fancy fonts. They’re not funny to those who have to read them at length. Double spacing goes without saying.
- If you’re asked not to put identifying names on your entry, then don’t. That goes for the data that goes with your attachment. Take out identifying markers. Trust the organisers to link your un-named pages to your entry form. They’ve done it before, you know.
- Remember page numbers.
- Don’t leave entering to the last minute. Wifi connections can be slow, the post gets delayed. I sent a story out to a competition with four seconds to go before it closed and will never know if it got there in time. Why give yourself the stress?
- Once you’ve pressed ‘send’ let the story fly and get on with something else.
- Be gracious and philosophical if you aren’t chosen. Never be tempted to write angry emails or to slag off judges. Many judges give their time and expertise for free and remember, the written word is deeply subjective.
- Ditto, be gracious if you are chosen. Winning is lovely and means you can add riders to your social profiles (see above) My American friends call them ‘bragging rights’. Note to self, don’t overdo it.
Be savvy about which competitions are valuable and will enhance your career, and which are ruses to get money out of you, or to lure you into vanity publishing. Ask – who is running this competition? Who is judging and lending their name to it? What’s the financial deal? Good competitions usually charge an entry fee to cover administration costs. If it’s free, is it because they have a grant or a sponsor, or because they’ll want you to buy a compilation of short stories/poems later? But don’t be too snobbish. Small, even local competitions, are valuable. They give you experience and a lovely boost if you’re feeling a bit down.
Where to find the best competitions?
If you write Romance, you might consider joining the Romance Writers of America as they run many competitions, often through their local chapters. These comps offer the category winners the chance to be read and considered by acquiring editors. I repeat, acquiring editors. These people are like gold dust in real life. UK and EU romance writers might consider joining the RNA (Romantic Novelists’ Assoc). For other competitions, read Writers’ & Artists’ yearbook, the media pages of the press, particularly the Guardian. Writers’ News used to be a very good resource, but I can’t find it any more. Anybody out there know if it’s still around? Do search search engine trawls ‘Literary competitions’ see what comes up.
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