Earlier this year, writer Esther Newton contacted me to ask a few questions about the appeal of competitions for an article in Writing Magazine.
Esther’s full article, including quotes from myself and other competition writers, can be found in the April issue of the magazine.
Over the years, I’ve entered – sometimes with success, sometimes to disappointment – a variety of writing competitions. I’ve also been a sifter and named adjudicator for writing contests too.
Although I do have a competitive streak, it’s always been more about personal confidence-boosting and making my work as good as possible than anything else. In this sense, maybe it’s a ‘best compromise position’ against the inevitable impossibility of unanimous perfection – a way of reaching a point (when an entry’s successful at least!) of feeling ‘it’s finished enough’.
Esther’s full interview with me about writing competitions is included below with her permission. Her questions are in bold, with my answers below them.You have won a number of poetry competitions including the Overton Poetry Prize 2015. What is it about competitions that makes them so special?
I’m going to guess that the most obvious appeal of writing competitions for many people might include the prize money, a way of being noticed, something for the poetry C.V. and publication opportunities. The latter is still an important factor for me. To be honest though, the rest of these probably motivated me more when I first started writing. Always, and this more and more the main reason now, the most important thing for me about competitions – when entries fare well, at least – is the confidence factor. In particular, when contests are anonymous, so based on enjoyment and/or admiration for the writing and not who I am or whom I know.
How did you feel when you won your first competition? What was that competition and when?
My first poetry competition success was as adult winner of Burton Ottakar’s Poetry Competition in October 1999. Sadly, Ottakar’s (bookstore chain) is no more. But at the time, the competition was an annual one, with regional winning poems, then going into the national round. I was delighted – probably to an extent that I couldn’t come close to recalling now. In 1999, Andrew Motion was judging and the first poet of national public renown to read any of my work! I think the biggest thing it gave me was the confidence, validity and motivation to keep on writing.
Life has changed a lot for me since then, in so many ways. I now have four published poetry collections, two published poetry pamphlets, other writing wins and commissions, a poem in the Blackpool Illuminations, festival readings, a touring poetry-play, poetryfilms, a novella (‘Kaleidoscope’) out in 2017, paid work (yes, it really does happen eventually if not as often as I’d like!)… and my own poetry and flash fiction imprint: V. Press. Obviously, these aren’t direct results of that first win – for a long time I was just a journalist (and then a full-time mother) squeezing creative writing in to rare, very short snatches of time. But one thing on another on another all adds up.
Did winning that competition change how you saw yourself as a writer? Did it give you the confidence to believe in yourself as a writer? Did it lead you to want to enter more competitions?
Winning that competition, as with others since, gave me confidence in my writing. It did make me want to enter more – partly to keep pushing myself with the quality of my writing, partly because the deadlines and themes can be very motivating, partly because as a writer I always want reassurance that my work is hitting the spot. On the confidence factor though, I’m always aware of the potential flip-side – not getting anywhere in a contest. (Let’s face it, even without the subjectivity factor involved in writing competitions, this is the more likely outcome of any contest, as more people won’t win than will win.) So I try not to invest too much of my own writing self-worth in the results, and pick the contests that I do and don’t enter more carefully than I did at first.
Did winning competitions encourage and push you to send your work to editors and to publish your poetry collections?
Even from the start, I saw competitions and journal publication as something to be done simultaneously. Different poems tend to suit different journals and/or competitions better. Journal publication also brings its own validation and confidence-boost. Though they operate in different ways, both have always been important to me. I guess success with a poem in a competition, or journal publication, does encourage me to think about including it in a collection. But I’m not naturally confident in terms of submitting whole manuscripts blindly. My first, second and third collections, and one poetry pamphlet, came about through the publishers knowing and liking my work, and encouraging me to submit/commissioning a manuscript. It’s only more recently that I’ve submitted whole manuscripts blindly and had success.
Have any of the competition wins opened any doors for you? If so, which doors?
I don’t think any competition has actually acted as a butler holding the door open and announcing me. But many of the competitions have had award ceremonies, publication or showcasing as part of the prize. They’ve been a way of meeting the judges, other poets and readers, an addition to my CV, a boost to my confidence… Over time these things have then given me the strength and confidence to open doors for myself, or collaboratively with poets and publishers that I’ve met. They have also lead to people pointing out open/openable doors to me. [It’s important for me to highlight that any level of success in any competition, however big or small, is both a confidence boost and a delight in its own right, regardless of anything else that does or doesn’t follow from it.]
At the moment, a lot of my time is taken up by other people’s writing, with my work as editor and publisher at V. Press. I’m looking for new festival/guest poet readings for my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’ (Nine Arches Press) and my first short novella, ‘Kaleidoscope’, out with Mantle Lane Press. I’ve also been working on three Coventry ringroad inspired pieces with filmmaker Ben Cook as part of a commission for the Disappear Here poetryfilm project. When I get spare time, I have various collaborations, poet in residence projects and pamphlet/collection ideas that are in different stages of development. But I try not to plan too much, or too far ahead, as I also like to remain open to new possibilities and spontaneous projects.
Have you any advice for a writer who is thinking about entering a competition and who is perhaps a little unsure?
I think perhaps the thing I’d say to anyone who is unsure is: “What have you got to lose by entering?” Winning isn’t the only thing competitions are valuable for; the themes can be inspiring and the deadlines motivational. Every time I send a poem to a competition (or journal submission), it makes me take the time to read and edit it. Even if I don’t get anywhere in that competition/submission, the chances are the poem is better than it was before I entered because of this enforced focus, extra evaluation and editing work. Other than that, I’d just advise not attaching too much weight to the results. A win is great. But not winning doesn’t mean the poem isn’t great. I think it’s important to manage possible disappointment. Maybe another way of saying this is: “Enter with hope but not expectations.” (Yes, this advice is easier written than done!)
Can you give some tips for entering writing competitions?
Other than what I’ve already mentioned, perhaps two practical tips. The first is check, check and check again for errors. (Get someone else who is objective/less-familiar-with-the-work to do this too if you can.) The second is don’t send a dog to the Cats Protection…by that, I mean check the rules/details carefully and also do some basic background research on the competition (nature of the organisation running the competition, judges, past winners…) but without getting too hung up on research (judges may change, their tastes not be immediately obvious or different to those sifting entries in earlier stages of the competition…).
‘That Night’ – part of the Wordpool Festival Poetry Competition 2014 prize was seeing this poem animated for Blackpool Illuminations 2014.