Often with a theme, always with a deadline, competitions are great motivators to write, write, write. A list of competition placings can enhance a thin cv when submitting to magazine and book publishers, but competitions are no easy option. Entries, and standards, can be high. Try these tips for making the most of your entry fee:
• Read the rules. An unbelievable percentage of entries are binned without even being read because the rules are not adhered to. Aim below the maximum allowed word-count, and if your name should not appear on the script, ensure it isn’t sitting in the strap-line with the page number.
• Weigh the tone of the organising body. If the competition is being run by a literary magazine the chances of the judges looking favourably on your story of a lonely three-legged donkey in a cabbage patch is pretty remote, unless, of course, it is dripping in metaphor. However, a competition run by an animal charity... For the same reason check out the writings of the judges to gain a feel for what they consider ‘good’.
• Write for the reader, not yourself. Reader reaction is often ignored by beginning writers whose prose can resemble aide memoirs to their own imaginations. Readers – the judges – need to experience the story, not watch it unfold through a telescope. An intriguing beginning will draw the judges in; the pacing should undulate, rising to the denouement; the ending should leave the judges feeling satisfied that no other ending could work as well.
• Believable characters carry fiction. Ensure that your story isn’t populated by stereotypes. Complete a history sheet on your main characters prior to writing the story so that you know what motivates them. Wallowing in physical descriptions is no substitute. Write through their eyes, not your own.
• Keep the prose focused. Remove all adverbs and exclamation marks. Adjectives should not arrive like carriages of a trains, but should be used individually to highlight. Write narrative in sentences, not phrases; keep those for dialogue. Paragraph correctly, especially within a dialogue exchange.
• Presentation matters. Coloured paper, fancy fonts in small or large point sizes, single spacing, block paragraphing, sloppy keying-in... if you want your story to fail, try any one. There won’t just be your entry to read, there could be hundreds, and the judges will be burning the midnight oil to complete their task to a deadline. Ensure when they pick up yours they can immediately relax into the fiction.
• Finally... remember that professional eyes will be assessing your story. Paying the courtesy of being professional in return could move your story through the ranks.