In 2015 I joined Ballarat Writers, convinced I was on the path to writing success. I was in the first year of my degree and I felt like I was finally following my heart. That year I entered two competitions, the Southern Cross Short Story Competition (BWI’s very own competition) and the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Hope Prize. I paid my money and I took my chances.
Needless to say, I didn’t win.
As an undergrad, I had a lot of opinions about the world’s failure to receive my work appropriately. Obviously all of my writing was excellent. Obviously my ideas were sound and my execution was sufficient that people could see the kernel that I expanding on. Unfortunately, just like popcorn my submissions were bland enough and common enough that nothing stood out. One more tasteless piece in a big old bowl of drab.
I didn’t win anything and I, the bitter shrivelled husk of a human that I am, felt maligned. It felt to me like the only way to win these competitions was to write about some kind of human horror (usually childhood abuse or domestic violence, 1.5x modifier for both), which I didn’t want to do. Instead of focussing on writing the kind of thing I wanted to write instead, I mostly sulked and flailed against the system, because it’s much easier to complain about writing than it is to do it.
That was two years ago, and thankfully I’ve changed (can you imagine if I hadn’t?). I spent some time working on work that I’m proud of. Work that doesn’t sag in the middle. I fixed the typos. I have answered questions about my work in a considered (non-defensive) way. I know why I did things, and why I didn’t do other things. I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my work. And not only that, I’ve found people whose opinions I value, and who I can bounce ideas off — I cannot express to you the value of someone who understands what you’re trying to do.
I also met people who regularly enter competitions, as in the same competitions every year. Genre writers often have a few big competitions that they’ll write for, and it’s so interesting to see the interest that shortlists generate when they’re posted (and who notices them!). We have some really exceptional writers in Ballarat, and I’m so proud to be a part of this writing community when I see how serious and diligent some of us are.
A few weeks ago, I entered my first competition in two years. It was not a light decision. I looked into the judge who would be reading the longlist. I looked into their work and thought that maybe it was something I could speak to. I had a piece of writing that I felt was polished enough (on reflection it still possibly needed some work but what doesn’t?) to at least make that longlist. But I felt confident that I had a finished piece of work that was ready to stand on its own, and it was finally time to send it out into the world (I would be lying if I didn’t say that Megan’s blog post last month didn’t help me over the line).
I still have the payment receipts from the competitions I entered (because they’re easier to store than a hair shirt), because I’m confident that one day I’ll see them for what they are: stepping stones. I don’t think I’ll win anything this time, but I’m entering because I finally think I have a chance, and because I’m proud of something I did that is different to anything I’ve ever seen win a competition (I don’t read that carefully). If nothing else, I’m excited at the possibility of the judge actually getting to my work (and I’m sure they didn’t in the past), so I’ll take my wins where I can find them.
Many years ago, a friend of mine from uni, a Mormon, won a pool competition (the kind with sticks, not water) on a Sunday, and I teased them asking if it was a good luck to win a pool tournament on a Sunday (among other things, gambling and Sundays are problematic to our Latter-Day Saints). They responded that it was a game of skill, not gambling, so it was fine (ish). I guess that’s the question: when you’re entering a competition, do you feel it’s a game of skill, or just pot luck? If it’s the latter, maybe you need to rethink your attitude… and then redraft.
Wish me luck!
Rebecca Fletcher is a Ballarat-based writer, Ballarat-based mother and a Melbourne-based student (her sentence is commuting, not commuted). You can see her embarrass herself monthly at the Ballarat Writers Members’ Nights, and at Words Out Loud.