Saturday, 20 February 2010

How do you win a writing contest?

John Yeoman, author of eight published books, a university tutor in creative writing, a successful commercial writer and publisher for 40 years, and the founder and judge of the Writers’ Village short fiction competition explains what he looks for in a winning entry, and - in this interview from the Essential Writers website - shares his five-step guide to winning creative writing competitions.
How do you win a writing contest? More important, from the judge’s point of view, how do you judge one? Those were the questions I put to myself when I set up the Writers’ Village short fiction competition in 2009.
I was confident I would gain a wealth of entries online, as I was asking only a small entry fee of £5 ($8) and offered 13 cash prizes totalling £300 ($485). Soon I had stories flooding in from all over the world, even from South Korea and Estonia.
Separating the stars
To separate the stars from the also-rans was a challenge! As a university lecturer with a PhD in creative writing, I had ample experience in marking student assignments. But many of these contest entries were outstanding. I clearly needed a rigorous way to judge them.
So I devised a seven-point rating system, which, I suspect, is similar to that used by most reputable judges. I allocated points out of a total of 45.
Emotionally engage your reader
A maximum of ten points went to the stories which engaged me emotionally throughout. I read many entries that were impressively clever. They danced with ingenuity, wit or wordplay. But they were cerebral exercises, not stories.
Write with originality
I then awarded up to ten points for a story’s originality. True, there are just 36 story plots or themes, according to Georges Polti (1916), but there’s always room for a new twist on Cinderella, Bluebeard’s cupboard or Romeo and Juliet. Point is, the twist had to be fresh.
Imbue your first paragraph with power
The quality of the first paragraph gained a further maximum of eight points. Did it compel me to read on? I was seriously underwhelmed by shock openings along the lines of ‘I pulled the trigger. The punk fell dead’. Yawn! What gained my vote instead was the intrigue or enchantment of the opening lines. My top three winning entries glittered with magic.
Retain a sense of form
Another eight points in total were allocated for the story’s sense of form. It had to show a coherent progression and a satisfying conclusion. Many a fine story lacks ‘closure’, of course. It may leave the reader with untidy loose ends or an unresolved mystery. It might even appear, at first glance, to be a collection of vivid but disjointed impressions (Joyce’s Ulysses comes to mind.)
But the story still had to be rigorous in its construction. I had to feel: nothing could usefully have been added to it or cut. It’s a ‘whole’.
Avoid using clichés
I then allotted up to six points for the originality of the language. A story did not need to dance with spry metaphors or turn somersaults in its syntax. But clichés and other lazy expressions were a no, no.
Remember grammar and punctuation
A final three points were given for the professionalism of the presentation. I had no problems with the odd misspelling or typing error. But I did shudder at the systematic misuse of apostrophes!
Be a creative writing contest winner!
My top three winners fell into the 35-40 points bracket. The ten runner up winners gained 30-35 points. Some missed a top prize only by a whisker. In fact, I created two extra top prizes to honour those entries where I just couldn’t decide between the great and the good, even by using my clever points system.
Frankly, I had intended the contest to be a ‘one off’, something to keep me happily occupied over the university break. But I was so amazed at the quality and volume of entries that I now plan to run the competition every quarter. In each round, the total cash prizes will be £300 ($485).
You can find details of my spring 2010 Writers’ Village ‘Best Writing’ award - and judge the quality of the winning entries for yourself - at

Writer and publisher John Yeoman explains why he established the Writers' Village short fiction contest

