Sunday, 25 July 2010

Why Short Fiction Competitions?

Writing competitions are a waste of time: Discuss.

A day or two ago I made an apologetic post on my home writers' circle bulletin board at having only achieved third place in the excellent The Write Idea website's annual Whittaker Prize competition. This drew a post from one of my peers, which said, that: Being absolutely frank, he had never seen the attraction of these competitions, and felt they're possibly a distraction from writing what you really wanted to write (i.e not in response to someone elses brief). He also worried about the quality of the adjudication.

I couldn't resist the following reply, which I'm minded to share with anyone who might wander through these murky backwaters of cyberspace by mischance:

Do you write short stories, Frank? If not, there's probably no way I can explain other than to relate: 1) Why I write short fiction and then, 2) Why I have entered '...these competitions'.

1) Why short fiction?  I have written one novel, and have begun about three more. The 'completed' novel took up a big chunk of my life and I made just about all the mistakes a writer could make - not once, but time and again. Writing that first - unsuccessful - novel took years, if you include innumerable rewrites. I'm getting old and do not have such time to waste anymore.

So, in parallel, I became drawn into short fiction. Besides the fact that I enjoy writing 'tight and short', my reasoning is the same as why genetic researchers have employed the fruit fly, dorosophila, rather than the elephant - a short gestation period. I can experiment and make mistakes on a much shorter cycle, and can also execute the one and only acid test - does my work sell? - more readily.

In addition, there is a worldwide upsurge in interest in short fiction and a sea-change in the means of distribution/marketing the 'product'. The world of short fiction - online in particular - has an exciting 'wild frontier' atmosphere where remarkable things can and will happen (but you also have to watch your back).

2) Why competitions? To be clear, the competition in question, which triggered your enquiry, was the recent Whittaker Prize competition, so I'll address that. The competition involved writers submitting a short story every fortnight over a period of eighteen weeks. Although prompts were provided (three per round) these were only to stimulate creativity (the prompts did not have to be incorporated in the work) so writers were free to write whatever they pleased - not ' someone elses brief.' - up to the maximum word count.

The main attraction to me is that I have a deadline to work to and a concrete reason to create something new. If I stick to the schedule, I end up with nine new pieces of work I would not otherwise have created. You could even regard the creative output from such competitions as the raw material 'input' to a further on-going process of learning and refinement.

As to the quality of adjudication, who can say? If not always names you would immediately recognise, the judges nonetheless have a standing in writing circles acknowledged by their peers. In this case there were two judges who adjudicated anonymously on alternate rounds, and in parallel on the final round (with interesting comments and results). In Whittaker, the entries are given points/values for nine defined parameters, e.g., Opening, Closing, Voice, Technicalities etc. All literary adjudication must be subjective, but I have found that the Whittaker values, arbitrary as they may seem, have given me clear indication of areas of weakness in my writing. When two judges independently highlight the same areas again and again, a sensible aspiring writer will take notice.

Success in competitions in general can bring your writing to the notice of a wider audience, and success does, it seems, breed success, if my mate Jonathan Pinnock's progress is any guide.

Distraction? Nope. Focus? Yup.

In short: it works for me, Frank.