Monday, 11 August 2008


I’ve been asked to be one of two readers for one of the better Irish short story prizes in 2009. We read for the judge and pass on what we like to him. I haven’t got all the details yet but I’m happy to do the work, because I love short fiction and because, most importantly, I get paid. Writing is what I do (it and its peripheral work) and that’s why I say ‘most importantly’.

What with that, and my current judging of the Seán Ó Faoláin prize (700+ stories entered!), I’ve come to the conclusion that it is time for me to stop entering literary competitions. If I’m involved in judging a few of the biggies, it seems unseemly somehow to keep entering others. I’ve also learnt (from my Seán Ó F adjudication) that it is mostly beginner writers who enter these competitions and they need that forum to get a foot on the ladder, just as I did a number of years ago.

I’ve kept entering comps over the years because the prize money is often too good to pass by. I earned €3,000 for a 2000 word story once; €500 on another occasion and various hundreds, tokens, crystal, books etc. In comparison, most magazines pay in the region of €100 for a story. I have never re-entered comps I’ve been placed in, or won, but I’d always try my hand at new ones, big and small, and at the ‘goodies’.

This is my second time to ‘retire’. After my second book of stories was published, I felt there was no place for me to be entering comps anymore. A writing friend told me I was mad. ‘Look at the money,’ she said, ‘you’ll earn nothing like it anywhere else for writing.’ She was – and is – right: advances are generally dismal and royalties few. She and I both have had a healthy winning record; we were good at ‘literary Lester Piggotting’ as Fred Johnston so amusingly put it once.

And I admit, I will still try the Davy Byrne’s Award if I have anything ‘suitable’ available near the deadline. If it’s good enough for La Enright, it’s good enough for me. And at €25,000 for a story plus five shots at €1,000, the money is great. Not that I imagine Richard Ford would be wowed by a single syllable of mine, but I can dream, right?


Tania Hershman said...

I think this is a very interesting point to discuss. I was contemplating stopping entering competitions because I know or have been in touch with (through the Short Review) quite a few of the judges of these comps - and it just happened that I was awarded 2nd prize in a comp in the same month that I published a review of this particular judge's book. She didn't seem to mind - she knows that the competition was strictly anonymous - but I felt a little uncomfortable.

The money, though, is an excellent point, and it must be a motivating factor for why a well-known writer I won't name here enterered a major short story competition last year. But then how do you feel when you are a well-known writer and you don't win, even if you get shortlisted? And should you step aside and let others have a chance? Or - since you are implying that many of the entries for SOF weren't as polished as you might have hoped, should beginner writers cut their teeth elsewhere?

The question is, as you said: are competitions intended to give emerging writers a leg up? What are competitions for exactly? As someone who had thrilling news about several competitions last week, I am still trying to process what prizes might mean to me. The money is very very welcome, definitely, but I am not sure what to do with the notion of "winning", of my story having been judged "better than X others". I am dubious, perhaps from lack of self confidence. Whereas when I am accepted for publication, that is wholehearted and untainted delight - yes, I may also have "beaten" a load of other submissions, but it doesn't feel like that, it feels somehow more legitimate. Ach, my own neuroses, as you can tell!

That said - definitely enter the Davy Byrne award - €25,000!!!!! For one story??? Go with the wind at your heels :)

Women Rule Writer said...

Some very good points, Tania.
The competitions are anonymous and in that sense are always very fair, so I wouldn't worry about that.

I think I know to whom you are referring. Several well known writers enter comps, even those who are published by top publishers such as Cape and Faber. It HAS to be for the money, why else pit yourself against amateurs? I am always a bit mortified for them. Especially if they come 3rd or whatever...

You ask what are competitions for exactly? It's an excellent point because I think some have different agendas to others. Mostly, I think, they are to give emerging literary writers a bit of money and a bit of exposure.
Some, however, seem to be more about the sponsor and/or the particular/peculiar tastes of the reading committees and THEIR exposure in the press. Awards ceremonies are often embarrassingly very little to do with the winning writers.

Maybe all small/medium comps should ban those with books published from entering, as the Stinging Fly does with its annual comp. That way, the comps would really be about those who are trying to get a foothold.

BarbaraS said...

I agree with Tania, hearing this is very encouraging for other writers. I know some high placed poets who've entered comps: the example of Sinead Morrissey winning the UK National Poetry competition this year had the effect of making me think that I shouldn't bother with the top competitions at all :S
It's hard to gauge it.

Tania Hershman said...

I think that's an excellent idea - the Asham Award is also only for those who haven't published a book, where the BBC National Story Award is only for those who have published something, and is not anonymous, so you know where you stand, who they are looking for. Clarity, that's what we need!

Emerging Writer said...

And add on to that, Don't enter a competition where you know the judge and you're pretty sure he/she will recognise your writing style. Morto!

Anonymous said...

As someone who is very much at the beginner end of the scale, this was great to read and very encouraging.

I haven't written in a very long time, but am really feeling the urge to get back on the horse. Davy Byrne's will attract the big guns, but hey, why not?


Women Rule Writer said...

Hi Ruby
That's the thing - if you don't try, you'll never know. I've been shocked to win comps, but if I never entered, no lovely 'shock'. Or filthy lucre either.(What a daft, archaic word. Don't use THAT in a story!)

PJ Nolan said...

A noble stance, Nuala - and pragmatic too, I guess? Now's the time to put all that knowledge to good use - when can we expect a good, practical workshop where you'll have a chance to share your experiences (and successes) with us lower rungs? Also - re well-known writers not showing in competition placings - MHO would be that even solid, consistently top-class writers can still have an off-day (whether in writing or selecting a submission) or be bumped to a placing by a good work from one less proven. No shame in that, at all, at all. (BTW Good Luck with the D Byrnes!)

Emerging Writer said...

One thought occurs. I hope the competition mentions they use filter judges. I think it's important to be open about that and not to pretend Mr/Ms Big Wig/ Big Name/ Big Fee Writer reads all entries.

Women Rule Writer said...

Hi PJ - most of the teaching I do these days is at lit fests. Nothing lined up at the mo in Irl. You could always fly to Paris in Nov to one I'm doing there?! (Centre Culturel Irlandaise)

Emerging Writer: Hiya. I guess it's up to them if they do that. Most comps use ODC's (Ordinary Decent Committee members), which, IMO, is worse than paying two people who actually write for a living to filter through the entries for a 'named' judge.
The Sean O Faolain is unusual in that one judge reads all entries.