It's a dice game

Your writing must engage the person who has a deadline to meet and perhaps couldn't care less about your work.

Published - November 05, 2011 05:00 pm IST

Making the cut: A clean copy is the key. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Making the cut: A clean copy is the key. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

This month I will step away from editors and publishing and talk about competitions. Competitions have now become increasingly important for writers looking to break through to the big time. A placement in a shortlist or winning a competition allows you to distinguish yourself from the pack. When it comes to approaching editors and publishers, it could very well give you the all-important foot in the door.

Before we delve into the dos and don'ts, let us accept that to be successful in creative writing competitions you need a fair amount of luck. If there is something technically wrong with your writing, for instance you have a chaotic point of view or weak sentence structure or can't spell to save your life, all the luck in the world won't help you. But, assuming your work is up to scratch, whether you make the grade or not depends on the whim of some unknown, unseen individual weighed down by the task of reading hundreds of entries. If that person does not decide in your favour, remember it does not mean that your writing is no good. Just on that occasion the dice did not roll your way.

Write right

That said, there are a number of things that you can do to put yourself in a position where the dice does roll your way. First of all, the writing. Make sure there is nothing wrong with it. To that end it is normally a good ploy to complete your entry well in advance of the deadline. The last thing you want to do is to be frantically writing and editing with a looming deadline. The maxim — editors read to reject — applies to readers in literary competitions with a vengeance. Therefore, you must make sure your story is technically perfect.

Before you enter a competition, research its history. Look at its past winners and shortlisted authors. That is especially important with international competitions. There are plenty of competitions in the West that call themselves international, but do not reveal a single non-Western name in their list of winners or shortlisted authors. If, over the past five years, the list of winners and shortlisted authors does not have a single Asian, Caribbean or African writer then chances are this is not a competition for you. That is not to say that the competition in question deliberately excludes non-white, non-Western writers. In fact, at times such a competition could even have a non-white judge. But before you get to the judge or judges, you have to make the first cut. Before competitions reach the judging stage the stories are read by a group of readers. And it could be that all readers are Westerners who do not have much interest in the non-Western world. Hence, they may not be able to relate to a non-Western story irrespective of how well-written it is. At the end of the day, whether a writer connects with a reader depends as much on the reader's sensibilities as the writer's skill.

Before composing your story, spend some time thinking of your idea. In a competition it is essential that your story stands out. To that end there should be something about it that will distinguish it from all the other stories coming in. Examine the storyline. Is it fresh? Think of the characters. Are they alive? Scrutinise the structure. Is there something innovative about it? Above all, look at the opening. Put yourself in the shoes of the person who will be reading it at the other end. Most likely a jaded individual with a ton of stories to read before a looming deadline and, hence, little patience and a short fuse. If you don't engage that person right away then chances are your story will be discarded after the first paragraph.

Wait a while

Finally, many competitions have a stipulation that the story should not be submitted elsewhere while it is under consideration. That is, quite frankly, a piece of crap that you should instantly blank from your mind. Unless you want to wait until you are ninety before making any kind of breakthrough. They will take at least a few months to evaluate all the stories before coming up with a shortlist. Whether your story makes it is anyone's guess. If it does, great. But if it does not, you just sat about for a few months doing nothing with it. So if you think you have a good story then give it the widest possible exposure and go for multiple submissions. It is highly unlikely for one story to strike gold more than once. If that happens then it is a problem that you want to have.

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