(Interview from the Essential Words website)
What inspired you to become a writer?
At 15, I had a wonderful English master who would read Chaucer to us in a vigorous imitation of a 14th century accent. He sounded so enchantingly like Bluebottle in the Goon Show that I switched from my intended career in science to read English at Oxford.
I then descended to running a public relations company. As a result, I have never had writer’s block. In PR, you either produce or you’re fired.
Did you find an agent or a publisher first?
I don’t think any author should have to suffer a slow death by rejection slip. My first three books were marketing textbooks. They were brought out by a conventional publisher in the Golden Age of the last century when you could send an unsolicited manuscript to publishers, confident they would read it quickly and respond courteously with personal comments. Literary agents in those days were, happily, a very rare animal.
When literary agents became czars, I produced my next five books through my own small publishing companies. They weren’t vanity presses - when I sold it, one of my self-publishing firms was grossing £840,000 annually, publishing solely my own books. It operated from my front room with just one secretary.
What do you think the future of book-publishing will be?
We often hear that the agent-publisher-book chain axis has become unworkable. I welcome its collapse. With the advent of ebooks, the future for authors lies in self-publishing. When everyone has an ebook reader and can download any book they wish from the Internet in moments, readers rather than literary agents will shape an author’s career.
Of course, life will not become easier for authors. There is already so much self-published tosh on the web that I suspect readers will have to be guided through the fog by independent review sites. Influential reviewers will then become more important than the copytasters at Random House, reviews will build or kill careers, and one gatekeeper will simply replace another. Plus ça change…
How do you divide your time between teaching and writing?
So far, the lecturing contract at my university has been part-time. In theory, this leaves me a few days a week free for writing, or ‘research’ as universities term it. But as every teacher will tell you, one paid academic hour equals at least five hours unpaid in preparation and marking. Fortunately, I write best at dawn from 5am to 8am, inspired by total silence.
Why did you set up the Writers’ Village short fiction contest in 2009?
For fun! It was a great joy to read the many entries last year and to discover several writers, previously unpublished, who clearly have the talent to become professional authors.
I had also heard several speakers at writing conferences say that, in their early years, rejection slips had brought them close to clinical depression. It occurred to me that writing contests can be very important for a new writer. To win any prize at all boosts one’s self-esteem during those lonely nights of the soul that we all experience.
Several of my winners told me that the kudos of the win was more important to them than the cash. (Um, I often wonder why I bother to offer cash at all...)
How do you think writers benefit from entering creative writing contests?
Every entry in a writing contest hones a writer’s skills and every win (or near miss) teaches the writer what judges (and publishers) look for. A writing contest deadline is also a great spur to getting a story finished. At least one third of the entries in the Writers’ Village contest arrive in the week just before the deadline.
What do you find to be the biggest challenges of writing?
My greatest challenge is not a shortage of ideas. Earn your living from writing for 40 years, as I have, and you’ll have more ideas than you can use.
I also find that revising endless drafts - the bane of many authors – is a joy, especially with a wine chiller at my elbow.
But as I am a very lazy person, the greatest vexation is the sheer manual effort of tapping the keyboard hour after hour. I have thought of installing voice recognition software on my laptop so that I could just sit back in an easy chair and talk to myself.
Better still, I could hide my laptop beneath a table in the staff common room and recover a tale worthy of EastEnders, full of sound and fury, already written for me.
Whose writing do you admire?
Among modern writers, I admire Peter Ackroyd and Anthony Burgess for the sheer, unfashionable joy they take in playing with words. I dislike the Hemingway school of journalism. In my opinion, it destroyed the English novel.
I yearn for the return of the flock wallpaper style of Edwardian fiction with its unashamed floridity of language. Meanwhile, I read Michael Innes. He’s as wordy as it gets.
Where do you carry out the majority of your writing?
I am fortunate to have a large conservatory, insulated by a thousand books from the television in the next room, where I can harmlessly smoke cigars and pretend to be Lord Peter Wimsey.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
It has undoubtedly been the mentoring experience I enjoyed with the wonderful crime novelist Michelle Spring while finishing my latest historical novel.
In five months, Michelle taught me more about the commercial realities of modern fiction writing than I had learned in four years doing a PhD in creative writing. In return, I shared with her several delightful Jacobean swear words.
What advice would you offer an aspiring writer?
Success in commercial writing is 90% perspiration, 10% technique. Talent is optional. Creative writing classes don’t always tell you that (even mine!).
If you really want to become a best-selling author, you probably will - or so the best-selling author Michele Spring keeps assuring me.
But you’ll need to spend at least seven years learning the techniques, as apprentices did in the old craft guilds. Then another seven years trying to catch the eye of an agent. Unless you’re married to a mainstream publisher, there’s no short cut. No ‘novel in a month’. No tested, easy ‘12 point plan for success’.
Thomas Mann once allegedly wrote: ‘a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people’. Amen.