by Jim Harrington
Vanessa Gebbie is a writer, tutor, teacher, and editor. She has participated in a number of writing contests, both as an author and as a judge. Vanessa offered to let Flash Fiction Chronicles pick her brain about writing contests, and we willingly picked up a pointed tool and accepted.
FFC: Vanessa, would you mind opening with a brief statement about the value to a writer of entering writing contests?
VG: Hi there. I would say this, straight away – If your work stands out for the right reasons in competitions, they can be very good for your writing career. I can only speak personally – but the competition route to publication has served me well. Doing OK in meaningful contests allowed me to jump the frustrating stage of searching for an agent – I was approached as a direct result of a series of successes, and therefore am rather grateful to the competition scene. So, you could say that they can be a fast track through the minefield.
But I would also say that writers need to be very very careful which competitions they target, especially if they are paying entry fees. There are hundreds, if not thousands of the things – many of which are brilliant to have on the CV, if you succeed. Others, unfortunately, are not worth the entry fee, as no-one will care two figs if you won, except your mother. Which brings me to the next question, really…
FFC: Are there any pitfalls the author should be aware of?
VG: Yes – every man and his cat is calling themselves a prizewinning writer these days, it seems. Sorry, and all that, but it is true – all you have to do is set up a competition with a few mates, accept some entries, get said mates to judge it, and of course, your work will be the best, so you win. Zap. You are a prizewinning writer. But are you, really, hand on heart? That is a hugely exaggerated scenario, of course, but you get my drift. No one would really organise a comp and get their mates to … would they? Nah. I am assuming your readers would far rather have a meaningful win on their CV!
So the first pitfall is the minefield that is competitions themselves. My advice would be, if you are serious about this thing – look carefully at who is organising them. Is it a respected competition? What sort of work has won in the past? Who has won? What are they doing now? Who is judging? Will it mean something or mean diddly-squat on the CV if you win or are placed?
The second pitfall is not understanding that competitions are lotteries, and you are playing a game of chance if you enter. Only do so if you can afford to lose that entry fee.
The third pitfall is to assume the judge will respond more favourably to work that mirrors their own, in some way, and writing something similar to their work. Honestly, after ploughing through a pile of read-alikes, any judge will leap on something with its own confident voice and delivery.
The fourth pitfall is not taking notice of all the rules and guidelines. A maximum word count is a maximum word count. Don’t assume the judge “won’t mind if I go over by 100 words, 50 words, 25 words as this story is just SO good and they won’t notice” – because chances are, those that go over the top will be thrown out straight away by the administrators, especially in the big competition – and they won’t even get to the readers, let alone the judges. It’s purely a numbers game.
The fifth, and last for now, is the pitfall of not checking and revising the work. Sending something in that has just been written, without letting it rest for a while. Sure, it may be wonderful, genius stuff – but best be absolutely sure – give it some time!
FFC: Thanks. Now we’d like to ask a series of questions. The first three discuss the writing side of the contest, and the last three look at the process from the judges view point. I hope you don’t mind us probing into both parts of your brain.
From the writer’s side of a contest:
FFC: In general, writers spend too little time choosing a story/theme when entering a contest. Do you agree or disagree with this statement and why?
VG: I disagree with the statement, because the writer I am doesn’t understand it. In all the cases where my work has done well, it was work that was not deliberately chosen at all. It was simply a piece of work that was original, a ‘different’ story well-told, with a strong distinct voice. It would be the best thing I had in the files, and so I sent it in. Themed contests wouldn’t really have appealed to me – a few words as a starter, as below, that’s different.
FFC: What is your process before you begin writing when responding to a contest prompt? Let me give you an example. Prompt: Your character loses something.
VG: OK, I would try not to think, not to plan. Just let something happen on the page. So – I’m thinking as I type this answer.
