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Top 7 tips for entering writing competitions

I was thrilled when Linda asked if I’d like to be writer in residence for the Hysteria Writing Competition 2016. Hysteria is now an established part of the literary calendar and I am proud to be associated with it and to start I thought I’d tell you my top 7 tips for entering writing competitions.

I’d like to tell you a bit about my journey to here. I had a hysterectomy five years ago when I was forty-two. It’s a daunting time for any woman so I’m a huge fan of the Hysterectomy Association and the resources and support it offers. I’m also a huge fan of writing competitions. If it wasn’t for writing competitions, I wouldn’t be a published novelist.

Fifteen years ago, when our kids were small, I did an evening class in creative writing to have a break from sock-washing and fish fingers. Each week, our brilliant tutor brought in details of upcoming comps that she’d cut out of magazines and photocopied for us. (It’s a whole lot easier now with the internet. And there are a lot more comps. Which is brilliant!)

I started entering competitions from the off and my first win was a local competition for the West Sussex Writers Club for a radio play. This really gave me a boost and I started entering short story competitions. I won a few other local prizes – and had a lot of misses – but many stories later, I was shortlisted for a national comp. I felt like I was making progress each time I added something to my CV.

But one story really stuck with me. I couldn’t let the characters go; I kept wondering what if…?. So the story grew into a novel. I entered the opening chapters to the Yeovil Literary Prize in 2006 and, to my surprise and delight, it won. Even though I went on to sign with an agent, it would be another five years until I’d see my debut novel in print. And that was because I entered and won another competition: the Luke Bitmead Bursary. The prize was a publishing contract and some cash (which I received two weeks after my hysterectomy). The Generation Game was published in 2011 by Legend Press. This Holey Life (runner-up in the Harry Bowling in 2008) was published a year later and Bright Stars was published in October.

I genuinely believe I would still be looking for a publisher if it weren’t for competitions, such as Hysteria. They give you experience, self-discipline, practice, deadlines, exposure and, as well as helping you develop a thicker skin, they can build up your CV and your confidence.

If you’re thinking about entering, do it.

As the team of CreativeWritingMatters, Cathie Hartigan, Margaret James and I administer and judge four annual competitions – The Exeter Novel Prize, the Exeter Story Prize, the Wow (1000 words) and the Exeter Flash. I’ve read hundreds of entries over the years and I’ve also judged Hysteria twice so here are my top seven tips to help you make that short list.

  1. Match the right piece of writing to the right comp. I once submitted a story which didn’t make the long list of Competition X. I still believed it was a good story so I sent it straight back out to Competition Y. This time it came second and was published in an anthology. Why? Well, judges are individuals with differing tastes but, on this occasion, the story was just a better fit for competition Y.
  2. Find the right place to begin. Don’t write yourself into the piece. Start right in the middle of the action. You’ve not time for back story. Make sure there is a payoff for the reader at the end. You want to leave them satisfied, not mystified or disappointed.
  3. Your piece, whether short story, flash or poem, must have something happen. There must be some kind of narrative, however short. And there must be a change or at least the suggestion of change. You need a situation and someone or something that reacts to it.
  4. Don’t forget the landscape. Use the senses. Smells, sounds, textures, taste, etc. This will enliven your writing and help the reader visualise and empathise.
  5. You can know all the rules but some stories break them and that’s usually because something shines through. And that something is voice. You will only discover your voice by writing, writing, writing.
  6. Don’t over-write. Watch those adverbs and adjectives. Use fresh, vivid language. Be specific with detail. I don’t mean put in lots of description, just choose the specific detail that will tell you a whole lot more.
  7. Follow the rules and send your entries in good time.

I’ll be back next month. In the meantime, get going now while it’s still blowy and rainy outside. Summer will be here before you know it. Hopefully.

Sophie Duffy is this year’s Hysteria Writer in Residence. You can find out more about her in the interview she did with us last month.

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