The Hoops You Must Jump Through – an inside view of fiction awards and how to improve your chances in them
Hoop One – The First Filter reader
A talented, unpublished writer I know was recently told to enter her work for awards as her prose was ‘the sort that does well in competitions.’ She asked if such prose existed, and if so, what was distinctively competition-friendly about it? How did it differ from other good writing?
My instinct was to reply that there isn’t a single style that wins a judge’s heart: I’ve judged thousands of stories and hundreds of novels for local and national fiction competitions, and have shortlisted work I loved and work I loathed but respected or admired. But I stopped. Because however different in tone the top stories are, they do have certain stylistic traits in common that raise them to that crucial top 2%. (With a surprising consistency over the years, only about 2% of entries stand out.) This 2-part post is about what we’re looking for, why, and also why great stories can get overlooked but rarely do.
First - it helps to understand the process. You may submit your work to a competition because an author you have a keen affinity with is judge this year. It’s a shrewd move in some ways but that author may never read your work. They aren’t paid to wade through the hundreds, sometimes thousands of entries that pour in. There are lackeys for that. I was one for years and still do it sometimes to keep aware of writing trends. It’s the most insightful, rewarding and badly paid job I’ve ever had. The low paid, power-wielding First Filter Reader, not the judge, is the person to whom your story must appeal. Who takes this role? Why? And how do you make them kiss your script with relief and scrawl over it: At last – a shortlister – halle-hooplah-lujah!
FFRs aren’t the enemy, they’re your colleagues. Like any colleague, we appreciate writers who make our work easier. I’m not talking about double-spacing typescripts and numbering pages – readers of Emma’s blog aren’t fools - I know you know all that. To make a FFR happy, have a bit of insight into what we do and what we crave, and provide it. FFRs are typically paid between nothing and £2 for reading a story, between nothing and £10 for critiquing one. Usually towards the lower end of that pay scale. (I’m currently reading for a local award that works out at about 30p a story. Clearly we’re not in this for the money. )
Don’t fondly imagine your story will be read during office hours by a full-time awards assistant who has access to a well-lit office with a broad desk on which to spread out submissions. We work from home, when we’ve come home from work. Boxes of books or typescripts are biked to us by couriers, hastily signed for and stuffed on top of an already overflowing desk, on the way to our main occupations as Publishing Assistant, Literary Agent’s Assistant, Mother, Schoolboy or Sea-fisherman. Because some first filter readers are just readers. Bridport’s are. They are the staff from the Arts Centre, their friends and relations, whose first degree may be in Agriculture or they may still be studying for their A levels.
Before you toss a pen across the room in scorn at the sheer amateurish random selection of this process, consider this: FFRs are that elusive grail – keen readers. We plough through hundreds of stories for next to nothing because we love to read, because our craving to discover a new, rare voice is keener than the nose of a truffle pig. We’ve read dozens of authors every day, published and unpublished. Sheer volume trains the eye to note good syntax from the first sentence. It’s practise, not personal whim, that leads us to know if a voice stands out from the crowd. I admit without apology that I’ve read submissions in the bath, in bed, on the tube, on my kitchen step at five in the morning with three cups of coffee lined up on the floor as stamina fuel. A good story will turn the bath and coffee cold, make a reader miss her stop. In short, it does exactly what you seek when you pick up a book. It transports the FFR and makes us forget we’re reading. The fact that we’re shattered or our car broke down, our main-job boss had a go or our kids are screaming all work in your favour in a skewy way: we’re reading as real readers do – without £££ in our eyes or marketing teams on our backs. We’re reading to escape. If you can persuade us to suspend disbelief, your writing is working.
So, your award entry is probably sandwiched between a bank statement and a lost return slip for football training fees, somewhere in the first filter reader’s living room. How do you make it stand out?
A strong title and first sentence are good places to start.
I’d never drop a story because it had a dull or pretentious title, but will pull one from the pile because its title appeals, to start the reading session. So, a good title might mean your reader comes to your work fresh. What’s a good title? I’m not among those who think one-worders are cop-outs. I’m likely to pull out a story called Oranges or Catcher because those words are potent when they stand alone, but would be even more likely to pull out stories called Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit or Catcher in the Rye (had they not already been coined) because they take the potent noun and activate it. Stock titles, such as Knock Em Dead or A Real Trooper are less likely to appeal immediately because the language isn’t new. They don’t demonstrate the author is capable of manipulating language in an original way. A trite title may be a brilliant parody or counterpoint the material bulk of the story, and that would appeal once I’m immersed, but in a competition, why make a bland first impression?
