Competitions aren’t just about winning…

In the beginning

It was a competition that encouraged me to to write. I’d always planned to ‘knock out a novel’ at some point in my life but there was always something with a higher priority and lower importance that seemed to get in the way (drinking, watching TV, etc.).

As the saying goes, deadlines force results, and for me, it was that first competition deadline that drove my writing ambitions. My first short story, Body Recyclers, was entered into the Bristol Short Story Prize (BSSP) last year. Their fifth competition is being launched this week which I’ll be entering with hopefully better results! I’ll also send a couple of flash stories to the Reader’s Digest 100-Word Story. It’ll be a busy month.

It’s not just about winning…

The point of this article is that these competitions serve two purposes for me, well, three if the entry is successful. If successful, the marketing value would be immense. I would no longer be ‘new author Colin Marks,’ I would be ‘award winning author Colin Marks.’ Plus, I’d win enough money to replace my sick beer fridge, my broken pride and joy.

But even without the prestige of winning, these competitions are rewarding. First, it forces me to try something new, like fitting a complete story into 100 words. All those Creative Writing courses and books instruct us to frequently practice different techniques and styles, but how often do we do that? It’s hard enough to find the time to write what I need to write, let alone find additional time to practice along the way. Competitions force you to do just that. Writing exercises are always done half-heartedly and with little enthusiasm, but when you write for a competition, where the quality of your output will be judged, the motivation level sky-rockets.

The second benefit, is that writing something to a restricted length forces the prose to be tight. The 100 word flash is an extreme case, but even the BSSP’s 3000 word limit is challenging. I’m currently writing a novel which I hope will be ready in a few months, though my self-imposed end-of-year deadline is currently looking frighteningly ambitious. After stripping down my 100 and 3000 word competition entries until they were tighter than the trousers at a Weight Watchers gathering, my novel now feels incredibly bloated. That first edit is going to be brutal, large sections of text will be slashed and any long-winded descriptions will be kicked into the bin.

The challenge

My aim is to enter at least six competitions a year. I will always enter the BSSP as this one is special, it opened my eyes to a whole new creative world, plus I live in Bristol so it’s local! The others will be varied so I can regularly try different techniques. It’s worthwhile and I do benefit from it.

Competitions are easy to find on the web, with sites like Prizemagic and Story giving a comprehensive list for those based in the UK.

So give it a shot, I’m confident you’ll find the experience valuable. And should you happen to win a beer fridge in any of these competitions, remember me, you’ll instantly become my best-friend-forever!

I hate to say it, but first impressions ARE important…

Once upon a time

I started writing fiction for public consumption just over a year ago. A colleague and I were strolling one lunchtime, joking about a futuristic concept of body recycling when she suggested, probably half-heartedly, that I should knock that into a story and submit it to the Bristol Short Story Prize. As I’m always very well behaved and do exactly as I’m told, that’s exactly what I did. Tanya, the strolling colleague, and Mark, a friend from way back when, polished the story with some fine editing then off it went, submitted over the Internet to the BSSP website!

This was the first fiction I’d written in over twenty years, yet I honestly thought I would at least reach the long-list and with a little wind in my sails, possibly make the short-list. Even the little realism I’d held onto made me realise winning probably wasn’t on the table, though it might be, unlikely, but certainly possible, if only…

The day of the announcement for the long-list approached and I was F5’ing my browser all day long, keen to see how high I would be on the list. And then, after one refresh, there it was. Not me on the list of course, just the list on my screen, and with my name glaringly absent. At the time I’ll admit I was a little put out, who wouldn’t be, but with a thick skin and a thin copy of an earlier BSSP short-list compilation, I soon realised why I wasn’t on the list. And not only why I wasn’t on the list, but why my story probably wasn’t even read all the way through.

Bristol Short Story Prize

Bristol Short Story Prize

The thing is, BSSP isn’t a little story competition for people who live in Bristol; the entrants are national, even international. To confirm that, I just picked up the third anthology: the winner was Irish (though living in Manchester) and second place went to an Edinburgh based Scot.

I liked my story, I thought it was good and I still do, but I’m certain a large part of the problem wasn’t the story itself, it was the presentation! If you could make a list of things that you need to do properly before submitting to an agent, publisher, competition, etc., my submission would have ignored them all. It wasn’t that I was trying to make an artistic statement in my layout, some kind of Tracy Emin’s approach to writing, the simple truth was that I didn’t know any better.

Since then, I’ve researched what I should have done a few months earlier and updated the formatting. That first story, Body Recyclers, has now been published on Mark Coker’s Smashwords and Amazon. Smashwords publish on numerous sites so the formatting in any submitted work needs to be generic and clean; to aid this Mark released a style guide which not only defines the “you must do’s” but also the “you must not’s”. At the same time, I read the excellent ‘The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile’ from Noah Lukeman, and numerous blogs, such as Joanna Penn’s and Joel Friedlander’s.

