As an unpublished writer I have found writing competitions to be a really useful tool. Here are some ways in which they’ve helped me so far. I’ve just finished my first novel so in no way do I profess to be an expert! I know that when I was at the beginning of this process I thought that competitions were for people who had been writing for years and had loads of experience, and that simply isn’t the case. It’s not all about the winning (luckily as I’ve never won one, though I have been longlisted), there are many benefits to entering writing competitions.
- There are competitions for whichever stage you’re at. If you haven’t or don’t plan to write a novel you can enter flash fiction or short story competitions. If you’ve begun a novel but are nowhere near even finishing a first draft, look for competitions that only require the beginning of your novel. If you’re about done, have several drafts under your belt and are almost ready to submit to agents, there are awards that look at the whole novel.
- Flash fiction/short story competitions:
- Good for unfinished novels:
- Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize (women over 21 years old only) – usually opens in the Autumn. They ask for the first 50 pages plus synopsis.
- For completed novels:
2. Learn how to comply with the rules! All competitions have guidelines that you MUST follow. They’re strict so you have to stick to them or else your entry will simply be discarded as ineligible. This sounds like a simple task but having spoken to several literary agents, people still send in submissions that don’t follow the guidelines that are written simply in black and white on their websites. Get used to checking the small print – do they want a 1 page synopsis max or a specific format? What’s the word count (most will have a minimum or maximum, sometimes both)? Is there a font they prefer? If you get used to checking this then when you do get round to submitting the novel you’ve slaved over for months and years you won’t lose out because you sent it in single spaced!
3. Practice editing. One of my novice mistakes in writing was having too much exposition in the early chapters. Look at the word count for the competition. This is all the judges will receive apart from your synopsis. What can you wow them with? If you can only send your first 20 pages and there’s a event on page 22 be brutal. There must be a way of cutting out superfluous information that can either be included later or cut altogether (usually it never makes a reappearance once removed). Again, this is a skill that will be very important once you’re ready to submit to agents.
4. Writing synopses is vile. It’s the worst part of the whole process of writing a novel in my opinion, and I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t share it. Ideally most agents like a synopsis to be on one concise page. Competitions will vary (check the guidelines!) but it’s all good practice. I try and write a new synopsis for every competition in the hope that at some point I’ll stumble across the perfect version. Key points to remember are: it must cover major plot points but doesn’t need to include subplots, must include the ending (this isn’t Game of Thrones, the agent really does want the spoilers), should get to the point. There’s no point in making it all flowery and blurb-like. It’s just a technical document and your novel extract will show off your writing.
5. I can’t promise you results but if you ever do get longlisted, shortlisted or even win the whole competition it’s a great confidence boost. I made my first longlist this year (my second try at the same competition with the same novel) and it reinforced that the brutal edits I’d done over the months before had been the right move. Treat it all as a learning curve. Even if you aren’t seeing results straight away, you should be seeing an improvement in your writing. Look at the judges (many are agents, perhaps even the agent at the top of your list), see what types of novels are making the shortlists, if possible read any published extracts with a writer’s eye and find areas for improvement in your own work.