The writing world is full of competitions, for published and unpublished work alike. Several of my writing friends and acquaintances have won competitions, or at least been long/shortlisted in them, and it’s tangible proof that their work has reached a standard of excellence – that people think it’s worth publishing or, if already published, worth selling. There is of course a subjective element, in that the judging is done by a particular person with their own particular preferences, but nevertheless I can almost always see why a certain novel or short story or poem or collection of poems should have been selected. Yes, I think, X’s work has really got something. Of course people like it.
When it comes to my own work it’s much harder to see straight. I’ve entered for a good few competitions now – novels, poetry, short stories – and am growing used to the long and ever more disillusioning silence that follows the initial excitement. This one I’m submitting is so much better than the last one, I always think, I’m sure they’ll really go for it this time. Only of course they never do, and never tell you why because there are far too many entries – holding a competition must be quite a lucrative thing to do. The piece of work that you’ve laboured over with such love and care is lost without trace in the ranks of the mediocre and the not quite good enough. Or so it seems. I’ve no idea whether any of the work I’ve sent in has been rejected as hopeless or been a carefully considered near-miss, but the fact that nothing I’ve written has even been longlisted may be telling me something.
It hasn’t stopped me entering, though. At the moment I’ve got three poetry pamphlets and two novels, one finished and one still in progress, waiting in the endless limbo, and I’m about to send work off to at least three or four more competitions: single poems, pamphlets, novels again, perhaps even a short story. All of it costs money – usually at least £10 a throw – and all of it involves not only polishing the work to its absolute best but taking the time and trouble to make sure the entry fits all the competition’s requirements for layout and presentation. Why do it, I ask myself, when I know what the outcome is likely to be? Why keep throwing money into a black hole? But why not? Nothing venture, nothing gain, as people must surely feel when they buy their weekly lottery ticket. I don’t know if the odds for winning a competition are any better than those for winning the lottery – perhaps they’re in thousands rather than millions – but somewhere inside me there is still that little spark of hope or belief or self-delusion. If my friends can do it, why can’t I? People tell me my work is good, but I know good may not be good enough.
What will happen remains to be seen. Hope springs eternal, sometimes restrained by realism, but always lurking somewhere not far from the surface is the longing to become, even at my advanced age, a writer who not only writes but is published and recognised. Could it happen? I don’t know. In the meantime I can congratulate and celebrate those friends of mine who at different times and to differing degrees have had success in competitions: Tanya Atapattu, Daisy Behagg, Penny Deacon, Clare Donoghue, Hadiza El-Rufai, Emma Geen, Rebecca Gethin, Jane Shemilt, and most recently N J Hynes. All splendid writers whose reflected glory I’m proud to bask in. And I’m not giving up.