WRITING Competitions and mental health

 



Entering writing competitions and mental health can be closely linked. A win is likely to boost a writer's confidence, give them the drive to put their work out there with less fear. Not seeing your name in the winning list, however, may make some feel they are not good enough. Those with the thickest skin may even consider giving up altogether. Chrissy Sturt, who has been there and done that, shares her and others' experience of entering competitions and sometimes winning and more often, not. 

 

There are more writing competitions than you can shake a pay pal account at. For a long time, Enter-Everything was my mantra. I flaunted a robust you-win-some-you-lose-some attitude. Enter enough, and you increase your chances of winning cash to help cover the cost of even more entries. See how it can become an addiction? Here’s a taster:

 


 

Argh. Chrissy Sturt the Unbearable. Such rhino-rivalling thickness of skin.

 

A few weeks on from this tweet, I found myself eagerly anticipating the next big longlist for us #kidlit writers. I had become (accidentally, secretly) convinced that, after several years’ trying and steady improvement, this was to be MY MOMENT. I composed an Oscar-like thread of thanks, felt the excitement tingling through my limbs ...

 

The list was out!

 

I scanned …

 

And scanned …

 

My … title … was … not … there?

 

What?

 

Cue my trademark devil-may-care defiance? This was the moment to swing my rhino hide into the limelight and say, I can take it!

 

But in a surprise plot twist—my defiance had packed up and left! Deserted in my hour of need!

 

Instead, I was sad and self-pitying, vile and jealous.

 

I declared a change of heart. From now on, I would never enter another! Hmpf.

 

And I went public with my feelings. Oops.

 


 

My insides split like sponge mix. Disappointment curdled into shame. A deafening doubt roared in. Down in the gutter of my thoughts, sloshing around in darkness, I became convinced the world would spurn my words forever.

 

What a crazy loss of perspective, right? It was only one competition.

 

 

Competitions; to enter or not to enter

 

 

Chrissy Sturt, pull yourself together!

 

But from the number of likes (not viral, but big for me) I had pressed a nerve. Even published authors are wounded by longlists and shortlists for their real life, actual books! Hilary McKay, the much-loved historical fiction writer and twice winner of the Costa, recently tweeted that failing to make the Carnegie Awards is her “annual body blow.”

 

See, competitions do hurt. Err. Unless you win.

 

Let’s bring in some sensible people, and then we’ll decide if I’m right to be on the run from comps.

 

First up, YA author Anna Mainwaring who punched through without any help from crusty old competitions. Her teen novel Rebel with a Cupcake never made any headway in The Northern Writers’ Awards. The list was published with no mention of her title, but Anna was laughing all the way to the bakery. She’d already signed with a top agent, and international deals were scenting the air with the sugar of success. This left Anna convinced there’s a startling disconnect between what competition readers are looking for, and what the market wants. “My story was comic and light-touch, and I think maybe the readers were looking for something more literary in tone?”

 

She feels querying agents the old-fashioned way is far more important than diverting our precious writer-energy into competitions. “Ultimately if you can say in your cover letter that you’ve been listed, or even won, it can help you stand out. But choose your battles. Better to put everything into making your novel as strong as it can be – because ultimately that’s what will get you signed.”

 

Alex Cotter, whose middle-grade thriller The House on the Edge is still selling like mad in ALL the big places, has never dipped a toe into the world of competitions. Like Anna, she signed via the cold querying route. But slow down, folks. I am going into a gear change here. Looking back, Alex actually feels this was the wrong approach.

 

“I was far too afraid of rejection. But I’ve had a lot of no’s. As much as anyone, more even? Now I say to writers – get yourself out there, enter everything and thicken up your skin.”

 

But Alex, I whine into my zoom, what if failing to list drags you down? What if you can’t stop thinking of the readers that said no, and spiked your script with an evil flash of lightning?

 

“Then use these big emotions to fire up your story,” she urges, with an impish grin.

