Be Careful What You Wish For.

This isn’t a post about how if you become a successful writer it’s actually a huge pain. I’m sure for some people that’s true, but honestly that can be true about any kind of success.

What I mean here is that if you are a writer who is trying to get an agent or win a competition (or both!), you need to be careful about whom you query and which competitions you enter. I’ve already spoken in a previous post about “dream” agents, so let’s talk writing competitions.

It is very easy to think that if you just write a decent draft of a novel or short story or flash fiction that if you send it out enough, you will get somewhere with it. I had a short story a few years ago that I really loved and I sent it out to at least ten different competitions. It was a good short story, if I do say so. But I didn’t win anything with it. I didn’t so much as get long listed (something that I’ve been lucky enough to do several times). I decided that I’d put my research skills into finding a home for this story I loved. And then it hit me – why hadn’t I done that in the first place? After looking up the winners lists and reading the stories for the competitions I’d entered it became glaringly obvious that eight of the ten were never even a possibility. My story, while literary, leaned towards young adult (that is my preferred genre) and only two of the competitions had a short list that contained anything similar.

I had entered competitions based on their deadline dates and my haste to get my work out there. In other words – a bit of ego with a generous sprinkling of naivety. I decided to stop throwing money away and began to be much more vigorous in my research of competitions. I gave myself a tight monthly entry fee budget so I had to really mean it when I entered something. And I’ve won everything I entered since. And I’ve had a much better rate of success.

None of this is to say that if you have a story you love and just choose more carefully you’ll succeed. Because the other part of my mistake was haste. Being in a huge hurry to get work published is probably the most common error I see in editing clients and in competitions entries I read. If you’re still in a rough draft stage or you have yet to put your MS aside for a while and come back to it for a ruthless revision* – for the love of all things literary and wordy – wait. Wait until you can get two things in very good shape. Your opening three to five chapters (depending on the length and genre) and your plot. No one makes a long list that doesn’t have an opening that grabs attention. I personally have edited down the openings of my last two books specifically for competition entries that I later expanded when asked for the whole book. Equally, no one makes a short list that doesn’t have a cohesive plot. Go chapter by chapter and be sure each one moves the story along in some way. No, all of them. Really.

So best of luck to you in your endeavors. Keep at it! I want to read the story that keeps you up at night and burns to rush out into the world. When it’s ready.

*totally stole that phrase from Sara Grant and Karen Ball – fantastic workshop!

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