First Five Pages

My tip for the day is this: before you submit anything, make sure you read at least a couple of the above blogs or publications, the advice is invaluable. I do like the premise to Noah’s book: you’ve got five pages to prove your book is worth reading. As he says, some books can be dismissed on the first paragraph, even the first line, and that would be well before those words you spent hours trying to chose the correct lilt and rhythm for are even encountered. So do yourself a favour, tackle the layout!

Simple is good

One piece of advice you will hear over and over is to keep it simple. Avoid dainty flourishes such as mixing fonts or a wild variety of point sizes, just keep it simple. If you give too much attention to numerous styles then so will the reader, and this will detract their attention from the content. Whilst it may look fantastic, they came to your book expecting a good read, not to be distracted by artistic embellishment.

Fonts

You probably think fonts are straightforward and you can chose what you want and at any size. Not so. With the exception of the first character in each section, fonts should never be larger than 12-point. Smashwords suggest you should avoid all exotic fonts and stay with the tried and tested, such as Times New Roman, Garamond and Arial. Joel Friedlander prefers the historical fonts: Garamond, Janson, Bembo, Caslon and Electra.

Spacing

Once you’ve got your fonts pinned down, you need to consider the layout. Indent each paragraph, but be careful to use paragraph styles rather than using tabs or spaces. When submitting a hard copy, your manuscript should be double space, or at a minimum, one-and-a-half. For ebook publishing, use single or one-and-a-half, anything larger looks bad on an e-reader.

The point of this was to make you aware of the options and to point you towards great resources of information. I hope this has done that and I hope this has been useful.

And by the way, BSSP5 will be accepting submissions soon, so pull out that pen/netbook/computer and get writing. But don’t make the mistakes I made, remember to get that formatting correct!

Why would people pay to read my stories?

Last week I read a good discussion on somebody’s blog that basically said you should be pricing your fiction in bands based on the word count. He was saying something along the lines of 0.99c for every 10k to 20k words is a reasonable fee for his output. I really wished I’d kept the link so I could reference it here; it was good a discussion and was certainly worth a read but as I finished it, I just wholeheartedly disagreed with his conclusion.

The basis for his discussion was that as a producer, he needed to be paid for the work that he generated. I’m not disagreeing with that. The farmer won’t give me a bag of potatoes for free and sadly the barman always asks me to leave his premises when I demand a free pint. If you want it, you pay for it.

However, and here’s the sting, writing is different. Not uniquely different, I’d say music is the same, but it is different. There’s a bus load of really good material out there for free. You may have to dig around for it and know where to look, but lets face it, it’s there and it’s very good. And, for a few pennies more, you can buy good quality novels for 99c, take Joanna Penn’s Pentecost for example. A short story is 2-10k words, novels are 80-100k; why pay for a short story when you can get a novel for the same price. Would you pay the same in a cinema to watch a 5 minute cartoon as you would a 100 minute feature?

As you’ve probably gathered, the basis for my pricing argument here isn’t the production, it’s the consumption. If you can dig around and find good stuff for free, why would you dig around and pay for mine. I’m not an established author, I don’t have a global reputation for quality writing so my name isn’t at the top of any reading lists. Hopefully that will change in the future, but currently, that’s the way it is, that’s the world I’m living in.

When I first published my books on Smashwords and Amazon, my readership counts were good and were exactly as expected. I put out messages on Facebook and Twitter, and many of my friends took a nose either to support me or just out of simple curiosity. Once they’d done their business and read all they wanted, those counts dropped away, but there’s still a steady stream of readers. The counts currently are in the order of several thousands, far more friends than I have, so my work is getting out to a bigger audience and this is excellent. And hopefully it’s getting me a reputation and a fan base, all good stuff.

But that happened because those early books were free. Had I have charged, even if my writing was so beautiful it could make angels weep, I wouldn’t have needed many heavenly hankies because no-one would’ve read it. My counts would be the sum of my wealthier friends and families, and then the numbers would’ve flat-lined.

So, in conclusion, I believe the pricing needs to be pragmatic. If you’ve got a following and people look for your work, then you can charge a reasonable amount. If you don’t, and like me you’re just one of those faceless writers toiling late into the night, chasing the dream, then we need to incentivise people to find our work and to read it. And if that means making those books free, then that’s what it needs.

I’d rather be read by several thousand people than make just about enough for a single pint!

The problem is, I’ve got quite a thirst, so I’d better get that following soon…