 

“These feelings of lowness, jealousy, missing out and not being picked – children experience all this too, so use them in your stories. It can be a useful experience being rejected.”

 

A useful experience? I’m gritting my teeth and curling my toes (could these cliches explain why I never make headway?!).

 

 

Third time lucky but then...

 

Allow me to introduce Stuart White, of the WriteMentor community. A more supportive chap of emerging writers you will not find. This year saw some changes to WriteMentor’s Children’s Novel and Picture Book Awards, to soften the blow for those who crash out. To spare us doom-scrolling through listed titles as described above, we received emails with headers politely signalling yes or no. And this was very much welcomed by all.

 

Stuart’s own sci-fi adventures have accrued multiple listings over the years. He’s longlisted for SCBWI’s prestigious Undiscovered Voices a record-breaking three times. So, would 2022 be the year he finally found his place in the much-coveted anthology? Stuart opened the door to hope, let it take hold. The shortlist came out and—he wasn’t there.

 

Argh!

 

Stuart shared his disappointment with his huge twitter following, which is why we love him (well, one reason). “I despise the classic British attitude of just staying quiet and getting on with it. That's the path to terrible mental health and isolation, and it's not honest. I think it's good to express the full extremes of the emotional spectrum of being a writer.”

 

But what if you don’t even have a longlist to hang your hat on?

 

“I completely understand how it feels to enter and miss out every time,” he says. “It can be demoralising and cause you to question if your work is good enough or even worth pursuing.”

 

Indeed, ouch. Let’s not pretend it doesn’t hurt, people!

 

 

Art imitating life

 

But watch out, Stuart also belongs to the Alex Cotter School of Rejection Training. “I think there's one important thing to be said about competitions and it's this - I do genuinely believe they’re good preparation for a tough industry full of rejections.”

 

This view is also echoed by Amy Sparkes, herself a very big-selling author who runs two annual competitions in the Writing Magazine, to help promote debut picture books and chapter books. “I do try to make it easier for writers,” she says. “For a start, we only accept one entry instead of allowing multiple entries, so everyone has an equal chance. Secondly, I’m always explaining there’s unavoidable subjectivity in judging. And entering competitions is great practice for the reality of the publishing industry: submitting your story won’t always get a yes.”

 

And it’s this word – subjectivity – which is at the very epicentre of all this.

 

Emily Randall’s watery adventure triumphed in Mslexia’s children’s novel award in 2021. Astonishingly, even with this win, agents were still saying no. After flinging the same script at the last minute into The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition – she was amazed to win this, too! This is arguably the most prestigious #kidlit prize as it comes with a readymade publishing deal, so we can look forward to Emily’s book in 2023. And yet the very same story had failed to make the longlist in the other big competitions.

 

“It was the same manuscript that had been rejected repeatedly,” she says, “it just happened to fall into the hands of people that liked it. I can’t stress enough – just enter, if you can. No matter what’s happened with your story before, it could go differently this time around.”

 

So, there you have it. Competitions toughen us up. For us writers, there will be passes and near misses all the way along. You can have a dip, you can go public with your sorrow. And then, you carry on.

 

Now, when’s the next comp?

                                                                                                                            *Header image: ©Josie Macey

 

 

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Chrissy Sturt is a freelance journalist and writer of flash, short and children's stories. She lives in Hampshire with one husband, two children and far too many animals.

 

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Josie Macey is an illustrator from Hampshire. She works traditionally and also digitally, having learned it in the last few years. Her passion is illustrating children’s books. Find her work at www.josiemacey.com

 

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Gulfem Wormald is the Editor of Words & Pictures. Contact: editor@britishscbwi.org Twitter: @GulfemWormald

4 comments:

  1. What a great article - I entered another writing competition, just this very morning. Will I get long-listed? Probably not. Will I think about the possibility of getting long-listed, every day for the next month? Of course I will! 😂

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