Is it churlish to judge a piece of work on its first line? Not entirely. Why not make that opening a measure of your best skills? Strong caveat here: a great opening line doesn’t SHOUT, ‘LOOK AT ME!!!’ to the reader. An understated but confident opener will be better received than a throat-grabber. A great opening line demonstrates in miniature what the whole story must convey – a distinctive and engaging tone of voice.
Because the common qualities of winning fiction, regardless of style and genre, are:
1. That the writer loves and knows the English language better by far than non-writers.
2. That the writer has taken the trouble to find out how fiction works, and is overtly enthusiastic about its possibilities.
These two elements cover all areas. They allow for a traditional well-made tale or the fractured, plotless experimental piece, provided the author is excelling within that frame. And yes, enthusiasm really does make a difference. The lacklustre majority of stories could be raised up if only their writers had enough enthusiasm for their art to take out the platitudes, lazy phrasing, hackneyed plotlines and stock characters and refuel them with the originality that is born of true enthusiasm for the possibilities with a form.
Because, while only 2% of entries are very good indeed, only 2% are risible drivel. It’s the remaining 96% that has us tearing our hair out. Not the 2% handwritten-in-green-biro and Random Capitals declaring that The End is Nige (sic) but the tidy tale after tale after tale of women putting their lives back together after divorce; the warm and wholesome escapades of post-war families on church outings. These stories can be witty and well-constructed but nothing lifts them out of the ordinary and I wonder what makes their authors think these pieces will shine among the masses. I suspect they are written by people who don’t read that much and don’t analyse the little they do read, critically, hungrily, to see how an author has brought that catch to their throat, that ripple along their spine. They don’t put that work in and so possess insufficient knowledge to apply to their own writing and lift it.
The stories that rise are by authors who know what they’re doing better than most, because they’ve put the hours in. They’ve read widely and can see how their work fits within the canon and within current trends. I don’t mean it’s immodest but that it’s informed.
Next up: Empathy. The authors who come through have an emotional maturity which is shockingly lacking in that nicely turned 96%. I am often bewildered by the naivety of tone in the majority of pieces. Characters are bad’uns or dears with no complexity or contradiction. Themes of self harm, drugs and suicide are popped in to add edge to placid writing in a manner akin to tossing hot chilli sauce into rice pudding to pep it up. You don’t.
So, the stories that rise easily to the shortlist are those with an overt artfulness with language. They guide the exhausted FFR towards a quick decision. They are the easy to be around colleague, with their striking storylines, settings and characters. After 34 openings of two women reminiscing in a kitchen, one in which a child has its head against a cow’s flank will make a reader sit up. Which is why, perhaps, the stories that come through may seem at times a little flash, crammed with well-turned but superfluous metaphors or bizarre scenarios. But they still stand out from the 96%. They demonstrate vitality and promise.
A final word on behalf of the quiet story. These ones get missed at times, perhaps. I know I’ve put stories on the reject pile on many occasions because they’re the thirteenth in a row about cancer, or because someone dies at the end, and I’m so fed up of authors trotting out a death to round something off because they can’t be bothered to tackle the subtle, trickier task of exploring life. But these stories do their magic. I’ll wake at three in the morning and think: Story 984 – that language wasn’t bland, it was unobtrusive. Read it again! Or a line or a gesture persists in the memory and resurfaces as I’m buttering packed lunch sarnies. Sometimes I look back over the pile and a story will scowl up at me. Something, some animation these quiet but strong stories possess, usually demands a second reading.
So, in answer to my friend’s original question – Is there a style of writing that succeeds in awards? Does it differ from other good writing? I’d say yes. Perhaps it is a touch more what-it-is than it need be – more ornate or bonkers, edgy or driven. But this immediate energy feeds the jaded first filter reader. It is writing that rewards the reader immediately. It reassures immediately that its author cares enough about voice, story and the contrary, complex, vigorous world (whether by beginner’s luck and intuition or years of well-placed graft) that at very least they had the courtesy to engage both our hearts and our brains.