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Saturday, 19 May 2012

Writing Competitions: Winners & Losers

You’d think I would know quite a bit about writing competitions, after all I’ve entered zillions of them over the years, and won a few of those, although the times I didn’t win by far outnumber the times I did. And I sincerely believe the biggies that I won, I only did so through sheer dogged determination.

Take the Dundee International Book Prize, for example. I didn’t win that on my first attempt. Oh no, I’d had two goes at it before that, and only won it on the third attempt. I also won the Scotttish Association of Writers’ Pitlochry Trophy twice, once for Night Watcher and again for Dead Wood. But I never did win the even more prestigious Constable Trophy (I coveted that for many years), and I stopped counting after the fifth year I came second. Ironically, after Dead Wood was published I was asked to adjudicate the Constable Award competition. It’s a queer world, isn’t it?

Chris with the Dundee International Book Prize Trophy

So what got me thinking about writing competitions? Well, last year, in a weak moment, I agreed to adjudicate the novel competition of a writing group. Taking my base from my own writing group of thirty members, with 16-20 who regularly attended meetings, and about 6 or 7 submitting work to competitions, I thought easy peasy, and never gave it another thought.

It was only when the date crept up on me, I realised that I only had a month to adjudicate the manuscripts, which is quite tight if you want to do justice to the crit. I then acquired the information that this club had 100 members, and there might be about 50 of those members attending my adjudication talk. Panic stations! How many scripts would I have to read? I made some tentative enquiries and was told to expect something in the region of 14. Wow, 14 submissions of 10,000 words each, plus synopses. When would I have time to sleep?

Anyway, the scripts arrived, and I breathed a sigh of relief. There were only 7 manuscripts. But, the thing I had forgotten was that in the middle of my month’s adjudication time came the Easter holidays, and I would be doing my granny duties with my granddaughter who would be off school!

So I buckled down to work. I read the manuscripts as a reader, without looking at the synopses. They were all good. No obvious ones I could rule out as not making the grade, although there was one I thought stood out as being something very special, but at this point I wasn’t making any judgements. Then it was time for the second reading which was done after reading the synopses. Again, great story lines, not a duff one among them.

It was time to start making decisions, so I read them a third time with an analytic eye, jotting down notes for my crits. And of course, being me, I couldn’t resist proofing them at the same time. The crits helped give me a clearer view of top and bottom runners. But I still had 4 to sort out in the order of first, second, third, and commended.

During my readings I had come to appreciate all the manuscripts at a far deeper level and I wasn’t sure anymore whether the one I thought was the best, really was the best. It took 5 readings before I finally made up my mind about the order of the top 4. And would you believe it, the manuscript I’d hit on as being the best in my first reading did come out on top.

That was the adjudication done, all that remained was to present my findings to the writers’ group. However they wanted a half hour talk to provide practical advice on writing a novel. Now everyone has their own method of writing a novel and who is to say my way is any better than someone else’s? So I decided to concentrate on the craft aspects of writing rather than the creative process, taking my cues from their own manuscripts.

So, what did I pick up from my reading of the manuscripts that would give me something to talk about? Remember, I told you they were all good. But even being good, nothing is ever perfect, and don’t I know that only too well as I struggle with my own revisions. Some of the manuscripts started with a definite hook while others had a more gentle lead in to the story, so the first thing on my agenda was ‘hooks’. How to start with a hook to intrigue a potential reader, but not only that, I also covered hooks at the end of scenes. You know, the traditional cliff hangers. They’re needed to keep the reader turning the pages.

Next I talked about dialogue and how it is not really necessary to have a speech tag as well as action at the end of it. It’s the difference between writing, ‘I’m not coming back,’ she said and slammed the door, as opposed to, ‘I’m not coming back.’ She slammed the door.

Something else I included was sentences where the effect came before the action. It should always be action first and then the effect. I felt a bit of a hypocrite talking about this because I couldn’t help wondering how many times I had done this myself. It’s so easy to write, ‘she jumped as the door slammed’, which is effect followed by action. I really must remember to do a find in my manuscripts for the two words ‘as the’ which are a dead giveaway.

I spoke about several other things as well, but one thing that struck me when I read the manuscripts was how much hyphens are overused. At least that’s one thing I felt reasonably sure I handled okay in my work because I always check hyphenated words with the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors which is an excellent reference work, particularly for the use of hyphens.

So, back to winners and losers, there were only winners in this competition, there were no losers, which was what made my decision so difficult. But then again, if there had been duff manuscripts there still wouldn’t have been any losers, because the very nature of entering competitions, and getting your work out there for an objective crit, makes you a winner in my book.

I must say the talk went very well and was well received by the audience, and to top off a lovely, stimulating meeting with the club members, some of them took time out the next week to email me to say how much they enjoyed it.

I’m now off to pull together some material for my next talk in a week’s time. It’s Layout and Presentation this time. Now how can I make that interesting?