As you’ll know from my post two weeks ago (http://simonwhaleytutor.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/a-judges-plea.html) I’ve been judging the National Association of Writers’ Groups Open Short Story competition. I have now concluded my deliberations and my decision has been forwarded to the organisers for them to notify the winning entrants.
As part of this process I also had to offer a critique to those entrants who paid for this extra service, and this is the first time I’ve had to do this for competition entrants. One thing in particular struck me with this service: several entrants who paid for a critique submitted more than one story into the competition. So if they entered two or three stories, they paid extra to have critiques on each of those submissions.
What I found interesting in this scenario is that when an entrant submitted more than one story they tended to submit very similar stories, or similarly-styled stories. This meant that if I came across a problem in one of their stories, their other entries frequently exhibited the same problem. Therefore, when it came to writing up their critiques, I found myself making the same comments.
In some ways this could be seen as a good thing. To learn that you’re making the same mistake gives you the opportunity to learn from it, especially when it comes to the fundamental basics of writing. It could be it’s that same mistake you are repeating that is preventing your work from moving onto the next stage and being published or winning competitions.
However, it could also be seen as a missed opportunity. To have paid twice to be told the same thing could be seen as a little frustrating.
But what it made me realise is that competition entrants tend not to experiment with their submissions. If they pay to enter more than one entry, writers frequently enter similarly-styled submissions. To me, this seems a waste. If you’re going to submit more than one entry, why not submit two completely different pieces? Experiment a little. If it’s a short story competition, why not write one that is set in the present tense and one that is written in the past tense? Or send one in the first person and one in the third person. Write one that revolves around a flashback and one that doesn’t.
If you’re entering a non-fiction competition why not write one written in a journalistic style, and another that takes a more creative non-fiction approach?
Judges are individuals, with individual tastes. If you submit three stories written in the past tense, first person viewpoint with flashbacks, and the judge doesn’t like flashbacks, then all three of those entries risk being disliked by the judge. But if two have flashbacks and one doesn’t, then the one that doesn’t may still find favour with the judge.
So, it might make sense to be a little more structured with your approach to competitions. If you’re going to send more than one entry into one competition, send completely different pieces, with completely different styles. You may increase your chances of winning, and you may learn more from the critiques if you select this option.