The competitions I talk about here are atypical. To begin with, they are the ones I won. If I wrote about all the competitions I’d entered without winning, this would be a much bigger section. Possibly even its own website. But out of all those competitions, these three are unusual because I didn’t particularly seek them out. It was my mother who suggested I enter the competition that Hello? won; it was one of the organisers who asked me to enter the competition that A Night on the Tiles won; it was my university who got me into the Royal Exchange Theatre’s First Eleven, where Skin Deep was showcased.
So I’m not going to talk about why I entered those competitions.
Instead, I want to tell you why I enter all those other competitions. The ones that I keep a particular eye open for, the ones I research to see whether the people involved are people I want to get involved with. The ones that take up a significant chunk of my limited writing lifetime. The ones that I keep failing to win, time and again.
It would be a lie to say I didn’t go into them with dreams of winning. The first professional work I ever had accepted was Hello?, which I knew had won shortly before I heard my Brief Encounters were going to be published in Doctor Who Magazine. My first experience of being a professional writer was being one who had won a completion, one who could prove mathematically that he was better than 315 other writers. Winning the Woolwich Young Playwright’s Competition opened doors to me: it got me talking to people I wouldn’t have known; it got me work I wouldn’t have been offered.
Much like writing for Doctor Who, the competition was much more famous than I was, and I got to borrow a little of that prestige and find out what it would be like to be a more important writer than I was. That halo faded quickly: winning any competition is only ever going to get you noticed for a few months, and I don’t think I made the most of it at the time. I suppose there is a part of me that thinks with hindsight a competition win would benefit me more now. Whenever I enter a new competition, I’m thinking of where winning might take me, rather than what I might do with the prize itself.
But given my terrible success rate, I’d be an idiot if that was my only reason.
Partly its a question of being taken seriously. If you want to write for television and you don’t enter the Red Planet Prize, producers are going to question just how passionate you are. Likewise if you want to write for radio and you don’t enter the Alfred Bradbury Bursary, it doesn’t look like you’re trying hard enough. There are certain routes into writing that are so well known that it reflects badly on you if you haven’t tried to use them.
But more than that, competitions are a useful tool.
Regardless of whether you win, the act of entering makes you a better writer.
Firstly, they force you to confront a deadline. For all that it was amusing when Douglas Adams joked about deadlines, you are not going to get a career as a writer if you don’t deliver on time. Competitions are just the most visible demonstration of that: if you don’t get your work in by the deadline, you can’t win, no argument.
Secondly, they help you to generate work. A lot of competitions ask for a completed story for your entry. Even those that don’t at least expect evidence that you have a thought-through idea, and the ability to put words on paper in an interesting way. Whatever else happens, you get to keep all that work. Scripts that didn’t win the Alfred Bradbury bursary or the Red Planet Prize can be used as calling cards, and might even find a producer more in tune with your way of working. Ideas that were sent in to the Abaddon open submission month might get reworked and redrafted until they become the next big SF blockbuster. Regardless, coming up with those stories gets your mind working that way, and the momentum you can get coming out of a competition deadline can often propel you deep into another story before you even realise.
Thirdly, they get you involved in conversations. Other writers you know who have entered the same competition, or maybe even won it years before. Judges who like what you’ve written but were outvoted by the rest of the panel. Organisers who don’t think you’re quite there yet, but want to encourage you. I’ve had a lot of help over my career from people that I wouldn’t have contacted if I hadn’t been entering a competition. The competitions that I won are atypical in part because I’ve had more help and success as a result of the ones I’ve lost.