Someone loses something. Right – what interests me is not the usual take on ‘losing something’ – I’d try to move sideways, laterally, away from the obvious, until my characters start losing something more original. Memory, maybe, only thats a bit of a cliche. Losing the past. Losing face. Losing the ability to see the colour red. Losing their wife in little pieces (I’ve written that one). Losing bits of themselves…
“Eddie found it on the floor by the bed. The thumb off his right hand. Jeez – how did that happen? ” That’s the sort of starter that would interest me enough to continue writing Eddie’s story…and I would be able to bet that there won’t be a hundred similar stories in the pile…
FFC: Haha. I believe that’s a safe bet. What do you do after you’ve written a contest entry and before you send it out?
VG: Wait. Try to gain some distance, and write other things. Then edit, word by word, line by line. Check to see it is as perfect as I can get it, without killing the freshness of the voice. Check the prose again. Check that those last words of sentences, paragraphs are strong words, as opposed to throw-aways.
Print it out a few times, in different font sizes, with different headers – so the story falls out slightly differently on the page, physically. Learn from what I see. Try to gain the same effect as the one I like best, within the guidelines of the competition.
Where possible, get it into the competition in plenty of time. NOT wait until the last few days ‘just in case I need to tweak it.’ If readers start reading early, they will be fresh. If you wait until the mad rush of last minute entries, your work will end up in a tired reader’s work pile…
From the judge’s side of a contest:
FC: The few times I’ve judged a writing contest, I found in the first round it were the weaknesses that stood out. What weaknesses do you notice during the first round?
VG: Depends on the competition, and on the general level of the writers. But here’s a few random complaints(!)
- Boring writing/story.
- Poor prose in general.
- Unoriginal story.
- Little subtext, when subtext is necessary.
- Undeveloped characters.
- Stereotypical characters.
- Copycat work.
- Writer treating reader like an idiot i – footnotes explaining unusual words, etc.
- Writer treating reader like an idiot ii – repeating information just in case I didn’t get it first time round.
- Writer treating reader like an idiot iii – starting with a quasi-literary opener, descending into something meaningless about girlfriends and boyfriends. ie, making reader think it is one sort of story, and switching to another.
- Infodump dialogue.
- Undifferentiated dialogue.
- Big bang opener, not followed by anything interesting.
- Anecdote, as opposed to story.
- Flat or non-existent ending.
- Exposition/drama out of balance.
- The writer writing round the interesting issue, and failing to ‘go there’ after leading the reader to think they are going to end up in a fascinating but difficult scene.
- Inappropriate language ( I don’t mean swearing! – I mean giving an ill-educated character with Alzheimers the vocabulary of an Oxford professor of linguistics…).
FFC: What do you consider the strengths of a story?
VG: The opposite of the above list! Among other things.
FFC: What makes a story standout above the rest?
VG: Voice. Character. And what the story is really ‘about’, as opposed to what it seems to be about.
FFC: Any final comments you’d like to share?
VG: Yes. The above are the views of one person – ask anyone else and they may well say I’m nuts. But there’s some sensible advice in there, hidden in the rubbish!
FFC: Thanks for spending some time with us, Vanessa. Our FFC family appreciates your insights, and we wish you well in your future writing endeavors.
VG: Thank you very much for having me.
Vanessa Gebbie is a Welsh writer of stories from 10 to 100,000 words long. She is author of two collections of short and flash fictions: Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning – Echoes of Conflict (Salt Modern Fiction). Her debut novel The Coward’s Tale (Bloomsbury UK/US) was a Financial Times 2011 Book of the Year and also a Guardian Readers’ Book of the Year. She is contributing editor of Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story, and is a freelance creative writing teacher. She lives in the south of the UK with her family.
Jim Harrington discovered flash fiction in 2007, and he’s read, written, studied, and agonized over the form since. His Six Questions For. . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” He’s also the Markets Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles’ Flash Markets Page. You can read his stories on his blog. He can be contacted at jpharrin [at] gmail [dot] com.